“We can’t stay here too long,” Jamie Boyle told us when we stepped out of the car. He had driven us to one of the most remote spots in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, a tiny island called Vallay that hasn’t been inhabited for about a decade and is now accessible only by driving across the shallow ocean channel during low tide. We had maybe 30 minutes before the water would come back and we’d be stranded.
Boyle is a conservationist in the Scottish Highlands with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. He had taken us to see some wildlife and to talk about what makes the Uists, a small chain of Hebridean islands, so unique. By the time we set up our cameras and started talking about farming methods and bird-watching, Boyle was getting antsy—and so were we—glancing over at the incoming tide. We piled back in the car and sped across the sandy channel toward the mainland. “I’ve never gotten stuck here,” Boyle said, staring straight ahead while water sprayed up from our spinning wheels. “But I’ve been close many times.”
The first thing that you notice when you fly to the Outer Hebrides is that the group of islands off the Scottish mainland feels a lot more remote than it actually is. Most islands are only an hour-long flight from Glasgow, the medium-size city adjacent to Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital. Landing on one of the islands in a small plane on a small runway next to a small, one-room airport, you get the feeling that you might as well be in the middle of a vast ocean.
Most people haven’t heard of the Hebrides (pronounced HEB-ruh-dees), let alone been to them. There aren’t many direct flights, and the islands don’t have the exotic palm-tree-dotted landscape that you’d find further south. It’s so rare for someone from England to visit the Hebrides that they use the islands in an expression to describe somewhere extremely remote. “Don’t be bad,” your mother might tell you, “or I’ll send you to the Outer Hebrides.”
So that’s where our ambition took us, somewhere remote and yet still accessible. Somewhere inhabited for thousands of years, yet still wild. And somewhere imperiled on the planet—and not just by the usual things like climate change and rising seas. There are 500 islands that make up the Hebrides. The several dozen that have people on them are bursting with life but at risk of losing both their culture and their unique ecology, both of which are intimately intertwined.
To understand why, it helps to know a bit about the Hebrides’ geology. Like many places in the Northern Hemisphere, the islands were sculpted by ice sheets that repeatedly scraped over them, most recently about 11,500 years ago. The combination of the sandy, peaty soils that cover the islands and the region’s frigid weather fed by the jet stream has created a rich and spongy terrain called the machair. The machair is the backbone of the Scottish Highlands. For centuries it fueled subsistence farming on the outer islands. It still exists because it hasn’t been abused: In the Scottish tradition of farming—which is known as “crofting”—land is left fallow between plantings to allow it to rejuvenate.
Letting land recover from agricultural use isn’t a realistic model for much of the world, where a growing population constantly demands more food. But the practice has had impressive effects on the Hebrides. Vibrant, organic crops attract invertebrates like worms, and those worms attract birds. The islands have become a haven for bird species like corncrakes and corn buntings, which are being driven out of mainland Europe. A lack of predatory mammals has allowed the birds to thrive. On a hike one day we came across a nest of wader eggs in the grass. Almost anywhere else on Earth with predators like foxes or badgers, such delicate eggs wouldn’t last a day.
“People think that when you have areas as nature reserve you just take over an area of land and let wildlife get on with it, but the machair is completely different,” Boyle, the bird conservationist, told us. He’s something of a rock star on the islands, constantly fielding questions from visiting bird-watchers. The wildlife—including Shetland ponies and a rare breed known as Eriskay ponies that roam the islands—attracts a lot of ecotourists from the mainland, especially in the summer when the weather is moderate (it’s never actually hot that far north) and daylight lasts until 11 p.m.
Yet many of the Hebrides have struggled to sustain themselves on occasional revenue from the tourists who show up. One reason might be that many of the islands simply don’t attract many people. The flight from mainland Scotland to most Hebrides airports isn’t far, but it can be expensive. Once you arrive, only a few houses and herds of sheep cover the landscape. On the Uists, a one-lane road is the main artery of transportation. It’s tough to be in a hurry when oncoming traffic requires pulling over every few minutes.
Young Europeans who go to work on the islands for a summer like the quiet. “It’s a great place to save money because there’s nowhere to spend it,” our 20-something hotel concierge told us one night while pouring beers. A BBC documentary narrated by Ewan McGregor that aired last month called Islands on the Edge may have been the best PR the islands have ever received—although some locals thought it focused too much on the Hebrides being at risk of dying, rather than as a worthwhile destination.
But it’s hard to ignore the fact that many of the Hebrides, including the group of three islands we explored known as the Uists, are in a sort of slump. The main culprit isn’t climate change, but a constant exodus of young people who head toward the Scottish mainland for a faster pace. Over the past two decades, the Uist population of 6,000 fell by more than a third.
To stem the flow, last year the Scottish government launched a $1.6 million program to identify the teenagers “most likely to leave the islands” and teach them vocational skills to encourage them to start businesses there instead of packing. “We hope to see more young people making a positive choice when they leave school to enter the world of work and business here in the Outer Hebrides,” the program’s organizer, Angus Campbell, told the local Hebrides News.
Failing to keep the islands populated would effectively mean giving up a piece of their ecological richness. No one around to cultivate the land would mean no more food for those earthworms that feed the birds—birds that are running out of places to go.
The day before we left the islands we met up with Johanne Ferguson, a biologist who works for Scottish Natural Heritage, the historical preservation program of the Scottish government. Her parents were born on the Outer Hebrides, and so were her grandparents. She took us up to a hillside that overlooked the stunning wild lands of the Uists. Then we walked down a small road on the way back to the car. “What makes these islands so special,” she said, “is that development and conservation efforts can work together.” In other words, the place wouldn’t be a good model for the rest of the world if it disappeared.