Interactions between environmental and social change are complex and require deep insights into human perceptions, values, motivations and choices. Humanities disciplines can bring these insights to the study of marine social–ecological systems in the context of global environmental challenges. Such systems can be defined on a range of scales, but the cases most easily studied include those of small islands and their communities. This paper presents findings from three studies in the Western and Northern isles of Scotland, concentrating on some of the processes involved in social sustainability that contribute on the one hand to protecting what a community has, and on the other hand allowing a community to evolve so as to adapt to new conditions. It relates the several sorts of transformations involved, to the role and impact of external institutions such as those of governance of the natural environment, the energy market, and academic research, which together make up the environment of the transformation. By examining the world-views of different groups of actors, this paper illustrates that an understanding of the mental constructs underlying these world-views can help marine governance through integrating different ways of knowing. This paper identifies where it would be useful to employ a transdisciplinary ‘translator’ or a ‘space’ for dialogue in order to capture the diverse ‘visions’ and perceptions that these groups have in relation to management of the marine environment, where there are synergies and where more should to be done to negotiate between competing values and needs. It illustrates the practical contributions to operational policy that can emerge through challenging the dominant management discourses for the marine environment.