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From London life to the good life: BBC show follows family to Uist

Alex and Susannah on Uist. Image: BBC
Alex and Susannah on Uist. Image: BBC

Going from inner city life in London to living off the land in the Outer Hebrides is a big move.

One family has done it – and they let the cameras follow them.

Return To Uist takes us on a young family’s adventure where they uproot their lives.

The first episode of the four-part BBC series is on Wednesday at 8.30pm.

Alex, Susannah and son Cedar. Image: BBC

City boy Alex Thompson-Byer, 36, is a gardener and blogger. His artist fiancee Susannah Bolton is 29 and their little boy Cedar is five.

Here, we talk to Alex about the challenges he and his family encountered in their move to Locheport in North Uist.

It all begins during lockdown

They have limited funds, a house to build and it all begins during lockdown 2020.

Susannah grew up on South Uist but never felt like she belonged, and was keen to leave for the mainland as quickly as she could.

She wants to give island living another chance in the hope that Cedar will enjoy growing up away from the city. She is also chasing that elusive work-life balance.

It’s all about what you’ve got, and what you’ve not got

In south London, shops, clubs and restaurants were on the couple’s doorstep. Their rural destination has four grocery stores, two petrol pumps and ten people per square mile.

But Alex is focusing on the positive side of island life. He said: “There are no traffic lights. No roundabouts. No speed bumps, no paying for parking. It is a lot more carefree.

Alex. Image: BBC

“Cedar loves it. You can put him in a field, he can run up and down for ages, climb on rocks, play in the sand dunes, making sandcastles.

“You go to the beach and you have the whole beach to yourself. You go to the beach at Brighton and you get a pebble.”

But it isn’t all sunshine and flowers. In fact, there is a lot of rain. And Alex says the documentary shows the good and the bad.

Viewers get to see all seasons and get a glimpse of what island life is really like.

Making a new start

When the family arrive after a 700-mile drive, North Uist is still in lockdown, but soon they’re able to make a start on their new life.

They are staying with Susannah’s parents, who moved to the Outer Hebrides from the south of England 30 years ago.

The couple develop the plans for their dream home.

And Alex wastes no time getting stuck into the rural way of life, setting up enclosures for ducks and hens on the croft.

To make ends meet, he takes on a job as delivery driver and after eight months Susannah lands a job for three days a week at the local woollen mill, cleaning wool for the local weavers.

It’s a good start to their island life. Susannah’s spirits are lifted after a meeting with the architect to go through the plans for their dream home.

Spoiler alert – you may have already guessed, but the family fall in love with their new life.

No plans to go anywhere as ‘proof is in the pudding’

They have now been on Uist for more than two years and don’t plan on going anywhere.

Alex said: “We are staying. We have built a house and are building a croft.”

They both have new jobs. While Susannah is enjoying receiving commissions as an artist, she is also the Gaelic officer at Taigh Chearsabhagh museum and arts centre.

Alex is working as a seaweed harvester. The benefits of this new resource have not been lost on the gardener.

He said: “The soil is lovely. You put on a bit of seaweed, some horse and cow manure, the proof is in the pudding. You have to build a 5ft wall round your plants to protect them from the wind, deer and rabbits.

“I planted some spuds today. We have got chickens, ducks, we are getting plenty of eggs at the moment.

“The chickens love the seaweed, it’s brilliant for them.”

Finding peace and having time for fun

“It’s pretty peaceful. I’m an only child. I like being around people, but I also like being by myself.

“Living here you can amuse yourself. You have got time for doing all the fun things you want to achieve in life.

“This place is ideal for all of us to do that.”

He said the work/life balance on the mainland was “awful”.

Alex feeding the chickens. Image: BBC

People on the islands have more time to chat, and do things that make them happy, he said.

Alex added: “Here I have time to make music, make YouTube videos, play my ukulele, plant willow on the croft, plant trees, make my beautiful garden grow. These things make me happy.

“It rains a lot. When the weather is good we make the most of it. I’ve been outside all day planting potatoes, feeding the birds. It was a good day.

“When the weather is bad, there is only so much you can do. January and February is particularly bad. But you can just go into your nice warm house and find fun things to do.”

Susannah always wanted to come back

Susannah has also found peace in her return to Uist. Speaking about his partner, Alex said: “She has always wanted to come back. She didn’t have fun in school, she got bullied and she really wanted to move away.

“But she wanted to come back. She realised this is beautiful.

“She likes rocks. Susannah weaves what she sees using a loom and making patterns. She is very much inspired by the landscape.”

Making Uist islanders famous

He said some local people feature in the documentary. “I’m sure people on the island will get excited when it comes out. I don’t really know what to expect – I’m sure it will be good.

“I take it in my stride – I don’t feel like a celebrity. It might be different when it’s out. I stand out because I’m the only black person here.

“I think the documentary will be a good thing all round. Tourism is a big part of Uist.”

Tourism plays a large role for Uist. Image: Shutterstock

He added: “Hopefully it will inspire more people to go out and try it themselves. If it doesn’t work out you can always go back.”

They are not the first people to fall in love with Uist.  A chance trip to the island ended up changing artist Emilie Chartier’s life.

Return To Uist is a Salamanda Media film. Watch the first episode on BBC Scotland, Wednesday November 9 at 8.30pm.