Island life was a distant and long-held dream for Sarah, mum to Ed*, 13, but one that she never thought would materialise. After years of hoping, the opportunity to live on the Isle of Lewis finally arose...
I first came to Lewis while on holiday in Scotland with my father in about 1993. We’d never been on holiday together, as my parents had divorced when I was very young, so this was a big adventure.
We visited the island out of curiosity. My great-grandfather was from there and we were keen to explore his roots. We arrived in the main town, Stornoway, from Ullapool on the mainland and it’s strange, but as soon as we set foot on the island I felt as if I belonged there.
I’d never felt so instantly at home. Maybe it was the family connection but during the short time we spent on the island I came to love it and knew I wanted to return.
Lewis has amazing silver-sand beaches, lots of wildlife, stunning sunsets and an incredibly peaceful atmosphere. There aren’t many people so you can often have a beach to yourself, even in summer, which is a real bonus. However, it isn’t everyone’s idea of paradise: the climate is pretty inhospitable, with lots of rain, and it’s windy most of the time.
I became fixated on moving to LewisWe were only on the island for two days, but in that time I investigated the possibility of working at the hospital as a speech therapist. I felt quite strongly that it was important for me to bring a needed skill to Lewis, rather than take a job that someone local could do. I had qualified in 1986, but never practised, so would need a refresher, but I thought it might be a good way to spend some time on the island.
The local speech therapist explained that they usually had a vacancy – either people left the island to train and didn’t want to come back, or people came to work here feeling it would be a romantic place to live but didn’t last. She said it was unlikely that they would have a full complement of staff for very long.
I rang her once a month, only to be told repeatedly that there were no vacancies. On the ninth month, a job came up. Jubilant, I flew north for an interview, feeling hopeful that the post was mine. As luck would have it, the only other candidate came from Lewis and spoke Gaelic. She got the job and I went back to Brighton feeling that maybe my dream would always be just a dream.
A change of directionNot long after this, I met the man I would later marry and put the idea of living in Lewis to the back of my mind. We were married for nine years and had a son, Ed. We were living in Cheshire and spent some happy holidays on Lewis during our marriage. As a young child, Ed loved being on the island, spending time with some of the distant cousins we’d met and enjoying the outdoor life.
Sadly the marriage did not work out. In 2007 we were still living in Cheshire and I was doing a home-based job in the drug development industry.
In the summer of 2008 Ed and I came to Lewis on holiday. Ed was eight at the time and when we left to return to Cheshire, he said, "Mum, why can’t we live on Lewis? I want to live here." I was delighted to realise that my son seemed to feel the same way I did about the island.
I remember driving home to Cheshire with ideas whirling around in my head. Maybe we could go and live our dream for a year. It would be an adventure before Ed had to settle down to preparing for secondary school. My job was possible from anywhere with an internet connection…
Within a few weeks I had permission from my employer, plans were in place for Ed to have regular contact with his father in Cheshire, a school place was organised and we found a house to rent for a year. After all these years it was really going to happen!
Our early days on LewisWe moved to Lewis early in January 2009, a strange time of year to be relocating. The first few weeks on the island were weird. For years we’d had a packed calendar, and it felt as if we’d stepped off the treadmill. Suddenly, there were all these weeks stretching ahead of us.
For the first time since Ed was born I’d get up on a Saturday and think, what shall we do? Normally there are thousands of things that need doing but because we were new there, and were renting our home, there were no big pulls on my time. It was like an extended holiday: we’d go into town, and Ed would swim, or we would help our neighbour with his sheep. I even learned how to belay for Ed on the climbing wall.
In winter, it starts to get dark at 3.30pm and doesn’t get light again until 8am, so the evenings are very long. I remember sitting there in the evening once Ed was in bed, thinking it felt quite odd.
The weather took some getting used to as well: it changes at the drop of a hat so you never know what to expect. The great thing is that it never stays horrible for long. One minute it can be foul, then half an hour later the sun’s out. We have a lot of weather!
Settling into work and schoolAt first, I was quite anxious about whether the internet connection would be good enough for me to work efficiently, but luckily it was. My employer was very clear that this arrangement was only for a year, and in order for it to work there had to be no impact on my ability to do my job.
Ed had only ever been to one school in Cheshire. During his last three months there he developed quite an aversion to it and didn’t want to go. Perhaps the imminent move made him feel insecure, and I worried about whether I was doing the right thing. I’ve never really discovered why he was so upset, but because of it I was concerned about how he’d take to the new local school on the island.
