Scotland is not the place you think of first when you picture the idealized #vanlife, especially for a full-time surf instructor. It’s a country known more for its foreboding landscapes, with the Highland Boundary Fault separating Scotland’s famed mountainous Highlands from the more populated, historically more agricultural Lowlands. The climate, however, is relatively temperate and never extreme. Fickle winds and clouds are consistent. So, the surf is anything but. The windows are tight, locations exact, and quality conditions ephemeral at best – not unlike Alaska. Scotland’s northern region is as far north as Seward – and like Alaska, the days get way too short way too fast. In the winter months, the sun rises around 8:40 a.m., and sets around 3:30 p.m., with average air temps topping out at 48 degrees Fahrenheit and average west coast water temps between 39-46. It pays to have a guide and instructor.
For a van-dweller like Davide Mantovani, whose main income is finding those windows and teaching people to surf, the weather factors pose even more challenges. Living comfortably out of a vehicle through damp, cold, and dark winter months requires more preparation and effort. Said challenges include finding public showers, fuel stations, and staying stocked up on food. Though seemingly simple, the efforts add up in a country sparsely populated outside of the major cities.
But with almost six years of continuous van living, Mantovani’s been groomed to adapt. After a taste of nomadic freedom in New Zealand, Australia and parts of Europe, he found himself looking for more solitude, less transients, and unconventional travel.
Scotland’s 2005 Land Reform Act, known locally as “The Right To Roam,” allows both citizens and visitors alike to access and responsibly explore land and water, no matter who owns it. Hikers, surfers, and other outdoor users are free to enjoy the Great Outdoors, even if it’s private land. Of course there are some exceptions, for example, crossing school property, agricultural land, and areas that charge for entry. But for much of the country, as long as you behave, you can roam where you like.
Enticed by this abundance of space and access to nature, Mantovani and his girlfriend Louise headed to Scotland intending to stay for just a few months. That was May 2018. A year and a half later – with the exception of a few months away – they’ve remained in Scotland’s “sunniest town”: Dunbar.
The quiet town of 9,000 sits on the southeast coast of Scotland, bordered by the North Sea. Not known as a tourist destination, Dunbar (also the birthplace of writer-explorer John Muir) is a mere 40-minute train ride from Edinburgh and situated near a handful of surf spots. According to Mantovani, they’re mostly empty. After landing a job at the local surf school, the couple was sold. “We wanted a place to fully immerse in,” says Mantovani, “where we could feel part of a community and work alongside local kids and adults.”
They’d purchased a firetruck-red 2004 Renault Trafic for 7,000 pounds (about $9,000). The rig came decked out with a baby blue and yellow retro-style kitchen, with a two-burner Dometic stove, cabinetry in the back and storage under the bed, plus a ladder for roof access. “I looked at what already existed at the time, and only added what I felt was necessary.” Mantovani explains. “The way I did the table was really funny. I used the stick from a mop to be adjustable, added a piece of rubber to the top and bottom to prop it up and make it stick.”
The rig has a ladder on the side that Mantovani props up between the two, opened, back doors that serve as his hanging rack. His biggest assets – his surfboards – fit snug on the top racks, and he and Louise have each downsized to a few items of clothing in order to fit in the back storage.
Mantovani has a total of three T-shirts, a couple of shoes and a pair of pants, far less than many who live out of their cars. To him, that’s all you need. “Everyone should experience the vanlife at least once to realize how minimal you can live. When I’ve had enough of an item of clothing, I go to a charity shop and trade my clothes for something new. Spend five quid and I’m good to go.”
While the vanlife hype typically encourages traveling to as many places as possible, Davide and Louise are residing in Dunbar for the foreseeable future, adapting their minimalist on-the-road lifestyle to fit this unique town. Their goals are simple: immerse themselves in the unadulterated landscape and empty waves along Scotland’s coastlines, and, of increasing importance, the community that’s called to them most.
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