The castle captured us...a final goodbye to Rum.

After two years with Lady Monica, it's time to go
It's hard to write about leaving Rum, because that means thinking about it as something that is in the past, But for the past two years it has been the present and nothing but the present in all its demanding, absorbing, confrontational, total reality. Impossible to think yourself elsewhere when you are on Rum; you are too busy concentrating on the task in hand, dealing with whatever person, weather, boat, animal, story, disaster or party is immediately in front of you demanding your attention. You're absolutely and entirely present. And not just for a few minutes at a time or for a lucky zen hour now and again, but for your entire time for two years, from waking to sleeping and even during your sleep, when beneath your dreams the reality of Rum ticks on (will the fire alarm go off? is the cellar flooding? what are the birds making that strange sound outside in the night?).

Now, a few days on from leaving the island, I am lying awake in the stifling and hot semi-dark of a shabby hotel room, and my mind ticks over in quite a different way. The light from the back of the bar outside shines through the thin curtains, while the extractor fan hums out into the artificially-lit yard, and from inside the bar, the faint sound of laughter and conversation occasionally surges up, startlingly loud, as someone bangs a door open and shut and footsteps hurry past our window. The window, which was streaked with birdshit when we arrived (I wiped it off, like the smears on the bathroom mirror) is tightly fastened for privacy, but sounds still filter through. The door into the apricot-hued bathroom squeaks when we slide it open or shut, and the toilet doesn't flush properly. The room is hot and airless. Over in the other bed, Mel sleeps peacefully, exhausted from driving. I contemplate the world around me. Just a few nights ago, the cool silent dark enclosed us in a huge, airy room, while outside the moon rose over a rippling sea and stags wandered through the lush meadow in front of our window. What have we done? I think. 

Then I remember thinking the exact same thing two years ago when I first arrived at the castle.

This time two years ago I would never have imagined that leaving Rum would be this way. Even a few months ago I would never have been able to anticipate how sad we would be nor how strange it would feel. It's not like leaving anywhere else I've ever lived. All our habits, physical sensations, routines and tasks have been adapted to Rum over the past two years; Thursday is veg night, Friday the boat is always late, Wednesday the cafe needs to be open by 11, Monday we'll need to take the wheelbarrow to collect our shopping, today the wind's from the west so we can't cycle to Harris, we need to remember to order a pager for Steve in case the power fails again...Now we're not sure how to un-adapt. Or if we even want to. What on earth will we do with ourselves now? Where will all that energy go? Surely not just into shopping and commuting and worrying about whether we want a latte or an Americano and if so, with what kind of milk. 

It's not like moving from a normal town or place. We know we're unlikely ever to go back to live on Rum again, and even a visit is unlikely; keeping in touch with people will be hard as they continue to be absorbed in Rum while we live in what might as well be a parallel universe.  It's as if we've been given the chance for two years to step out of normal life and been given the choice: you can either plunge into this entirely different life and risk being changed forever, or you can treat it as just a short anomaly in your existence, go on living like you've always lived, neither any happier nor any sadder. Having chosen the first option, we are now, unsurprisingly perhaps, feeling bereft. We've gone from Rum, and in a way it's gone from us.

But what's more surprising is that leaving isn't just sad. What's surprised me most is how much love I feel, not only for the island and the castle, but for the people we've come to know on Rum. And we've had the most amazing send-off. I kind of imagined slipping away in the mists, like the mainland does when you take your eye off it for a minute and the clouds come and swallow it up.  But instead the last two weeks were so busy we scarcely had time to catch our breath, let alone sit wistfully on a mountain and contemplate our last days in an appropriately serious manner. All those careful plans we'd made like "We have to make sure we go up and see the shearwaters at night before we leave", "I'd really like to make it up Hallival just the once before we go", "Let's make sure we spend a last afternoon otter-spotting"....what is it they say again? "If you want to make God laugh, tell her your plans".  There was no time for any of it, or if there was, the weather quickly scuppered it...either that or we looked out at the midges or the wind or the rain and then looked at each other guiltily: "Do you mind if we just stay in tonight and eat chips?" "Oh my God, I thought you'd never ask."

"Did someone say we were leaving?" Our send-off outside the shop.  

