Jonathan: It all started when, in the summer of 2004, we re-tiled the roof of An Gàrradh Mòr – our first ever experience of domestic building work. Before then construction was something I did for a living, and was left at the site cabin with the muddy boots, hard hat and drawings. Until we came here, the nearest we came to building improvements – to any of our numerous homes over the years – was to redecorate indoors, maintain the external woodwork, or lay some paving in the garden! Of course we knew that we’d have to retile the roof: it was, you might say, part of the deal. But then came the great hurricane 11 January 2005: and after that our lives were turned head over heels. It wasn’t just the repairs of storm damage: the trauma of those dreadful days forced us to understand that, here in the Hebrides, a house left to itself could within ten years become unfit for habitation, and within twenty could be reduced to dereliction. We were going to have to let go of our naive dreams of an easier, laid-back life, and work harder and be more ambitious – or we’d go under. Life here is uphill, into the wind, all the way, and without drive and some degree of ambition the weather will have the better of you sooner rather than later. So we didn’t just replace the greenhouse we’d lost to the storm, or the polytunnels: we added to them, buying four new heavy duty greenhouses, building them on heavy foundations to hold them down, reinforcements to strengthen them, and a timber extraskeleton and shielding to protect them from the worst that Hebridean winters – Outer Hebridean winters! – could throw at them. But we didn’t stop there …
I think it was the first recorded music I ever had. Mum and Dad had bought me a cassette recorder for my 14th birthday. A few months later it broke down, and when it came back from repair (Hah! these days they’d just send you a new one!) there was – bizarrely – a pre-recorded music cassette loaded. “Aqualung” by some band called Jethro Tull (to me just a name from history lessons). Until then all I knew was the music of the church choir, musical films, and such like. I thought Aqualung it was good, and in fact now realize it must have been quite an influence on me. There are – arguably – three musical genres to Aqualung that have over the years proved to be the arteries of my musical sensibility: folk, rock and blues. Recently I’ve been filling some gaps in our music collection that opened up when, in the 1990s, Denise and I migrated from vinyl to CD, losing some old friends along the way; but today one such gap has been made good with a used but perfect CD of Aqualung bought on ebay. My goodness it really was – and is – a classic! Original, distinctive, profoundly musical, witty, moving: truly inspiring, and a great listen from beginning to end. I got off to a good start, didn’t I? All thanks to someone at the electronic repairs firm who is probably this moment blogging about the time he lost the first ever and best ever pre-recorded audio cassette he’d ever bought – Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung”.
Jonathan. My Dad died in April. It was not a surprise – in fact it was what he wanted. Quite simply, he’d had enough, and he refused food, drink and medication as long as was necessary. Mentally, there was nothing wrong with him – other than a sticky memory key. That was easy to work around: I’d press my own MR key and on we would go. But – and forgive the shift of metaphors – there’d been a series of physical problems over the past twenty years or so, increasingly with the exhaust manifold, and you know how it is, if you leave that kind of thing, they’re difficult to fix, and the spares just aren’t available, and all you end up with is bodges and breakdowns. It wouldn’t be so bad if you could get yourself out of the garage and out on the open road ; but you’ve been there, you’ve seen it, and reading the book is just not the same. There comes a time when it’s just not worth filling up the tank any more. My Dad and I had a difficult relationship. He was a man of fixed and immoderate views, intolerant, and with a quick – often violent – temper. Mum got the worst of it, both mentally and physically – but we all suffered, myself and my two sisters. It’s the psychologial scars that cut deepest and are least likely to heal over. … Though we shared many characteristics – both physically and in personality – Dad and I were very different where it mattered most – in values and aspirations. Dad’s expectations of us were measured in terms of income and authority – ie one’s job: he seemed unable to comprehend, let alone understand and respect – a life framed by other goals, other definitions of ‘success’ or what constitutes a life well lived. After Mum died a few years ago, I found it easier to limit our increasingly irregular phone conversations to safe subjects ; and chief amongst these would be exploring the many and varied districts of Britain, whether camping, or with a motorhome, or (as we did for many years) by canal and river, and more recently, by Google Earth and Wikipedia. For if there is one thread that runs through the whole of my life, from my earliest recollections to my still-lingering hopes for the future, a thread that starts with my Dad and continues with my own two daughters, Rebecca and Catherine, it is that thread that runs up mountain tracks, along old Roman Roads, over styles, through tunnels, into old industrial wastlands … until, whether carried by tide or temptation, we have explored every hidden corner and far-flung place that is or might possibly be. For that spirit of adventure we share: Thanks, Dad.
