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  1. “Don’t come here because you don’t like it where you are. Come because you like it here.”

    Once you decide to move to the Outer Hebrides, there’s no shortage of people telling you that you’re mad. They practically line up for the privilege. The reasons for this unhelpful diagnosis are many, and, for the most part, rooted in concern and affection. They range from It’s such a long way away, to How will you make a living? to Why are you running away?

    Once you live here, you become fair game for anyone who doesn’t really know where the Outer Hebrides is but assumes it’s a rough-hewn, uncivilised place akin to Pictish Scotland somewhere around 800AD. So there are the inevitable jokes about whether or not we have electricity, whether or not we haul our water up from wells, whether or not the mail is delivered by puffin, whether or not we have to light hilltop bonfires to alert the appropriate people in an emergency, like the AA, how often we have to shin down sea cliffs to neck seagulls for our dinner, and how often we have to dust down our axes to fend off neighbouring tribes.

    On a recent holiday to Norfolk, I and my young adult children were strolling through a Saturday market, the likes of which we don’t get on Lewis, and had our first sight of a star cauliflower. When I passed a remark within earshot of the stallholder, well, anyone would have thought I still believed the earth was flat – as, indeed, the Picts did in 800AD. While I bantered amiably enough about the electricity, the water, the mail, the telephone, and – a creative addition, this, from a market-garden man – whether or not we had come across daffodils before, my kids fumed at the impertinence of a total stranger taking the liberty of making fun of our home.


    They were right, I suppose. The Outer Hebrides is a curious place for a mainlander to contemplate – removed as it is from cities and Starbucks, motorways, Marks & Spencer and Macdonalds. The received wisdom is that to leave all those treasures behind, you must be running away from something. The notion that your move might actually be a positive decision is greeted with bewilderment or derision.

    But while this unique environment can be a real galvaniser for the people who get it, it is a paralyser for others. I can’t count the number of people we’ve seen arrive and leave within a couple of years. As befits this extreme location, responses to it are equally extreme – people either get it, and fall in love, or don’t get it, and leave. Are people running away – or looking for an alternative? Moving to the Outer Hebrides to solve your problems is akin to a couple considering divorce deciding to save their relationship by having a baby. Your problems tend to follow you, wherever you are.

    So whether or not anyone is mad to move here depends on your viewpoint – and motive. You have to ask yourself what you want out of life, then you have to consider whether or not the Outer Hebrides has got what it takes to deliver.

    The quote preceding this blog came from a man in a South Harris bar, in the course of a conversation about incomers and what we expect to find when we arrive. His point - that people are often disappointed when they discover that living here is not like living on the mainland – is such an obvious one that it’s easy to completely miss. We kept coming back to it in the course of our pre-move prep – were we moving simply because the mainland lifestyle didn’t suit us, or were we moving because the Outer Hebrides offered advantages that would help us live a life more amenable to our wants?

    Part of the problem, of course, is that whatever you might imagine about what it’s going to be like to live here, is that you don’t really know until you pack the boxes and do it …


  2. p1030905


    Or, how the first book in a series about the Outer Hebrides came by its name


     “Should be mandatory reading for anyone considering a move to the Western Isles.”

    -       Dr Ian Law

    One of the most interesting aspects of writing the book was trying to get a handle on the singular place that is the Isle of Lewis. Boggy, craggy, windswept, ring-fenced by the sea, it’s a kind of Hole in the Wall for misfits looking for a place that might fit, a bolt-hole for outsiders that takes no prisoners. What I wanted to do, in the midst of telling a yarn about the discovery of a bog body and getting down and dirty in the processes of tanning, was to cut through the sentimental aspects of a move to the Outer Hebrides – it sounds so like a romantic adventure, and in some respects it is, but like the princess looking for her dream prince, a lot of frogs must be kissed before you fall in love. Or, to keep in context, slosh through a lot of bogs before you reach the mountain.

    The trickiest thing was coming up with the right title for a book about culture shock, alienation, bog bodies and marital collapse precipitated by a devastating combination of geography and leather. As it happened, the title was the last thing to take its place alongside all the other words – quite fitting, as the book is framed within a police investigation, and the title has, to me at least, the satisfaction of the final clue to the puzzle. Once it was there on the title page, it made sense of everything that followed.

    The book tracks the painful line between an incomer’s expectations and the island’s reality; one of the major narrative themes charts the processes of arrival and survival of an English family – and what they find here, as opposed to what they think they’re going to find.

    The quote at the head of this blog was given to me by the friend and expert who helped source and verify the research necessary for the bog body elements of the book. A few years before us, he had made the same journey, and recognised, as have subsequent readers, the darker sides of the incomer odyssey.

    I also discovered Chris Stewart’s excellent memoir of moving to Southern Spain in the 1970s – Driving Over Lemons – and was particularly intrigued to see how many parallels there were in an incomer experience involving such different cultures and language barriers.

    It isn’t all dark, of course – none of us would still be here if it was. And that’s another tricky part of trying to commit this place to paper – reconciling the moments of alienation and homesickness with the flashes of Wow! I really live in this fantastic place.

    So Celtic Fringe is not a comfy relocation tale that describes an idyllic lifestyle founded on the principle of an extended holiday. Woven into the plot is something of what it feels like to move here and begin to make a place for yourself – and the slow realisation that many of the demons are not of the island’s making, but of yours. 

    The title surfaced during the last of several trawls through random word associations. It was buried in a Thesaurus; I’d never come across the phrase before and it was instantly right. Celtic Fringe describes the location perfectly – adrift between the shores of the Scottish Highlands and the waves of the Atlantic, and on the periphery of the Celtic domain, which strung itself along the western coastlines of England, Wales and Ireland, and as far south as Portugal.

    But that isn’t why I chose it. It’s the definition of the phrase that strikes the chord. The book explores the psychology of landing in unknown territory and the experience of culture shock. I had been looking for words that described memories of my first year here; one of these was stranger, and ‘Celtic fringe’ was listed under the heading ‘foreigner’.

    The move from mainland to remote island is different for everyone, but I liked the comment made by the man we bought our house from: "You have to be a bit mad to live here, but it's a wonderful kind of madness."


     Islands in the sea (pic)