Just like Robinson Crusoe

8th August 1997 at 01:00
Arrival at my favourite island is an initiation. Five hours by ferry, then food and all other supplies for the duration passed down a bucking gangplank to a fishing boat, a 10-minute skitter round the headland to the quay, up a ladder and into another world (the precise location of which I would prefer to keep secret).

Behind the bustle of welcome - red cheeks, woolly caps and the loading of boxes into the pick-up truck lies the island, grey and green, curiously silent, a track, a Pictish church tower, a line of trees under the hill and a fringe of brightly coloured plastics washed up along the shore.

All islands have the magic of being set apart, but this one is special. Other islands, seen from it, look too big (Skye) or too sheer. This one slopes to the east, taking the full force of the south-westerlies on its highest basalt cliffs. Walking there is a constant straining against the wind; look down and you shiver at the wheeling and squealing of sea-birds round the rockstacks. Towards the southern end - eight miles there and back - lie Viking graves on grassy shelves above the high water mark, feet pointing to the sunset.

After unpacking the boxes and working out how the food will stretch - like Crusoe, one likes to think, rationalising after the wreck - one worries momentarily about what to do next. Walking, of course, and looking out, watching for boats, seals, eagles; and then there is the question of what to eat first and whether to be reckless (counting on fish being landed) or prudent. The appetite grows as the expeditions become more venturesome and the self-sufficiency fantasy takes hold. Codling may be dull fish, but they prove a good chew grilled on the beach below the spot where St Columba is said to have had his nunnery.

Associations in an island, population 17, develop thick and fast. People and where they lived (heaps of stone and half a bedstead) and where they now spend their lives with a 2:1 pupilteacher ratio, prove more remarkable in their individuality than the teeming birdlife.

Gradually the landscape explains itself: the enclosures, the fortifications, the buried dwellings, the parts that can be grazed, the currents that sweep the non-biodegradable rubbish on to every cove. History is yesterday and tomorrow, I fear and hope, the ferry may not arrive.

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