Soay? We know Scotland pretty well, and had come across references to the island in the context of the post-war efforts of author Gavin Maxwell to establish a (short-lived) fishery there for basking sharks. So we knew Soay was somewhere near the Isle of Skye, but that was about it. We'd certainly have been hard-pressed to point it out on an unlabelled map.
"Island on the Edge: A Life on Soay" by Anne Cholawo is a wonderful book that has brought this easily-overlooked island to life in a truly magical way. "Easily-overlooked" but hardly insignificant. Soay is some three miles long by nearly two miles wide, and almost cut in two by inlets that intrude into the north-western and south-eastern shores. It guards the entrance to Skye's Loch Scavaig and is separated by the Soay Sound from the loneliest and most remote part of Skye's coastline, where the southern end of the Cuillins descends to meet the sea.
Anne Cholawo was working in an advertising agency in London, and commuting into the city each day, when, in September 1989, she saw an advert for a cottage while on holiday on Skye. The cottage was basic, but attractive, and offered the prospect of an escape from a life she increasingly hated. The part in the advert about "access by courtesy of fishing boat" was confusing, because Anne thought the cottage was on the coast of Skye. It was only subsequently that she discovered that it was on a remote island with no mains services and no ferry, but by then she was already dreaming about the possibilities of an entirely new life. She returned a month later to visit the cottage, transported to the island from Elgol by the cottage's owner in his boat. Within ten minutes of landing on the island she knew that whatever the drawbacks of an insular life, and whatever the condition of the cottage, she had to move to Soay. She did, in the spring of 1990, and she still lives on the island today.
"Island on the Edge: A Life on Soay" is really two different stories woven tightly together. One of the stories charts the trajectory of settlement on the island since 1990. When Anne first moved to Soay, there were 17 permanent residents on the island, and a school. Today there are only three residents, and the school is long closed. There have been many other changes to life on the island during that time as well. Rabbits have disappeared, and bird life has diminished: probably as a result of the arrival of mink. And deer have made their way to the island, which now seems more prone to storms than was the case a couple of decades ago. This wider story of diminishing population is tinged with considerable sadness, and raises an obvious question, discussed by the author and reflected in the title of her book, about the future of the island.
The second story is an intensely personal and deeply uplifting one. How did a city girl manage to survive, and then thrive, in such a remote location? There's a strong sense that Anne's initial ignorance and naivety acted as shields, without which she would never have contemplated the life she took on. Initially she made her way largely through the help and support of the friends and neighbours she found on Soay, and others, including the Marines, who were persuaded to lift her piano to the island slung under a helicopter as part of an exercise. As time went on she grew increasingly able to support herself, whether in terms of collecting winkles to make a living, or fixing the engine and electrics of her nearly-wrecked boat; and she increasingly supported those who had supported her during her early years on the island. That is, until most of them moved away from Soay, one-by-one or two-by-two, or died. This aspect of Anne's story is also full of uncertainty about what the future holds, but you get the feeling that if anyone can continue to thrive on Soay then it will be Anne, and the husband and family she found as a result of living there.