An exploration into the allure, meaning and vulnerability of lost islands.
Heart of Albion Press
Otherworldly islands haunt the imagination of the West. From Atlantis to Ys, the peoples of the Atlantic seaboard have dreamt of, searched for, journeyed to and lost several distinctive kingdoms of the sea – all ‘into the West’, where the sun sets and where the soul is said to go at death. Are they a collective dreaming of a real place, or mere salty yarns spun by ancient mariners? In this adventurous odyssey we will chart this metaphysical archipelago, drawing upon philosophy, folklore, literature and myth. Join us on this wonder voyage to these alluring and elusive isles, where healing, inspiration and a perspective upon the vulnerability of our own present civilisation can be gleaned. The myths of inundations are more poignant today than ever, in an era of climate change and global uncertainty. How permanent our own ‘island states’? Can we ever hope to attain such paradises or are they ultimately within ourselves – states of consciousness and enlightenment to aspire to and fall from?
Arriving on an island is always a chancy business. Actually just getting there is never a sure thing, even before you make landfall. The ardours of the journey make us appreciate the fact of our arrival, of simply being there.
It takes a while to attune. An island insists, quietly, that we slow down, sense the stillness, listen to the silence. We have to pay attention because – this is it. A peninsular limits options as it dwindles to nothing, an island even more so. People choose to live in such places to keep the world at bay. But as visitors to an island we carry our own world within us – our personal history, our job, our home, family, partner, preoccupations. What has been the alluring ‘otherworld’ for so long becomes real, and the ‘real world’, back on the mainland, now becomes the allusive ‘other’, which we may or may not get back to – depending on the whims of the weather and the ferryman. These two worlds jostle for importance for the first day or two, as we undertake ‘reality detox’, until the ‘otherworld’ back home diminishes in importance and this new world gains precedence, becomes more real. All the concerns of our daily lives seem so petty in such a place (the arguments and anxieties over parking spaces, taking out the trash, doing the washing up) and the texture of its reality so false (the legoland towns, the fads and fashions, the white noise of the media, the pontificating of the politicians, the posturing of celebrities).
On a small island, especially one with no electricity, flushing toilets, telegraph poles, metalled roads and lamp-posts, the visitor’s concerns are reduced to the basics: food, water, shelter, warmth. Boiling up a kettle for hot water to do the washing up in, or for a personal wash. Emptying the bucket of the outside loo into the sceptic tank. Carefully monitoring candles used for illumination in the evenings. Making sure you have everything you need because you can’t ‘pop to the shops’, although it turns out you don’t need much at all – certainly not the clutter we fill our lives with back home. Apart from warm, all-weather clothing, a good book is perhaps the only essential for me. And a notebook and plenty of pens. If you’re an artist it might be a sketchbook and watercolours, or a camera. Maybe a pair of binoculars if you’re into birdspotting, a field guide or two and a flask…Enough for a daysac, but not much else. Perhaps you don’t even need these. First and foremost we should be fully present: experience as directly and intimately and sensitively as possible what’s around us. The mustard lichen on the low stone walls, a wild orchid amongst the grasses, the flash of a Merlin from the clifftop, the mournful song of the seals by day, the eerie keening of the Manx Shearwaters in the night.
But before this, we experience the island as an accretion of myth, of history, and perhaps personal experience, as historian Simon Schama points out in Landscape and Memory:
Before it can ever be a repose for the senses, landscape is the work of the mind, its scenery is built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rock. (Schama, 1995: 6-7)
The island is always fluctuating in this way, between the perceived and the projected, between the actual and the imaginary. In his poem, ‘Bifocal’, William Stafford captures this phenomenon:
So, the world happens twice—
once what we see it as;
second it legends itself
deep, the way it is.
To differentiate between the two is often difficult, but perhaps we do not need to: to pigeonhole the world into the subjective and objective, into artificial mental categories is maybe missing the point. Surely, such places should be experienced holistically, with all their attendant layers and subtleties, undivided by man, the wall-builder?
