Scottish Daily Mail
The hermit millionaire
No electricity, no running water, and a bucket for a washing machine. Meet the VERY green laird shunning the bright lights of London for an eco existence on a tiny Scottish island...
ON buying the abandoned isle of Gometra almost 30 years ago, Roc Sandford began collecting stories of those who had once inhabited it. One was a wealthy noble whose chauffeur drove her to the beach every day where she bathed naked.
This lady’s sister lived on Gometra too, but she eloped with a world champion tricyclist.
Then there was the character everyone knew as Pussykins, who ended up being exiled forever for homosexuality.
It was not until a few months after he had settled on the speck of heather and rock off Mull, in the Inner Hebrides, that Mr Sandford discovered these islanders were members of his own extended family.
Life on the island is no less colourful – if a lot lonelier – under his stewardship. Holed up in his off-grid house with a bucket for a washing machine and a hand-cranked flour mill for bread-making, this minor member of the aristocracy says the airliners passing overhead are often the nearest humans to him.
And yet, he says: ‘I never envy them. I’m the lucky one down here.’ The 63-year-old father of four has left his island just once in the past year – to have his Covid-19 vaccination – and admits: ‘Sometimes you feel very alone.’
It was loneliest of all, perhaps, a few months back during winter, when two of his children were risking their lives holed up in a warren of tunnels under London’s Euston Square Gardens. They and others, including the infamous ‘Swampy’, were protesting against the £98billion HS2 high-speed rail network.
His younger son Lazer was underground for 11 days, while his younger daughter Blue stayed there for several weeks.
He lived in fear of their passionate environmentalism getting them killed – yet he, more than anyone, instilled it in them and he glowed with pride at their disruptive protest.
Now Mr Sandford’s most alternative of lifestyles is to be featured in the TV show Stacey Dooley Sleeps Over.
Creature comforts, she will swiftly have discovered, are anathema for the strictly vegan Laird of Gometra who announces, ominously, that he has no hot water and has been ‘experimenting’ with doing without heating, even in mid-winter. How on earth does he manage to sleep? ‘When it’s cold I will have one quilt beneath me and two quilts above me – the 13 tog types,’ he says. ‘Then I will wear thick socks and two layers of woollen long johns, a woollen vest, woollen polo neck, a woolly hat and a hoodie.
‘I am extremely comfortable. You can be comfortable without polluting.’
The point of all this is simple, he says. He is determined to avoid making any contribution to the climate emergency unfolding all around us and, if that means cocooning yourself at night in three duvets and several layers of woollens, so be it.
Indeed, he reproaches himself for having borrowed a quad bike for his trip to Mull to have his Covid-19 jab rather than cycling, but feared an adverse reaction to the vaccination.
Television plays no part in whiling away the lonely hours – Mr Sandford does not own one – but he does download the occasional video on his iPad.
WHILE there is no mobile phone signal or internet connection in his home, there is a 12ft by 10ft wooden shed nearby from which he can communicate with the world beyond his shores.
‘The mast on the isle of Coll has changed things, it has opened up that ability to connect, you have the best of both worlds. I was talking to a lovely man in Nigeria the other day.’
It is in his shed that he spends his ‘office hours’, writing, and strategising to save the planet.
Though he declines to name them, he says the list of the great and good with whom he is in contact from his wooden outpost includes captains of industry, government department heads and international bankers.
Doubtless those on the end of the line sit in considerably greater comfort than he, but it is the life he has chosen and one which, remarkably, his children hanker after, too.
Both Blue and Lazer – real names Isla and Lachlan – spent much of their young lives on Gometra lapping up the off-grid lifestyle.
Indeed, they would probably have spent more of it there were it not for a court order secured by their mother, from whom Mr Sandford is estranged, ensuring their schooling took place in London.
It was on Gometra, for example, that the Sandford clan celebrated Christmas in 2019 with a bizarre present opening session. Each gift from the island’s self-styled laird to his children was an item of litter he picked up in the street and fashioned into ‘rubbish art’.
He said at the time: ‘My rubbish is causing a stir. Two of my best pieces are on show at an art gallery in London.’
It was on Gometra too, that the Sandford youngsters developed the hardiness that would make days and nights in a muddy tunnel under Easton Square Gardens seem survivable.
On this one-and-a-half-squaremile lump of wind-battered rock, Mr Sandford declares that his ‘guzzling phase’ is well and truly behind him.
Those were the days when he replicated an ‘on-grid lifestyle’, running a diesel generator, a washing machine, bread machine, and installing a television.
‘I had a Land Rover and a quad bike. Gradually, as these broke – my Land Rover fell in the sea and a rat ate through the generator cable – I found I didn’t need them. As time has gone on, I’ve got better and better at what I call frugal off-grid.
IHAVE a hand-cranked flour mill to grind my flour and I use a thermal cooker, which is like a big Thermos you can put a whole pan inside. ‘I have a solar panel for my computer, my torches, my power tools. That’s fantastic, except when it blows away.
‘I have had two small wind turbines, but they were much less reliable than the solar panels – the wind blows too hard for them.’
