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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Monday, May 09, 2005
    Isles of the West
     
    Ian Mitchell is a sailor and Isles of the West appears, on the outside, to be a Hebridean travel journal. Three months in the glorious summer of 1996 spent traversing the Western Isles in a sloop called Sylvia B.

    But Mitchell is also something of a serious investigative reporter and on his journey was very keen to "explore the major issues peculiar to the islands." Raising questions like, How does land reform look from the point of view of the islanders? Does nature conservation actually help the environment? Is the commercial promotion of 'heritage' a blessing or a curse?

    It makes this an odd read, then. Oddly compelling. Because sandwiched between descriptions of gorgeous seascapes and wonderful fried breakfasts, are a whole series of rich encounters with islanders, and the representatives of conservation bodies, and other bureaucrats involved in decisions which impact deeply on those who live in these peripheral places. Disturbing conversations, which will deeply concern supporters of the RSPB or Scottish National Heritage. Conversations which develop Mitchell's "nagging worry that alien forces, both Scottish and European, sentimental and mercenary, are distorting the indigenous society by imposing outside ideas on communities which are valued in part because they are so free of external pressures. Who are these bodies, both public and private, that want to save the islands from the islanders?"

    Interesting that, on the shelves of tourist shops throughout the west of Scotland, alongside seascape photobooks and fripperies like 'Trace Your Family Tartan', sits this highly-charged contemporary text. I can't get too worked up about it because I'm neither a Scot nor a conservationist, but I've nevertheless had my eyes opened by what he writes. Others too: 'A penetrating and astringent analysis of the state of play in the world of wildlife conservation. No punches re pulled,' wrote one reviewer; 'Ian Mitchell has cleverly let the Hebridean witnesses explain their exasperation and despair at the ruination of their islands by the militant conservationists,' wrote another.

    The Minch may have been calm that summer, but Mitchell's journey has created a storm.