Episode 22

Island on the Edge with Anne Cholawo

Published on: 10th November, 2021

Our final guest of Season 1 of our podcast is Anne Cholawo, author of Island on the Edge, the book which has been chosen to launch our AudaciousNess Book Club on 1 December.

Anne took the bold decision to swap her hectic urban lifestyle in 1980s England for one of rural isolation and self-sufficiency on a tiny Scottish island, without mains electricity, medical services, shops or any other modern amenities. There were 17 people living on the island when she moved there; today Anne and her husband Robert are the only ones remaining. In this fascinating interview, Anne talks about:

  • what it was that drew her to the home and the lifestyle of her dreams
  • how she dealt with adversity and challenges in the beginning
  • the need to have a single-minded determination to achieve your goals
  • the importance of building the option of failure into bold decisions 
  • the spiritual awakening she experienced while living on the island
  • what compelled her to publish her life story

Anne’s book Island on the Edge is published by Birlinn.

For more information about, and to sign up to, our book club on 1 December please click here: https://www.maribelortega.com/event-details/new-audaciousness-book-club

Anne has also made two short films of her life on Soay: Film 1, Film 2

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Music: Pablito's Way by Paolo Pavan

Transcript
Helen:

Hello, Anne, and thank you so much for agreeing to talk to us for our podcast AudaciousNess. I'm actually quite excited to be talking to you, as your story was an inspiration for me when I read it three years ago while I was making the move from an urban lifestyle in Germany to an island life in Scotland. And I remember the question kept coming up for me at the time, Am I doing the right thing? Am I crazy? Is it all going to go horribly wrong? But I read your book at the time, and that really helped to assure me that what I was doing was the right thing. So I want to begin, Anne, by thanking you very, very much for writing the book, and for getting your story out there.

Anne:

Well, thank you, too. And, gosh, it's quite a responsibility, that my book would have made such a big decision for you, or confirmation for you. But I want to thank you too, you and Maribel for having me on as well. Thank you. It's a bit sort of shocking when people say my book made such a difference. And they, you know, they've read it several times, or it was an inspiration. It makes you realize that when you write anything, you've got to be careful, because words are very powerful.

Helen:

Well, it definitely was an inspiration for me. And I want to begin by bringing our listeners up to speed, so Anne, can you briefly tell us about the audacious move that you made all those years ago that set in motion the life you're living now?

Anne:

Well, 30-odd years ago, I used to work in London in an advertising agency, as a graphic artist. I was assistant studio manager at the time and everything about my life seemed to be good. I had my little cottage, I had my new car, I had friends, I had what, I was considered by lots of people, you know, a good job, a career. But it just wasn't enough. Somehow, I was always feeling restless and just unfulfilled. And ever since I was a child, I'd had this dream about living in the middle of nowhere. And I'd never really planned this move in any kind of conscious way. I just got driven one day, just went on holiday to the Isle of Skye, just for a week's break, I had a few weeks to use up before the end of the year. And the first thing I thought was, oh, I don't think I can live in Skye, it’s far too bleak and just too open for me, because I'd been used to London. But on my way home I saw a picture of a house in an estate agency in Portree. And it just looked like the sort of house I would have drawn when I was a child. It just threw me and I had no idea it was on an island actually. I just thought it was somewhere in Skye. And I thought what a lovely house. And it was very cheap as well, and I think that was the other attraction, was that my mind started sort of calculating, if my property was worth so much, I could actually buy it without a mortgage. And all these thoughts came into my head at that moment. And actually, when I drove home, I thought nothing would come of it, you know, just a dream idea. But it just wouldn't go away. And I asked the estate agents in Skye to send me the details, which in those days were very simple, it's just a few photocopies of the house at different angles, one main picture. But I still didn't realize it was on an island. I thought it was like Isle Onsay or something. I was so ignorant, so naive. Then I went back up to have a look at it. I had a few other weeks to use up and I drove all the way back up to look at it. And I only realised it was an island when the family that owned it said they’d take me over in their fishing boat because they were now working over in Broadford, they’d left the house some years before, it'd been empty for a long time. And they took me over in a boat. It was about this time of year, the end of September, beginning of October. And the moment I got ashore the whole place just... I couldn't stop thinking about it. And I remember being on the boat going home looking back at this house getting smaller and smaller and thinking, I just can't leave this place. I just want to be here. And what happened was it just steamrolled everything. I just lived and breathed this idea which just got bigger and bigger. So I ended up putting my house on the market, or putting an offer in the house as well, not even having sold my house at all, I just put an offer in and gave up my job by Christmas. And by May I’d moved into this house when there was no electricity. And there was no ferry service here. There were 17 people living here. And I had no idea how I was going to make a living. And the whole thing was actually at the time terrifying. But at the same time, I had to do it. And it's very hard for me to explain why I felt such a powerful draw. I think it was like a ticket out of the life I was leading. It was like a narrow window and I felt that if I didn't take that window then, I would have to live the life I was leading all my life, you know, apart from maybe getting married and having children, which was something that seemed a very distant idea to me, at the time I was too young to think that way. Well, too naive and probably immature to think that way. So I ended up moving everything lock stock and barrel up here. Are you still there?

