Treasure Islands by Alec Crawford

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Review by Hayley Anderton

The cover of this book is attractive, and the tag line ‘True Tales of a Shipwreck Hunter’ might always have made me pick it up to at least have a look, but in the normal way of things marine salvage is peripheral to my interests. In Alec Crawford’s case though it’s absolutely central: the wreck that made his fortune was the Oceanic. The largest ship in the world when she was built for the White Star Line, she was the last word in luxury at the time, but she had a relatively short life. Launched in 1899, she came to grief of the shaalds of Foula in September 1914.

Foula is an island about 15 miles off the west coast of Shetland. It’s Britain’s most remote inhabited island, its community hanging on despite all the odds. There has been speculation that it would be abandoned ever since St Kilda was cleared, something that intensified in 1937 when Michael Powell used it as a stand in for St Kilda in his early film ‘The Island at The Edge of the World’. When Alec Crawford, and his diving mate Simon Martin, arrive on Foula in 1973 the island still has a shop, but it closes whilst they’re there, and Alec, who’s affection for the island is obvious, worries about its possible fate.

When I was very young Foula was the island I could see sitting on the horizon from my bedroom window. It has a strong romantic pull for me, as I imagine it must for anybody who lives on the west side of Shetland. It’s far enough away to make getting there an expedition; neither flight or boat schedules are reliable because of the weather, and it has no safe harbour. The weather adds to it’s fascination though: in rains and storms it disappears, at other times it seems to float in a haze, small and far away, but on other days it’s magnified by atmospheric conditions so that you feel you can see every detail.

The Shaalds are a reef just off the island; diving on them is dangerous because of an extremely fast tidal currant that meant work could only be carried out at the slack of the tide – a window that was sometimes as narrow as 20 minutes, never longer than a couple of hours. I grew up with bits of this story. Literally – we had one of the nuts that had been used to bolt the propeller blades together, far too big for a child to lift, and adding immeasurably to the romance of Foula (also giving me an early, accurate, idea of what shipwrecked treasure might actually be).

Even so I half expected this to be quite a dry book, and although I wouldn’t describe Crawford as a natural author, his account of his adventures is deeply compelling. That’s partly because it is a story of adventure. Alex and Simon take the kind of crazy risks that only the young would contemplate, and which could only happen in an era with a more relaxed view on health and safety. By the end of his account Alec is becoming more wary. A few near misses have made him realise his luck is running out, but meanwhile they’ve done some amazing things with a minimum of equipment. They start salvaging the Oceanic with only inflatable ribs to work from.

The Oceanic dive isn’t the only adventure here either. Alec starts working in the Firth of Forth before moving on to Barra with a mate. The clear waters in Barra are a relief after the firth and the wrecks are interesting. One of them is the S.S. Politician, the wreck that inspired Compton Mackenzie’s ‘Whisky Galore’. They manage to recover some full whisky bottles, but after 30 odd years in the sea, sampling one (with the artist Peggy Angus) turns out to be ill advised. There’s time on Fair Isle too, including a look at some Armada wrecks, but Foula is the heart of this story.

It’s Alec’s obvious affection for the place and people, an affection that spills over to Shetland more generally, and is certainly returned by those who remember him and Simon from their time there, that makes this story sing. He meets his future wife, Moya, when she comes to help out on a neighbours croft, they all become part of the community, and he worries about the possible fate of the island. There’s a sense of a unique set of circumstances that contributed to a once in a lifetime adventure that touched everyone they’re involved with.

It’s not an easy book to categorise, but it’s an easy book to recommend. If you like any of the following – Scottish Islands, adventure, a touch of romance, marine salvage, the idea of treasure hunting, self-depreciating humour, diving, shipwrecks, local history, or feats of incredible daring (and possible craziness) you’ll find something to enjoy.

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Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader.

Alec Crawford, Treasure Islands, (Birlinn, 2020). 9781780276014, 246pp., paperback.

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