ANYONE who yearns to trade the daily grind of the urban life for a quieter existence on a Scottish island should have a word with Anne Cholawo first.

“It is possible,” she acknowledges, “but you have to keep your sights low. And don’t build castles before you start. Because if you do that, you’re going to be disappointed.”

Back in the late 1980s, when Cholawo was working as a graphic artist in a London advertising agency, she thought the capital was the centre of the world. But then she went on holiday to Skye in September 1989, where, on her last day, she chanced upon an advertisement in an estate agent’s window for Glenfield House, a property on Soay, a small island off Skye’s south-western coast, which she had never heard of before. The former croft house – “No electricity … access by courtesy of fishing boat”, the advert cautioned – got under her skin, and she began to dream of a new life, nearly 600 miles from her Bedfordshire cottage.

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She had, after all, often sat in endless traffic jams on the way home from work, dreaming of escape. And as a seven-year-old, at school, she had answered an essay question, ‘what do you want to do when you grow up?’ with ‘when I grow up I want to live in the middle of nowhere’.

She returned to Skye the following month and made the four-mile crossing from Elgol to Soay. Glenfield House itself looked clean but had evidently not been lived in for some time. As she returned to Elgol, she remembers, the thought of never returning to Soay was already unbearable.

Within a year of seeing the advertisement, she had given up her job and sold her home. She hired the biggest lorry her driving licence would permit and crammed her furniture, books and precious upright piano into it, then drove for 12 hours to catch the last ferry from Kyle of Lochalsh to Kyleakin. Fortunately, she was able to find a place to store it all in Broadford.

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Finally, in May 1990, Cholawo packed her elderly dog Taffy into her red Citroen 2CV together with pots, pans, plates, cutlery and polythene bags stuffed with clothes, and made the long journey back up north to start a new life on Soay. She had, of course, told her friends, family and colleagues of her plan. Some thought it exciting but most suspected she was running away from the “real world”.

At the time Cholawo arrived, there were 17 inhabitants on Soay, which is four miles long and two miles wide; today, there are only three full-timers there. What happened inbetween – the early uncertainties, the hardships, the challenges, the months when Cholawo struggled to find her feet, the neighbours (some of whom are now dead) who helped her in so many ways – is the subject of her book, Island On The Edge, which is now out in paperback.

“The sun’s shining, that’s always a good thing,” Cholawo, 56, greets The Herald when I ring her mobile number on Soay. The mailboat has called just 30 minutes earlier. All is well.

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In her book she writes of the ambitious – often unrealistically so – plans of people who express an interest in living in Soay. Does she recognise her younger self in them? “Yes and no,” she says. “When I first came here, I didn’t have any ambitious plans apart from living somewhere. It was the opposite end of the scale for me. I was naive: I thought I would come here, live in a lovely little cottage, look at the view, paint pictures, sell them, and just enjoy the ambience of the place. I didn’t really understand anything at all.

“The other side of the coin is, other people come here and see what I describe as a blank sheet. They see there’s no development, nothing, and they think, ‘all it needs is somebody with some go’. There’s nothing wrong with that, at all. But they haven’t understood the reason there’s nothing here is that it’s difficult and expensive to actually do the plans they want. They want their own jetty, they want other things. But even on Skye, it’s hard to achieve those sort of things. Everything you do is double, triple the expense up here. There are so many hidden expenses people aren’t really aware of. And the weather stops people from doing things, for months at a time.”

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On reading the book, it’s hard not to sympathise with Cholawo as she begins to experience life on Soay. The island was indeed beautiful, but what happens when the weather is bad and the boats daren’t sail? How do you cope with the island’s rudimentary phone system? How could she bring all her furniture, like her Art Deco sofa bed, over to Soay from its temporary home on Broadford? How would she deal with the dry rot in her kitchen? How could she make a living and thus survive?

It was, as she acknowledges now, a painful learning process. She owes much to her neighbours, who were a considerable help and she grew close to them. One by one her problems were overcome by her own determination and resilience. Her beloved piano was even brought over from Skye, dangling from a helicopter, by a kindly group of Marines.

“I don’t know whether it was resilience or just stubbornness,” she says when it’s put to her that many others in her position would have given up. “I just wanted to be here so much. The whole place was to me so magical and so different from what I had before that the idea of going back was worse than the experience of being on Soay.

