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JM Barrie spent the summer of 1920 on Eilean Shona, a small island just off the western Scottish mainland, with his foster son Michael Llewelyn Davies, the principal inspiration, alongside his four brothers, for Peter Pan and the Lost Boys. Barrie had long since published the tale of the boy who never grew old, but was then at work on the screenplay, and the island delivered a compellingly evocative backdrop of mighty pines and secret coves. He had come in search of Neverland, and found it.
Today Eilean Shona exudes an air of ageless fantasy before you even get there, buzzing across the still, dark waters of Loch Moidart past the Macbethian ruins of Castle Tioram in an inflatable boat. Crowding your feet are provisions to sustain you on the undulating island that rears up ahead: five and a bit square kilometres of forest, bracken and mossy rock that you will have almost entirely to yourself. It feels less like the start of a holiday than the opening chapter of some sepia-tinted Swallows and Amazons adventure.
Given Eilean Shona’s associations with perpetual childhood, there can be no more appropriate place to stay than in its granite-gabled former schoolhouse, a dourly majestic creation by the Victorian architect responsible for Inverness Cathedral. In recent years, Vanessa Branson — sister of Sir Richard, trailblazing hotelier and since 1995 the island’s owner — has masterminded the renovation of Eilean Shona’s scattered handful of buildings, all now available as holiday lets (the grand and rambling “big house”, when it isn’t full of visiting Bransons young and old, can also be rented out). The Old Schoolhouse, derelict since the war, is her latest and most ambitious resurrection.
The first moments of your stay will inevitably be preoccupied with what the Old Schoolhouse most conspicuously lacks: electricity, a phone signal, internet connectivity and neighbours. There are no permanent residents on the island, and this is comfortably the most remote of the holiday cottages, a 45-minute walk from the landing jetty around a coastal trail, in the distant wake of the quad-bike that delivers your baggage and supplies. But with the wood and coal stoves stoked, the gaslights — sourced from the manufacturer whose fittings illuminate the exterior of Buckingham Palace — atmospherically aglow and a bottle or two chilling in the propane-powered fridge, the blessings soon line up to be counted.
White-wood panelling and limed floors impart an airy grandeur to the erstwhile classroom living area, offset by the cocooning cosiness of flaming logs and state-of-the-art insulation. The furnishings have heft and comfort, with decorous Moorish nods to Vanessa Branson’s stewardship of a boutique hotel in Marrakesh. Upstairs, the bedding is sumptuous and the bathroom generously appointed. The greatest privilege of all is best savoured while lolling in the vast roll-top bath: out there, through the arched window beside your head, yawns a mile-wide still life of weathered crags, gently sidling brine and countless shades of green. The highland sunset bestows an almost Mediterranean gilding on the scene. It’s an epic, unpeopled vista you will claim as your own and never tire of.
As diehard urbanites, before arrival my wife and I wondered how on earth we would occupy ourselves on an off-grid, car-less Scottish rock half the size of London’s Richmond Park. In fact our days were always too short, even in summer, when at these latitudes they hardly end. Somehow this pocket Neverland seems many times its actual size, a sprawling and endlessly explorable realm of bluebell woods, gorse-speckled peat bogs and the odd pearl-and-turquoise Caribbean-style beach. Every hill and headland is crowned with an imperious panorama, the craggy Inner Hebridean islands strung along the horizon like some Tolkienesque battlefleet. We stood awed beneath the towering pines planted around Eilean Shona by its Victorian landlords. We bumped into deer, red squirrels, pine martins and free-roaming Bransons. We got lost on the misty, twilit highlands and developed an admiration for the hardy bairns who tramped over them to the schoolhouse and back in all weathers. We came back lightly coated in an island marinade of sea-salt, peat and perspiration, and rewarded ourselves with a chilled drink in the bath. Even at midnight that view is the gift that keeps on giving.
Of course it helps if, as in this instance, your time on Eilean Shona is spent watching the sun make its very slow way across a cloudless azure canopy. In more typical conditions, every delightful stroll might be an onerous, windswept slither, and an indoor, off-grid confinement seen out with board games and fire-poking would swiftly pall. Even under blue skies and bright stars you might want to smuggle a few battery-powered mood enhancers into the Old Schoolhouse: with that orchestral view and an interior of near ecclesiastical proportions, this is a place to crank up the Vaughan Williams.
