Scotland and Islandness

Explorations in Community, Economy and Culture

by Kathryn Burnett (Volume editor) Ray Burnett (Volume editor) Michael Danson (Volume editor)
©2021 Monographs XIV, 262 Pages


Scotland’s islands are diverse, resourceful and singularly iconic in national and global imaginations of places «apart» yet readily reached. This collection of essays offers a fascinating commentary on Scotland’s island communities that celebrates their histories, cultures and economies in general terms. Recognising a complex geography of distinct regions and island spaces, the collection speaks to broader themes of tangible and intangible cultural heritage, narratives of place and people, the ideas and policies of island and regional distinctiveness, as well as particular examinations of literature, language, migration, land reform, and industry. With a view to placing ideas and expressions of islandness within a lived reality of island life and scholarship, the collection provides a multidisciplinary perspective on the value of continued and expanding research commentaries on Scotland’s islands for both a Scottish and an international readership.
This book should instantly appeal to scholars of Island Studies, Scottish Studies, and Regional Studies of northern and peripheral Europe. Readers with particular interests in the sociology and history of Scottish rural and northern Atlantic communities, the cultural histories and economies of remote and island places, and the pressing socioeconomic agenda of small island sustainability, community building and resilience should also find the collection offers current commentaries on these broad themes illustrated with local island examples and contingencies.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Foreword
  • Chapter 1 Scotland and Islandness: Explorations in Community, Economy and Culture
  • Chapter 2 Little Islands on the Edge of the Ocean
  • Chapter 3 Cha ghabhadh na b’ fheàrr fhaighinn (‘It couldn’t be better’). Gaelic Perspectives on Island Cultural Heritage in Scotland’s Hebrides
  • Chapter 4 ‘Da Norn is lang gien, but hit’s left a waageng’: The Distinctiveness of Shetland Cultural Identity
  • Chapter 5 Scotland’s Islands and Cultural Work: The ‘Specialness’ of Place
  • Chapter 6 Regional and Island Economies of Peripheries and Margins: ‘Nordic and Celtic’ Comparisons
  • Chapter 7 Young People, Out-migration and Scottish Islands: Surveying the Landscape
  • Chapter 8 Community Land Ownership and Sustaining Scotland’s Islands: Lessons from the Western Isles
  • Chapter 9 Margins of Resilience, Sustainability and Success: Island Enterprise and Entrepreneurship
  • Chapter 10 The Islands (Scotland) Act: Island Proofing through Legislation
  • Chapter 11 Islandness: Articulating and Emplacing Relationality
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index

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This edited collection represents some of the network and research focus of the Scottish Centre for Island Studies. As editors we are most grateful to each of our contributors for their enthusiasm, commitment and patience throughout 2020 in bringing the collection together. We would like to thank the editorial team at Peter Lang, including Philip Dunshea for originally believing in the value of the collection, but most especially Lucy Melville who has championed this island studies focus, and been encouraging and accommodating throughout. Thank you to colleagues involved in the preparation for publication, most especially Ashita and Sasireka. We are grateful for the most helpful and supportive feedback and endorsement of this collection from scholars in island studies, Scottish and rural cultural economies, history and heritage but most especially Godfrey Baldacchino, Máiréad Nic Craith and Valentina Bold. We would like to say a very special thank you to Alasdair MacEachen, Chair of the Islands Book Trust for providing us with his foreword, and his own support and contributing expertise to aspects of the Scottish Centre for Island Studies activities and events over the years. References, in Alasdair’s foreword, to the poetry of the South Uist (Peninerine) bard Donald John MacDonald have been included with the kind permission of Donald’s John’s daughter Margaret Campbell.

Lastly, this book is dedicated to Magdalena Sagarzazu.

