ARTICLE – THE JOURNAL – SEPTEMBER 2007
‘Welcome back to my island’
Buying an island in Scotland’s Western Isles isn’t something you do every day.
So three years ago when The Journal first ran the story of Dave Hill from Elford near Tamworth, who had done just that, as a retirement present to himself, it was clear that this was a man in love with a dream, and that it was destined to be a log-term affair.
Dave bought the small, uninhabited island of Sgarabhaigh (pronounced Scaravay) after he saw an advert in The Guardian, offering an island for sale. He flew up to the Western Isles and he and his wife Jane immediately fell in love with it.
Formed like an S-shaped piece of a jigsaw puzzle, covered in grass and heather, but no trees, its wild, rugged beauty entranced both Dave and Jane from the outset.
“It is one of the most beautiful and unspoilt environments in the world,” he told The Journal.
Dave wanted to preserve Sgarabhaigh for the future, protecting the wildlife on the island and at the same time helping to contribute to the sustainability of the Western Isles, and highlighting the Western Islanders way of life.
To help him achieve that, and give others the opportunity to share his island, as well as assisting him recoup some of the initial outlay, Dave set up the ‘Friends of Sgarabhaigh’ allowing members of the public to contract to become associate owners of his island with a lifetimes rights to visit with friends and family, subject to the island code of behaviour. Associate owners could pass the rights to their descendants and each received a handmade presentation box with their island documents inside.
Three years on, Dave is still as passionate about his island as ever.
“The dream has moved on,” he tells me at his beamed cottage in Elford. He is still making and selling his oak boxes to associate owners, their ‘passport’ to Sgarabhaigh, which he promotes as an heirloom to be passed on for generations to come; but as I speak with him it is clear that he now has a more defined, far-reaching view of what he wants to accomplish.
He describes his aim of sharing the island with others as “creating an international family” and he has crystalised his sustainability goals for Sgarabhaigh and the islands. He wants to help create economic regeneration through increased tourism and inward investment, support social regeneration through the introduction of people to the islands, and promote the islands’ businesses through exposure on the Internet.
Talks have become second nature to him – he has done about seventy to a variety of organizations including WI’s and Round Table, spreading the word about the beauty of Sgarabhaigh throughout the land and highlighting the fragile heritage and environments of the islands. And he is in regular touch with people from all over the world who have become associate owners and have received their ‘island in a box’ and love it.
He has also just released the first piece of Sgarabhaigh currency in the form of a sixpence, based on a coin dating back to the early 1600’s.
The sixpence is minted in fine silver and incorporates many historical and heraldic links to the island in its design. It is hallmarked by the Birmingham Assay Office to verify its silver purity and is dated 2005, the formal launch year of Friends of Sgarabhaigh.
The coin has a cormorant design, reflecting the name Sgarabhaigh which, in Gaelic, means ‘Cormorant Island’ – after the colony of cormorants that live there. Two other important species, the seal and the dolphin, that live in the sea around the island, are illustrated too. On the reverse side is a shield with heraldic links to the Stuarts, the Royal House of Scotland, and the MacKenzies, the clan from whom Dave bought the island.
“Each one is individually struck with a 65-ton press” Dave tells me. “They will hopefully soon be sold at airports, and we are also promoting them as lovely silver gifts for weddings, christenings or as an addition to a coin collection.”
Dave admits he has spent more money than he has recouped, but money has never been his motivating factor. It is the emotional link between him and his island which drives him – and that remains as strong as ever.
He loves the views – eastwards towards the Isle of Skye, south towards North Uist, north over the mountains of Harris and west towards the sister island of the Western Isles.
He loves the beauty of the treeless island, with its boulder and shingle beaches, its headland and little cove. He loves the way the weather can change the sea in a flash from a calm silver to an angry grey, the purity of the environment with water so clear that you can see the seals fishing 15 feet below the surface. And the richness of the wild marine life – the resident sea otter who loves to bask around the islands tiny, freshwater loch, the historic colony of cormorants, the White Beaked dolphins playing in the surf and the Black-Faced Suffolk sheep that graze the grass and heather in the summer.
The island’s flora enchants Dave too, including the orchids and the exquisitely-coloured Lewissian Gneiss rocks. “Did you know that they are a staggering 2,700 million years old?” he asks me.
“Sgarabhaigh is a microcosm of the larger islands. Wherever you are on it you have wonderful long panoramas, and you are always aware you are on an island.
“One of the most wonderful things is listening as the last boat disappears very slowly, chugging away until the sound is indiscernible.
“Peace descends and it is just magical. There is something very emotional about the island.”
To enquire about becoming a Friend of Sgarabhaigh’, or the Sgarabhaigh Sixpence, call Dave on 01827 383645 or visit www.scaravay.com.
'The Journal' - July 2004
'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
'Stornoway Gazette - 15th March 2007