A tiny island for sale is good news because many of us – or perhaps it’s just me – nurse fantasies about withdrawing to a sea-girt sanctuary we can shape into our own paradise.
Londoners tempted to trade their studio flat for Little Ross might have a rethink, given its grisly history: its lighthouse keeper was murdered by his assistant in 1960.
Malevolent spirits have driven idealistic island owners to sell up in the past. The novelist Compton Mackenzie fled the Channel Island of Herm because he believed it was haunted. He also learned that small islands are a hole in the water into which you pour money. Even the depths of Richard Branson’s pockets will be tested by Hurricane Irma’s evisceration of Necker, his Caribbean island.
From Lord Leverhulme on Lewis (the great industrialist overreached himself when purchasing the third largest of the British Isles) to Mary Bonham-Christie on Brownsea (whose island was set alight after she evicted its human residents), individual ownership has mostly proved disastrous for small island communities.
Wealthy individuals desire complete control over their island dominions but there’s something deeply nonconformist about small islanders. Like the sea, small islands resist possession.
Small islands should probably become contemporary common land. Scotland’s new land reform laws at least give communities the opportunity to try to buy land themselves if it comes up for sale, and Ulva’s six residents are attempting a community buyout, following the small islands of Eigg and Gigha.
After a century of depopulation, the population of Scotland’s inhabited islands rose by 4,000 between 2001 and 2011. Community ownership helps, as does tourism, long brandished as the economic panacea for struggling western isles. Inspired visitors often become permanent residents too.
But islands wholly given over to tourism (I’m thinking of Tresco in the Scilly Isles) become parodies of themselves, more holiday parks than places. Community ownership at least empowers islands to decide if this is what they want. Ulva’s need to raise £4.25 million looks daunting, but their prospective community buyout, like previous ones, will be boosted by donations from mainland islophiles.
Why should we help small islands? Perhaps because they pose some big questions. Small islands tend to measure their success by their primary school’s population rather than economic growth. Should we? And if self-owning islands can create their own affordable housing, why not other mainland communities?
The Tale of Town Hawk
Scottish cities are better than its countryside for one particular inhabitant: the sparrowhawk. RSPB and Scottish Raptor Study Group researchers have found that urban hawks in Edinburgh have a significantly higher breeding success than rural hawks in Ayrshire. In the famous fable, town mouse is a portly creature; in reality, town hawk is sated on garden songbirds. Is less persecution a factor too? The Tale of Town Hawk and Country Hawk could be a gripping satire, particularly when Country Hawk narrowly escapes illegal traps set on country estates.
What to do with food waste
I’m one of England’s 75%. Those receiving fortnightly rubbish collections. I’m keen to reduce waste but councils must also offer food waste collections. Mine doesn’t. I tried banishing my maggot-filled wheelie bin with an overpriced lump of polystyrene called a HotBin but this supposedly rapid composter didn’t work for me (or anybody I know). While I compost uncooked waste, I treat cooked waste like most people from the past millennia: I bury it in my garden. My runner beans love it.
• Patrick Barkham is a Guardian columnist
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