“The first two years were really hard – really, really quite hard, and I remember thinking one day, I will look back on this and find it funny.” She says with a laugh. “Which, actually, I do. I’m glad I thought like that at the time, because it wasn’t easy at first. There was a sense of culture shock, because everybody was so different, as I came from such an urban background. But everybody was really kind. I don’t think I would have made it otherwise. If people had decided they didn’t want me here, it would have been a matter of months before I would have had to go.” But she knows that people arriving to live on Soay now would not get such a good support network “as there are only three of us here”.

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Cholawo lives with her husband Robert, who, when they first met, worked as a model maker for the Marines: he was also a sculptor, and he suggested his work and Anne’s paintings might make a decent joint exhibition. Things grew from there.

“Where we’re living now,” she says, “was once the most populated part of the island. There used to be as many as six houses occupied full-time here, but the people have all gone. Our nearest neighbour is a mile away. The houses are either empty or are just holiday cottages. It’s sad, in a way, but because it happened so gradually we became accustomed to it.”

She and Robert are the proud owners of a micro-hydro generator that runs off the loch that supplies their water. They have a wood-burning stove, and they produce enough vegetables to see them through each winter. But living on an under-developed island such as Soay, she concedes, “is a bit like constantly spinning plates on poles – you have to run from one to another to keep them going before they fall off.”

They both love Soay, “but there might come a day, in the not-too-distant future, when we’ll both have to leave, because we’ll be too old to lift a bag of coal or whatever ... But we’ll just keep going to that day comes.” If it does, she expects they’ll relocate to Skye.

Would the younger Anne recognise her now? “I don’t think so, no. I’m probably a bit more confident in ways I wasn’t before, but I’m less confident in other ways. Because I worked in London back then, you have this attitude you think you can do anything. I soon lost that when I arrived here, but I’ve gained a sort of comfort in talking to people I don’t know. It has changed me quite a bit.

I used to be an intellectual snob, but that’s not a good thing, either.

“I would like anyone who wants the dream of living on an island to try it,” she adds. “It was the best decision I ever made. Had I not done it, there are so many things I would have lost, or not experienced.

“I think ‘satisfied’ is the word we would use to describe the way we feel about our lifestyle, but one thing that is very difficult in places like this is earning an income. When things are really tight we just do without. Getting rid of my old car, and getting rid of everything that was going to cost me money, was very hard, but actually it has been cathartic in that once you get rid of something, you don’t have to worry about it any more. I learned you can give things up; it’s not so bad.”

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She has learned the materialistic impulse of the 1980s, a culture in which she grew up and which taught her that acquiring things would make her happy, was not what it was cracked up to be. “I had all those things, and I wasn’t content. I wanted to experience life, I wanted a relationship with life.” She has certainly experienced that on Soay.

“I’ve had a wonderful, wonderful time here,” she says.

“There have been difficult times, obviously, but then again you could have a difficult time in, I don’t know, Barbados, or on a beach somewhere. Those things are just natural to life. This has been, well, almost like a miracle, really. Neither of us can believe we’re still here. We’re not super-smart, we’re just ordinary. But i t has been wonderful.”

Island On the Edge: A Life On Soay; Birlinn, paperback, £9.99.


Anne Cholawo: Life and Loves 

What are your best, and worst, personality traits?
My best personality trait is optimism; my worst is possibly a short temper.

What was the best advice you have ever received?
Never be afraid to admit you don’t understand something.

What was the last film you saw?
The last movie I saw in a cinema was Babe. The last DVD was a few days ago – Cold Comfort Farm.

What was the last book you read?
The Book Of Enoch.

What is your favourite food?
Sorry to say I have rather plebeian tastebuds. Either baked beans or a big juicy steak. Baked beans are more accessible than steak on this island.

Favourite musician or group?
That’s a difficult one. It changes all the time. I love classical music, but Fleetwood Mac always pleases me. I do not know any contemporary 21st century musicians.

Who (dead or alive) would be your ideal dinner-party guests?
My ideal dinner guests would be, I think, CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, pictured, Rosemary Sutcliff and Charles Dickens. These names just came 
off the top of my head. All writers, too, which was a surprise to 
me. They are all dead, though, so it might be a little quiet at the dinner table.

Island On the Edge: A Life On Soay; Birlinn, paperback, £9.99.