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The joys of insulaphilia

Illustration by Fran Pulido of woman by window thinking what to write with book birds flying past window.

I can’t hear what the stewardess is saying to me because the sound of the aeroplane propellers is a constant roar in the cabin. I’m in a Flybe twin-prop heading from Edinburgh to Kirkwall in Orkney, a thirty-four seater with only nine passengers, and we’re heading north in the first week of January 2015. As we descend bumpily through a blizzard, everyone straps in, and there is an audible exhale of relief when the wheels touch the runway and the buffeting stops.

As we scurry, hunched over, to the tiny terminal building through snow flurries, the ground crew are already out and spraying the cockpit windows and wings with de-icer, getting the plane ready to go again. Inside, I approach the car hire desk where a jovial middle-aged man spots me coming.

‘You’ll be Doug,’ he says in a typically lilting Orcadian accent.

Yes, I’m the only one daft enough to need a hire car in Orkney in January. As we fill out the paperwork he asks my occupation.

‘Writer,’ I say.

He frowns and shakes his head. ‘Insurance doesn’t cover that. I’ll put businessman.’

I’m here to research a novel and the mental note-taking has already started. The book will eventually become Crash Land, a thriller published by Faber & Faber last year. The story begins with a catastrophic plane journey from this very airport and sees its main character spend the entire novel trying to get off Orkney.

For as long as I can remember I’ve suffered from insulaphilia, a love of islands. Of course Scotland has its fair share of beautiful islands, but I grew up on the northeast coast, which has none. But I remember childhood holidays on Arran, a place I’ve since visited dozens of times, and I have vivid memories of a trip to Canada, where my uncle had a cabin on a tiny, unnamed island somewhere in the Great Lakes.

There is something magical about islands. The remoteness of them, the fact you need to put in some effort to get there, is part of it. The insularity is important too: the feeling you get on an island that you’re somewhere different, somewhere self-contained, somewhere it’s not easy to escape from.

It’s that last factor which has seeped into my writing the most. I write thrillers and an island setting is great for increasing the sense of claustrophobia in your prose. Just as the characters in my books can’t seem to escape from the fates that await them, so they physically can’t escape from their surroundings either.

I had already visited Orkney once before that research trip, back in 2004, and I knew instantly that I wanted to write a story set there. That was before I was even a published author – my first novel didn’t come out until two years later – so the idea has been stewing away for over a decade. There is something special about Orkney. Apart from the fact that it’s unbelievably scenic and beautiful, there are resonances on the island that you don’t get elsewhere. This is partly down to the wonderfully preserved Neolithic sites that scatter the archipelago, as well as the Viking influence that still pervades society there. You get a real sense of the continuity of human existence: nearly nine thousand years of people struggling to survive in a harsh climate, people getting on with things and eking out a living as best they can.

It was that resonance that I tried to tap into with Crash Land. It’s set in modern times, but the main character takes refuge in a Neolithic site called the Tomb of the Eagles on South Ronaldsay. Dealing with the after-effects of the plane crash, he communes with the dead, feels the weight of previous generations bearing down on him, and seeks their guidance.

And he visits other sites: the famous Ring of Brodgar standing stones, the chambered cairn of Maeshowe and St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, a magnificent Viking-era red sandstone building that is still used for services today. But he always returns to the Tomb of the Eagles. From that southern tip of Orkney he can see mainland Scotland, a sight that seems to mock him in his efforts to escape.

Crash Land isn’t my first book set on an island. In 2011 I wrote Smokeheads, a novel set entirely on the Hebridean island of Islay. Four friends from Edinburgh go there on a whisky-tasting weekend but end up getting into catastrophic trouble. The book begins and ends with the ferry journey between the island and the mainland, something which again emphasises the remoteness of the place, the insularity of the atmosphere there, the self-contained and claustrophobic nature of life in such a place. Despite its thriving whisky industry, Islay has a much smaller population than Orkney – around 3,000 compared to just under 22,000 – and I tried to use that small community feeling in my work. There is a sense in such remote places that the rule of law is a lot less vigorously enforced than elsewhere. The centres of power in Edinburgh and London seem a very long way away as you sit alone on a beach on the Oa peninsula, staring at the grey expanse of the Atlantic ocean. It feels as if such communities make up their own moral guidelines — and that’s another useful theme to explore for a writer of morally ambiguous thrillers.

And I haven’t just restricted myself to real islands. My latest book, due to be published next year, focuses on an imaginary island in the Firth of Forth. In a slightly alternate universe, Scotland has been an earthquake and volcano zone for two decades, with a new volcanic island emerging in the waters between Edinburgh and Fife. The inspiration for this came from a real-life volcanic island. Ten years ago I was in Iceland (another of my favourite islands) to interview crime writer Arnaldur Indriðason. In my free time I visited the Culture House in Reykjavik, where there was an exhibition about Surtsey, a new island that came into existence after an underwater volcanic eruption in 1963. I was gobsmacked by the idea of new land coming from nothing, and the writer in me filed it away for future use.

I did so in a short story commissioned by the Edinburgh International Book Festival. In 2010 they put together a collection of stories on the theme of ‘elsewhere’, and I knew I had to write about Surtsey. So I had a young woman named after the island journey there in the wake of grief and loss to find herself. In reality, Surtsey is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and only scientists are allowed to visit, to study the unique ecosystem that is establishing itself there. I find the spread of new life to a new land fascinating and have used it as a backdrop for my new novel. It’s as if the island is a character in itself.

Indeed, that could be said of all my island-influenced writing. The immersive setting, the resonances, the isolated nature of life, are all elements mirrored in the characters who populate the islands and my books.

As I drove around Orkney in that wee hire car, I felt like I was a part of something bigger. Bumping across the precarious Churchill Barriers that connect one island to the next in the south, I felt the insulaphilia running through my veins. And as I stood on the cliff at the tip of South Ronaldsay and stared at mainland Scotland across the treacherous expanse of the Pentland Firth I felt, strangely, as if I was home.

Doug Johnstone is an author, journalist and musician based in Edinburgh. He’s had eight novels published, and has been Writer in Residence at both Strathclyde University and William Purves Funeral Directors. He also has a PhD in nuclear physics.

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