Sunday, March 18, 2012

Isles of the West - Ian Mitchell

This is one of the Scottish ones books which I don't normally touch (he's more careful with his books than I am with mine, and if he has something tempting that's hard to track down the temptation to 'borrow' it might be overwhelming) but I was struggling to get to grips with what I'd taken to read this weekend and after hearing that Mitchell had written about Tex Geddes I thought I'd have a browse. Tex Geddes was a harpoon gunner with Gavin Maxwell in the Soay shark fishery days and bought the island after Maxwell went bust, by all accounts quite a character, and definitely someone who will bear further investigation if his obituary is anything to go by.

Mitchell took to him straight away when he visited in 1996 and writes an entertaining chapter about the occasion and some of the stories told - he mostly wanted to know about Gavin Maxwell which encouraged me to read more. Unfortunately the book doesn't have an index and as I'd also seen mentions of Frank Fraser Darling it seemed worth investigating amazon - where the reviews are mixed to say the least of it (the price of the first copy I found was also unattractive, though further searching has revealed cheaper ones). Intrigued I spent the rest of the day reading on and have now skimmed my way through most of the book. 

I had assumed that 'Isles of the West' and the later 'Isles of the North' were generally about sailing and islands, instead 'Isles of the West' is mostly a crusade against the RSPB, Scottish National Heritage, and any other major conservation body or figure Mitchell comes across. None of these bodies lack detractors in the highlands and islands where ideas about conservation are almost guaranteed to clash with the opinions of crofters and fishermen set on making a living out of the same landscape. In 1996 when the future of Eigg was a hotly debated news topic this was timely and iconoclastic. (Hebridean island with a loathed laird, the outcome was a community buyout in 1997 - I dimly remember this being in the papers.) 

Since then views about conservation and the make up of Island communities have changed considerably, tourism is bigger than ever, property prices have gone through the roof, and incomers have kept on coming in. What's left is occasionally troubling. In an attempt to get answers about how much money has been spent on Corncrake preservation Mitchell frankly bullies hapless RSPB wardens (and then gleefully reports it which makes for odd reading) he has nothing but condemnation for Frank Fraser Darling which may for all I know be well deserved, but dismissing him as a morbidly obsessed seal eater seems a bit extreme, from my recent reading their respective philosophies for the future of the highlands didn't seem so very far apart - both seem to advocate traditional and diverse farming practices as the best way to protect the environment, and both seem convinced that the western isles can be productive farm land. I think he would have had a pop at Maxwell to if he could have got any dirt (and it isn't for lack of trying that he doesn't get any). 

It's an interesting book with a lot to say - much of it worth saying, and one day I should read it properly and try and get past both Mitchell's prejudices and my own. 

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