Helen:

Yes, we are...

Maribel:

Yes, we are listening.

Helen:

We're raptured, yeah. I mean, I can certainly relate to the story and particularly where you're saying, you know, I just kept looking back and I couldn't explain it but I just had to be there, it was like something was calling you to be here, because I had that experience in wanting to move to the Outer Hebrides as well. And I'm just wondering, I mean, it completely resonates with me what you're saying there, I'm just wondering, I want to ask you about your spiritual beliefs and whether you believe that back then there was something much bigger guiding you and saying, This is where you belong.

Anne:

Yes, it’s absolutely interesting you should say that, because up until about eight years ago, I suppose, I had very homemade beliefs, if you like. I certainly seem to feel a connection. This is a very early on question, which is really interesting. Yes, I felt from a child that I was drawn to a certain point in my life. And that was the point. And when I came to Soay, I recognized that this was the place that I had, like a seed planted when I was a child. And I was brought up in a… my mother was an atheist, or a humanist, I suppose you could call it. My father didn't really express any beliefs as such. So I just, I sort of was drawn to the spiritual side, definitely. But I had no guidance about that spiritual side. So I dabbled in all sorts of things, I suppose many people do. One of them is that I dabbled in the occult, for quite a few years, I used to make my decisions with Tarot cards and all sorts of stupid things. But eventually, I think it must be 2014, I think it was. My husband, Robert and I both had what I would call a spiritual experience, which was very powerful. And gosh, how do I explain this? I kind of met God one day, because I asked a question [Phone’s getting low...] So basically, I think, as I was saying before, I kind of had a spiritual sense, if you like, but it wasn't based on or formed on anything specific. And then one day back in the beginning of 2014, I'd been doing some archaeological searches on our very slow Internet - it used to be read only back then - while Robert was going for a walk. And while I was doing this research, I came across a few things that just had me questioning what it's all about, basically. And I thought I was talking to myself and I thought to myself, well, if there is a God, I wonder what he's like, you know, just hypothetically speaking to myself. And the moment I said that, I had what I would call a supernatural experience, or would you call it an epiphany? Where I actually experienced the presence of God. I think that's the best thing I can say. It's very hard to explain. It's indescribable. But it was the presence of a huge being or mind or I can’t really put it into words. But at the same time Robert had gone for a walk. And he had been a believer through his life, but like all of us, it sort of goes to the back of your mind. And he had been for a walk and at the same time that I had this experience, he actually said to himself, God are you real? And He answered him as well. He said, Yes, I'm real. Welcome back. And he was in tears about it when he came back. He was so amazed that he had this experience, but I said, Well, I had it too. So we both had it in different places on the same day, so that completely changed everything that I thought I knew. I think I had to kind of untangle a lot of preconceptions about my life and the way we lived our lives. Because we somehow realize we're accountable to what we do, and how we treat people. Everything, you're accountable. So it made a huge difference to both our lives. And it straightened us out in lots of areas that, you know, we struggled with. I mean, we still struggle with things, I think everybody does. But it gave us a peace of mind that really I would never want to give up.

