Andrew, are you really moving to the Outer Hebrides to be a crofter?
This is me, carrying my youngest daughter across the vast field of sand that is Uig beach on the Isle of Lewis. You might know it as the place where the Lewis Chessmen were found.
Without me realising it, this beach existed vividly in my imagination for over a decade before I visited it for the first time last year. Back in 2004, Daniel Warren made a short film called Lake Tahoe, set to a strange, experimental piece of music by my band Swimmer One. The song – for want of a better word – consists of three slightly different recordings of the same monologue, about a couple from the city called Dave and Kay, ‘upwardly mobile professional types’ who go on a weekend snowboarding trip and consider never coming back. The monologue was recorded for an advert, and is full of the kind of hilariously bland aspirational language you only ever hear in cheesy commercials, but for some reason we became hypnotised by it. The more versions we listened to, the more it seemed as if something profound had happened to Dave and Kay, and Dan’s dream-like film – made up of time lapse footage from three different locations – captured that feeling very well.
I liked that the ‘Lake Tahoe’ in Dan’s film was clearly not the real Lake Tahoe, or even in America, or even a lake. Instead, a beach somewhere in the UK – filmed over a whole day as the tide falls, rises and falls again – seemed to represent a fantasy wilderness, awe-inspiring and empty, romanticised by two city dwellers as ‘the kind of place I could spend the rest of my life’. Significantly, I think, the film ends not on that beach but back in the city – a different city, in fact. Did Dave and Kay ever start a new life in Lake Tahoe? Not likely. And so I never asked Dan where the beach was. I felt the film would be more poignant if I didn’t know. It was what it represented that was important.
The year Dan made Lake Tahoe, 2004, was also the year I first met Laura, who is now my wife. We must have watched the film quite a few times back then, but saw nothing of ourselves in it (we didn’t have our own parking spots, for a start, or even our own car). It was only years later, after we had children, that we began to plot our own more modest escape from our more modest city existence. We looked at houses and little patches of land in Bute, Skye, Arran and near Aberfoyle (an amazing place in the middle of a forest, completely off the grid), but they were generally far beyond what we could afford, and we let the idea slide.
By the time we got to Uig we’d put the search on hold for a while; we were just visiting a friend who lived there. And then, almost immediately, we fell in love with the place. It is extraordinary, after all, from the final approach through Glen Valtos, a winding, single track road through a steep-walled valley sculpted by nature from a glacier’s retreat, with waterfalls crashing down spectacularly on each side (NVA should pay it a visit some time), to the gradual reveal of one of the most spectacular views in Scotland.
As it happened, we finally had some money – still not enough to buy any of the places we’d seen before, but enough for a crofting tenancy in Uig with a bit left over for a static caravan and some animals. We put in an offer and, unable to contain our excitement, began telling friends on Facebook how we’d found the kind of place we could spend the rest of our lives. In response, Dan posted a link to that film from 2004. For a moment I was puzzled. Why was he sending me something I’d seen dozens of times before? And then, for the first time, I realised. Uig beach was Lake Tahoe.
Do I love this place because a film subliminally planted the idea in my mind over the course of 12 years? Was I, on some level, hypnotised into wanting to move there by the constant repetition of the Lake Tahoe story, as I recorded that piece of music and listened back to it? I honestly don’t know. Something had clearly sunk in though. Two years before I visited Lewis for the first time, I wrote and recorded Isle of Lewis, a love song based around a description of an imaginary road trip to the island. Eventually I changed the title to Islands of the North Atlantic but the song is about exactly what my family and I are doing now, driving a camper van to an island in the north of Scotland, laying the foundations of a new life.
