A ‘bad’ review and a right to reply

Reviews are important to writers. Although eagerly anticipated, they are feared. The views of a few – be they newspaper or magazine reviewers, or increasingly book sellers and book websites – guide the masses. Few outlets are as important as Amazon. I don’t know what percentage of my total book sales come from Amazon, but I imagine it’s a significant amount.

Prior to last week, Isles at the Edge of the Sea, my second book published in 2011, had been reviewed on Amazon five times. They are all generally positive, containing phrases like ‘a great read’, which cheer me no end. Such positivity ran out last week when a reviewer, called excile9, wrote under the headline ‘More fact than fiction’: ‘I read the three sections covering Lewis, Harris and St Kilda and I had to give up. Inaccuracies were peppered throughout and gave the impression the “diary” format was written from memory. In places it certainly lacked knowledge of the geography and history.’


One star out of five. If he/she could have awarded a zero, I imagine he/she would have done. A link to the review is here.

I don’t mind bad reviews. Honestly. We all hold different opinions. The Harry Potter books didn’t do much for me; I struggled with The Great Gatsby. Does my little judgement discredit Rowling or Fitzgerald? Of course not. It’s simply a point of view – like saying I prefer the colour green over blue. Moreover, I expect critical reviews. They show people are reading the books. They show that your words can provoke a reaction. That’s got to be better than passivity. Some people will like what you do. Others will hate it.

However, this ‘bad’ review left me puzzled. Admittedly, two of the last three chapters of Isles are potentially the most controversial. The Lewis chapter deals with the highly sensitive issue of Sabbatarianism; the St Kilda chapter focuses on the 1930 evacuation of the archipelago, an emotive and much-debated topic some 80 years on. Because of these factors, my greatest care was spent crafting these two chapters. My observations on Sabbatarianism were based on conversations with members of the Free Church of Scotland; I deliberately didn’t insert my own opinions in this section, because, frankly, I didn’t think I was qualified to do so.

As for St Kilda, the entire chapter was proofed by a professor of Scottish history (as were the details about the evacuation of Scarp in the Harris chapter). Indeed, it was on his insistence (and latest research) that I included the Scottish Office’s rejection of a proposal for regular steamship services to St Kilda as a key reason for its decline in the 1920s. If there are inaccuracies in this chapter (and anywhere else in the book), I’d be keen to know them, as would, I am sure, the professor.

I’m going to stop there. I’ve got excile9 off my chest. Except – suffice to say – the book was ‘written from memory’, with, of course, the aid of extensive diary notes, photographs and reams of researched material. Find me a travel book that isn’t written in this spirit.

It’s a too often quoted proverb, but it’s worth hauling out on this occasion: You can’t please everyone.

Two out of three ain’t bad…

Having survived my altercation with the ghost of a Jacobite in Glen Shiel, I ventured east, first to Inverness, then to Moray. I had a three-day Bank Holiday plan. Day 1 – The Glen Challenge, a 10-mile trail race that forms part of the Glenurquhart Highland Gathering and Games in Drumnadrochit; Day 2 – Ben Rinnes; and Day 3 – the Munros either side of the Cairnwell Pass in the Grampians.

Meatloaf sang that ‘two out of three ain’t bad’ and such is the case in the north of Scotland when one is utterly dependent on the vagaries of the weather. Day 1 dawned drizzly and cool – ideal running conditions – and 24 of us made the 10-mile dash from Corrimony to the Games field in Drumnadrochit. I was 4th until half-way, then squeezed into 3rd, only to be pegged back on a two-mile climb. I clung on, though, arriving at the finish in bronze medal position to a ripple of applause and a £20 note in an envelope.

My legs were weary as I headed up Ben Rinnes the next day, but since the altitude gain is little more than 500 metres and the path dry, rocky and obvious even to the navigationally-inept, I vowed to run all the way. And I did – just about, in 31 minutes. Only when the steps arrived did I start to wobble.

