Santa made it...though not on the Calmac!



Happy Christmas everyone, first of all - and thank you to all our friends, family and ferry services who brought us gifts, messages, warmth and friendship over what could have been a cold, lonely festive season. And the fuel arrived and was duly delivered too...

This blog post was meant to happen on Christmas Eve but not only was Santa not able to get to Rum on a boat (as they were all cancelled due to the terrific storms), but our internet connection stopped for two whole days.  It was odd not to be able to check the weather obsessively, or know what was happening with the internet because of the internet not working...that's how much we depend on email!  But Christmas wasn't cancelled and we had a wonderful time...

So, finally here is what was happening on Christmas Eve:

Woke up this morning after a night of storms and hail booming down the chimneys, and the predicted gale is well and truly upon us.  Waves are lashing at the shore (this never happens on Rum), rain is pouring down and beyond the bay, everything is invisible.  No-one is out and about at 8.30 in the morning except us, going to let the chickens out and check the powerhouse.  I am accompanying Mel to see what the powerhouse actually does as I've never been in it before, and I'd rather she didn't go out on her own today as it's so windy.  I am wearing a hard hat just in case, although I know that true "Rummers" would despise this caution.  The powerhouse is actually three houses:  one with the actual hydro, one with three rows of huge batteries sat in state, connected through to the inverters in the third house that change the direct current into alternating current. The hydro house is the most exciting, looking like a control room from a ship with various pistons, levers and switches. A scary number of computers, flashing screens and flashier lights tell Mel and Sean when things are working or not working, while an amazing remote system means you can check the diesel, power and battery status online from the office!  I don't understand any of it except that it means that in terms of electricity, we are pretty much self-sustaining; something to be grateful for as when there is a three-day power cut on the mainland we're not affected.  Although of course if a tree fell on the powerhouse, the generators stopped working or the computers broke down...I have no idea what would happen!

I am happy to have seen the powerhouse; it's somehow reassuring to know our technology is still working. I leave to walk around in the gale and see how big the waves actually are (quite big), and check that no other trees have come down since the other night.  Surprisingly, not much new stuff has fallen.  I suppose the past four weeks have nearly rooted out any trees that were weak or diseased.  A crow attempts to flap from one tree to another, but is beaten back by the wind.  The village is silent, but as I pass Fliss and Sandy's house on the bay, the Christmas lights come on. 

"Sarge" and the Steinway
 On Saturday we hosted Christmas carols in the castle, a brainwave as we realised that Sarge, a seldom visitor to the island, can play the piano!  Vikki suggested we have a carol party, as during the modern nativity play on Thursday, lovely as it was, everyone was secretly sad that there were no traditional carols.  So, we rush around all day Friday and Saturday preparing song sheets, decorating the hall and making mulled wine for our guests.  Sarge appears on Friday to practise: shy at first, he soon gets into the swing of it (literally) improvising his own carols, songs and theme tunes from "Amelie".  I can hear him from the flat where I am making a cardboard castle - the idea is to make it like a theatre set with lit-up windows and figures.  To my amazement, it works and the effect when we put the fairy lights behind it is magical.  Little Eve is amazed too - whereas several adults are possibly more dismayed that I have spent so much time making and painting a bright pink cardboard castle...never mind, it made me happy.  It is now resting in the bedroom until Christmas Day.

In the castle...
Mulled wine was drunk, carols were sung and mince pies devoured as it grew darker outside and both castles, the real one and the cardboard one, lit up magically.  And suddenly the words of the carols made a lot of sense; here on Rum we do have a bleak midwinter, the wind does lament and sometimes our courage may be at risk of failing when the gales just don't stop and things break down.  So Christmas somehow means far more than when you are surrounded by the brightness and twinkly lights of the mainland, with a supermarket just around the corner.  We need our lights and Christmas stories in the darkness, and I'm glad I've decided to spend Christmas here, however mad it may seem.  But also glad that I am safe in a castle, our fortress against the winds, thunder and lightning.  We've offered beds to those in a caravan - although they're determined to stick it out as long as they can - and we're keeping the heating on and the Christmas tree sparkly for a festive few days!


...and in the castle!

Thank you again, everyone, for making our Christmas special, when it could have been really hard. We've been amazed at the generosity of our friends and family - thank you all for your Christmas packages, and for sending them so early.  It's good to know you are thinking of us - and we hope you know we're thinking of you, even though some of our presents probably haven't made it to you yet!  Just be thankful you didn't try to get here and end up in Fort William for Christmas...
Merry Christmas!

All I want for Christmas, is fuel!


I've been away for so long, that I had to read all of the blog again to remind myself of how things were before, what I thought and what had happened.  Seems like years, not weeks ago that I "went off"...but I'm glad I did go away, although I've missed some excitement!  And it continues...as I write, a huge hailstorm is turning the island white and a streak of lightning has just flashed in front of the window, while a giant dark cloud moves out across the sea...

The past three weeks have given me hope and new ideas, so that looking back at myself seems almost like looking at a different person.  I still don't know how I feel about the island, but I've realised it's up to me to find strategies for how I want things to be, whatever our decisions for the future are.  I continue to draw inspiration from my "Woman of the Polar Night"* and her unquestioning acceptance that living in a small hut in 24 hour darkness for five months, eating dried seal meat and looking out for polar bears, was just the way it was going to be (imagine a polar bear on Rum...).  And (my biggest challenge) I'm trying to focus on where I am - not where I'm not. Living in the moment is hard but liberating and means that being here for Christmas, which we've chosen to be, feels exciting rather than just scary, whatever comes next.

Living in the moment is also pretty relentless on Rum, especially in winter..so much to do, so many things to mend and so many problems to solve! A lot has happened since I've been away and even since I've been back.  The gales have apparently been non-stop for over four weeks now; the cellar has flooded again several times, one time notably in the middle of the night when Mel, woken at 5 am by booming gusts of wind in the chimneys, felt strangely compelled to get up and look at the boiler. Donning my wellies ("and it's just as well I did"), she ventured down to the cellar only to find it was under a foot of water and the water had flooded the boiler ignition, with near-fatal results for our heating system.  Luckily there is a pump mechanism; unluckily, it had somehow blocked up.  So, "gliding across the floor" as she poetically puts it, she activated the pump manually and then went back upstairs to try to contact Colin to mend it again.

Colin duly visited - our debts to Colin know no bounds!  But all visits are on borrowed time at the moment - the gales mean that boats have regularly been cancelled or late, and contractors are anxious not to get stuck on Rum, especially if the heating doesn't work.  So Colin couldn't do the other things he'd been planning to do - mending the ignition and clearing out the drains for the pump came first.  Likewise, the company that originally messed up the roof of the hostel, causing it to leak and flood during November (and hence close down and lose money), visited to do some urgent repairs - but it had to be quick.  So the rooms don't leak any more, but the gales have meant work on the middle section has had to be postponed.  Meanwhile, the SNH budget has been frozen - meaning that Mel has no idea what is going to happen to all the hostel projects/repairs/publicity in the New Year...

