I am fiercely proud of being English, but my heart belongs to Scotland - The Western Isles, to be precise. I was fortunate enough to spend several years living there when I was a teenager and I have also returned many times, on holiday.
My parents, brother and I spent 6 months living in a rented bungalow in Stornoway before moving out to a croft house in Lochganvich for two and a half years. I know we have lots of family photos of the place, somewhere, but this is a borrowed image
The house was small, two up, two down with a bathroom. Water was pumped from a well but was not suitable for drinking, so drinking water was brought from Stornoway, by my father, on his return from work. The house was heated by a solid fuel Rayburn and we had a flush loo. Luxury!
The croft next door belonged to an older couple called John and Marion. John would have been well into his seventies, Marion was probably in her late 50's/early 60's. They were the nicest people you could wish to meet. They kept a few sheep and a couple of cows and they were more than happy to let this eager young Sassenach go over there every day to 'help' them. Whenever there was something different to be done they would let me join in and patiently taught me to shear a sheep, give them injections and treatment, watch the dipping, etc. Marion taught me to milk the cow by hand and generally make myself useful, well, I hope I gradually became more useful.
They let us rear the orphaned lambs, one died, but the other, Betsy grew and grew and when we eventually left the islands John promised that she could live her natural life out on their croft.
Lochganvich was, and still is, a tiny hamlet of less than 10 houses. We knew everyone who lived there and they were always happy to welcome us, share a strupak - a cup of tea (always the best china) and a plate of buttered Scottish pancakes/Battenburg cake, etc. Sometimes there would be some crowdie with the pancakes. Unsurprisingly, I used to love visiting people!
They taught us to cut the peat, lending us the cutting irons and showing us how to heave the great slabs and lay them out for the first stage of drying. Later we were shown how to make them into little stooks, arranged so that the wind could blow through them to aid the drying process, then we made slightly larger stacks. Weeks later, when the peat was deemed to have dried enough the village would come together and we'd spend a long evening collecting the peat for one of the homes, everyone working together. A couple of the men would build the huge peat stack at the side of the house. I always marvelled at the clever construction. Each evening of hard work would end with a wonderful feast and lots of chat, as arrangements were made to repeat the process the following day for the next house.
Once a week Iain-Harry would trundle down the quarter-of-a-mile long driveway to our house, in his grocery van. It was amazing what he could pack into that van. My mother would have her list made out ready, then she'd go into the van and find out what was actually available and make adjustments as necessary. One of the very nicest thing he brought was a wonderful, fresh 'Milk Loaf'. It was our routine to have a thick slice of this, spread with butter, once the shop-van had gone on to the next croft house.
The beaches on the island are amazingly beautiful, clean and empty most of the time. I don't mind the wind or the cold if I can have an empty beach.Owl Wood attended a lovely little village school at Achmore, lucky thing. I had to catch a mini-bus, which came to the top of the drive, and travel the ten or so miles into Stornoway to the dreaded Nicolson Institute, the only senior school on the island. The education there was superb, but I couldn't get over the barbaric punishment which was meted out to some students by a few of the teachers. The thick leather tawse was still in use as a punishment. The fear of it blighted my time there.
So why do I feel such affection for the place if I spent so much time in fear? I could say it is because the islands are so beautiful, the people are kind and generous, the roads quiet, the beaches breathtakingly beautiful, the seafood first class, It is all of these things and so much more.
Go there yourselves, see if the magic of the islands finds a way into your soul.