Magdalena Sagarzazu, from the Basque Country, was a lifelong friend of the Campbells of Canna -John Lorne and Margaret Fay Shaw - supporting and championing their research work. She organised their papers into the Canna Archive for public access and earned the gratitude of countless visitors and scholars to the islands. Magda’s family have agreed to this dedication and we thank especially Nerea Bello and Joaquin Gironza for their support.

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In dedicating this book to Magda, we express our thanks and recognition of the often quietly unsung but critically important contribution and passions of those colleagues working and volunteering in archives, museums, local historical societies, and arts and cultural organisations across Scotland but most especially in its northern and western island communities. Their generosity of spirit, cultural and historical expertise and enduring community advocacy facilitates, emboldens and secures the future of Scotland’s island studies scholarship and provides a legacy of riches for all.

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These opening words are taken from the Gaelic song Eilean Beag a’ Chuain (Little Island in the Ocean) composed by the South Uist bard Donald John MacDonald (Dòmhnall Iain Dhonnachaidh) almost eighty years ago, while he was a Prisoner of War in Germany.

What image springs to mind when one hears mention of an island or islands? I think it is true to say that one pictures an area of land, probably a small area, surrounded by a greater vastness of sea or ocean. In the mind’s eye, add a bit of colour to depict the lush green grass and the expanse of yellow, sandy beaches.

I often find that bàrdachd is a good starting point when one is looking for words of wisdom regarding island life – and death, for that matter. The bards give sound advice and express opinions on a wide range of subjects to do with island life, in good times and bad, thus playing an important role in island life, particularly where the Gaelic culture is strongest and rich in the oral tradition of tales and poetry.

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As you read this collection of chapters, you will sample a number of topics, ranging from ‘islands in the mind’ as expressed by the island bard as he thought of his native island from where he was imprisoned in Germany, to the debates of the present day where terms such as resilience and sustainability are discussed alongside policies and legislation from Land Reform to ‘island proofing’ as described in the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018, through to statutory protection, and cultural policy, around our island food, heritage and craft products.

The chapters which follow highlight many of the challenges and issues which require particular attention in order to address the diverse situations that exist across such a wide, or rather long, range of Scottish island communities which extend from the island of Arran in the south west to the island of Unst in the north. A little over ten per cent of the nine hundred or so Scottish offshore islands, which are mainly off the western and northern coast of Scotland, are occupied by approximately 100,000 islanders.

As just one person in that statistic, my own upbringing was somewhat similar to that described by James Oliver (Seumas Chatriona Dhòmhnaill Aonghais Bhig) in the final chapter of this collection. My home is in Aird on the island of Benbecula, and I grew up as James describes ‘in the north western corner of a north western island in the middle of an archipelago’. I can define my islandness in a similar way to that of the author, as being on the ground and in the mind.

In terms of on the ground, if I can borrow a few words from the reference to Martin Martin in the introductory chapter of this commentary on islandness and Scotland’s inhabited islands, I would describe myself as a native islander, Gael and a member of a longstanding Hebridean family, able to give ‘an inside view of the community’ in which I have lived and worked and where I belong. Living and working in the community for over four decades has, therefore, brought me into contact with most of the issues and challenges which are met while driving forward key policies for the socio-economic well-being of viable island communities.

Returning again to the beginning, and the words of the bard Donald John MacDonald, supports the sentiment of Rosie Alexander’s chapter on ‘Young People and Out Migration’, where she states that the ‘homing desire is strong on the islands’ and home is always in the mind, regardless of perceived challenges, peripherality or marginality. These may only be in the mind.

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Key issues such as land, place, community and language inform much of the collection’s explorations. On language, Andrew Jennings’ chapter examines Shetlandic dialect, for example. Hugh Cheape’s discussion of Gaelic perspectives on ‘Island Cultural Heritage’ underpins the continuing debate about the current use and the future of language as the vernacular in the remaining Gaelic communities, most notably the island communities of the Outer Hebrides. Similarly, alongside the conclusions on ‘Community Land Ownership’ in Calum MacLeod’s chapter, the Land Reform debate continues, with requests for a closer look at bringing public interest to the fore and to the heart of a future programme of land reform, which better addresses many of the issues raised in this range of chapters and which include the reversal of depopulation, the creation of job opportunities, the building of affordable homes and the tackling of climate change.

