There’s something definitely beguiling about islands, bringing to mind the swathes of history that have washed their shores. As ‘places apart’ from the mainland they’re often distinguished by their distinctive natural environments and sites of special cultural and historical significance. For outdoors folk of course, islands have an immediate appeal as places for adventure, challenge and exploration.
Scottish Island Bagging, the new book by Helen and Paul Webster who run the Walkhighlands website, brings all of these elements and more together into a fascinating guidebook that deserves to have a wide readership.
At first glance the title of the book may put some people off. At its worst, munro bagging is often associated with walkers burning up fossil fuels to ‘conquer’ an obscure peak, simply because it appears on a list defined by an arbitrary height definition. So given the negative environmental connotations from this ‘honeypotting’ effect why would ‘bagging’ an island simply because it’s there appeal to anyone?
As they explain in the Introduction, the Websters acknowledge that “you may get a passion for it“. It may even become an addiction. But rather than get obsessed with list-ticking, the authors are pragmatic enough not to define precisely what constitutes an island, far less how many islands are accessible around Scotland’s coastline. Instead, they leave it up to the reader to judge what ‘bagging’ an island might entail and how far their interest (or possibly obsession) might take them.
In contrast to the official list of munros (maintained by the Scottish Mountaineering Club), there’s no official list of ‘Websters’. Instead, the authors highlight 99 offshore Scottish islands that are easily accessible by ferries, bridges, tidal causeways and boats, and another 55 which have no regular transport but are still of significant size or interest. You’ll find well known islands such as Mull, Skye and Arran sitting alongside the less well known such as The Garvellachs and the Flannan Isles. As far as I can tell the book doesn’t adopt any real method to selecting the 55 ‘less accessible’ islands. Given it’s said there are 790 Scottish offshore islands the selection seems to be based on relative interest, ignoring the many skerries, islets, rocks and stacks that are of little interest to the visitor.
this book is as much about the journey as the final destination
Before you start getting out an atlas and plotting your escape the authors are quick to point out that many of Scotland’s islands are remote and undeveloped. Largely devoid of much of the way of any infrastructure whatsoever, the only way to reach the 55 less accessible islands is by yacht, sea kayak or charter boat. So this book is as much about the journey as the final destination.
An inspiring and tempting guidebook
Scottish Island Bagging is well laid out, structuring the locations into ten island groups from the Firth of Forth in the south to Shetland in the north. Each section begins with a clear overview map that includes ferry routes, roads and sites of interest. A ‘tick list’ of the 154 islands is provided at the back of the book, just in case you get the urge to calculate just how many you’ve already visited. One minor quibble I have is that the islands in the Solway Firth are overlooked, including Hestan Island and the Isles of Fleet. While admittedly this would have created one of the smaller chapters alongside the Islay, Jura and Colonsay section, I think this would have been a useful addition. If nothing else, it would have created greater momentum to visit the Galloway coast, a part of Scotland often neglected.
But it would be wrong to simply view this book as a listing of selected islands around Scotland’s coast. First and foremost it’s a book that sets out to inspire people to visit and experience some of Scotland’s far-flung gems. In the same way that Cameron McNeish’s book The Munros re-presented the rather tedious Scottish Mountaineering Club’s hillwalkers’ guide of the same name into an inspiring coffee table book so Scottish Island Bagging brings a disparate range of visitor guides into a single, essential and accessible digest. It stands out as the ‘go to’ point of reference for anyone interested in exploring what Scotland’s islands have to offer.
Helen and Paul Webster are extremely knowledgeable guides for the journey of course. In highlighting a range of the most appealing sites, activities, food and drink as well as historic and cultural experiences the authors draw on their extensive knowledge of Scotland’s outdoors. Looking at some of the places I know reasonably well, it’s clear that the Websters have been selective in their choices, spotlighting some extremely tempting places and activities. This is certainly not one of those generalist guide books that’s the product of lazy desk research and simply points visitors to the ‘usual places’; it encourages you to get off the tourist trail to explore new and different places.
What I really love about this book is the sumptuous photography from cover to cover. It’s this imagery that really brings the book to life and inspires you to start planning an adventure. The gorgeous mountain and seascapes leap out from the page and include many single and double page spreads. From atmospheric cloudscapes to idyllic beach scenes and mountains draped in autumnal hues you can see why Paul Webster won the Scottish Landscape Photographer of the Year competition in 2018.
This is the kind of book where you can easily lose yourself for a couple of hours, finding inspiration for upcoming trips that hadn’t previously featured on your ‘to do’ list.
What I liked:
- Excellently researched guidebook
- Inspiring photography
- Clear mapping
- Well structured book – accessible and easy to navigate
- In spite of the title, this is most definitely an authoritative guide book rather than a ‘tick list’
What I wasn’t so keen on:
- The book’s title!
- A section on the islands off the Solway coast could have been included.
Scottish Island Bagging is available direct from Vertebrate Publishing and all good bookshops (RRP £17.99).
Note: The book was provided to me to review for free by Vertebrate Publishing. I have no connection with the authors or publishing company and have provided an honest and impartial review.