Most people will admit to a passion for islands. For some it's the romance of a Swiss Family Robinson adventure, for others simply the discovery of a hideaway where a genuine sense of place and community can still be found. There can be no doubt, however, that this 'islomania', as Lawrence Durrell once described it, does exist. Intriguingly, for many of Scotland's remote islands, plagued in the twenty-first century by depopulation, there is a growing realisation that harnessing this island fever could play a significant part in their long-term survival as communities. Papa Westray, mystical island of the monks, is hardly more than a dot on the map of Scotland, yet it has a remarkable record of habitation which spans more than 5,000 years - a continuity of settlement difficult to match anywhere in the world. Only in the past 30 years, though, has the world at large come to know its treasures. This far-flung Orkney isle and journalist Jim Hewitson found each other in the early 1980s. With its 25 households, 70 or so permanent residents, a mini-economy based on cattle, sheep and shellfishing, the island sustains only a fraction of the population it did a century ago.
Papa Westray brings together eight years of articles, essays and diary jottings which portray a fascinating island battered not just by Atlantic storms but by the pressures of contemporary economics. It provides a series of snapshots of life on the ocean fringe and reveals the strains, stresses and joys of being part of a compact community still living, more than most, in a world apart. As society becomes more uniform and featureless, the colour and character of Papa Westray portrayed in these pages surely indicate why the loss of any island community would make Scotland a poorer place.
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