How will we fit the stags' heads into the Luton?Another send-off...with helpers.
So instead, we had to rely on serendipity. And this is far more fitting for Rum, where my entire life has been made up of last-minute serendipity just when I've been about to give up on it all. This was when it started to sink in that we were really leaving:  the fantastic Elsa Jean McTaggart gig and the ceilidh that followed it with our own Danny and Jed joining in with the music; an "accidental" evening trip out to Kilmory in the sunset watching the terns dive into the turquoise seas; the sudden surprising chance of a trip to Harris on a perfect summer evening when the Landrover became suddenly available, after we've not been able to visit Harris for months; my first and last swim in the sea at Kilmory when we woke up to a sudden, one-off hot Saturday; dinners with friends and a moving party with everyone lining up in a chain to pass boxes along the Great Hall of the castle before drinking champagne and toasting each other in our now echoing and empty castle flat; saying our farewells and our thank-yous to George and Monica in the silent castle at night, when everyone had gone home; and the last day of sunshine and blue skies where Miracle the stallion arrived in our field to get to know the lady ponies of Rum (now that really does sound like a euphemism, but it isn't) and our friends and neighbours gathered on the pier to wave goodbye to us and we cried on the Loch Nevis, knowing it would be our last look at the island perhaps for years (we never have to do that ferry journey again...another strange thought).

As all these happinesses have collected up around us, we've realised how lucky we have been to have made our home on Rum, for just a short time. But we've also realised how lucky we are to be leaving when we still know of our good fortune and haven't grown to be cynical, angry or disappointed with the island.  So many people leave too late, when they've become helplessly frustrated with island politics, disappointed in their own inability to change things or simply fed up with cancelled ferries, empty tins of alcohol littering the hall and the gossip that can so quickly become toxic in a tiny community of thirty. That could have been me. But somehow, serendipity came to my aid; or perhaps it was simply the island itself.  And the fact that despite gossip, the inability to clean up after parties and the sheer pigheadedness of many people on Rum, there is also the freedom, the support, the fun and the love that people share with each other. Which is amazing, given that on Rum we really are like an extended family. I've never known anywhere like it. We will treasure it always. And maybe someday, we'll go back. 

Ready to go

A heartfelt Goodbye...and thank you to everyone who lived through Rum with us.

Between a rock and a hard place

So, the time has come. We've named a date and everything. In just over six week's time we're going to be leaving Rum and the Castle; Mel's contract is ending, the hostel is closing, and our time is up.

It doesn't seem long ago - and then again it's like a lifetime ago - that I first took my tentative, wobbling steps from the Calmac ferry on to this island, like a toddler learning to walk. And I could easily continue the metaphor by saying that like a toddler, I was learning to walk - to stand on my own two feet and realise that no-one else can take those steps for me. A lesson I hadn't quite learned before.

But although the metaphor is true, it's not the whole truth. In other ways, I sometimes feel as if we're the ones who could walk and coming to Rum was like having to slow down, almost cripple ourselves, to hold ourselves back to adapt to a place that in many ways hasn't learned to walk yet at all. A place (and this is both metaphorical and actual reality) where getting anywhere is hard, roads are non-existent and one can scale the heights or plunge into the depths but rarely relax into walking on the level with no obstacles in one's way. Or if you do, you'll soon find that rain has washed away the surface of the track. Which has been really happening - our proud new road-surfaces to Kilmory and Harris have been getting turned to mud in the torrential, icy rain that has been falling throughout May, with hail thundering on the hostel roof on more than one occasion while the sky grows dark outside and frustrated visitors huddle in the brightly-lit lounge with tartan blankets as they valiantly gather together to play a dog-eared game of Trivial Pursuits or watch a film on their laptops. Anyone hoping for a carefree, sunlit holiday on Rum was not in luck this year.

