Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2016/27 posted by hidden europe on

Would you ever consider buying an entire island? This autumn has seen a couple of Scottish islands on the market. For a mere two million pounds, you might consider Tanera Mòr, the largest of the Summer Isles just off the coast of north-west Scotland.

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Dear fellow travellers

Would you ever consider buying an entire island? This autumn has seen a couple of Scottish islands on the market. For a mere two million pounds, you might consider Tanera Mòr, the largest of the Summer Isles just off the coast of north-west Scotland.

Interesting, the London agent trying to sell Tanera Mòr displays the property in their luxury range, where it sits alongside boutique apartments in London and a beachfront estate in Hawaii.

Before you bid for Tanera Mòr, take a look at Frank Fraser Darling's wonderful book Island Years. It's a classic text by a thoughtful naturalist, giving a good account of how difficult Fraser Darling and his family found it to adapt to life on Tanera Mòr when they rescued a derelict croft on the island in the late 1930s.

Tanera Mòr is one of about 100 Scottish islands which, in the most recent comprehensive census (that was in 2011), recorded resident humans. That tally ranges from populous Lewis and Harris - actually one island despite the name - with over 20,000 inhabitants to two dozen islands where there are less than 10 residents. The census return for Tanera Mòr shows four people living in two houses.

It is in the nature of island living that censuses are not always accurate. Islanders are independently minded souls and may ignore bureaucratic rituals invented on the mainland. The monks on Papa Stronsay evidently mislaid the census form as the 2011 census suggests that there are no permanent inhabitants on this remote Orkney island which hosts a community of Catholic monks - the Transalpine Redemptorists, who are very definitely still at home on Papa Stronsay. It's rather comforting that an island which was the one-time hideaway of Thorfinn the Mighty, who engineered the murder of Earl Rognwald on Papa Stronsay, is now a place of quiet prayer.

The notion that island life is endangered in Scotland is not quite true. Comparing the 2001 and 2011 censuses shows that the number of islanders actually increased over that ten-year period.

The notion that island life is endangered in Scotland is not quite true. Comparing the 2001 and 2011 censuses shows that the number of islanders actually increased over that ten-year period. In the Orkneys, the number of residents rose by 11 per cent, and that included the repopulation of a tiny island called Holm of Grimbister where the head count leapt from zero in 2001 to three in 2011. Presumably the newcomers are not much impressed by their island home, as we see that the Holm of Grimbister is now up for sale again.

Elsewhere across Scotland, even some small islands are thriving. In Canna (in the Small Isles) resident numbers doubled from six in 2001 to twelve in 2011. Following a community buyout on Gigha in 2002, life on that island has looked up, with the number of residents rising by 50 per cent to 163 in the ten years to 2011. Even remote Coll, three hours from the mainland by boat, recorded a 19 per cent increase in population.

Scotland has a dozen or more tidal islands, which are tenuously linked to the mainland or larger nearby islands by sand spits or causeways. In some cases, these may only be traversed at low tides. Davaar, a little slip of an island near Campbeltown in Kintyre, is a nice example of a tidal island. At the start of this century, it still had two residents but now it is apparently uninhabited. The short excursion on foot across the shingle causeway from Campbeltown to Davaar is popular with visitors, who walk over to see the remarkable cave painting of the Crucifixion on Davaar.

Islands and religion make natural partners - especially in Scotland. The big draw on Inchcolm (in the Firth of Forth near Edinburgh) is the old Augustinian Abbey. Over on the west coast, Iona's erstwhile status as a centre of Gaelic monasticism still pulls crowds of visitors. Other Scottish islands, from tiny Oronsay to devout Barra, still play up their special role in church history.

Yet it requires a very particular kind of faith to invest all the family assets in buying an entire island. The fact that many who uproot to create new lives on remote Scottish islands often move on after a few years suggests that this is not an easy vocation.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

Posted in Places
This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.