EXPERIENCE: I lived a Shetland Island dream.

I have decided to write a book proposal to send to agents to write my story of living in Shetland as a single woman – in the most beautiful house and also why I left. I sent a pitch to the Guardian for their Saturday magazine ‘Experience’ section. It is below.

I bought and sold a 200-year-old croft house in a pandemic year.

At first sight, the 200-year-old croft house in Levenwick, Shetland, felt like it had always part of my life and I part of its existence. Its childlike front faced east, towards the horizon where the sea bordered the vast sky. The coronavirus pandemic was in the early, frightening months when I sold nearly everything I owned—including my flat in the city of Sheffield—and made the 800-mile journey north to this house that was now mine. I had decided to buy it on a sound, the click of the old wooden latch hitting its wooden casing and the sight of the flag stone floor.

But my move to Shetland was not a knee-jerk reaction to the pandemic. I had stayed on the island multiple times over the previous 5 years, and I’d always had a faint idea that I might move to there one day. Yet it was in March 2020, when Shetland friends sent me links to the tiny, jewel-like croft house for sale, that I knew it was time at age 57 to make my dream happen: living by the sea in a lifestyle of creative knitting. 

I arrived in September 2020 with 2 cats, 2 bags, and a cat pram, followed by a few pieces of my furniture a week later. I felt as if I had never lived in any other house in my life. Its easterly facing windows offered ever-changing light and colour, whales in the bay, sunrises, passing ships, dark night skies of stars and the Milky Way or full moons that seemed to rest on the house roofs. The island was there for me to explore, finding favourite spots to collect cowrie shells, taking ferries to see Iron Age brochs and knitting on the beach. I began my creative life of knitting design, writing and teaching online knitting workshops.

Because of the pandemic, no one was allowed in anyone else’s house or car and everything began to close for the approaching winter, but I was happy, learning about myself and living a life close to nature. I began to restore parts of the house, sanding wooden floors, getting the leaky shower repaired so I no longer had to wash in a bucket, sieving the rocky soil in order to grow vegetables in the shelter of the roofless byre.  At Easter, a two-day blizzard coated every window with frozen snow as if at the North Pole, an unfamiliar and beautiful experience. 

I researched the croft house and the generations of people before me, including a woman who lived there for 83 years. She and I had opened the same doors, looked at the same view from the porch, sieved the same soil. I cherished my time with two friends, one in the village and the other 40 miles away, an 80-mile round trip for us to visit each other. But, by May, I began to feel very alone, which was a deeper feeling than that of lonely. I missed my son and daughter, still in England, and I missed my Sheffield friends and the city’s multi-cultural, outward perspective. Then, there was the wind.

Until you have lived on a treeless island where the wind visibly surges from the four points of the compass, down chimneys with a roar that lifts the bedroom floor boards, pins the ears of the cat to his head when he leaves the house, drives salt spray across the windows from a sea half a mile away, and nearly rips the car door off unless you use two hands to open it, you have not experienced wind. Shetland’s wind is nearly constant and can easily blow between 40 and 70 mph. I found it invigorating at first, but it soon ripped into my thoughts and became exhausting.

When I began to go out every morning to see if the barn roof was still attached, I knew that I could not sustain a solitary life in the raw harshness of Shetland at my age. A friend had said to me, ‘If you bide in Shetland, you’ll need a man.’ A partner may have alleviated much of the loneliness, but my decision to leave Shetland would have been the same.

I learned that a place of great beauty alone is not enough to sustain me. I found that I wanted the multi-cultural, open-minded existence of the city. I needed real connections to people who didn’t just talk about me but with me. I loved the little croft house, but I had to let it go, selling it in the Autumn and returning to Sheffield in October last year, without home or job or knowing exactly what next.

When I came back, friends said, ‘well, at least you tried.’ But I didn’t just try.

I did it, and I undid it.

There is a quote, ‘she believed she could, so she did.’ I believed in my Shetlands dream, and I had the bravery to do it and the courage to undo it when I knew it wasn’t mine anymore.

—Tracey Doxey

May 2022

Grateful thanks to Ann Senuta (who lives in New Mexico) for editing this text for the pitch.

if you would like to support me with the idea of writing my story, then please contact me in the contact form on the home page – I would love to hear from you.

Blue Winter

10.01.2021 08:21am

Blue light

This weekend has been all about a northern Winter, blue light, snowfall, walking to the top of the hill, and scraping the ceiling.