Helen:

Wow.

Anne:

Yeah, it is wow. I could talk about it all day. But, you know, I think that's as simple an explanation that I could give.

Helen:

And then, so you said that was in 2014? So shortly after that, you wrote your book? Is that connected?

Anne:

No, I'd just finished my book. That was the amazing thing. I actually finished it in 2014. It was at the publishers.

Helen:

I see. Okay.

Anne:

And so it was like I’d written... It was almost like, I felt a very strong compulsion to write the book. Because I felt somehow we were coming to the end of our time here. You know, we were getting on and I thought, I don't want to write this book when I'm not here. It was, you know, the stories were getting quite strong in my mind. And I was telling people stories and they kept saying you should write that down, it's amazing, you should write that down. So one autumn I said to Robert, I think it was back in, I think I started in the beginning of 2013. And I said to Robert, I'm just going to write down everything I can remember, because it will be lost. A lot of the people here had gone or died. And the events of that time, they would remember, but nobody else who’d come after them would know. And then I thought about us leaving and I thought I need to write this down. So I just finished it, two winters, so gosh, I must have started in 2012, I do apologize. So I took two winters to write it. And I sent it off as was. I mean, I just finished the last sentence and thought, right that's it, I'll pack it off. Because I imagine that I'd have to pass it around a lot. And then I thought if nobody’s interested, I'll just make it up for family and friends. I never really thought anybody would be interested in it. But I had to write it. And so I sent it off at the beginning of 2014. And we had a supernatural experience with God in the same year. And then sort of around March, I think it was March, April 2014, I got a reply from Birlinn to say they were interested in the manuscript, that it needed a lot of tidying up because I'd really only written it… I started at the beginning and then I finished it at the end. That's basically what it did. So it needed a lot of editing because I'd written a lot of stuff that probably wasn't necessary, they helped me out a lot with that. So in a way I'd written my own epitaph of a life that I'd finished, but I got a new one. So yeah, it was an amazing time. So there's no mention of God in my book because I hadn't had that experience once I'd finished it. It just happened afterwards. So that seemed to have a timing in itself, really.

Maribel:

Anne, a question is coming up for me now because you're saying, I had all these stories and I just had to write it. And you also said, I saw that house and it was just calling me, I had to go there, I had to do that. Is that how you live your life? Is there a scheme behind that? What is that what is calling you?

Anne:

I have no idea!

Maribel:

I just want to say that probably other people have that. I don't know what to call it. Is it an instinct?

Anne:

It's a voice. It's like they call it a vocation, don't they? A voice that tells you that's the way to go.

Maribel:

Maybe others don't listen, but you're obviously very attuned to it. How do you listen to it? What is the meaning behind that?

Anne:

Well, the way it works for me is that when something I know I have to do, or want to do or need to do, there's the will to do it, the want to do it, the emotion to do it. My whole person, my whole being, wants to do it. It all comes together in one. So you're kind of compelled, by your emotions, by your intellect, by a future projection of what would be like if you didn't do it. That's another thing that I actually find is a motivation, is the idea, if I don't do this, what will that mean later? Most of the time, it will mean regret to me. One of the things I've always built in to - I haven't had any of those things for a long time, by the way, but when I did do it - as a built in what I call my failure cop-out that, how would you feel if it doesn't work? Can you cope with that? A lot of people are afraid of something not working or failing. But if you've already built that into your idea, or your thing you want to do, if you’ve already said, it might not work, at least at the end of it, even if it hasn't worked, you've tried it. A lot of people, I believe, don't try something because they're afraid of failure. So they actually built in the failure, if you like, because they haven't tried it. It's not to be afraid of failure, it's to do the thing that's inside you is important. This is my view on it.