What a view from the summit, the marvellously-named Scurran of Lochterlandoch: Speyside, the Moray Firth, the Cairngorms, the hills of Caithness, loads of wind turbines. I descended via Scurran of Well, accurately described as a ‘pile of pancakes’ by my guidebook, then down and along a winding 4×4 track to the car park. While traipsing about on the Ben, a fine day had become a glorious one. I basked in the sunlight outside a Dufftown cafe enjoying a celebratory slab of cake.

No such luck on Day 3. Winter came overnight. There was flooding in Aberdeen. High winds were cancelling ferries in the west. I knew there was no chance of doing a round of the nine Munros either side of The Cairnwell. As I breached The Lecht I scaled back aspirations to the three west of the pass. But ascending to the Glenshee ski station, my car was engulfed by mist and driving rain. Such was the shroud I missed the cafe and had to turn back. Carn Aosda, a 917-metre Munro, the smallest of the lot up here, I thought?

A few seconds outside made me realise the foolhardiness of even this. Terrible visibility, driving rain, absolutely miserable. I got back in the car and turned my nose to Edinburgh, wondering whether I was in the same country that 24 hours earlier had held me in its warm, gentle glow.




The ‘agony and ‘ecstasy’ of the Scottish islands

Below is the text of a very recent review for Isles at the Edge of the Sea, written by Lee Allen, the man behind lovescottishislands.com – a neatly-presented website packed with enthusiastic information on the islands of Scotland.

Having been to many of the islands that Jonny has visited, I approached this book with a certain amount of interest. The book involves a mammoth 3 month journey travelling around 18 Scottish Islands from Arran in the south to St Kilda in the far north of the Hebrides.

Visiting islands is a very personal experience. Some islands you will instantly fall in love with, some islands may take a little longer to show their charms. Jonny tries his best to embellish each islands uniqueness, but his prose underlies a favouritism for certain islands.

For example, the chapters on Berneray and St Kilda are full of love for the subject. Conversely, he does not seem to have much time for Barra, although this seems entirley weather-related! Some chapters are long and descriptive, such as the chapters on Berneray/St Kilda, whereas the chapter on Canna is relatively small and light. This seems to echo the amount of time that Jonny spends on each island.

The book is written in a reverential way, with the islands of the Hebrides as the star of the show. Jonny’s scatter-gun approach to visiting islands extolls travel as travel was intended to be. Namely, without planning every step in finite detail. Interspersed with musings on each island are details, often painfully described, of Jonny’s efforts when competing in several races such as the Isle of Jura Fell Race.

By completing these arduous feats of physical endurance, Jonny seemed to discover himself and his environment by trying to make life as difficult for himself as possible. Not for him the cosiness of a power shower or the comfiness of a memory foam mattress. Jonny’s luxuries consisted of a tent, a sleeping bag and whatever is closest to hand to fight the midges off with.

Indeed, one of the highlights of the book is Jonny’s ‘fight to the death’ with the midges on Rum, or as Jonny remarks, “Goliath versus countless Davids”. Jonny makes the cardinal sin of not removing all the midges from his hair as he enters his tent and his tale of the way he defeats the midges makes for bloodthirsty reading.

All in all this is an excellent book and comes highly recommended from myself. The book gives a snapshot of the agony, but more often the ecstasy that is involved in visiting the Scottish Islands. It is one man’s physical and emotional journey, laced with humour, that will have you booking your Island Rover ticket and looking for the most waterproof tent you can find.

Isles at the Edge of the Sea is available here.

Guest columnist in Scottish Islands Explorer

Re-produced below is the text of a column I wrote for the now-available November/December 2011 edition of Scottish Islands Explorer. Written while travelling on the London Underground – the very antithesis of the Hebrides – the column discusses some of the island’s literal high points, from Conachair on Hirta and Skye’s Sgurr Alasdair to Clisham on Harris and Mull’s Ben More.

I had a book published in September. The UK’s County Tops will, I hope, guide walkers to the summits of the UK’s 91 historic counties. Ronas Hill, the millions-of-years-old roof of Shetland, and Ward Hill, from where all but one of the Orkney islands can be glimpsed, along with well-tramped Goatfell on Arran, are represented.

