Island of sleep where wreathe’d time delays
Haven of things remote, indulgent, free
Thou whose enriching mist in autumn days
Veiled the intruder on thy secrecy
Eilean Shona, a island on the West coast of Scotland, below the Isle of Skye, close by the Isle of Mull, a ten mile circumference of granite rocks, Scots pines, sea eagles and a sandy lagoon at its Western most tip. The author of the poem above is Michael Llewelyn Davis, the inspiration for JM Barrie’s Peter Pan, and the highlands of Scotland were his Neverland. JM Barrie wrote the script for Peter Pan while staying at Eilean Shona, the guest of Baron Howard De Walden, who inherited the island from his great grandmother. For current owners, Vanessa Branson and Robert Devereux, the magnificent house and many cottages that lay scattered across its grounds were for many years the Neverland for their own children. Now grown up, Vanessa and Robert are opening up the island to guests who are in the know.
I’m walking along the tow-path towards the School House that hugs the Northern coastline. The water is aqua marine. Rocks submerged below the shore are as clear as if they lay above the waterline. To my right I pass a lily pond. The auburn, baby lilies still float below the surface, growing day by day until the summer when they will arise and float majestically in clusters along each curve and edge. Water drips down crevices of imposing granite rock that line the path beyond the pond. Sliced between jutting shards and lumps of smoke-grey, its harsh brutality is subverted by a delicate grassy mound on top, sprouting a fine and elegant tree. I stand mesmerised by the deep grey, blue and hard red smears the dripping water makes as it spreads down the rocks. The patterns looks like oil, except that Eilean Shona and its buildings are powered solely by sustainable and renewable energy.
I arrive at the School House, one of seven cottages for rent on Shona, to find Vanessa taking final measurements for the curtains. The house has been decked out floor to ceiling in wooden panels, effective for energy saving and a pleasure to be surrounded by. Vanessa has designed properties all over the world, including her hotel in Marrakech, El Fenn, featured in magazines worldwide and recently awarded the Mr and Mrs Smith Best Designed Hotel Award. Back at the School House two wood burning fires, newly installed, emanate a glow of heat that merges hazily with the light from gas lamps positioned on the walls above. The kitchen is rustic modern, white and fresh. The local carpenters have been busy here.
The view from the back is rugged. A wild slope of grassy thoroughfares wind determinedly around lumps of rock, patches of bracken and rough, contorted trees. The tough landscape of the Highlands serving to remind us of man’s humility. From the small arched window that forms the centerpiece of this eighteenth century stone house, I glimpse a perfect bay. Land sloping down like two sides of a upturned triangle, the cliff behind a naval, blue water glistens seductively below. While swimming enclosed in three sides of this secluded bay, I feel wild and alone. I look down and see myself clearly beneath the crystal water. The whole range of the western isles lie reflected around me. The sensation is of being suspended in a place between earth and sky or, the words of celebrated naturalist writing about Shona, Mike Tomkies, ‘between earth and paradise’.
The island of Eilena Shona lies just beyond a 13th century medieval castle. Now an ancient ruin, Tioram Castle was once the staging post of the Ronald Clan, their means of controlling access to Loch Moidert and Loch Sheil. Standing at the pinnacle of Shona, I gaze out over the isles of Muck and Eigg and Rum, just a few of the panoply of islands overlaying one another like earthy shadows caught in Shona’s eclipse. Below, seals languish on the rocks, looking quizzically through whiskers as a kyaker in a cowboy hat floats silently past them. Behind me, nestled in the rocks, are a sea eagles. Their nest, half collapsed this year, is the third they have built on the island in the past three years. I learn this from Jon, one of Eilean Shona’s five members of full-time staff dedicated to the upkeep of the island and the comfort of its guests.
