If you've ever enjoyed a drop of Harris gin, there's a fair chance you've savoured one of the first island flavours distilled by apothecary Amanda Saurin.
Amanda's name is on the tiny bottles of aromatic water, distilled using sugar kelp gathered by wild-food harvester Lewis Mackenzie and ready to be dropped sparingly into the island's own gin. Her connection with Harris started with that aromatic water and with the creation of fragrant apothecary skin products such as hand-wash, bath salts and a weather-defying balm, all made with plants that grow wild in the Outer Hebrides.
But for the whole of six years creating the intoxicating sensory treats, Amanda has been just a regular visitor to Harris. Her business, A S Apothecary, is based in Lewes, in East Sussex, where she distils roses, lavender and other plants grown onan 80-acre organic farm. Even going back to all that, she's suffered many a regretful departure from the shores of Harris.
Now she and her husband Julian have flipped the holiday-maker relationship on its head, buying the Temple Café in Northton and the croft just across the road. They've become residents of Harris and, since July, Amanda is no more than a commuter to Sussex, one week out of four.
"We've been coming up and down for years, but the youngest of our five children is going off to university in September and we were sick of the frenetic pace of the south of England.
“At first we had the idea of buying a plot of land and building an eco-house, but then we were here in February, in a blizzard, and we saw a sign that said 'café for sale' – so that was it."
For Amanda, who wants to tread lightly on the earth and value plants and wildlife as well as people, part of Harris's attraction was the natural landscape.
"When I first came in July 2013, I can remember that I had never seen anything like the abundance of the machair," Amanda recalls. "A friend took a picture of me just running through the machair, really enchanted with the whole feeling of the place."
Of course, a new environment provided new ideas for balms, lotions and tonics, so that where formerly Amanda had distilled the fragrant Sussex rose, now she looked longingly at the island's thorny and intractable Rosa Rugosa. Everywhere she looked, there were new plant riches.
"The very first thing I made here was with the really tiny thyme you find among the machair grass, Thymus Drucei. It's a great example of the healing elements of machair plant-life – it grows everywhere and it's amazing for the respiratory system, clearing the lungs and helping coughs and colds."
Asking people to help her find and harvest such plants was one part of Amanda's challenge, another was to actually get to the places where the healing herbs of Harris are to be found.
"As an apothecary, I only use species that there's a lot of, picking just a small amount and only the aerial parts of the plant, never disturbing the roots. Before I arrived, I wanted to find honeysuckle, which only grows abundantly where sheep can't reach it, because sheep eat it wherever they can get to it. So it grows on rock faces and ledges and I had a hilarious time trying to get to it on a ledge above a
waterfall, falling in the water and getting wet."
Honeysuckle is just one of the favourite plants that could as easily be found in Sussex as in Harris, but Amanda finds a fascination in the differences between the plants of different regions.
"Take the meadowsweet, which blossoms in high summer. It grows differently from the same plant in Sussex because of the terroir, the earth and the weather conditions. It is shorter and stockier and tastes different. I've found it works well as part of our mineral powder, and I'm makinga drink together with heather and thistle, a wholly Hebridean creation.
"Meadowsweet is the original plant provider of salicylic acid – the base element of aspirin – so it's a brilliant anti-inflammatory. On the machair you'll see red clover, which is excellent for menopause; we sell it in the café as Every Woman Tea. Then there's euphrasia, known as eye-bright, bog-bean and Aline pine, which are in our tonic waters... it's really a natural treasure-house."
For the next few months Amanda will be working hard getting to know what else she can source in the island's wild larder and planning her own croft garden, with the help of full-time gardener Matt Nightingale and two polycrubs to grow tender vegetables and herbs.
She has great business ideas for the future, but the end of the summer offers the time to settle back and enjoy the fact that she has folded her wings in one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world.
"I grew up in Scotland, in Fife and Edinburgh, and all my childhood was spent by the sea. To be here in Harris, for good, just feels like coming home."