There are always a few Scottish islands for sale, but this year many more are on the market, prompting fears that the fragile culture of the Western Isles is being yet further eroded. At least 19 islands off Scotland's west coast are up for sale, some going for the same price as a three- bedroom house in London. Nine islands are available in the Inner Hebrides and 10 in the Outer Hebrides.
According to Charles Dudgeon, a partner with Savills estate agents in Edinburgh, normally there are only about two or three for sale in summer. "I find this year's number staggering," he said. "Some can't be worth the candle."
Estate agents, MacDonald MacIver & Co in Stornoway, selling the cluster of 10 Outer Hebridean islands, said they have never had so many on their books before.
One island, Pabay, in particular seems to fit the bill for the buyer who has everything else - "isolation, privacy and accessibility", according to Mr Dudgeon who is selling it for more than pounds 395,000. Although it's a tiny windswept isle favoured in the past by thieves and cut-throats, Pabay is hot property now, sheltering between the Isle of Skye and the mainland and still offering seclusion and adventure. The price, he adds, includes 326 acres, a farm with wind and solar power, a harbour, a jetty, and a willing boatman who needs just pounds 50 (plus VAT) to take new residents the two miles to the island from Broadford on Skye.
Owning an island has its responsibilities, as well as its costs. Pabay has a licence to produce its own stamps and the island's owners are paid pounds 1,260 a year by the Post Office to collect and deliver their own post over the sea to Skye.
The island of Eigg is also for sale, at pounds 2m. Famous for its viol-ent history and rugged scenery, it has a population of 60, including a doctor, postman and a school-teacher, with whom the owner must consult about island matters.
New owners of the Treshnish Isles, off the west coast of Mull, will have to knuckle under, too.The islands are designated not only a Site of Special Scientific Interest, but a Special Protection Area under the EC Wild Birds Directive.
William Jackson, a partner with Knight Frank estate agents in Edinburgh, said buyers must understand the commitment attached to taking on an island. "You are king but you have to obey the law of the land.You can't take these islands with you. You can't pick them up and carry them back to America." All 10 islands for sale in the Outer Hebrides are being sold by the Mackenzies. After almost 70 years of ownership, their small fertile islands, in the Sound of Harris between Harris and North Uist, are on the market for pounds 750,000. Ensay, the largest, has three beaches and an old burial ground.
Snapshots of Ensay, Saghay Beg, Saghay More, Suem, Sleicham, Groay, Lingay, Scaravay, Crago and Vatem could soon appear in newspapers' pocket-sized adverts between the more familiar "charming rural cottages" in mid-Wales.
As it happens, the only non-Scottish island for sale, is Thorne island off the Pembrokeshire coast in west Wales, with two acres, a landing stage and a 19th-century fort as a 10-bedroom hotel.
In Wales and Scotland, the latest round of island sales worries local inhabitants and community groups. The Scottish Crofters' Union sees it as a threat to the livelihood and culture of islanders. Fiona Mandeville, a member of the Union, said that though most of the islands for sale are uninhabited, island ownership is a lottery. "There are no constraints on who can buy, but the people here are never in the position to buy one themselves," she said. "They are very much at the mercy of the owners. But the time is coming when there will have to be a change in the land- ownership laws."
Dr James Hunter, a Skye resident and a writer about Highland ownership , said that land was sold and re-sold "with extraordinary rapidity, sometimes every two or three years". He said: "Some people who acquire an island have good intentions, they want to get involved, but then they realise how expensive it is. They get fed-up and put it back on the market again."
It is unlikely, though, that these arguments, will go any way to stopping the annual island hunt, now in full spate.