Inhabited Plus One: the Scottish Islands Tour
At the beginning of 2004 while living in Orkney, off the north-east tip of Scotland, Malcolm Russell decided to set himself a goal: to become the only magician in history to perform magic on every inhabited island in Scotland. He decided this while unaware that there were in fact 105 of them, but by that point it was too late to change his mind.
The following is the text of an article written for Scottish Islands Explorer magazine shortly after completing the tour the following year. For those of you who love travel, love islands, love Scotland or love magic, this story is for you…
Sticking a well-lubricated arm inside a ewe will seldom be recommended as a source of inspiration, but the cups of tea and conversation that follow can at times be a different matter. I am a magician by trade, though I will turn my hand to almost anything that comes along, including on this occasion helping a friend with lambing. A year and a half earlier my wife and I had left behind an unfulfilling life in Sussex following a job offer in Orkney (hers, not mine – there are no salaried positions for magicians with the Council. I’ve checked). We both loved Orkney immediately and knew we had made the right decision. Wanting to take full advantage of my new location, I decided to organise a tour for myself. Ideas came and went, none of them entirely satisfying, and so it was that, covered in amniotic fluid, my friend suggested I narrow my focus further than I already had, skip the Highlands and simply try to reach every island in the country.
So it was that the concept was born.
My goal was clear. I would attempt to become the first magician ever to perform on every inhabited island in the country. Plus one uninhabited island, just for fun.
At the time, of course, I had no idea how many islands in the country existed or how many of those were inhabited. Or even how I should define an island. In the end the decision was that that for the sake of my tour I would include any island that had at least one inhabitant on it throughout the year (ignoring any islands populated only in summertime), had its own name and was completely surrounded by water even if only at high tide. Did bridges and causeways void their status? No.
With a copy of the 2001 Census to hand I began making phone calls. I needed to make contact with at least one person on every island in order to introduce myself, explain what I was trying to do and ask for their assistance in either arranging a gig or putting me in contact with somebody else who could help. I called in favours from friends who put me in touch with former colleagues and companions; I procured lists of schools and head teachers, Scottish Natural Heritage offices and officers, pubs and hotels; I asked people on various islands if they could give me names and contact numbers on neighbouring islands. I telephoned post offices and businesses and occasionally just random people.
It quickly became apparent that this would be less straightforward than it sounded.
Malcolm with ‘Eric the Half a Lamb’
Loch Carnain, Mull
Despite the best efforts of the Census Bureau the census itself was inaccurate. At times there was debate between islanders over whether an island was inhabited or not (“Oh no, love, the census may say seven people live there but the last woman hanged herself in… 1936.”), confusion over locations (Fladda, Fladday, Floday, Flodday, Flotta, Flotta; Langa, Langay, Linga, Linga, Linga, Linga Holm…Lingay…Bless you Hamish Haswell-Smith), confusion over individuals (“You need to speak to Donald McDonald. But make sure it’s Donald McDonald and not Donald McDonald. The other Donald McDonald won’t be able to help you.”), incorrect phone numbers and people simply not being at home when I called.
After six months of financially propping up British Telecom I had succeeded in making first contact with at least one person on more than half the islands on my list. Even the number of inhabited islands on my list changed; I went from believing there were 95 to 90 to almost 100. By the time I had completely finished the tour my total would be 105 inhabited islands, but even this depends on how you draw certain boundaries.
For the sake of travelling I had divided the tour into sections: a few Orkney islands followed by Shetland, then a break in Orkney to plan the next leg; the Western Isles, Skye and the Small Isles followed by another break; then the remaining islands along the West Coast, and the inland islands in lochs and rivers. At the end I would return to Orkney and finish the remaining islands there. Although I was making contact with people months in advance, I knew that travel plans could easily be scuppered by bad weather or unforeseen circumstances and so I rarely booked firm dates more than two weeks in advance.
I specialised in close-up magic but also do parlour magic, juggling, physical comedy and other bits of silliness. I began performing while at university, mostly as a street performer and juggler, before moving into magic many years later and I knew that the variety of venues and audiences on this tour would mean drawing on my entire repertoire. Some audiences would be fairly large while at times I suspected I would be performing for one or two individuals. Even before leaving Orkney I had a list of venues lined up that included schools and community centres, a castle, a baronial manor house, a byre, two monasteries (one Catholic, one Buddhist), an oil terminal cafeteria and a golf course.