He adds: ‘My water comes from a spring, but that sometimes dries up by early summer, then I have to use water from the burn.
‘We don’t have hot water and I have been experimenting with doing without heating. We have never had central heating anyway, but keeping a wood burner going all day means you have to be sawing wood the whole time.’
Island life under the laird’s ultraenvironmentally conscious rule is not, then, for the fainthearted.
Gone are the days when he used to ship in milk, meat and Coco Pops to the island along with his drums of diesel. Now he has foresworn meat and dairy, bakes his own bread from scratch and dresses only in woollens.
He recently revealed: ‘My washing machine is a bucket in which I tread out my clothes like grapes and end up with very clean feet.’
When he does have a mind to travel between Gometra and his other home in London, the journey is a 13-hour study in carbon footprint minimalisation. Born into a
money – he is the son of celebrated writers Jeremy Sandford and Nell Dunn and the grandson of baronet Sir Philip Gordon Dunn – he says he has not flown or owned a car in a decade.
So, from London, he hops on his bike to catch the 7.30am train from Euston to Glasgow Central before transferring to Oban, where he takes a ferry to Craignure, on the Isle of Mull.
After that, it’s the 5pm bus to Salen, then back on the bike to where the ferry leaves for the neighbouring island of Ulva.
He leaves his bike at the dock and, after the ten-minute boat ride, embarks on an eight-mile trek across rough track to Gometra, which is connected to Ulva by a causeway bridge accessible only at low tide.
After that, there is only another mile or so of walking before he reaches his front door. ‘The walk is in the dark in winter and I finally arrive sometime between 8pm and 9pm,’ he says.
BACK in London, former socialite Mr Sandford spreads his environmental message as widely as he can, urging anyone who will listen to join climate change campaign group Extinction Rebellion. He has stood three times as a Green candidate for Westminster City Council.
He has also given talks in schools, including the £6,686-a-term King Alfred School in North London where daughter Blue was a pupil before declaring herself ‘on strike’ from it several months ago.
There he told his young audience: ‘Next time you watch a zombie video or play a zombie shootout, think about who the real zombies are.
‘They’re big oil, big coal, the airlines, the car companies and the many people they’re made for.’
Not all of his statements make such cogent reading. In a selfpenned biography on his website Mr Sandford says he has studied at the Nato Advanced Studies Institute at Bonas in France.
He expounds: ‘I proposed a minor refinement for enhanced statistical confidence in psychophysics whilst examining introspective sensationless magnitude and its methodological implications in psychology, economics – the synthetic a priori may in aspects be non-Euclidian.’
The same bewilderingly wordy personal narrative reveals: ‘I am named for Saint Roc, patron of mad dogs, sea storms and the falsely accused, who declined his mother’s breast on holy fast days.’
It may, then, never have been the most likely contingency that his offspring would turn out like the boy or girl next door.
Oldest son Cato, 31, is a physicist whose research focuses on reducing greenhouse gas emissions while Savannah, 22, was thought to be among the HS2 protesters on ground level at the Euston site.
Two years ago, she was one of 12 Extinction Rebellion protesters arrested for stripping off in the House of Commons public gallery during a Brexit debate.
Next oldest, Lazer, 20, is already a veteran of environmental protests. In 2019, using his birth name Lachlan, he and his younger sister were among six members of the Extinction Rebellion Youth who chained themselves together to block the entrance to a London seminar on shale gas. Anyone going in had to step over the protesters who wore T-shirts with the message: ‘Don’t step on our future.’
That leaves baby of the family Isla, 18, who has lately reinvented herself as Blue. Like her fellow teenager Greta Thunberg, she has taken to striking from school in protest at government inaction on climate change.
Not that the moniker ‘the British Greta Thunberg’ is welcome. Indeed, having been in the ecowarrior business since she was nine, joining her father on protests, blockading the Ulva-Gometra causeway to declare an ecological emergency, she may consider Greta the Swedish Blue Sandford.
She speaks passionately of ‘rewilding cities like London’, has advocated ‘guerrilla gardening’ to make greener spaces, and last year, she brought out her ‘manifesto’, Challenge Everything: An Extinction Rebellion Youth guide to saving the planet. Clearly, the apple has not fallen far from the tree.
When the children are away there are two other households on Gometra. They help with Mr Sandford’s 350 sheep and managing holiday bothies, but the reality is he spends most days in solitude.
SINCE Covid, we tend not to mix as much as we used to, but we bump into each other every few days,’ he says cheerfully. So it is activism that fills these long days in isolation – his latest quest is to spread the message of Ocean Rebellion that ‘the seas are dying’. He says: ‘We are going to call for a global ban on bottom trawling at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow this year.
‘The Scottish and UK governments are beginning to acknowledge the scale of the climate and nature emergency, but they’re not doing what it takes to stop them. I call it genocidal apathy. It is our children’s lives they are risking.’
His is, perhaps, the most selfsacrificing protest in the land. But if it encourages even baby steps towards his environmentally clean utopia then, perhaps, he will feel it was worth it. Stacey Dooley Sleeps Over, the Eco Warriors episode, featuring Roc Sandford, will air on W at 10pm on May 17.