Billy and his "gang" have been working hard on the castle turrets, repairing the lead and iron covers and repointing the brickwork.  The turrets are now covered with little white tents to protect them - amazingly, the tents haven't yet blown away. Billy and the gang managed to "get off" island on Tuesday and won't be back till New Year - so every morning, we wake up wondering what bits of the roof are still intact and which bits might have gone missing; none, so far, fingers crossed! Various rooms are full of mysterious objects, such as giant bits of metal beaten into weird shapes, a wooden scaffold holding up a toilet roof and bits of tree trunk. 

The wind keeps us awake at night.  It is pitch black outside from around 4.30 pm, and even the full moon only came up for an hour or so yesterday before being covered in thick cloud.  Venturing out to the shop at 5 pm, I could see literally nothing except the narrow path illuminated by my head torch while all around me I could hear strange, ominous wailings (the wind, I hope) and the sounds of branches snapping.  Something told me it wasn't too healthy to be outdoors, and I hurried as fast as I could to the shop, encountering another bright light on the way which turned out to be Adi with his head torch on - when both people are wearing head torches neither can actually see the other, so we have to call out to tell each other who we are.

The shop, despite the weather, was crowded with people doing Christmassy shopping; Lesley, having bought a bottle of Baileys had also decided to open it there and then and had a glass standing ready on the counter while she collected her other bits and pieces.  In the dim light of the shop, it was hard to identify people in their hoods, hats and giant coats, let alone the dogs running in and out.  But the atmosphere was cheery, with animated discussions of who was going off when for Christmas - the majority of the islanders won't be here, it will be Mel and I, Vikki, the Goddards, Norman and one or two other diehards (not that I am a diehard).  Most return on the 30th, boats permitting, for the Hogmanay knees-up. 

I too am busy with Christmas preparations, determined to make this castle Christmas as cosy as the ones we would normally have with family and friends.  It is hard sometimes to suppress a sense of poignancy;  this year has been so hard with so many losses and doubts, and now we will also be spending Christmas "on our own", although at least with each other.  Yet part of me thinks it's a good thing to do - to have at least one Christmas in a castle on an island, possibly in extreme weather conditions!  And it's certainly an adventure.  On Tuesday, a dark, windy afternoon, I went to "get the tree" with Adi and Nic. "Getting the tree" meant not a quick trip to a garden centre but a journey in their 4x4 with a big axe, then a venture across boggy ground ("You'll almost certainly get wet, probably up to your thighs," says Adi cheerfully who is clad in a bright orange souwester and matching rubber trousers) to view the trees before then chopping one down.  As they are Scots pines and still quite young, this actually means chopping upwards (or at head height) to get the top of the tree rather than the bottom, as the branches don't start until around 4 foot from the ground.  I feel this could potentially be dangerous, as so many things are here!  But I say nothing - I've noticed that people on Rum really hate being told to take care, mind out etc.  They prefer the attitude that nothing is really dangerous as long as you do it properly - which may well be true.  My own strategy of risk avoidance, learned through years of (a) being told to be more careful and (b) working in offices where I had to do risk assessments, is completely out of place here.  Hence I tend to feel like an idiot much of the time as many of my own transferable skills are pretty much non-transferable in a place like this...nobody wants to be understood, looked after, asked for their opinions about things or organised...they just want to get on with it and have a fag...

Anyway, Adi can wield an axe, even if Nic and I prefer to stand by and watch.  Within a couple of minutes the tree has been felled and we are dragging it back to the track.  I have managed to avoid getting wet, and am glad I came along.  It's nice to see Nic and Adi although they have sad stories to tell.  The weather has affected their croft badly and two pigs have died, probably of the cold and wet.  The turbine they installed has broken due to the gales, the caravan has been lurching dangerously in the wind and one of the cockerels has also died.  I admire them for continuing to pursue their ideal though I can't imagine how hard it is.  I wonder if there is any additional support crofters can get in these situations - after all, most  crofters nowadays are experimenters rather than inheriting the croft from their parents.  It must happen often that things go wrong and people just don't know why or what to do to stop it happening again, as Nic says...

However, the biggest worry we have at the moment is FUEL.  The big plastic tank of diesel (the one Mel has to poke a stick into to measure the depth) is nearly empty; the stick has spoken! But SNH have forbidden anyone on the island to drive/siphon off a new tanker of fuel unless they have an HGV and dangerous goods licence.  In the past, this wasn't needed, but now the licence has to be in place before anyone can do anything with the diesel - and no-one has a licence.  Mel thinks we have about a week's worth left of fuel; hopefully enough for Christmas, but not New Year.  By making lots of phone calls and being nice to lots of people, she and Lesley have found someone on the mainland who is actually prepared to bring the tanker on to the island.  They would have driven it around the island too, but what do you know - there is only one boat now today, rather than two, and the driver doesn't want to have to stay on Rum for two nights before the next boat back to the mainland arrives.  So we're not sure how we're going to get the oil to people's houses...

But at least the ferry has arrived; I can see the tanker on the pier. The ferry is now departing from our (strangely blue) loch into the scarily white waves of the Minch, reminding me of the horrible journey across on Monday where seasickness took second place to fear (we had taken tablets and they actually worked...so although I wasn't at all seasick, I could still feel every lurch and pitch of the boat. "Don't worry," said Mel cheerily, "they can go out in much worse weather than this, they just choose not to..."; the worst bit was just off Muck where the ferry tacked lurchily backwards and forwards for a bit while the captain considered the giant foaming maelstrom outside the harbour, then let us know that "Muck has been aborted"...luckily he had "chosen not to" attempt it...). 

What will happen to the tanker?!!!!
Watch this space to find out whether it'll be a cold, cold Christmas...I'm off to make mince pies.

Locally sourced...

..."trimmed"...



and decorated on Rum!


*Christiane Ritter, Eine Frau erlebt die Polarnacht (A woman lives through the polar night), Austria/Germany, 1938.

off to berlin

There will be a pause in Rum reportage as I am off to Berlin to enjoy Christmas markets. see friends and ease myself back into being a normal person again.

Could take a while!

Thanks for everyone's comments and interest - living on Rum may be hard but also seems to give rise to all sorts of ideas, feelings and perspectives - even or especially for those "on the outside". Keep them coming!

Can I have a reindeer for Christmas?

I know why Santa Claus was invented.  It's not because of the presents.  It's because reindeer make the darkest, most miserable winter day light up and they make you smile.

Having picked up a leaflet in a Grantown-on-Spey hotel that said "Come and Feed the Reindeer", I was embarrassed to admit that I DESPERATELY wanted to FEED A REINDEER!  But I just had to.  So at 11 am on a freezing day in the Glenmore Forest Reindeer Centre, there we were in the reindeer shop, looking at reindeer calendars, reindeer skin rugs, reindeer leather shoes (courtesy of a Finnish partner organisation), reindeer motif knitted hats, reindeer postcards and reindeer fridge magnets, and being talked to by a lady who turned out, obviously, to know several people on Rum.  She advised us to go and look at the paddocks out the back first, where they bring the reindeer down in shifts to get them used to people, check the reindeers' health and so on.  We would then follow the staff truck up into the mountains to do the actual feeding.

