Island that left my life shipwrecked: Ever dreamed of swapping the rat race for a rural idyll? This writer did just that. In a searing new memoir she tells how it led to divorce and life as a lonely outcast
- Tamsin Calidas, and husband Rab, swapped North London for rural Scotland
- Moved to Hebridean islands but felt it was clear locals didn’t want them there
- Over 6 years there they tried IVF and she also found out Rab was cheating on her
- They divorced, Rab moved to London and Tamsin left to tend to their croft alone
- She insists it was not an expose of island culture but just one woman’s journey
Not long after Tamsin Calidas and her husband, Rab, decided to sell their home in London and buy a derelict croft on a small Hebridean island, their estate agent gave them a warning.
‘Island life . . . it’s different. It’s not for everyone,’ she said. Tamsin would have plenty of time to reflect on those words.
The decision to take this romantic leap into the unknown was supposed to be a fresh start for Rab and Tamsin; a place to raise a family and escape the crimewave that had hit their corner of the city.
Yet the move to the rugged, sparse, Scottish landscape brought with it a new catalogue of terrible misfortunes — not least her husband’s betrayal, leaving Tamsin to run her remote croft single-handedly in an unforgiving climate.
Tamsin Calidas and husband Rab, swapped their North London for the rural Hebridean islands in Scotland but they felt it was clear the locals didn’t want them there
Her experiences are laid bare in a powerful new memoir which unflinchingly chronicles both her many physical and psychological battles, as well as her endeavours to navigate the small community of islanders, many of whom were openly hostile to her very presence.
The memoir, perhaps unsurprisingly, has increased tensions.
Despite her decision to name no one and to keep the island’s identity secret — and to use a pseudonym — most of the inhabitants recognised her.
‘It has gone down badly with a lot of people,’ one of the islanders, Neil Carmichael, said earlier this week.
Another long-standing resident was ‘desperately sad’, given the ‘kindness’ islanders had shown the incomer.
Given that Tamsin — an articulate brunette who declines to disclose her age, but is likely to be in her late 40s — is still living on the island, a warts-and-all book seems an odd way of keeping her head below the parapet.
Yet, in an interview over Skype, she insists it was never meant to be an expose of island culture, but simply one woman’s journey.
‘This is my story, my experience and I have tried to be honest about all of it,’ she says.
‘The island is a metaphor for anyone who has ever been alone, or marginalised, or struggling with big issues.
‘And it is also about what happens when everything you are used to falls away, which is something we are all experiencing at the moment, to lesser or greater degrees.
If anything, Tamsin seems naive to have been taken aback by the kerfuffle her memoir has caused — and her decision to abandon the many comforts of metropolitan life for an extreme version of the rural dream could also be construed as naive in the extreme.
She laughs. ‘Of course I was naive — everyone is naive until they have experienced a reality.
‘You can do as much research and visits as you like, but it’s a different thing when you come in and settle somewhere with a long history, and where there is a land exchange. And I think that is common the world over.’
Even so, her leap was bigger than most. An Oxford graduate, her early 20s were spent living a typically cosmopolitan life, with a flat in London’s fashionable Notting Hill, and jobs in broadcasting, publishing and advertising.
Tamsin’s warts-and-all memoir recalls what life is like living on an island and recounts the significant experiences she has been through since moving there
Then, one evening when she was in her mid-20s, a black cab jumped a red light and collided with the taxi in which Tamsin was travelling.
She suffered a catalogue of serious injuries, and during her long rehabilitation, she found herself taking stock of her life. ‘I had to wrestle myself back,’ as she puts it now.
She started working with trauma victims and then, in the late Nineties, met her future husband, Rab, through mutual friends at a summer party.
‘He was quirky and original and we connected instantly,’ she says.
The couple bought a small semi-detached home in North London. A ‘doer upper’ with a tiny garden, where they both assumed they would raise a family.
