The Magic of an Island by Malachy Tallack

Malachy Tallack
Category: Writing

This is a creative piece of work inspired by Malachy's stay in Grez as part of the Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship. 

Click here to learn more about the Fellowship.


The Magic of an Island

The story of Treasure Island has enraptured generations of children, as well as many older armchair adventurers. But that story did not begin with its tale of pirates and buried gold. Nor did it begin with the novel’s famous characters, Jim Hawkins, Billy Bones and Long John Silver. The story began, in fact, with a map.

In the summer of 1881, Robert Louis Stevenson was holidaying in a cottage in Braemar, together with his wife Fanny and her twelve-year-old son, Lloyd. Housebound by the weather for much of the time, Stevenson tried his best to entertain the boy. And though Lloyd was not a reader, he did enjoy painting, so his step-father would sometimes join him at the easel.

‘On one of these occasions, I made the map of an island; it was elaborately and (I thought) beautifully coloured; the shape of it took my fancy beyond expression; it contained harbours that pleased me like sonnets; and with the unconsciousness of the predestined, I ticketed my performance “Treasure Island.”’

That map was the seed from which the tale grew.

‘Somewhat in this way, as I paused upon my map of “Treasure Island,” the future character of the book began to appear there visibly among imaginary woods; and their brown faces and bright weapons peeped out upon me from unexpected quarters, as they passed to and fro, fighting and hunting treasure, on these few square inches of a flat projection. The next thing I knew I had some papers before me and was writing out a list of chapters.’

In Shetland, it is often said that Stevenson based this map on that of Unst, Britain’s most northerly island, and comparing the outlines one can find certain similarities. There is, for instance, the smaller isle bay-bound in the southeast corner – the fictional Skeleton Island in place of the real-life Uyea. Both maps also have a distinctive promontory in the northwest; and in overall shape the two are not entirely dissimilar, though not exactly alike.

Stevenson would in fact have been familiar with the map of Unst, since he had been there himself at the age of eighteen. His father and uncle built the lighthouse at Muckle Flugga, at the very northern tip of the island, and in 1869 he had gone to see it for himself. It is not entirely unfeasible that his memory of that place provided inspiration for the painting he made a dozen years later. Not unfeasible, but perhaps not likely either.

One of the notable things about drawing an imaginary island is that inspiration is not required; there is almost nothing easier to depict on paper. A single, unbroken line is all that’s needed: an empty space, enclosed. That single line can be as simple or as intricate as one wants to make it. But the magic of the space within is that it cannot remain empty. Once enclosed, the space becomes its own inspiration.

A sweeping inward curve becomes a sandy bay; a wayward bump becomes a rocky headland. From there, the white of the paper begins to fade. A dent in the coastline implies a river mouth, which implies a river. A narrow inlet suggests a harbour. Valleys and hills emerge. A town, perhaps. And people, too. As Stevenson learned, an island creates its own characters. It writes its own story.


Cover of The Un-Discovered Islands
Competition: Win a copy of The Un-Discovered Islands

Malachy recently published his second book, The Un-Discovered Islands, in collaboration with illustrator Katie Scott and the good folk at Birlinn have given us two copies to give away.

All you have to do to enter is email your answer to the below question marked 'Malachy Tallack Competition':


- In Shetland, which island do some people claim Steveson based his designs for Treasure Island on?

Closing date: 17:00, Thursday 3 November 2016. Open to UK entrants only. Full terms and conditions.

Malachy Tallack

Malacy was a Robert Louis Stevenson Fellow in 2015 and a New Writer Awardee in 2014. Find out more about New Writers Awards.