A woman’s story of surviving on a Scottish island

Nothing in Judy Fairbairns’ upbringing prepared her for the rigors of life on a remote Scottish island. She was born in Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria, then the family drifted south, to Norwich. Her father was a vet, her mum an old-school housewife, who did the lion’s share of raising five kids, of whom Judy is the eldest. Judy recalls, “My childhood socks were always white, my frocks ironed. Each day predictable, safe. I escaped.”

She dreamed of acting or singing professionally. Quick to question authority and allergic to others’ constraints, she was expelled from her very fancy school, though the “why” has vanished from memory. “I think I used to roll up my skirt to pelmet level. It was an incredibly – I won’t name it – proper school, a bit Miss Jean Brodie. I would snort with laughter. It was never going to work. I was very bright and intelligent, but very lazy, and really not interested in being part of that game at all.”

Judy’s voice over the phone is soft, refined, pragmatic, and not what I expected after reading Island Wife, her memoir about moving to the Hebrides to run an estate she christens Tapsalteerie, the Scots word for topsy turvy. (This, and all other names, have been changed.) Her prose is as lavish as the lush, romantic scenery she inhabits. For example, she “births” and “grows” her five children, describes home as “this wild place, this place of shipwrecks and wind-battered shores”, and her husband as a “wild man of the sea... the call of the sea is louder in him than any other call and will not be denied.”

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She describes a life of relentless hard work for insufficient reward – economically or emotionally – and the pernicious effect this has on her happiness. Judy succumbs to serious depression followed by a a full-blown meltdown, its arrival signposted, over the years, by such acts as smashing their kitchen windows with a broom handle and shaving off her hair.

Alex swept into her life like a force of nature. Ten years older, he’d travelled the world, racking up adventures, but had grown up on a Norfolk farm that his father bought after the war. “His father farmed it as a gentleman farmer, with a lot of employees, because the labour was cheap then, and did very well because it was extremely good arable land. And then when my husband’s father became ill, [Alex] stopped his travels to come back and take over.”

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Judy was 19 when she walked up the aisle on her own father’s arm, to the bemusement of some. Yes, she recalls, Alex’s friends did shake their heads. “They’d seen me out and about – I used to wear things like thigh boots and black shiny hot pants. His friends tended to be from the county set. They looked like their mothers at the age of 20, and were being very sensible and joining the WRI. Then I came along. But, my husband was always pretty wild himself – he had long hair and a beard and was pretty outrageous in his thinking, so he was already different from them. Though I suppose he marked himself as one of them by being an extremely good farmer. And then I surprised them all by being a jolly good farmer’s wife.”

It was a baptism by fire, involving endless, backbreaking work. There are no weekends off on farms or, for that matter, as mum to a quickly growing brood. And later, when running the island estate, well, weekends were changeover times, with all the cleaning and linen-laundering that demands. From the start, Judy was indebted to her mother-in-law, an industrious organiser whose talents ranged from making clothes to tackling any culinary challenge you’d care to name, and who generously shared her knowledge with this callow teenage bride.

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Alex proved an extremely talented innovator. In addition to farming their 200 acres, they created a farm museum complete with livestock, a craft and coffee shop, a vegetable market and a pick-your-own business. But after five years, they were restless, and Judy, feeling their relationship was buckling under the strain of this dissatisfaction, longed for a fresh start, far from their parents. “We can find a piece of unclaimed land, stick our flag in and wait for the music to reach heart-stopping pitch... Alex will smile lovingly at me as I stand square and proud behind a mound of home-made scones, and my breast will swell with pride for my man... Together we will overcome, grow strong together...” Yes, she agrees, hers is an insanely romantic view of the world.

They chose Scotland because, “my mother is from Edinburgh. We had spent a lot of time there. My father had trained at the Royal Dick. We knew about Scotland, however, I’d never been to the west coast. But [when] we talked about moving, it had to be somewhere with sailing and the sea, which was never going to be the east coast, because that’s a miserable, grumpy old sea. This is the Atlantic. I didn’t have a clue what an estate was, I’d never been near one in my life, apart from a housing estate, but it piqued something in us. We liked the challenge. Where our peers were being sensible and washing the car on a Saturday, we’d head for the boat and set sail. With kids.

“My husband’s parents used to tour the island. We’d sometimes come up in the summer if we could escape the harvest, and meet them. We went to Uist and various islands, so it wasn’t such a big stretch to come to Mull and see this place.”

With two children and another on the way, they relocated – with Alex’s parents, who helped manage the vast Tapsalteerie estate – 1,200 acres, along six miles of coastline. Alex learned how to farm livestock, and developed a whale watching business that not only attracted tourists, but scientists in their droves. He built a recording studio. Meanwhile, they lived in an enormous, impossibly cold house, where something always required repair, developing the estate’s cottages for paying guests. Every night, Judy served elaborate gourmet meals to those visitors.

