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With a self-confessed mania for islands, Marc Colhoun launched his latest book on the Outer Hebrides at the Harris Hotel in Tarbert on Tuesday (May 14) . Entitled Thirty Years of Adventures in Search of the Past: the Outer Hebrides and published by the Islands Book Trust, the 324-page volume collates tales and over 150 photographs from Colhoun’s many journeys to some of the hardest-to-reach parts of this archipelago.

Speaking at the launch, the author, who is based in Seattle in the USA, presented images from the book that chart his 33 years of travels around the Outer Hebrides. The images, many of which are of largely abandoned places that most will never visit, such as Scarp, Mingulay, Crolà and Àird Bheag, tell the story of how his obsession with the islands began and changed with time.

‘The book shows the evolution of trying to get to places,’ Colhoun said.

The author first visited Lewis with his wife in 1990. After doing the ‘usual tourist stuff’, they stopped at Teampull Mholuaidh in Eoropie on their way back from the Butt of Lewis. In a corner of the church stood a cross. An engraved sign explained that the cross came from North Rona, the most remote outpost of Celtic Christianity in Europe.

‘That just fascinated me,’ Colhoun said of the cross, which is now in the Ness Historical Society Museum. ‘I had to go back and learn about it.’

It was a life-changing moment for the writer whose day job was working on flight safety systems at Honeywell – an occupation that would later facilitate many of his trips to the Hebrides. He would go on to train to make himself fit enough to hike out to the Hebridean places far from amenities that he wanted to visit.

‘I wasn’t a hiker before this,’ he explained.

A further moment of epiphany came after a winter visit to Barra in 1998 that Colhoun had tagged on to a work trip.

‘I got to the top of Vatersay, and I saw something astounding: this view,’ he told the Harris Hotel audience, as he displayed a stunning photograph of the snow-capped islands of Sandray, Pabbay and Mingulay. He determined to return and get to those places and with the help of ‘Wee Donald’ who then ran the Boy James out of Castlebay (it is now run by Francis Gillies), he did.

‘Hard to reach’ is perhaps the term that best describes the Hebridean places that most attract Colhoun. With a can of beer tucked away in his rucksack, he has walked an impressive range of tough, pathless routes, wild camping along the way, to reach them. His voyages to uninhabited islands – some of which, such as the Flannan Isles, are hard to land on – have often involved repeated attempts.

His long involvement with the islands means he now has a body of work – tales and photographs – that doesn’t merely describe the places he has visited but also charts the ongoing decay of the built environment. Ancient beehive cells, former family homes and places of worship have in many cases gone from being viable buildings to ruins in the three decades of his travels. 

Mingulay is a good example. A photograph from 1998, not taken by Colhoun, shows the chapel still ‘pretty much intact’. In 2003, when Colhoun first visited the island, which was abandoned in 1912, the wind had taken the roof off. By his most recent visit last year, only the gable end, which is reinforced by a stairway, was still standing.

‘It’s a sad mess,’ Colhoun said. ‘History is disintegrating in front of your very eyes.’

A similar fate has befallen the Ùidh bothy on Taransay, which in 2000 was used by the BBC1 reality TV show Castaway, and the former Gatliff Trust hostel on Scarp, open from 1966 to 1971, as well as countless other buildings.

‘The owners aren’t interested in maintaining it,’ Colhoun said of the Ùidh bothy.

As for Scarp hostel, Colhoun displayed a quote he found in the hostel book, which is now housed in the Museum nan Eilean, that perhaps helps explain its demise: ‘Except for lack of food and drink, things couldn’t have been better. Everyone was most kind to us.’ This was written in 1969, two years before the last permanent residents left the island.

Illustrated with hand-drawn maps, Colhoun’s new book is a unique treasure trove of pictorial and anecdotal information that will fascinate anyone with an interest in these islands. Who else has both watched shepherds bring sheep down the precipitous slopes of Mary’s Island in the Shiants and tramped through the ‘botanic wonder’ of Gil Bhigurra gorge in the heart of Pàirc, which is home to a rare native woodland of rowan, downy birch, holly, aspen and willow?  

However, it is Colhoun’s interest in the people who populate – or once populated – the places he visits that sets his writing about the Hebrides apart. John Randall, who leads the Islands Book Trust, summed it up in his introduction to the author:

‘Marc understands, as do the people of the Hebrides, that deserted places are not just geographic features – they are the custodians of memories and human stories which live on in the imagination long after their former residents have left.’

Thirty Years of Adventures in Search of the Past: the Outer Hebrides costs £20 and is available from bookshops and the Islands Book Trust: www.islandsbooktrust.org.

 

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