Hamish Haswell-Smith/Iain Stewart
Inverness Book Festival
EVENTS celebrating Scotland’s natural environment have always been popular at Inverness Book Festival.
So in this Year of Natural Scotland it was only apt that among the best attended events of the 2013 festival were these two events taking a look at the Scottish world from differing perspectives.
For retired architect Hamish Haswell-Smith, that perspective is usually from seaboard, one that he pointed out was quite different from the perspective from land.
A dedicated yachtsman — though he admitted that he had now given up sailing — Haswell-Smith initially began recording his trips to Scotland’s islands just for his own interest. When he did decide they had the makings of a book, they were immediately snapped up by Scottish publisher Canongate, who confidently — and accurately — believed they had a big seller on their hands.
Now republished in a brand new edition, Haswell-Smith’s comprehensive guide to The Scottish Islands has become an indispensable companion for sailors and armchair travellers alike. Even kayakers have been known to take a copy on their trips, even though they complain to the author that he is trying to sink them with the heavy hardback, illustrated with his own paintings.
Yet even a book of that size could not claim to include all the islands off Scotland’s coast, so he devised his own cut off point of 40 hectares and over in size at high water mark, and no access by land.
This does mean that one of the most famous Scottish islands of them all, Skye, is not technically an island by Haswell-Smith’s definition, not since the opening of the road bridge in 1995.
"I thought I would get lynched, but actually, the people on Skye have been very nice," he said.
Potentially a bigger threat on his sailing expeditions might have come from whales, but that was not the case.
Haswell-Smith never had any scares from surfacing cetaceans. Submarines, though, were a different matter.
"I remember sailing to Arran and three nuclear submarines came up in a triangle all around us — they must have done it deliberately," Haswell-Smith said with a smile.
"So I found myself sailing straight towards a nuclear submarine, wondering: is is going to back away? Is he going this way or that way? Eventually he slipped back to let me through, then once I’d gone past slipped back to his original position."
Having written some much about Scotland’s islands, one audience member asked the Edinburgh-based author if he would live on an island himself.
Haswell-Smith’s answer was pragmatic.
"I always think about it, then I think of what is behind the dream," he said.
"To live on an island, especially in winter, you have to be a particular type of person."
After all, even something as simple as buying a newspaper can be a challenge on an island.
"My wife Jean went out to buy a newspaper," he recalled.
"The newsagent asked her if she wanted today’s paper or yesterday’s: ‘Today’s.’ ‘Then come back tomorrow.’"
Broadcaster and scientist Iain Stewart also has a fondness for Scotland’s islands, quickly declaring Raasay his favourite place in the world.
However, as geologist, he looked beyond the surface to the forces that created Scotland’s landscape.
In turn, geology as a science itself a creation of Scotland’s rocks. It was Enlightenment figure James Hutton — introduced by Stewart with a letter to fellow great Scot James Watt proposing a steam powered sex machine — whose study of Scottish rock formations led him to theorise the great age of the earth, one with "no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end".
"If you’re in Texas learning geology, Thailand learning geology or Perth, Australia, you will learn about James Hutton, Glen Tilt and Siccar Point (in East Lothian)," Stewart said.
Certainly the most far reaching talk of the festival, Stewart went back billions of years to the formation of the rocks that formed Scotland, pointing out that the country’s coal powered industrial revolution had its own origins in the Carboniferous era 350 million years ago.
He even took tongue-in-cheek pride that Scotland staged a homecoming parade for a lump of rock — the Stone of Destiny, making its belated permanent return to the country 700 years after being pinched by King Edward I.
What other country would do that for "an ordinary bit of sandstone, about 30 million years old"?
But he also questioned what Scotland was doing about its geological heritage, potentially valuable dinosaur footprints lying unprotected on a Skye beach, and even a threat to the existence of Scotland’s two remaining Geo-parks.
"This is the home of geology. It’s horrific that this could happen in the Year of Natural Scotland," he said.
"We should have Geo-parks all over Scotland."
When the session opened to public questions among the first was what seemed to be the inevitable question about fracking.
However, while conceding it was still controversial, he suggested that the UK was unlikely to suffer the situation experienced in some parts of America where, as a result of the process, people turned on their taps and methane flowed out instead of water.
"But I also don’t think there’s going to be the economic bonanza there was in the States," he added.
"Over there, if you own the land, you own the mineral rights. Here it’s Her Majesty."
However, when he was asked for his opinion of the Highlands’ own geological pioneer, Hugh Miller, Stewart had a confession to make.
"I was at an event with David Attenborough and I told him I was doing this series Men of Rock about Scottish geologists," he said.
"‘Terrific! So you’re doing Hugh Miller?"
Stewart had to admit he was not, mainly because budget cuts had reduced the number of episodes.
"He sort of rounded on me after that," Stewart said.
"Told off by the master!"