In a hyper-connected age when real-time holiday gloating has become an inalienable right, it feels almost dizzily ascetic to relearn the art of delayed gratification, laying down memories to be shared later on in the traditional manner. On Eilean Shona, social media means jotting a contribution in the “Wildlife Spotted” register in the A-framed “village hall” near the landing jetty, or adding an adventure to the Book of Feats that can be viewed on request if you knock on the door of the big house and ask nicely. (Be aware that in Bransonland, the bar is set high: recorded achievements include eating a raw jellyfish and swimming 10 hours across open water to the isle of Eigg). In the interests of full disclosure, the village hall does have WiFi for those impatient to tell the outside world about the stag that swam across the loch, or their in-the-wild celebrity encounters. The Branson connection has attracted an elite breed of get-away-from-it-all visitor: during our three-day visit we picnicked with Kate Winslet, and took tea with Theo Walcott’s mum.
As the days rolled on, a languid, almost dreamy routine set in, not so much slow-paced as no-paced. Owl hoots punctuated a soothing nocturnal hum that regulars call the “song of the island”; we were woken by birdsong and unfiltered morning sun fringing the bedroom blinds. A long, hot soak in the bath’s peaty elixir led into a long, hot breakfast on the heavy oak table, last night’s embers still glowing in the grate. The fairy-tale ambience grew so captivating that we wondered why woodland creatures weren’t skipping in through the window to help us get dressed. A free return boat trip to the mainland is included as part of the package, but if you run out of supplies you might prefer to make do with the island’s “Wee Shop”, open two hours a week. The real world offers 3G and supermarkets, at the price of a punctured fantasy.
Circumnavigating the island on foot takes half a day, weaving through deer fences and marshland, scrabbling down valleys strewn with the dark-stone ruins of crofting bothies, hewn from the house-dwarfing boulders scattered worrisomely between them. Until the 1940s, almost a hundred crofters and their families called Eilean Shona home, but when opportunities for a new life on the mainland emerged, few turned them down. The romanticised ideal that Eilean Shona now offers is mercifully at odds with the hard-bitten historic reality: when a local historian interviewed former residents, he found “none of them had much affection for the place”. Islanders of old might have gone before you to Shoe Bay, where a clear blue sea breaks idyllically on the pale sand, but they wouldn’t have enjoyed a slap-up picnic when they got there. They might have taken a boat out to salute the plump seals that bask sleekly on the rocks, but wouldn’t have come home to dry out in double-glazed, Egyptian-cottoned comfort. Before a fire laid with logs that someone else has split, and coal someone else has delivered, rather than steaming clods of peat hewn from the hills with their cold, wet hands. All that said, they would surely have known better than to stride into Eilean Shona’s waters in the name of pleasure. What a cruel disconnect between our eyes and toes, those beckoning equatorial looks and that soul-shrivelling, Arctic actuality — as close as the likes of us will get to immortalisation in the Book of Feats.
“Always more or less an island, with astonishing splashes of colour here and there, and lonely lairs, and caves, and a hut fast going to decay.” So wrote JM Barrie of the Neverland he created for Peter Pan, and which came to life around him at Eilean Shona. “On these magic shores children at play are forever beaching their coracles. We too have been there; we can still hear the sound of the surf.”
Barrie’s foster son, his Peter Pan, would never grow old: the year after they spent the summer here, Michael Llewelyn Davies tragically drowned in the river Thames. When our inflatable boat nudged into the mainland jetty, my phone began to manically disgorge its pent-up alerts and messages, and soak up the mobile data through which I learnt about this fairy tale’s sad denouement. And as I read, I already missed Eilean Shona, a storybook island of simple, timeless pleasure and happy endings.
Tim Moore was a guest of Eilean Shona. The Old Schoolhouse sleeps up to four and costs £1,250 per week; there are six other cottages, which start at £400 per week, and Eilean Shona House, which sleeps up to 20 and costs from £8,000 per week. Guests are collected by boat from a jetty at Tioram Castle, about three hours drive from Glasgow.
Photographs: Michael Turek
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