Reviews / The magic quality of island life

Partick Barkham: 'Small islanders do have to be more resourceful and resilient'. Photo: Shetland News

“I love after dark arrivals on a small island because you arrive and you don’t have a clue about the place and then the next morning all the magic is revealed.”

Natural history writer Patrick Barkham’s arrival in Shetland on Friday evening as a guest speaker for Wordplay was certainly an eventful one. Landing into Sumburgh in a gale with torrential rain, he was relieved the next morning to find the sun was shining and that he was about to catch a glimpse of a pod of orcas swimming around Lerwick.


As a natural history writer for the Guardian and author of his latest book Islander: A Journey around our Archipelago, Patrick has travelled around the UK exploring some of small islands that form our national landscape, discovering what it means to be an islander away from the hustle and bustle of mainland life.

Speaking at the weekend during Wordplay Patrick apologised for not having visited Shetland before and for not including the isles in his book.


“I feel I owe Shetland a big apology. I planned to end my journey on Muckle Flugga in Unst but I ran out of money and by the time winter came I couldn’t get up there because I was finishing my book,” he said.

“I feel it would have done Shetland a disservice, an archipelago so large and complex to have only written one chapter at the end.”

Patrick visited 11 of the 6,300 islands that comprise the British Isles, some inhabited, thriving communities like the Isle of Man, others deserted by humans and now dominated by seabirds like St Kilda.


He said small islands have always fascinated him. “They have a magical quality and I think you can live more intimately with other species on a small island. They tend to function on a more human scale as a community.

“Life on small islands is not as easy or as comfortable as it is for people on the mainland. Small islanders do have to be more resourceful and resilient.

“We’re living in a time of political and financial uncertainty. If there was a big political or financial crash, the best places equipped to cope would be places like Shetland, small islands which are used to living sustainably.”

On his journey throughout Britain’s archipelago Patrick observed the striking difference between island living and the mainland is that consumerism and the fast pace of modern life did not exist in the islands due to their size and availability of resources.

He said he found it refreshing to see a traffic jam in the centre of Lerwick on Saturday as over 70 people went to the Knab in search of orcas.  “What could be a nicer way to spend an afternoon than going to look for orcas instead of trawling through shopping malls,” he said.


Sometimes it does take fresh eyes to remind us of the richness and beauty on our doorstep instead of taking these little things for granted and Patrick highlighted that in his brief visit in Shetland he noticed that almost everyone lives within close proximity to the sea but “if you live in southern England you have to be a millionaire to have a sea view”.

There are many aspects of island life here in Shetland that I feel would have contributed to the rich tapestry of island life Patrick portrays in Islander.Hopefully he will return again to explore the isles and be dazzled by the magical beauty that the landscape reveals.

Alex Purbrick