It's oppressive, all this cloud. I feel it weighing on me; but it's also like a silent farewell. The island is already withdrawing from us, back into the mists that it emerged from for just a short while. As if for two years it had gradually come out of the clouds to meet us, generously and reluctantly revealing its secrets: the green, mossy, cushiony hill that is Fionchra; the thousands of shearwater burrows up on the steep, exposed flanks of dangerous Askival; the sheer drop at the edge of Bloodstone Hill and the dizzying view down Glen Shellesder to Canna and the dim Outer Hebrides beyond; the smooth sinuous black arch of a minke whale moving slowly up out of the waves and back down into them as we watch mesmerised from the boat; the endless trudging across boggy, brackeny moorland, each step a wager I used to be sure I would always lose but which I now simply accept. The way the winter can drag you into its endless night yet within just a few days, it seems, turn to a spring loud with life and bright with hope. The intensity of the silence as you stand alone in the blazing sun in the bowl of the mountains with nothing to be heard but the wind. The clouds of shearwaters flying out of the island across the sea and back again. And then the eagles.

But now it feels as though not we, but Rum is moving away, withdrawing back into itself, into its mystery and silence, with not another word to say to us. Soon we'll be strangers to the island again. And who will we be to ourselves?

Last time I wrote about Rum I was struck by its cyclical nature and the way each year repeats itself. This time I'm not so sure. In fact, everything feels different this year. And this isn't just a human thing. It's not just our dwindling population or the decline in energy that means we now have too few directors on our community trust and not enough people to run the tea-shop, though these things are difficult in themselves. It's not just that I know how much work I need to do before I leave on the archive and trying to persuade people to help our castle, and the fear of running out of time. Or the fact that our electrical wiring needs redoing so some of the castle tour now has to take place by torchlight, adding to the feeling of urgency. It's a more general state of affairs.

Usually at this time of year we are already on midge alert, checking the signs each morning (breezy = good; sunny and still = not so good; grey, still and clammy = I'm staying indoors) and taking a midge jacket out with us just in case; standing outside the shop becomes a risky business and the sight of tourists doing the "midge dance" a regular entertainment. But this year there are no midges. You might think this would cheer us up, but instead it's just strange: bats are flying about in the daytime because they're so desperate for food, swallow numbers seem to be far lower than usual and it is worrying to know, rather than just feel, that it's too cold for the time of year. Wild flowers have only just starting blooming in our meadow; last year the fields around the castle were filled with wild orchids, but now they're home only to grasses and a few buttercups. Some migrant birds (notably the chiff-chaffs) arrived much later than usual, while it seems to me that there are fewer cuckoos, or maybe we just hear them less. This time last year, we'd already seen several whales; this year I've seen none so far, though that may only be because the sea has been so rough that it's impossible to see anything (Calmac reports the most ferries cancelled ever this year). And because of the stormy weather, the eagles have scarcely been seen.

It's still beautiful of course; the trees have turned to those hundreds of shades of green, the lush pasture in front of the castle is once again attracting stags with velvety, half-grown antlers and nervous hinds who leap elegantly over the fence as soon as they see us (the stags don't bother) and the sea and the mountains change their colour and mood from hour to hour, as stunning and strange as ever, while the tens of thousands of shearwaters seem to dance across the waves far out on the horizon, before the night sky gradually turns a deep blue, never black at this time of year. Part of me wants to keep a hold on it all, but it's already departing from me. If last year I felt I had stepped through a door into being a person I never thought I could become, with a part to play in the community that I never expected to play and a sense of personal agency that was entirely new to me, now I know I am gradually leaving this behind too. And although this is partly inevitable - I can't be both here and elsewhere - it isn't entirely so.

I know that it isn't just because of us leaving, but also because there are people here on Rum who have already given up thinking of us as part of the community; people who perhaps never really thought of us as really here at all. Strange when to us, these two years have been among the most momentous in our lives. At a recent community meeting, a suggestion was made that people who are only here 'temporarily' should have no say in island-wide decisions. But as Mel said, how do you know if people will be temporary? What does temporary even mean? There was a time when we would have contemplated staying here permanently, but now we wouldn't. We haven't held back while we've been here; this has been our life, not some kind of a make-shift substitute. And in many ways we've been repaid a thousand times for it, with friendships, affection, fun and the amazingness of life on Rum generally. But we've been hurt too. The depth of resentment against SNH is too damaging and sad, even though it's felt by only a tiny part of the population here; the inability to actively reach out to newcomers is even more damaging and even more entrenched, meaning that energy gets lost in defensiveness, or is held back by unnecessary blocking of suggestions, or merely a lack of interest in other people's lives, if it involves engaging with people who don't come from the 'right' places.

