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If selling an island, always advertise it for sale on a bank holiday weekend. Newsrooms are at their quietest then, and what might on a different day have been the lead item in a property column becomes a news event – a story. Last weekend, listening to the Radio 4 news, I was astonished to hear that the small Scottish island of Tanera Mor was up for sale; not surprised by the fact itself – I knew the owners had been trying to part with it – but because the future of 800 acres of rock, heather and bog had been deemed of national interest. It was in several newspapers and even reached the Huffington Post.
Let’s not, however, give all the credit to the estate agent’s timing; a sheikh or an oligarch could buy a hundred times that acreage on the Scottish mainland and barely raise a ripple outside the Aberdeen Press and Journal. Simply by being an island, Tanera Mor stakes a far bigger claim to our sentiment. The agencies of foreign governments cause little fuss when they buy up tracts of agricultural land in Africa the size of small countries; but when a Russian buys a Greek rock, everybody gets to know. Of course, as Europeans we may be naturally more interested in Greece than in Africa, but there is also this question of island-ness, with its suggestion of isolation and natural sovereignty as well as of romance and – in Tanera Mor’s case – cheapness. With the 800 acres come nine houses, three jetties, a cafe and post office, a workboat to cross the mile-and-a-half to the mainland, three fresh-water lochans and enough dinghies and kayaks to satisfy an Inuit village. What is on offer is a tourist business as well as a home. The guide price is £2.5m. In an inner London suburb or central Edinburgh, that might buy you a terraced house or two. On the one hand, sole ownership of an island – a whole island! – offends in us some vague sense of equity; and on the other, how marvellous it would be!
Tanera Mor provides interesting insights into the question of island-lure. The only inhabited island in the Summer Isles, it lies about 25 miles from Ullapool at the mouth of Loch Broom. It has no roads and no cars. You get about via a cliff-top path or by boat across the bay on the sheltered eastern side, where the island’s few houses are scattered. Nobody, it seems, has ever lived on the west – too wild and windy compared to the eastern bay, which has a safe anchorage and wonderful views of Scotland’s most striking mountains: Stac Pollaidh, Suilven and Ben More Coigach. It was the anchorage rather than the view that introduced Tanera Mor to the world economy, when in 1784 a London business syndicate saw its potential as a haven for fishing boats and built a pier and a curing factory, where the herring catch was dried and salted for export – often to the West Indies, where it fed the slaves on sugar plantations. The industry collapsed when the herring shoals deserted Loch Broom in the 19th century: the factory and the pier fell to ruin, and the families of fisher-crofters began to move elsewhere. The school closed and the graveyard accepted its last corpse in the years before the first world war. In 1931, the last islander left.
The government had evacuated the last inhabitants of St Kilda the year before. A mood of fatalism prevailed throughout Scotland’s western islands over their economic purpose and future. Now that the herring had gone, how could livelihoods be sustained? The naturalist Frank Fraser Darling, a passionate optimist, believed that traditional agriculture might be the answer even when the land was poor and wind-beaten, and in 1938 he bought the old herring station and moved in with his wife and small son. Man and wife rebuilt the house and the pier with their own hands. They dug boulders from fields and planted saplings to shelter fruit bushes. They grew kale and potatoes and imported a cow. Running down the cliff path to milk this cow one morning, Darling slipped and broke a leg, but within a few weeks he was up and digging, planting and building again. He believed what he called “the ardent labour of our hands” would drive away Tanera’s “long sleep of doom”.
It didn’t, or not at least for long. Darling’s account of his Tanera experiment is given in a book of hard-earned wisdom, Island Farm, which anyone who has ever wondered about depopulated islands should read. “When the male population of an island falls below a fishing-boat’s crew, it is as good as dead,” he wrote, “for … their power to work for export has gone.” He confessed that without his research fellowships and writing fees, he and his family could never have survived on Tanera. As it was, he left after four or five years, convinced that “one family is too small a unit to live alone on a small island” and that north-west Scotland needed new blood if it was to avoid “social nullity”. He had modern despairs – that all the bread came hundreds of miles from Glasgow, that crofters had forgotten how to make cheese – and doubted tourism could ever provide an answer because “for the West Highlander to live off the proceeds of taking in lodgers would degrade him”.
As it turned out, it was tourism, not agriculture, that repopulated Tanera, and few West Highlanders were ever involved. Bill and Jean Wilder, a Wiltshire farmer and his wife, bought the island and went to live there in 1996. Like Fraser Darling, Bill planted trees – more than 160,000, some of which have flourished to soften the landscape – but unlike him enjoyed the advantages of electricity, TV and the telephone. Old cottages were renovated for holiday lets, a cafe opened to serve the excursion boats that come in the summer from Ullapool, and sailing lessons started in the bay. When the Wilders retired to the mainland, their daughter, Lizzie, and her husband, Richard, took over and successfully ran the business, but with a new baby, they too have found island life difficult. As Darling discovered, one family is too small a unit.
This is why the island is for sale. The family had hoped the neighbouring mainland community would buy it under the Scottish government’s “buy-out” scheme that has enabled several island settlements to purchase their islands from absentee landowners. But here the people of Coigach would have been buying an island none of them lived on; in any case, they had enough on their plate without buying islands.
So who will buy it? Tanera lacks the castle that could endear it to billionaires and a fish farm in the bay might be thought to be a blight, aesthetically. The island-buying rich could remedy both – build a Quinlan Terry castle and pay off the farmed salmon company. But it would be far better, I think, if a family or some other social group were to live there and carry on renting the cottages and hiring out the boats. Otherwise it becomes no more than a rich person’s hobby, an occasional venue for individual escape. And for anyone who’s stayed for a while on Tanera and looked over at the mountains, the thought that this would become an exclusive pleasure seems a great shame.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk