The Britannias › Extract

Here are some voyage tales – immrama or echtrai, as they were called in medieval Ireland. Here are some stories of what living in, on, or within sight of islands, does to the mind. Here are journeys over waves, to the point where land meets sea again and light glitters dif- ferently as it refracts off water. Here are meanders along the margins of misladen texts as fingers trail damp stone. Here is a quest under the moon, between the branches, into the dim antechambers of British history.

But it is not just the past that concerns us. It is also the now. As the tide comes in and the tide goes out, so do humans, back and forth across this salty land, building and destroying wonders. Here, then, are fishermen, nuns, entrepreneurs and musicians, some avowedly local, some far-flung, making their lives and their livings in these water-bound places. Crossing over to an island has long been a ritualistic act; even now it is a statement of intent, occasionally of actively hostile difference.

I first set foot on an island for this book with my baby; she is now just turning ten. During the course of her first decade I walked across Anglesey; up and down Iona; north along the coast to Lindisfarne; high up into the hills of Harris. I lived in Orkney, working as a firefighter, a teacher, a school cook (serving soup every Wednesday to that same sweet daughter). I slept on islands off islands under the stars, head tilted down against the rain, face tilted up to the sun. I rode into Thanet on a horse-drawn cart, into Shetland on a fishing trawler, through the Hebrides under sail, into Westminster on my bike at dawn. I grew up in this country; yet none of these journeys and their discoveries were what I expected of Britain.

An island is a place apart: abundant oasis or site of deprivation; for blessed refuge or forced exile; protected and exposed. From London or Edinburgh (or anywhere on the largest British island) these outcrops in the ocean might be easy to ignore – at least until the summer. But all residents of Great Britain, Northern Ireland and the Crown Depend- encies are island-dwellers: physically isolated from the European landmass for the past eight thousand years. All but two of the United Kingdom’s Overseas Territories are islands. Nowadays, England, in particular, thinks of Britain as ‘an island nation’ – as if the large island in the centre is what matters. But there are thousands of islands in these waters, a fact that influences all who dwell on the associated land, wherever they live, whatever they think. Islandness has shaped the politics, economy, artistic sensibility, and military arrangements of the overlapping political, geographic entities which make up these nations and their sense of themselves in the world. For most of human history, it was the small islands around the ‘mainland’ that were the powerful protected places, the first to nurture civilization. It was their innovations which spread inward, to cultivate the now-dominant centre. Island-geography is the pivot upon which these histories turn.

In the beginning, when humans first began to colonize the archi- pelago, the outlying islands were their first foothold. The islands were prized as jewels: being rich in fish; forming fortresses easy to control and hold; sites from which it was possible to eliminate undesirable animals or people, and introduce others. Thus Neolithic humans came to Orkney and pioneered monumental sun worship; Druids made Anglesey Europe’s last place of Celtic sanctity and learning; Christian monks made islands the locus of their new religion. To these people, the ‘mainland’ was the periphery: an incommodious jungle full of competitors and predators which the smaller islands were blessedly free from.

Foreign empires also made use of the islands’ favourable geography. Early Greek explorers, like the Vikings after, viewed this conglomer- ation of islands through the filter of their own island worlds. Until paved roads made inland travel fast, the secure way to live was liquid: on an island with a boat. This is why ancient Greek travelogues detail the chain of small islands but treat the large island as the sideshow; why Shetland, Orkney, the Hebrides and Man formed the vertebrae of Norse colonization. Even the Romans, a continent-bound people, made sure to sack Anglesey, banish heretical bishops to Scilly and develop Wight as an oasis of native comforts.

It was only during the past millennium that the ‘mainland’ con- structed the idea of itself as the centre, and its smaller island neighbours as the margin. From the twelfth century onwards, mainland monarchs in Scotland and England began to attack the independence of islands. Both the lowland monarchy of Scotland and the subsequent govern- ment of Britain battled the islands into submission. Henry VIII’s Reformation (and later John Knox’s) forcibly dismantled the islands’ history and meaning, changing them from ancient sanctuaries to national garrisons. In England, a stubborn attempt at reasserting independence came during the Civil War, when many small islands – being well fortified, and often miles distant from the mainland – held out longest as Royalist, or occasionally Roundhead, strongholds, or switched between the two. Pockets of resistance endured even longer into the nineteenth century in Scotland, where the remote northern islands of Handa and Hirta organized themselves with their own parliaments (as their regular meetings were termed, maybe over-romantically, by outsiders). The Welsh island of Bardsey had a king until 1926. In 1975, Sealand (an anarchic North Sea island made of a Second World War offshore platform) began issuing passports.

