Book Reviews

“Scottish Odysseys: The Archaeology of Islands” by Noble, G, Poller, T, Raven, J & Verrill, L

Reviewed by Caroline Wickham-Jones FSAScot

Noble, G., Poller, T., Raven, J. & Verrill, L. (eds). 2008. “Scottish Odysseys: The Archaeology of Islands.” Tempus. ISBN 978-0752441689. £18.99. Reviewed by Caroline Wickham-Jones

Scottish Odysseys: The Archaeology of Islands.

Noble, G., Poller, T., Raven, J. & Verrill, L. (eds). 2008.

“Scottish Odysseys: The Archaeology of Islands.”

When he was six, my son and I went to the island of Sanday for the weekend.  Although he had been to other, small islands before he had a great time.  “Isn’t it fun”, he said, “to be on an island”.  I was surprised: “Many people might think you lived on an island” (we live in Orkney).  “Well, you know”, he replied, “a proper island”.  His comments sum up for me the essential attraction of islands; whatever you are used to, they are always somewhere else and always just a little bit different.

But that is the myth – what about the reality?

Most of the authors of this volume consider the nature of islands and the unique attraction that they hold.  Fleming’s paper introduces the relevance of popular literature and the invented island to his discussion.  Noble & Stevens, together with Wright, both consider the perceptions of those who, through time, have lived in islands.  Their attempts to relate back to the perceptions of the past make interesting reading and should provide useful stimulus for further research.

Our relationship to, and the use we make of, islands are discussed by several of the papers in this volume, but perhaps in most detail by O’Sullivan in his fascinating paper which introduces all sorts of fascinating (and sometimes conflicting) concepts in relation to island-hood: islands as cultural icons, evocative and representative, yet un-changing and isolated; islands as refugia.

Others present more straightforward, yet no less worthwhile, discussions of the archaeology and history of islands.  Melton barely notes that his site is in an island (Shetland), while Bradley, Lamb, and Strachan all seem to take it for granted that their respective island workplaces (all also in Shetland) are representative of a greater whole.  How curious that the furthest islands in the volume should generate the least introspection.

Barrowman, working in the Western Isles raises some interesting points; not least that the relative isolation of many islands is a recent concept, which says more about our own addiction to tarmacadam, than it does about the geographical concepts of the past.  Forsythe & McConkey, regard their workplace (Rathlin) as positively at the heart of things: the fulcrum of a crossroads between Ireland and Scotland.

This is a fascinating volume.  Stimulating for what it does not cover as much as for what it does.  All of the contributors ignore the fact that, to most of their European colleagues, they themselves are islanders.  Britain may be large, diverse, and (to us) ordinary, but I wonder whether this volume would have taken quite the same shape had the papers been generated across the water.  To our colleagues from mainland Europe we are, inescapably, insular.

Nevertheless, even to us islanders, islands undoubtedly hold great attraction (do they always have to be smaller?).  Even the language that pertains to them has become imbued with layers of meaning.  O’Sullivan provides plenty of food for thought in the tensions outlined in his discussion, and there are other examples.  Consider, for example, the word ‘insular’ as used above.  What did you take it to mean?

Set as it is in island-based work, in many ways this volume cuts to the heart of the matter; though it also ducks important issues.  There is, for example, a tacit acceptance that islands are somehow bounded (see, for example, Wright’s discussion of maps, p 64-5).  There is little discussion of the ways in which the sea can bind as well as separate, and where it does occur (eg once again in Wright) it takes a very twenty-first century viewpoint.  In historical times the inhabitants of Rum would travel by boat around the coast rather than take the more arduous inland journey to get from one community to another.  Britain is no longer a maritime society and that affects our perception.

We have yet to come to terms with our fascination with islands – perhaps we never should…  Books like this are an important stimulus.  It should grace the bookshelf of any self-respecting insular archaeologist and will, hopefully, generate some new directions and thoughts in island studies.

CR Wickham-Jones

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