WHEN it comes to one particular grammatical point, I regularly have a running battle with sub-editors. Every time I file a column with “in Tiree”, or “in Harris” or “in” any other island, they change it to “on”.

It drives me absolutely crackers. Would you say that you were “on” Edinburgh? “On Leith”?

Unless you are sunshine, then no, you absolutely would not. Ah but, they say, you are talking about islands. They are standalone objects. I might take that point but, would you say “on the UK”?

Why not? Oh, because it is a place. Made up of many entities. Too many things of importance exist for us to say “on”. “On” would reduce it to no more than a rock. Of course we wouldn’t do that.

So why do we refer to our island communities that way? On Harris, on Tiree, on Skye.

That grammatical tic is everywhere you look, and I’m proposing that it shouldn’t be. You should never be “on” a populated island. You should be “in” these places. These are communities of living, breathing people. They are stuffed with histories and stories. They are not rocks nor artefacts you just gaze at. When you write about them, you should use “in”.

It’s not hard. The difference is easy to grasp. It is the difference between a geographical feature and a town, village, community or place in which there is – or has been – habitation.

You can be on a rock. Let’s say you are on Rockall. Assuming you don’t believe in the human rights of a weather station, it is an uninhabited geographical feature which has never been home to people. (Those with a death wish and a brass neck don’t count.) So, be on it until you are blue in whichever extremity you choose.

You can be on a hill, on a mountain. You can even be on an island – if the context is geographical. You could technically be on the island of Mull. But you should always be in Mull, the place.

“Isle of”, is tricker. It can, so to speak, swing both ways. But I can be as pedantic as any online commenter; their red pen quivering in their clenched fist. So I make a point of always saying “in the Isle of”. It’s entirely deliberate. I have even written it into funding applications as an impact I want to achieve from projects – to get more people saying “in” in the context of islands – because to me, it acknowledges the communities of people.

I push the point because I firmly believe that when a living place becomes something you are “on”, or even worse, “at”, that place becomes an object. It is reduced to a mere commodity. And that is not how our islands should be seen. It is not how anyone’s home should be seen.

You can be at a theme park or a museum. You should never be “at” a town, or a village. Be at a beach, but not “at Tobermory” or “at Stornoway”. We have Zuckerberg to thank for that one. Rather than putting the effort into making the algorithm differentiate between on or in, he presumably settled on “at” during that period of social media hell where we announced our location on a per-second basis. Why? Because it was easier.

And we all started doing it. At, on. It is indeed easy. It requires no thought. And therein lies the issue.

When you are in the islands (see what I did there) there is a temptation, driven by an industry focused mainly on the view, to see them as adorable, quaint little objects where time stands still. Some people even claim to go back in time as soon as they set foot in them!

The scenery is the goal. Fewer and fewer who visit get under the skin of these places or make an effort to understand what makes them actually tick. Our homes become little more than a checkbox in an I-Spy book. “Have you done Skye?” “I’m doing Shetland next summer.”

Being “in” a place requires some mental and emotional work. If only to acknowledge the people – past and present – who made it their home.

To some it might seem over the top, it might even seem petty. But to those of us for whom it matters, it is neither.

For those of us with Gaelic on our lips, you are always in. “Ann an Tiriodh, ann am Muile.” You would never hear “on” used in Gaelic about a living place. “On” is not grammatically possible, unless it is a rock, or a skerry or something forever uninhabited. In Gaelic, we still use “in” for St Kilda – in recognition of those who were once there.

And that’s when the knife cuts that little bit deeper and sharper because once upon a time the debate would not have been had. And most certainly not in English.