A chance trip to Uist ended up changing Emilie Chartier’s life. But finding a place to live in the Western Isles is an art in itself.
There’s no doubt that depopulation is one of the biggest challenges the Western Isles are facing today. But people leaving isn’t the whole story – and some versions can make the islands sound like a ghost town rather than the vibrant community it is. In this article, and others, we shine a light on some of the many different people who are choosing to build a life in the Outer Hebrides.
Emilie Chartier never intended to move to the Hebrides.
When the 31-year-old artist came to North Uist for the first time in January, it was only meant to be for a short holiday.
“It wasn’t a mistake, but it wasn’t planned,” she says. “I had never heard of Uist before.”
She stayed with a friend for a week – but then, rather than going home, asked them to drop her at John’s Bunkhouse on Berneray.
“And that’s where it all started,” she says. “I just couldn’t leave.”
“It was just supposed to be for a couple of days, and I ended up staying for nearly a month.”
For her, it was an entirely new world. Originally from France, she had already built a life in the bustling city of Newcastle.
Leaving that life was “stressful”, she says.
“I have my community over there, my best friends, so it was hard to leave.”
“But when I got to Berneray,” she says, she felt “something I can’t explain.”
‘I couldn’t stay away’
After visiting Uist for the first time, she went back to the mainland just to get ready to leave for good.
“It took a few months to get everything sorted,” she recalls – but even that felt like too long.
“In the meantime, I came back for two weeks in June. I couldn’t stay away.”
Two months ago, she packed her belongings into a newly-bought second-hand motorhome and came to make a new start.
‘It’s nearly impossible to find a place’
For Emilie, like many of the young people looking to make a home in the Hebrides, the biggest hurdle is housing.
“It’s nearly impossible to find a place at the moment,” she says.
For now, all she can do is stay in temporary accommodation as she waits to hear from the Hebridean Housing Partnership.
She’s on the list for a house – but the housing crisis, which is especially bad in the Western Isles, means she could be waiting a long time.
It’s “not ideal, but it’s better than nothing,” she says.
Meanwhile, though, she’s celebrating a big victory: getting her own studio to work from in Lochmaddy.
Looking at her work, it might not be so surprising that she felt drawn to the Hebrides.
A keen wild swimmer, she says that her abstract seascapes, full of texture and darkness, are “inspired by the constant change in the movement of the water around us”.
Her art is very personal, but what she loves about working with abstract forms is that “anyone can see anything in them”.
‘It’s very inspiring’
In North Uist, the people she’s met have become as important to her art as her new seaviews.
“There’s a huge community of artists, and it’s very inspiring,” she says. “And for me, it’s definitely a place where I feel I have more freedom to express myself.”
It’s not just other artists that have welcomed her into the community.
She has become particularly close with the owners of John’s Bunkhouse in Berneray, which offers her a more permanent home in the winter months, while she searches for a house.
Their support has been ‘incredible’, she says.
‘The only certainty is that I want to be here’
She’s determined to not just live in the Hebrides, but to be a part of it.
Supporting local businesses and contributing the islands economy is what she sees as her responsibility as an incomer.
“I’d like to see what I can bring to the community,” she says. “What skills, knowledge, whatever I have that I can use to help.”
No doubt there will be more challenges to come. But, for her, “the only certainty is that I want to be here.”
“I’m not going to let anything stop me.”
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