Many people think of Britain as an island bit in fact it is an archipelago. In Scotland most people have heard of Skye and possibly of Arran, but who among us - in Scotland or outside - can name more than 10 of the nearly 800 islands around the shores?
The Northern Group is of course Shetland and Orkney, and both of these are a cluster of one main island with smaller islands round about. Culturally distinct from Mainland Scotland with a Norse History both have benefited from the oil boom of recent years, Fair Isle is still inhabited and is known for knitted articles. Stroma is totally empty now and will probably never be repopulated.
On the West Coast there is Lewis and Harris. One island with two names contains the main town of the Hebrides, Stornoway.
A glimpse of the architecture confirms any suspicion about the geography, no question about that. Walk around and keep your ears open and you may notice a difference. Lewis - and Harris - are most definitely in the Gaeltacht of Scotland and in both urban and rural areas the Gaelic language is spoken together with English. Crofts predominate in most of the island. These are smallholdings considered just enough to support a family. In most of Britain peasant farming died out at the time of the enclosures but here people still have a close tie to the land and use it for production. Crofting does not provide a large enough income to live on, so often those on the croft will have paid employment too. Some may work away from home for periods.
The Merchant Navy was popular at one time. That has diminished in importance but crofting is still a huge factor of life on the western isles. Heading South it is now possible to get by road to the South Uist port of Lochboisdale.
Head over towards the mainland and you will find Skye and Raasay. most tourists have heard of Skye - perhaps as a result of the Skye Boat Song. A recent bridge to the mainland has made travel to and from the mainland easier. The imposition of bridge tolls was met by a campaign of Civil disobedience by the locals, and now access is free.
Smaller isles to the South of Skye include Coll, Rhum and Eigg. Visitors who have romantic notions of Scottish History should visit Massacre cave on Eigg and learn of the horrors of life in the 18th century.
Using CalMac, the main ferry operator, head via Oban for the Argyll Islands of Colonsay and Tiree. Mull is also in this area. The locals refer to Mull as "The Officers' Mess" in reference to the large number of retired army officers here but also as a counterpoint to the Gaelic name for the nearby town of Fort William - the Garrison. Fort William, together with Fort Augustus and Fort George were built after the 1745 to keep down the troublesome locals.
Head further south and we have Islay and Jura, both very much part of the "Whisky Trail" because of the high quality of local production combined with clever marketing. Sometimes grouped together with these two is the Isle of Gigha, off the Mull of Kintyre. This was recently "bought out" from the feudal laird by the local community and is sometimes seen as a model for the future of many other Island and Highland Communities. Many think the days of feudal landed estates are over and that the community buy-out is the shape of things to come.
Sail round the Mull of Kintyre past the "wee toon" of Campbeltown and you will find the islands of the Clyde Estuary. Arran is familiar to many but Cumbrae and Bute are not so well-known. Popular with our grandfather's generation both Rothesay on Bute and Millport on Cumbrae have a surprising urban character. Something like "Glasgow-sur-Mer" !