My fears were unfounded: he soon settled in and made new friends. The first spring and summer, we had a lovely time mixing with other families on the beach, and Ed learned to surf. He helped our neighbour at lambing time and became so used to looking after the sheep he even had a go at shearing.
By September it was clear neither Ed nor I wanted to return to our life in England. We discussed it many times and decided we wanted to stay. There were some practical challenges, and some of these were not easy, but eventually in May 2010 it was confirmed: we would stay on Lewis and Ed would continue with his education here.
We built our house!Houses on Lewis tend to be low to the ground because of the wind. The traditional blackhouses people used to share with their animals centuries ago had thatched roofs with turf on top and some of them are tourist attractions now.
A lot of people on Lewis build timber-framed kit houses, which are designed to withstand the weather conditions. After lots of research, I decided that we could do the same and we bought a half-acre plot on a croft from a neighbour. We loved the village where we were living so we built our house about 300 yards from the one we had been renting. We’re about 15 minutes’ drive from Stornoway, the main town on the island.
Once I had the land, and had found a reputable company to do the work, I had to arrange for an access road to be built, foundations to be dug and water and power to be connected. When we had the plot to foundation level with all services, it only took seven and a half weeks to complete our little white bungalow, which has an open-plan living area and kitchen and four bedrooms.
We have solar panels on the roof, which supplement the hot water, and an air source heat pump, a renewable eco-friendly kind of heating. We have shutters on the windows that face the prevailing wind. It’s a bit scary when the wind’s howling: last Christmas, there was a very big storm and the shutters gave us the confidence that we would still have windows afterwards!
The old island waysMany of the ancient traditions are still going strong in the islands. Crofters cut peat to burn on their fires. The right to use peat banks on Lewis is associated with owning a croft in one of the villages. Crofters are responsible for maintaining the common grazing land around the village and they meet regularly to discuss this and other issues, such as fencing.
Preparing peat is hard work. You have to cut it, then take several trips out to the moor to dry it, stacking it and turning it during the summer. Then it has to be transported home and stored outside, ready for winter. It’s free fuel and smells lovely when it burns. As Ed gets older I like to think he’ll spend each May preparing our peat stash, but this might be optimistic for a 21st-century teenager! At school, as well as studying all the usual subjects, he’s doing a rural skills course that is all about crofting.
Food-wise, there’s a real baking culture: everyone does it. I never used to be any good at baking, but now I really enjoy it. Home-made oatcakes and pancakes (drop scones) are very popular. Fresh fish is also plentiful, especially mackerel and herring, and fresh herring rolled in oatmeal is one of my favourites.
In times gone by, the women of Lewis used to travel all over the northern waters to clean, gut and store the silver-coloured herring in barrels. It was tough work but often the only way women could make a living at the time. They were known as the ‘silver darlings’ and there are two statues of herring girls in Stornoway to commemorate them.
There is a rich heritage of storytelling and nicknames on the island. A few years ago an elderly chap in the southern isles won the lottery and was telling people he’d like to travel now he was rich. Where did he want to go? Another Hebridean island!
Away from the rat raceMy life’s been a lot simpler since we’ve lived here and we are both happy and settled. Every few months, when I go off the island to take Ed to see his dad, I feel as if the world has moved on at such a pace. It’s all gone crazy; everything’s too packaged.
My sister came for Christmas in 2011, and was so taken with Lewis that she’s moved here too! She and her family arrived in the summer of 2012, and they now live in the house I was renting before we built the new house.
I’ve definitely changed since I’ve been here and I appreciate the slower pace of life the island has to offer. I’ve become a keen knitter and, although work is busy, we spend more downtime in this peaceful place than we ever did living in Cheshire.
Sunday on Lewis is still a time for going to church and resting at home with family. None of the shops open on Sunday, the sports centre is closed and very little happens. It gives people time to re-charge their batteries and I believe it is much easier to hear the voice of God here.
It’s lovely working from home. I can break off to have a cup of tea or go for a walk. I really enjoy doing a bit of baking, looking after my chickens (we have a cockerel called Rocky and three hens), bottle-rearing the odd orphan lamb, going to church on Sunday and getting an early night. I feel at peace with the world.
*Name has been changed.
Photos provided by Sarah.
Find out more about the Isle of Lewis here.
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