THE aquamarine waves swell in and out, crashing crystal clear on the sand that stretches as far as the eye can see, white and powdery as any Caribbean dream. It’s 3pm in December and the sun is already setting behind the hills, turning the sky a cobalt blue straight from the brush of Matisse.

The handful of souls dotted on the beach today, human and canine, know what to expect from this extraordinary place. Luskentyre in winter is bracing, to be sure; the wind can get up at any time here on Harris, the sky can switch from blue to slate in a heartbeat, snuffing out the light and unleashing the sort of hoolie that keeps you inside for days. In summer, meanwhile, though the sunsets seem to go on forever, it never actually gets dark.

That’s what draws folk here in all weathers in every season, the drama of the natural light shows, the steadfastness of the mountains beyond. Perhaps above all, the comfort of your own smallness.

When I think of Scotland’s islands, what always comes to mind first is that rarely achieved feeling of living in the moment, of weather and landscape encompassing and overpowering everything in its wake, including the people. Especially the people. It is striking that almost everyone you talk to about the islands, be they inhabitant or visitor, young or old, male or female, will invariably bring the conversation round to these three themes: landscape, weather and community, and all are highlighted in this book.

You won't see people in the pages of this visual odyssey, yet their presence is indelible in the boats, tractors and fences, the white-washed cottages, churches and distilleries. The standing stones and ancient remains remind us that island communities have been surviving, sometimes thriving, for many thousands of years, bringing up families, working the land and the sea, worshipping, celebrating, mourning and fighting.

The abandoned settlements, meanwhile, highlight a past in which communities ultimately did not thrive, and it’s telling that many of Scotland’s islands were more populated in the past than they are now.

The changes in fortunes and demographics over the centuries are many and complicated, as complex and diverse as the 790-plus islands themselves, which vary in size, geography, population, language, history, tradition, economy and prosperity, situated in different groupings and bodies of water, some closer to the mainland than others.

The climate and seasons affect them in very different ways, as do their influences; Islay off the south west of Scotland, just 24 miles from the Irish coastline, is clearly very different from Shetland, in the far north east, which is halfway to Norway and didn’t become part of Scotland till the 15th century.

Some islands move your soul more than others; a certain walk taken at a certain time of year with a loved one lingers long in the imagination, a special sunset over a favourite bay cries out to be relished over and over. How wonderful that the exploring, appreciating and comparing of the islands takes a lifetime.

My own introduction to them came, like that of so many other people, in early childhood during cheerful Fair Fortnight holidays in the Firth of Clyde – Millport on Great Cumbrae and Rothesay on Bute – where bike rides, ice cream floats and sails on the Waverley made memories.

The bond was strengthened in my early-20s when, seeking respite from difficult times, I packed a rucksack in the summer of 1996 and took off in a Fiat Panda. I hoped a weekend away on Arran would sort my head out. It did. But I just kept going and six weeks and a maxed-out credit card later, I’d also fallen in love with Islay and Jura, Eigg and Rum, Mull, Iona, Skye and Raasay.

Over the next few summers I explored Tiree and Coll, Lewis and Harris, Barra and the Uists for the first time, and more recently I’ve had the pleasure of exploring Orkney and Shetland. Like many city dwellers who love the islands I also managed to engineer close friends who live on one, and I am fortunate enough to spend time on Harris every year, usually in winter.

What draws this townie back again and again? The same thing that probably attracts most dreamers, an addiction to that feeling of being in the moment I referred to earlier, the comforting recognition of one’s own tiny place in things. I also can’t live for long without with the flora and fauna, the majestic eagles flying across the mountains, the wild flowers growing in the machair, the shimmer of the dolphins swimming alongside your boat, the seals sunbathing on the rocks. Animals, wild, domestic and everything in between, somehow seem all the more remarkable on the islands, whether it’s the deer swimming from islet to islet off Islay, or the hardy wee Hebridean sheep stoically munching in 70mph winds on Lewis.

The history of the people draws me in, too. Speak to islanders and the stories you’ll hear passed down the generations will inevitably feature hard lives lived on the edge of the world. But what‘s even more striking is how folk have always adapted, and in doing so they’ve found innovative ways to live and work. Think of the contemporary Harris Tweed designs that sit alongside the traditional patterns and adorn catwalks in Paris, Milan and Tokyo. Think of the island whisky distilleries using social media to market the uniqueness of their product, enticing visitors and income from around the world. Consider the way our digital world has created so many opportunities for people to thrive in island communities, from web designers to renewable energy providers to crofters, and the arts festivals and stunning restaurants that add to the vibrant culture for locals and visitors alike.

Scotland's changing political landscape, the recent journey towards self-determination that started with the vote for devolution and the establishment of a Scottish Parliament in the late 1990s, also continues to have a profound effect on the life of the islands. In 2018 Ulva, off the coast of Mull, became the latest island to successfully complete the community buy-out process that has already put Eigg, Rum, Gigha, Great Bernera, as well as parts of Lewis and Harris, into the hands of the people that live there. No doubt the success of the scheme will inspire others to press for change. Eigg, which in 2017 celebrated 20 years of community ownership, has seen its population rise, while retaining and attracting more young people with better job opportunities and more affordable housing. The island is also leading the way environmentally by producing much of its own energy and in those terms this tiny island of 87 people has much to teach the mainland.

The world has certainly woken up to the beauty of Scotland's islands, with tourism booming across the Hebrides and the Northern Isles. In years gone by a trip to the islands would likely be a rather primitive – if charming – affair in terms of accommodation and food. How things change. Our islands are home to some of the best restaurants, hotels and Airbnbs in the country, showcasing local produce and hospitality at its very best. Eating scallops and langoustines straight out of the loch on Skye, or enjoying a dram by the fireside on Islay are some of life’s great pleasures. Such experiences used to be well-kept secrets, but are now just as likely to top “must-do” food and travel lists as Scotland’s reputation – and visitor numbers – continue to soar. Packed Cal Mac ferries are good news for island economies, of course, though questions remain about whether the infrastructure can cope. Whether fragile eco-systems will be adversely affected by tourism is also a cause for concern.

Not for the first time, Orkney was recently voted the best place in Britain to live, commended for its affordable property, excellent education, high employment, vibrant cultural scene and community cohesion. I can think of many other Scottish islands that offer a similarly high quality of life. How interesting that in this era of mega-cities and unlimited digital networking, urban isolation is also on the rise and it is our most remote places that are often seen to provide the things so many of us crave: community and authenticity.