The Britannias: An Archipelago’s Tale

  • By Alice Albinia
  • W.W. Norton & Company
  • 512 pp.

A charming sojourn to isles both familiar and foreign.

The Britannias: An Archipelago’s Tale

Alice Albinia’s The Britannias recounts the feminist author’s journeys to 14 islands or island chains on the fringes of the British Isles. This is a beguiling volume, brimming with impressive insight and erudition, and vibrant with autobiographical pizazz.

A watchful pilgrim by both curious nature and scholarly bent, Albinia undergirds her firsthand “voyage tales” with marvelously on-point side trips through history, custom, and legend. She is at her best in the destinations where her wayfaring forays slip into sustained sojourns, as they do in Orkney, a fishing center that lies across a narrow channel in the far north of Scotland:

“A year after my second daughter is born, in spring 2017, I move my family to Orkney. Our plan is to stay for three months: in the end, we are there for fourteen. The baby is too young to object. But my four-year-old is grave. She gives careful consideration as to which of her books and toys to bring from home.”

Motherhood is central to Albinia’s life; her daughters figure frequently in the story, reinforcing the trail of lived feminism that runs through much of the narrative. On Orkney, when she’s not tending to her kids or nudging them along in her wanderings, she works to earn her way, serving successively as an archeological digger, a hotel maid and kitchen helper, a town firefighter, and a part-time school cook.

Orkney’s location makes assigning precise nationality to its denizens something of a muddle. Historically, owing to Viking raids in the “dark” ages, many islanders can claim some Scandinavian blood and heritage, the island having changed ownership periodically. Today, it’s nominally Scottish, although many of its citizens continue to celebrate Norway’s 1905 independence from Sweden.

This dual allegiance also holds true in another Albinia destination, the Shetland Islands, invaded by Vikings in 870 CE and, within 20 years, host to a Nordic immigrant population of 24,000. These northern islands, “the most remote inhabited place in the British Isles,” lie closer to Norway than Scotland. They are reachable by ferry from Aberdeen at a cost, Albinia marvels, of £600 and 12 hours. Shetland becomes her base of operations when she signs on as a hand on a fishing trawler that works the North Sea and delivers its cargo to Norway.

She also records a brief visit to Rathlin, an island three miles north of Ireland and 20 west of Scotland. In 1569, she recounts, Rathlin was the site of a grand dynastic wedding bringing together “three great Irish and Scottish Catholic clans.” The bride was a Campbell, a widow whose husband perished fighting the English, her groom from Clan O’Neill, while the host of the affair was one Sorley MacDonnell, another relative. (Sorley’s given name is historically telling; it’s an anglicization of the [Scots] Gaelic Someirle or Norse Somerled.) Writes Albinia:

“Part of the point [of the marriage] is to unite the Irish from the north with the Scots of the western islands against the English. As Sorley later says when ransoming a hostage: ‘Inglishe men have no right to Yrland.’”

Another destination is Iona, a vanishingly small outpost associated with Irish hermit-monks who made it a shining light of scholarship and monastic literacy in the first Christian millennium. The Book of Kells was among its outputs; a bit later, The Lindisfarne Gospels, also a masterwork of manuscript illumination, was created on yet another of Albinia’s far-flung destinations, this one lying off Northumberland, on Britain’s northeastern coast.

Albinia ranges south, too, notably to the Isle of Man, a notorious tax haven, and further south still to the Channel Islands, British possessions just off the coast of Normandy, occupied by German troops early in World War II.  

Albinia supports her scholarship amply: Endnotes, a bibliography, and an index comprise almost 20 percent of the book (although the index could be more exhaustive). That said, there’s one more quibble from me. Some, if not many, of her destinations may be unfamiliar to the non-specialist American reader, yet the book includes no comprehensive map of all the islands she covers in relation to the full British landmass. This sent me scrambling to the internet to place many of the lesser-known outliers in Albinia’s archipelago.

Bob Duffy reviews frequently for the Independent.

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