An Island Odyssey by Hamish Haswell-Smith

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Reviewed by Lizzy Siddal

It is a piece of weakness and folly merely to value things because of the distance from the place where we are born: thus men have travelled far enough in the search of foreign plants and animals, and yet continue strangers to those produced in their own natural climate.  

Thus wrote Martin Martin in 1698, an intrepid 17th century, Hebridean sea-farer, and so thought I, a less intrepid traveller, in 2014, approaching a quarter century of living in Scotland, having only set foot on only one of 790 Scottish Islands. (Arran, for the record.)  How to rectify this?  A) Go there, submitting oneself to the necessity of physical exertion and the vagaries of the Scottish climate, or  B) take a virtual cruise with Hamish Haswell-Smith as he navigates his way around the Scottish Coast from Ailsa Craig in the West to Bass Rock in the East via the Inner and Outer Hebrides, the Shetlands and the Orkneys. No contest.

So, I settled down in my virtual hammock, favourite single malt to hand (Jura, for the record) and set sail.

The crew, Hamish Haswell-Smith and his lifelong friends and co-owners of our vessel, have many years seafaring experience.   Theirs is an obsession, sparked in 1971, following which they bought themselves a 41ft sloop, named her the Jandara (after their wives) and began exploring the Scottish seas.  The itinerary of An Island Odyssey is, in fact, a fictitious one, an amalgam of and a excerpt from many journeys taken over the decades.

Each island has its own short 3-page chapter; the text a vignette, describing the essence of each island be it the treacherous seas surrounding it, its geological makeup, its wildlife or an anecdote from the past  Haswell-Smith is also a gifted artist and the book is lavishly illustrated with his charming sketches.  Vignette by vignette, illustration by illustration, the pattern of the islands and the history of island life are revealed.

As someone whose limited acquaintance of the Scottish Isles (Arran by foot, Jura by whiskey proxy) has been augmented only through the Hebridean trilogy of Peter May, I was a trifle disoriented when I failed to recognise a single island on the itinerary.  This voyage does not take in the obvious, preferring the smaller isles lying off the more well-known.  So no Arran, Mull, Iona, Skye or Lewis. Instead, Ailsa Crag (off Arran), Ulva (off Mull), Staffa (off Iona),  Crowlins (off Skye) and Scarp (off Lewis).  The front and end flaps have detailed maps so it is possible to keep your geographical bearings as the island-hopping progresses.

An Island Odyssey was originally published in 1999, and this new eidtion, printed on high-quality glossy paper, really is a thing of beauty but with one design oversight.  While the islands on the maps are numbered, the chapters are not.  This makes it difficult to cross-reference chapter to map particularly if a few days pass between readings.

Irritating this may be but it is insufficient to spoil the experience. As I reached the half-way point, a strange thing happened.   Actually two things.  The sun came out, and I tired of my virtual hammock.   Trepidacious no longer I set off to the Inner Hebrides, destination Mull (not part of Hamish-Smith’s Itinerary), springboard to Staffa (Island 14).  I wanted to experience its unique geology, climb the rocks to Fingal’s staffacave and visit the puffin colony.  Although early June,  my experience mirrored Haswell-Smith’s.

Staffa is not an easy island to visit because it is only possible to land when the sea is calm …. it was very early on a beautiful May morning, the sea lay like molten lead, it was warm in the sun, and we had the island to ourselves … A path across the natural hexagonal paving leads along the colonnaded cliff-face and round the corner to Fingal’s cave which is spectacular and quite unique.

Indeed it is every bit as spectacular as suggested by Haswell-Smith’s sketch. (pictured).

At the time of writing, I have still to “sail” to the Orkneys and The Shetlands.  This is a deliberate decision to slow the pace, to turn this odyssey into a cruise and to take the whole summer to enjoy it.

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Lizzy blogs at Lizzy’s Literary Life.

Hamish Haswell-Smith, An Island Odyssey (Canongate, 2014), 176 pages.

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