For three weeks in Shetland in June and July 2004 I criss-crossed Shetland. Intriguingly, many of their islands have a distinct reputation among the Shetlanders themselves, in a way that I did not see elsewhere. Mention Fair Isle and they get wistful, gaze into the middle distance and murmur dreamily, “Ah, Fair Isle!” Mention Foula and they get slightly alarmed. Papa Stour – tales of feuds worthy of Jerry Springer. Vaila, and they tell you about the delightfully eccentric couple that own it (and, often, about the time they themselves went to visit and were entertained there). Talk of East Burra and they look slightly confused, perhaps embarrassed by the fact that they can’t remember where it is.
I made it as far north as Muckle Flugga and took pictures of the Northernmost Sheep in Britain (no doubt currently more accurately named “Stew”) after performing for passers-by at the famous Unst bus shelter. Other gigs included a retirement party on Whalsay, a private show for a farmer on Muckle Roe, street performances in Lerwick and one quick trick for an unimpressed shop attendant on Bressay.
After an embarrassingly protracted three weeks’ planning back in Orkney, I set off for the Western Isles.
My first stops were Tanera Mor (Summer Isles, supposedly where The Wicker Man was set, though the movie bore no resemblance whatsoever to the real place) and the Isle of Ewe (thank you, Isle of Ewe too) on the West Coast of mainland Scotland before crossing to Lewis. It was at this point that Fred Macauley interviewed me on his Radio Scotland programme, and amazingly people remembered the story weeks later, making my passage easier at times.
I had had difficulties contacting people on a handful of islands in the area, though not for lack of trying. The fact that nobody I spoke to seemed to know anyone who lived on South Grimsay (no, not Grimsay. That’s North Grimsay) all began to make sense when, after following the road across a series of causeways to the island itself and knocking on a random front door, I discovered that even the inhabitants of South Grimsay believed they were on Benbecula.
After a series of performances that included an agricultural show, a farmhouse kitchen, a midge-infested field and a hotel bar, my Western Isles experience ended with a pair of very impromptu shows after I arrived and was told by the woman responsible for organising two shows that she simply…hadn’t.
Skye and the Small Isles were another land completely. They are so near the Western Isles yet so thoroughly different, from the over-touristed corners of Skye to the barely-inhabited islands of Rona and Soay. (Incidentally Canna and Sanday don’t count as barely inhabited. They have six people each. Together they could invade Muck). My ‘show’ on Skye consisted of trying to perform in every pub in Portree in one evening. It turned out there were nine of them, and over two and a half hours I was presented with reactions ranging from grudging macho respect from shaved-headed Rottweiler owners, drunken cheers of welcome from students, intelligent and thoughtful curiosity and good-humoured cooperation, to awkward and self-conscious refusal, unhelpfulness and on one occasion a Belgian couple who faked incomprehension until I butchered their own language so painfully that they confessed they did in fact speak English. Quite well, too. I wonder if they’ve ever forgiven me.
Soay – one-time home to otter-friend and shark-nemesis Gavin Maxwell – was a very nearly a serious problem for me. The only man anybody seemed to know on the island was never at home and the cost of chartering a boat for the day was prohibitive; I was not charging for my performances during the tour and it was only the generosity of the islanders themselves who often made donations and put me up for the night that I managed to complete the tour. I had almost given up hope of reaching Soay when I learned that a mail boat travelled out to deliver post once a week. I took the boat out and one of Soay’s three residents came out to meet us in a dingy, kindly rowing me to shore where we sat for five minutes on her front porch so that I could entertain her briefly with a little card magic, before rowing me back out into the bay to clamber aboard the mail boat for the return journey.
And so after another break back in Orkney I continued working roughly southwards through the south-west islands using Oban as a base. I knew I was likely to miss an island here if anywhere, and sure enough discovered three islands that had not appeared on my list at any point, one of which while I was actually standing on it (it’s very small, connected by a tiny bridge and often overlooked). This was October and November and bad weather had indeed caused problems on a few occasions, making it necessary for me to backtrack. Twice I had given up hope of reaching an island when at the last possible moment my luck had turned and I had succeeded.