Instead, the neighbourhood quickly went feral — a legacy of turf wars which left spray-painted graffiti and break-ins in its wake, including a terrifying one at their home in the middle of the night.
‘It felt like everything changed overnight,’ she reflects. ‘It became imperative for us to find a quiet, safe space to have a family.’
And so in early March 2004, after considering a number of other locations, they went to explore north-west Scotland, an area where they had spent much time, both together and with friends.
‘Both of us felt a really strong pull to it,’ she explains.
It was while sheltering from the rain in a local peat-steeped inn that they spotted a tiny newspaper advert showing a dilapidated, damp croft for sale in the Hebridean islands.
Just four rooms with 3ft thick stone walls, it had no electricity or running water, and had been empty for years.
‘It had everything for it and everything against it — not least the fact that we’d said living on an island was one thing we’d never do. But I felt an instant connection,’ she recalls.
A mere six weeks after making their first offer on the property, the couple moved to the island in early summer, basing themselves in an ‘antique, leaking caravan’ by their croft as they started the immense challenge of trying to make the dilapidated cottage habitable and its land useful.
They dismantled walls, dug the soil and bought sheep.
But being accepted by their fellow islanders was hard when, as Tamsin puts it, ‘each pocket of soil is as jealously guarded as any close kinship’.
And, while she is at pains to emphasise that there was ‘huge generosity and kindness’ in those early days — gifts of baked shortbread and offers of lifts to the ferry — it’s clear that many didn’t want the couple there.
‘You can call it what you like,’ one of them told her. ‘But this croft has always been Hector’s croft.’
At a Christmas drinks gathering to which they had been invited, Tamsin and Rab were greeted with the words ‘What the f*** are you doing here?’ by a fellow guest, before subsequently being told to ‘just f*** off back south where you came from’.
‘We knew the sensitivities of moving to a small community and that these would be amplified by living on a restricted land mass,’ Tamsin says.
‘But no, it wasn’t easy.’
Nonetheless, over the next five years, the couple persevered, working their land, breeding their lambs and turning their croft into a home. They made some friends, too. ‘We really integrated,’ she insists.
Yet, all the while, their relationship was undergoing an additional strain as they tried, and failed, to conceive a child.
During those years, they had many time-consuming, exhausting trips to the mainland to try various fertility treatments and finally IVF which, heartbreakingly, ultimately failed.
Wrung out emotionally and physically, the couple were advised by doctors to draw the line.
‘It’s devastating — as anyone who comes through this without a child will understand,’ she says.
‘It doesn’t just take a physical toll but an emotional one, too. It’s very traumatic when it doesn’t work, but also when you are in that loop, it’s very difficult to step off it.
‘It’s desperately hard for men, too. They feel helpless.’ For his part, Rab had become increasingly withdrawn — and one night, after a New Year’s dance, he did not come home — something he would repeat a number of times over the following year as their relationship started to deteriorate.
Finally, Tamsin learned from an islander that it was common knowledge that Rab had been sleeping with another woman.
‘It was gut-wrenching to hear the truth and know that you are the last to know,’ she says.
‘But on some level it was a relief, confirming what I knew but hadn’t wanted to confront, which was that our relationship was over.’
The woman in question was someone Tamsin had invited to her birthday drinks and considered a friend. When challenged, the woman replied that she would ‘f*** whoever she liked’.
The conversation with Rab was equally visceral, but heartbreaking all the same. ‘We both knew all that we had lost — but the trust was gone,’ she says now.
And so in 2010, six years after their arrival on the island, Rab returned to London for good.
The 40-something woman was left to tend to their croft alone after she found out her husband was cheating on her with another woman and he moved back to London
‘I listened to his car rattling up the track with tears in my eyes, half disbelieving, half glad he was gone,’ she recalls.
It left Tamsin entirely alone at a time when she could not have been more vulnerable: she had broken bones in both her hands, injuries that had been sustained in separate accidents, and had an empty bank account.
At one point, with no food in the fridge and no money to buy any, she turned to foraging, eating bark and leaves.