Very excited we wandered through the excellent exhibition all about reindeer and then out to the paddocks where there were actual real reindeer to be seen!  The older ones were phlegmatically eating their way through a car tyre of food.  The little ones were galloping about trying to get used to the change in surface between their "stable" and the grassy paddocks.  There were also several ducks and pheasants, trying to steal the reindeers' food while they weren't looking - no chance.  A fight broke out between the ducks, the pheasant tried to seize its opportunity and the largest reindeer aimed a careful kick at it...


We then went back to wait for the staff to take us up to the mountain, and as we waited a large van drove up and started to unload more reindeer from the back.  They were a mixture of large and fairly small, male and female.  Both sexes grow antlers - unlike any other type of deer - and they are hard to tell apart.  They are gentle and happily let themselves be "taken for a walk" with halters or even just by nudging them along.  In the wild this is possibly different...


After a bit of waiting around, finally the staff car got going and us reindeer enthusiasts followed slowly up to the "Sugar Bowl", one of the mountains, where we all got out and gathered around our lovely hostess Sally.  Obviously a complete reindeer fan, she had just started working there a month before but seemed to know all the reindeer names and had no trouble telling us what we should and shouldn't do.
Dos and Don'ts for reindeer:
- Don't grab them by the antlers. They will think you are challenging them to a fight.
- Don't touch their faces.  They don't like it.
- Do stroke them from the shoulders down, and don't worry - if you stand behind them it's not dangerous as unlike horses, they can't kick backwards.
- But they can kick forwards...
- If their antlers are still "green" i.e. still living and covered in "velvet" (a living tissue like a furry skin that eventually falls off when the antlers turn into pure bone), they can be hurt quite badly, so never touch the antlers when they are in this condition.

Having been told what to do, we were then asked to volunteer for carrying the sacks of food up the mountain. Wanting to make my Santa impression as realistic as possible, in case I could get a reindeer to follow me home, I manfully stepped forward and then spent twenty minutes wishing I was a bit stronger in the arms...the path was excellent, but definitely uphill, and got colder and colder as we approached the peaks...
Climb every mountain, ford every stream...with a big sack of reindeer food..
I AM Julie Andrews!
After a while, we got to the top where it was very bleak. There was a gate to a huge enclosure where a number of reindeer sat about in the snowy ground.  "Don't worry about them - they're our Christmas reindeer."  Christmas reindeer are the ones that get sent out to special Christmas events. It was hard to tell if they were particularly publicity-seeking, but they did have especially nice antlers with lots of "tines" (points). We crossed the long boardwalk, which was now getting wet and dark from the sleet that was falling.  Eventually we came to an even bigger enclosure, where most the reindeer were kept while penned - they are also allowed to roam on around 6,000 acres of land.  And we learnt amazing facts about reindeer:

AMAZING FACTS ABOUT REINDEER
Reindeer can survive in temperatures of up to -70 degrees Celsius.  They are comfortable at up to around -35 degrees.
Their fur is incredibly dense and does not transmit heat and so they can lie on their stomachs in the snow without losing their body heat.
Males are dominant for the majority of the year, but in the winter period when they are carrying young, the females become dominant in the herd and have priority when it comes to food.
For the same reason it's conjectured both females and males grow antlers, so that the females are equally equipped to the males when it comes to foraging.
Male reindeer, unlike many other stags, are gentle and fairly submissive creatures. They may "play-fight" with their antlers but unlike for example red deer stags, are highly unlikely to enter into a real fight or kill each other.
Reindeer have practically no teeth - they don't need to bite.
Most amazing fact of all (for me): Reindeer have a special bone in their hooves that emits a clicking sound when they walk. This means that in an Arctic blizzard where visibility is poor or non-existent, they can hear each other without having to call out, which means that they can conserve energy and the herd can stay together safely.

Amazing facts about humans:
Many humans cannot resist the opportunity of feeding a reindeer with their bare hands.

Bumble the reindeer comes back for a fifth feed



We had to wait a while before we could feed them, as first they have to have their "serious" feed, which Sally took round the field while they followed her.  But they all knew what was going on and several of them came up to try to steal the sacks before they were allowed.  As soon as we had our hands full of feed, they were there, almost inhaling it.  Their mouths were very gentle and warm and they nuzzled us before passing on to the next handful of food.  Some of them were more curious than others.  They all had names - each year has a "theme" and so there were "pop stars" (Lulu and Blondie were singled out as being some of the few pure white reindeer born to the herd), cheeses (Blue, Ricotta...) and I'm not sure what theme Bumble belonged to, but he was definitely very naughty.

The snow was coming in so after a while stroking their deep fur, which was very cold (as it doesn't transmit heat) and reaching through it to the warm skin below, we decided to go back down.  We hoped that maybe we'd come across some roaming free across the mountains - they don't all stay in the enclosure all the time.  But so far, we haven't encountered any.

The herd was introduced by a Swedish man who visited the Cairngorms in 1947 and was amazed that no reindeer lived there, as it was ideal habitat for them.  Deciding to give the experiment a try he brought over a breeding pair  in 1952 along with some other reindeer and apparently all of them settled in right away.  We examined the vegetation, the scrub and the mountains...surely they could also do well on Rum?  A thought for the next RCA meeting perhaps...



Find out more about the reindeer at www.cairngormreindeer.co.uk



North by north-west...

A Cairngorm - snow now also available on Rum!
Have been away for two weeks, on a small, personal odyssey through various places, finishing up with a stay in the Cairngorms - the other mountains on the far side (i.e. the east side) of the Highlands.  A different landscape - or it seemed like it at the time - complete with real snow, reindeer and a mountain funicular!  Now I'm back, though, it doesn't seem quite as different.  We don't have reindeer (although perhaps we should?) and don't need a funicular, but we too are getting the true Scottish winter.  And it seems our hundred-year-old boiler may be at death's door at last...
Snow, proper snow fell the night before last and yesterday morning the hills, fields and houses were covered.  All ferries cancelled today due to gales (gusts of up to 65 mph forecast for later on), even the crows can hardly fly against the wind.  Although this is nothing compared to hurricanes elsewhere in the world, here on the island, it has a meaning of its own.  Especially when last week the boiler broke down and there was no heating for a week - we can feel it, although we missed the worst! Colin came on to the island on Monday, after arguments with his bosses about weekend working (or he would have come sooner) and - thank you Colin! - managed to repair it.  I am so grateful, I make cakes for all the contractors (any excuse to be in the kitchen so I can get a bit warmer) - we have several, "Billy's gang" trying to shore up the castle towers before they let in more water over winter; "John and John's lad" shoring up the hostel, which really needs an entirely new roof as all the rooms are now leaking; and of course "Colin and Mike" without whom it seems we would not only be frozen but flooded too.  While we were away, not only did the ancient boiler stop working but the boiler room did actually flood - up to eight inches of water, no-one knows where from. Luckily Colin found a plug and pulled it and apparently all the water drained away.  But even with his most heroic efforts to repair the heating, being in the castle still feels like walking into a fridge.  We have been battening down the hatches, putting up thicker curtains and keeping them shut all day to keep some warmth in, keeping the oven on in the kitchen to warm it up whenever we have to go in there (the kitchen was formerly Sir George's bathroom, and has no radiator); moving into the back rooms where the heating works more efficiently; wearing more layers than actually would seem feasible while still moving...Not using the study at all, as it feels not just like a fridge but like a freezer.  Huddling in front of the open fire in the evening.  All in all, a pretty normal life - at least I find it, to my surprise, quite normal.

