It’s such a gloriously improbable tale. A young woman on the last day of her holiday on Skye spots an old croft house for sale in an estate agents window. What happens next is the stuff of dreams at the end of a hard working week.
Within months she has quit her well-paid London job as a graphic designer, sold her comfortable Bedfordshire cottage, turned her back on loads-a-money 1980s Britain and moved to live on a remote island among 17 inhabitants she has never met before. No income, no electricity and no ferry service. Access is by fishing boat – but only if the weather allows.
If we ever nurture such island fantasies, most of us do not get much further than the first week back at work. Now 26 years later, Anne Cholawo is one of three inhabitants of the island of Soay. Her extraordinary story of survival against the odds is told in compelling detail in her book, Island on the Edge, A life on Soay published by Birlinn. Enthusiastic response at Wigtown Book Festival in October 2016 was an early indicator of success. By Christmas it had sold out and it is now in second edition.
Today as I write this on a cold, blustery evening sitting by the wood-burning stove, I think of how privileged, blessed and lucky we have been to have had the chance to live out so much of our lives on such a magical and peaceful island. Even if it had to end tomorrow, we could not have asked for more.
Before going any further I should mention that I had the huge privilege of working with Anne as her editor in the early spring of 2016. I cannot claim to be impartial but for me it is a wonderfully engaging personal story, often lyrical, full of adventure yet down to earth, a practical guide to sustainable living with an underlying message of urgency. It is a story for our times. Written before Brexit, and the resulting new turmoil in Scotland, the last chapter is a reminder that no islanders, no matter how self-sufficient, can survive without essential supplies and services from the mainland.
For an editor, it was daunting and inviting in equal measure. Ideally, I fancied, I should meet Anne in person.
Long distance discoveries
But back in March 2016 as I was turning the first few pages, I quickly discovered there would be no trips to the island. Winter wind and high seas meant that it would be impossible for me to travel to Soay (eight miles off the south west of Skye) either by fishing boat or one of the private small craft which now run throughout the tourist season. And equally impossible for Anne to get off the island.
With a tight deadline to ensure the book would be out in time to catch the autumn book festivals we had to settle for a long-distance working relationship. Telephone connection was unreliable – at the Soay end, I gathered, it would mean pausing half way up the stairs for a chat on the mobile – so we never actually spoke. But Anne’s emails, like her manuscript and drawings, immediately created a vivid picture of her relationship with the island and the spell it had cast on her.
It proved to be a liberating experience for the editor. Like many people I spend far too much time at the screen, hunched against a confusion of distractions from email, Twitter, Facebook, text messages. For a month I switched them all off. Instead I discovered a different daily routine, where tasks were governed by tides and seasons and the arrival, or delay, of the mail boat. I followed Anne and her old dog Taffy as they explored their new home on magical paths up hill, through woodland, past lochs, around cliff tops and down to the rusting relics of past enterprises by the harbour.
Beneath a billion stars
Soay had been made famous by Gavin Maxwell’s ill-fated shark factory which had come to a messy end in 1948 (his, to me distressing, book Harpoon at a Venture describes just how grisly it was). Through Anne’s words I met the two central characters, Tex and Jeanne Geddes, who had stayed on after Maxwell left (the rest of the inhabitants had asked to be evacuated in 1953). I got to know and like the others too: fishers and crofters, teachers, families with young children, retired professionals seeking a new start, young people discovering life and themselves. I joined their gatherings and ceilidhs, sharing a dram or two ‘beneath a billion stars’.
Without being in any way intrusive, Anne describes her friends and neighbours with warm affection, gratitude and perceptive understanding. But it was Tex (a buccaneering maverick with pipe almost permanently clenched between his teeth) and Jeanne (a fascinating mix of Cheltenham Ladies College and Norse Valkyrie with ‘naughty, infectious laugh’) who provided the essential social hub that all stable communities need. Without their companionship and support Anne says she would not have lasted longer than the first year. They helped her find her strengths and face reality. And, without giving anything away, when they died I too felt the loss.
It was engrossing but I constantly found myself wondering how I would cope with such a life. I know the fantasy too – when our sons were young, holidays on the nearby island of Canna tempted us to a life where children can run free and the primary school overlooks the bay. The then owner John Lorne Campbell pointed out that the secondary school is on the mainland and few young people return. But that’s a different island and another story (my husband Ray Perman told John Lorne’s story in his book The Man Who Gave Away His Island at Wigtown Book Festival too).
No man is an island
Back on Soay, what daunted me was not so much the episodes of high drama (there are gut-wrenching fires, heart-stopping storms and life-and-death helicopter airlifts). It was more the relentless day-to-day effort of eking a living from land and sea, hunkering down into the long winters of dark nights when weather prevents supplies of mail and groceries, and the sadness of happy family homes falling empty and silent as gradually other islanders made the often reluctant move back to ‘civilisation’ (Anne invariably uses the quotation marks).
Islands are never an escape. Wherever they come from, people arrive with their inner conflicts and complexities. Some cope with the reality of island life. Some don’t. Anne not only coped, she triumphed and she conveys an infectious exhilarating satisfaction at every new achievement, whether it’s stopping the leaks in the bathroom, filling bags with winkles in a blistering race against the tide, helping Jeanne to skin a newly slaughtered sheep, or salvaging her precious boat Sally B from a disastrous ship-wrecking storm.
There’s much, much more. Like all the best adventure stories there is a love theme too. And a truly derring-do tale of how the Marines delivered her piano by helicopter (how else do you get a piano on to a remote island?). Yes, there’s a connection between the piano and the love story which gently develops through the book. But I won’t go on. If you haven’t already, you have to buy the book for yourself.
Island on the Edge: A Life on Soay illustrated with photographs and drawings is published by Birlinn