The water – a peaceful place of fishing in the morning. A boat ride on a lazy afternoon. Or even a highway to fetch the evening’s meal – wild water into local canals leading to the nearest corporate grocery store.
The flatness of the sea and the small islands leave little secrecy for the ears. Thunderous nights echo and bounce around the trees, but so does your mum’s dinner bell calling the family back home.
Keyword 1 : HISTORY
The first island I’d like to talk about is from where I grew up, a place called the wirral near Liverpool. The Wirral is itself a peninsula – which is pretty close to an island, as it has water on three sides – but out to sea, not far from the town I grew up in, are a series of three islands. These islands are unusual in that they are tidal, meaning that you can walk out to them at low tide, but they become inaccessible again once the tide comes in. There is an interesting rhythm to the way people can reach the island by foot, then having to leave again before the tide returns. There are only 43 tidal such islands around the UK. I’ve chosen these islands because they are significant in terms of the local history of where I am from, and are an important nature reserve, but they also reflect aspects of the history of the UK in microcosm. They embody this history literally, but also somehow metaphorically, in that the UK itself was once accessible in a similar way from mainland Europe, but separated from mainland Europe 10,000 years ago with the shifting of tectonic plates.
The islands I am talking about are called ‘Little Eye’, ‘Middle Eye’ and ‘Hilbre’. Hilbre is the largest and most significant of the three, and home now to colony of seals. Middle Eye is, as the name suggests, the middle sized of the three islands, and little eye the smallest. As a child, playing on little Eye, I fell from a high point on the island down to the sand, scratching my back on the rocky face of the island. I still have the scar from little eye on my back, nearly 30 years later.
As I said, the islands are both significant in terms of local history, as well as reflecting UK history in general. Records of human habitation on Hilbre go all the way back to the Stone Age; there is evidence of Roman pottery items that were found on the island in the early 20th Century, reflecting a different historical moment, the Roman occupation of Britain. Later, the island was home to Benedictine monks. In the 17th Century it had a small factory set up to refine rock salt, along with a pub. This pub was still open until the 19th Century, but closed with changing patterns in trade, when the nearby port itself was closed. In the 20th Century, the islands took on another role. In order to confuse German bombers, and to prevent them attacking nearby Liverpool, fake buildings were constructed on Middle Eye and Hilbre, with lights installed lights and buildings constructed (I remember being told) giving off smoke, to give the appearance of factories. The stories that surround the war, and its importance, are still very deep with British people, and is one of the national stories that in some sense connects the nations of the UK together. In terms of that particular war, the fact that UK was an island was itself significant. Being an island nation – even if it is a rather large island – nevertheless I think fundamentally shapes the British character and culture.
There are other stories about Hilbre that I can only half remember, stories I was told as a child about smuggling and pirates, stories that I cannot find reference to online. As a child, I also remember moments in school where we were taught about the islands, which is interesting to think back on, now living in a landlocked city. As children growing up there, we were taught about the tides and the importance of understanding the sea; I think somehow this gives you a different relationship to the natural world, and, writing this now, has made me realise why I find it difficult living somewhere where I am far from the sea. In the UK it is impossible to get more than 70 miles from the coast, and growing up I was probably never more than a few miles away.
What we were taught specifically about the sea as children emphasised its danger, and the dangers of going out to the islands without understanding the tide. The tide around Hilbre doesn’t go ‘in and out’ in the way that you usually expect, but rather it comes in first in a gully close to the beach. Many people will walk out to Hilbre, but then turning back find they are already surrounded by water. The current is extremely strong, and people trying to swim might find themselves swept out to sea. There is an old poem that my grandmother would read to me specifically about these islands and their tide, written by Charles Kingsley in 1850. It goes like this:
‘O Mary, go and call the cattle home,
And call the cattle home,
And call the cattle home
Across the sands of Dee;’
The western wind was wild and dank with foam,
And all alone went she.
The western tide crept up along the sand,
And o’er and o’er the sand,
And round and round the sand,
As far as eye could see.
The rolling mist came down and hid the land:
And never home came she.
‘Oh! is it weed, or fish, or floating hair,
A tress of golden hair,
A drownèd maiden’s hair
Above the nets at sea?
Was never salmon yet that shone so fair
Among the stakes of Dee.’
They rowed her in across the rolling foam,
The cruel crawling foam,
The cruel hungry foam,
To her grave beside the sea:
But still the boatmen hear her call the cattle home
Across the sands of Dee.
The ‘Dee’ is the name of the estuary going out to sea, and is the water separating the Wirral (where I am from) from Wales. At low tide, it looks like you could keep walking beyond Hilbre to Wales, but as the poem suggests, you wouldn’t be able to make it.