There are a number of real ‘lost islands’ around the British Isles. These are islands that have an elusive quality about them, either in terms of physical accessibility (weather-dependent ferry services, tidal causeways), associations (mythic, religious, historical), or actual absence (flooded, subsided, destroyed). Although they seem to be empty vessels into which we have poured significance (by centuries of pilgrimage, hermitage, special environmental or heritage status, or sight-seeing) many have an undoubted ‘atmosphere’, independent of human presence: trees falling in a forest that still make a sound. And yet their nature is constantly shifting depending on our perception and interaction with them. This elusiveness endemic to lost islands could be defined as ontological uncertainty: not just in terms of being hard or impossible to find (because most of those featured in this chapter can be pinpointed on a map) but how islands can exist in two or more places at once – in the mythic and in the real.
First though, we must accept their physical presence. The existence of a super-abundance of islands around the coast of the British Isles is plain to see:
Together, the territories conventionally called England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales comprise over 5,500 islands studding and separating the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea. (Macfarlane, 2007)
I will not attempt to list or categorise all. Only those that have some kind of legendary nature or status concern us here – through their remoteness, otherness, sanctity, or weirdness. Some are no more than rocky outcrops. Many more have been lost, or never were, or exist in other forms, for example, lost villages, drowned valleys, drained lakes, and so forth…all of which I interpret as forms of lost island – interpreting ‘islands’ in its broadest sense (2. ‘a thing that is isolated, detached, or surrounded’ OED) . Every country has them, but as one that defines itself as an ‘island nation’ (or is perhaps defined by its insularity alone) we are adept at creating and destroying our own; be it with tourism, pollution, or private ownership.
The Norman moat creates an artificial island. Middle English ‘mote’ actually signified a mound – a similar topographical inversion to the Old English origins of the word ‘island’, which originally meant ‘watery’.
According to the cliché an Englishman’s home is a castle, but a Brit’s home seems to be an island. Britain, before borders, is a nation of island people, at least since the end of the last Ice Age when we were cut off from mainland Europe. Many find this insularity comforting, even more so on a small island (although Bill Bryson called Great Britain a ‘small island’ in his successful travelogue, which has been voted in a 2003 poll the book that best represented England). Adam Nicolson is the owner of the tiny Shiant Isles off the Isle of Harris, which he praises for its ‘inwardness’:
The usual dream of a small island as a place of release is the opposite of truth: it is a place of enclosure – and comforting, restricting and inspiring because of that. (Nicolson, The Guardian Guide to the Seaside, July 2007)
This separation gives them their sacredness. Water defines an island, but it seems an intrinsic part of its sanctity, an incessant ablution and libation:
‘According to traditional thinking, islands are inherently sacred, being places cut off from unwanted physical and psychic influences.’ [Nigel Pennick, Celtic Sacred Landscape, Thames & Hudson, 2000, p105]
It is Britain’s very insularity which has helped protect it from both the Spanish Armada and the German invasion. Winston Churchill, in his famous speech of June 4th 1940, evoked a sense of patriotic stubbornness, the classic ‘British bulldog’ attitude:
…we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches… (Great Speeches of the 20th Century, Guardian, #1)
In its darkest hour, Britain was very nearly ‘lost’, but its army, navy and air force saved the day, with the help of its Allies, and to this day Britain’s Navy is still a force to be reckoned with and respected throughout the world.
Of course, there are many other lost islands around the planet, but we shall continue to remain in British waters to prevent this book being inundated with examples: a twelve volume ‘Golden Bough’ of lost islands! I shall leave that to the budding Frazers out there. My purpose here is not encyclopaedic, but discursive and lateral. Brigadoons are, by their nature, elusive – they come and go. It is being too literal, trying to spot and list them comprehensively. With that in mind, let us bag some brigadoons, starting with the ‘real McCoy’.