The Island of Isay

by Peter Reason

The little island of Isay lies in the entrance to Loch Dunvegan in the north west of Skye. Seeking refuge from the tourist bustle around the castle and village at the head of the loch, I found an anchorage for my yacht Coral between Isay and its low-lying neighbour Mingay; in the settled weather, this would be safe enough for one night.

I had read that there was a small fishing community on Isay in the 1830s, including a general store and fishing station, supporting several families in some comfort. As with so many other small islands, the population of ninety or so souls was removed during the Highland Clearances to make way for sheep. From Coral’s cockpit I could see the line of ruins just beyond the beach; with camera and notebook I jumped into the dinghy and motored ashore for a closer look.

As I got close I could see a convenient landing place, a clear patch on the shingle from which a crude stone breakwater reached out into the shallows. No more than a line of heavy stones, it would nevertheless have given small fishing boats some protection from the rough waters of the Little Minch. The shoreline was choked with seaweed, which threatened to tangle the propeller of my outboard, but there seemed to be a clear path through to the beach just by the breakwater. Was this my imagination? And if there was a path, was it a leftover from the times when this was a busy fishing community? Or was it maintained today by the visits of local boats? Whatever its origins, it made landing easy: I stepped ashore, hauled the dinghy up the beach so it was safe from the rising tide and went to look at the ruins.
There is always a clichéd poignancy about a deserted and ruined village, here as in others I have visited or passed by on Coral’s voyages. I often sailed past tumble-down walls, sometimes with gable ends reaching pointlessly toward the sky. On the west coast of Ireland, settlements were often abandoned after the potato famine—although Great Blasket remained inhabited until the last residents chose to leave in the 1950s. Here in Scotland people were more often forcibly removed.

On Isay, the remains of maybe eighteen roofless cottages and blackhouses lined the shore each side of the landing beach, safely above the high water mark. Large stones had been neatly assembled into substantial walls, creating a living space about eight metres long by three across, with rounded corners at each end, often with a fireplace in one wall. I poked around the old stones, admiring the solidity of the construction, wondering how a family would have lived in such a cramped space.

And then—maybe I sensed some subtle presence of the past—embarrassment came over me; I felt heartless and voyeuristic. For this was not just a sight for curious eyes, it had been home for a family, who would have loved and laughed, fought and struggled, eaten their meals, had sex, given birth, died. I experience something similar when I see pictures of wrecked houses in war zones—Sarajevo, Grozny, Homs, Mosul: deep sympathy along with a curiosity, “How is it they live?” I felt even more heartless as I took a picturesque shot of the heather growing in the walls, purple glowing in the evening sun against the lichen-covered stones.

I wandered down the shingle beach to the laird’s house at the southern end. This was a more formal, two-storey building with its own landing beach and rough breakwater like the one at the village. Hamish Haswell-Smith’s book on Scottish Islands gives a potted history: dastardly deeds were committed in the laird’s house in the 16th century that led to the murder of two whole families; Dr Johnson visited in 1773 and was offered the island as a gift, so long as he lived there for three months each year; and the singer Donovan owned the island briefly in the 1960s. But the history really belongs to the families who lived in that street of now-ruined houses and who, as on so many of Scotland’s islands, prospered when times were good and starved when times were bad.

By © User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

As Adam Nicolson points out in An Island Life about the nearby Shiant Islands, not so long ago the sea was the main means of communication and transport. Islands were not ‘remote’; they were always on a path to somewhere else, as well as destinations in their own right. This was not the western edge of a European land-based civilisation but rather, as Barry Cunliffe shows in Facing the Ocean, part of a maritime culture networked by the seaways running from Iceland and Scandinavia in the north, taking in Fair Isle, Shetland and Orkney, the west coasts of Scotland, Wales and Ireland, the Cornish peninsular, Brittany, Galicia, and finally meeting the Phoenician routes to the east at Cadiz.

If eighteen or more families lived here in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, this must have been a prosperous fishing community, only cleared out when the herring fishing failed and a modernising, finance-driven economy made sheep farming more profitable to those who supposedly owned the land (the history of land ownership in Scotland suggests we should take seriously the Marxist maxim, ‘property is theft’).

I returned to the dinghy and motored back to Coral, haunted by the presence of absence; and pondering the question which has to some extent haunted me throughout my voyages round Ireland and Scotland: who does this land and its history belong to?

Cunliffe, Barry. Facing the Ocean: The Atlantic and Its Peoples 8000BC-AD1500. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Haswell-Smith, Hamish. The Scottish Islands: The Bestselling Guide to Every Scottish Island. Edinburgh: Canongate, 2008.
Nicolson, Adam. Sea Room: An Island Life. London: HarperCollins, 2001.
Reason, Peter. In Search of Grace: An Ecological Pilgrimage. Winchester, UK: Earth Books, 2017.

Peter Reason is a writer whose work links the tradition of nature writing with the ecological crisis of our times, drawing on scientific, ecological, philosophical and spiritual sources. His award-winning book Spindrift: A wilderness pilgrimage at sea (Vala Publishing Cooperative, 2014) weaves an exploration of the human place in the ecology of the planet into the story of a sailing voyage. In Search of Grace: An ecological pilgrimage, is published by Earth Books in 2017. Prior to his retirement from academia, he made major contributions to the theory and practice of action research in writing, teaching and research in the field of sustainability. He is Professor Emeritus at the University of Bath and Adjunct Professor at California Institute for Integral Studies.