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Anyone for Tennis? Anyone at All?

On this rugged Scottish island, Britain's most remote tennis court brings locals of all ages and abilities together.

Last updated: May 3, 2021
Bunabhainneadar Tennis court 

"Points of Play" is a series spotlighting the places where sport brings communities together.

Some 20,000 hardy people live on the Isle of Harris in the Outer Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland—easily outnumbered by around 50,000 hardier sheep. Together they make the island's world-famous product: hand-woven Harris Tweed. This, in the most literal sense, is a close-knit community.

Close your eyes and you can hear the crash of ocean waves, the baa-baa choir dotted around the heathered hills … and the locals hollering over a match point. For yes, standing incongruously against this ancient and desolate expanse is Bunabhainneadar (Boona-ven-adder) Tennis Court—the most remote tennis court in Britain, if not the world. And in this isolated community where social distancing is an everyday reality, it has become a vital lifeline.

The court itself tends to stop traffic—what traffic there is. A couple of tourists get out of their rental car to take pictures. "What's the matter?" laughs Mike Briggs, 65, as he waves from the artificial turf. "Never seen a tennis court?"

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Bunabhainneadar Tennis court 

Mike Briggs and his wife, Peggy, on the short walk back up the single-lane road to their home.

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Mike, a Lawn Tennis Association-qualified coach, on the court he helped build.

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Bunabhainneadar Tennis court 

Doubles partners: The Briggses at home.

Mike and Peggy were once tourists themselves, spending each summer here in the same rental cottage, just over the brow of the hill. But when, in 1992, the owners called to say they were selling up, the Briggses made the snap decision to buy it and relocate permanently from the south of England.

Harris is as far north as Stockholm, Sweden, and while summers here are idyllic and bring plenty of visitors, the winters are bleak and lonely, with little daylight and powerful storms blowing in off the North Atlantic.

Registering at the local doctor on arrival, they were told most outsiders last two years max. The Briggses are not most outsiders. "The only thing we missed was the tennis club where we played and Mike coached the juniors", says Peggy. So they decided to build one for the community.

Bunabhainneadar Tennis court 
Bunabhainneadar Tennis court 

James McGowan teaches his son, Aaron, the game.

Back when the couple first arrived, local kids would knock a ball back and forth over a fishing net rigged up across the road, taking it down whenever a tractor trundled past. "We believed that a tennis court would benefit the community here", says Peggy. They had no idea just how much.

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Scenes from the Isle of Harris.

When you're an outsider, it's just as well to tread carefully with the locals. Questionnaires went out, locals were respectfully consulted, and the unequivocal answer came back: Build your court of dreams and we will come. Buying the land was the easy bit. "Luckily for us the then owner of North Harris Estate, Jonathan Bulmer, was very supportive, and he sold us the land for £1", says Mike.

Bunabhainneadar Tennis court 

"It's not simply another tennis court—its foundation has literally been hewn from Harris rock".

Andrew Morrison

Bunabhainneadar Tennis court 

The court was designed to fit in with the natural landscape.

"It's not simply another tennis court—its foundation has literally been hewn from Harris rock, and we all know on the island what a challenge that presents", Andrew Morrison, proprietor of the Harris Hotel, says. Raising the £62,000 ($81,000) to construct the court and the cosy wooden pavilion to shelter from the elements? That took four years of rallying, grants and many, many handwritten letters to professional players and famous fans of the game all over the world, asking if they would be interested in becoming lifetime members of the Outer Hebrides Tennis Club for the sum of £50 ($65). "This was in the days before email, and fax was just too cumbersome", says Mike. "So we wrote letters. Five hundred of them".

It did the trick. Membership applications poured in. Even tennis legend Bunny Austin sent £5 ($6.50) from Australia. "I think they were amused by the romance of it all", says Peggy.

Bunabhainneadar Tennis court 

Tennis is a social sport for the island's residents.

A quick scan of the visitors' book in the pavilion shows that guests from as far afield as New Zealand, Canada and Argentina have recently paid their £17 ($22) annual hire charge to book the court for 90 minutes. But primarily this is a year-round facility for the local people of all ages—many of whom appreciate the social and physical connection. The Briggses even host an annual tennis tournament on Boxing Day (the day after Christmas Day), with warm mulled wine and mince pies to keep players and spectators going.

Bunabhainneadar Tennis court 

Bunabhainneadar Tennis court 
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Dan Mackinnon and John Macleod play doubles with Andrew and Hugh Morrison.

Dan Mackinnon (top left [left] and lower left) and John Macleod (top left [right]) play doubles with Andrew (top right and lower right [left]) and Hugh Morrison (lower right [right]).

"I had never played tennis before but have played regularly ever since the court opened", says John Macleod, a farmer who grew up on the island. The Briggses have taught many local schoolchildren how to play and mention several who still do so today, including the Morrisons whose family has owned the nearby Harris Hotel in Tarbert for over 100 years. "I'm not sure I would actually play the sport if I lived elsewhere, but it is a joy to play in these surroundings", says Andrew.

Bunabhainneadar Tennis court 
Bunabhainneadar Tennis court 
Bunabhainneadar Tennis court 
Bunabhainneadar Tennis court 
Bunabhainneadar Tennis court 
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Clockwise from top left: Diana McKinnon, Ruth Hamilton, Morag MacDonald, Christine Macmillion, Diana, Peggy, Diana, Ruth, Morag

Clockwise from top left: Diana McKinnon, Ruth Hamilton, Morag MacDonald, Christine Macmillion, Diana, Peggy, Diana, Ruth, Morag

But it's about more than just tennis. "The court is used in far more diverse ways than we ever envisaged", says Mike. As well as being a Lawn Tennis Association-approved coach, he is a qualified Hatha yoga instructor. Peggy is a certified personal trainer and Pilates instructor, specialising in helping seniors with their mobility. Whenever possible, they each lead classes in their open-air studio looking out to sea. The fresh air and epic view exercise the mind and soul as well as the body. "It's a lovely sight to see a group of coloured mats in the landscape with lots of legs waving in the air", says Peggy.

Tourists turn up from all over the world for the novelty, but locals turn up from all over the island for the sense of community. "It has become quite an attraction", says Mike. "But it almost means more to know that people travel an hour from the other end of the island to come to a class in the rain", adds Peggy.

Bunabhainneadar Tennis court 

Words: Hugo Macdonald
Photography: Tori Ferenc

Reported: September 2020

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