Her brother’s PRIVATE island is a PLACE for adrenaline sports and parties, but Vanessa Branson’s island GETAWAY is a little different.
Richard Branson’s sister, Vanessa, has an island of her own, too, – we find out how hers is a little different to his
On a remote island in Scotland that’s just 4km (2.5 miles) long, and has only a smattering of electricity, a famous family with a rich entrepreneurial history gather every two years for an off-the-grid celebration. “The full Branson clan gathers here every other year,” says Vanessa Branson – sister of Richard – who owns Eilean Shona island. “There’s my mother, my brother, my sister, our 11 children and the seven babies. The kids all travel to our deserted beach on different craft, paddle-boarding, sailing or kayaking. We cook mussels over a fire, drink rosé and sing and dance to my nephew Sam’s guitar-playing and my daughter Flo’s crazy flute accompaniment. Memories don’t get much better than these.”
The story of how Sir Richard Branson bought Necker Island in the eighties to impress his girlfriend (now wife) during one of their early dates is now the stuff of urban legend. Many entrepreneurs dream of stepping foot on the Virgin tycoon’s Caribbean playground – a place for kitesurfing and raucous parties, where visitors have been known to eat sushi off other guests’ stomachs and dress as sumo wrestlers. But his sister’s island is a space for quiet reflection, disconnection and solitude.
An art curator and trustee of Virgin Unite, a not-for-profit that supports entrepreneurial ideas, Vanessa purchased the island in 1995 with her former husband Robert Devereux, who led the entertainment arm of Virgin in the 1980s before chairing the Soho House group for eight years.
The island boasts 607 hectares (1500 acres) of Scottish moor, wild open hills and woodland, with a main house and seven rentable properties (plus two more under development). They’re purposely low-tech. In fact, Vanessa designed the island to be an escape from the ‘iPhone life’ that we’re all living in – and that her brother has made a fortune from.
“I think we have the perfect balance [on the island] of being connected, but
also being able to get away from iPhone life,” she says. “The main house has electricity, but five of our cottages are completely off-grid. You can walk to the little village hall [which has internet access] to use your computer. It’s interesting to witness how urgent being connected feels when you first arrive on island and then, as the days go by, how quickly you realise how good it feels to be free of emails.”
Until the middle of the 18th century, Eilean Shona was populated by a number of ‘crofters’ (tenants of small plots of land). Since the 1930s, the island had been owned by three families, who had developed it, gradually, into a slow-travel destination to visit.
Even though Eilean Shona is only a 10-minute boat trip from the mainland (or a quick chartered helicopter ride), any kind of property renovation is quite challenging on an island.
“To renovate a building is a real feat of organisation,” says Vanessa. “All the building materials are brought over by ‘Spanish John’, the local barge. The builders either commute across the water each day, or stay on [the] island for the duration. Paul Waddington, the genius island manager, has become very adept at fixing every piece of household machinery himself!”
With no TIME wasted making EVERYDAY logistical decisions, you are FREE to dream.
The main house, which was named after the island, has 11 bedrooms, a large library and does come with mod-cons (a dishwasher!). But the very newest conversion – The Old School House – is totally off-grid, with no electricity, internet or mobile reception.
Their aim in the redesign was to show that low-fi living could be both comfortable and stylish. A gas-lit luxury paradise.
“The house itself is really elegant,” says Vanessa. “We added windows and skylights so it’s swamped in natural light, and you’re aware of the dramatic landscape and wildlife around you. The wood-burning stoves provide lashings of boiling water for the roll-top bath. The sheets are the best quality Egyptian cotton.”
There’s one small shop on the island that covers guests’ basic needs, and sells locally made fish pies and venison casseroles. “Everything you do is tideand weather-dependent,” says Vanessa. “Every case of wine has to be carried onto the boat and up to the main house. Every empty bottle then has to do the return journey across the sea again.”
The island itself has a rich history: it was the inspiration for Neverland in J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. As an artist herself, Vanessa hosts a program of artists’ residencies, writing workshops and playwriting retreats on the island. She’s also developing the nature reserve by planting thousands of trees to manage the ancient woodland.
Unsurprisingly, the island is a place that most visitors find to be extremely creatively inspiring.
“The days on Shona are endless,” says Vanessa. “In summer it doesn’t get dark until midnight. With no time wasted making everyday logistical decisions, you are free to dream, make art and focus on friends and family. The environment is never static; tides pull in and out at different times each day; the weather rolls in over the Atlantic, providing clear blue days and big cloud days, but mostly a mix of the two. This, plus the landscape, means you can’t fail to be inspired.”