I remember I'm trained for winter, although London has spoilt me a bit.  This unaccustomed cold re-awakens physical memories of "real" winters.  Six-month, unrelenting Berlin winters.  Snow, ice, black ice, freezing rain, perpetual grey, temperatures rarely above zero, more ice indoors and out - good for iceskating, not so good for the inside of a kitchen.  My beloved Neukoelln flat with its wooden floors, wood-framed windows that I refused to replace with plastic (except in the kitchen, where the wood had actually rotted, hence the ice indoors) and no heating except for a giant oven in the bedroom. This oven was my pride and joy.  Unlike most Berlin ovens (I'm talking about coal/wood stoves used for heating, not cooking -  in the 1990s there were still lots of these on both sides of the ghostly wall), this was no purely functional, square, yellow-tiled "brick" sat squatly in the best corner of the room.  This was a tall, elegant, white wedding cake of an oven, so high I couldn't see into the top of it even with a ladder, with a tiny aperture at the bottom into which I would desperately stuff paper, kindling and briquettes and hope they would stay alight.  It took me about two years to learn the right technique. There was no ventilator to improve the air circulation, though luckily the room, thanks to my insistence on the old windows, was very draughty.  The chimney sweep (a regular acquaintance of many Berlin flat tenants), told me that really the oven was meant only for wood.  But wood didn't give out enough heat (I thought) and was hard to come by; anyway I couldn't imagine how you would get wood small enough to fit the oven.  Once when I was really poor I took to scavenging for bits of furniture in skips that I could break up and set fire to.  Other times, I lugged plastic nets of kindling (like giant satsuma nets) and even heavier bundles of coal up the three long flights of stairs to my flat and dumped them unceremoniously in the corner of the kitchen behind the door, which was covered in soot for most of the winter.  My fingers would bear the red weals from the bags for hours and my shoulders always ached from the cold and carrying the damn things.  I wasn't sensible or solvent enough to order half a ton of coal at the beginning of the winter, as my friend Astrid always did - somehow I never felt able to commit the money for a whole winter - what if I went away? Or suddenly didn't need heating any more?  Or it was too heavy and fell through the floor? Or perhaps I just liked the challenge, day by day, of keeping warm enough.

That was a romantic time.  I didn't think about the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning or even connect my regular January to March cough, chest infections and headaches with the fact I was living in a really cold place.  I loved lighting the fire.  I loved getting home in the dark, putting the fire on, leaving it to heat up the room (fingers crossed) and going out again for adventures into the sparkling Berlin night.  I loved watching the whirling snow outside my window falling on dirty Neukoelln, the ever-grey sky turning white, pink or orange.  There were times also when the fire would not light and when it was so cold in the kitchen that I would actually try to light the "other" stove that never worked and that you had to use curiously shaped "Eierkohlen" (egg-coals) for.  They would sit stubbornly at the bottom of the oven, while the paper and wood caught light around them, and refuse to even smoulder.  In my gloves and hat and scarf I would try for hours, returning to them with firelighters, more wood and paper and sheer force of will to get them to glow. Nothing doing.  But usually I didn't care.

Here, there is more than the cold to contend with.  The cold in itself is fine.  But there's no sparkle in these November nights.  People are in their houses, snuggled up, or mending things before the winter gets worse.  It is lonely.  Many people "go off" for winter although Christmas and Hogmanay are supposed to be a hoot.  Animals and birds go quieter.  It's a strange life, as if the island was gradually withdrawing even further from the rest of the world.  I'm reminded of a classic Austrian book I read (prophetically?) last year, called "Eine Frau erlebt die Polarnacht" (The Polar Night - A Woman's Story).  Written by a woman in the 1930s, it feels timeless; I wasn't sure what period of time it was referring to until I got quite a way through it.  This woman, Christine Ritter, follows her sailor husband to a hut in Spitzbergen within the Arctic Circle, after he has decided it is something he has to do to fulfil a lifelong dream.  The two of them are joined by a friend, but as the winter and 24 hour darkness approaches, the three of them know they are unlikely to see another human being, or any sunlight, for several months.  Both psychologically and physically they have made their preparations, but nonetheless, the isolation and darkness are so complete that Christine and her two companions are justifiably scared they might go out of their minds or become suicidal.  With awe and disbelief I read how instead, they managed to fend off despair and boredom by establishing a disciplined routine of housekeeping, card games, writing up scientific observations, hunting, and keeping watch for danger (polar bears were a real threat to them, and they had to kill one towards the end of the winter) by sleeping in a rota system.  Christine added knitting and clothes-making, and, of course, writing, to her "anti-despair" kit.  Nowadays they would have (probably) internet access, GPS, a variety of technology.  But not necessarily.  And this would not necessarily change the way they felt about the darkness or their physical isolation.  Christine was changed forever by the experience, describing both the beauty and horror of the dark world they lived in and the amazing feeling of seeing the sunlight come back in the spring.

I am not trying to compare our isolation to hers, although I wonder if it's possible to attain such a Zen-like acceptance of "nothing happening" - I don't think I would ever manage it.  But there is a feeling I share that to live on an island with so few inhabitants and with virtually no infrastructure, demands a different way of being - psychologically you need to be self-sufficient, resilient, maybe not too interested in other people or their needs, or what's going on elsewhere, but able to focus totally on the present.  I don't think any of that applies to me! So I'm relieved and even somewhat smug to find that in a report written about Rum in the 1970s, described in a recently unearthed archive we found, a Government adviser suggests that anyone planning to live on Rum should undergo a form of psychological testing "similar to that used for the British Antarctic Survey team" to see whether they are suitable for island living.  Ha! It's not just me who thinks it's extreme! Apart from the winter darkness, which here is only around 17-18 hours out of 24 at its worst, and the unpredictable weather, he was referring to the isolation that can be felt by those living somewhere completely dependent on a ferry and postal service for contact with other human beings.  At that time, there were far fewer people of course - and no internet or email.  It was still the "Forbidden Isle" with only SNH employees and scientists here.  Discontent, gossip and even theft were rife. 

