Island odyssey to be recounted at University

One of Scotland’s most distinguished historians will next week talk about his critically acclaimed and highly personal study of the tiny Hebridean island of Pabay at the University of Dundee.

Christopher Whatley is Professor of Scottish History at Dundee and the author of Pabay: An Island Odyssey. He will discuss the island, and the stories he uncovered while writing the book, at the University’s Dalhousie Building from 6pm on Tuesday 25 February.

Described as a ‘sparkling gem’ and ‘one of the finest Highland books of the 21st century’, Professor Whatley’s book combines historical research with memoir, placing his own family’s odyssey within the wider story of Pabay.

Len and Margaret Whatley moved to Pabay from the Midlands and lived there from 1950 until 1970. Professor Whatley was a regular visitor to Pabay as a child and later made a promise to his aunt Margaret that he would write the island’s story, including the family’s part in it.

Based on archival material, oral interviews, memory and personal experience, he explores the history of Pabay and the different groups of people for whom it has been home. Filled with family photographs, the book creates a vivid picture of the trials, tribulations and joys of island life.

Despite being the author of several award-winning books, Professor Whatley says the experience of writing Pabay was unlike any other he had experienced.

“This is the first time I’ve ever written a book in the first person, or one that I feature in,” he said, “There could be no other way for me to write about Pabay, a place that left an indelible mark on me and that I still love nearly 60 years on from the first time I set foot on the island

“According to my parents’ photograph albums, I was three when I first visited Pabay. For most of the years afterwards, I was on Pabay for at least part of what would become my school holidays – Easter and summer mainly, with the occasional Christmas trip. I was barely into my teens when I began to make the occasional journey on my own.

“That meant the bus from the outskirts of Glasgow to Queen Street railway station, where I’d catch the early morning train to Mallaig. From there, I’d walk down to the pier for a ferry which would take me to Armadale in the south of Skye. Then another bus to Broadford. From there, you needed a kayak, canoe, or other small boat. It is not an easy place to reach but, for me, the journey was always worth it.

“Leaving Birmingham for an uninhabited island was a brave and challenging move for Len and Margaret and nothing could have prepared them for it. But their search was not for seclusion, but a new centre. They, like most of Pabay’s people, regardless of period, were of this world. Their aim was to make a living, raise their family, and live full, enriching lives. Far from being a place of escape, Pabay demanded Len and Margaret’s total commitment to their new reality.”

The tiny diamond-shaped island of Pabay lies in Skye’s Inner Sound, just two and a half miles from the village of Broadford. One of five Hebridean islands of that name, it derives from the Norse papa-ey, meaning ‘island of the priest’.

Pabay: An Island Odyssey takes place at the Dalhousie Building from 6-8pm on Tuesday 25 February. The event is free and open to all. Tickets can be reserved via Eventbrite