Hugh Thomson

Our islands’ story

The adventures of Compton Mackenzie loom large in Barkham’s charming survey of Britain’s stunning archipelago

Britain has 6,000 islands. Not as many as Sweden’s 30,000 but quite enough to be going on with. Only 132 of ours are populated, on a scale that slides from the 85,000 people on the Isle of Man to tiny St Kilda, with its summertime population of just 15.

Patrick Barkham is a skilled compiler of lists. His charming and successful first book, The Butterfly Isles, chronicled the sighting of every one of Britain’s 59 butterflies within a single summer. It is high up on my own list of ‘I wish I’d thought of that’ ideas.

Clearly trying to gazetteer all Britain’s islands in a similar way might be indigestible, so he has restricted himself to a representative First Eleven, a team of big hitters scattered evenly around the mainland from Orkney in the north to Alderney in the south.

Islands make their presence felt. They have character. Some, like Skye, are even celebrities. As Barkham remarks, ‘a few square miles of small island looms far larger than the equivalent pocket of land on the mainland’.

They also have their own ecosystems — often simplified and reduced, with fewer species. Barkham is one of our most accessible nature writers and has a deft touch for painting in both landscape and animals. Here he is on the smells that assault him when he arrives on the Isle of Man: ‘The air is moist and perfumed — by heather on the purple uplands, by freshly cut lawn in the suburbs, and then by pungent dashes of seaweed, flung by the waves onto shoreside roads.’ The seals of Eigg are as fat as slugs.

Barkham is blessed with a talent far rarer in nature writers than a corncrake in Surrey — he has a wonderful sense of humour and can be very funny.

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