Sunday, October 07, 2007

The story so far ----- Two years ago, after more than twenty years working as a Probation Officer in England, I was becoming increasingly jaded and set in my ways. A three month period of extended leave, to travel, left me with good experiences of other parts of the world, but with an increasing terror of returning to the daily grind. The Probation Service has changed dramatically in recent years and there is now much more emphasis on controlling people and achieving targets that I didn't believe in, than in trying to encourage people to change their ways for the benefit of all in the community. When I found myself spending about 80% of my time sat in front of a computer inputting information, instead of working with individuals, I realised I couldn't continue.
Just as I was about to return to work after travelling, I saw a job advert for a worker with my background to work in the Outer Hebrides, a group of islands perched in the Atlantic off the North West coast of Scotland. Having visited these islands many times over the years, the thought of living here had often crossed my mind, but it seemed unlikely that the opportunity would arise, because I was never going to do the hippy thing and just arrive here without employment to support myself.

Well, the rest is history. As a middle aged man, heading towards early retirement, the opportunity to start a new life in spectacularly beautiful surroundings was one I didn't believe would happen and couldn't ignore. Consequently, I applied for the job, got it and have lived here happily so far. After a year of living in rented accommodation and finding my feet, I bought an unmodernised croft house sat in a six acre croft and moved in last Winter. I work away from home regularly, so let the croft land to a neighbour, who grazes his Blackface and Cheviot sheep on it.
The renovation has now started, with builders and scaffolding everywhere and I't's really quite an exciting time. The work will take several months and should leave me with a comfortable, warm house to live in.

Living here feels like a real privilege but has been something of a culture shock. About 70% of people here speak Gaelic, as well as English and although I go to Gaelic classes every week, my progress is slow. These are deeply religious islands and Sunday observance is important, especially here in the villages away from the town. It is quite extraordinary to listen to almost complete silence on the roads on Sundays, with few people about and no work or commercial activity taking place. The mainland ferry doesn't sail on Sundays, almost all of the shops are shut and outside activities such as car cleaning and gardening are generally frowned on and viewed as disrespectful where I live. After a lifetime of living in cities and treating Sundays as just another day to shop and work, doing little and doing it quietly becomes an increasingly attractive way of spending the day.
Apart from the scenery, there are other advantages to living here. My neighbours, colleagues and other islanders have been really helpful and friendly and that makes it easier to settle down. Iain Hector over the road is a Harris Tweed weaver and Crofter and is always ready with a cheery wave and advice whenever I need it. Roddy, also a weaver,who grazes his sheep on my croft, turns up from time to time with a leg of lamb or bag of lamb chops. There is no street lighting and and the nights are inky black, but with little or no air pollution, the stars are clear and bright. Another bonus of the lack of pollution is that the Eczema and chest infections I used to suffer from have gone away.
The down side? Alcohol abuse is a long standing problem here and illegal drug use seems to be increasingly frequent, especially in the town.Nevertheless, there has never been a house burglary in my village that anyone can remember and serious crime is much lower than almost anywhere else in the UK.
The costs of leaving the island on the plane or ferry are horrendous. The ordinary return fare to the Scottish mainland on the ferry is currently £176 for a car and driver, for a journey which takes just two and three quarter hours each way. Can't afford to do that very often. The air fare is even more expensive if not booked months ahead.
The remoteness and isolation can be a problem in making new friends and the cost of travel and distance from the last town I lived in tests the commitment of existing friends and family to keep in touch. Email and webcam are Godsends and it has been gratifying to have a succession of visitors from my previous life who have made the effort to come here and maintain contact .

Further tales later.


Anonymous said...

Love your blog - fascinating stuff - keep it going!

j9bythesea said...

Came across your blog whie searching for all things Hebrides. Just had my 1st trip to Scotland and in love with your beautiful country.The Outer Islands stole my heart. Know I will enjoy reading all your missives.

Heikki Lappalainen said...

Fine stuff here!! I came here from route Norway-Scotland... these different islands are so interesting. And here i do have very much pagers to read. Thank you very much.