There's an island theme emerging at the moment - I'm on a roll and enjoying it so there's more to come. 'Island Years Island Farm' felt like a book that had been waiting for me most my adult life - it's curious that amazon have never tried to make me buy it, as it was I saw it when I was eyeing up a new copy of 'Ring of Bright Water' (there was a display of Little Toller Books - it's a fantastic looking series of classic nature writing and worth looking up here).
This was one of those books that it surprises me not to have met long ago. Googling Frank Fraser Darling doesn't reveal much either, there is a standard blurb about his work in the Scottish islands with his wife Bobbie but very little more. It seems that he was a prominent environmental campaigner, researcher, philosopher, and visionary. Clearly a much respected man and I wonder if that's why there's not more information about his personal life, normally this wouldn't bother me but this is an intimate sort of book, and from the moment that the introduction by his son Alisdair referred to Bobbie as his fathers first wife I was curious. From what little I've found the Fraser Darling marriage broke down not long after the original publication of 'Island Farm' and Frank went on to have two more wives and three more children. It's pertinent because 'Island Farm' is full of plans for a future that clearly never happened and I was left wondering what happened to the croft on Tanera Mor.
Indeed it's the only (very little) fault (and perhaps only in my eyes) with the book and it's presentation - originally two books 'Island Years' and 'Island Farm' Little Toller have melded them into one (this isn't an omnibus) the joins are pretty seamless, the time line is sometimes a bit confusing, but I think that may have been the case anyway and the Scottish one didn't notice any discrepancies (he's generally far more pedantic than I am). I think there should be a little bit more about what Bobbie went on to do with her life in the introduction, she's a shadowy but crucial part of the narrative, I hope she went on to do something that made her happy.
For anyone who's ever dreamed of living on a remote island or bit of coast line this is a must read book. The Fraser Darlings met at agricultural college in the twenties and quickly married. Frank went on to do a Ph.D in Edinburgh before heading off to research red deer in the highlands. It seems that he and Bobbie had a love of wild places and dreamt of living on an island. Eventually they got funding to study bird life on Eilean A' Chleirich and went off with a small child in tow to live in a couple of tents for more months than would seem feasible. After Eilean A' Chleirich came stints on North Rhona, Treshnish, and finally Tanera Mor where they rescued a derelict croft, and as war breaks over the rest of Europe Frank and Bobbie labour to bring it back into production. (Frank was considered to old for active service and then manages to break his leg on his way to milking a cow, but a sense of guilt and frustration is palpable as news keeps coming through of friends being blitzed or taken prisoner).
Otherwise my own experience tells me that this is a particularly accurate view of Island life in Scotland. There is the almost constant presence of the wind with the corresponding wonder of a calm day. The rewards of living so close to not just land, but also sea, and sky when you have to learn to accommodate to the environment around - if the wind blows and the tide is against you there's sometimes no way off an island. If you can accept that though the pay off is seeing things denied to others, knowing a place intimately shore to shore and having it's secrets revealed to you, that and a very primitive satisfaction in being the only ones to see it.
Although written in the 1940's it's only very rarely that this book feels like a period piece, mostly because if you choose to live somewhere very isolated not much has changed - links to the outside world are still sometimes tenuous and the weather can still cut you off. The thought of casting off possessions and expectations to live an entirely stripped back kind of life is seductive despite the sacrifices it would call for (although I have no romantic illusions about living in a tent and don't suppose I would thrive as a small holder). 'Island Years Island Farm' is after everything a timely read though. It's salutary to realise that the message to reduce, reuse, recycle is old, old, news. There's a lot to think about in this book, as well as a lot of entertainment (and for me at least a lot of nostalgia). I can't recommend it highly enough.