Where mainland politics led, culture followed. The final assault on island independence has been linguistic. During the past three centu- ries, English either killed off, or seriously threatened, the indigenous languages of Britain’s islands. Norn died in the nineteenth century, Manx in the twentieth; Jèrriais and Guernésiais cling on among the older generation. Gaelic has huge resources allocated to its survival.

Once vanquished, it is hard for islands deemed ‘remote’ by the authorities to recover. Some are given over to birds, but there is a long history of islands being used not just as prisons but also as pestilence sinks, leper colonies, for weapons testing, or being cleared of humans and trees in preference for sheep. Genocide has been a feature of island life from the beginning, and throughout their history islands also functioned as laboratories of plant and animal propagation or elimination. During the nineteenth century this culminated in a catastrophe for British biodiversity, with the forced eviction of Scottish islanders eerily mirrored by a bloodbath of native birds and mammals. But many of the islands clung to wildness in ways the mainland couldn’t. Today – happily, tragically, depending which way you see it – with their red squirrels, corncrakes, pesticide-free machair and dark skies, islands are precious sanctuaries in our human-dominated landscape.

Islands almost always resisted when the mainland asserted its hegemony – a historical legacy which endures in modern political attitudes. During the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, all the islands voted No, even those, such as the Western Isles, which have elected the SNP on and off since the 1970s. This does not sug- gest love of London but resistance to Edinburgh, a legacy of the islands’ complete political independence, from at least Viking times until the fifteenth century. After Brexit, almost all Scottish seats went to the SNP, but Orkney again held out against mainstream domi- nance (the Northern Isles have voted Liberal or Lib Dem since 1950). Historically, the impositions of Scotland’s ruling class have been the islands’ biggest threat.

Curious constitutional arrangements, meanwhile, link the Chan- nel Islands and the Isle of Man to Britain in interdependent ways. At the moment, they function as low-tax money-pots; as do their doppelgangers in Britain’s Overseas Territories – such as Bermuda and Cayman – pilfered during empire, and retained for use as military bases, stop-offs for rendition flights, unorthodox financial centres, or, in the case of South Georgia, for future resource use or settlement: when global warming makes human life possible only at the poles.4 Nowadays, the government in Westminster periodically por- trays these islands as rogue states, fiscally out of line. But it tolerates tax havens and semi-autonomous political entities because it is always useful, if sometimes embarrassing, to have places where extrajudicial events may occur and rich people and multinationals can store their money.

The ambiguous status of the outlying islands is partly the result of the idiosyncratic, organic (bloody) development of the United Kingdom’s constitutional arrangements – a nation increasingly bedevilled by its own creation. In our globalized world, as nation-states are stymied by the indifferent power of corporations (their use of island tax havens), or mass immigration from nearby war zones (islands as stepping stones), an instinctive human reaction is to isolate: with bor- ders, politics, religion. Nowadays, in Britain, as elsewhere in the world, ethnic, geographical or political groupings with a longer historical lin- eage than the nation-state clamour for greater self-definition and political autonomy. In 2014, Cornwall won minority status by emphasizing the fact that it is ‘almost an island’ (a river divides it from the rest of England; before the Norman conquest, it was a separate country). Jersey’s government has drawn up fully costed contingency plans for the independence it will demand if London threatens its freedom to set taxes, that being the basis of its economy. The SNP looks to the independence of British islands for Scotland’s future; as one MP I spoke to put it, ‘If Man can do it with 85,000 people, Scotland with 5 million would seem to have a reasonable chance.’ Orkney councillors just voted to ‘investigate alternative methods of governance’. If these places seem to be striving for fracture rather than union it is not surprising, given that the dominant imperial, Anglocentric myth of the past three hundred years has taken everything for granted and not differentiated enough between individual cultures.