Jonathan: Ten years ago, right now, we were busying ourselves amongst a multitude of boxes, scattered around the house, that together contained all our wordly goods. It had been a bright, cold day – just like today – and as the sun sank into the Atlantic, the house returned to the profound cold of a house that has been left empty and unloved for a long time. The previous owner – as a gesture of courtesy or generosity completely at odds with his behaviour towards us otherwise – had left some wood and coal for the wood-burning stove: I set about lighting that as Denise found the box she’d organized with all we’d need for our first meal at our new house. We’d left our old house in south-west Shropshire two days before, Denise and I, Lady, Molly and Meg (our Jack Russel Terrier and two cats, only Molly now being still with us) in the old motorhome (now also gone). The first night on the road we camped on the shores of Loch Lomond; the second was spent just down the road from here on a triangle of grass between the road and the sea. The removal took longer and was more expensive than our move in 1993 from Dalbeattie (in south-west Scotland) to Ochsenfurt in Bavaria. And emotionally this was a much more significant move: our move to Germany (and all that arose from that, even after our return two years later) taught us much about who we were not ; whereas this move was our final attempt – after so many moves of home and work – to find the place and opportunity to develop our interests, our personalities, our values and our practical skills. In short: our last-ditch attempt to live life the way we wanted to! We knew it wouldn’t achieve our goals instantaneously, and that there would have to be compromises (it’s the lack of realism that results in so many incomers returning to their old lives within a year or two). I recall having laid down a time-frame of five years to have a small business which was established and growing, and ten years until we were free of dependence on mainland income. Thinking about this now – for the first time for a number of years – I realize that we did indeed achieve those goals, though perhaps not quite as we’d imagined. In fact we now have a number of business activities, ranging from crofting and cottage industry to professional practice, all of which are important to our domestic economy. Whilst engineering and construction remain the principal source of income, that has over time – and without much in the way of nudging or steering on our part – shifted from straightforward bum-on-seat contract work, entirely away from home, to specialist designer – much in demand for major infrastructure projects across the UK and Ireland, to general civil-engineering consultancy, and now as project manager employed by private clients for their house-building projects throughout the Outer Hebrides. But today, through a conversation on the Sound of Harris ferry with someone who moved here a few months after us, I am reminded that establishing a local income is only one side of the equation, and morevoer was never the real driver for moving here in the first place: we could have done all that where we were before. Though the work is challenging and satisfying, building houses for other people is not actually what I want to do with my life. For one thing it would be good to have the time to complete the renovation of our own house, which after ten years is still in a state of disarray! It would be good to have the time to more fully enjoy the fruits (and the veg!) of our labours in the garden and on the croft (actually I’d love to have more time to spend on gardening, alongside Denise), or to have a little time to do anything or even nothing, just as we please. Like many of the fruit bushes and trees we’ve planted in this garden, we’ve thrown out roots and branches in the intersts of establishing ourselves, but some of which, through the weather and seasons have become tangled and unproductive. Winter task: sharpen and oil the garden tools: now where did I put those pruning shears?
Jonathan: It’s two years ago today that I started these blogs, and nearly two years since my journey home to Uist from ‘exile’ – living away from home, in SE England, for the sake of the income from a full-time job. This blog has become a scrapbook of life since then, arbitrary and patchy perhaps, but in the longer term amounting to an accurate and honest record of the hopes and fears, the highs and lows of the life we live. If nothing else, it’s been a period of unrelenting work, much of it bringing little or no reward, yet inescapable other than by giving up and going under. Yet beyond the everyday reports of strain and struggle, the underlying narrative is of faith in the intrinsic value of what we do, and the way we do it, and a tenous belief that our labour and integrity will bear good fruit in time. Some raspberries would be nice!