The latest entry from my ‘Wild Frontier’ column in Prospect magazine. It’s about a solitary night on an abandoned island, and what it means to be truly alone. Full text here, or after the fold.
A land of my own
What I learned about loneliness when I spent a night on an abandoned island
by Cal Flyn / October 7, 2019
I spend a lot of time on my own—working at my desk at home alone, travelling for work, or walking in nature. But when I spent a night by myself on an abandoned island, I found the extreme solitude there less familiar and more disturbing than I might have imagined.
I travelled to the island of Swona, a few miles off John O’Groats in the Pentland Firth. During the 18th century, there were nine families living on Swona, but their numbers dropped around the turn of the 20th century.
In 1974, the last two elderly residents departed for medical reasons and the island has been uninhabited ever since. Now the island’s houses lie in various states of disrepair, and the cattle they left behind wander the island as a loose, feral herd.
A local boatman offered to drop me on the island and pick me up the following day. I waved him off at the little jetty, then turned away. A mile and a half long, half a mile wide: my own private island, at least for one night. I gave a little sigh—of relief, or something like it—and sat down to savour the silence. Or rather: a hubbub of activity of the kind we so rarely get to hear.
The piping of oystercatchers, the guttural moaning of the seals out on the rocks, the cooing calls of eider ducks in the rocky cove. For a few hours I felt peace, a wonderful clarity flooded through me. But as the sun lowered, and the novelty of my surroundings wore off, those feelings were replaced with one of unease.
The island’s usual residents were not pleased to see me. Wandering north, examining orchids, I blundered into a colony of Arctic terns, who had laid their eggs upon the churned-up turf. My presence sent them into a shrieking defence: they materialised overhead, clicking gunshot warnings and swiping at my arms—one drew blood.
The confrontation shook me from my pious psalm to solitude. Oystercatchers pursued me, squealing like car alarms. Snipes buzzed me, their wings drumming a sort of radio interference. Skuas came at me, their chests puffed out like bouncers and just as hostile.
I stumbled towards the ruins, feeling instinctively that evidence of society would offer sanctuary. But the view from the threshold gave me pause. The uncanny scenes inside left me unnerved: listing furniture, swollen paperwork, a stopped clock on a mantelpiece. It was an invasion to enter.
I felt the absence of their owners keenly—so much so, it felt like another kind of presence. I heard voices, glimpsed figures through warped windowpanes. I knocked on doors, called out hesitantly but heard no answer. Of course. There was no one there.
Finally, after a soothing hour in the benign company of puffins, I was calm enough to let go of my strange paranoia, and to set up camp and settle in for the night. I forced myself to listen to the wash of the waves on the shore, to breathe.
It was a long night; not a well-rested one. But I learned a lot about myself in those twilit hours. I had wanted isolation but when I found it, it had frightened me. This was a surprise; I thought I was made of sterner stuff. I had an appreciation now of what its residents, and those like them, must once have faced on a daily basis.
Still, one can pretend. At noon the next day, I saw the boat leave the opposite coast and launch across the tidal race towards me. As it arrived I lifted my pack, jogged to the jetty with a smile. “How was it?” asked the boatman. “Oh,” I said. “Peaceful. Nice to get a bit of time to myself.”