‘Times had been hard — we’d sunk the majority of our savings into the croft and the rest on renovating the house,’ she says.
‘Our income from our sheep and assorted small jobs on the island was pretty meagre, and we had overstretched ourselves.’
Looking back does she wonder how she endured it?
‘Yes, it does take my breath away — but that’s the same for anyone who has been through immense experiences,’ she says.
‘At the time I was just trying to survive. You’re trying to keep your head above water. Reflection comes later.’
Some of the locals wanted her gone now she was alone.
Two months after Rab left, she arrived home to find the word ‘Bitch’ etched on the wall.
Shortly afterwards, she encountered a woman by the edge of her property who told her angrily: ‘You’ve no right staying on now he’s away.’
Others simply ignored her.
‘It was an immensely fraught time,’ Tamsin says. ‘And in a society that was quite traditional with more of a traditional split of roles, it was difficult without a man at my side.’
In one extraordinary episode a few weeks later, Tamsin reveals how she discovered her prize ‘tup’, a breeding ram who had won a clutch of rosettes at the island show, face down in a shallow ditch.
Suspecting foul play, six weeks after burying him she exhumed him, carrying him in a body bag to her car and taking him to a veterinary pathologist on the mainland.
She was subsequently told that it was impossible to establish a conclusive result.
It sounds, I suggest, frankly, bonkers. ‘There was a clear trajectory to that decision,’ Tamsin says carefully. ‘But yes, I can see it was one of many pivotal points where I was going deeper into myself.’
Now she acknowledges that if she could go back in time, she would do some things differently. ‘My biggest regret is that I couldn’t share with anyone what I had been going through with Rab,’ she says.
‘If people had had a closer understanding of what had happened, then that might have fostered a greater empathy.
‘But it was a complex situation, and in a very small place there are some things you need to try to hold within your own walls.’
Things reached rock bottom a year after Rab’s departure with the unexpected death of Cristall, an older islander who had taken Tamsin under her wing.
‘She was my closest friend and was also like a mother to me,’ she says.
Cristall’s death created ‘a tsunami’ of grief and the start of a downward spiral that culminated, one cold winter morning in 2016, in Tamsin walking into the wild Hebridean sea with the intention of never returning.
Instead, the icy water revitalised her and she swam back to shore — the start of a daily ritual she continues to this day, no matter how brutal the temperature.
There have been no lovers since Rab left, nor is she looking for anyone. In middle age, she has different priorities, no longer driven by the desire to be a mother and happy to be by herself.
‘Since that swim, my life has become totally immersed in the wildness of nature around me, and I still get huge fulfilment from that,’ she says.
‘And there is always something to do — fixing slates, painting woodwork, working the land and looking after the sheep and my vegetable garden.’
Of late, though, she has reaped the rewards of her efforts, and while the croft still requires daily attention, much of her time is filled with creative work, from writing and photography to working with the wool from her sheep’s fleeces.
And the rhythm of her day throughout the seasons is dictated by the ever-changing weather.
‘I rise with the light and look at the sky, and if it is going to be a beautiful dawn I head straight for the sea,’ she says. ‘I fill my days quite easily.’
She has her adored collie, Maude, as a constant companion. There are visitors, too, friends from her old life back in the city all those years ago.
‘A lot of them still have young children who love it here, but some of the young children Rab and I knew and loved are now emerging into adulthood and coming back of their own accord, which is wonderful,’ she says.
‘It’s become a special place for a lot of people.’
These days, Tamsin is on good terms with Rab. ‘We salvaged a friendship from the wreckage and he has been supportive about the book,’ she says.
So, after 16 years, does she feel she has finally been accepted on the island?
‘I think there is a mutual respect and tolerance,’ she says. ‘I’m not the newest person here.’
Either way, she is not planning on going anywhere. ‘I felt this was home right from the minute I saw it,’ she says.
‘I came here because I fell in love with the island and my home — and none of that has changed.’
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