A feisty wind tore at the cliff face. Head down, shoulders hunched, I pushed along the bracken-stuffed trail. I’d reached the north west corner of Scotland. It was another planet up here; a buffeted, watery world that swam green and grey from the shore.
People were few and far between. Petrol stations scarcer. I hadn’t sensed this depth and breadth of remoteness since Turkey. Britain may be a crowded island, but almost everyone is clustered in the southern half of it.
I grinned as I hiked. Because I was on a quest. Scoraig was my destination, an off-grid community huddled on a distant peninsula in Wester Ross. It was a landscape of names pulled out of a fantasy novel, and I was revelling in it.
As I drank in the clouds, I wondered what an off-grid world might look like in the UK. In this case, only the truly dedicated would ever find out. The road to Scoraig is an arduous, sheep-obstructed thread; coiling up mountains and plunging into lush valleys. I had considered abandoning the visit a couple of times the previous evening as my fat van teetered along the narrow tarmac, listing like a ship in trouble.
Where the road ended, the trek began. Three miles or more of it. All along a jagged stone dinosaur of a precipice. It was amazing. A spatter of rain hit my face. I saw the dark body of the sea thrashing against the rocks below. And then finally a few stone shacks pulled into view. Even I, weathered soul that I am, muttered “hard core”.
“There are about 20 crofts here,” Davy led the way to his house. With his long auburn beard, he looked suitably Celtic. Though he sounded more like he was from Nottingham. His small son bounced on his back relishing the wind whipping at his hair.
“Are all the crofts off-grid?” I asked.
“Yes, you can see the wind turbines. We’re really lucky. Hugh Pigott the turbine specialist lives here too.” Davy pushed open the door to a large stone house.
“Are you Scottish?” I asked, because hey, I was curious.
Davy laughed. “Yes, I’m born and bred in Scoraig. But because people have moved here from different places, Scoraig now has its own accent.” He pulled off his boots. I bent and untied mine.
As soon as I walked into the living room, I felt a warmth. A familiarity. The aura of a self-built home is always palpable. A woman my age sat on the sofa.
“Welcome!” She smiled. Her eyes and skin were fresh. Something happens to people’s faces when their souls are in their bodies and their lives.
Oh what a happy day I spent on Scoraig! We gathered our lunch from the burgeoning vegetable garden. I gawped enviously at Davy’s wind turbine and towering battery bank. Finally we discussed the advantages of no road access, before eating the best food I’ve tasted in a long, long while.
“You know I’ve got about 10 or 15 people who’d like to hear about earthbag building.” Davy said as he collected up the plates.
“Really?” I was dumbfounded. I couldn’t even see that many crofts from the window, let alone people. But they were there. Hiding in the folds of the hills. As I soon found out.
Half an hour later we were sitting in the community centre with 20 Scoraigians; old and young, men and women, from all over the British isles, yet all choosing this remote off-grid world, a world modernity views as quackery and hardship. With the exception of communes, it was the first time in my life I’ve sat with so many people living a similar alternative life.
I was miles away from Mud Mountain in a completely different climate, on a completely different sea. And yet I felt at home.
It was almost ten pm when I threw my pack on my back and made for the door. But darkness was far away in Wester Ross. It was an ever-twilight dreamland. I wandered back along the craggy ridge, belly stuffed with home-grown food, mentally nourished, invigorated and alive. And I all but skipped the three miles back to my van.
It’s such a simple idea. A house. A family. A garden. A community. So unostentatious compared to the glitzy trappings of fast-track careers, bloated bank accounts, and great ego-propping acquisitions. So uncomplicated. And yet so fulfilling.
People like to blame the system and the government for the polluted carcass that is urban modernity. And that’s convenient. But we create the system. We fuel it. We are it. And with every pound or dollar we spend on a given product, we vote for the direction it takes. I’m not wagging the finger, because I too am a part of it. Nor am I advocating revolution. What difference would it make when people’s minds and souls are so contorted out of shape they don’t even remember who they are? Or the possibilities open to them? Right now? At this very moment? Skirting along the edges of this selfsame system?
Back on Mud Mountain, I heard many times that it was impossible to do what I did in the West. Especially the UK. It’s a small, crowded place after all. I harboured my suspicions, but I held my tongue, and waited until I saw for myself. After two months or more or touring, I’ve seen. And what do you know? It all looks oh so familiar.
There are hundreds of examples, each unique in shape and form, of folk creating beautiful worlds for themselves in the UK. Community buyouts like on the Isle of Eigg, hidden mud homes in forests, local hutters’ groups, eco-communities who band together to gain permission for self-build natural homes (Tinker's Bubble is just one example). Unlike Turkey, you don’t have to be under the radar for many of them. Some even manage government funding!
Similar possibilities exist everywhere else in the world too. Everywhere. For the most part, the greatest obstacle we face is not the system, nor the government, but the limits of our minds, our addiction to the (un)comfort zone, and our lethargy.
Fair enough if this isn’t the lifestyle you want. I respect that. We are all different. But if it is your dream, if you want to thrive in nature in a house you built yourself, pay no heed to the throng of hopeless whiners telling you it’s impossible. They don’t know what they’re talking about.
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Atulya K Bingham
"This is such a compelling book. It will make you want to abandon everything you know, move to the forest and commune with the trees and earth." Luisa Lyons, actor, writer and musician.
"Inspiring and beautifully written."
The Owner Builder Magazine.