Coll The Coll Magazine

Article by V S (2000)

Book Reviews. Isles of the West: Ian Mitchel
Book Reviews

Isles of the West: Ian Mitchell

The content of this book is so much more than the romantic title and glossy cover suggest. The photo is shot from the helm of a heeling yacht, crashing through glorious sunshine on passage between the islands.

This book is an examination of modern life in the Hebrides. In particular, an examination of the main land-owning nature conservation charities. Hence his itinerary includes most of the islands where they have a significant presence. This book also addresses the wider issues presented in island life. These include Gaelic language and culture, crofting feudalism, economic development and decay, tourism, depopulation and incomers. He explores the many different "communities" which inhabit these parts. Especially the particular and peculiar tension that can be apparent in isolated places, where often a largely disparate populace are forced, by the very nature of their marginalised and economically disadvantaged location, to co-exist with each other. Also, he looks at the disproportionate power that external bodies both public and private wield amongst them.

Ian Mitchell has a great talent for getting very diverse characters to discuss their views, livelihoods and environment. Such wonderful and notable individuals may be hard to find in fiction. Here, he has found them alive and well on islands such as Tiree, Rum, Soay and Colinsay. From crofters on North Uist, to new age cottars on Scoraig, he paints a lively and sympathetic tableau. Lairds and landowners are treated to the same probing wit. Here is a well researched subject!

The chapter on Coll was not my favourite. This is no surprise you may say. My greater criticism of the Coll chapter may be due to thinking, one knows home best! Although, despite his tight itinerary, he managed to glean some interesting and illuminating comment from Hugh McKinnon, Nick Maclean-Bristol, Martin Lunghi and Colin Kennedy to name a few. I particularly enjoyed the late Robert Sturgeon's observations on changed times. They seemed so wise, and somehow echo the questions many people are beginning to ask today about access, housing, land use and misuse.

The whole book is unsettling in that it offers no real solution to the continuing conflicts, which brew around our already tenuous livelihoods. He asks a lot of questions about the politics of conservation, the vast sums of public money that are poured into private bodies in its name, often disgracefully squandered and mismanaged. Here such god like luminaries as Frank Fraser Darling, John Muir and Max Nicholson are exposed in a critical light. Their descendants are accused of being a "new empire of self serving idealists".

This book has received wide acclaim from the national and local press. Words like explosive, revelatory and controversial indicate that this is not a book to be ignored whether you agree or disagree with it. I enjoyed it very much and found it refreshing. I hope you do too.

'Isles of the West': A Hebridean Voyage by Ian Mitchell, published by Canongate at f9.99 available from all good bookshops or through the internet by contacting info&

Coll Magazine - Article by V S

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