There has never been a definitive name for these islands, as Pliny pointed out. Sometimes they were ‘the twin Bretanides’ (Britain and Ireland). The Welsh epic The Mabinogi, a story cycle written down in medieval times from a presumed plethora of oral sources, refers to ‘the islands of Britain’, as do some of the Arthurian romances. Mostly, however, one island stood in for the whole; so that when in 731 the monk-historian Bede wrote his History of the English Church and People, he had to explain (doubly dubitably) that ‘Britain, formerly known as Albion, is in an island in the ocean’.

Contemporary commentators, meanwhile, still refer to the ‘four nations of the United Kingdom’ – ignoring the Crown dependencies and all the Overseas Territories. During the 2012 Olympics, the official branding ‘Team GB’ ostracized the Northern Irish (who live in the United Kingdom, not Great Britain). The Overseas Territories are managed by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, even though, as the Governor of the Virgin Islands (UK) pointed out to me, ‘They are neither foreign nor Commonwealth.’ (The ‘British Virgin Islands’, as these islands are commonly known, is also a mis- nomer.) It would be more accurate to follow Pliny’s example and name the entire archipelago and its associated islands ‘The Britannias’. But that would cause anxiety in metropolitan, mainland circles, where power necessarily radiates out from the centre.

Sentimentally, even the staunchest British centrist likes to retreat to an island once in a while. There are lawless islands, radical ones, and many bastions of inherited, or money-controlled, privilege. Little outcrops in the ocean can be wildly expensive, or compara- tively cheap, depending; during the writing of this book I came to know of several people with their own little fiefdoms in the Irish Sea, the Channel Islands, off the east and west coast of Scotland. My grandmother’s Scottish family still owns two tiny islands off the coast of East Lothian. Today they are managed as wildlife reserves – but family gatherings often involve a boat trip to see the gannets on their rock; outings imbued with the frisson of nostalgia.

Some islands have been at the vanguard of dramatic social change; others still preserve social hierarchies and religious forms in ways peculiar and discrete. But for many Britons, whoever they are, the small islands which ring the large one represent an escape from the stifling homogeneity of national life. They are the mainland’s flattering reflection; a repository of eradicated histories; self-styled sites of resistance to state control.

How island people see such incursions is another matter. Ancient island stories chronicle anarchy and flux: peripatetic islands, sub- merged islands, islands only latterly peripheral, culturally. Mythology, politics and geography interlace, with some islands reclaimed by the shore, others cut off by the tide, and all once pertaining to other dominions. From the once-Norman south to the once-Norwegian north, island-people share memories of political and economic extremes: self-rule to colonization; emigration in lean times, influx in times of plenty; poverty or piracy to fantastic wealth and private purchase.

Nowadays, we refer with derogatory inflection to an ‘island men- tality’ – but that is the mainland speaking for itself. Smaller-island people, because of their circumscribed territory, have always tended to look outwards – to South African gold mines, Antarctic whaling stations, North Sea oil rigs; just as they have tended, throughout their history, to give welcome to outsiders. The fact of being set apart from the mainland connects these islands to each other, and to places far beyond; Shetland regards itself as ‘the biggest roundabout in the world’.

Nevertheless, almost all smaller islands within the realm of the United Kingdom, its Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territo- ries, have their own words to distinguish islanders from visitors. The Manx call themselves ‘true-born’, while British immigrants are ‘come-overs’; people from the British Virgin Islands are ‘belongers’; tourists to Lindisfarne are ‘interlopers’. It is as if such islanders need to draw an extra, symbolic circle to demarcate themselves from outsiders. Encircled as they are by the sun, moon, sea and rival powers, spheres of influence are central to island symbolism. In prehistoric times people built stone circles with solar and lunar alignments; early Christianity made of these isles a spiritual forcefield; subsequent statecraft adapted this idea with forts, airbases and Martello towers. Today there is tension between the islands’ overlapping layers of internal and external control, their fiscal and political autonomy, their individual freedoms and strength as a whole.