Like the crofters who inhabited these cottages in the 1700s, each guest feels ensconced in their own kingdom
I continue along the path that links Eilean Shona house with the beach on the western shore. The path has been meticulously constructed by laborers during the time Baron De Walden, assembled with all the careful attention to geometry and good sense that characterised the Victorians. From time to time, I come upon a cottage set back from the path, names like Shepherd’s Cottage and The Bothy hang daintily from their porches. In front of one is a table and chairs, and I imagine meals enjoyed in front of that magnificent view, breakfast with a slice of paradise. Like the crofters who inhabited these cottages in the 1700s, each guest feels ensconced in their own kingdom. Each cottage is original and the length and breadth of the island is its back garden. Just as it would have been in these communities four hundred years ago, the Village Hall remains a focal point. With internet access and a ping pong table, it serves as part club-part office. With only limited phone reception, the island is a digital detox as well as a spiritual feast.
Little could have prepared me for the sight of Shoe Bay, the sandy lagoon that reveals itself like a jewel behind the path’s last rocky peak. Bright, white, fine sand; spots of sunshine dance across the water like twinkling stars. On one side, a giant boulder sits heavily in both sand and water. Nooks and crannies make it easy to scramble to the top and again, the view is overwhelming. Opposite, a smattering of smaller rocks make ideal little stools. I imagine all the chatting that must have taken place on those small rocks, all the laughter, the strumming of guitars. Vanessa is coy when I ask her who has stayed on the island before. Indiscretion is not her style. However, she does tell me that a wedding took place recently on Shoe Bay, for which they have a license. I find it hard to think of a more profound place to marry, beside the sumptuous blue water dazzling an electric green with the reflection of the grass and moss above it. When the tide is up, the beach cuts into two as water separates one side from the other. I look across the stretch of water to the cove of beach that rests invitingly the other side. The challenge is intoxicating. I swim across.
Walking the descent back to Eilean Shona house, I notice the sign on the Deer gate, kindly asking visitors to close it behind them. In earlier times, Eilean Shona house was a hunting lodge for deer stalking. These days one feels lucky to spot them hiding in the trees. The transformation from lodge to country estate happened in the 1880s, when Robert Lorimer, the renowned Edinburgh architect was commissioned by the De Waldern’s to build a stately frontage to the house. The grand staircase and reception hall that are included in this extension lead onto entertaining rooms. A dining room seats twenty-six with ease, the bedrooms up above take the house’s sleeping capacity to twenty-two. As with all the cottages, works of contemporary art hang on every wall, a collection that Vanessa and Robert have built up over the past thirty years. Like the De Walden’s before them, Vanessa and Robert are great patrons of the arts. Vanessa founded a biennale in Morocco that is credited with stimulating and supporting the burgeoning art scene in Marrakech. Robert too was a great collector and recently sold most of his collection, donating the profits to the African Arts Trust, supporting artists across the continent. Walking through the house, the artwork captivates you at every turn, forcing you to stop and look for just a few moments before returning to your bedroom or the billiard room, with its full size table and neatly lined up cues.
Looking back, I notice the stone ruin at the entrance to the island, almost like a gate, a bold reminder of the island’s rich and ancient past.
Leaving Shona isn’t easy. However much I’ve taken in, there feels acres more to see and know. Paul sits patiently beside the rib as I carry my baggage down to the shore. There are no cars on Shona. The only access is by boat from the mainland and Paul does the trip a few times a day. I walk along the pier until I reach the boat. Looking back, I notice the stone ruin at the entrance to the island, almost like a gate, a bold reminder of the island’s rich and ancient past. Along the shoreline to the left shelters the Artist Studio, available for use during the artist retreats that take place once a year on Shona. To the right a small bay, canoes nestling on the stoney shore, bright red, blue, yellow, a scene from Peter Pan, the resonance of youth that never quite fades way. The engine has started up and I begin the boat ride back to reality. As we pass, I bid the ancient, Medieval castle of Tioram a silent farewell. A day on Eilean Shona feels like a life spent in another world.
Photographs by Georgie Weedon and Col B