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, where the Lewis Chessmen were famously 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 an American couple called Dave and Kay, ‘upwardly mobile professional types’ from an unnamed big city 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 genuinely 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 Britain – 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. It was, clearly, just a fantasy. 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, 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. 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, like Dave and Kay. We might as well have said we were moving to Lake Tahoe.
This idea has been bothering me the more I think about it. Recently I’ve been reading Madeleine Bunting’s brilliant new book Love of Country, much of which is about the various ways in which outsiders project their own views of the world – their own fantasies about it – onto islands whose inhabitants have an entirely different view of their home, their culture, and their history. Her chapter on Lewis is particularly good on this subject. So I’m wary of my own motives and determined to tread carefully. Our neighbour Malcolm ‘Malkie’ McLean, interviewed in Madeleine’s book, has been an invaluable guide to the sensitivities that outsiders need to be aware of when taking up residence on Lewis.
We have lots of practical reasons for wanting to live in Uig. We want to escape the noise and (if possible) the pollution of Edinburgh. We’d like space to grow our own food and keep animals. We want to keep our children safe, and send them to a school with smaller class sizes. We want to be a productive part of a small, closely knit community. We want to help 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.
The whole enterprise, though, also feels like a bit of a romantic gesture, an act of rebellion, the full meaning of which I haven’t got close to getting my head around yet. And so I’m immersing myself in books about Lewis – and islands, and cultural identity in general – in an attempt to figure it out. Like many people, I’ve been inspired by Alastair McIntosh’s Soil and Soul: People vs Corporate Power, a brilliant, clear-headed book with an internationalist perspective, rooted in Lewis, that connects the history of the Highland Clearances to the various ways, throughout history, in which ordinary people across the world have had their homes, livelihoods and cultural identity stolen from them by powerful settlers (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 only because of a long campaign of protests by local people who had been treated appallingly for generations.
Thanks to that legislation, my wife and I 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. 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. Timsgarry is full of people who work in the arts in one way or another (Malcolm, in particular, is a key figure in Gaelic culture who is now heading Lottery bid to build a major new heritage centre just up the road from our croft; our other immediate neighbour is a painter/sculptor who divides his time between Uig and London). 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 rich culture.
We have called our croft 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 (key to any proper understanding of Lewis culture) which is already close to being overtaken by that of the little girl in the photo at the top of this page. ‘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.