Helen:

Yeah, that's fantastic advice. Is there any other advice, Anne, that you can give to anyone wanting to make a major move or do anything audacious in their lives?

Anne:

Yes, there is. And that is to sit down and write. Well, the way I used to do it was I used to write down for and against on a piece of paper. And I put down why I want to do something. And then on the other side, I put the negative side to it. And be completely honest with yourself, I think you’ve got to be honest about what you believe you're capable of. You know, all the options. So you have to keep yourself very honest and say, Well, I want to do this because ABCD and can I do this? Yes, I can, but I can't do etc, etc. And then you put down the negative sides about what will happen if it goes wrong. The financial side of it, the emotional side of it, who you're going to affect, that's another thing. Do be careful about who you're going to negatively affect if you do something. So I think those are things. If you're going to go for a big idea or big project, I think teaching yourself to be honest about yourself and what you think you can and can't do, is good. But you also have to not underestimate yourself as well. That's another thing people do, Oh, I'll never be able to do that. But you just don't know until you try. So that's the best advice I could give. Just face everything face on, the best of it and the worst of it. And if you still want to do it, if you can see the downsides to it, then go for it. I think that's the best advice I could give.

Maribel:

I'd like to know, Anne, your move was a very dramatic one, a huge change. And I assume in such a big change, you cannot predict everything, how things will pan out or what are the challenges that will come your way. How did you deal… Well, first of all, were there situations where you thought to yourself, What have I done? And how do you motivate yourself? How do you deal with those situations when you are feeling low or you feel like nothing is working, etc?

Anne:

Well, there were several motivations, I think. The first year was really hard and in fact, I would say the first two years were really hard. Because I was kind of in cultural shock. I mean, the people living here were so different to me, and so competent, practically competent, and far more mature than me. And I was painfully aware of that, after the first six months, how naive and foolish I was. And so, having to face up to that wasn't easy, because I thought I could do anything before that, you know, I was very confident about things. Because I lived in a very small world, and a kind of specific world, if you like, an urban world, and I came to this world where everything was different. I remember a particular time, I was really quite down, I think it was my first winter and I wasn't prepared for the winter at all. And I sat there feeling a bit chilly - the house is very damp - and I said, Well, one day, I'll look back at this and laugh about it. And I thought, I hope so. I tried to project forward in time, to a time where I would have got through that part. Also, because I was young. I think that's another thing. I took it on, when I was young enough to sort of roll with the punches. I think when you're older, you're a little bit more set in your ways. So I was more malleable to change than I would have been another 10-15 years later on. I always had this idea of just taking it, say, if I had a future projection, I would take it only to six months or a year ahead. I wouldn't try and push it more than that because I had no idea if I would be still there in six months or a year. I mean, it was a very strange kind of thing. I didn't have any set reasons why I was going, I just had to go. And then I had to make everything fit in with the going. So trying to earn a living was something that never occurred to me. Just didn't occur to me. I just thought when I moved there, I just really naively thought I'll just paint pictures and sell them. I mean, that was so stupid. My mind boggles that I even thought that. I just thought something would turn up, a bit like Mr. Micawber in the Dickens thing, something good will turn up. And actually it did. So I'm not sure if anybody else would have had the opportunities. I don't know what went on, everything seemed to be in my favor. And so I feel a little bit of a cheat really, because people helped me so much. When I first came, I suppose I looked pathetic. When you're young and pathetic, people tend to sort of give you a helping hand, I suppose. And I needed a lot of help when I first started. So there was that aspect of it. I don't know, actually, Maribel, it just worked. And I'm very grateful it did.

Helen:

It sounds, Anne, like you really jumped into your own vulnerability, and weren't afraid of that, you know, you phrased it saying you were this young, naive, pathetic girl. But you were saying, I expose my vulnerability. And I think that is a big step that anybody can take as well. I'm just wondering what other people thought about it, so people from your urban lifestyle down in England, but also the people, the new neighbors, looking at this vulnerable young girl. What were they thinking, do you think, and how did you deal with their opinions and thoughts?

