An Island Diary Part One: finding a home on Seil

Poet Kenneth Steven and his partner Kristina Hayward yearned for the sea – and where better than an island in the Western Isles that so nourished Kenneth's childhood. But could they make a life there? Find out in our new blog series

27th March 2017
Seil, Inner Hebrides

It was the hedgehog bustling about the garden that clinched it, that made up our minds that this house was the right one after all. A new house whose ground stretched out into what once had been moorland, with a view over the willows and heather of marshy ground, and beyond to a little loch fed by a channel of water that linked to the sea.

The sea runs in our blood: this is what we had come to find. Kristina grew up on the west coast of Sweden, with a holiday house on a beach and a whole cluster of rocky islets beyond the door, made for messing about in boats. Every day was made of fish. And here I was back on the west coast of Scotland, in Argyll, which I’d visited every summer with my parents as a child.

By the time I was fourteen I knew most of the Inner and Outer Hebridean islands: I spent every day searching for sea urchins and otters and caves. After land-locked years, this was what Kristina and I were returning to find: the sea.

The island we had chosen, or that had chosen us, was an island in name only. We had the best of both worlds, because a narrow channel of water does separate the Isle of Seil from the mainland south of Oban, but it’s so narrow it was spanned long ago by a hump-backed bridge.

The tidal water running through is hardly exciting, but long ago it was enough to earn the structure linking the two sides the name the Bridge over the Atlantic. But we’ll return here later in the year, when the grey bridge and grey rocks have woken from winter and come alive once more.

For now, let’s go back to the middle of the island and the settlement of houses at the edge of which our house stands. First we follow the little ribbon of road from the far side of the bridge and wiggle and weave our way past white cottages peering out over that channel of water on the eastern side of Seil.

And finally we see the bay beyond. But it’s just a tiny edge of water visible in the top right hand corner of our kitchen window – rather lame and dull and shallow.

We have come to find the sea, the real sea, so we get into the car and drive on, up past a scattering of houses and farm buildings, high fields and brackened hillsides, up still past a converted church with its corrugated roof, and suddenly we turn a corner and our breath is taken away by what lies below and beyond.

A jewellery of island landfalls: the uninhabited island of Scarba rising up with its single sharp spine of hillside and sugared with snow; the more distant shadow of Jura behind, where George Orwell finished ‘1984’. And closer to us, in the middle of the open water, gnarled rocky islands where the first Irish monks built their beehive cells.

Further away to the west, the south coast of Mull and the strange contours of its ancient lava landscape. We park down by the sea’s edge and get out, and know we’ve found the right place after all.

Photos by Kristina Hayward

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