But Rum itself is not a 'right' place, or a wrong one. No-one is permanent on Rum. It's a place that has constantly seen people come and go; it's a place that is billions of years older than any people at all. Perhaps my original feeling that the landscape would never want me wasn't so far off the mark. But 'want' was the wrong word. People might or might not want me, they might even like me, but the island neither wants nor rejects. It is simply what it is. Dealing with something that refuses to adapt to me in any way, whether I love it or hate it, fear it or embrace it, has made me stronger and given me a sense of sheer, rock-like and unmoveable reality. Of thereness, irrespective of what I feel or don't feel. And this is something all of us on Rum have to deal with: it can shatter you, break you to bits, or also build you; let you realise you're a part of this world too, with your own unique reality, even if unlike Rum, you won't be here for billions of years. Instead you have to keep on being human. You can't change into a bit of rock or a sea eagle. You have to keep dealing with your own human-ness. And other people's.

I know when Mel and I leave things will continue to be different every year. People will change, the 'feel' of the island will change...the community will never simply be one thing, and even things that seem most fixed (even the landscape) will eventually change too. And I can't hold on to it. I know that writing about it won't let me hold onto it; it will make Rum even more elusive, even more distant. But I want to try, because I want other people to see it, to see something of what this intransigent reality does to humans. In cities maybe we really do construct our own reality to a great extent; we can analyse anything away, find an alternative reality for the one we don't like. Here I've experienced what it's like to be constructed: to be something that is changed by something that's more powerful than myself, but that's not human, is not made by humans, has no care for humans. Writing about it isn't a way of controlling it. You can't control it. Writing about it is just a tiny way of saying: thank you.

Walking in a winter

Look, no snow! Fionchra a week ago.
 Today snow is coming in from the mountains across the Sound of Rum. It is so cold that condensation has formed on the windows in the night, and Hallival is covered in ice. Hard to believe that just a week ago we were up on Fionchra in our T-shirts and bare feet, looking out at the blue blue sea and putting sun-cream so that we wouldn't get burnt on our way down from the beleach. It's a long way down, criss-crossing the bog and riverbeds in that basin exposed to the sun under Orval and Ard Nev.

I'd never climbed Fionchra before, and was slightly scared, as it is higher (446 m) and steeper than anything else I've climbed on Rum so far. But we did it, Bonnie the dog leading the way up the green, soft hill (technically a mountain, but more like a lovely green cushion that you can lie down on to stare at the sky and fall nearly asleep with just the sound of the wind as a lullaby).  Now I can look across at Fionchra's remote peak and be proud: it was something I was determined to do before I leave Rum.

And the second half of that sentence is now recurring far too often. The thought of leaving is constantly present, as we know that Mel's contract will expire in July and we then have only four weeks to pack up our stuff and leave – if nothing happens before that.

Apart from the slight feeling of panic this is inducing, it also gives the cyclical, gentle nature of Rum time a poignancy and a difference that wouldn't otherwise be there. Time on Rum is marked by recurring events, by our total dependence on the seasons, rather than the nine-to-five, school-holiday, always-waiting-for-the-weekend hectic mainland time. I can all too well remember the tiredness every Friday, the longing for the weekend to give us at least three days so that we didn't have to go back to work as soon as we'd recovered from the previous week, and the unnatural dividing up of the year into "holiday" and "work".

That doesn't happen here. On Rum, the passing of time is marked by annual tasks and annual events. The emergence from winter as the days lengthen and we begin to cautiously make proper forays out and have proper conversations with each other; the frantic spring-cleaning of homes, the hall, shops, hostels, campsites in preparation for "The Season"; then "The Season" itself, taking us as always by surprise despite all the preparations, as the ferry timetable changes, the tourists start to arrive and the island suddenly becomes other people's property too (strangers in the village!); craft fairs, tea-shops, daily castle tours, deer in the paddock, cuckoos in the trees and kayaks in the bay; not to mention the curve of a minke whale back or the flash of a dolphin breaching out at sea, and finding random pieces of outdoor wear strewn around the village that tourists have left by accident. Summer with its short but so sweet days where the skies are blue and cloudless and it is hot enough to swim. And realising that the midges are here and swimming is not going to be any fun today. Then in September, the annual Blasda meal, a gradual quietening in the island before in October, the ferries change back and autumn brings us the chance to make the most of the light while preparing our homes and land for the winter months ahead, when we batten down the hatches and retreat from the darkness to our firesides, with only the few lights of Christmas and New Year to mark the passing of the months.

