In 2019 a panel of broadcasting industry experts named Desert Island Discs "the greatest radio programme of all time." First aired in 1942 and still going strong, its longevity and appeal are largely due to its format: a famous guest is marooned on a notional island to reflect on his or her life within a structure of eight songs of their choosing; a kind of benign solitary confinement.
Another cultural staple is the desert island cartoon. Nowadays we might call it a meme. It’s remarkable how a scraggy, bedraggled guy on a tiny island, with one palm tree and a single line of dialogue, can articulate the absurdity of the human condition – the castaway in us all, an eternal Robinson Crusoe.
Islands, by no means all deserted, whether in reality or as a state of mind, are the theme of this year’s Faclan, the Hebridean Book Festival. Programming for this year’s event was put on ice until we knew with reasonable confidence whether live audiences would be allowed back. Another virtual festival would have been disappointing, implying stasis, not progress. Remotely connected must nearly be an oxymoron. I imagine our community “out there,” still on their laptops, still captive in their own homes.
The words isolation and insular have the same Latin root: insula[ris] meaning “of or pertaining to an island.” Both, though, can have negative or pejorative associations. Insular is usually a synonym for withdrawn or introverted, while isolation tends to denote loneliness, incarceration or, topically, quarantine. “Self-isolating” has, of course, become a common term.
As for “remote” and its connotations, I’ll politely decline to take the overnight ferry there.
In one of our programmed events this year, on 28 October, Gavin Francis will be discussing his book Island Dreams: Mapping an Obsession, and, in a way, we’re all obsessed with islands. A practicing GP, Francis has also written a book called Intensive Care about his first-hand experience of the pandemic. It made me think, in the current context, of hospital wards as islands or sanctuaries.
We need only look at writing and popular culture to affirm the gravitational pull of islands. Romance, intrigue, adventure, drama, comedy; Islands provide a theatre, a stage, a platform, a self-contained environment.
Treasure Island is probably the most famous fictional island, though the pirates in the book are far from the roguish rascals now depicted in popular culture. Without it, no-one would ever have said “Arrr, Jim Lad.”
Jim Hawkins is the only child – or young adult – in that rollicking yarn, but other kids have also been marooned. JM Barrie introduced us to Peter Pan, more pirates, and the island of Neverland. The Coral Island by RM Ballantyne was flipped to the dark side by future Nobel prize-winner William Golding, to give us the feral children of Lord of the Flies, a cautionary fable about the duality of human nature and the thin membrane between civilisation and savagery.
There are other dark islands too, and I don’t mean Benbecula. On The Island of Doctor Moreau by HG Wells, a scientist conducts experiments with human and animal hybrids. Some islands are prisons: I give you The Birdman of Alcatraz, and Papillon, which features the French prison colony of Devil’s Island. Summer Isle, from The Wicker Man, I’ll put in a category of its own.
Thomas More’s Utopia is a perfect island, an Eden, a paradise on earth. Alas, it doesn’t exist. The name comes from the Greek which literally means No Place. Utopia is an island, but its opposite Dystopia is not, and we certainly know it exists.
But don’t despair, there’s always humour. We have Craggy Island from Father Ted and Todday (a.k.a. Barra) from Whisky Galore by Compton Mackenzie. And since we have films and events about lighthouses at this year’s Faclan, I’m obliged to mention the keepers on the island of Aonoch Mor from Chewin’ the Fat. Getting on each other’s nerves at close quarters has never been more relevant and resonant.
One of my earliest memories is being upstairs in bed in my grandfather’s house in Suainbost in Ness, at the north end of Lewis, listening to the baritone moan of the Butt of Lewis foghorn throughout the night as the mist rolled in. Find out more about foghorns, and lighthouses, at Sound and Light: Fog and Night, our event with Donald S Murray and Jennifer Lucy Allan on 29 October.
In Greek mythology, Odysseus on his voyage home to Ithica from Troy visits the islands of the Sirens, the Lotus Eaters, the Cyclops. Meanwhile, much closer to home, geographically at least, in Celtic mythology the Brendan Voyage makes landfall on the Island of Sheep, and the Paradise of Birds.
We can speculate where these islands were. After all, the Hebrides were originally colonised in pre-history by “strand loopers” hop-scotching the islands from Ireland after overwintering the Ice Age in Iberia. Twenty-eight per cent of my DNA testifies to this. It’s a journey David Gange, appearing at this year’s Faclan on 28 October, traces in reverse in his kayak along what he calls “The Frayed Atlantic Edge” of the British Isles.
There are islands inland, too, as explored in Islands of Abandonment by Cal Flyn, also appearing at Faclan on 28 October. Insulated and separated from the wider world, these ruined and exhausted places are now coming back to life with nature.
Also overgrown – but with archaeology, genealogy, folklore, seanachas, luachar and crotal – are the shielings, which we’re exploring at An Lanntair in an event called Islands on the Moor on 30 October. There’s also a moor tour on 29 October, taking in everything from neolithic beehives to the pre-and-post-war huts and bothies to which families decamped with their livestock for summer pasture.
So much can be thought of in terms of islands, in reality and metaphor, including the solitary work of the artist and the writer. Yet the most famous island metaphor – “No man is an island” – is perhaps more relevant and appropriate than ever. Every individual is part of the greater whole of humanity. There is a 1955 sci-fi film called This Island Earth.
Roddy Murray is the director of Faclan: the Hebridean Book Festival, which is at An Lanntair, Stornoway, from 27-30 October, www.lanntair.com/faclan
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