The Hebrides are unavoidably overlooked. As scattered fragments of the traditional counties of Argyll, Inverness-shire and Ross and Cromarty, the archipelago’s highest mountains are dwarfed by mainland rivals.

But it got me thinking about Scottish island summits. Could they all be climbed? There are hundreds, many obscure and remote; it would be no easy undertaking. I have done a few: Barra’s heavenly Heaval, a marble statue of the Madonna holding aloft a baby adorning a rampart; the upturned boat of An Sgurr on Eigg; Rum’s Askival while plunged in clag; Beinn an Oir on Jura during a fell race over the Paps; the scintillating, cliff-rimmed Conachair on Hirta; and, most recently, the 38-metre summit of Easdale.

There are many more: Sgurr Alasdair, the zenith of the Skye Cuillin; Raasay’s Dun Caan, where James Boswell ‘danced a reel’; South Uist’s Beinn Mhor, a formidable presence greeting those travelling west across The Minch. The list goes on: Clisham on Harris; Ben Hogh on Coll; Bheinn Bheiger on Islay; Ben More on Mull; Creag Bhan on Gigha.

Some offer a greater challenge than others. The ascents of Askival and Easdale are incomparable, for instance. But the sense of satisfaction is similar. There is no higher place to go on this slab of earth. A vista of sea-lapped shores appears. The island’s place in the world is revealed.

I am writing this on the London Underground. It is sweltering. A woman to my left is proofreading my words. Visions of these places come to me like fleeting, untouchable dreams. The Hebrides and London share a country – yet occupy different worlds. I long for the hills. Give me the oppressive clag of Askival. Give me the rolling screes of Sgurr Alasdair. Give me the airy freedom of Clisham. I want to be there now.

The UK’s County Tops is available on Amazon.

Back to the islands: Seil and Easdale

There are many Scottish islands I’d have liked to have visited for Isles at the Edge of the Sea, with Scarp, Raasay, the Shiants, the Flannan Isles, Iona and Easdale the most prominent in a long list. I don’t regret not going to these places, however; circumstance and the nature of my journey resulted in them remaining unvisited. Besides, my oversights have given me numerous reasons to return.

Some 16 months ago I had gazed on Easdale from the deck of a Colonsay-bound ferry, assuring myself I’d go there one day. A drive south from Oban, a blind summiting of the Bridge over the Atlantic to Seil, a little ferry from Ellanabeich to a pier on the lump of slate that is Easdale, and, indeed, I was there – an islander again.

There’s not a lot of Easdale, largely because the island was heavily quarried for its reserve of slate from the 17th to 20th centuries. There are holes and piles of slate everywhere. It was busy, touristy, too; Easdale isn’t a get-a-way-from-it-all Scottish island.

What it is is an example of how island communities can survive and thrive. According to the facts and figures on the website of Eilean Eisdeal (the island’s community development group), Easdale has 60 permanent residents. Of the 69 inhabited homes, 36 are second homes, however. Aside from people (and, vitally, young people), Easdale has plenty going for it: a museum, a (very good) cafe and restaurant, tradesmen, businesses and notoriety as the home of stone-skimming.

Its greatest asset, however, is the view from the tiny patch of Earth that Easdale occupies. From the 38-metre summit of Easdale, there is a marvellous panorama of the west coast of Scotland, a stupendous collection of islands: Seil, Luing, Lunga, Scarba, Jura (the less interesting bits though, not the Paps), Islay, the Garvellachs, Colonsay, Mull and Insh.

The much-photographed Bridge over the Atlantic linking the Scottish mainland to Seil

Home truths in the gents in Ellanabeich

Easdale, as seen from Seil

Phone box/greenhouse/notice board /talking point on Seil

Easdale village, photographed from the island summit



Undiscovered Scotland discovers Isles

Here is the review, and a link to the actual thing on Undiscovered Scotland’s website:

Isles at the Edge of the Sea by Jonny Muir is a wonderful, inspiring book about a journey undertaken by the author to a series of Hebridean islands. His journey is as much about self discovery as it is about the actual exploration of the islands themselves, and the author’s “one man and his tent” approach to travel strips the experience back to the barest of essentials, bringing the reader face to face with the author’s hopes and fears. No-one who has ever travelled alone, or camped wild, or in wild weather, will fail to empathise with many of the author’s experiences.