The debates will continue beyond the views that bring each of these chapters to a conclusion. Reference is made to the current pandemic situation and its impact across the world although, fortunately, impacting less on our more isolated island communities.

I am pleased to say that the bard did make it home having survived five years in a German Prisoner of War camp and, in another of his compositions Tighinn Dhachaigh (Coming Home), he described the first sighting of his beloved island home.

O chì mi bhuam far an d’ fhuair mi m’ àrach,

‘S mi ‘n seo air bòrd sa Lochmor air sàile;

O chì mi bhuam e thar gual’ a’ bhàta

‘S a cùrsa tuath gu tìr uain’ a’ chrà-gheòidh.

Oh, I see yonder the land of my youth,

From here on board the Lochmor at sea;

I see it yonder over the ship’s bow

As she steers north to the green isle of the shelduck.

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Having endured those five difficult years away from his island home, Donald John had no desire to leave the island again; and in 1986, his final wish was fulfilled when he was buried, among his own people, in the earth of his island home. The bard’s sentiment is common to this day amongst island people who either choose to leave or must leave their island home but who cannot rest until they return there.

‘S gum bi mi ‘g iarraidh ‘s ag ùrnaigh

Gum faigh mi ‘ chriochnachadh m’ ùin’ ann

‘S gum bi mi tiodhlaict’ an ùir mo luchd-eòlais.

It is my wish and my prayer

That I can end my days there

And be buried in the earth of my kin.

(Moladh Uibhist (In Praise of Uist) Donald John MacDonald)

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1.Scotland and Islandness: Explorations in Community, Economy and Culture

Over almost two millennia, Scotland’s western and northern isles have had complex and conflicting relationships both with the kingdom of Scotland and with the ensuing stateless nation that has its own issue with its neighbour on the ‘fractured island’ (Burnett 2013) that is the contested terrain of Britain. A feature of the global pursuit of ‘island studies’ in all diversity and unresolved complexities (Shima Editorial Board 2007; Baldacchino 2008, 2018; Grydehøj 2013a 2013b) is its inter-disciplinarity, something which this contribution from Scotland reflects and celebrates. In offering comment on current and past research activity on island matters this collection of chapters speaks to the wider range of Scottish island related themes, topics and issues evolving from research legacies that are rich, varied and buoyant, and from which there is much to yet discover and to celebrate more fully.

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This edited collection of chapters offers a collective commentary on the islands of Scotland, or to be more precise Scotland’s inhabited islands. Contributors variously invite exploration and reflection on examples of island history, community and culture, from the past and today. The collection offers some examination of key policies for the socio-economic wellbeing of viable communities and how a prescient context of strategies for sustainability in the local and global context of small island communities remains a source of debate, research, innovation and inspiration throughout Scotland’s island communities. With this in mind, we have encouraged contributors to include sources and references that support claims but to also point readers towards further reading and critiques that may be of interest. We also hope that this small collection may add some value to the review and realisation of strategic interventions of both policymakers and practitioners working on and for small island communities locally, regionally and globally.

The ‘emergence’ of Scotland’s islands?

