When Paul Johnson swapped his business suit for wellington boots to live on the magical tiny island of Erraid, life became less stressful and more simple, communal, fun, rewarding, physical and challenging. “Instead of running for cover in bad weather,” he says, “I stand and gaze at the rolling breakers on the sea, the birds riding the storms and the changing colours that paint the evening sky with reds and golds… A voice once whispered into my ear: “stop trying to be, and just be”. Since that day my life has never been the same.”
According to The Happiness Formula, a 6-part series broadcast on BBC2 last summer, happiness is to be found in a small spiritual community on a tiny, windswept Hebridean island, one mile square, off the south-west corner of Mull.
Despite its remote location, Erraid has become significant for many reasons. Not least as a potential destination for finding inner contentment but also via its connection with members of the Stevenson dynasty, the great Victorian light-house builders and Robert Louis, one of the world’s finest writers.
Paul Johnson has lived on Erraid for ten years as a member of the small community who have been custodians of the island for 28 years. Mark Easton and his BBC crew travelled there in search of clues to that elusive formula for happiness. Interviewing Paul, he probed for reasons why he had turned his back on a successful marketing career for this simpler lifestyle – one which has brought him greater personal happiness. “Life is so much richer here, so much more complete,” Paul replied and Mark Easton added in his voice-over: “A philosophy of less being more from a man who once tried to convince consumers that more is more.”
For nearly a century, until the 1950’s, the island was home to the men and their families who manned the Dubh Artach and Skerryvore lighthouses. When these became automated, the Lighthouse Board sold the eight granite houses, as well as the entire island on which they had been built. It was bought by a Dutch family in 1977. After realising the land was too much to maintain, they offered it to the Findhorn Foundation, the famous spiritual community.
Findhorn became custodians and sent a pioneering band of volunteers to the island. Eager to take up the challenge of turning the neglected houses, gardens and outbuildings into a community, they opted to live a simple, largely self-sufficient lifestyle all under-pinned by the ethos they had brought from Findhorn – one which respects and honours humanity and indeed all life on the planet.
The community established itself quickly, working simply and closely with the land, with their menagerie of productive animals – cows, hens and sheep. An ageing Grey Lag goose, known imaginatively as ‘Goosy’, is the island’s longest resident of 20 years. The island members own three small boats and two ageing well-maintained tractors, both important work-horses for fetching and carrying guests and supplies.
Island members cheerfully host the few hundred paying guests who visit annually to take a break from busy careers. All of them come to participate in the community’s gently-paced work. It is designed to be a leisurely week with the emphasis on fun and enjoyment. Guests use their scheduled ‘time off’ to explore the island’s rugged, unspoilt natural beauty, walking its gentle heather-clad hills and moorland or sunning and swimming at Balfour Bay, the island’s most beautiful, sheltered cove, with its stunningly white, sandy beach and turquoise sea.
The community inevitably attracts a mixture of guests – some seeking a retreat, time out to reflect, much easier on such a peaceful island, so removed from the hurly-burly of modern existence. Some come to experience community life and learn about a more sustainable and environmentally kinder way of life and some to continue their search for that most elusive of goals – inner contentment.
By no means do the guests have to be rugged, sturdy, SAS-trained survivalists to enjoy a holiday here. Anyone who is able to step in and out of a boat and are not averse to the natural delights of the community’s outdoor loos, are more than physically qualified to stay on the island.
In a typical week, the guests participate in a variety of hands-on activities – working in the organic gardens, where the majority of the community’s vegetables are grown, splitting logs for the many wood-burning stoves and learning new skills, particularly candle-making. Few guests leave the island for home without proudly packing their own hand-made candle.
One of the best features of the island is the abundance of home produced food. Erraid is not the place to bemoan excessive food miles – it is more a matter of food metres as you tuck into a heaped plate of steaming vegetables, which had been growing in their plots barely an hour or two before.
Simple though the lifestyle is, it is not without its luxuries. A hot tub and sauna are an accommodating gesture for the visitors who have come to relax. One can only speculate how those hardy, sinewy Victorian stonemasons might have welcomed the provision of such facilities at the end of an arduous, back-breaking day.
