The Scottish Islands is my Desert Island Book. It is the book I would love to have written (small matter that I don't sail and can't draw). It is ready at hand on my quick-reference shelf next to Who Owns Scotland, the Shorter OED and The Relative Hills of Britain. Since I first bought it, I have been intrigued by its creator. "A labour of love" may be a cliché, but is the phrase that fits here. How could anyone have found the time to compile such a vastly detailed and thoroughly researched work?
So I was pleased to have the opportunity to hear the author, Hamish Haswell-Smith, speak at Ottakar's bookshop in Glasgow, launching the new edition. The evening did not start auspiciously: at the scheduled start time of 6:30pm, Mr Haswell-Smith could not be found. He had been sighted earlier but had left the building. He returned 15 minutes later and would have been in ample time for the 7pm start he had been expecting. He was apologetic and irritated, but not flustered, and immediately got out his notes and launched into his talk. The shop was not an ideal setting and, although naturally quietly spoken, Haswell-Smith made an obvious effort to make himself heard over grumbling air-conditioning and the occasional coffee-machine gurgle.
And it was a talk, not a sales pitch. The first half was a slightly worthy history of the Scottish islands, covering geology, settlement and cultural remains, illustrated with a single visual aid: a poster of the west coast, showing what Haswell-Smith termed the S1, the great seaway stretching up the Sounds of Jura, Mull and Sleat, the historic arterial route for migration and transport. The content then lightened a little with some assorted far-flung facts about Scottish islands, a kind of insular Trivial Pursuit. Finally, and of greatest interest, there was an explanation of the genesis of the book, which had two strands.
Firstly, on his return from sailing trips, Haswell-Smith would go to the library and read all he could about the places recently visited. Inevitably, he would discover that if he had just continued over the next hill, or round the next corner, he would have reached some remarkable site. So he began to keep notes, ready for the next trip. The other aspect was that he looked for a list of Scottish islands to tick off, "like the Munros". None existed, so he created his own. First he had to define islands, with the dictionary's "a piece of land entirely surrounded by water" not being of much assistance given the vast number of rocks and skerries sprinkled into the Scottish seas. He decided on a minimum size of 100 acres - and, more harshly, that there should be "no permanent means of dry access", thus designating the Uists as one island and counting Vatersay with Barra. Omitting Skye would have been too radical, however, so he treated it as a special case in an appendix. The total he derived was 165 islands and, as far as he knows, no one has visited them all. When questioned as to what stage he had reached on the tick list, and whether he would complete it, he was evasive - or perhaps, more fairly, reticent, which was clearly in character.
This was not an occasion to find out more about Haswell-Smith the man. When asked about the subjective comments which appear in some sections (eg Hirta: "The army encampment ... is unsightly but the island environment is so overpowering that it can largely be ignored"), he gave little away, mainly, I suspect, because he felt there was nothing to give away. He seemed puzzled by the interest in him and his opinions. Nor was it really an occasion to find out more about the second edition of his book: he had to be asked twice how the new version differed from the first. The answer - eventually - seemed to be "not by much": some extra detail and new information, for example on ownership, the addition of colour illustrations, and a £10 price-rise to £35.
The book in either of its editions remains a signal achievement, a model work of reference. Despite the forests' worth of books on Scottish mountains, I know of no volume which approaches the comprehensiveness and breadth of The Scottish Islands. Perhaps the companion work, The Scottish Mountains, is the book I should try to write. Any volunteers to draw the pictures?
Ed. - For Ann Bowker's review of the first edition of The Scottish Islands, see TAC30, p9. Oh, and I'm afraid The Scottish Mountains already exists - written by William John Millar and published by W Hodge & Co ... in 1896.
TAC 63 Index