Now, thank God, it's spring again, even though the 'Arctic Plunge' we are experiencing is putting our time slightly out of joint.  This is my second spring (Mel's third!), and I know what to expect, or think I do. Some things repeat themselves as effortlessly and miraculously as the change of the season. The first cuckoo entrances us – this time not from the morning mists on rainy green trees but from a hot moorland, the sun blazing down as we make our way along the Dibidil track on our first walk of the summer.. A swallow appears on 8th April, Lady Monica's birthday and the first day of tea-shop, darting across the river outside the village hall. Eagles float across the horizon and soar above us as we walk up the glen, two parents with their young, as we climb Fionchra.  Even our friends return for Easter, marking the season's delights with us and helping us create our Easter Tree and Easter Bunnies, as well as helping us eat lots of pasta and chocolate. Less pleasingly, Nato carry out their springtime military exercises around the Hebrides, with huge grey boats moving silently around like a game of Battleships (yesterday a submarine crossed in front of our window at top speed, shiny and silent). And tourists appear, like the eagles seeming to emerge from the Highland winter without warning, and like the eagles suddenly making us aware of the limitations of our little island.

 Experiencing this whole cycle for the second time is both reassuring and disconcerting. Many things are no longer new; I'm more at home here than I thought, and it makes me realise how a year ago, every single day held the stress and excitement of immense surprise. How would I manage to run a tea-shop? How would I cope with tourists? How do I grow tomatoes? Can I look after a dog? How amazing to run a castle tour and tell new people about the castle every day! There are swallows nesting in the castle eaves! I've cycled up a whole hill without getting off my bike! I'm taking part in a meeting and making things happen! The realisation that I was in fact doing all the things I was so scared of was itself scary- something that seemed more like a miracle at the time, rather than something I'd actually done myself. Now I miss that sense of surprise, however hard it was at the time.

But another aspect of this cyclical time is that you notice when things ought to change and don't. Life here is not an ever-onward progression, with us gradually all getting on better, hostilities between various groups gradually being overcome, learning from past mistakes to achieve better outcomes - or whatever it is you're meant to do. Just because no-one cleaned up after the last party, doesn't mean anyone will have learnt to do it this time around ("Oh well, someone will do it eventually." Yes - normally someone who wasn't actually at the party and shouldn't have to - not that I'm bitter or anything). Just because it has proved totally counter-productive to harbour ancient resentments against SNH or other groups on the island, doesn't mean people will stop doing it. Sigh.

The biggest danger on Rum is not the mountains or the weather but cynicism, and now I have this awareness of leaving in the back of my mind, my frustrations with the island grow more insistent, threatening to overload me with cynicism, maybe my mind trying to make it easier for me to leave Rum. Even though I can now hardly imagine returning to that other kind of time, I still have many expectations and wishes that can never be realised here. Yet it's still hard to remember that the whole point of being here is that it's nothing like the mainland. For some people, the whole point of Rum is that you are not part of a community at all, are not subject to rules and regulations, and paradoxically, one aspect of becoming part of the community is to learn to just accept this, however odd it may sometimes appear.

Is resigning to circumstances and accepting them cynical or wise? One of our residents died – a heart attack – on the very day the first swallows arrived. He was a fixture in the village, his daily routine as invariable as the sun rising and setting (though involving more Tennents). He would greet everyone from his place outside the shop and never fail to wish you a good morning or good evening, sometimes in French or Italian, no matter how grumpy you might look or what else had happened during the day. Every now and then his rock music would boom out from his little cottage where his tousle-haired terrier, Zappa, would sniff purposefully about the path or try to out-stare the chickens.  He was our oldest resident, and after an eventful and exotic life in the Navy and working in the Middle East, had settled down on Rum seemingly to live a life that from the outside appeared to be like the Rum year, cyclical and unchanging, with hardly any visits to the mainland in all his years here, a life centred – in its externals – entirely around the village and the daily routine.