Many of us experience that tension in our own lives: the push and pull between the communal and the individual, the lure and lull of the familiar and the foreign. For me, a denizen of Britain’s circumscribed geography (born in London, raised in the West Country), there has long been something vital about being submerged in other cultures and polities. I moved to India straight out of univer- sity, and it was a second, far more radical education. My first two books, accordingly, were about places very remote from the place and the way I grew up: one tells the history of a great South Asian river; the other inhabits a modern-day Delhi run through with Sanskrit epic.

The idea for this particular book came to me as I trekked back from the source of the River Indus in Tibet and sacred Mount Kailash came into view once more. As my Buddhist companions prostrated themselves, and I knelt beside them, I thought of the journey we had just completed and of the work which lay ahead. First, I had to circumambulate the mountain; after that I had to finish the two books for which it was an end and a beginning. But in the wake of the long journey I had just undertaken, through Pakistan, Afghanistan, India and Tibet, I also thought with a pang of my own homeland. I knew so little, comparatively, of its foundation myths; I had travelled so far to study the history and culture of other lands. While part of me longed to continue travelling and encountering new places, I also acknowledged within myself a curiosity about the islands I’d grown up in, the challenge of their strange and familiar idiosyncrasies.

I am grateful to that high-altitude epiphany. Five years earlier, when I was working for a literary magazine in Delhi, I read Ted Hughes’s crazy but inspired book Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being. I read it cover to cover, during long bus journeys across the city to work. I had never come across Albina before – the ancient British goddess of art and death, apparently. Had she really existed? It didn’t matter. The mere evocation of this matriarchal etymology thrilled me.

But it was only when I began researching the island stories which wind through this book that I discovered how important the name was to Britain. Medieval English chroniclers, needing a national founding myth, took up the story of a Syrian princess, Albina, who was punished, along with her sisters, for rebelling against forced marriage (they killed their abusive husbands). The women, who were set adrift from their country in a rudderless boat, eventually reached the uninhabited island of Britain, where they cultivated the land and populated it with a race of giants, by sleeping with demons.

This surprising story of female power, with its chilling echo of modern migrants, reinforces the point: humans seek refuge in islands. Albina founded Albion. (Of course, Brutus took it from her and refounded Britain.) Who knows what cultures, or states, today’s migrants will nourish in Britain. Who knows how soon Britain’s Wight and Thanet will become its Rhodes or Lampedusa; already, migration across the Channel has gone up exponentially since I started writing this book. Immigration into this archipelago remains one of the most interesting, dynamic and formative parts of its story.

Milton, and others like him, thought the story of Albina ‘gross’ and ‘absurd’ (the women have sex with demons and grow fat from the game they are hunting). That the story survived at all is a miracle. The early history-writers never rushed to canonize stories of powerful women.

Relatedly, midway through the writing of this book I had a crisis. I looked back at what I had researched and written – not just about the islands’ histories but about their modern-day avatars in those very same places – and realized that I was swamped by the masculine. The crisis in my work coincided with a personal crisis in my life; they were reflections, no doubt; of each other, and of the state of the world.

My cry for help, which was also a war cry, made me turn to the islands, and it was they who led me to the women. I knew from my earlier work about the Indus that even in the most patriarchal places, women’s stories will always out; they are normally the first texts to be jettisoned or hidden or ignored, but it is impossible to suppress them for ever. It is simply a matter of looking harder.

One day in the British Library, I opened Kenneth Jackson’s com- pilation of early poetry from these islands, A Celtic Miscellany, to the chapter ‘Islands of Earthly Paradise’. I read these lines from The Voyage of Bran:

Then she sang:
There is an island far away, around which sea-horses glisten . . . Begin a voyage across the clear sea, to see if you may reach
the land of women . . .

This was my second epiphany. Thanks to a few words from one of the earliest indigenous texts of the British Isles, first written down in Irish in the seventh century, I knew what I was looking for. There was a reason I had chosen this topic; islands of women. After that, I found them all around me.

