Islanders fight to keep school with no pupils on remote Soay

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The Independent Online

More than 13,000 people have applied so far to take part in the next series of Castaway, seduced by dreams of an idyllic life on a remote island. The reality looks rather different to full-time Hebridean residents.

More than 13,000 people have applied so far to take part in the next series of Castaway, seduced by dreams of an idyllic life on a remote island. The reality looks rather different to full-time Hebridean residents.

As the BBC sifts applications from people desperate to "escape" the pressures of mainland life, the school on the tiny Scottish island of Soay is to close - because not enough people want to live there.

Soay school, separated by half a mile of water from the Cuillin mountains of Skye, has not been used since 1997, when the last children left for higher education on Skye. The remaining islanders of Soay, all seven of them, fear that closure will finally force them to abandon the rocky outcrop.

There is no immediate prospect of a new influx of children. Of the seven residents, one is a woman, in her forties, and the rest comprise three couples, two of whom have grown-up children while the other's children go to senior school on the mainland.

Any child on Soay now would face an arduous journey to get to school, for the island can only be reached by boat, either from Elgol on Skye, four miles away, or the fishing port of Mallaig 15 miles distant.

Scheduled transport consists of one winter visit, subject to the weather, every three months from Arisaig, 25 miles to the south on the mainland. Those choosing the shorter half-mile route across the Soay Sound would be advised to pack their hiking gear: the precipitous and trackless 3,000-foot peaks of Gars-Bheinn and Sgurr Dearg of the Cuillin mountains rise up from the shores and are impassable to all but experienced and properly equipped climbers.

There is no mains electricity on the island and all supplies of bottled gas and coal are brought in by boat. Landing is a hazardous operation as there is no jetty. Despite these hardships, the area is one of great raw beauty. Only last week an underwater survey of the seabed around the St Kilda archipelago, which includes Soay, revealed a prehistoric landscape that was above water more than 18,000 years ago.

The local authority, Highland Council, says the cost of maintaining the school, built to take pupils aged five to 12, is prohibitive and £210,000 is required just to renovate the stone building,which stands on a raised shingle beach where Vikings used to haul their longships.

Isobel Campbell, chairwoman of the Skye and Lochalsh education committee, said the committee expected to discuss the matter this Wednesdayand the council had agreed to extend the consultation period to the end of the month.

"If the school is closed then it is the death knell for Soay," said Oliver Davies, a fisherman on the island for the past 32 years. "How can our school be surplus when it is needed for the next pupil that arrives? Island populations have always fluctuated. I have two sons interested in coming back to settle on Soay when they finish their education. But how can they if there is no school?"

Jenny MacEwan crofted in Soay through the Sixties and Seventies, and her daughter went to the school. "If they close it now there won't ever be another school on Soay," she said. "If a new family came with children I don't think the authorities would build them a new school. But what family would come with children when there isn't a school already there? This is a recipe for the depopulation we have seen so much of in the Highlands during the last century."

Soay, whose name is derived from the Norse for "sheep island", has always been lightly populated. The population rose during the Highland clearances in the mid 19th century when 100 crofters evicted from Skye settled on the island. In 1851 the population reached its peak with 158 people. It then dwindled steadily and in 1953 the remaining population of 27 asked to be moved to new homes on Mull, 50 miles south, as they struggled to cope with the failure of the shark fishery, a decline in lobster stocks and the poor quality of agricultural land.

Since then a trickle of hardy colonisers have returned. The ill-fated shark factory linked Soay with Gavin Maxwell, who later wrote the bestselling Ring of Bright Water and was involved in the shark fishing. Duncan Geddes, whose father had been Maxwell's harpooner, sent his children to the school in the Seventies. He said: "Closing the school would be another nail in the coffin for the island."