History offers a key frame of reference for the understanding of Scotland’s islands, both long past and recent. Interestingly the very idea of what constitutes ‘history’ in the context of researching and debating islands in social, cultural and economic contexts is worthy of further focus. As James Hunter (2007: 10) has written, speaking of the challenges of how marginality and peripherality have been attributed to the overall region of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, it is both a historical yet reversible condition:

What has marginalised the Highlands and Islands is not their location, but rather the way the world began to be organised in post-medieval times – when power, decision-making and, most of all, people were drained away from here and concentrated elsewhere. Today, thankfully, this process is reversible. In a way that has not been possible since the industrial revolution, new communications and other technologies enable us to envisage a more dispersed pattern both of economic activity and of settlement – a pattern reminiscent, incidentally, of the one familiar to Iona’s monks. (2007: 10)

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And as Hunter notes it was originally to Shetland that Scotland looked to see the opportunities for a new vision of development and confidence for the whole highlands and islands region. Individuals such as Robert (Bob) Storey of Zetland County Council1 were pivotal, speaking particularly to the concern of an ‘erosion’ of Shetland cultural heritage and ‘way of life’. Storey, with others drawn from across island and highland communities, and with academic and political champions, would lead the vanguard in Shetland on the underpinning of socio-economic development with a vision that would place a sense of culture and place identity at the heart of the region’s development strategy. In 1965 the Highlands and Islands Development Board (HIDB) was established, the precursory regional development body to the current Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) and became a policy scaffold for the socio-economic revitalisation of the region.2 Decades later HIE would be ‘moved’ to reassert and revisit some of the underpinning ambitions of the area’s socio-cultural development with questions being asked over just how ‘culture’ and the integrity of local place histories and cultures were being sustained and developed: a reinvigorated (re-visioned) policy ensued (c.f. Brennan et al. 2016).3 Today, unquestionably, cultural enterprise, and the role of cultural capital in informing other sectoral development (via education, media, arts and advocacy), is a central flagship of the wider region’s success but ‘long views’ and depth afforded by discipline dissection and critique are crucial (c.f. Abrams (2005) on the gendered history of the material economies of Shetland, for example).

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The active countering of what has been long documented (and debated) the ‘Highland Problem’ (see Condry 1976; but more especially, Burnett 2011; Perchard and Mackenzie 2013; McCullough 2018), by policies and ambitions seeking development ‘solutions’ – arresting depopulation and ‘social decline’ – has fostered a steady and innovative expansion of highland and island enterprise, innovation, community activism and resolve. Today the highlands and islands exist, operate and compete as an invigorated, confident and empowered region. Challenges do remain, however: social inequalities, connectivity issues, ‘isolation’, fragility of demographics, higher costs of living, for example, continue to impact everyday life on islands. Furthermore, expectations of what constitutes ‘a good quality of life’ shift, and new or alternative visions of social, cultural, economic and environmental priorities, compete within and beyond highland and island contexts more broadly. Research, debate and critical review from ‘all quarters’ remain key to documenting and resolving ongoing challenges in this regard (see Grydehøj (2011) on Shetland or Ford (2019) on Orkney’s ‘ecologies’ and ‘entanglements’, for example). Agents and actors such as the education sector, not least the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI), (the region’s multi-campus university), development agencies, local authorities, consultancies, think tanks and pressure groups, media and journalistic expertise, as well as the myriad of island (and highland)-related social, economic and cultural organisations, groups and individuals each offer expertise, share opinion, provoke and challenge through debate. There are advocates of island and highland cause – politicians at all levels – but also, as it was in the past, celebrities who amplify the ideas and issues of places, people and practices to wider audiences to mostly good effect although such celebrification can bring a reification of island particularities that is (not always) helpful.


XIV, 262
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (April)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2021. XIV, 262 pp., 2 fig. b/w.

Biographical notes

Kathryn Burnett (Volume editor) Ray Burnett (Volume editor) Michael Danson (Volume editor)

Kathryn A. Burnett is Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Cultural Studies, University of the West of Scotland. Ray Burnett is a writer/researcher living and working in the Outer Hebrides. Michael Danson is Professor Emeritus of Enterprise Policy, Heriot-Watt University. The editorial team are co-founders of the Scottish Centre for Island Studies and have worked nationally and internationally with community partners and research and policy experts across a range of island-related projects including cultural heritage curation, small island remote enterprise, and island community assets.


Title: Scotland and Islandness