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Life on Shetland: The peace and security of an island existence

Eleanor Doughty explores life on Scotland’s myriad beautiful islands.

No man is an island, as John Donne wrote, but, north of the border, you can live on one. Scotland is good like that, with almost 800 islands to choose from.

In October last year, the Islands Act barred public bodies from putting Shetland in a box on official maps, a practice that hugely annoyed islanders, who felt their remoteness was underplayed. Usually, the box appeared off the Moray Firth or the Aberdeenshire coast, to avoid dominant expanses of sea on the map.

View of Haroldwick from Sothers Field at dawn, Fetlar in the distance, Unst, Shetland Islands, Scotland.

Aside from historical misrepresentation, what’s it like to live on a Scottish island? The answer to this question depends largely on the island. Arran is best for ‘easy links to urban centres’, says Malcolm Leslie from Strutt & Parker’s Edinburgh office. Skye has ‘incredible mountain scenes’ and Orkney has ‘year-round appeal’.

The ‘great thing about islands is choosing your own pace of life,’ adds Angus MacNeil, SNP MP for Na h-Eileanan an Iar in the Western Isles, who was brought up on Barra. ‘I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.’

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Atlantic puffins (Fratercula arctica) at clifftop edge, Hermaness National Nature Reserve, Unst, Shetland Islands, Scotland.

Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, former Secretary General of Nato, was brought up on Islay. ‘It was an idyllic childhood, very safe. There are no traffic lights or roundabouts, but there are nine distilleries and 3,000 people.’ It’s a friendly place, he says. ‘It welcomes everybody. On Islay, you’re taken at face value.’

Islay sits to the west of Jura and Arran and has several major landowners – Lord Margadale (of Fonthill and Messum’s Wiltshire fame) has the Islay estate and the Schroder family owns the Dunlossit estate.

Next door, on Jura, Claire and Andrew Fletcher run the Ardlussa estate, a diversified business that includes cattle farming, a B&B, hydro-power, biomass and a gin distillery. Jura has a wealth of estates – both the Vesteys and Astors own land – but only the Fletchers live there full-time. ‘It’s not for the faint-hearted,’ says Mr Fletcher. ‘It’s hard, but also brilliant. We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t good.’

About 200 people live on Jura, where there’s a ‘thriving’ primary school, but two ferries are required to get to the mainland. ‘Transport is an issue,’ adds Mr Fletcher. ‘If we’re travelling to Glasgow by car, the quickest we can do it in is 81⁄2 hours, so if you’re on the mainland, you fill the car!’ However, it’s a magical place for his four children: ‘They have a freedom here that you don’t get on the mainland.’

Coullabus Farmhouse on Islay, on the market through Bell Ingram for offers over £595,000.

Forty miles from John O’Groats are the Orkneys, where Malcolm Macrae, 12th Laird of Breckness lives at Skaill House on the Orkney Mainland. ‘There’s more cattle per acre in Orkney than anywhere else in Scotland,’ he says. This presents something of a surprise to visitors, who ‘expect it to be rugged and full of heather’. The economy is ‘booming’ and the infrastructure good. ‘We have new schools and there’s a hospital opening. It’s phenomenal the money that’s being spent here,’ adds Mr Macrae.

There’s plenty to do, from walks along the coastline to exploring St Magnus Cathedral and attending the plethora of festivals. Orkney is a close-knit community. ‘Everybody is related to everybody else,’ continues Mr Macrae. ‘It’s not safe to criticise anybody, because they’ll say “oh that’s my third cousin’s wife” or something.’

The property market varies island to island, says Mr Leslie, but prices are very reasonable. He’s currently marketing Leim Farm, a six-bedroom house on Gigha, which is snuggled between Islay and the Kintyre Peninsula, for £725,000, where buyers come for ‘dark skies, seclusion and quiet’.

Further north, to the west of Mull, streetlight-free Tiree also offers a dark-sky experience and is ‘popular with holidaymakers – a mecca for sports such as kitesurfing’.

On Mull, the town of Tobermory – setting for the children’s programme Balamory – has enormous aesthetic appeal. On its Main Street, a 10-bedroom house and former bank is for sale for £475,000 (MacPhee & Partners).

It’s not just the value for money, but the pace of life that attracts many people to these islands, says Savills’ Cameron Ewer. ‘Some will buy for second homes, some are into retirement age and then there are those who come to set up country-house hotels or distilleries.’

Lord Robertson can’t recommend island life enough. ‘You don’t have access to a lot of the things that people take for granted in an urban environment, but there’s a quality of life that’s worth having.’