To give up a life in London as the author does, to go and live on a remote Hebridean Island and run a croft. How amazing. Wait, not only to do those things, but to write about them and then get a publishing deal, that is so much living the dream it’s almost a cliché. I’m jealous. At least I was, until I finished reading this account of the author’s life on a remote Hebridean island.
I am an island by Tamsin Calidas (Doubleday) is the story of what happens when living the dream turns into a bit of a nightmare. This is Book 4 of my 10 Books of Summer hosted by Cathy at 746 books
Not that it will ever happen for me – I shall be here blogging away in my garrett ’til nirvana comes. I doubt anyway that I would have been any good at crofting. You have to be practical and able to make things from bits of wood and nails, learn the art of lambing, not allow yourself to be talked down to by a herd of stroppy cows standing in the middle of the road demanding the password. You have to be prepared to spend, long, dark winter evenings alone or with only the sheepdog for company, doing the crossword with dodgy TV and ultra dodgy phone signal. Trips somewhere else involve long journeys and sometimes plane tickets all of which cost money you may not have.
The romantic phraseology rolls thick and fast off the pages of this book like whipped cream.
“Our croft is called Rocky Ridge, or the Rough Farm. Our house is built from island stones. It’s memories are woven into the landscape knitted together of ancient Gaelic and Norse names. My mouth wraps about their unfamiliar shapes. The Norse is angular, hard like the fjordic mountains, but the Gaelic is soft like the fields.”
But far from the idyll she (or I) might suppose this new life to be, Calidas finds the realities of crofting are tough and there is no Starbucks round the corner. Not, the author says, even a pub and far worse, no resident doctor. She does not mention which island it is but for those in the know it can’t be hard to work out. Calidas talks about getting the ferry from Oban and there are only a few places that are served by ferries from Oban.
The islanders know which island. None of them is ever mentioned by name – except one lady, Cristall – but generally they come across as an unfeeling lot if not downright menacing on occasion. All is not well in paradise, Calidas tells us, part of the reason being, she believes, is that land holding is still steeped in tradition and incomers are not thought entitled to own crofts. I have no idea if this is true any more, and online articles and interviews I found were quick to deny it. But to the author it is true.
“The history of this croft matters. Its loss is a palpable grief to some and a source of enmity to others.”
“I wonder if we will ever be forgiven for taking a piece of the island’s soul.”
Things go well initially but after a while they do not. In fact they go spectacularly wrong, so much so that I found myself thinking. That bad? Really? So much so that I became suspicious and took to googling to find out what sort of reception the book may have had nearer to home. I don’t think I have ever done that with an autobiographical account before.
If you live on a tiny island where everyone knows everyone, and you write a (presumably) best-selling book criticising the islanders implying that they are racist, inward looking, and intolerant of outsiders – even in one case making a thinly veiled accusation over the death of a prized animal, I imagine this is not guaranteed to make you more popular with your restricted pool of neighbours.
Calidas skates on fairly thin ice. That is her choice of course. But I became inclined to think that there are two sides to every story and we were only hearing one of them.
The writer’s marriage fails and the child she hopes to have does not appear. She struggles to survive on her own, is lonely and broke, at one stage foraging for food. Then she suffers two injuries and her family are either hundreds of miles away or for various reasons unable to support her.
If this is living the dream I’ll pass. But maybe it all happened just as she writes and there is a kind of redemptive ending. I do recommend this book, mostly for its starkly beautiful descriptions of the natural world.
“The island is changing and so am I. In November the cliffs are hewn sharper by salt spray and winds skirling off the sea. The heather bells brighten as the grass dies back and the browning hills darken.”