From the outside, from a high-achieving point of view, this might have appeared like a pointless kind of way to spend your days. But the longer I live here, the more I realise that every day is different no matter what you do with it. Every day is a gift, in the sense that you don't have to do anything to get it except stay alive, and the fact of being alive and free at all is pretty much a miracle. It's not about winning prizes for meaningfulness or achieving the most transcendent experience. From another point of view Norman had a life to be admired. He had chosen where to be, created a life for himself with which he appeared to be content, in one of the most beautiful places in Britain; a place where he could do his own thing, be himself I suppose. A lot of people here miss him because of this. I do too.

And as my time on Rum gets shorter and I feel more and more aware of how precious it is, the more I realise how entirely strange it is, and how valuable that strangeness is. At the moment (this is another very strange thing, which didn't happen last year) we have a film crew on the island. Even the appearance of the film crew and their inappropriate vehicles (a Londoner's idea of a 4x4 suitable for the island being a low-slung shiny white Volvo) makes us aware of ourselves, of our "Rum-ness" in a way that we forget to do when we're "on our own". I worry about assumptions they'll make or whether they'll try to tell the story of our community as if we were just simple rural folk with no notion of the world beyond (a common misconception; one tourist recently told Mel how he'd gone into the school with a bunch of bananas: "The kids were amazed! Amazed they were! They'd never seen bananas before!" More like they'd never had a tourist coming into the school with a bunch of bananas before...). But our community here is so complex, and if I was asked to characterise people here in just one easy sentence (not that you can) I think I would have to say that everyone here, absolutely everyone, is doing something they could not possibly do if they lived on the mainland. We're all experimenting. And I love this. I love that we are all doing weird and wonderful things. And when I think this, I realise that it's true for me too; I've stepped out of the "normal" and into something far more exciting. Which I guess is kind of worth exchanging a few cynical weeks for. Bananas or no bananas.

Eight days a week

 As the days get longer, tempers get shorter - at least as far as this particular resident of Rum is concerned. I remember this from last year. Spring is on its way - but not quite there yet; tourists are starting to visit - but we're not quite prepared for them; those last-minute jobs that need to be done before the season starts (little things like mending the electricity, stopping the castle flooding and filling the giant potholes in the roads that winter storms have caused) are living up to their name and the last minute is ticking unstoppably fact those sixty seconds appear to have expanded into something like a couple of months, and we still can't fit everything in. Even if it did feel as though we'd had an eight-day week this week, with two sunrises in the course of a few hours on Friday...

But things are happening. And it's not just the strange appearances in the sky that herald the start of spring (besides the solar eclipse, Rum had its first northern lights since we've been here, although we didn't notice, due to falling into a deep slumber at 10 pm and not waking till 8 the next morning...we had a good excuse though...). The frayed tempers, frantic organising and general sense of underlying panic are just the price we pay for Getting Things Done - as though we'd suddenly been hit by a burst of sudden energy that we're not really sure what to do with. Also, of course, they are down to Rum itself.

Eclipse skies

Over the past few weeks I've noticed that all of us here talk about Rum as if it were an entity in its own right, with an overpowering personality, capricious moods (oh yeah) and the ability to throw you off your course just as you were getting comfortable. Comfortable? We can't have that! It'll be complacency next! We groan and sometimes want to throw things back at this island that throws so much at us; but in the next minute, Rum does what it always does and entrances us with its wonders, so that part of us thinks we can never leave.

This past week, we've veered between exhaustion and exasperation on the one hand and exhilaration and excitement on the other. And some general "just nice" stuff in between. Gearing up for the season to start, and for the Rum Open Day on Tuesday, some of us launched ourselves at the Village Hall on Saturday, to remove the months of mud, cigarette ends, bits of old candle, sweet wrappers, broken toys and empty wine bottles that have accumulated there over the winter. The usual suspects turned up - Claire, Nicola, Sean, Debs, Trudi and eventually Mike joined Mel and me in a determined assault on the chaos. I scrubbed the fridge and freezer, cleaned the oven and did my best to create a kitchen that doesn't offend against any hygiene regulations, while Nicola cleaned all the windows til they sparkled, Claire painted the toilet doors and Mel donned full protective apparel to clean the toilets themselves. Meanwhile Debs scrubbed the stage, Trudi rearranged and polished all the furniture and Sean moved the internet to the pulpit which unaccountably lives in the hall, so that we have re-christened the internet station the "Pulpanet".