Two of us have had an attempt at sanding paint off the ceiling now.  I bought a fairly expensive belt sander and duly plugged it in and hit the ceiling with it. Holding 3kg up above your head whilst wearing goggles and a face mask, standing on a chair, is testing to say the least.  It didn’t work.  So I started scraping the paint with a ‘magic scraper’ but it wasn’t magic at all, then Nitromorsing, then I paid a man to have a go at sanding and in one hour the entire room was filled with paint flakes and dust but there was nothing in the dust bag and some areas were sanded but more paint was still left on the ceiling and it was all looking very intact with 50 years of rippled paint beaming down at me. He said it couldn’t be done and to go over it with another ceiling. I thought about it.   I poked and wiped a little area clean on the glass in the window so that I could see out, heart slightly sinking at the magnitude of it all – then shut the door for two days. 

Saturday, I returned to the ceiling with fresh vigour, armed with new paint stripper and optimistic hope.  Somehow, I had forgotten the midweek sinking feeling.  Two hours later, there is little effect on the paint from the paint stripper and scraping so I pick up the sander again.  Whilst sanding above my head, I can feel my stomach muscles tightening to hold the weight of it all and to balance – maybe this hideous act of restoration can be exercise too.   Saturday tea time, I close the bedroom door and shower off the dust.

Sunday, I wake to more fresh snow and decide to ignore the bedroom ceiling until I have walked to the top of the hill which overlooks both Levenwick on the East and St Ninian’s Isle on the West side of Shetland.  On passing Jimmy’s, I catch him feeding the birds and mention that I’m walking to the top of the hill and the abandoned mast – just in case I never return and I’m either in a blizzard or lost or slipped or dead – I’m on the hill, right?  I’ll call in on the way home to let him know I survived.  Living alone risk assessment –  it’s a good idea to tell someone where you are going when it’s remote and there’s bad weather.  In my bag I packed a little back up 1. a newly recharged domed torch that sticks to the fridge and can flash.  I figure this is a good idea in cases I need to flag down a helicopter.  2. a foil blanket in case I get caught out and need to hide under something. 3. a flask of tea.   No money and no chocolate.  

I’ve not left the village before the first blizzard of sharp harsh hailstones, bigger than pepper corns, lashes across the land from the West.   I take shelter against a wall in an old, roofless shearing shed.

Even I think it’s a stupid idea and I know Jimmy will be looking out of his window wondering where I am.  After ten minutes, there’s a seasonal change from harsh winter blizzard with hail to calmness and a speck of blue sky so I set off again.  The blue light is reflected on the new snowfall, which reflects back a whiteness.  Pink edged, dark grey filled clouds begin to surround me, there is a faint sound of wind but it is positively calm compared to 5 minutes ago. Out to sea, a snow storm rages.  I can see it pouring, sieve like in vertical strands connecting cloud to sea.  I’ve begun to watch the shape and colour of the cloud formation indicating the weather in that particular spot.

Only two sets of foot prints have been before me – one of human and the other of a large dog. The pink frills edging the clouds become peach then fiery gold – the sun, suspended in the moment, is hiding somewhere behind the snow clouds colouring the cloud edges burning them into a golden light. Whilst writing, the paper page turns pink from the reflection of the clouds many, many miles away.

I am the only living human on this great hill –  I know this for sure because there are no other footprints. Sheep follow alongside. Abandoned snow topped peat banks to my right marking what would have once been a busy place. To the north, the sky is one sheet of orange/ grey, as if fire smoke and to the South, dark rolling fog coming towards me.  It is magical to see the earth’s weather system for miles in both directions – doing different things. The southern weather becomes quite frightening to watch – as if a harsh storm is rolling uncontrollably covering everything in its path.  On the hill, I’m hoping for a view of St. Ninian’s Isle but the likelihood is becoming slim.  I now begin to look for possible shelter – not even a building but a wall.

The ice on the road is frozen like the waves of a sea. Frozen ripples with small snow drifts at either side. The light is blue – not the sky, but the light itself. The ice is too slippery so I walk in the snow alongside.

Slowly, slowly, not entirely walking but meandering, Bowie on a loop in my head, I reach my goal of the abandoned telegraph masts at the top of the hill with 360 degree view at exactly the same time new hail as sharp as nail points stab my face.  The wind howls and whistles around the masts. Briefly,  I look over the edge of the cliff to St, Ninian’s way down below – a perfect natural tombolo beach visible from above.

I turn, to face away from the instant hail storm then start the return journey.  It’s easier going back downhill. 

Bleak blue light

Coldness on my back from the chasing wind.   The sea, way below, ahead of me is now a deep Navy Blue.  The storm sky has coloured it.  At ground level, snow falls gently, sheltered by the hill and for now, the wind has subsided. 

Back to the sander and dust storm.