Jonathan: It was the mid 1970s when Denise and I met – both students in Portsmouth. It was too late to be hippies, too soon to be yuppies – and anyway just being ourselves was more than sufficient for us. So when we came across John Seymour’s ‘Self Sufficiency’ – the famous Dorling Kindersley ‘Complete Book of …’, then just new on the bookseller’s shelves – the path ahead to self-realisation opened out excitingly before us!
At first we assumed that continuing with our chosen careers would be the means of accumulating the wherewithal – money, skills, experience – to set out on a life of self-sufficiency, but as time passed and our family grew (and our finances groaned!), the destination appeared ever further out of reach, and ultimately unattainable. So we did what we could. Wherever we’ve lived – and our homes have been many and varied, we’ve found ways to put principle into practice, albeit never as comprehensively as in the Seymours’ many books – and certainly never as picturesquely! Spinning, weaving, making our own clothes, growing our own food, keeping poultry, home-baking, taking responsibility for our own education and entertainment: we did what we could according to the circumstances and opportunities that lay before us – and within us.
When, opportunities were few, our means too meagre, and the way ahead blocked at every turn, hopes of a more fulfilling life ebbed. But then – out of the blue – we’d stumble on fresh inspiration, and hope would spring anew! And then one day (and yes, it really happened just like that, as in a fairy tale!), when hope had all but died, the phone rang and …
… And here we are now, with land and livestock, workshops and websites, crafts and customers … But you know, in the end – and how ironic! – none of these has come from capital accumulated during our previous lives, for there was next to none : they are entirely the fruits of our labours (oh, and what labours!) since starting over.
Over the years we’ve revisited John Seymour’s writings many times, and have increasingly found the term ‘self-sufficiency’ to be unsatisfactory. It does not really do the job: it is misleading, self-centered, and ultimately self-defeating. There is no man or woman, or family, or community, that is sufficient unto itself. We need neighbours – all of us! But, having no better term for it, we describe our way of life – in respect also for another broadcaster and writer that inspired us, Jeanine McMullen – A Small Country Living in the Outer Hebrides.
Here in Uist, we do all we’ve ever done in our many homes over the years, all at the same time, and more besides. It’s hard work and no holidays, and outgoings always seem to prevail over incomings ; but in the moments we have to pause and reflect, we recognize that in our own do-what-we-can version of self-sufficiency, we have at last grown into the people we were so long just rehearsing to be.
To John Seymour, smallholder, teacher, broadcaster, writer – we owe respect and admiration. But we cannot think of John without instantaneously thinking of Sally Seymour, whose contribution to their partnership does not seem to receive the recognition she deserves. With a longer perspective, we now find the books we go back to again and again are John (and Sally’s!) earliest books on the subject, The Fat of the Land, and I’m a Stranger Here Myself, the first of which in particular captures the vigour, self-belief and buoyant hope of those pioneering days in the 1950s to early 1970s.