That seems to have changed.  You can't stop gossip, but I haven't noticed anyone being discontented with Rum itself or the way they live.  They can be discontented about all sorts of other things, of course (mostly the other inhabitants).  But there is little or no crime, and from what I've seen, most people seem to be good at being here.  Forays on to the mainland seem mostly to be for short breaks or necessities, not out of desperation.   Even the contractors who come here (bless them for coming to Rum in winter), mending the castle and hostel roofs in the snow or today, a gale, seem to be philosophical about the strangeness of the island - the most they will say is "At least it's not bloody raining today, eh".  Though I feel this possibly doesn't express the whole range of their thoughts on the matter - especially when Colin woke up in the night to find his bed soaked from the leaks coming through the hostel roof...
Right, I'm off to move around a bit more and check the radiators - we have had them re-set to be on all night, to stop anything freezing and the pipes bursting.  And I need to go and get more logs from downstairs.  I can't help feeling that a hut would be easier to heat than a ten-room castle flat...

Ghosts



Glasses clink. A wet and muddy dog
Flits by my feet into shadows. The ballroom
Is lit up, briefly, as I glance through the night.

No light tonight but starlight, but in the castle
People are living through a summer evening.
Just beyond my gaze, someone is flirting.

The stags' wary, wild brown eyes
Look sideways at me as I move in silence
Through darkened corridors. Their gaze

Reassures and reproaches, wanders
over my head
Down time's corridor into the past
Where they are running on the rainy hills

Or where a maid, her face now hidden,
Carries the trays from drawing room to kitchen,
Passing the billiard room, where sounds of laughter

Echo behind me, talk just out of range.
Am I afraid here? No. Although I wonder
What stories I have missed, what truths,

What days have passed, what stories would be told
If I could hear the words, not just the echoes,
If I could be the ghost inside their house.

This week I have started a journey into the past.  To be more precise, I've started working in the library.

The history of this castle is not like the kind of history you usually find out about at National Trust properties or in books.  It's not tidily painted into a coherent picture by those who have come after.  Instead, people have rummaged, delved, thrown away, hidden, lost, re-discovered, re-named and wrongly identified...what? 


What would you do if you were given a stately home you didn't really want, couldn't afford to keep up and yet were not allowed to get rid of?  Well, that's been the situation here ever since Lady Monica sold the property to the Nation. The castle has been loved, loathed, lived in, snooped around in, stolen from and ignored. Bits of it have fallen down. Bits of the library have been moved, some of the inventory lost.  The most fascinating bits - George and Monica's own records - left lying casually on top of other books, at risk from damp, dust and bookworm.  But perhaps this very informality has left everything seeming so...lived in.  No bookworm appears to have penetrated the library, at least. And the table with its piles of music, photograph albums, random (or are they?) magazines and collections of Tolstoy, seems to have been left just as if George and Monica had started to tidy up but abandoned it in the middle.

Coming down to the library, you feel as if you're at the very end of the castle, hidden away beyond the once-noisy ballroom and just down from the South Wing where Lady Monica had her rooms.  You go through a special door to get to it, past the half-tarpon, the stuffed caipercaillie and the relief map of Rum made in the 1890s and still used today, through all the corridors in the semi-darkness (it's always very difficult to find the light switches in the castle even if they are working, so it's generally quicker just to not bother looking for them). It's cold. I've crept in on a dark, rainy day and although it's still a few hours to sunset, the room is already full of shadows, too dark to read except with a torch.  There are no working lights - I will have to bring a lamp next time.  The stuffed eagle and his victim, the hare, are just dark outlines against the turret window.

But despite the dark, the loneliness and remoteness, the library is a curiously homely place.  Once through the door, you see the old stuffed armchair with the velvet falling off; the faded chaise-longue in the middle of the room; the china warriors eternally wrestling each other; the stuffed eagle with its hare, not really what you'd think of first for a library decoration; and the alarming picture of John Bullough, who is ever present in the castle and on Rum generally.  John Bullough, George's millionaire, patriarchal papa, said to have been kind to his workers and cruel to his wife; John Bullough who alone of all their family is buried alongside George and Monica at Harris; John Bullough whose remaindered  "Speeches, Letters and Poems" fill the spaces behind George and Monica's books in the library, seemingly propping up the bookshelves and hardly to be avoided at every turn; looking distinctly unread.
Library on a sunnier day
Somehow this is almost a casual room, almost an afterthought. The many copies of sporting magazines and conventional Dictionaries of National Biography, Encyclopaedia Britannicas and Collected Works of Walter Scott (47 huge books!), live cosily alongside one bookcase full of "Lives" of Great Women, queens, empresses and mothers of kings, and tattered French paperback novels (which I henceforth call "Monica's Bookcase"), another bookcase full of "Great Men," huntin', shootin' and fishin' manuals and books on exotic travel ("George's Bookcase"). Some of the huntin' manuals have crept across on to "Monica's" side.  I don't suppose she minded, she enjoyed shooting and fishing and probably hunting as well. There is a whole bookcase full of English novels, too - mostly early to mid-twentieth century with surprises such as E.F.Benson (complete?) and Oscar Wilde (the collected works of).  I will have to try hard not to steal them!

Most interestingly, the bookcase behind the door has a lower shelf where more personal things seem to have "found a home" - crammed in, shoved on top of other books or just left askew in the middle of it all.  These include "Monica's Lie Book" (a notebook where Monica has invented a character, Nenette, who is writing to an imaginary "Aunt"; but Monica seems to have got bored after three or four letters and turned to identifying game birds instead).  Also a travel journal by George of travels to Madeira, with pictures and notes.  George's school books.  A Bridge book where Monica has recorded her games with Hermione (her daughter) and unidentified guests.  And the original Kinloch Castle Library inventory, written by Monica.  Her flourishing hand is now becoming familiar.
Library inventory - additions by Monica
I come across it again, I think, in a photograph album of men wounded in the Boer War and sent for convalescence to George's yacht, the "Rhouma", which he turned into a hospital ship for the second War.  Monica has labelled the photographs "patients on the S.Y. RHOUMA" and added in in the only annotation to one of the photos, "Fisher Childe's grave - found by George" (besides the pictures of patients, there are a few photographs of the South African veldt and graves of soldiers killed in action). Otherwise, the men in the photos are not identified; nor are the two boys at the end, posing with an older man and three stags' heads.    
Unknown patients on the Rhouma; the right-hand photograph labelled "Mitchell"

Boys, stags, man
I have been transcribing the Rhouma's hospital lists, that tell us about the men wounded in the war, their rank, type of injury and where it happened, before they were sent to the Rhouma to get better.  Some are fascinating: Private J. Jones (the vast majority are "Private" rank), injured at Rosebank Camp while "breaking in raw Argentine horses".  Or Private E.C. Whanstall, of the 7th Inniskill Dragoons, shot in the foot: the doctor remarks, "Bullet passed between first toes, under next two and out between little toes".  Besides "Privates", there are "Gunners", "Bugle Boys" and even one "Civilian".  It's also fascinating to see the number of "Drivers" in the new R.A.M.C.; and from how many different parts of the world they came, from New Zealand and Canada to the West Riding of Yorkshire. 

