Pabay: An Island Odyssey

Christopher Whatley

Fiona Rintoul

Birlinn, £20

TO understand the origins of the name Pabay is to grasp the essence of Scotland’s islands.

The name is derived from the Norse term papar, meaning a cleric, and evinces priestly inhabitants in the early Middle Ages. What were they doing on the tiny, diamond-shaped slab of land in Skye’s Inner Sound (there are three other Pab(b)ays in the Outer Hebrides)? Withdrawing to the fringes of civilisation to meditate? Far from it.

“Our priest from Pabay was not on the edge, but an integral link between God, the Catholic Church, centred in Rome, and mainland Skye and Ireland,” writes Pabay: An Island Odyssey's author, Christopher Whatley.

With that, he skewers the essential modern misconception about the Hebrides: that they are remote, separated from the centre, somehow otherworldly. Of course, Scotland’s islands are not urban, but that does not mean that they are disconnected from the world. Indeed, for much of human history, they were more connected than many landlocked regions.

“Until the last decades of the twentieth century, the ‘Road to the Isles’ was a sea route, with Skye’s Inner Sound being the mariner’s equivalent of the British motorway system’s spaghetti junction in Birmingham,” writes Whatley.

It is an apt comparison. For Birmingham was the original home of this hybrid history-memoir’s other subject: his aunt and uncle, Len and Margaret Whatley, who farmed Pabay from 1950 to 1970. This book is the fulfilment of the author’s promise to his aunt that he would tell the story of her time on Pabay, morphed into a wider enterprise.

As a professor of Scottish history at Dundee University, Whatley knows his historical onions. This is a scholarly work – with a half centimetre of footnotes and index – that charts Pabay’s history from the Holocene to the present day. Combining that with the story of one family’s struggle to eke out a living on an averagely unfertile Hebridean island “pummelled by particularly high winds from September to March” is a tough job. Whatley’s personal connection to Pabay makes it possible.

He first visited the island at the age of three and was immediately hooked – as his aunt and uncle had been before him – returning many times during school holidays. When barely into his teens, he was making the journey alone from Glasgow to the shoreside in Broadford on Skye for the crossing to Pabay. “Paddington Bear like, I’d then wait, hoping that someone on Pabay had seen me and would come to pick me up. I was never let down.”

The story of the Whatleys’ time on Pabay is by far the most compelling part of the book. Driven by a commitment to self-sufficiency (Len was short for Lenin, and both Len and Margaret, coincidentally, came from pacifist, left-leaning families), the Whatleys pursued their goal of running “a productive, thriving farm” on the island with a vigour and inventiveness that are frankly breath-taking.

Having worked in agriculture as a conscientious objector during the Second World War and as a tenant farmer in Worcestershire, Len purchased the island after just one visit. When he moved there with his wife and two young children, the inevitable happened: “They were confronted with something that would have an immeasurable influence on them in the coming years: inclement weather that was predictable only in its unpredictability.”

The weather was but one snowball in the avalanche of challenges they faced over the ensuing two decades. Unbowed, they pursued their dream, variously supplementing their income with sales of whelks, day-old chicks and knitwear, while producing four more children and maintaining a vegetarian diet.

Of course, the Whatleys are not the only family that has “succumbed to the craze of owning a habitation far remote from the madding crowd”, but two things single them out: they did it before it was fashionable and they didn’t have much money. By the time they left Pabay to establish Edinbane pottery on Skye (which their son Stuart still runs), they had, according to a newspaper report at the time, pulled the island into the twentieth century.

The chapters dealing with Pabay before the Whatleys’ arrival are perhaps less fascinating, especially for readers familiar with the history of the Hebrides. Familiar tropes recur: Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, Viking invaders, iron-fisted clan chiefs and wealthy absentee landowners. However, once again, Whatley’s connection sharpens his analysis.

The rest of the story – what happened after the Whatleys left – may seem irrelevant but it is not. Readers will be unsurprised to learn that no one is toughing it out on Pabay today. In the face of climate change, this poses questions. How much of our country do we want to leave fallow? How far should food travel?

There is an alternative to abandoning the land. It is tough, as Mr Whatley readily owns, but fulfilling. “Pabay as a people-supporting island not only held on but flourished and enriched immeasurably the inner lives of those fortunate enough to have been involved.”