Interview: the inspiration behind Isles at the Edge of the Sea

Below is the transcript of an interview with Books from Scotland, which named Isles at the Edge of the Sea its book of the month for July.

In Isles at the Edge of the Sea, Jonny Muir is trying to get to St Kilda, the island at the edge of the world, passing through the many islands of the western seaboard. His travelogue features killer midges, Atlantic storms, and some of the most breathtaking scenery in Scotland. caught up with the former journalist, now school teacher, to ask him about the motivation behind his book and the remarkable efforts he put into his island travels.

Q: You start the book explaining that as a journalist for the Aberdeen Press & Journal, you were writing about islands and places you had never seen. But not content to just visit these islands – you had to run up them, cycle round them and climb their mountains. Did you have Isles at the Edge of the Sea in mind when you planned your journey?

A: I had in mind a fantastic journey. Whether that would make a fantastic book was a different matter. Six months before setting out, I recall being at home in Inverness drawing pencil lines on maps of the Hebrides, indicating where I might go, and compiling lists of islands. To turn that dream into a reality was hugely satisfying – to not just talk about something, but to do it. I’ve always kept diaries (and taken photos) and my diary-writing process was no different on the islands. Fortunately, the journey was such that it became Isles at the Edge of the Sea.

Q: The description of the 50 mile Highland Cross race on Skye is almost painful to read, and you did it just days before climbing the Inaccessible Pinnacle of Sgurr Dearg. Did you ever consider an easier approach to island hopping – perhaps bird watching?

A: I wrote at the start of Isles at the Edge of the Sea that ‘travel is not travel when it is contrived’. In the same sense, I believe travel is not travel if it is not adventurous and challenging. I could have stayed in a hotel every night, even on the most remote islands, but where would be the challenge in that? So I camped, ran, trailed across mountains, exposed myself to the elements. It made life more interesting and ultimately more rewarding. I certainly didn’t consider an easier approach. I found that when I pushed myself physically, I discovered more about myself emotionally, as well as the world around me. I also enjoy writing about the physical challenges. That’s why I was so explicit about the suffering in the Highland Cross (‘a wave of cramp engulfed my limbs, like bullets being fired into my calves, syringes being inserted into my quadriceps’). I want people who read the book to understand what these things are like.

Q: The book is full of anecdotes from history, with quotes from Boswell and Johnson, or more recent news of crime waves in Colonsay. How much research did you do into the islands before you set off?

A: The idea to retrace the route of Boswell and Johnson on Coll was a very late one. I was killing time in Oban before a ferry to Coll when I picked up their diaries in a bookshop. I bought the book, read the chapter about Coll on the ferry and thought – I’ll do what they did and see how the island’s changed. Working as a journalist in the north of Scotland also meant that I knew what was topical – Sabbath sailings between Lewis and Ullapool, the 80th anniversary of the evacuation of St Kilda, pressures on land on Tiree, and so on. I’d also heard about the farcical confusion over the beach on Berneray that was used in a Thai tourism campaign. Oh, and I made sure I read Whisky Galore. There are numerous books about the history of the islands – territory I didn’t want to encroach on, so I envisaged a book that balanced travel, adventure and current affairs. As I touched on in my answer to the previous question, excessive planning would have killed the spontaneity of travelling. Reaching St Kilda, as well as competing in the Highland Cross and the Isle of Jura fell race, were always on my radar, but the discovery that Eigg was celebrating its independence during my stay or the staging of Feis Ile while I was on Islay were purely by chance. On islands such as Bute, Colonsay and Tiree, I got off the boat knowing very little about these places and asking myself: where do I go, what do I do and where do I sleep? It is a daunting yet exciting way to travel.

Q: Towards the end of the journey, on the half-marathon on Harris, you promised yourself that you would never run again. Have you kept that promise?

A: No. It was a short-term promise without foundation. I couldn’t not run. I probably ran the next day. I love running. I have done ever since my early teens at school when someone told me I could run cross-country rather than play hockey. As I get older, I tend to run more, training for cross-country and road races in the winter, then returning to the hills and mountains in the spring and summer. I’m running the Beachy Head Marathon in October, which will be my third marathon this year after London and Coniston. I’ve pencilled in an attempt of the Bob Graham round – a 66-mile run over 42 Lakeland peaks (climbing the equivalent of Everest) in under 24 hours – next year.

Q: Were the midgies on Rum really as bad as you described?

A: Oh, yes, the very worst: fiercely aggressive and in tremendous numbers. Rum, however, was extraordinarily beautiful. I spent an afternoon running across the island, from Kinloch to Harris, before exploring the area around the old township of Harris. The world in those hours was astonishing. I described it as a ‘moment of sublime flawlessness’. Nothing could ruin Rum. Or so I thought. That night the midgies came, trapping me inside my tent. Then they came again the following night, only worse. In my panic to get inside my tent on this night, I forgot to brush the midgies off my head, arms and legs, meaning the inside of my tent was swarming. It was hideous. Was this the same Rum that I had fallen in love with 24 hours earlier?

Q: If you were to live on one of the Scottish islands you visited, which would it be?

A: That’s a tough question. My fondest memories are of Berneray, Coll and Colonsay. I was drawn to the smaller isles of the Hebrides; it is easier to lose that wonderful sensation of being surrounded by water on the larger islands of Mull, Lewis and Harris. But could I live on an island? I’m not sure. I’m realistic and very aware of the potential isolation of being an islander, particularly during the long, hard winter, as well as the physical separation from mainland life. The romantic, idealistic side of me would love it, of course. Living on Skye would perhaps strike the right balance – close to the mainland but also to the sea, the Cuillin and all the island has to offer

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