The Magic of Islands

Rocks breathe, springs circulate; now is the change complete. She is absorbed into the body of the island, visible to the seer’s eye alone.

The Myth of Santa Warner, Ithell Colquhoun, 1947

When I was researching our recent visit to the island of Crete I remembered that one of my favourite artists, Ithell Colquhoun, was often inspired by islands. They are repeated themes in her work, beginning in childhood when she had to leave India for Britain, developing through her interest in liminal spaces, the edges of things, and the occult. Her second novel is set on the island of Menach, a Celtic Otherworld, and in her prose poem, The Myth of Santa Warner, the saint comes to the island in a coracle.

Judith Schlansky, author of Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands. Fifty Islands I have not visited and never will, imagines her own island as an idyllic place, a utopia, where a person can start afresh and do everything differently, far from the pressures of the mainland.

She also notes that remote islands are well suited as places in which to gather everything that is undesirable, displaced, digressive – much like the island off of Crete, Spinalonga, where people who developed leprosy were taken between 1903 to 1957 before a cure was found. The remnants of the leprosy colony are a popular tourist destination today, inspiring much culture such as Werner Herzog’s short film Last Words, and story The Touching of Wood, by Ali Smith.

Small islands like those found in the Scottish Hebrides, are often referred to as ‘thin places’, places where the veil between this world and the next is porous and where the landscape is full of mystery and meaning (Hannah Close)

Throughout the oldest British mythology, stories of islands where women live alone together, rule, or tend sacred places, are abundant. And the ‘real’ islands of, and around, Britain were once seen as a bastion of female power by writers and travellers in Classical Europe. Stories, from Tir na mBan, the magical Land of Women, to Morgan le Fay and the wondrous Isle of Avalon, to legends of the female founder of Albion, and the giants and ‘Amazonian women’ of the Scottish islands. These ancient stories depict women as priestesses, the keepers of women’s mysteries, contained within an island – a place where women can be free, safe, apart from the patriarchy – resonate strongly with women today. – Sharon Blackie

Tove Janssen, author of the hugely successful Moomin books for children, and her partner, the graphic artist, Tuulikki Pietilä, returned to their tiny island Klovharun every summer for eighteen years, building a summerhouse there in the mid-60’s. Tove wrote an essay The Island, and a book Notes from an Island, illustrated with wonderful etchings by Pietilä.

According to Jansson’s niece, Sophia, Klovharun is “a rock in the middle of nowhere” with scarcely any foliage, no running water and no electricity, but it was heaven to Tove and Tooti.

…Tooti wandered aimlessly around the island and stood stock still for long periods. I thought I knew what she was doing. She was working again. Copperplate etchings and wash drawings. Mostly the lagoon, the lagoon as a consummate mirror for clouds and birds, the lagoon in a storm, in fog. And the granite, first and foremost, the granite, the cliff, the rocks. It’s all peace and quiet now.

Tove Jansson in the 1930s. Photograph: Per Olov Jansson

What would my island utopia be like? From the kitchen window of the office where I work, I can stare out at the tiny island of Flat holm (Ynys Echni) floating beguilingly in the Bristol Channel, five miles away. Though I haven’t yet been across to it, it’s always held a fascination with its tales of saints, smugglers and cholera victims.

I began my investigations by creating an outline of my island based roughly on Flatholm’s shape, using collaging and other mediums. Then I let some words meander around the page like currents.

What would your island utopia look like?

“I think there was a certain point in my life, when I recognised that [I am an island girl adrift on the continent]. I said, ‘Oh, I am an Islander.’ That’s why I couldn’t relate to these giant mountains. That is important too, recognising how place has shaped us, recognising how coming from [a certain] part of the world, shapes your sense of how you move in the world and how you carry yourself in the world.”

Professor Emeritus Leny Strobel

Ecologically, we are all islanders now’. – Baldacchino & Clark (2013)

3 thoughts on “The Magic of Islands

  1. Fantastic piece Sarah. I read the Moomin stories when I was small and they took a hold on me which has only got stronger as I have got older. Tove Jansson and the way she chose to live is an inspiration to those of us who try to live differently.

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