Hospital list book
I didn't know anything at all about the Boer War until I started to look at the records, but George was fascinated by it.  Although there is a collection of Winston Churchill's early works in the Library, there is virtually nothing about either the First or Second World War.  I'd never thought about the impact of the Boer War on people's lives around 1900; how important it was and how it was THE war for George's generation. (He was just too old to fight in the First World War and died just before the Second).  One thinks of Edwardians - especially these ones - as somehow complacent, living in a kind of security unimaginable after 1918.  But the men in the pictures are scarred by "their" war too, would have seen their friends die and been frightened of dying themselves. 

I wish I could understand better how people thought; what was going through their minds; what   their ideals were.  When writing about the Bulloughs some people take on a tone of implicit mockery or criticism - they were so rich, they must have been naive, decadent, bizarre.  But I want to know what they were actually like. What motivated them.  How George saw his own life - growing up rich, but "nouveau riche", part of Society through wealth not birth.  What was that like in 1900?

To try to find out I aim to transcribe all the things in the Library that George or Monica wrote themselves.  Something that doesn't seem to have yet been done in its entirety (though I may be wrong...new records turn up all the time).  I want to do this.  But it's a little bit like entering into a ghost world.  Sometimes they seem more real here than I do. It was their castle, after all.  They often seem, particularly on these dark autumn days, to be just around the corner, or living in a parallel universe where it may be raining outside, but they are taking tea in their conservatory, or playing billiards in the smoking room.  Their things - their china, their chairs, their stags' heads, their tennis rackets and even their boots and George's kilt - have not been put away. I know myself that once someone is dead, their "things" are empty - but in this case it feels different, perhaps because I never knew the owners in real life. Perhaps because their things haven't been moved, or have been loved, they have kept an aura of the people who owned them.  Not as ghosts, but in the space where our imagination runs forward - or backwards - to try to understand what their things tell us. The difference between them and us is what binds us together.


3rd November - Snow and fire - time to sparkle


Snow....
...Fire















This morning, my hair smells of smoke and then, of snow. Hailstones have been falling down the chimney and the wind is so loud we can't sleep at night. Winter is upon us and this morning there is snow on the mountains across the bay.  The tide has gone as far out as I've ever seen it - there's a new moon.  White gulls circle the rocks and black crows follow them, ready to finish off whatever they leave.

Bonfire on the shore
Last night we celebrated Bonfire Night, warding off the storms and darkness with a giant fire on the edge of the sea. Because of the storm, it wasn't decided until 4 pm whether we'd actually go ahead with it or not and now we have, the flames are roaring and a huge shower of sparks is blowing across to the hut where the food and drink is being stored.  When we arrive I realise I'd like to have my camera and have forgotten it, so I decide to brave the road back to the castle.  There's just me and my head-torch and shadows everywhere.  Beyond the radius of the torch everything is completely invisible...Other lights come towards me - we can't see each other but say hello anyway.
Once back, we stand well away from the fire, which is (to start with) about three metres high and rapidly devouring the random bits of furniture, old bits of boat and shed planks that have been put on it.



Outside the hut, a barbecue competes with the fire, Sandy and Fliss bravely daring the flames and soot to cook us sausages.  A mysterious figure disguised in a huge yellow sou'wester and hat goes backwards and forwards in the distance setting up the fireworks - Sean.  The children are hugely excited and running about in the mud with sparklers.  Otherwise it's really difficult to tell who anyone is - everyone is wearing so many layers that it takes a while to work out who's hiding under those headtorches, macs and hats. Every now and then we run across - or through - the spark shower to grab another drink.  And every now and then the wind changes direction and we're all caught in it.  This morning I have got what looks like sunburn, but in fact is fire-burn!

The shed...luckily not on fire!
From fire to snow to hail - we are living as close to the elements as we can...

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26th October - Drama and danger! (Well, a little bit)

We're having a dramatic week.  There is a gale blowing, there are eagles and ravens seemingly everywhere, and yesterday Laura, our first-time mum-to-be on the island, went unexpectedly into labour.  The first we knew of it was when we heard the helicopter circling the castle and as it sank to the ground, we could see it was the air ambulance.  We all stood around hoping nothing was wrong, while Neil drove the midwife and paramedic up to the farmhouse.  Some time afterwards he drove back again with Laura and Gav too.  From a distance we saw Laura emerge and be strapped into a makeshift bed in the back of the helicopter - then to our dismay we realised Gav wouldn't be able to go too.  Those helicopters are really tiny!  It left as we waved, while Gav stood, hunched over, on his own.  Some time later Gav managed to charter a boat from Knoydart to take him over, before borrowing a car to drive up to Inverness to the hospital. We hope they are both ok.  That night at the Community Trust meeting in the hall, we are all subdued.

