I looked up the term ‘rewilding’ as it seems to best describe what goes on in much of Skye. The definition: ‘restore (an area of land) to its natural uncultivated state (used especially with reference to the reintroduction of species of wild animal that have been driven out or exterminated).’ Not quite what I had in mind for all the old, abandoned places slowly being taken over again by nature.
There’s an empty house next door to us where the once neatly tended garden is now filled with flowers running riot. The adjoining croft land, left ungrazed, is knee-deep with grasses and ferns and meadowsweet.
Many old crofter’s cottages are crumbling and collapsing, trees growing through what remains of roofs and windows, whilst a few feet away stands a new bungalow replete with double glazing, garages and solar panels. These relics of simpler, and harder, times are often (and rightly) associated with damp and draughts and never-ending maintenance. Some are bought and renovated but many serve as reminders of the island’s history. Locals tend to view them as attractive in appearance perhaps, but not a practical option. They’re best left for the incomers with their deep pockets and romantic notions of island living.
We should know, having done just that. We’re suckers for period houses and a modern place was never going to cut it. So we bought the listed property, the oldest house in the village. And now - do I regret it? Yes, sometimes. It’s a big place with many problems which need addressing. We don’t have deep pockets or the skills to do a lot of the specialist jobs ourselves. Sometimes it feels as though we’re swimming against the tide, trying to just keep the place ticking over. The list of things which need addressing (why is the chimney from Joe’s room depositing mortar in the fireplace? Just how damp is it behind the wall in the snug? How much will it cost to replace wooden sash windows? That one really scares me, by the way) is seemingly endless and ever more expensive.
And that’s before we get to replacing the kitchen and pulling down the beast of an outbuilding.
But still, I have this innate weakness for old places. Especially those which look like they have a story.
Not very far away, there’s an empty house. It’s for sale. It’s like one of those houses in an Agatha Christie novel, where the naive newlyweds drive past in their little sports car and hit reverse and explore the abandoned garden, and the woman turns to her husband and asks imploringly, ‘Oh darling, can we?’
Yes, it’s in desperate need of renovation (and almost makes our place look like a bank holiday weekend project). Locals mutter darkly about the roof and question marks over boundaries. But: the garden… So many old trees. Oceans of bluebells and purslane. Views across the sea. Hidden steps down to a secret patch of grassland and a solid old stone byre with yet more trees.
Higher up, behind the house, it’s bright and open with a long-disused tyre swing and beyond the fence, a few farm buildings and a field of cows. It’s the kind of childhood garden you conjure up when reading Enid Blyton books.
Will anyone buy the place? Probably. Will it have fallen into really serious disrepair by then? Maybe. But I think someone will pass and see the old red telephone box outside, the gateposts and the enchanted-looking garden, and fall for it in one way or another.
Have I learned my lesson about coveting old houses on a windy, weather-beaten island? Clearly not.
It’s a strange thing really. Part of you wants these homes - because that’s what they once were - rescued and lived in again. But part of you wants them to remain quiet and left alone, for nature to slowly reclaim. How would I feel if this house, or the one next door, was knocked down and replaced with something soulless, the gardens paved over to accommodate cars and conservatories? Sad, of course.
But people need places to live. Just because somewhere looks pretty doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be touched. Indeed, many properties on Skye are bought and renovated and used as tourist accommodation. There’s a huge demand for it. That’s a controversial topic in itself here, as young people find themselves priced out of the housing market.
Back down to reality with a bump then. From exploring tangled, hidden-away gardens and houses with a history to contemplating the difficulties of getting on the property ladder… it’s all here at Frond & Feather!
Time for a cup of tea and to hang out the washing. That wind has its uses.