European Small Islands Federation

Archive for People

Songs from an island


I disembark a ferry in the port of Hydra in early spring 2005 and take the street to the right of the clock tower. The street bends to the left then to the right past a supermarket. I keep going till I come to an open area with a taverna on the right and tables across the street on the left. Right after the taverna I turn right and go up the steps, turn left onto a street which is mainly steps going up, keep going till I come to a street named A.KRIEZI (unusually there is a street name sign), turn right and walk till I come to the Four Corners yellow-painted supermarket. Turning down the narrow lane on my right at the side of the supermarket, I take the lane to the left and then quickly right and end up in front of Leonard Cohen’s house, with a double grey door and a large hand knocker.

2005 is the year when it becomes known that Cohen’s manager has stolen all his assets, which makes him tour the world again and sing his old songs some of which are written here, on this small island in the Saronic Gulf 2 ferry hours from Athens.

He comes to Hydra in from London in 1960 and buys this house half a year later, living here with Marianne Ihlsen who is typing at a table on Cohen’s battered Olivetti on the back cover of the album Songs from a Room (1967), smiling in half-embarrassment at the camera. Cohen writes his novels The Favourite Game (1963) and Beautiful Losers (1966), and the songs for his first albums which include the classic anthem So Long, Marianne, about their parting.


In a letter to his sister, Cohen describes how gangs of carousing locals stumble drunkenly up the steps of his street, “their arms about each other’s shoulders, singing magnificent close harmony”. This inspires the line “like a drunk in a midnight choir” in the Bird on the Wire song, written on Hydra and finished in a motel on Sunset Boulevard in 1969. It’s origin is disarmingly literal: when he first arrives on Hydra there are no wires on the island. In the mid-1960s, the arrival of telephone poles and electricity means that wires appeares for the first time on the landscape, slung loosely across alleyways, including outside his house. At first Cohen is despondent but then he notices birds come to the wires. And the song is born.

Having got much criticism from his friends for the musical setting of his first album which included strings and horns, his second album Songs from a Room is much more sparse. The songs are immensely beautiful in their minimalistic settings, they have a singular integrity and are prior to none. I never zap or skip any of the tracks, always listening to the album in the way it was conceived. They are songs from a man called Leonard, from an island called Hydra.


Leonard Cohen passed away on November 7, 2016, 82 years old.

Greek TV covers the small islands of Europe


Greek journalist Kostas Argyros, seconded by Eleni Korovila and a film team, has been island-hopping around Europe, covering some of its small islands. On Sunday evening, the Greek television program “28europe” showed his 45 minute long report


Such great contributions from islanders Bengt, Lefteris, Tarja, Camille, Christian, Denis, Laurids and Maria. Such beautiful portraits of Skaftö (though Bengt seems a bit mislocated), Prangli in Estonia, Eigg in Scotland, the Åland Islands, Houat and Ouessant in France, Sejerø in Denmark and Tilos in Greece. But not just beauty – Kostas catches some of the important issues regarding life on small islands.

I especially like the interviews with Tarja from Prangli and Maria from Tilos.

tarja maria

All in all: a fantastic portrait of ESIN (the only thing missing is English subtitles).

You can’t be an island on an island like this


Georgia is a golden-haired, 18-month-old girl whose smile lights up the room. Being the first person to be born on Easdale for 80 years, she occupies a special place in the hearts of everyone on this rocky island lying east of Mull, close to the coast of Scotland.

It seems almost everybody of the 70 inhabitants played a part in her safe delivery into this world last July. She is the daughter of Lyndsay and Dave Munro and, as her time approached, a helicopter complete with doctors and midwives was scrambled to fly her to Paisley and the security of a consultant-led team. “However, she had obviously waited long enough,” said Lyndsay, “and decided to make an early entrance. The midwives and doctors simply decided to make the house a maternity ward as it became clear there would be no birth in Paisley that night.”

Her birth, it seemed, was like a sanctification of Easdale and some of those who witnessed it were profoundly affected. Lyndsay said: “I even received gifts for her from some Americans who were visiting the island that week and were caught up in all the drama.”


Easdale belongs to the sprawling council area of Argyll and Bute. Mike MacKenzie, the MSP for the Highlands and Islands, has his home on Easdale, where he has lived for 36 years after being brought up in Glasgow.

