A House By The Shore by Alison Johnson

Bored of your desk job? And want to run away to a faraway island, live in a gracefully decaying cottage and count waves while you sip tea? Well, then, be careful when you read Alison Johnson’s A House By The Shore. Because, this heart-warming story — of two young academics, who trade everything that’s solid, toasty-warm and comfortable, for a rough life in an island in the far north, far west of Scotland — might just fuel the romantic in you. It certainly did mine, when I read about their first view of the Western Isles: ‘brilliant in the low winter light, with a scatter of black tidal rocks and green-capped islets. The world became wider, lower and brighter, the colours translucent as a rainbow’. Once they get there, they half-heartedly teach children, whole-heartedly learn to fish, sail and swim with seals. And then they buy a rundown old manse. It’s valued “more of a liability than an asset”, but they turn it around into a top-notch hotel and restaurant — Scarista House — inch by slow, struggling inch. Yet the laboured process, rather the telling of it is deeply romanticised; and that includes the beaten up car and their rudimentary boat; the howling wind that pushes the smoke down the chimney instead of up; stray cows squatting in their front-garden, and Jet (the dog, ‘black and shiny as an aubergine’) stealing rides in their guests’ cars. Because, instead of dissuading you, they make you want to experience it all…

It works because…

You might have read Shackelton’s journey to Antarctica or Chatwin’s stint in Patagonia, but somewhere your rational self will tell you, “don’t be silly, you creature comfort-seeker; you won’t survive two days there”. But this book, recapping 12 years in the Hebrides, is funny, moving, and proves that you can trade a staid city life for an isolated existence, where you will be one with Nature and put all your outdoorsy, handyman skills to good use.

And while some of it will rattle you (if you’re used to piped hot-water, washing clothes in peaty, cold streams sounds a bit extreme), sand that ‘glowed and sang in the wind, golden, pink and silver’ somewhat makes up for it.

Try this, if you don’t believe me: “The whole area is frightening and enchanting”; Alison says of the islands. “On one particularly luminous and magical evening, we were rowing silently home when I was petrified by a tremendous horse-like — water-horse-like — snort just behind me. I twisted round to face, not a kelpie, but a huge and benign-looking bull seal”.

And this one stays with you…

“Then suddenly we were amongst seals – 20 or 30 pairs of inquisitive eyes were fixed on us. News passed around and more and more heads broke surface. We edged nearer, they edged nearer. Fascination was mutual… they craned their necks, turned belly up, a few waved a flipper as they rolled, one dived silently beneath the dinghy and surfaced on the other side, rocking us slightly… All we could say to each other was ‘Oh, aren’t they lovely?’ in an idiotic whisper. We were both shaking: the seals had been very many, very large and very close, and our boat very tiny. But while we were in their midst we had not been afraid at all.”