Books can do many things. Usually they are intended primarily to inform or to entertain. "The Viking Isles " by Paul Murton does both of those things. More important, however, is the way it excites and enthuses. There are books out there that cover Orkney and Shetland in more detail and in a more pocket-friendly format, but that's not really the point. What Paul Murton succeeds in doing is conveying his love for the islands off Scotland's north coast, and he does so in a way that is both moving and infectious. Many will be familiar with Paul Murton. He's the presenter of BBC TV's "Grand Tours of the Scottish Islands", as it says on the book's front cover, and you can think of this book as in some ways being the written embodiment of the TV programmes. Though only up to a point: this is a book that stands on its own merits, and you certainly don't need to have seen Paul Murton on your TV to be caught up in the sheer magic of Orkney and Shetland.
In many ways you can see the book as a personal journey. The author sets the scene in his introduction. "I have felt the call of the Northern Isles - Orkney and Shetland - since childhood. I'm not sure why they've had this fascination for me, but perhaps it has something to do with my father's Norwegian Background. When I was a boy, he introduced me to the delights of the higher latitudes... When I was a teenager, I hitch-hiked and travelled through arctic Norway and Sweden, but our own Scottish 'far north' remained a mystery. As the years went by, the desire to visit grew stronger and stronger... This book of my travels in the Viking Isles is necessarily a personal one and is dedicated to the memory of my father and his northern soul."
What you get is a beautifully-produced, large format book that is engagingly written and superbly-illustrated, in may cases with the author's own photographs. The book divides into two parts, looking first at Shetland and then at Orkney. There is a large, clear and very necessary map at the beginning of each part, which is then divided into further geographical subdivisions. Shetland is dealt with by looking first at South Mainland and the Southern Isles, then North Mainland, then Island Outliers, and finally the Northern Isles. The second half of the book looks at the Mainland of Orkney; then the Northern Archipelago; then the islands around Scapa Flow. The text is obviously well-researched and informative, but this is no dry guide book. Wherever you look, you get a blend of fact and background with the author's personal account of the places he has seen and the people he has met on the way. Essential reading for anyone really wanting to get under the skin of the islands beyond mainland Scotland's north coast.