t doesn't help matters when I tell Dougie, who's wearing round glasses and sporting a natty

pudding-bowl haircut, that he's the double of Harry Potter. Cue floods of tears from his younger sister Tasha, who then hands the baton to Alex. ''Oh God,'' says Romayne, ''don't tell him that, don't even mention the H word.'' She pauses and surveys the scene of three bubbling children. Cameron the youngest (and most feral), shares his frustration by shouting ''shut up'' at the top of his voice. ''Gin and tonic, please,'' she pleads to the barman. ''Make it a double.''

Earlier, Rob and Romayne Wainwright were set for a long overdue jolly to the mainland. The sky was blue and bright one moment and the next, less than benevolent with brooding storm clouds. Much to their chagrin, the ferry struggled to dock at Arinagour because the water changed direction violently on a whim. The trouble was the

children were going to see the new film of the little wizard in question and they haven't taken kindly to the sudden, calamitous change in plans.

Back in the small bar of the Isle of Coll Hotel, where you could break your toe trying to walk around, the clan has converged for a noisy crisis meeting. It is warm, too warm. A smattering of clotted-faced locals saunter around in green wellies.

Glass in hand, deflated, wet and tired Romayne collapses into a chair. She was going to splash out on a new dress in Edinburgh for the party they were due to attend that night. ''Bloody ferry,'' she mumbles. As a former Scottish rugby internationalist Rob, meanwhile, is lamenting the loss of meeting up with some of his sporting friends. The personable landlady hands out biscuits and chocolate. Someone she knows might be able to pick up the family in a small boat. Another voice

mentions a helicopter. Tasha is still crying. Romayne lights up a cigarette. ''RO-MAY-NE,'' says Rob. She makes a face. There are great things about living on an island, she says, bluntly. The rigours of trying to get off it is pretty much bottom of the list. Half an hour later and they're all squelching back to Cliad, the family farm.

In September 1999 Rob and Romayne Wainwright left behind the familiar comforts of urban life, including water and electricity, packed their bags, children (including ten-day-old son Cammie), dogs and possessions and left their home in Kinross to begin a new life on the unprepossessing island of Coll. Population 150.

After proposing to Romayne in the romantic hills of Moidart some years earlier, with the added caveat that if she didn't fancy the lifestyle he had in mind she should probably refuse his offer, they married, saved and planned for their life-changing move. Having pulled up a drawbridge on the rest of the world, three years on the plans have cemented themselves into a 2,000-acre farming estate, a picturesque but near dilapidated eight-bedroomed house and enough hard work to last a lifetime. They dreamt of a rural idyll. But has it worked?

The Wainwrights live with their four

children, Dougie, eight, Natasha, seven, Alexander, four, and Cameron, three, along a remote dirt road that looks folded and darned with decades of use. There is little in either direction apart from spectacular views and roaming livestock. There are no street lights, but the multitude of stars more than makes

up for the lack of illumination. The previous

owners cherished the land they worked on and had one condition when selling it: that the buyers were a young family coming to live and work on Coll.

''We were very fortunate to get this,'' says Rob, standing at the top of a hill surveying his property. ''My love affair with the West Highlands began over 20 years ago at a caravan site in Lochaber where I would stay with my

parents during summer school break. I've always dreamed of this.''

Shotgun draped across his arm, dog at his side and a trap for ferrets in his hand, he is a behemoth (his belt buckle must weigh about ten pounds), who speaks in the sonorous

manner of the supremely confident. It's a beautiful day and he's in good spirits. Stag footed, with knockabout camaraderie, today he's looking forward to another year and the end of winter - declared when Hamish, one of the island farmers, shaves the insulation from his chin.

''With livestock farming,'' explains Rob, ''there are periods of intense activity in the summer time, spring time with lambing and sowing crops. The middle of the summer is not too bad with shearing, then not much happens until harvesting in August, apart from maybe fencing. At the moment we're just ticking over through winter.

