We are on the small ferry bouncing back over pillow-sized waves from the Small Isles off Mallaig. You know the ones: Canna, run by the National Trust; Rum, by the government; Eigg by the community; and Muck by a resident laird.
The view back from the boat to the islands will ever be precious to my memory. A minke whale is spotted, then a bonxie, then some dolphins, finally, oh Lord can you believe it, a rare grey phalarope – a tiny wader no bigger than a shoe – is spotted nestling in the lee of a wave as if quizzically pondering its current journey from the Arctic to Africa.
On board I meet a German banker. He's in his mid-40s and has expensive tweeds, a deer-shooting rifle in its shiny silver case, and that sort of confident sheen about him – the brown patina probably accreted from dozens of undeserved holidays under carefully chosen suns. The bastard.
But a nice man, I would guess, and with sharp intelligent eyes that probably miss little.
'Right,' I yell in Herr Today's mahogany brown lug above the roar of the boat's engines. 'What do you German bankers think of Brexit?'
'Mad! We think you have all gone crazy. My company has already taken all its staff out of London and I know of other banks that are moving theirs too. Soon the city of London will be cheaper for your housing. It will be a shell. We German bankers like it. More work for us!'
He laughs in a way that I don't like much. I don't laugh. I've seen the figures – a huge tax revenue comes out of the city of London. You may not like capitalism but by God it pays for a lot of our social services.
The boat thunders on. I used to be a geography teacher and I specialised in field trips to the Small Isles, dissecting their contrasting systems of land management. Four systems all close together – perfect for cost-efficient contrast.
Keen to impress the banker with my local knowledge, I sweep my hand across the panoply of islands listing their ownership systems, with a no doubt unnecessarily verbose patter. Herr Today probably doesn't realise how much I love the Small Isles, both for their beauty and people. My family have lived in the Hebrides for generations and I am more Gael that teutonic. He is the opposite. Cool-headed, objective, incisive. Wouldn't dance a reel sober. He probably dreams in ledgers, whilst I dance in my dreams. But suddenly he too is almost passionate: 'They are very beautiful but soon, after Brexit, you won't be able to afford them. How much do they cost to run?' I shrug and tell him it's impossible to be anything other than wildly speculative.
If I hazarded a guess, I would say that between 1995 and 2015 over £100m was invested in them, though a good deal of that was still there in piers and infrastructure. Current maintenance, including transport, education, health, scientists, buildings? £3-5m a year, though again some of that includes capital costs that will last. Quite a lot of money, really, given that the population then hovered around 250. Indeed, a fleet of helicopters based in Mallaig would probably be cheaper. And they could have thrown in the cost of the messages they fetched for nought.
He shakes his head. 'And how much of that subsidy money was from Europe?' Again I shrug. It's hard to see someone you love being reduced to the value of their skin, bones and teeth. I wouldn't die for Scotland but I might well put myself in the way of danger for the Hebrides. How much are the Small Isles worth to the nation? It's like asking the value of Scotland's soul.
And now it's his turn to shudder. 'My worry is that Britain leaving Europe will lead to France doing the same, and after the economic meltdown will come political nastiness...divisive nationalism, the far right and racism. You will be struggling to find the money to support your wild places if the people in your cities are getting hungry and your NHS starts to buckle under the weight of your baby boomers. It may become like Greece. We should have let that country die to show the others what can happen. You might become the new Greece.'
And so we turn our attention to Rum where the banker has been shooting stags. We talk about how over £900,000 has just been spent on the construction of a hostel for 15, and how more than that was once spent on a similar hostel on Canna which was opened by the Princess Royal and how many years later it has never housed a single customer as it leaks so much. Would such money have been so wasted if it had come from the pocket of a local laird living on the island? Would John Lorne, the former owner of Canna, have tolerated such funds being wasted in front of his eyes?
These are interesting questions and I ask the banker for his comment. I tell him I am a long-term supporter of all the islands but worry what will happen if the subsidy taps are turned off. If they are left to the market, how long till the Chinese get them, just as they have already got so much of Africa? He says nothing but gazes back at the islands and I am aware that, just like me, he too loves them very much. As he ought to. They are gems beyond price. Breathtakingly lovely and populated by a people who are often there because they feel that they are making a contribution worth sweating for.
'That castle on Rum is falling to pieces, you know. The cellars are flooded and the water is coming up the sandstone. They have already stripped the billiard room...the place should be stripped of its treasures and allowed to fall down.' I tell him I once suggested to a leading politician, off the record, that the best thing to do with Kinloch Castle was to sell it to a very rich man who would spend the millions needed on the sole condition that limited access was allowed. And he had agreed but said that such a solution was politically impossible.
And so the boat pulls into Arisaig on the mainland and we shake hands and gaze, not this time back to the Small Isles but over eastwards to the one-sixth of the land mass of Britain – the Highlands – where the problems and costs of the Small Isles can be multiplied many hundreds of times over.
It's quite a question. Just supposing my German acquaintance was right and Brexit leads to nationalism and economic blight at a very time when the NHS and other social services are under increased pressure, will we be able to afford the massive levels of subsidy that we are currently putting in? And what will be the arguments? We should save them, they are so important. Well, how
important? And why
Won't the people of Govan get a bit cheesed off if they are told that their grannies can't have much health support because the people of the Small Isles are being subsidised to the tune of tens of thousands of pounds each per year? I have often asked this question of politicians and their answers have often been crass. 'Would you rather see them empty?' They wriggle with their silly word games. The truth is, we have no national policy regarding why we support the wild places and how we should achieve that national policy. It's all just waffled over.
We have to bite the bullet and accept that although it may turn the stomach we should still be courting the super rich to invest in the Highlands and islands because we have no other option, and also because they sometimes, though not always, make a pretty good job of it. The Small Isles, those delicious gems, are the undervalued and under-utilised laboratories for students seeking to study the advantages and pitfalls of the different systems of land management. They should be seen as one of Scotland's, nay Europe's, greatest educational assets. And supported with all the cash we can raise. And finally, and most importantly, that I am still available to lead geographical field trips around them, for a very reasonable fee.