When I was young there was still someone living on the island, acting as a wildlife ranger. We went once to visit the ranger, who I remember complaining about the lack of running water or electricity, and how difficult it was to live there. It seems that by 2012, it became difficult to find anyone willing to live full time on the island. It is interesting to think that, despite there being evidence of human habitation going back thousands of years, it is now, in our more hyper-connected technological age, it is more challenging for people to tolerate living alone on the island. Now however the rhythms of the tide and the relationship between people and nature find a new kind of balance. When the tide goes out, people walk out to the island, but as the tide comes in, they leave the island to nature once again. As the people leave, the seals who now live on the island return. The island is theirs again.
Keyword 2 : CULTURE
The second island I want to talk about is one that I have never visited, but became fascinated with when I was at University. I was studying in Edinburgh, in Scotland, which is a part of the UK with hundreds of fascinating small islands. Many of these islands are havens for wildlife; others are places where iconic whisky is made. The Island of Jura, which I visited once, was the island where George Orwell wrote 1984, and is famous for a whisky made on the island, as well as for its dangerous whirlpools. But the island I became interested in was much more remote, and called St Kilda.
St Kilda is an island far off the west coast of Scotland, way out on its own in the Atlantic Ocean. Now it is home only to a seabird colony – one of the most important in Europe – but until the beginning of the 20th century it was home to a very particular culture and community, quite distinct from people on the mainland of Scotland.
Humans were thought to have lived on Kilda from prehistoric times, and records indicate people lived there about 2000 years ago. It is thought that the population on the island never exceeded 180 people.
Reading about St Kilda, I became interested in some of the cultural practices on the island. A particular rite of passage unique to the island involved young men climbing up a specific cliff to what was called the ‘mistress stone’. After climbing up to this cliff, they have to preform a specific kind of balancing act, standing on one foot and bowing over. If they succeeded (without falling off or dying) then they are considered worthy of marriage.
This practice, presumably ancient in St Kildan culture, related to the lifestyle and diet of people living there. Despite it being an island, the sea around St Kilda is too rough and dangerous for fishing regularly, meaning that the majority of the islander’s diet came from the seabirds and seabird eggs. Catching these birds, or retrieving the eggs, involved St Kildan’s climbing barefoot down cliff faces, using minimal ropes to secure themselves.
This feature of their lifestyle on St Kilda led to a remarkable difference in the physiology of the people living there. In reading about St Kilda in University, I remember a very striking image from a book about the people there. It was the image of a ‘mainland’ person’s foot compared with the foot of someone from St Kilda. The St Kildan had a much longer, more althetic foot, which much larger, stronger toes, and with the big toe significantly separate from the other toes. It is not quite right to call the foot ‘claw like’, but it was noticeably more suited for climbing than the foot of a mainland person. A visitor in 1877 called George Seton made the same observation, writing “The great toes of the cragsmen are widely separated from the others, from the circumstance of their frequently resting their entire weight on that part of the foot in climbing”. The book I read argued that St Kildans had actually evolved to have slightly different feet, better suited for rock climbing. After 2000 years of young men falling to their deaths, those with the feet best adapted to climbing – or those that had survived the ‘mistress stone’ right of passage – had no doubt been better at passing on their genes.
I was fascinated by this aspect of St Kilda, as it so clearly demonstrates not only that humans are creatures like any other, but the way in which not just our culture but our bodies themselves are tied to specific geographic realities. So much of human culture is an attempt to distance us from the natural world, and to imagine that humans – because of culture – are somehow insulated from nature. The feet of the St Kildans showed just how untrue that was.
Although many people have an instinctive revulsion of being compared to animals, and this is why the theory of evolution still is controversial amongst religious groups particularly, I have never felt this way about it. As it happens, islands were key for Darwin to unlocking his understanding of evolution, as they allow for genetic divergences to emerge amongst species. I find St Kilda a fascinating example because it also shows the way that on islands cultural divergence can occur in much the same way as genetic divergence, and the two aspects can themselves be connected.
There was one other aspect of St Kilda that was fascinating to me. This was its political culture. The culture was extremely communal, as you often see in small scale societies; everything was shared equally amongst the inhabitants, and everything communally owned, such as the ropes for climbing. More interesting however was the methods of decision making on the island. Every morning, the men of the island would meet together to work out what needed to be done. The meeting was non-hierarchical, there was no leader, and everyone could contribute. This is a model of a certain kind of democracy that is possible in societies of this size. Interestingly however, this model of political discussion was taken into account in the design of the Scottish Parliament building, when Scotland was given powers of devolved government. The design was supposed to encourage discussion in the round, instead of confrontation, as is seen in the design of the Westminster commons chamber. Whether the attempt to embody the St Kildan’s egalitarian methods of democracy in the architecture was successful or not is another discussion, but it is still fascinating to think that inhabitants of St Kilda, in their tiny group of no more than 180, could indirectly inspire or influence the politics of an entire country at the turn of the millennium.
