Book review: The Hebrides by Paul Murton

Paul Murton has been exploring since he was a teenager.

Inspired by his copy of WH Murray’s Mountaineering in Scotland, the boy from Argyll, before even reaching the age of 16, set out hitchhiking to Glen Coe and Skye, ascending Cuilin’s famous Cioch, and hitched to Switzerland to attempt to scale the infamous Eiger’s North Wall.

Travel and adventure are in his blood, and he has, over the past few years, been documenting those travels for us through his TV programmes on the BBC.

As presenter of BBC’s Grand Tours of the Scottish Islands, he is an authority of the Hebrides having sailed around them, walked, cycled and lived on them, his knowledge and passion of the islands is evident throughout the book.

First drawn to the beauty of the Hebrides as a child while on a family trip to a remote spot on the Argyll coast, Murton has since walked and cycled the islands, sailed amongst them and lived upon them. This book is an accompaniment piece of sorts for his BBC show Grand Tours of the Scottish Islands, the fourth season of which was broadcast last autumn, but more than that it is a testament to the filmmakers love for the islands and to the islands themselves.

The book is arranged as Murton has travelled: starting out on the small island of Gigha and working North-Westward toward the ‘exceptionally rugged group of islands’ that is St Kilda. Each chapter itself loosely holds to a set formula: noting the roots of the island’s name first, detailing its origins and possible meanings, before giving some details on the make-up of the land and then delving into tales of its history.

As well as the larger, more well-known islands such as Mull, Islay and Harris, Murton also dedicates as much care to the lesser known gems of the hebrides; the Shiants, the Monarch Islands and the Summer Isles.

The Hebrides by Paul Murton

It is the personal stories and local tales of myth and legend give the book its charm and bring the islands to life. Murton tells of his visit to Cara where his skipper, owner of the island as well as a direct descendant of the MacDonald Lord of the Isles, warns him to ‘raise his hat’ when going ashore to the island’s ‘Broonie’ – a ghost of a MacDonald ancestor.

Similarly, Murton tells the story of Rathad Chaluim, which translates to Calum’s Road on Raasay, named for the man who built it single-handed, Calum Macleod. After the council refused to connect the crofting community in the small town of Arnish with the rest of the island, Calum died of a heart-attack, collapsing into his wheelbarrow, after building the road himself.

Murton patterns the account of his travels with this wonderful blend of history, curious facts and traditions, personal anecdote and conversations with locals. Maps at the start of each chapter along with a beautiful collection of photographs capturing the rugged wildness of the islands as well as the local charm.

The Hebrides is beautifully presented, and makes for a fascinating read.

The Hebrides by Paul MURTON, £14.99, published by Birlinn.

Scottish Field rating: *****