Feeling useless at not being able to help, several of us decide to go and do something about Gav and Laura's unfinished house to try to keep it weathertight before Gav comes back.  So this morning, four of us met up outside the hostel and traipsed up to the croft.  It was raining with a storm forecast for 4 o'clock, the wind already getting up, dark clouds over the bay. Up in the clouds a sea eagle was soaring, and as we got higher up the hill, two buzzards flew out of the trees and circled around, flapping lazily but so close we could almost have touched them.  We got to the croft.  The house is nearly complete - Gav and Laura were working on it all week to try to get it ready, and were nearly finished.  It's a wood cabin, smelling of pine and resin and surrounded by mud and various tools and bits of plank.  All the planks, concrete mix, roof coverings and sand for the foundations had to be carried up by hand from the river bank below the croft, the nearest place a van can get to.  Day after day we'd seen Gav and his mates heaving huge planks up a very boggy and treacherous field, before finally, we began to see the house taking shape.  Now it looks a bit sad and deserted; but it only needs the roof ridge and the side panels putting on. 
It's not a tiny house.  The roof is definitely at least ten foot above us.  And the only big person here is "Big Dave", a gentle giant with a seam of dry Scottish wit and the ability to remain calm even when trying to stop a cement mixer falling into a six-foot hole (he tells us).  The rest of us are short girls with no useful qualifications whatsoever and a tendency to start tidying up the construction site rather than actually build things.  But we're fired up with the determination to help - although my determination is somewhat dampened when Dave explains that in order to put the roof panels on, we have to balance a roof ladder on our shoulders while someone else climbs up it with a big drill.  The house is too tall for the roof ladder simply to rest on the ground and the ground is too boggy to use a bigger and heavier roof ladder. "Is this how you and Gav did it?" we ask incredulously.  "Aye. But with less giggling," Dave drily replies.
"So", he goes on, "Are you sure you want to do it, now?  No-one should try to be a hero..." "I'm not sure it's a good idea," I say.  I have visions of Mel falling off the roof and the ladder collapsing on top of us, or a sharpened roof panel sliding down and causing horrendous injuries. However, the others seem keen so who am I to judge?  I have no knowledge of building houses...and I've had enough of feeling like the one whom no-one picks to be in their team.  And when it comes down to it, I trust the people here to know what they're doing. Mostly. 
First up the ladder is Mel, while Vikki and I hold the ladder down below.  Mel then grabs the roof panel as Dave passes it up to her.  Then Dave climbs up the ladder as well and leans over to drill the holes, while Mel's weight at the top holds the ladder against the roof and our shoulders below support it so it doesn't slip off.  My arms are killing me and Mel's leg has gone to sleep, so we hear, while Dave shouts instructions from above. "I'm just going to move my foot to the other side of the ladder!" "Ok Dave!" (weight shifts about).  "I'm moving back to the next rung down!" "Ok Dave!" "Are you ok holding that panel Mel?" "Yes!" Another eagle passes overhead but I don't like to mention it at this juncture.
Finally it is done!  We have tea and cake to celebrate. 
"And how do you girls feel about the other side?"
The other side of the roof is much further away, as there's no decking below to stand on.  Just unadulterated bog. 
"It's too high for the ladder!" Mel thinks.  "But we could tie ropes on the ladder and fling them over the top of the roof and hold it on the other side!" So we do.  Actually, this side is easier...if anyone's going to fall off, it's better that they fall in the bog than onto the wooden planks.  And just as we're about to start, Adi turns up from the next croft. Phew, another man!  Now we're starting to feel like professionals.  Adi and I support the ladder from below while Vikki holds the ropes on the other side...and it works!
Two more panels need to go on the ridge, but Adi makes an executive decision that it is too late. The storm is due in and you can't leave the roof half-done...the panels would all need to go on, and we don't want to risk anyone getting tired and falling off.  I think partly we'd quite like to go on heroically during the storm but we know it's for the best that we don't.  We drink more tea and get going, feeling like a team.  Suddenly, being on Rum seems much more fun.  Maybe it's the hard work.  Maybe it's the fact that I proved I'm not so useless as I thought. Or maybe it's just doing something with other people that works and is a success.

The trees are getting whipped by the wind and Adi's dog has got gale fever.  Leaves are blowing around everywhere and just as we get home the storm hits us.  The rain hammers against the windows and I manage to light a fire.  Shivering, I hope Laura is ok and that Gav got to the hospital in time.



23 October - Alligator sporran, anyone?

Judging from my book on dinghy sailing and its helpful weather chart, I think we are currently experiencing a "Strong Breeze," where anyone foolish enough to be out in a dinghy, "should return immediately to shore, if possible with assistance".  You can see the long waves breaking out at sea and the whitecaps nearer to land, with an occasional burst of sunlight illuminating Skye and the mountain range behind Mallaig, before showers make everything invisible but the field outside. Luckily I am not in a dinghy but am attempting a bike ride in the short interval between showers of rain.  However, returning to shore (i.e. castle) proves to be a good idea as once past the Deer Gate, it becomes near-impossible to cycle against the wind, up-hill.  I can see the storm coming in from the west - if I happened to be on one of those mountains I'd be able to see it coming in from the Outer Isles...I'm wildly tempted to go on and climb one of the mountains, but I would probably fall off and cause all sorts of problems for the coastguard.  You learn not to be too impulsive here...

This late-autumn weather blows in all sorts of migrants and other wildlife surprises.  Once safely back in the flat I can see a huge flock of gannet and gulls out in the Minch, there must be hundreds if not thousands of them diving into the sea.  Last time that we saw so many, a minke whale reared up amongst them, birds and whale alike "following the fish".  I watch for a while through the telescope, but no whale this time.  Then I have to go and ice a cake.  It only takes about five minutes, but by the time I've got back, the birds are gone - where did they all go?  Closer to home, we have flocks of redwing and fieldfare arriving for winter, and yesterday I saw - finally - two dippers that were flying up and down the stream underneath "George's Bridge" where the stream comes down from Coire Dubh and flows out to sea.  Dippers are lovely birds, as big (or small) as thrushes, a dark chestnut-black all over except for their fronts which are bright white, and when they perch on the rocks they bob up and down, searching the water for shrimp before "dipping" in.  They don't migrate, so they must have been here all the time...but where? Today they are gone too.

All these creatures are tiny miracles in their own right.  Each of them so different from the others, and each of them intent on its own purposes.  I feel so lucky to be able to just share an island with them, and the longer I'm here, the more I realise that the general idea of "nature" is totally inadequate to describe the wonderful, miraculous world of life going on outside our windows all the time. But I have to admit to a secret love for the not-so-wild wildlife on Rum too.  And as the weather is so wet, it's a good time to hide in the castle with all the creatures collected here...
Some of our animals (Photo (c) L Becker)
Like most Edwardian castles, this one too has its proud display of stuffed animals and birds, collected over the years by George and Monica to show off their hunting and travelling experiences.  There is a capercaillie; more stags' heads than you can shake an antler at; several huge tarpon (the giant fish that Lady M. liked to catch off the coast of Jamaica, from the M.S. Rhouma), plus the half-tarpon that was being eaten by a shark when she caught it, in pride of place outside the ballroom; a golden eagle with a mountain hare (not sure where the hare came from; in the immortal words of Wallace and Gromit there are "No hares here"!); eider duck, far bigger than you'd think when you're looking at them on the water; foxes (again, not from here); the humming birds that died when the heating broke down; and many many other birds.  But strangely enough, no alligators.

The story goes that in the extravagant and exotic world that was Kinloch Castle back in the 1900s, Sir George (or perhaps Monica) decided that the conservatory was not exciting enough and needed alligators.  Small, fierce amphibians were therefore imported and released into the pools in the conservatory.  Unfortunately, they were not content for long to sit and admire the landscape, but decided one evening to escape and wander around the castle.  Amidst cries of horror and excitement, Sir George came to the rescue of his guests and shot the alligators before they could do any damage.  But what happened to them?  Surely, in the normal way of things back then, he would have had them stuffed to add to the collection?  We speculate as to what became of them.  Maybe they were made into shoes for Lady M.  Or handbags.  Or boots for Sir George.  Or maybe - a flash of inspiration - they became alligator sporrans!  We have no evidence, of course, but it's a nice thought...

Some more animals (Photo (c) L Becker)
I can't help loving the stuffed creatures.  There is something comforting about them, like surrounding yourself with your favourite teddy bears.  I spend most of my days on my own and I like to think of all the creatures living around us on the island; not only are they beautiful but it's very grounding seeing all these birds, animals and insects living their own, separate lives, and watching the weather and the island change from day to day.  But having the castle is fun, like having a giant doll's house to play with.  I don't go so far (yet) as to talk to the stuffed animals, but it's nice to know they are there and have been so carefully kept for posterity - they must have been loved in a way.  I wonder what will happen to them in the future.

