Using old vans for storage

After All: Islanders show that remoteness breeds resourcefulness

Image credit: Vitali Vitaliev

Small islands are not normally associated with cutting-edge technology. In his second column on his recent expedition to the remote Scottish Islands, Vitali tries to break that stereotype.

Modern technology is always one step ahead of me. Before sitting down to write this second column about my recent journey to the Scottish Islands on board MV Greg Mortimer, I thought it would be good to know which seas the hardworking small ship was surfing at that particular moment. I was about to phone Aurora Expeditions, the vessel’s owner, when an IT-savvy friend referred me to the website www.vesselfinder.com.

From there I gleaned that: “The current position of Greg Mortimer is at North East Atlantic Ocean (coordinates 65.5679 N / 24.6406 W) reported 11 days ago by AIS. The vessel is en route to the port of Sisimiut, Greenland, sailing at a speed of 10.6 knots... Current draught: 5.2m...”

I could almost feel a cool Arctic whiff of the “5.2m draught” on my face, the draught that would ruffle my hair all the way to the mysterious Greenland port of Sisimiut.

In my previous Greg Mortimer column, I focused primarily on the ship herself – brand-new and stuffed with state-of-the-art bang-up-to-date technologies – from the inverted Ulstein X-Bow and Rolls-Royce dynamic stabilisers to variable-pitch propellers, semi-balanced rudders and (my favourite gadgets) two upper-deck Jacuzzi baths, sticking out of the ship’s perimeter and giving the bathers an illusion of flying high above the sea, like guillemots or albatrosses.

Today, I want to talk about my technology-related experiences on the islands themselves.

“Wait a moment,” I can hear you saying. “What kind of technologies can you possibly find on those remote and barren rocks?”
Well, you will be surprised. Let’s start with the island of Eigg, which became the first community in the world to achieve complete renewable energy self-sufficiency.

During the expedition, I found out that several other Scottish islands are now following closely in Eigg’s environmentally friendly footsteps (Rum, Ulva, Gigha etc). Recently, they were joined by the whole of the Orkney archipelago, which became fully self-sufficient and now produces 120 per cent of the energy it requires, mostly due to 650 (!) wind turbines and “the world’s most powerful tidal turbine” – Orbital Marine Power’s 2MV O2 – in its waters since 2021.

Strolling through the semi-deserted streets of the Orkney capital Kirkwall on a Sunday morning, I picked up a copy of the ‘Islander’ magazine, from which I learned that little Orkney has also pioneered the first hybrid-electric aircraft in Scotland and the world’s first floating wave energy device to generate electricity to the national grid.

In the main street of Kirkwall, I accidentally stumbled upon the family home of one of my favourite travel writers, Samuel Laing, Esq. He crossed the Channel to France on one of the first paddle steamers and wrote euphorically about “the great democratic power of steam” in his book ‘Observations on the Social and Political State of the European People’, published in London 1850 – the pride of my ever-growing old book collection.

Samuel Laing (1780–1868) travelled extensively in Europe, including Norway and northern Germany, and published beautiful descriptions of these countries. I had no idea he was a native Orcadian.

So, it was there, in the Scottish Islands, that I discovered the seemingly flimsy, and yet historically logical, connection between an early steamer and the super-modern explorer ship MV Greg Mortimer.

I was excited to visit the officially remotest British island of Foula (area 4.88 square miles, population 38) which recently made history by becoming the last properly mapped area of Britain’s territory.

Foula lies on the same latitude as Saint Petersburg, but has just one road. Since the 1990s, growing numbers of tourists, mostly bird watchers, have been making their way to Foula from around the world to see its puffins, skuas, razorbills, gannets and more. That was probably why Ordnance Survey mapmakers finally put the island on a separate custom-made OS Explore 1:7500 scale map.

The map was published in 2017 and immediately became a collector’s item, alongside the recently released OS maps of Mars and the Moon. As a map addict myself, I can boast of being a proud owner of all three.

While on Foula, I was shown around by Sheila Gear, an islander and a writer, who authored the book ‘Island West of the Sun’. She first took me to a peat moorland past the island’s school, with just five students at the moment. Peat is still harvested for fuel in the traditional fashion here – cut with a long hand-held blade, known as a ‘tusker’.

The ingenuity of the islanders has no limits. Sheila pointed out several old cars, parked near houses and serving as wardrobes, storage closets and even rubbish bins. She explained that since it is very hard to get rid of old cars in Foula due to its isolation from the mainland, the islanders find other uses for them.

Sheila also introduced me to the island’s unique technology of water supply via an underground pipe network, which the islanders had themselves invented and built. The water is collected at a spring and processed at a water treatment facility in the centre of the isle. The treated water is then pumped daily to two holding tanks, one at each end of the island, from where gravity feeds the flow into each property.

Of course, that was a fairly simple achievement on the global scale, but for the tiny island it was as important as the first water channels built by the Romans over 1,000 years ago – on par with the discovery of electricity or the world’s first space flight.

Following this line of thinking, I wasn’t particularly surprised to read in the ‘i’ newspaper on returning home about a new space port they are planning to build on the faraway Shetland Island of Unst.

And why not? To paraphrase an old Latin saying, per insulae ad astra! Through islands to the stars!

Vitali travelled as a guest of Aurora Expeditions.

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