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  • "Would you like to do a book on islands that are hard to get to?" asked the publisher.
    "Which ones" I asked

    And he named a series, many of which I had not heard of.

    So I said "Yes!" (well you would wouldn't you).

    And so for a long spring and summer, then into autumn, I hitch-hiked lifts on yachts, fishing boats, private boats, ferries, and used my sea-kayak, to reach 23 west coast Scottish islands. I met many amazing people and saw some astonishing sights along the way.

    But the most affecting thing I encountered was absence.

    Abandoned townships, now low ruins. Broken walls that once were homes. Eyeless windows looking out on views that once were loved. Chimneys cold and smokeless.

    Would I have chosen this spot to build, I often asked myself. Yes. Despite my need for water, my need for shelter from Atlantic gales, my need for sunlight, I would still have picked this spot, the spot they picked. The right spot for this place.

    But I saw no ghosts. Felt no chills up my spine. Had no inexplicable ethereal happenings. Nothing.

    Yet each one I visited changed me. Subtle, gentle, nudging changes.

    The mainland world I knew, where islands were edges, places on the rim...........inverted. Home seemed more than distant. The orbit of the sea became my own trajectory. Tidal flows my master. I realised that once these islands were not remote, but were central to the seaways of the past. Stopping points, touchstones, harbours.

    Much of the culture I have grown up into is writ of a feeling for the sea. I know the songs, the tunes, the dances, but what I had not been aware of was the rhythm. The beat of an island's heart, one that is low, resonant and affecting.

    But I know now.

    I chose this excerpt from a poem by Kathleen Raine to include in the foreword to the book. It sums up the emotional pull of absence far more eloquently than I ever could.

    'Highland Graveyard'

    Many songs they knew who now are silent
    Into their memories the dead are gone
    Who haunt the living in an ancient tongue
    Sung by old voices to the young,
    Telling of sea and isles, of boat and byre and glen;
    And from their music the living are reborn
    Into a remembered land,
    To call ancestral memories home
    And all that ancient grief and love our own.

    Highland Graveyard
    by Kathleen Raine
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