ARTICLE - THE JOURNAL - JULY 2004
'Step onto my island'
All his life, Dave Hill had promised himself that he would retire by the age of fifty and persue his dreams.
In the event, he overshot the mark by two years, but more than made up for it by carrying the second part of his promise to the letter.
Two days after he finished work as a chartered civil engineer, Dave, who lives in the sleepy village of Elford , near Tamworth , fulfilled his life's ambition and bought himself an island.
"I saw an advert in the Guardian one Sunday, advertising an island for sale in the Outer Hebrides ," he recalls matter-of-factly. "The ad said 'for people who have more money than sense'.
"I retired from work on the Tuesday night at 7.15pm , and by 5.30am the next morning I was on my way up to the Hebrides to look at the island."
It would be fair to say that islands have fascinated Dave Hill for much of his life. Actually, he's been drawn to them like a homing beacon. As a child, his favourite game was making 'islands' in the 'seas' of mowing grass in a farmers field; and later at university he kept up an avid correspondence with an ex-estate agent friend from Sutton who had sold up lock, stock and barrel to go and live a subsistence lifestyle in the Shetlands.
Later he took his young family on countless summer holidays to the islands off the west coast of Scotland and even considered making a home there. And in his mid thirties, he had "a short flirtation with buying a rock that stuck out of the sea for £8000. But, a lack of disposable income stymied his plans.
It was not until February 2002 that Dave's island nirvana arrived, in the pages of the Guardian.
He flew up to the Western Isles to see the island, but it turned out to be spoken for. However another island called Sgarabhaigh (pronounced scaravay) was available.
Dave recalls the moment he first stepped onto Sgarabhaigh. "I was pretty choked; owning an island has been a dream of mine since I was knee high to a grasshopper.
"It's one of the most beautiful and unspoilt environments in the world - very unrestricted, no fences, nothing - it's wonderful."
He decided to buy Sgarabhaigh and clinched the deal with the then owner, one John MacKenzie, the eldest of three brothers of the local MacKenzie clan.
"My wife and I went up in early January and there were clear skies, hardly a breath of wind, and the stars...." Dave pauses. ".Zillions of them. We watched a shooting star that you would have given your life savings to see."
From the air, Sgarabhaigh, which means Cormorant Island , looks like an S-shaped piece of a jigsaw puzzle. Covered in grass and heather, but treeless, it has a wild, rugged beauty that is the major part of the attractiveness for Dave.
"The weather can be very extreme and can change very quickly. And the locals say you can experience all four seasons in a day on the islands with the constant light variations.
"Summer is the best time to visit if you want calm weather. When it is tranquil and the sun is shining, it is absolutely wonderful. But I love it when the sea is running wild."
Yet, despite its ruggedness, Sgarabhaigh is not remote, being only twenty minutes by boat from the island of Harris , with its hotels. And, although uninhabited, it's a wonderful place to see wildlife. In the clear waters around it dolphins play, and there is a colony of seals and a sea otter in residence. During the summer, sheep graze on the hills, and the rocks and cliffs are home to thousands of birds including terns, puffins, oyster catchers and naturally a colony of cormorants.
Boat trips from nearby islands also go out to watch for marine life, including whales. "A local boatman recently saw over fifty whales in six days in the waters to the east of the island, including minke and a rare humpback," says Dave.
The wildlife is a constant joy to him and he delights recounting a story. "My wife Jane, enjoys singing and one day she was singing on the rocks. In no time at all, 17 seals from the resident colony arrived. They looked for all the world as though they were sitting in theatre stalls, listening to her performance."
Then there are the fabulous views in all directions: "You can watch the sun rise over the Cullin Hills on Skye to the east, there is a sandy shore to the south, Taransay, where they filmed Castaway 2000, is to the west, and the Harris mountains are to the north.
"What I love is that the views have not changed for ten thousand years. And, with our help they will not change for another ten thousand," he says.
Now Dave has his dream island - but he is not finished. He has taken things a step further. "I got into sustainability at work. It made me aware of the pressures on marginal environments like the islands. The Outer Hebrides have lost twenty percent of their population in the last twenty years.
"The paramount thing has always been that we are not going to develop Sgarabhaigh - we are keeping it as a nature reserve. So, I decided to look at ways to share some interest in it."
He had an idea that would both help him recoup the initial outlay and would also give others the opportunity to share the island. His latest project allows members of the public to become 'Friends of Sgarabhaigh', and to visit his island, to enjoy the solitude and the wildlife.
"The sharing element has also provided the added benefit of potential economic support for the local economy through the generation of additional tourism," he says.
There's no doubt that Dave Hill has put his heart and soul into getting his dream of being the custodian of an island off the ground, but it has taken determination, and it keeps him continually busy.
This month he is going up to Sgarabhaigh to 'tidy up.' "The sheep are eating the orchids on the island," he says nonchalantly. And in August, he's been invited to attend a clan gathering.
"Some things have gone more smoothly than I had anticipated. The most frustrating thing is the rate at which lawyers work up there - they are lovely people though," he smiles. "In fact, I have met with nothing but kindness."
He has other plans too. He's working on a book - based in an island setting - and he's toying with the idea of whether he might buy an even larger Scottish island...
Looking back with hindsight on his island dream over the past two years, he tells me: "It is something special. When Jane sang to the seals, we could not believe it was real. After so many years of dreaming about owning an island, it was on the map, it was a real place - and we were there."
'Become a Friend of Sgarabhaigh'
Dave Hill has set up a company called Friends of Sgarabahaigh Limited, which owns the freehold to the island. Members of the public can contract with the company to become an 'Associate Owner', giving them a lifetime's rights to visit the private island with friends and family, subject to an island code of behaviour. Each associate owner receives a handmade oak presentation box which contains their island 'documents'. These include a certificate, an owners handbook, glass phials of peat and sand from the island, a DVD film of the island, Ordnance Survey maps, brass seals and sealing wax and a Sgarabhaigh Passport which can be endorsed to record visits.
Forty hand processes are involved in the box and Dave has done all of them from box finishing to glass assembly, polishing, seal stamping and passport endorsement. "I wanted it to be special - an island in a box," he says. For more details call Dave on 01287 383645 or visit www.scaravay.com
The Outer Hebrides consist of around two hundred islands, Harris being the nearest inhabited one to Sgarabhaigh, ideal as a base from which to visit the island for a day trip, or for an island hopping holiday of the Western Isles.
'The Tamworth Herald' - 15 th July 2004
'The Hebridean' - 29 th April 2005
'The Scottish Islands Network Newsletter - May 2005
'The Shropshire Star' - 8 th August 2005
'The Advertiser' - 12 th August 2005
'The Tamworth Times' - 1 st September 2005