The decking outside the hall - now clean and fit for eclipse-watchers!
It was a cold sunny day and after a while, as rubbish bags collected and wood began to shine, the hall began to look like an inviting and even cosy space again. With a sense of triumph we cooked a meal for us all and ate it by candle-light in the hall, feeling not only slightly smug but also that nearly forgotten sense of what it's like to do something as a team on Rum and to enjoy celebrating our achievement with each other, not just alone. And it paid off - on Tuesday, as the visitors arrived and Steve and I served the lunch we'd made for them (baking and cooking frantically on Monday), our guests from Fort William, Skye and further afield seemed to feel at ease and told us how much they were enjoying seeing our wonderful island. True, they had wonderful weather and - a bonus - saw a sea eagle after they'd been on the castle tour - how could they resist us after that? But I'd forgotten how nice it is to see people from "the outside" and see how much they marvel at Rum and at our ability, which I sometimes doubt, to live here. I feel the usual pride mixed with a need to tell them what it's like when the sun isn't shining - but also a need to see myself through their eyes, and to wonder at what we've managed to achieve since being here. It gives us a way of measuring ourselves - how far we've come, where we might be heading.

FAM event (Open Day) in our shiny Village Hall
But I'd forgotten how truly exhausting it is to run the tea-shop...a taste of things to come!

On Wednesday I thought I might start to relax, and a hot sunny day led to me taking an adventurous route off-piste, leaving the Nature Trail to find my way across the glen - sploshing through the bog and the overflowing burns, I realised after about a mile that I was never going to make it all the way to the junction. Nonetheless, it was the first time I'd been on a "new" path for a while, and I felt that excitement mingled with apprehension that still accompanies me when I go off the beaten track (although all the tracks here are beaten, usually by deer or goats; it's how they come into existence in the first place). Returning to the castle, I was all set to sit and drink tea and fall asleep over my book - but Rum had other plans. "Mind if I just come up and test the cooker, Em?" Colin greeted me. Within a few minutes, I was learning that our cooker - which Colin only installed twenty months ago, when I first arrived - has now met its fate. Colin is finally condemning it! "It's giving off poisonous levels of gas," I was informed.
"Oh, dear," I murmured. I looked at Colin despairingly. "How am I going to cook?" I had visions of my cake-based livelihood slipping away...
"I'll see what I can do," promised Colin.
For the next couple of hours he ran back and forth telephoning various people, coming back to re-test things and tell me about his progress with the oven suppliers. Then the fire alarm went off.
Colin flew into a panic looking for Mel, who was looking for the room that the alarm had gone off in (with twenty bedrooms or so, it's not always easy to remember which room is which). Meanwhile I ambled gently down the corridor, inured to these false alarms - I should definitely try to feel a greater sense of urgency, but it's hard when the usual reason for the deafening sirens going off is "There's a spider in the alarm box".
And so the day went on. The next day was lively too. We were expecting the Friends to arrive (Friends of Kinloch Castle), a little group who tend to take over the island for a few days cleaning, tidying and asking lots of questions about what's going to happen next to the castle, the community and Rum. We were all slightly nervous; that view from the outside and that wonderful enthusiasm that can be so encouraging, can also be daunting; maybe this is how old-timer residents on the island feel when people like us, who've been here for only a matter of minutes really (two years is nothing much on Rum) make excited suggestions about how things could be different...I'd been mentally preparing myself for their arrival, while physically getting the hostel ready for them. Among other chores, I'd been enlisted to clean a freezer that had been left by Billy and the contractors and had defrosted itself and filled up with stinking water. Mel would have done it but "I'm not tall enough," she said. Just as I was coming to deal with it, dressed in an ancient fleece and armed with bits of old sponge, poor Colin came running down the corridor towards me. "Take a look at this!" he cried. The laundry room was flooding with water and more water was pouring out of a cracked in-pipe. I broomed and mopped the water away, while Colin wound reels of gaffer tape around the offending area. Then the Friends started to arrive...
Having dealt with the broken washing machine, the malodorous freezer and the arrival of our visitors, I thought I could shut myself into the study and get on with some work. But just then Mel turned up on the quad bike with a trailer of boxes - it was boat day, and the Co-op order had arrived. I dragged on my boots again and we lugged the heavy boxes upstairs, scissored through the twine they use to tie them up and discovered that there must be someone new on the Co-op team. Not only were there two of everything I'd ordered, but our shopping was packed in the most unusual fashion, with pesto next to butter and biscuits next to washing up liquid and frozen chips. The Co-op had also sent several packets of biscuits we hadn't ordered; a nice touch, probably because they didn't have something else that was on the list; they like to compensate us for these things, but it didn't make up for the chaos that was now ensuing. The corridor was full of boxes, the kitchen was full of things that needed to be put away, and seeing that I was on the verge of tears, Mel kindly volunteered to re-organise the freezer for me. Then she went back to work. I sipped my tea thoughtfully, looking out of the window and noticing there was a rusty iron skip outside the castle...why? Half an hour later a lorry came and took the skip away. A van bearing the name "FilPump" also stood outside the castle for a few hours – I still don't know who it belonged to...