Some city friends’ reactions to our plans have been interesting, to say the least. A few are excited and envious, and ask when they can come visit. Others think we’ve gone completely mad. Winters on Lewis are long and hard, they say. (Yes we know). It’s how far from Edinburgh? (About a day’s drive.) Do you know how often it rains there? (Yes we do, and we have bought all-weather clothing.) What will you do? (The same as what we do now, to some extent, but with more animals than before.) How will you survive? (By living cheaply.) Do you know how to be a crofter? (Not exactly, but we’ll figure it out as we go, and there are lots of people we can ask for advice.) It’ll be difficult and stressful. (Yes we know, but it’ll also be very rewarding – so pretty much like our lives are just now.)
What both these reactions have in common is the implication that we’re living in a kind of fantasy. We might as well have said we were moving to Lake Tahoe.
Once you look into it, though, it’s not a fantasy at all. Thanks to the internet, Uig and Lake Tahoe are not nearly as far apart as they once were. Nowadays people a bit like us combine crofting with running a record label, TV presenting, or being a working musician, as well as the more locally based jobs that crofters have always done. Lewis is full of people who work in the arts in one way or another (our two immediate neighbours are a painter/sculptor and a key figure in Gaelic culture who is in the midst of a Lottery bid to build a major new heritage centre just up the road from our croft). My own plan is to continue producing, programming, writing and the various other things I do at the moment, from home but with frequent return trips to Edinburgh. We’ll see how it goes – and a certain amount, as with so many island-based plans, will depend on how good that internet connection is – but ideally my working trips to our flat in Leith will become less frequent as I become more knowledgable about – and more immersed in – Lewis’s own rich culture.
That culture, of course, includes the significant historical baggage that comes with taking up a croft – baggage with which, as a city-dweller with an English accent, I have a somewhat complicated relationship. In preparation for the move, my head has been buried in Alastair McIntosh’s Soil and Soul: People vs Corporate Power, a brilliant, clear-headed book that connects the history of the Highland Clearances to the various ways, throughout history, in which ordinary people have had their homes, livelihoods and cultural identity stolen from them by the powerful (you could build a really good film, or theatre show, or festival, or writing residency, around its ideas, and if nobody else does I might give it a go). I’m keenly aware that as a family we are benefiting from legislation put in place over 100 years ago, following the Napier Commission, that protects the rights of crofters – and which was put in place, like pretty much any concession ever made by a political establishment, only because of a long campaign of protests by people who had been treated appallingly for generations. Thanks to that legislation, my family can make – to use the language of advertising – a ‘lifestyle choice’. We can be Dave and Kay, wowed by a beautiful place, with the power to do something about it.
I get the feeling I’m going to spend a lot of time pondering exactly what it is we’re doing. We have lots of practical reasons for wanting to live in Uig. We want to escape the noise and (if possible) the pollution. We’d like more space to grow our own food. We want to keep our children safe, and send them to a school with smaller class sizes. We want to make interesting things happen in a place that can’t be destroyed – like so many arts centres and community gardens – by being sold off to developers and turned into more ‘luxury’ flats and supermarkets. And, since Trident is being renewed, we’d like to live a very long way from Faslane. Uig, conveniently, allows you to do that without leaving Scotland.
Beyond each of those practicalities, though, the whole enterprise also feels like a bit of a romantic gesture, an act of rebellion, the full meaning of which I haven’t completely got my head around yet (I’ve already rewritten this blog once since I posted it a day ago). Our croft, and most of what we do there, will exist under the name Gorm-ghlas, two colours that don’t translate precisely from Gaelic to English but go some way towards summing up the atmosphere of Uig. Laura thought of the name, not me, but I like it a lot – it’s evocative in all the right ways but without being too specific. I can think of many uses to which we might put it, all of which feel less like a fantasy than living in a city.
On which subject, I need to work on my Gaelic, which is already being overtaken by that of the little girl in the photo at the top of this page. Which is a bit embarrassing. ‘Dad, your Gaelic is broken,’ she tells me sometimes as I struggle through a bedtime reading of Meudail air an iasg.
Andrew, are you really moving to the Outer Hebrides to be a crofter?
Yes I am. Wish me luck. I will probably write more about it as things progress. And by the way, if any kindred spirits would like to come and join us, let’s talk. There’s plenty of space.