Isles at the Edge of the Sea – July book of the month

Books From Scotland has chosen Isles at the Edge of the Sea as its July book of the month. The website has also published the prologue to the book online, which I’ve re-produced in full below.


O Caledonia! stern and wild,
Meet nurse for a poetic child!
Land of brown heath and shaggy wood,
Land of the mountain and the flood,
Land of my sires! what mortal hand
Can e’er untie the filial band
That knits me to thy rugged strand!
– Sir Walter Scott

Meteorologist Tomasz Schafernaker was partway through a live Saturday afternoon bulletin on BBC One when he casually waved a hand over the hundreds of wondrously-shaped islands pitched off the west coast of Scotland.

He pronounced rain. Nothing unusual in that. Except these were the words Schafernaker uttered thereafter: ‘This lumpy stuff you can see here, these clouds have actually been producing a few showers, but it’s mainly in the Western Isles, mainly in nowheresville, and it looks as though the east of Scotland will keep the sunshine.’

Nowheresville: a place void of identity, charmless and undistinguished. It was an unfortunate choice of word.

Schafernaker did not forecast the subsequent cloudburst: a media storm, a tempestuous one of his own conjuring. Angus MacNeil, MP for the Western Isles, was unimpressed. Nor were his constituents enamoured; one islander branded the comment ‘insulting, ignorant and self-satisfied’. The BBC received a ‘squall of complaints’, the Times punned.

Schafernaker’s crime? He had reduced the Hebrides – a place of faultless natural beauty with flowering machair meadows, towering mountains and white-sand beaches washed by cobalt seas; a place of inimitable spirit, the birthplace of Christianity in Scotland and the source of the globe’s most revered single-malt whisky; with St Kilda, the island at the edge of the world, a cultural and physical marvel, in a league with Ayers Rock and Machu Picchu, among its isles – to nowheresville.

It was like calling Elle Macpherson ugly. Or water fattening. Or the Earth flat.

Schafernaker said sorry – after identifying Scotland’s north-west hinterland as nowheresville for a second time during a later broadcast on the BBC news channel. He had been misconstrued, Schafernaker said in an apology: ‘My intention was only to convey that very few people were likely to catch a shower on that day. It was in no way a comment or opinion on the area or the people that live there.’ Nowheresville, the forecaster explained, was meant to refer to the mountains of the Highlands, not the islands of the Hebrides. That makes it all right then.

Deciding not to be offended, Scottish author Jenny Colgan, writing in the Guardian, offered a fresh slant: ‘Now, let me see – if Schafernaker lives in London and works in television, it’s a near-certainty he lives in Notting Hill or Shepherd’s Bush. Hideous traffic, litter-strewn streets, the congestion charge, bendy buses and £5 cappuccinos? Now that’s what I call nowheresville.’

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