Eventually I got the flat into some kind of order, but just as Mel got back from the hostel and had started drinking her tea the buzzer rang on the flat...during the enthusiastic cleaning that the Friends had been doing in the castle, one of the leaves of the dining room table had come loose and part of the electoliere that stands on the table had broken...Then it was time to go and get our veg from the shop in the rain. So we did that, and decided to have chips for tea – it seemed the only way. But Rum had one more surprise in store ( though by this time it wasn't really surprising) – just as we had got comfortably into our viewing of "The Good Wife" and the plot was developing nicely, the power went off. All around the village. The hydro has stopped working I washed up with my headtorch on and decided to give up on trying to relax. Sleep seemed the only thing to do...

A new road...

These are the things that can dominate our days at times - seemingly little things that can make you want to tear your hair out, or more likely just go to sleep. And this was why we missed the Northern lights. But the end of the week made up for everything. This is where the exhilaration comes into it...

Besides the eclipse, which we watched from the back of the hall, seeing a strange evening light falling across the mountains and hearing the birds start their night-time calls at 9 in the morning, we went to Kilmory. No, scrap that; we went to Kilmory! The McGowan boys, having worked all through the winter in the worst of the storms, up at 5 am every day, have nearly completed the new track to the other side of the island. 

and the digger that made it happen!
 So rather than walking for two hours down a rocky, awkward road, we can now freewheel down a smooth, exhilarating road in just half an hour to the huge deserted beach, walk over the headland and picnic in the sun before cycling (with somewhat more effort) back home again. With the added marvel of seeing two golden eagles on the way. At those moments, the power cuts, the broken washing machines, the uncomfortable politics, the stinking freezers - they just don't seem to matter quite so much, somehow. Though we may need a lot of these days out over the next few weeks...

Kelp beds and Canna in the background

Winter castle update

Things are looking up for our castle, despite the storm anticipated for tonight (80mph gusts...)

The scaffolders are here, and are finally taking down the scaffolding that has been covering the castle for the past few weeks. The tarpaulin has already gone, either blown away or unpinned to be taken off for recycling by resourceful villagers. Billy and his gang have done amazing work on the turret and roof, and it turned out our floods had nothing to do with missing tiles, but were due to a blocked inside gutter! "Wherever we go next," I said to Mel, "I don't think much is going to faze us in future."

Let's hope that's true! Here are a few pictures 

Kinloch Castle back in January, before the storms and after the hail


The castle with its scaffolding intact - note the large bits of tarpaulin that blew down in the gales

THE shaft with pump pipe that we had to fix to a pump and feed into its special tube in the middle of the night - in a gale

These planks got flung to the other end of the field by the wind!

More tubes, pipes, poles...where the water got in (Billiard Room ground floor, Room of Doom upstairs)

but spring seems to be arriving, despite all evidence to the contrary.