Anne:

Well, they looked at me as if I was mad. They probably gave me I don't know, six months at the most. They couldn't understand why I was there and what I intended to do once I was there, and I have to give them credit that they behaved very well towards me, considering that I know that they thought, and some of them said it later, that they had no expectation of me making it at all. There’d been many people before me, I mean, relatively speaking for a small island, who had come and not made it for more than a year or three years or whatever and left, so to see me with nothing, basically, I don't think they knew what to make of it. But they were very kind. I had mixed reactions from people from work and my friends and family. Some friends thought I was running away from the world, which I suppose in a way I was, that world anyway. But I found a different world. It's just as vibrant and real as any other world. My sister thought I was absolutely crazy. She just couldn't understand why I'd given it all up. But she was kind about it. She didn't say what she really thought, I heard it from my young nephew who was about five at the time and he kind of verbatim told me what my sister had said, in the family, like, You're mad, giving up everything and going off in the middle of nowhere. What do you think you're gonna do up there? It's like, he's just repeating parrot-fashion, what my sister was actually saying to my brother-in-law, it was very funny. But then I had an aunt who was very positive, who said, Well, if that's what you want to do just go and do it. I didn't have any emotional ties where I was. I had friends, but my parents were gone and I wasn't in a relationship, a serious one. There just didn't seem to be anything to hold me back from trying it. It was just the best thing I ever did. I still maintain it was the best decision I ever made. Because all the things that came after that would never have happened. I've had a wonderful time here. Absolutely wonderful time. I know that Robert and I are getting on, I’ll be 60 in a couple of weeks, so we're not spring chickens anymore. We're still healthy and fit, but we're slowing down. So we're going to try and stick it out for as long as possible and we’ll know when to go. So that's what we really aim to do. Stay here as long as we can. Because we both love it. So we’re very fortunate that he loves it as much as I do.

Helen:

It's such a lovely story. Maribel, I'm going to ask the last question, is there anything you want to ask before that?

Maribel:

Well, I was wondering if you could share with us one of those magical moments, Anne, that you had the joy to live, that you would like to share with us, that wouldn't have happened if you had not gone to Soay.

Anne:

Oh gosh, there’s so many. I suppose, one of the things that just came to mind when you were saying it, apart from the fact that it's so beautiful here, there’s the mountains and the sea, and just the seabirds was, I think it's in the book, actually, I was going to pick up some winkles. I used to pick winkles. I had about five or six bags over the other side of the bay, which is right on the south tip of the bay, there's a little arm of rock called the dooshka. And I had them kept there. And I’d made an arrangement with the man that used to buy winkles to meet him at Elgol, which is about a four mile sea trip, using my neighbor's boat, because they used to let me use it to pick them up. So it was coming on late in the year. So I got up in the morning before it was light, but the stars were still out, it was just a beautiful calm day. And I’d rowed over, picked them up and put them in the boat. And as I was going over to Elgol, the fishing village, which has got mountains behind it, the sun just burst out behind the mountains. And it was just, it was just like Wow! And I thought I’d never have had this experience. Here I am in a boat, on a flat calm sea with the sun shining down across the water. There's still stars on one side of the sky, and there's a silhouette of the mountains. You can hear the seabirds. And I just thought this is the best place ever to be doing. And it's just one of them, it's just one of those experiences. But that one always stuck out in my mind because I remember going over thinking, I should try to remember this because this is amazing.

Maribel:

That’s great.

Helen:

That's wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing that, Anne. We've got one more question which we always ask our guests on our podcast and that's to do with the name of our podcast which is AudaciousNess. And the audacious part relates to having the audacity to do what you did in the first place. And we found out when we were researching the name of this podcast that the word Ness, and you may know this living in Scotland, the word Ness actually means a spit of land, which juts out into the sea and remains standing no matter what the elements are throwing at it.