''Romayne was brought up on a farm, although her parents were not actively managing it. I'd got some experience and I suppose just being brought up in the country gave me an understanding. Friends and other farmers have been very generous with their advice. Although foot and mouth complicated our first year with stock I've had a lot of balanced advice, but ultimately you're left with the

decision yourself which makes it interesting.''

After spending an ungodly amount of time in the bar (me, not Rob) we are shooting

rabbits. Actually, Rob's doing the shooting and I'm doing the spotting which basically entails looking around the hills for a subterranean tenant that one of his ferrets has chased out of a hole and shouting on him to shoot it. To my horror, I quickly discover, rabbit hunting is infectious; mud, death and all. The Cambridge graduate and former Scottish international rugby captain, who served in the Royal Army Medical Corps as a doctor, is a touch wary.

''I've been blasted for saying I enjoyed

ferreting,'' he says, with mild incomprehension, ''which is true, but it's not purposeless killing. Coll has no natural predator and if they weren't shot then their numbers would get out of control. When it comes to rural

practices there is a tendency among the

public, and various government and scientific bodies, to cry out against bad practice when they don't fully understand what constitutes good practice. Management of the countryside is a question of balance. If any element becomes too dominant, it's necessary to intervene to help restore that balance.''

Initially, the couple's plans had been to form a sporting club based on the estate offering

all-year-round fishing, shooting and falconry, with comfortable traditional accommodation. But the opportunities that farming the land presented were so much more that they have shelved these intentions for at least another year or two. An architect has designed the plans for the house and they are awaiting

planning permission, which will turn the main part of the building into a modern Highland retreat.

''I don't think this place could be run as a sporting estate,'' says Rob, gingerly, ''unless it was run as a farm. Farming in Scotland generally is fairly subsidy based. We came into farming at a time when various schemes were put in place to encourage us. As a newcomer with no baggage as such we looked at it with a profit-and-loss business sense and decided we would take the incentives that the government were offering, particularly as many of the things they were encouraging us to do we wanted to do anyway, with regard to wildlife and wild game on the estate. We've gone into environmental schemes, organic farming, with various mainstream grants or subsidy on livestock.''

A few hours later and I've almost learned

a new language. Articulated grabbers, insemination stalls, SSSIs, snipe, Ramsar sites, and double-muscled buttocks; all this incomprehensible chaff has exhausted me just listening. We've clambered over some craggy hills, with two pitifully fragile rabbits to our (his) credit, and we head back to the house, perched, it seems, on the edge of air. The light has packed up and gone. At Cliad Romayne is indulging in a bit of vandalism - knocking down the plaster and lathe in the living room that is under renovation. Because the farm requires attention 24 hours every day, the most difficult aspect of their lives is switching off and Romayne finds it especially hard.

In the beginning it was Rob, who's 38, but now that the farm, which was largely his baby, is up and running, he finds it easier to relax. The house, however, is Romayne's and there's still a great deal to be done - there's nothing, for example, as nancy as heat in the house. ''It should be my sphere as well,'' says Rob, laughing, ''but, well, it's not. Although I'll call Romayne out to help me with the sheep I find it quite hard to be her ... '' He stumbles for the word. ''Assistant?'' I venture. He muses on this. ''You've put it just right. I like to be

running things, not being told what to do.''

Dougie and Natasha are at school. You can hear Alex and Cammie before you see them. Both are playing in the barn on a trampoline with a large fishing net protecting the sides. Everything smells of dung. The children look the picture of health (there is no fast food on Coll, unless you count hitting a sheep at 65mph). They love it here, although it took some adjusting to the new school and the diminished circle of friends. It's harder for Tasha because she's among three brothers and there are not too many girls her age around. She often tells her parents she would rather live on the housing estate in the village, where her friends stay. It will get harder for them when they're teenagers. On their first date they'll have to ask their dad if they can borrow his keys to the tractor.

