A RUGGED isle awash with Neolithic sites sounds positively Scottish. And the problems under the paradisical surface of the Maltese island of Gozo are all too familiar.

“We’ve only got 30,000 inhabitants on our island,” tuk-tuk tour guide Joe Piscopo tells me, as we wind around vine-clad slopes and wee villages lined with trim houses, high above the cobalt Mediterranean. “It’s beautiful here, but when you’re losing your young people that is a major problem.”

Gozo does not just chime with the issues of the Hebrides, it’s as close as the Med gets to a Hebridean doppelganger. Its soaring cliffs and glowering hills must have been daunting to the first sailors striving to make landfall on Gozo; still today the isle haunts with a daunting, wild beauty; more in common from a distance with Scotland’s Small Isles than the Balearics.

The National: Gozo is like a Hebridean doppelganger Gozo is like a Hebridean doppelganger (Image: Robin McKelvie)

Losing your young people is a chronic issue that many of Scotland’s isles know all too well. Not every isle is able – for a multitude of reasons – to “do an Eigg” and pull off a remarkable community buy-out that not only secures the future of your island, but boosts the population too, bringing in much-needed young families.

On Gozo there is hope though. When I was last here 15 years ago, I trundled around in a petrol-guzzling old car and found tourist facilities often lacking. This time is different. Gozo has become better at welcoming visitors and Joe is sweeping me around in a funky new all-electric tuk-tuk that, coupled with attempts on the island to generate renewable energy, suggests a greener future for Gozo.

A greener future is essential. And not just aesthetically. Yes, preserving its sweeping sandy beaches, aquarium-clear waters and tracts of unspoilt countryside is non-negotiable for future generations, but it is the appeal of a quieter, closer-to-nature island that draws me and most visitors to Gozo.

As we glide along – tuk-tuks offer a much better ride without the exhaust stink and the noise you can guess from the onomatopoeic name – I’m heartened to see an active fishing fleet and swathes of fruit and vegetables being grown.

“We do grow a lot of produce these days,” explains Joe. “We use a lot of it on Gozo and tourists today really like it, plus we export a lot of produce across to Malta.”

These are encouraging signs, as are the solar panels that shine in many villages.

My first stop is back at Gozo’s blockbuster attraction, the Ggantija Temples: like many of Orkney’s prehistoric treasures they pre-date Stonehenge. A brace of remarkable temples star at this Unesco World Heritage site, which was erected between 3600 and 3200 BC, before being mysteriously abandoned around 2500 BC.

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Like Skara Brae they slept for millennia, only blinking back into the light of our world in the 19th century. The name Ggantija as it sounds indicates their voluminous size – legend has it that the Gozitans believed that they were fashioned by a race of giants. The megaliths soar up to five metres in length, weighing more than 50 tonnes.

A guide is useful to illuminate the nuances between the Coralline limestone used for the outer walls and softer Globigerina limestone that marks the interiors.

The urban highlight on this seriously bucolic isle is the capital of Rabat, or Victoria, with its landmark, deeply imposing, citadel.

The name Victoria was imposed in 1887 by the British governor to commemorate the monarch’s golden jubilee – most locals today prefer Rabat, or ir-Rabat.

Man has coveted this site for millennia and it’s easy to see why – the island’s largest settlement occupies a high bluff with panoramic views of the surrounding countryside. Surging around the sturdy old fortified walls feels more like gliding on a paraglider than a walking tour.

One unmistakable change since my last visit is at Dwejra Bay. The vaulting sea arch – the Azure Window – finally lost its battle with the baleful Mediterranean in 2017, tumbling into the waters. It is still well worth taking a boat trip though. Small wooden vessels fitted with outboard motors feel very small indeed cowering below the precipitous cliffs and navigating the dark sea caves.

The local skippers know these treacherous waters intimately, so you can just lie back and appreciate Mother Nature in all her wild glory. The Blue Hole is a highlight, a favourite of scuba divers who flock here from all over Europe.

The National: Rabat's Citadel is one of the islands main attractionsRabat's Citadel is one of the islands main attractions (Image: Robin McKelvie)

My last stop is at Ghar Mixta, where I prop myself up on a cool rock and survey the scene. Below, Ramla l’Hamra unfurls her red sand tentacles into the distance, still in spring all but empty.

The Mediterranean tempts the eye off into the nothingness; somewhere in that nothingness lies Africa and Europe. Gozo remains properly an island, with similar challenges to the Hebrides.

I think back to the words of Joe Piscopo, my tuk-tuk driver: “Gozo is green and keeping it that way is the only way we’re going to keep tourists coming and to give our young people a future here.”

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