We lived ‘the good life’
Was Jean Eisenhauer’s dream of family self-sufficiency turning into a nightmare?
What was that?” I asked as a white beam of light wavered over our heads. “I don’t know, but I’m not stopping to find out.” Bernie, my other half, pushed his foot down to try and get our aged Austin J2 van, to go a bit faster. Our two sons, Gary (7) and Neil (6), dozed between us, unaware of our panic. It was 1977 and we were nearly at the end of the first part of our journey to a new life on the tiny island of Egilsay. Somewhere ahead of us our friend Barry was driving a rented van with what remained of all our worldly goods; beds, a calor gas stove, tinned foods, sacks of flour and haricot beans. Crammed in with us we had three goats, two rabbits, two cats and six rescued elderly battery hens. Getting back to that beam of light. Were we about to be beamed up by little green men? On we raced through dark empty moorland, with no sign of human life. It was around two in the morning. We both relaxed when the lights of Thurso appeared in the distance. We should soon be safe. Pulling up on the sea front, we looked up tentatively. Above us the sky shimmered and danced. We looked at each other and laughed with relief. It was the Northern Lights welcoming us with a spectacular display. The next day we took the two-and-a-half-hour sea journey to Orkney. Two days ago we had waved a tearful farewell to family and friends in Sussex, yet we still had another sea crossing before we would arrive at our destination. At Tingwall, Barry and Mansy the ferryman were waiting for us. Under a lowering sky, we speedily unloaded what was left of our home onto the little ferry. Approaching the tiny island of Egilsay, we saw the welcoming sight of tractors and trailers lined up to take us, the animals and our possessions across the island to ‘Maeness,’ our new home. At last I would see what we had let ourselves in for as Bernie had come up to view the island with Ruth, a friend of Barry’s wife. Throughout the journey, I had pointed to ruined crofts, and repeatedly asked, “Is it as bad as this?” or “Dilapidated as that?” “Much worse!” Bernie would reply. Now I knew what he meant. There before us stood a group of stone buildings in varying states of disrepair. I was lost for words. The old croft house had no internal rooms and no end wall, just sheets of corrugated iron. Various dilapidated buildings surrounded a square yard. As the first fat drops of rain began to fall, our friend Ronnie backed his trailer into the house and unhitched it, just in time to keep our beds and bedding dry. After we had settled the goats and hens in the old byre, Jan and Ruth, who ran the post office, welcomed us back to their home for a meal and a bed for the night. The following morning we set off in waterproofs
I would learn to knit Fair Isle jumpers that would be sold to the Japanese at a tremendous profit!
and wellies, to sort out our new home. Despair at the enormity of what we had undertaken engulfed us, but we just had to get on with it. One end of the house had the remains of a room with part of a timber ceiling, a flagstone floor, even a stone fireplace. We decided this would be home for now. We dragged our old bed settee over in front of the fireplace, and set a table before the tiny cracked window. Close to that, we stood the gas cooker. The rumble of a tractor signalled a visitor, so we went outside to greet Ronnie on his way over to pick up his trailer. We still hadn’t found our water supply. “Och, ye have a well doon yonder, on the shore.” He pointed to a small stone-lined springfed well. The following day we all moved in. The stress of the journey had taken its toll on our livestock. The battery hens gave up laying altogether and the goat’s milk yield dropped. We had to buy dried milk to augment our needs. But we started to dig out a vegetable patch within the shelter of the farm buildings. It’s strange how night magnifies our worries. Had this been what I envisaged, wearing my rose-tinted specs back in Sussex? Every penny had gone into the purchase of ‘Maeness,’ which had seduced us with its 70 acres, two lochans and sandy shoreline. We were going to be self-sufficient, what did we need money for? We were about to learn the hard way that reality doesn’t work like that. Here, our only income was the children’s family allowance to buy the very basics. My stomach knotted with fear. How on earth could we live like this, especially through an Orkney winter? The next morning we awoke to sunlight streaming into the room. It was a perfect day, calm and clear. We feasted on bowls of hot porridge, as the terrors of the night evaporated. Bernie could cash in his company pension and we would buy a caravan. We would take the next ferry to Kirkwall to choose one. I decided I would learn to knit Fair Isle jumpers that would be sold to the Japanese at a tremendous profit! We were young and healthy; nothing was going to stop us succeeding.
Jean and her boys, the animals they brought from Sussex and below, their new home, a croft on the Isle of Egilsay