The tension between the romantic and the practical was never better illustrated than in the internal dynamics of the Stevensons. For 200 years they dominated the world of lighthouse construction, building 97 on Britain’s coastlines. Robert Louis was possibly the only family member who did not become a lighthouse builder!
While the island hummed and clanged with the noise of hundreds of stonemasons quarrying and piecing together the Dubh Artach lighthouse from Erraid’s granite, the young Robert Louis came to visit – once as a 15 year old and later when he was 20. He stayed in what is now the community’s candle studio. These visits were undoubtedly a major source of inspiration, for he mentions Erraid no less than five times in his stories. It features prominently in his novel, Kidnapped, whose hero, David Balfour, is shipwrecked on the Torran Reef en route to the West Indies and a life of slavery. He endures a wet, miserable four days on the islet, eating nothing but limpets, before embarrassingly having it pointed out to him by a passing fishermen that he can easily walk off at low tide. This was a significant piece of artistic licence on Robert Louis’s part, as a short walk to the highest point would have quickly established that fact!
“It was in Erraid itself that I delighted chiefly,” Robert Louis writes. “…The earthy savour of the bog plants, the rude disorder of the boulders, the inimitable sea-side brightness of the air, the brine and the iodine, the lap of the billows among the weedy reefs, the sudden springing up of a great run of dashing surf along the seafront of the isle…” It is comforting to know how little has changed in the 120 years since he wrote these lines and how many guests are inspired by similar feelings.
The island is delightfully rich in wildflowers, particularly in the warm late Spring, despite a flock of hardy sheep on the island, who hungrily graze throughout the year across its heather-topped grassy hummocks. Flag iris, bog myrtle, harebells, bluebells and two rare types of insectivorous plants – Sundew and Butterwort – bring surprising splashes of colour to the tufted grasses and dun-brown heathers which carpet the island. Among them in sheltered hollows, grow hardy clumps of stubby oak, hazel, birch, rowan and aspen trees. All this, undisturbed by human habitation, is allowed to flourish unhindered. Hares and a few red deer wander over its undulating braes, while sheltered coves and stream-fed inlets offer safe habitats to otters occasionally seen at the water’s edge. More permanently, a community of around 40 Atlantic seals bask in their private cove on the west side of the island, balancing with gravity-defying ease on their rocky perches. Rarely are they disturbed, except by the occasional throb of a yacht’s outboard engine or an over-inquisitive sea-kayaker, enough to make them flounce from their
security into the waters below.
The island of Iona, which lies a mile away across the beguilingly beautiful but navigationally treacherous Erraid Sound, was the 6th century birthplace of Christianity. From here, St. Columba and his small band of monks went forth to spread their new spiritual teachings throughout Europe. Always revered as a great spiritual centre by the pre-Christian Celts, Iona was a home of Druids ‘ a place where the veil between our world and those other unseen worlds is thinnest. Ancient kings of Scotland are buried there – Macbeth lies at peace below its sacred sward. Its ruined Abbey was restored during the Depression. Centuries later, a desperately seasick Mendelssohn found the inspiration to compose the Fingal’s Cave Overture after a roller-coaster of a cruise to the tiny island of Staffa. In post-war Britain, George Orwell undertook a year of solitude on the beautiful, adjacent isle of Jura. There, living simply and quietly, 25 miles from the nearest shop and eight miles from even a telephone, he penned his bleak, nightmarish vision of a totalitarian future in his novel 1984. And more recently, Will Self, the satirist, journalist, author and columnist, has been appointed the island’s writer-in-residence.
Perhaps the last word should belong to Paul, who came with his wife Debbie seeking that more rewarding, less stressful lifestyle. “When I stop for a minute and I look around, I sense what I love about this place and what has kept me here for so long. It will either be a great view or it will be the chatter of guests getting to know each other as they potter about in the gardens, or it could be the smells coming from the kitchen. That is what makes me content -the simple pleasure of it all – community life – everyone sharing and doing their bit. Somehow it keeps everything in a healthy perspective and I think many people who come here experience that too – it certainly makes me happy!”
Contact: Isle of Erraid, Fionnphort, Isle of Mull, Argyll, PA66 6BN
Tel: +44 (0)1681 700384