Scotland has a few islands located in lochs and rivers around the country, the best-known of which lie in Loch Lomond. Even the city of Perth itself has Moncrieffe, an island sitting in the middle of the river, occupied by allotments and a golf course. The caretaker of the golf course lives on-site, so it counted. The manager was enthusiastic about what I was attempting and went as far as inviting a class of primary schoolchildren from across the river to join us.
And so it was that six months after I had set out, I had completed every island on my list except for half of Orkney and the Holy Grail, St Kilda. To the list of unusual venues I had compiled before embarking on the tour I had since added a wedding and a funeral, a fire station, a dilapidated stone cottage, and a spiritual commune, among others, but St Kilda eluded me still. I had courted SNH, enticed those with access to a helicopter, pleaded with fishermen and hit dead-ends on leads with an ice-breaker, rigid inflatable boat pilots, archaeologists, a former cook who had worked there but had been unsuccessful at every turn. Storms, high swells, distances, schedules and insurance issues kept me away, each time growing more disheartened. I had failed to reach it. My list was incomplete. But at least I was defeated by the greatest legend among Scottish islands, a worthy adversary.
Believing that I could finish the final 12 islands in Orkney in a matter of weeks, I was at home by Christmas.
Six months later I was still trying. A few islands had been easy but a handful were causing difficulties: either the inhabitants were away or transport was a problem. The monks at the Catholic monastery on Papa Stronsay were keen to have me over but communication took time and Lent and Easter pushed the date back by 40 days. In the end I did make it across and spent the night in a vacant monk’s cell after the show. We had stayed up far later than planned and I had to be up at 4:30 the following morning to catch a small boat across to Stronsay to get the ferry back to Kirkwall. There is nothing to make you feel virtuous like being awake before the monks.
By now I knew I would have to admit that St Kilda had defeated me, and so the last island on my tour was the uninhabited Orkney island of Swona, famous because when it was abandoned over 30 years ago the owners left behind their cattle which have since survived quite happily on their own. This is one of the few places in the world where one can observe wild bovine behaviour. A friend with a RIB (rigid inflatable boat) got me across during a window in the tides and her schedule, and after a short walk I did a single card trick for the cows at a great distance (not impressed) and then a little fire juggling (still not impressed), before calling it a day and returning home.
And so there I was, exactly one year and a day after setting out, having reached and entertained on what I believe to be every inhabited island in Scotland, except St Kilda. Plus one uninhabited island.
It was weeks later that I was unexpectedly offered the chance to go back to the Western Isles for a few days. I had learned that a man called Angus Campbell had begun running day trips to St Kilda in a fast boat, and when I phoned him I learned that the week I would be there was indeed the last week he would be running trips for the season. I had only two free days to play with, and as luck would have had the weather was good enough on one of them. Under low cloud and occasional rain we spent 2 1/2 hours in choppy waters through areas so devoid of anything that the GPS-navigation people hadn’t even bothered to paint the sea blue. They had not added little banners saying ‘Here be dragons’ that scrolled across the screen, but this was probably just laziness on their part.
I periodically raised myself from the sick-preventing prone position I had adopted and stared out the rain-splattered window at the seascape ahead, searching for a view of the islands approaching, before lying back down again. There was no sign of anything. Nothing but steely grey seas and whitecaps on the waves. Until suddenly like a horror movie monster it was THERE, right in front of the boat. No warning, not even a cliched screech-screech violin alarm. Black, wet walls of rock shooting vertically from the waters directly in front of us.
We skirted the cliffline around to the one bay that had made thousands of years of inhabitation possible.Half my fellow passengers were grey-faced and sick by the time we arrived and the cloud was so heavy that we could not see the hilltops, but I had made it. After a few hours exploring the island we all met up in one of the renovated houses — the passengers from our boat, the crew, the SNH warden, an archaeologist and one member of staff from the Qinetic base — and I put on a brief show for them.
My excuse for going was so that I could perform, but for me the highlight was simply being there. I could barely believe I had made it, especially as I had failed so many times before and had given up hope of reaching it for another two or three years at least.
I am grateful. I am grateful not only for the opportunity to visit these 106 islands, but I am grateful to all the people I met. All the people who helped me make arrangements, who looked after me, who fed me, who laughed at my jokes and enjoyed what I had to offer. I hope to return.