We lived ‘the good life’

Was Jean Eisen­hauer’s dream of fam­ily self-suf­fi­ciency turn­ing into a night­mare?

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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

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