Traveller's tales

Friday, August 11, 2006

An insular perspective: the view from an island

On a small island in the approaches to the Firth of Clyde, the sun sets on another day. The last boat prepares to leave for the mainland, and the shutters are put up until the next morning.

Life on Great Cumbrae Island, fifteen minute’s sail from Largs, is inevitably slower than it is nearer to the roar of motorways, traffic speeding north to Glasgow and beyond.

There is traffic, and more cars come with every arrival of the ro-ro ferry, but more leave a few minutes after the embarking of newly arrived vehicles – ten in – twelve off – a net loss of two cars. The pattern repeats and repeats during the daytime, making this tiny island the ideal place to hire a bike and explore.

Coming from a bigger island – the one facing the concrete ramp down to the water, I tried to imagine what islanders must feel when the last boat leaves for the mainland, taking the last day trippers and shutting them off from the world, for even just a short while.

The British mainland is surrounded by water, but the feeling of isolation from mainland Europe is lost because of size and indifference to our nearest neighbours across the North Sea and the Channel. There is an indifference, an apathy, and a feeling of superiority that the British have always felt towards those across the water.

The attitudes engendered by two world wars and the differences in culture, language, and this insularity of ours has seldom been better illustrated than by the headline in one British daily newspaper on the day that cross-Channel ferries were cancelled due to stormy weather. The headline read, ‘Europe cut off!’

On other, smaller islands than my own, there is probably more of the island identity that reacts to being apart from the nearest mainland. The island of Cyprus springs readily to mind, with its still divided communities, and its potentially hostile mainland neighbours – a perspective probably innate in both of the island’s people: Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, with each one’s affiliation to a national identity – ‘enosis’ for Greeks, ‘taksim’ for Turks. Politics exaggerates a sense of isolation – perhaps.

Back on Great Cumbrae, the small town of Millport, a bus ride from the ferry landing point, locks its doors, turns on its lights and settles down to its delicious isolated existence - until the first ferry lands the following morning.

It is doubtful that the islanders on this green island feel any animosity towards their mainland neighbours, but they probably feel different when it boils down to who they say they are and where they say they belong - for that is the essence of islandhood; that little is actually different to life a mile over the water, but the people deserted by that last sailing every night, feel different, feel special, feel deliciously isolated, but not alienated.

Robert L. Fielding

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