From at least the time of the Greek geographer Strabo, Britain was othered as a frozen land beyond the outer ocean, a place so barbarian that women were chosen as leaders: small islands were homes to god- dess cults, or inhabited by prophetesses who controlled the climate. Colonial-era Romans, medieval poets, authors of late-medieval pot- boilers, Renaissance dramatists, Restoration travel-writers, were in turn repeatedly intoxicated, enraged or tantalized by this idea.

It has ancient roots – the Greeks conceived of paradise islands, as did the Celts. For a while I thought that Circe and Calypso, the goddess and nymph of Greek mythology, were the wicked or subversive forerunners of the women Bran sails to – and there may be something in that; it is curious how ideas travel, and how they sometimes turn and turn again. But after I moved to Orkney, where I lived for a year and a day while researching this book, I saw that Britain’s island-dwellers had from very early on, explicitly or otherwise, made in islands places of female reverence. There, in huge monu- ments built with vast amounts of communal time and organization, women in particular were celebrated as the recipients of solar bounty on earth.

It was reassuring to be shown – through the writing of this book about British island history – that patriarchy is only a recent invention. If you peer far enough back into recorded human history, into enough different places, it becomes clear that what sometimes feels like our natural human state – because it is so prevalent – is merely a construction. Before written words encoded male dominance into the very language and texture of holy books, epics and law-codes, different social structures prevailed on earth. Back then, for a while, it made sense to treasure women for their capacity for procreation: still one of – if not the – most important, precious and unpredict- able functions of life on earth for all societies. Humans’ seasonal rhythms seem to have revolved around finding and celebrating echoes of this in nature.

The subsequent cult of male worship – the most successful of our world religions – traversed culture and class, floating men to the top of the social hierarchy and keeping women as their subservient labour force. Since the populations of men and women are equal, however, this was only ever a delusion (as with most hegemonies). But with each new god or king, the pattern deepened, acquiring the patina of age and the authority of tradition. It only takes a few generations for societies to find natural such things as the generic masculine, whereby anybody hearing the word ‘judge’, or ‘mayor’, or ‘prime minister’, automatically thinks of a man.

Throughout the ensuing history of patriarchal dominance, stub- born golden flashes of an alternative way of living glint through the suffocating prevalence of male egos, like phosphorescence in a bog. In ancient India stories were told in Sanskrit (and retold in Greek) of a land in the northern mountains where women ruled. In ancient Europe, these female holy lands were situated on islands.

Female countercurrents always exist; women always tell stories; and men, too (who have mothers, after all, if not sisters, girlfriends, daughters), have helped transmit these tales. This is what I discovered while writing The Britannias: a continuous current of female-focused freedom which winds its way like a silent, secret river through the most egregiously male-fixated of ages. Sometimes the climate is so hostile it is forced underground; at other times it explodes from the earth and the rocks; but mostly it trickles quietly, tenaciously, unobtrusively, through thickets and glades, unnoticed by warring princes and noisy, careless husbands – and yet internalized by them, too, in ways atavistic and uncertain.

It must be this uncertainty which accounts for the reappearance in the seventeenth century of the Roman colonial-era motif of Britannia, the female warrior. That dubious honour: women, conquered, as countries, as ships. But there is something there too – the now lone, brave woman (no manifest female solidarity here), sacrificing herself as a symbol.

If islands also have a quality of apartness that makes them the ideal location for experimentation, they can be ‘enclosed, inward-looking’ (as the artist Cornelia Parker writes of Brexit Britain in Island, her 2022 installation at Tate Britain). But Strabo and his cohorts were right: something unusual happens to the mind whenever you set foot on an island. It happened to me. Through this work, I was forced to examine all the certainties I had taken for granted and to ask if I could truly consider myself as liberated as the women I was writing about. From Orkney to Scilly, Anglesey to Avalon – from the early Neolithic through all their multitude of avatars – these women began to sym- bolize the sisterhood I sought. But I also found that I was unable to hold myself to their standard. Strangely, unexpectedly, therefore, The Britannias is also the story of my own journey – and, in part, through the unsettling, exhilarating transformations this passage engendered in me. In ways that I didn’t anticipate, and weren’t always easy, these islands transformed me, one by one, outside in.