Anne:

I didn't know that.

Helen:

We just discovered it. Yeah. And so our last question to you is that, if you are this bit of land, what is it that gives you that solid grounding to keep going, no matter what life is throwing at you?

Anne:

Oh, that's a difficult one. I think, an inner certainty that what you're doing is the right thing. If you're not certain what you're doing, if you're two-minded about anything you're doing, you're going to have the element of giving up. But if you're absolutely certain you’re on the right road, on doing the right thing, and it's what you want, there's no two minds about it. That's what makes you stand. I think it's important to try to keep your mind focused on whatever you're doing. Because it's so easy to juggle with more than one idea. I think people do a lot, you know, juggle with all this, that and the other and you’re never certain about anything. And I think you need to be certain about what you're doing. And kind of create a you know, this is this is it. This is adamant, I've got to do this, because this is what I want to do. That's the only thing I can think of that would make anyone stand. I mean, I remember, if I've got time, in talking about an idea, I remember once, this is a boat story, picking up my neighbors who used to live in this house that was Pete and Gill Fitzgerald, and Peter used to work two weeks and come and stay, come travel back and stay here for two weeks, that's how he lived. And me and his wife would go and pick him up. And it was one evening, it was getting dark and his wife had put a lamp in the window so we could - we didn't have any GPS or anything, we had a compass and that was about it - so we could make her way home and find the mooring. But she’d forgotten to tell her husband. So when we were traveling back, I was keeping the boat on the light that I knew was in the window of their house. But Pete didn't know that, he thought it was the light of the schoolhouse, which is further to the right. And he kept telling me to move to the right, move to the left, sorry, because his house is further to the left. And I said no, I'm not going to. I couldn't explain to him over the engine, why not. And I thought he knew his wife had put a light in but she hadn't told him. So I was absolutely certain that that was the right light. And he was shouting at me and I wouldn't move because I knew that was the right light. So when we actually got to the bay, we came straight to the mooring because that was the right light. But because he wouldn't let me explain, or we couldn't explain over the engine, he got very upset with me because I wouldn't move. But that's because I knew that was the right light. And that's basically, that's about how you stand. If you know you're right, if you really know in your heart and everything that you're right, you make a stand. That's the only way I can really illustrate it.

Helen:

What a lovely story to demonstrate that, that's absolutely fantastic, Anne. Thank you so much, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this conversation.

Maribel:

Absolutely

Anne:

I've enjoyed having a conversation with you because we're talking about me. It's been lovely. I mean, I'm sorry about the technical issues.

Helen:

That's no problem, as we said it adds to the authenticity that you're dialing in from a very remote island in the Hebrides.

Anne:

It certainly is. We’re the only two people here now at the moment. So it is pretty remote. Yeah.

Helen:

Thank you so much, Anne, it's been a pleasure.

Maribel:

Thank you.

Anne:

Thank you. Thank you very much for having me.

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About the Podcast

AudaciousNess
A solid grounding on which to practice your audacity.
AudaciousNess showcases individuals who have set themselves bold, audacious goals and have worked to achieve them. Our purpose is to inspire people to act with the courage to create a positive impact in the world.

Through interviewing 'regular people' about their audacious goals, we highlight the fact that role models are everywhere. Each and every one of us can have an impact in some way. Our goal is to enable a courageous community that honours their genius and lives their calling.

The name 'AudaciousNess' has two components: audacious, meaning 'bold', and ness, meaning 'a strip of land projecting into a body of water'. We believe having a solid grounding on which to practice your audacity is crucial, or, in the words of the great philosopher king Marcus Aurelius (Meditations, 4.49):

"Be like the promontory against which the waves continually break, but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it."

About your hosts

Maribel Ortega

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I help women find their worth and be confident so that they can use their voice, speak up, take new opportunities and ultimately lead fulfilled lives.

Helen Strong

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I run an eco-friendly, vegan B&B in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland. This is just one of the many audacious goals I've pursued in my lifetime.