A stunning new pictorial study of the Hebrides from the air illustrates the massive impact of people on the islands' landscape

OFTEN described as a wilderness, the Hebrides have in fact been shaped by human influence since the first settlement in the aftermath of the last icce age.

• St Kilda had a peak of 180 residents in 1695 but was abandoned when the last 30 left in 1930

From the loss of woodland due to grazing and burning, the ancient standing stones at Callanish, the ruins of medieval monasteries, churches and castles, the remnants of cleared communities and the patterns of crofting townships, to modern-day, large-scale infrastucture projects and building to attract new families, there remains physical evidence of events that have defined the archipelago over thousands of years.

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Angus and Patricia Macdonald have a natural affinity with the Hebrides.

Angus's grandfather came from North Uist and many of his relatives still live there, while Patricia has ancestors from Ireland, North America and Orkney and some of the most formative experiences of her childhood took place on Mull.

The Edinburgh-based partnership have studied the islands for over 20 years, building a wealth of knowledge of the history, culture and environment. But a distinguishing feature of their research is that since the 1980s they have also investigated and recorded the landscape from the air, amassing a collection of stunning aerial photographs from hundreds of hours flying over the area in light aircraft.

Their unique perspective comes together in a 300-page book, The Hebrides: An Aerial View of a Cultural Landscape, which examines the natural and human history of the Hebrides using 270 aerial images as well as evocative text and poetry in both Gaelic and English, from ancient times to the present day.

It's been a labour of love for the Macdonalds who, in recent years, have jointly organised and taught an honours course in cultural landscape in at the University of Edinburgh, where Angus has been professor of architectural studies and a former head of school, and (Dr) Patricia has been an honorary fellow.

Patricia says: "We have been carrying out aerial photography related to both the history of, and environmental issues in, the Hebrides since the mid-1980s, either for our own art and research projects or to commission for government bodies, non-governmental organisations and others with an interest in the Hebridean environment. Also, both of us have been interested in many of the issues discussed in the book for a large part of our lives."

"The Hebridean landscape is, for the most part, a 'cultural landscape' of some kind," adds Patricia. "That is, it has been affected in many ways, some of them less obvious than others, by human activity over the millennia since it was first settled around the end of the ice age."

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In a foreword to the book, historian and author Professor James Hunter says it shows the enduring impact people have made on the physical fabric of every island between Islay and North Rona. He says: "The sheer extent of that impact gives the lie to the all-too-commonplace notion that to go to the Hebrides is instantly to encounter on every side the 'wilderness' and 'wild land' which loom large in a great deal of writing about the islands. In fact, there is little that is truly natural – if 'natural' is understood to signify an absence of human influence – about most Hebridean landscapes."

The Hebrides consist of around 500 diverse islands, covering 170 miles from north to south and 80 miles from west to east. The book traces the various stages of the islands' development, from the times of the first human habitation around 9,000 years ago, to the Vikings, the Celts, Picts, the Lordship of the Isles and the more recent absentee landlords, to the new generation of community landowners. While often given the label "remote", in early history when the sea was the principal means of communication, the islands had strong links to the Mediterranean societies that formed the basis of Western culture, and later with Viking Scandinavia, then English and Dutch traffic between Europe and the fishing grounds of Newfoundland, the Arctic and the trading destinations in the East and West Indies.

"Remoteness" began to acquire relevance in a Hebridean context only with the rise of industrialised Europe, but today the islands are seen as isolated and at "the edge of Europe".

• The community-owned island of Gigha

The sense of isolation, and the lure of a materially wealthier civilisation nearby, was a factor in the abandonment of some islands, which remain uninhabited today. The book recalls that St Kilda had a peak of 180 residents in 1695, but was abandoned when the last 30 left in 1930. Other islands, including Taransay (88 residents at its peak), Scarp (213), the Monach Islands (135), the Shiants (22), North Rona (30) and Staffa (16) have all lost their populations. In August, as events were held to mark the 80th anniversary of the evacuation of St Kilda, historian Iain Thornber said the archipelago could be resettled and people would be queuing up to move there.

The authors revisit this theme and suggest that the physical problems that cause difficulties for the islanders in the past could now mostly be overcome by modern technology. "The availability of (albeit very expensive) helicopters makes islands accessible in anything but the most inclement of weather, and electronic communication, if well maintained, would give any inhabitant instant access to the outside world and therefore the ability to summon help should this be necessary," they say. "It is therefore possible to imagine that a sustainable lifestyle, for a small population, might be achievable on islands such as North Rona or St Kilda in the present day."

But, they add, however feasible it might be, it would be rather unusual people who would wish to lead such a life today. "The isolation would, for most people accustomed to a 21st-century lifestyle, be seriously problematic. People with children, particularly, generally wish to have access to the healthcare and education systems available only where significant population exists."

The book also looks at the changing pattern of land ownership in the Hebrides. It discusses the situation that in recent centuries the islands have been owned and governed by a relatively small number of individuals as a consequence of feudalism and that this led to a "disastrous" history that has persisted into the present day. It highlights Eigg as an example of an island with serial owners: "Since the early 19th century Eigg had, for the most part, been owned by people who had little affinity with the place and who often acted in ways that were detrimental to the welfare for the islanders. In the late 20th century the island became a commodity which was traded on the international property market. All privately owned islands and estates in the Hebrides are currently in a similar situation."

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The authors discuss the fact that demand from wealthy buyers still exceeds the availability of estates for purchase and that they now have a rarity value equivalent to an old master painting, and which far exceeds its value as calculated in terms of places in which to make a living. "It is a continuation of the situation that has plagued the Hebrides since the 15th century in which most of the people who live there remain – despite recent positive developments – deprived of the ability to take responsibility for their circumstances."

And what of the future ? Recent positive developments include the number of estates and islands under community ownership, including Eigg, Gigha and much of South Uist. The book says community buyouts are one exciting and appropriate way forward.

Patricia adds: "We believe that Hebridean communities are beginning to discover, in many cases through the empowering mechanisms of well-designed community ownership arrangements, new, environmentally sustainable and humanly satisfying ways forward in terms of land ownership, land management and life choices.

"They should continue to be given the necessary support for their development while they make their aims a reality – by government at all levels, by non-governmental organisations, and by the media – both for the sake of their own islands (reversing the inequities, and iniquities, of the past), and for the valuable examples that they may increasingly provide to communities elsewhere."

• The Hebrides: An Aerial View of a Cultural Landscape, by Patricia and Angus Macdonald. Published by Birlinn, 30