''It would be lovely if there was a foot-

ball club,'' says Romayne, her voice full of Sunday-school bonhomie, ''mini-rugby or the Brownies. But what they don't have is more than made up for with the freedom they have. And I spend so much time with the kids, which is the distinct advantage of being here.''

Before he heads out to feed the stock Rob teases Romayne over the fact she has changed into her dress trousers for the photographer, adding a slightly racy touch to the day's labour. She harrumphs and kindly puts on a pot of tea. ''When we first moved we were living in the caravan because the farmhouse needed loads of work,'' she says. ''We lived there for about four months and it eventually drove me crazy. We moved back into the house and the kids lived in the one room but they've adjusted quickly and love it now. Whether that will always be the case we don't know. We've got to accept that this is our dream and it might not be for them.''

Looking at the land it is quite easy to imagine how difficult and narrowly focused their lives are. It's not rocket science, nor an angst-ridden journey to the depths, but it is extremely hard work and they are coping well. ''The most difficult thing is trying to catch up with basic things like housework. I have to programme myself to do that because there are so many other priorities, whether that's renovation or tending the home-grown veggies outside. It's very hands on and I much prefer that.'' She smiles like a happy spaniel.

They first met at Rob's 16th birthday party when he was sharing a room with her cousin at the same boys' school. ''I think it was a question of trying to find someone,'' she laughs, ''anyone, and I started going out with him then. It didn't last very long but we kept in touch because we had the same friends. Around 1990, when friends of ours got

married, we met again at their wedding. We were both going out with other people at the time and we talked about the possibility of

trying to make a go of it.'' About three months later they did and were married in 1992.

Immediately they set about badgering estate agents for ever more remote places. When they finally bought Cliad, although they had planned their finances well beforehand, no matter how well prepared they thought they were there was always a problem. They might be a vehicle down for some reason, or buying farm machinery would occasionally prove

difficult. There were a couple of times they couldn't write cheques but on the whole the financial side of taking on a farm has proved manageable.

The couple rarely suffer from feelings of insularity as the social life on Coll is vibrant - if you're partial to bingo, sheep counting and tobacco spittin' contests (later we are invited to a Mexican night in the village). There is rarely any late-night-by-the-Aga-desperation, although Romayne misses going to the swimming pool, auctions and Chinese takeouts, while eschewing the uncertainty and shifting focus of the mainland. ''So far I'm really struggling to think of any real negatives about our move,'' she says. ''I miss having a girlfriend here that knows me very well.

''Close friends all knew this was exactly what we had been planning on doing. People who thought we were mad, well, they didn't know us that well. It's often the case that one in every couple wants to do something like this while the other doesn't. Fortunately, we both wanted to. Here, I am working for myself and that's what keeps me going. I suppose the only real discernable drawback is the lack of secondary education on the island. The decision we'll face is whether to send the children to boarding school in Oban, or send them to a private school to gain all the opportunities that we experienced. But if that's as bad as it gets then we're doing fine.''

Hopefully the building work will be

completed in the summer of 2004, if the architect's drawing passes planning and they receive the grants they are applying for. ''I would hope that in two years' time we'll have had our first shooting guest,'' continues Romayne as Rob returns from feeding the stock. ''If it's going to take a year to do the building then it will take at least six months before we get it furnished. There is not any accommodation on the island that is four star and above and that is what we'll be aiming at because we might not get a grant at all unless we fill a gap that is there at the moment. We will be able to provide something spectacular, something memorable. We've got so many big plans and there's definitely a gap for it here.''