“Easdale is a microcosm of what’s been happening in this part of Scotland for many years,” he said. “Now we want to address the situation and maintain this island’s long-term viability. I’m originally from Oban with roots in Argyll going back generations, like many on the island. But after being reared and educated in Glasgow, I knew I just had to return here to put down roots. I only got involved in local politics because I simply didn’t think the council properly understood how much potential we have here and how to develop it.”

This is a place that, on your first few encounters, seems to offer the prospect of gifts to requite the yearnings of any soul. With this though, comes a challenge to any sense of self-reliance or instant gratification. It calls for the humility of having to rely on others.

“You can’t be an island on an island like this,” says MacKenzie.

Last month the islanders’ gentle Mayday message was carried into the world in a stunning eight-minute film called “Easdale – A wild Community”. It was shot and produced free of charge by Patrick Rowan, who works with the island outdoor activities firm, Seafari Adventures. Using time-lapse and pull focus filming techniques, it captures the beauty of this place in all its car-free glory better than mere words.


Bob Dylan receives the Nobel Prize in literature

Not much of an islander and not much of an island poet except for his 1960 bootleg recording of Woody Guthrie’s ”This Land is Your Land ” where the text goes “This land is your land, this land is my land, from California to New York island”.

New York an island? Well, I know that Manhattan is the same size as my own island Kökar (58 square kilometres) – but there are much more people on Manhattan. I also know that New York has some beautiful small islands: in the Long Island Sound alone there are 20 islands, once known as the Devil’s Stepping Stones because of an Native American fable.

The Upper East Side Reef is populated by 12,300 inmates and their officers, the island is barely 400 acres and serves as New York’s main jail complex. The only way you’re visiting here is getting yourself arrested.


Hart Island is populated only by the dead: it is a cemetary with well over a million souls buried beneath it, a third of them infants and stillborn babies. A sad and beautiful place where you could play Dylan’s ”Forever Young” in your headphones. One of his great songs that merit the prize. Says an old fan.

Shetland Conference

The documents from the Shetland conference are now available here:

Poster Agenda - Shetland - COTER Seminar

Poster Agenda – Shetland – COTER Seminar

program cattaneo-and-robinson delegates cattaneo-twitter-2

Raffaele Cattaneo and Gary Robinson (courtesy of Shetland News), the attendees and the auditorium (courtesy Raffaele Cattaneos Twitter)

On Friday, the EU’s powerful Committee of Regions (CoR) held a one-day seminar in Lerwick (Shetland), entitled ”Overcoming Barriers To Economic Development – A Remote Island Perspective”.

Among the attendees were chairman of the European Small Islands Federation (ESIN) Bengt Almkvist, Scottish Islands Federation chairman Camille Dressler, Orkney Islands Council convener Steven Heddle, University of Edinburgh’s Professor James Mitchell and Gary Robinson, Shetland Islands Council leader last year.

The EU’s Committee of the Regions’ territorial cohesion chairman Raffaele Cattaneo backed Gary Robinson man by suggesting the EU exit was a “great mistake” for Britain. Gary Robinson is one of a handful of Scottish members on the CoR, which aims to give a greater voice to local areas.

The overarching objective of the seminar was to give the CoR a better understanding of the issues faced by rural locations like Shetland when it comes to economic development. One of the key issues of the seminar was connection to high-speed broadband, while transport and an ageing population was also highlighted. The auditorium was packed with delegates from countries as far flung as Greece, Latvia and Slovakia.

See the Shetland News

Bengt Almkvist was brilliant, says Camille Dressler, and continues: It was a wonderful farewell to ESIN involvement for Bengt. He is retiring after 15 years devoted work as founder and chairman. Bengt was born on a Wednesday 25,568 days ago, turning 70 today. Congratulations!


Bengt Almkvist – 70 years today

Primary schools study

Peter Gill

Peter Gill is an Irishman living on Clare Island but he is a also a Professor Emeritus in Sweden, living what he calls a ‘bifurcated life’ between Clare Island and Sweden. He has a deep interest in islands and islandness (se for example from 1994). Together with Gráinne Kelly, he has just pu blished a report entitled ‘Rural Schools as Hubs for the Socio-Educational Development for the Community’.

