Land of the Ilich: journeys into Islay’s past

Review by HB.

In this deep-dive into the archaeology of the Ilich – the people of Islay – Steven Mithen toys with the concept of insularity, presenting an account of Scotland’s southernmost Hebridean island which demonstrates that the area is by no means lacking in historical cultural connections. These stretch from mainland Britain and Ireland to Europe and beyond, as Mithen shows by combining details from his own excavations and journeys across the island by bike and foot with the latest archaeological, historical, and scientific research. The result is a breezy narrative in which readers are encouraged to accompany the author on a series of leisurely intellectual expeditions through time and space. Pit stops range from a c.12,000-year-old Ahrensburgian camp at Rubha Port an t-Seilich to the remains of a Second World War radar station, while Islay’s crannogs, forts, chambered cairns, churches, clan sites, industrial sites, distilleries, and more are brought to life thanks to Mithen’s occasionally imaginative yet learned reflections and genial prose. This is a scholarly, accessible, and very pleasant read, complemented by delicate illustrations, maps, and high-quality colour photographs.

Land of the Ilich: journeys into Islay’s past, Steven Mithen, Birlinn Ltd, £40, ISBN 978-1912476824.