Jonny Muir spent time as a journalist in Inverness before deciding to retrain to become a teacher in London. In the summer of 2010 he left home, hearth and loved ones behind and set out on his three month island-hopping journey. The aim was to undertake a single long trip finding out what the places he wrote about as a journalist were really like; living as simply as possible; undertaking a series of challenging mountain runs; and if possible reaching the remote archipelago of St Kilda.

We first encounter him at the start line of the Goatfell Hill Race on Arran. A few chapters, and islands, later, and he is taking part in the remarkably challenging Isle of Jura Fell Race. Later on he encounters the ferocious midges of Rum, an event that will have readers itching in sympathy. This is no “rose coloured spectacles” travelogue: the author does not shy away from telling us about the negatives of his trip as well as the positives. So we meet the smelly residents of a hostel in the Western Isles and the appalling weather that almost blows him off Barra (and, later, nearly washes him away at Sligachan on Skye.) We also enjoy the celebrations of the anniversary of the community ownership of Eigg, the spontaneous party in a hostel on Berneray, and a series of sublime beaches, mountains and islands.

But much of the book is a prelude to the authors effort’s to reach St Kilda despite cancelled sailings caused by adverse weather. He makes it in the end, and after discussing the misuse of the word “incredible”, concludes that “St Kilda was incredible – incredible without the quotation marks.”

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. BooksfromScotland.com 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

Isles at the Edge of the Sea reviewed by grough

Here is the text of a review of Isles at the Edge of the Sea by grough magazine, published this week:

In 1773, Samuel Johnson joined his Scots friend James Boswell in a tour of the Hebrides that would produce not one but two accounts of the journey through the Highlands to the islands.

Almost 240 years after the pair set out on their journey of discovery of the wild lands of Scotland, journalist-turned-teacher Jonny Muir made his own island-hopping trip of the magical archipelago and the result is Isles at the Edge of the Sea.

The book is peppered with mentions of the two foregoers but, whereas the two literary Georgian gents confined their island adventures to the nearer Hebrides, Muir’s three month itinerary takes him to 18 islands with the ultimate, one might even say obsessive, aim of reaching St Kilda, the isolated volcanic scraps of land that lie more than 100 miles from the Scottish mainland and which were abandoned by the last 36 residents in 1930.

The curious title of the book – surely all islands are next to the sea? – comes from Norse origin for the Hebrides: Havbredey, meaning the isles at the edge of the sea.

Muir’s tour of the Hebrides is no slovenly amble. He tackles the Goat Fell race on Arran and the race over the Paps of Jura which overlook the isolated house where George Orwell, wracked by tuberculosis, wrote 1984.

For good measure, the Birmingham-born author finishes his Hebridean jaunt by taking part in the Skye half-marathon.

There’s plenty of hillwalking – the high ground draws Muir just as it did in his previous work Heights of Madness in which he visited Britain’s county tops, and he even tops out on the Inaccessible Pinnacle, the most difficult of munros. The ascent, made via the Very Difficult western route, guided by his friend Magnus Houston, is memorable for the non-climber not least for the fact that Houston’s chronic heart problems make him prone to frequent collapse.

And for the seasoned hillbagger, Muir discovers a new set of targets: the MacPhies – Colonsay’s 21 answers to the munros.

Most of the journey through the isles is made solo and, as Muir says: “The joy of travel is in the people one encounters: the crotchety bus drivers; the round the world cyclists; the roomful of snoring strangers; the walker who stood next to me on Conachair; the ceilidh crowd on Eigg; the marshals on the windy summits of the Paps of Jura; the ‘whisky brothers; the Barra tourist who brought me a cup of tea; the English sailors who filled my glass. It is the littlest gestures that live longest in the memory.”

