Paul Kershaw, Sheer Delight, Stac Lee - Mark Valentine on Robert Atkinson, Island Going

The Islands Beyond

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We had walked the white sands of Luskentyre in a wild wind that left grains in our hair and salt on our lips. The shadows of clouds skimmed across the face of Taransay, indigo over the water. Somebody had scuffed the word ‘Scotland’ with their shoe on the shore. We added ‘Atlantis’, with an arrow pointing west.

It was time to find some warmth again so we wound our way slowly along the single-track road, steering around the sleeping, scratching or munching sheep, until we came to the little bay. We soon had a fire going in the hollow grate of the cottage, and sighed as the rain rattled on the panes. There was one dark bookcase in the corner. The shelves held worn volumes about the sea, birds, fish, islands and weaving. Here on the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides they were the things that mattered, along with the peat stacked like black playing-cards out on the machair, and the stones, grey and gnarled as old bones.

Some of the books I already knew: Night Falls on Ardnamurchan by Alasdair Maclean, a poet’s journal of his father’s hard crofting life on a remote peninsula, almost an island itself; Off in a Boat, the book Neil Gunn wrote when he gave up his job as a distillery excise-man and set off to sail and to write full-time. And Sea Room, Adam Nicolson’s account of the Shiant Isles, those jagged citadels out to the east of Harris, which he had been given as a twenty-first birthday present.

But now, what was this? Island Going by Robert Atkinson – a paperback reprint of a book published in 1949. Neither author nor title were known to me. I liked the precise but somehow breezy sub-title: ‘To the Remoter Isles, Chiefly Uninhabited, off the North-West Corner of Scotland’. I took a look at the first few pages. Aha! The book barely started and here was a sentence so good I had to read it out loud:

It was a fine morning with heat to come, and when that was over, and the day nearly gone, the hills of Lanark gave back the afterglow of sunset, the whitewashed walls of cottages were pink and old dead grass was the colour of flowering heather.

Just look at the placing of those commas, and listen to the lilt of the words as the sentence nears its end. Here, I knew at once, was a skilful writer who took joy in what he made.

The book proved to be about two students barely out of their teens who go off to look for a bird: to be e

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About the contributor

Mark Valentine and his wife Jo recently spent time on the Isle of Harris, photographing and making notes about that endangered species, the rural postbox.

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