The splendid isolation of Scotland's Inner Hebrides

By Tom Hodgkinson

Fortified by bacon, beer and stoicism, Tom Hodgkinson sets off in the footsteps of JM Barrie to Eilean Shona.

The Old Schoolhouse on Eilean Shona, a tidal island in the Inner Hebrides that has a full-time population of four. Photo / Creative Commons image by Wikimedia user cathietinn
The Old Schoolhouse on Eilean Shona, a tidal island in the Inner Hebrides that has a full-time population of four. Photo / Creative Commons image by Wikimedia user cathietinn

It looked like the dream holiday. A week in a remote cottage on a wild Scottish island, just two and half miles long. A newly decorated house with no Wi-Fi, no phone signal and no electricity, just a wood-burning stove, gas lamps and views of wild moor, purple heather and sea across the bay. A welcome retreat from the hurry and bustle of the modern world. But who would come with me?

I asked my 16-year-old son. "I . . . am . . . NOT . . . going with you to a Scottish island!" he shouted, before slamming the door and storming up to his room.

All other friends and family were busy. So I'd be on my own. A retreat, if you like. Can't complain. In fact I am in love with this part of the world, the Inner Hebrides, and when younger I used to visit the Isle of Eigg, a wild and free place where you climb volcanic outcrops by day and drink crates of McEwan's beer and smash crab claws at night.

The overnight sleeper from Euston is an absolute hoot. I dined on haggis and ale before retiring to my cosy bed somewhere slightly north of Watford Junction. At 7am I pulled open the blind to see red deer bounding across the mossy wastes of the Highlands, and a station sign: Upper Tyndrum. It is mind-blowingly beautiful. I breakfasted in the dining car, which has an appealing Eighties vibe, and at Fort William I stocked up on beer, bacon and bread before getting a lift with Al the taxi driver to the port.

An hour later we arrived at a tiny jetty where Paul, the island's estate manager, a giant of a man, was waiting. He buzzed me across the bay in a tiny boat called Harmony to the island (a five-minute journey) where we climbed on to a quad bike and Paul drove me the 2.5 kilometres down a bumpy track — past the village hall, a couple of polytunnels, a large manmade lake covered in water lilies and along the coast. It rained.

The Old Schoolhouse is gorgeous. Recently renovated, it is all space, light and white wooden floors, ceilings and walls, and furniture from Loaf in London. There is a big wood-burning stove which, I am happy to report, I kept alight during my whole stay.

Eilean Shona is owned by Vanessa Branson, sister of Richard, and her husband; they bought it 20 years ago. It has seven holiday cottages, and there are four staff, two of whom live on the island. A couple from Tring moved here two years ago, bringing the full-time population to four. It is not wild like Eigg: it is very quiet, and there are no cars.

Somewhat daunted by the prospect of a week of solitude, I'd brought with me the Discourses of Epictetus, the classic Roman Stoical work, whose central message is: stop moaning. About loneliness he wrote: "Only the weak-spirited would complain. Think of the peace and freedom you have while alone." That didn't stop me from shouting to myself, "What am I going to do?" on the first evening.

Since its main claim to fame is that JM Barrie came here to write the screenplay of Peter Pan in the twenties, I decided it was a good place to do some writing. And, actually, I was not completely cut off. The village hall has a good Wi-Fi connection, as well as ping pong and darts, and it became my office.

Each day went roughly like this: get up at eight and make bacon and eggs. Walk to the village hall, half an hour away from the house, and work for three hours on the computer. Walk back home for lunch. Read on the sofa and have a nap. Get up and have a cup of tea. Go for a long walk. Return at eight for some real ale and stew. Write diary. And read Epictetus. Light the gas lamps. Peace. Freedom.

On other days I walked to the highest point on the island, and gazed out to Eigg. Once, I decided to walk across the middle of the island: after all, Eilean Shona is home to sea eagles, otters, red deer, pine martens and the red-breasted merganser.

Should take about an hour, looking at the map. But things went wrong. Paths were of the sort that disappeared or turned into streams. Stream or path? I could never tell. The moss was so waterlogged it was like walking through a field of soaking sponges. I would find a little bay only to have to walk back again as there was no way of climbing round the rocks. I saw no birds of note.

I started to worry. What if I sprained an ankle? How would they find me? Probably I would have to drag myself to the nearest bit of coast, so I could be seen, and Paul would have to get Harmony out and come buzzing round the coast in search of the idiot who sprained his ankle in a stream.

I clambered up some rocks towards some pine trees in the distance. I entered the forest and scrambled down a stream, scratching myself on pine branches. Finally I found a path and wept with joy when it emerged at an old, abandoned tennis court. I was back at the port.

On the last day, Paul took me for a spin in the bay in his boat. We saw dozens of very appealing looking seals basking in the sun, and took a quick look at the shiny, white sand of the beach at the north end of the island, recently the site of a mini-rave put on by the owner's son.

I can't say I experienced that ecstatic kind of fun up here, on my own. But thanks to my beer and my books, I didn't go completely mad. Next time I'm taking the children. And the dog.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: Book a sleeper seat on the Caledonian Sleeper's Highland Route from London.

Staying there: A week's rental of The Old Schoolhouse on Eilean Shona (sleeps 4) includes return transfers to the mainland.

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