He notes the need to share the wonderment of the places encountered with others, something he misses with his partner hundreds of miles away in London. But the reader fulfils the role vicariously in this work and Isles at the Edge of the Sea conveys in easy style the variety of the magical lands off Scotland’s west coast.

It’s not all plain sailing. Drizzle, mist, whisky hangovers, thunderstorms, gales, a flooded tent and naturally, the enemy of all summer Scotland tourists, the midge, make Muir’s tour eventful, but there’s a sense from the book that the Hebrides reward leisurely exploration.

The author’s easy, journalistic style has a good balance of anecdotes, information, history and, importantly, humour that makes the reading of his tome a pleasure and left me hankering after a trip round the isles myself.

Mud, Sweat and Tears (and Isles at the Edge of the Sea)

Some welcome publicity for Isles at the Edge of the Sea on the website of Mud, Sweat and Tears.

Bemused by a weatherman branding the west coast islands of Scotland ‘nowheresville’, Jonny decided to prove him wrong, quit his job and embarked on a journey which has sparked a new book…

Irony at the edge of ‘nowheresville’: St Kilda.


Shopping for Isles at the Edge of the Sea

Various folk have asked me how and where they can purchase a copy of Isles at the Edge of the Sea. So here goes: after a short delay in distribution, the book is now available. It can be bought online at the usual outlets, including Amazon, Waterstone’s, Blackwell’s, Foyles and WHSmith.

If actual book shops and real-life people are more your thing, I’ve seen copies on the shelves at Foyles in Charing Cross Road, London, and books should be arriving at Waterstone’s branches next week. I’ve also signed a number of copies (Isles at the Edge of the Sea and Heights of Madness) which are on sale at Stanfords’ marvellous Convent Garden store.

So, there you go – no excuses!

A view from the Highlands

Here’s a nice wee write-up about Isles at the Edge of the Sea, as well as a short extract, on the website of Highland Hill Runners.

Extract from Isles at the Edge of the Sea by Jonny Muir:

‘Number 68.’ I was being summoned to the start line of the Goatfell hill race – eight miles of toil from sea level in Brodick to the 874 metre pinnacle of Arran, and back again: the sort of thing perfectly sane people do for amusement. ‘Yes, me,’ I muttered, reluctantly walking forward to join the other competitors, a throng of lithe, sinewy men and women wearing little more than club singlets and shorts. I stole an anxious upwards glance at the skyscraper we would soon be climbing. The imposing impression of Goatfell glowered back, turning my legs to lead. I dreaded the next minutes of my life; they would involve certain pain.
The Goatfell hill race and the Isle of Jura fell race feature prominently in Jonny Muir’s second travel book, Isles at the Edge of the Sea, which is published next week. The travelogue is an account of Jonny’s journey from Arran in the Firth of Clyde to St Kilda, the westernmost outpost of the UK, dubbed the ‘island at the edge at the world’.

On the way, he follows in the footsteps of Boswell and Johnson on Coll, describes the horrors of ‘the largest, most vicious midge population in the northern hemisphere’ on Rum, and attempts to find his inner peace on Holy Island.
Of interest to hill runners and walkers will not only be his exploits on Arran and Jura, but his ill-fated participation in the Harris half-marathon and his hill and mountain wanderings on Barra, Eigg, Harris, Rum and St Kilda. Topping the lot, however, is his determination to conquer the formidable Inaccessible Pinnacle on Skye’s Cuillin ridge.
Jonny, a former Press and Journal reporter and (one-time) member of Inverness Harriers, published his first book, Heights of Madness, in 2009. The book was an account of his 5000-mile cycling and walking odyssey between the highest points of the UK’s 92 historic counties.

Publication delayed slightly – but also some very good news

From my publisher: Slightly late from the printer we anticipate taking receipt of Jonny Muir’s Isles at the Edge of the Sea next Monday. That’s the the 23rd May. Jonny’s book has already racked up a record number of pre-publication orders so we have high hopes for it.

Full story here.