A more unlikely candidate for Hebridean life than Phil Buxton would have been hard to imagine. Phil loved pubs, played in a blues band and listened to Bob Dylan. He was something of artist but gritty urban scenes were his subject matter rather than tranquil landscapes. A true urbanite I would have called him, so when I heard he was moving to the Outer Hebrides, the outer wilds of Britain, a man who hitherto I'd never known even to go outdoors for a walk, I was more than a little surprised.
The catalyst had been the new love in his life. There always seemed to be "a new love" in Phil's life. He swung from one relationship to another just as Tarzan swung from one vine to another. His new love was Clare. In the full flush of their burgeoning romance they had gone to Scotland for a holiday, to Skye. It was probably Clare's idea I don't think Phil had ever been there before. They were enthralled with the place. It was wonderful, the beauty, the space. Then someone they met in the north of the island told them: "If you think this place is wonderful you should go out there." And he pointed out across the sea to the dark silhouetted hills of Harris some thirty miles away. So out they went
They were hardly off the ferry when they saw a small cottage for sale in the middle of Tarbet at a ridiculously low prize. Immediately they were seized with the idea of buying the place: a new relationship, a new life, a new start. It was madness of course. The cottage was a ridiculous price because it was in a ridiculous condition; barely habitable. It was also in a forlorn position looking out on a grim car park and overshadowed by a shabby storehouse - but love is blind, so buy it they did.
I helped them move. I stayed on with them, in fact, for their first few days on the island. Harris to me was not wonderful. My eyes grew sore for the the want anything green to look at. The hard bare hills of the island bore in on the village. But with a fire going, the house was cosy, even if the wind did whistle through the gaps round the door with remarkable ease.
Phil had a fanciful notion of getting a job as a photographer on the Stornaway Gazette. A brief visit to the offices of the Gazette the day after his arrival, however, soon disabused him of this notion. His employment prospects didn't look good; there are few openings for a blues band player in the Hebrides.
After a week I returned back to England. During the winter I corresponded a few times times. They seemed to be surviving though the winter weather was terrible: constant rain. The following summer I returned to see them. Phil was in good spirits he'd just landed his first job. An electricity line was being erected across the length of Lewis and Harris and he was employed to cook for the the navvies working on the project. It was a very cushy number Phil explained; most of the time the men were working so he'd nothing to do. That was until the site foreman made the same observation and got him to assist the navvies when they didn't need feeding. Then the job was wretched. Nothing hinders the wind and rain on Harris when it comes, and it comes often. I thought he then had one of the hardest jobs in Britain. Life in the Hebrides was tough and it was obviously having its effect on Phil's relationship with Clare.
Phil and Clare lasted another winter together and then broke up. Things must have got pretty bad between them because Clare left while Phil was away, visiting his mother in the south of England. She had the decency though to phone him to tell that he wouldn't find her at home when he got back to Harris. When Phil returned, about a week later, he came back in a removal van with another friend to help him. They arrived on the last ferry of the day. While it was docked but a hundred yards from his cottage Phil spent the whole night loading his possessions in the van ready to drive back on the ferry when it left the next morning. He spoke to no one in the village. It was a bitter end to an episode in Phil's life he'd obviously begun on with such optimism.
I have never seen Phil since last seeing him on Harris. I've heard though he now lives in Spain with another woman, of course, married in fact, and he's become a Buddhist. As to what happened to his Hebridean home that was something no one one was able to tell me. Was someone else now living in it? Was it simply falling apart? Or had it been demolished to extend the car park? Last week I discovered the answer. After a gap of five years or more I returned to Harris. None of my imagined scenarios had occurred. The house is now a very appealing tea room. It had been striped to its bare walls and virtually rebuilt. Sitting in it I found it hard to recall the way it had been when Phil had lived in it.
Clare had dabbled a bit in serving tea and scones to summer visitors. She had been moderately successful. But in the years since she was last on the island a development had taken place in Tarbet which made such a venture far more viable. A splendid public convenience has been built on the car park. Now every touring coach on Harris pulls up outside. And where do the occupants of those coaches all go after visiting this gleaming new edifice? why, naturally into the tearoom. If only it had been built five years earlier Phil and Clare's chances of surviving in Harris would have been that much better, they might still be together even and Phil might still be a Hebridean rather than a Buddhist.