THE ISLAND THAT INHABITS YOU

Landscapes of the mind: Robert Macfarlane returns to one of the most compelling places in fiction

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2013 

In the beginning was the map. Robert Louis Stevenson drew it in the summer of 1881 to entertain his 12-year-old stepson while on a rainy family holiday in Scotland. It depicts a rough-coasted island of woods, peaks, swamps and coves. A few place-names speak of adventure and disaster: Spyglass Hill, White Rock, The Graves. The penmanship is deftat the island’s southern end is an intricate compass rose, and the sketch of a galleon at full sail. There are warnings to mariners: "Strong Tides", "Foul Ground". And in the heart of the island is a blood-red cross, by which is scrawled "Bulk of treasure here".

Stevenson’s map was drawn to set a child dreaming, but it worked most powerfully upon its grown-up author, inspiring Stevenson to write his great pirate novel "Treasure Island" (1883). Poring over the map, he began to populate his landscape with characters (Long John Silver, Captain Flint), and to thicken it with plot. Up from that flat page sprang one of the most compellingly realised of all imaginary places. Countless children have made landfall upon its blonde beaches, moved cautiously through its grey woods and seen sunlight flash hard upon the wild stone spires of its crags. Once visited, the island inhabits you.

Like Stevenson I am a cartophiliac, and because of Stevenson I am an islomaniac. Maps fire my mind because they offeras Rosita Forbes put it—"the magic of anticipation without the toil and sweat of realisation". They give you seven-league boots, allowing you to cover miles in seconds. On a map, visibility is always perfect. Tracing the line of a walk with the point of a pencil, you can float over gorges and marshes, leap cliff-faces at a single bound, and ford spating rivers without getting wet. My father taught me how to read maps, such that landscapes would rise magically out of them. A snarl of contours became a saw-toothed ridge or gouged corrie, a break in the hachures implied a sea-cove on which we might safely land a rowing boat.

After reading Stevenson, I sought out the work of other island-writers: William Golding’s "Lord of the Flies", John Fowles’s "The Magus", and D.H. Lawrence’s extraordinary "The Man Who Loved Islands", set on a nameless islet four miles in circumference, with two hills at its centre, gorse and blackthorn scrubbing its rocky fields, and cowslips thronging the verges.

I began to devise and map my own ideal islands. There was a black-rock skerry somewhere in the North Atlantic, in whose lighthouse I would over-winter and around which, during the biggest storms, vast waves would whitely fold. There was a limestone island with a prolific spring-line, ilex forests, and a network of sea-caves in which the water showed lapis-blue against the bone-like stone that enclosed it. There was a clichéd castaway atoll, with a copiously fruiting coconut tree, and a lagoon that teemed with catchable fish. Common themes began to emerge, I now see: self-sufficiency, extreme isolation, time in abundance – the unmistakable signs of adolescent utopianism at work.

Of course, as Fowles and Golding knew, islands breed darkness as well as casting light. The longing for solitude can sour to misanthropy; the wish for self-sufficiency may harden into a need for total control. "An island is a nest which holds one egg, and one only," thinks Lawrence’s islomaniac, "this egg is the islander himself." But he ends up alone, blizzard-bound in his cabin, his boat sunk, unable to leave the nest he has so eagerly sought.

For years now I have lived in Cambridge, a city about as far from the sea as it is possible to get in Britain. Four centuries ago, though, much of Cambridgeshire was a watery landscape of flooded fens, marshes and settled hillocks of high ground. I still indulge, thanks to Stevenson, in island dreams of my own, except that now they are about company rather than isolation. My ideal island is one on which my family and friends are all brought briefly and happily together in one small place. X marks the spot. 

Robert Macfarlane is chair of this year's Man Booker prize judges. He wrote "The Old Ways" and is the co-author of "Holloway"

Illustration Su Blackwell