Mexican night on Coll and enough Tequila to make your teeth fall out. Boos and cheers sound every time someone enters the room. Indulging in a little island idiosyncrasy Rob, a pillow under his poncho, is dressed as a fat sheriff but looks more like one of the mountain men from Deliverance, while Romayne, his senorita, is all black dress and drama. She looks about as comfortable as a nun in a bikini. There are roughly 20 guests, curiously all with huge hands, and the Wainwrights are the only two who have come in costume. Senor Rob doesn't care. ''You don't need no stinking costumes,'' he roars in a dodgy Mexican accent, minutely calibrated from his rugby club days. It changes from Mexican to Morningside housewife to a more than passable Billy Connolly, who demands yet more chilli. Romayne, meanwhile, glad to have the opportunity to let her hair down away from the kids, is pleasantly dishevelled.

''When you first come to an island you want to be friends with everyone, and meet new people,'' says Rob, ''and when you've been here a few years you know everyone. You go out of your way for people you particularly like and then there are others who you don't particularly see eye to eye with. But that's life. Like any small community it has its fair share of bickering and gossiping and arguments about nothing, but what would you expect on dark, winter nights with nothing to do? The three most important points about living on somewhere like Coll are that you've got to keep busy. You also need a partner who wants to be there and, most importantly, you don't want to have a propensity to drink alcohol

to excess.'' He laughs, twitching like a net

curtain. ''It will become a problem, without a doubt.''

Part of the beauty of Coll is that it's pretty much an undiscovered island. It doesn't get many visitors, but it does get a lot of the same people who come back year after year. It's

different, too, because there is no landlord, there is no laird and almost everybody is an owner-occupier which gives a certain independence. ''On the privacy front it's very easy,'' he adds, ''provided you understand that nothing you do will be secret. Anything of any importance regarding you or anyone else will be around the island like wildfire and you just have to live within those parameters. If it bothers you then you're living in the wrong place. There is a lovely community that you can be part of, you just don't necessarily need it every hour of the day.''

He doesn't miss his old life at all except,

perhaps, a few old friends, and is strangely sanguine about the lack of socialising he does these days. If he was closer to the rugby scene then perhaps he would miss it too, he'd resent the fact that he couldn't play any more. But the great thing about being involved in a new

venture is that it is absorbing and he is

distanced from that part of his past. He prefers going fishing with the children for mackerel and heading out rowing for a lobster supper. ''There is this invariable bitterness that comes from sports people who retire that it was

better in our day. I find it easier to be out of

it in a way, just telling the stories. It's part of me protecting myself, by not getting too involved.''

Hours later Mexican night fades into the sobriety of the following morning and the island dream of the Wainwrights goes on. They've pared their lives down to problem solving and action. They get things done. They keep an eye on the farmhouse, take the

children out on the hills and to their beach

caravan; they go hunting and fishing and dream of spending the rest of their life on Coll. Most importantly, they understand the value of their move. They can escape to the mainland when the feeling of insularity is a little claustrophobic but recognise that the greatest feeling of satisfaction is pulling up in Arinagour on the return journey. If there is one thing both of them would love to see it would be one of their children carrying on the farm. But that's for the future.

The ferry, thankfully, has docked. Having blown the cobwebs off the previous night,

Rob and Romayne kindly turn up to wave us off. ''When I hear bad news on television,'' says Romayne, ''or read about something dreadful I think how lucky we are, hidden away, protected from the outside world. We are often asked how long we will be staying here. When I look around at what we have it seems such a stupid, silly question.'' She might well be right. Coll, designed with a poet's eye, is thrillingly alive. We leave with a promising vision of the island's future. n

The Wainwrights' exploits can be followed on www.isleofcoll.net

Ordinary hero

Glenalmond old boy Rob Wainwright is a double Cambridge Blue, in boxing and rugby. He won his first international cap as a replacement against Ireland in 1992 at a time when he had all but given up hope of catching the selectorial eye. Later, he would become Scotland's first professional captain. As an army doctor he held the rank of major before leaving to pursue his rugby and farming career. In 1995 he was hailed as a hero for helping to save a man's life - an elderly spectator collapsed after suffering a heart attack during a match in London.