Keyword 3 : CHANGE
The third island I’d like to talk about is an island called Rosinga, which is in Kenya, and is on Lake Victoria. I visited Rosinga in 2019 when I was travelling with my girlfriend (now wife) around the world; we were following the ancient human migration route, which according to the fossil record began in East Africa. Rosinga is also the site of a number of significant discoveries on the fossil record, uncovered by Louis and Mary Leaky in the 1940s. The island is also famous as being the hometown of Tom Mboya, a Kenyan politician who was due to be president after Independence from the British in the 1960s, but was tragically assassinated.
To reach Rosinga had once been quite challenging, once only possible by boat, until a small bridge was built in the 20th Century. This early bridge had since been replaced by a bridge built by a Chinese company; the presence of Chinese construction in Kenya was very notable, and was something we saw across East Africa. Even a somewhat remote area like Rosinga had received investment in this way, and so could be seen as part of a broader story of Chinese involvement in East Africa.
Although the bridge was new, the roads once we got onto Rosinga were not all accessible by car. We took a ride on two motorbikes to where were going to stay, with the Obdula family, who ran a school for the children of Rosinga. The school itself had been started by a well known Kenyan environmentalist, called Michael Odubla. Michael had received national recognition for his ecological restoration of the site where Louis Leaky had dug and discovered the early fossil record. Using a system of trenches, Michael had used the characteristics of the hillside to catch the rainfall in specific areas that had been degraded. This, in combination with replanting of local fauna, allowed the degraded area to recover. Michael’s wife Jane was very proud describing his achievements, and how he had received an award in Mexico City for his efforts to restore the environment of Rosinga.
We had hoped to meet Michael, but tragically he had died a few months before we got to Rosinga. We nevertheless decided to stay on the island with the Obdula family to learn more about their life there.
While we had been travelling, we had been asking people the same questions everywhere we went. One of these questions was ‘how has life changed since you were a child?’. Without directly pressing people, more often than not the answer would turn to the environment, and people would talk about the lack of rain, or the excess of rain, or the loss of animals, loss of trees, irregularity of the seasons, and so on. On an island ecosystem like Rosinga, the ecological changes people had seen were profound, and they often linked it directly to the deforestation on the island. Most people said that when they were younger, the island was covered in forest and it rained frequently; now, since people cut the trees, it doesn’t rain like it used to. Older people spoke about the forests that used to exist on the island, and the animals that used to be there that are now gone.
As I learnt more about Rosinga, and the lake Victoria region in general, I began to see just how complex the relationship between human societies and ecosystems could be. During the British Colonial period, the British had decided to introduce a new fish species to Lake Victoria, which they believed would have economic benefits and would increase what they thought of as the ‘efficiency’ of the lake. At that time, before the 1950s, Lake Victoria was home to 500 different species of fish, and thought to be one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on earth.
The introduction of the Nile Perch to Lake Victoria turned out to be a disaster. Nile Perch, which can grow to 2m in size, are fierce predators, and decimated the existing fish stocks in the lake, wiping out huge numbers of endemic species. In addition to this ecological damage, another unintended effect was the increase in deforestation due to the introduction of the fish. We were told that the fat content of the nile perch meant it often required smoking rather than sun drying, as had been traditional. This lead to more trees being cut down.
Now, facing climate change, the people on Rosinga told us about another more complex set of relationships between themselves and the lake. With increasingly irregular rains, people could not depend on crops as they once did. This meant more people were turning to fishing as a means of survival, increasing pressure on the lake. What this looked like was not obvious during the day, when the lake was often still and empty. At night however, the lake transformed. One evening I climbed up the hill behind the house were were staying, and looked out to the lake. As far I as I could see, in every direction, the lake was covered in small, twinkling lights, as if a city had sprung up in the darkness. These were fishing boats in their tens of thousands.
This increased pressure on fishing stocks had further unexpected impacts on the island community. In many areas around Lake Victoria, it has led to a cultural practice called Jaboya, or “sex for fish”. In order to secure fish for their families, women were offering themselves to local fishermen. Fishermen stopping at different islands or port towns around Lake Victoria would have relationships with different women; a tragic consequence of this practice, in combination with cultural attitudes towards sex, meant that the area around Rosinga was suffering from amongst the highest HIV rate in Africa.
One tragic consequence of this was the high number of orphans on the island. It was many of these orphans that attend the school set up by the Odula family. Michael Odula had seen education as a way to break the cycle of poverty on the island, as well as reducing the ecological pressures on the environment, if local people had options beyond fishing. In principle, educating young girls in developing countries is also identified as one of the means to reduce climate change, by reducing population pressure.
Rosinga is an island facing very complex ecological and social challenges. Nevertheless I was moved by the successes that we saw in ecological restoration, and the commitment to education that Odula family had shown us. This family were just one example an attitude we encountered frequently whilst travelling: in many places we met ordinary people who were tired of waiting for governments to take action on climate change or social issues, and so had decided to take matters into their own hands. This lesson is something I have carried with me since.