Hebridean island divided after memoir explores darker fringe of Highland life

Neighbours of Tamsin Calidas, who moved to Scotland from London, are keen to put their side as her book I am an Island looks set for success

Tamsin Calidas’s memoir about swapping Notting Hill for a croft on a small Hebridean island luxuriates in its landscape. The heather and the Munros, the raw skies and the wild tides of the Atlantic are lavishly described. The islanders, by contrast, are largely anonymous, thoughtless and cruel.

I am an island book cover

The author of I am an Island insists she was careful not to identify the island, which has fewer than 200 inhabitants, and Calidas is not the name by which she is known by her neighbours, but the islanders and many others worked out her identity well before the book was published last week.

One islander, Neil Carmichael, said: “I got sent a link to a review of it and read some of it – then I showed my dad.” The crofters both recognised the author immediately. “It has gone down badly with a lot of people.”

The book is both a crofter’s memoir and a psychological exploration of isolation, and seems likely to be a hit: extracts have been published in a national newspaper and Calidas was interviewed on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour.

The blurb emphasises the high-flying London careers that she and husband Rab gave up to take on farming sheep and cattle. For centuries the history of crofting has been stained with tears and Calidas’s memoir is no exception: IVF treatment fails, her marriage breaks down, and she fractures both hands. In the aftermath of divorce, she has no money and few friends, but rebuilds her life thanks to “the incredible ability of the natural world to provide when everything else has fallen away”.

A thatched croft by the sea
A coastal croft: the book glories in the Highlands’ wild Atlantic landscapes. Photograph: Alamy

A constant theme is that the magnificent Hebridean landscape has a darker fringe. Calidas describes continuing intimidation and abuse at the hands of some islanders. They object to her presence on the croft as an outsider, as English, as of mixed heritage and, later, as a single woman daring to work the land like a man.

In one bleak episode, Calidas tells of her pride in her tup, a breeding ram that wins a prize at the island’s agricultural fair, but dies some weeks later. Then, she reveals, a chance word makes her think the sheep might have been poisoned. On Halloween night, she exhumes the body and takes it to Glasgow for examination by a veterinary pathologist: the results are inconclusive.

That incident was familiar to several islanders. Both Neil Carmichael and his father John said that baseless accusations had been made. (Calidas denies any accusations came from her.) Several islanders have anecdotes about other flashpoints. It’s clear that ill-feeling for Calidas lingers.

“I think it’s just a load of rubbish,” John Carmichael said of the book. “I don’t think anybody’s done anything to her, as far as I know … She always did really have a chip on her shoulder.”

A woman whose family ties on the island stretch back for generations said: “Of course it’s desperately sad. But to repay people’s kindness in this way is odd even for her. We’re finding it quite amusing.”

The scorn is not uniform. Another islander, an incomer like Calidas, spoke of the picture of “wonderful welcoming communities” painted by travel guides to the western highlands. “People are incredibly kind-hearted, incredibly generous and will go a long, long way out of their way to help,” he said. “But when it comes to land and tradition and family, there’s another side.” In the book, Calidas hints at islanders believing the croft ought to be theirs.

But the established families don’t see it that way. “Anyone can pick up the phone and get help from anyone,” Neil Carmichael said. “There’s lots of new people.” Since Calidas arrived in 2004, the island has become less focused on farming and more on tourism, with people from Mexico, Germany and the Netherlands now living there. “A lot of people have come from down south and have the money to buy properties up here. That’s just the way it is – people want to retire. But anyone that comes has always been very welcome.”

His father was surprised to be told he wasn’t named in the book. “That’s quite disappointing that we didn’t get a name,” John Carmichael said. “Terrible.”

Calidas said she had expected islanders to read her book, but that anyone trying to find themselves in her pages would not succeed as each incident was an amalgamation of events and all characters were blended.

“There may well be people who want to pinpoint and blame and start from a position of fear,” she said. “This isn’t that book; this book is about love. It’s a book about being an outsider coming into the community.”

She added she had had “huge amounts of love and support” from other islanders and from her ex-husband. “The intention was to go beyond place. It’s not bound by specificity of place. It’s not a travelogue… I’ve done everything possible to respect my friends, community and those around me.

“It’s not written in a very masculine, observational style. This is written with the intention of asking people to step closer to their emotions and their feelings and to journey with me internally into thorough solitude and loneliness.”


James Tapper

The GuardianTramp

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