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As a portrait of marriage, Island Wife is a mixed bag. With one stroke of the pen, Judy sketches a god-like figure straight out of mythology, who makes a success of everything he tackles, and works his socks off with Herculean energy. With another stroke she scribbles that out. Alex isn’t fastidious, for instance, about taking his turn in the weekly bath – a limitation imposed on the family by the cost of heating the water. He is emotionally remote, stinks like a goat, and seemingly unaware of Judy’s unhappiness.

Why did she stay? “Well, first of all there has to be a deep love. You’ve said that you’ve visited Mull and found it a beautiful place, but you’ve come as a tourist, and all the people who came to stay with us would say the same. I would have said that the beauty of the surroundings might well have been quite a considerable part of my salvation. Although I never had time to be involved in it, it was outside my window. Those lifts in a day, the single track road, the birds and the eagles, that was all in my view on a daily basis. The relentless hard work was a necessity because of the lack of funds and the need to make money in a very big venture. And also the children coming on as they did, because that was really quite surprising.”

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Surely they’d heard about contraception? She laughs. “Yes. I’m quite idealistic. I was young, I was healthy, 
and you know, this picture that I had was of lots of 
children and all of that happiness around me. I hadn’t actually realised the toll it would take on me and also 
my husband. Idealism is a lovely thing, and it can also trip you up. Not that I regret any of it, they’re all wonderful kids.”

After a few minutes she adds, “One very important factor is that I’d been married in June 1972 and first child was born in May of 1973. Once there was a child, in my thinking, that was that. Also, I am going back to 1973, when people did not cut and run just because they didn’t agree over a few things. We were both working pretty much on our own with the odd help. We needed to focus hugely on our individual roles. With things like cleaning of the cottages, obviously my husband would do the outside things, the wood, the gas, whatever. But he absolutely had to keep the boat running, too. And there’d be times on the farm – lambing time, calving time, silage-making time – where he had to be thinking. He’s very much a man in that respect, in that he does one thing at a time.”

In other words, when the hell were they going to find time to assess their relationship? “We’re really focused. I was going to be the best cook and the cottages were going to be fantastic. He was thinking the same thing. That meant quite a lot of time. And he would always, of course, be thinking of new ideas about how to generate more flow of money for the family.”

Ultimately, she speculates, they were too frightened to examine their marriage. “He says now, he would be watching me go downhill, and saying, ‘What can I do to help?’ and I would say, ‘Just get out of the way and let me get on with it.’ That isn’t the right answer, nor was it a very helpful answer, but I can remember that feeling. We talk much more about it now than we ever did. I never doubted for one second that he wasn’t the absolute protector, or that he loved me more than anything. But it was the implementation of that. We just didn’t know how to do it.”

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Judy strikes me as someone with wildly romantic inclinations and a looser grip on life’s tough realities. “Yeah. And to a very great degree I am still like that now. Generally I will see opportunities where others might see obstacles. What [our] lifestyle taught me is that I can actually roll up my sleeves and get on with it. I’m actually made of extremely strong stuff. It just wasn’t an option to be in any way sloppy. . . .[but] then you pay a price for that.”

There’s so much negativity in her memoir, can she tell me what she loves about the island, and why, following a brief sojourn on the mainland after being forced to sell the estate, she and Alex returned for good? “The simple answer is that my soul feeds on this place and did from the very first moment. I discovered that my maternal great, great grandmother spent a lot of her life on Tiree. That was a complete surprise to me. It explained why I felt I knew the place, and became in tune and in time with the seasons and the changes.

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“But also … for example, not so much now, but in those days, you could say to a builder that you needed him and when could he come? And he’d say, ‘Oooch, the back end of the autumn.’ He may or may not appear, and if you get cross with him he just doesn’t bother to come at all. I found that rather exhilarating. What it said to me was that living here in harmony is not about things, it’s all about people and relationships. Even now, let’s say you go all the way into the village, which is a switchback road of 25 minutes, to collect something you’ve arranged to pick up, and it’s not there. If I behave badly at that point, I am the one who misses out. They’re not even slightly bothered about how upset I am. They look at me as a fool. Whereas if I say, ‘Oh, that’s a shame. How can we get round this?’ what happens is that I learn something, possibly by meeting someone on the road, or I would witness sea eagles perched on the roadside. If I looked, I would see why I made that journey, even though it appeared to be wasted. And it shifted my thinking.”

Like all small communities, locals rally round in an emergency – be it a dangerous grass fire, or problems with the livestock. “That spirit is something you can completely depend on. Going back to the builder, the glass in our back door had shattered, and it was very cold. We put plastic over it, and asked someone in the village if he’d come up and fix it. I think it was about two o’clock on Christmas Eve, a knock on the door, and there he was. You don’t say, although you could if you were silly, ‘I asked you to come months ago!’ You just say, ‘Oh how absolutely wonderful.’ You have a piece of Christmas cake and a glass of whisky and then he doesn’t charge you. And that is the island. It’s something I’ve never met anywhere else in my life, except here.”

• Island Wife, Living on the Edge of the Wild, is out now, published by Two Roads Books, £16.99 hardcover, and is also available as an ebook.