Dr Gill argues that ‘a classic challenge to the survival of small rural communities is the closure of the local primary school’. He has examined the huge trend of migration towards urban centres and the purchase of island properties by ‘the bourgeois for holiday homes’. The bourgeois of the urban regions have, first of all segregated themselves, by habitation segregation, usually economically, through the price of houses.

Dr Gill compares Ireland and Sweden: “In 2009 more than half the world’s population lived in urban regions, and this drag to municipal centres remains unabated. Islands are at the forefront of this demographic perturbation, which involves significant depopulation and symbolic, partial, repopulation in the process called ‘gentrification’.  While Ireland’s more-populace eleven inhabited islands have 13 schools, Sweden has 541 inhabited islands, with 39 schools on 33 of them. “The facts are hard for at least four of Ireland’s islands, with two to eight children in their schools. In the Swedish ‘gentrified islands’, for example Sandhamn which has over 100 all-year-round inhabitants but over one thousand summer residents. It has no children of school-going age.’

Thanks to the fish farm on Clare Island, there are as many families with children in the school as there were in 1963. The school is vibrant, and the evidence is overwhelming that, contrary to a supposition of educational deprivation, the children from Clare Island school have done amazingly well,” he continues.

Clare Island is one of only four of the Irish islands in the study which experienced an increase in population between 1996 and 2011 (25 percent) and the least decrease in school enrolment (23 percent) between 1992 and 2015. It had 20 pupils enrolled in 2015, as opposed to 26 in 1992.

Co Cork’s Sherkin, on the other hand, experienced a 16 percent increase in population between 1996-2011 but a whopping 86 percent decrease in school enrolments between 1992-2015. Co Mayo’s Inishturk experienced the same dramatic decrease in enrolments (86 percent), says Dr Gill, with a 36 percent decline in its population from 1996-2011.

The islands included in the study are Bere, Cape Clear, Sherkin (Co Cork); Tory, Árainn Mhór, Inis Meain, Inis Oirr, Inis Mór, Inishbofin (Co Galway); Inishturk, Clare Island (Mayo).

Thanks Rhoda Twombly for observing this interesting article which can be read in full on the Mayo News here The full study – which is still a draft – is included below.


Baby boom island

Georg Fredrik and Jim

Rathlin Island is the only inhabited island of Northern Ireland, of particular importance for its nesting seabirds, its heathland habitats and rare nudibranchs. Four areas are designated as Areas of Special Scientific Interest (Kinramer South, Ballygill North, Ballycarry and the Rathlin coast). In addition, the offshore reefs, vegetated cliffs, sea caves and shallow covered sandbanks have been designated as an EU Special Area of Conservation. As Irish voters supported REMAIN 56 percent to 44 percent last Friday, newspapers say there is a possibility that a UK exit from the EU could provide renewed momentum for Northern Ireland to try to leave the UK and unify with the rest of Ireland.

Rathlin adopted a development strategy in 2005 with its main focus on developing a sustainable tourism, very thorough with an audit of the islands’ carrying capacity for tourism, a market overview, a survey, benchmarks including Fair Isle, Gigha, Papa Westray and the Faroe Islands, a SWOT, a strategy, and an action plan. It seems to be working well since Rathlin has doubled its population in ten years, from 75 residents in 2001 to 130 in 2014. An RTE radio broadcast on July 25th 2014 reports a baby boom in 2014 with five babies being born that year!

Around 40,000 people visit the island every year, mainly during the nesting seabird season. Access to and from Rathlin is reached by regular ferries from Ballycastle, though visitors must travel as pedestrians unless they intend to make an extended stay. Businesses on the island are mainly in tourism. The ferry service is the island’s biggest employer.

Recently, my brother Fredrik and his friends Jim and Georg, visited the island for the sake of the nudibranchs (shell-less marine mollusk of the order Nudibranchia; a sea slug). Fredrik is  Swedish marine biologist, Jim is a Scottish architect and fan of nudibranchs as you can see here (, Greg is  a professional diver from Scotland. Their visit was organised by Bernard Picton, a legend among nudibranchers (

Photos (courtesy Fredrik Pleijel shows the passenger and vechicle ferries, the shores with chalk and black basalt stones, brown algae, a curious seal and the nudibranchs: Jonolus cristatus, Aegires punctilucens & Flabellina lineata.