Brian Cheung


Thoughts, photos and anecdotes from my travels through Norway, Scotland and Finland.

Croft Life

I found out fairly last minute that Ellis and Keith’s cabin was completely off grid, although that really only added to the experience more than anything. The cabin sits in a wooded part of the McDonald croft on North Uist, an island about midway through the Outer Hebrides. Inside is rustic and cosy, and the sort of thing that people dream of escaping to. Keith built the whole thing from scratch for next to nothing, using mostly salvaged materials. With a larger building there might have been more regulations and building permits to navigate, but the cabin is small enough to bypass all of that. Not being connected to the grid, there was no running water, electricity, or heating. Instead the water came from a rain tank (impossible to empty thanks to the copious Scottish rain), light was provided with candles, and the heat source was a small iron wood stove that filled the cabin with deliciously smokey peat fumes. It’s something I had only tasted in scotch before, but that smell to me epitomises Scotland and I think I’ll really miss it when I get back home. Fortunately there was a bit of WiFi, which had been hooked up using probably wizardry - the power for that came from a portable battery pack. Keith’s family lives in the main house on the property about a mile away. Showers, laundry and cold storage were all there if/when necessary. Lastly, next to the measly build cost there’s also the great bonus of a non-existent mortgage! So all in all a rather great alternative to living in the ways that I’m more accustomed to. El’s a lucky gal.

The five nights/four days spent there were mostly dictated by the shortening daylight and weather. The days were spent out and about and we would retire to the cabin to eat, drink and chat by the fire when the sun went down. I was happy to go along with whatever was happening at the time and experience a little bit of croft life, rather than be a demanding house guest. On the first morning we joined up with the rest of the family to dig up their small field of potatoes. Ian and Joan were proud to point out that their tatties were only fertilised naturally with dried seaweed gathered from the shore, and the organic spuds were a lot more variable in size. I got better towards the end at picking out the blight-affected potatoes from the edible ones. I got a bit tired after spending the entire morning hunched over, but it felt rewarding to focus on such a simple honest task while not having to think about anything else. 

Another morning was spent unsuccessfully herding sheep. The croft sits in an area of North Uist that breaks off into a raggedy complex of islands and skerries, some of which only turn into islands if the tide is up. A few sheep had stupidly gotten stuck on one such island so we followed Keith and his beautiful/friendly/well-trained/affectionate border collie Meg to try and relocate them. Unfortunately we weren’t so lucky in predicting the tides so we left Keith and Meg behind to do the dirty work. 

A lot of the land is marshy and peaty, and seemingly unable to ever fully dry. My hiking boots have served me well up until this point, but were really never designed to work as well as gumboots. I won’t describe the smell of my socks/feet, but I had a similar fear of trench foot as I did during the NC500 after consecutive days of walking through so much wet grass, heather and mud.

There was great weather over the last few days, and we took advantage of that by driving around to the nearby islands of Berneray, South Uist, Benbecula and Eriskay. Alongside North Uist, this stretch of islands is entirely connected by causeways so we managed it all in the van. Beyond that there are well-serviced ferries to take cars and passengers to Barra in the south and Lewis/Harris in the north. We stopped at several beautiful beaches up and down the islands, which was something I definitely didn’t expect to find this far up in the middle of the North Atlantic. 

The stay was a good way to recharge my batteries, and I think most of all it was great to catch up with an old friend who understood what I was doing and why I need to do it. Not to mention that Ellis seems to be thriving in her life and career, based on a stellar combination of hard work, determination, stubbornness and a little bit of luck. A part of me does feel a bit jealous, but I'm so happy for her and it makes me want to knuckle down and just keep on keeping on.

I got dropped off at the docks this morning for the ferry up to Leverburgh on South Harris. I’m now writing from a shabby hostel in the village of Tarbert. The original plan was to spend some time exploring Harris and Lewis on foot and by bus, but the weather has gone back to atrocious. I’ll now be heading down to Glasgow a day early to avoid some potentially horrible weather and a Sunday ferry which is more than two hours longer thanks to an extra stop in Lochmaddy. There’s the chance that tomorrow’s ferry will also be cancelled due to the weather, but I’ve booked every other connection already (including a mind-numbing 7 hour bus trip from Uig to Glasgow) so I’ll just have to cross my fingers and maybe have a bucket on hand. 

Part of me feels a bit bad for not trying to get more out of being here, but I'll content myself in knowing that I got A LOT out of North Uist!

scotlandBrian Cheung