Sir Hugh Munro probably didn’t realise what he had started when, in 1981, he submitted his Tables of the 3000-feet Mountains of Scotland to the relevant committee of the Scottish Mountaineering Club. In fact, for a number of years the making of lists lay dormant and It wasn’t until the widow of J. Rooke Corbett found among her late husband’s papers a further list of Scottish Mountains that matters moved on. It appeared to have been compiled with considerable care and closer examination revealed it to be an inventory of all the Scottish Hills that lay above 2500 feet but below Munro’s 3000ers. More importantly it became clear that Corbett thought a hill only worth including if it had a drop of 500 feet on all sides. This raised the question of what criteria should be applied to decide whether a mountain was indeed a mountain and not a mere top. Once the dust of war and subsequent rationing had settled, the climbing world again turned its attention to providing an answer. First, George Bridges tried to add science to Munros instinct and produced a rather complicated formula to decide which of the summits in England were mountains in their own right and not a mere subsidiary Top. Others followed and by the time the century had drawn to a close, matters had moved apace, with a plethora of lists of hills over 2000 feet in England (Bridges), specific parts of England (Wainwright), Wales (Nuttall), Ireland (Dillon) and Scotland (Graham). At this point it seemed that the traditional debate was more or less exhausted and any new list must involve some lateral thinking.
Finally, the veil was sundered. A new entry was made in the compendium of inventories and the world witnessed the birth of the SIB. A SIB is a Significant Island of the British Isles and Alan Holmes is their guardian. Of course, before making his decisions, the perpetrator, in the manner of Munro before him, had to answer the question of when an island is an island and not a mere rock in the sea. Donne’s opinion that “No man is an island” is generally held to be true, even though the Dean of St Paul’s seemed to have overlooked the Isles of Man, Wight and a variety of Aged Males dotted around the Scottish coastline, but that particular dictum seemed of little help. There are other more pressing matters to be taken into consideration. Does the bridge joining the mainland to Skye and the causeway that now stretches between South Uist and the Isle of Eriskay mean the insular romance of The Misty Isle and Whisky Galore no longer exists? Is Holy Island to be disregarded when the tides of the North Sea roll back from the Northumbrian coast? At one stage there was some shadow-play about an island being able to sustain a certain number of sheep, but the squabble surrounding a definitive choice of breed tended to throw more heat than light on the subject.
Eventually Mr Holmes spoke and a decision was reached. A SIB is “naturally occurring land, which at MHWS is shown on available OS mapping to be completely surrounded by water, with either an area of at least 30 hectares within the MHWS contour line or an ‘easily accessed’ summit prominence of at least 30 metres above MSL, all man-made links and structures being discounted”. Thus, a new Ticker’s Target was born. The Completionists of all other Lists rolled up their sleeves and the pusillanimous breathed a sigh of relief that the aforementioned Old Men had been put firmly out of bounds. And that seemed to be that. But he then weakened and added to his list an addendum of SQUIBs. These are islands that don’t fit the above criteria but, broadly speaking, are ones that the author rather likes.
So, when it comes to islands and lists thereof, the rules are clear. There are no rules. Now that the door has been opened to personal preference, there is no reason why you can’t have a list of your own. Shall we call them SIFTAs (Suitable Islands for The Aged). Such a definitive list could take many forms – all the islands in the Outer Hebrides whose summit is over a certain height, all the Marilyns on all the islands that can be reached by public transport, all the islands that have managed to avoid having ‘island’ in their title. In fact, the possible combinations are so numerous you could end up with an album alborum which becomes a tick-list in its own right.
The attraction of discriminate ‘squibbling , if I may be allowed to enlarge on Mr Holmes’ neologism, is that it offers a distinct advantage over the ticking of some remote and bog-bound HUMP, TUMP or LUMP. Among these benefits is the journey itself. There is the world of difference between leaving port with the intention of reaching the highest point of some far-flung island and boarding the No 27 bus to the outskirts of Wigan to claim a famous victory via the ascent of Billinge Hill. With the former, your island destination first appears as a speck on the horizon and then both it and number of passengers on deck increase in size as interest is aroused. Slowly, shape hardens into detail, blocks of buildings separate into a church, pub and isolated homestead. Sounds are added to sight and then in an apparent rushing swirl, individual faces are discernible anxiously scanning the passengers for friends and relations. As for the latter, the less said the better.
There is no better example of this than a journey to the Isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides. As you approach, Heaval, the island’s highest point and your eventual goal looms above the village of Castlebay. Though only 1250 feet above the quayside it still has the feel of a proper hill. It is a pleasant enough climb to the top but the real bonus is the view. It is unlikely that Shakespeare ever visited this particular spot but his description in Antony & Cleopatra of islands were as plates (silver coins) dropped from his pockets seems to capture the confused profusion of this part of the archipelago. It is only when you stand at the Trig Point, slowly taking in the scene from all quarters, that you realise that OS map 31, which you studied so assiduously before setting sail, is now laid out at your feet in all its varying shapes and shades.