They don't feature in the new conservation report that has just come through from Rob, our conservator, who is advising us on how we can best get the castle up to a point where we can apply for "accredited museum" status.  That would mean far more credibility when applying for funding and would give the island a real boost in terms of what it can offer visitors.  But there is so much to be done before this can happen.  Rob was horrified to know that we don't have enough electricity to make a de-humidifier work!  "You mean you don't have enough money for one?" "No, we can't get enough wattage from the hydro." "I've never come across that before," he says, looking worried.
More importantly though to start with, we need to know exactly what is there.  Apocryphal stories tell us that back in the days where SNH was not so interested in looking after the castle, visitors were allowed to roam around as long as they wanted, unsupervised, with no way of checking if they took anything with them.  Former castle managers, too, are related to have been less than scrupulous when checking the contents and some items may have "slipped into their luggage" when packing to leave. Maybe that's where the alligators went!


Capercaillie
I'm going to make a start on the library.  And I've already been in to have a look at what's there.  It's a strange mix, seemingly untouched since Monica and George left.  I'm sure that's not true, but it feels as though they could walk in again at any moment.  There are personal things mixed up with the most boring books, and I'm intrigued as to what I find.  I understand why people can become obsessed with the castle...it's like a haunted house that is haunted by some very nice people. And their animals, of course.




Our own stuffed animals.  Less impressive, but no animals were harmed in the making of this picture.

West Word excitement, crows in the chimney and tea-shop doubts

I think there may be a crow in our chimney!  Just sitting drinking tea in the living room at breakfast and for once, feeling no need to go outside as it's so cold and I have lots of baking to do for tomorrow, and I heard a very loud "Caw" from what sounded like just behind me.  There's nothing outside on the battlements so I wonder if it's a bird in the chimney, it's happened before in Yorkshire and sounded just the same.  Just when you're looking forward to a cosy day in front of the fire and hoping the heating will work...

Life hasn't been too cosy this week but it's been quite funny!  It's getting very cold, and the castle creaks and the radiators bang with the attempt to keep the temperature up.  The boiler has been making "funny noises". One of the Bullough pictures fell off the wall the other night when we were having dinner with friends...there was a huge crash and we thought it was burglars, but the string had perished that was holding the frame up...There've been unexpected fire alarms going off recently due to power outages...every time one goes off you have to go and inspect the control panel to find out where it is - and in a castle, that can be a lot of places. The deafening middle-of-the night one woke us at 2.30 in the morning and the panel told us that the alarm had gone off in the "Old Beer Cellar".  "That sounds nice," I say optimistically. It wasn't, it's under a huge trapdoor in the middle of the courtyard that is too heavy for one person to lift, with stone steps going down into a scary and freezing cold basement...We stand in the courtyard in our slippers in the dark struggling to hold the "lid" of the cellar up and I vow I am never, ever going down into it.  There is no smell of smoke so we close it again.  "Probably a spider got into the alarm," Mel shrugs.  Spiders, crows, fire alarms, power cuts, heating out, internet down...I don't like winter! But hopefully the crow isn't actually IN the chimney...maybe on top of it.   Nearly spilling my tea I move carefully out of the room and am going to listen from afar...

It really is getting near to winter now, and reading our favourite local newsletter "West Word" (the best £1.20 you will ever spend on a newspaper!) we can see that there is lots going on out on the mainland to help people get through those dark days.  West Word is an amazing institution, well known beyond the Lochaber region that it serves.  There is a regular page called "West Word around the World" featuring fans holding up their copies in various parts of the globe ranging from Skegness to Malawi to Adelaide.   Besides telling you all you need to know about tide times, council meetings and ferry and railway timetables, it also has regular slots with updates on the Lifeboat "shouts" for the past month (from serious to hilarious), results of local school games and other competitions, articles about the history of local families and places, wildlife top tips, adverts for logs, and (my favourite), "Family Announcements" featuring births, marriages and deaths, usually with grateful letters from families addressed to the doctors, nurses, priests, bridesmaids, helpers etc who got them through these life-changing events. Grateful letters from tourists also feature strongly - this month there is a long letter from "Two Yorkshire Ladies" (not us!) whose car broke down but was repaired in double quick time by the local garage to enable them to get home.  There are lots of in-jokes that I don't yet understand, often based around families who have lived in the region for generations.  This month, there is a long story about Davey Davidson, a driver for the West Highland Steam Railway (the "Jacobite") for many years, who recently died.  In accordance with his father's wishes, his son Dave Davidson convinced the railway managers to allow him to carry his father's ashes on a last journey to the Glenfinnan Viaduct before scattering them - not over the viaduct, as I expected, but into the engine's firebox! And so Davey, the article concludes, lives on forever in the "Jacobite".

Tales of crime are included at times - luckily there is not much of it, but it can be bad (poachers abandoning deer carcases on the railway!) or simply funny (the roadsigns warning about deer on the roads have been amended to show rhinos instead!).  There is heated debate for and against Scottish Independence and recently also a shocking article by a local Councillor about how he had been ousted from office while absent.  But he still seems to be there as he is in this month's edition too. 

The reports from Mallaig and the news about the huge variety of clubs people can join (swimming, Highland dancing, Zumba, the Women's Institute, angling, knitting) and democratic organisations they can belong to (lots of community associations here) are a great reminder of the community that exists out on the mainland and how strong and close-knit it can be.  There are also reports from the other islands (Eigg, Canna, Muck) and near-island (Knoydart, which can only be reached by sea or on foot), that tell us of farming successes, theatre and music events and sponsored shoe-wearing (a lady on Knoydart has 48 pairs of shoes and got sponsored to wear a different pair every day for a month, not easy in our climate but she won!). 

Reading these, I realise this is what I expected Rum to be like as well - I thought living on an island here would be like living on the local mainland.  But Rum is really, really different.  We don't have "culture", farming (as such), clubs or even a "close-knit community".  The community is still finding itself, it can be unwelcoming, its processes are opaque, sometimes it seems downright dysfunctional, although it can also make amazing things happen.  I wonder why here is so different but it's obvious really: the island "community" has only existed for a few years.  Unlike Eigg and Muck, let alone the mainland, it's not got a history of private housing, businesses, or much practice in running its own organisations.  The Community Trust was set up only in 2007 and the assets handed over from SNH only in 2009/10.  That means that the island has only really been a self-directing community for most of its inhabitants for four years at most.  Hence it feels, still, like an experiment and like all experiments it can be hugely exciting to be a part of it, or just really frustrating when things don't work.  Just as an example, West Word sometimes tells us things we didn't know about Rum and that we should have known - I found out this month only by reading it that CalMac is trialling a new "passenger only" speedboat service alongside a "freight only" ferry service to our island - no-one here had told us. (It's a v. bad idea as most would-be tourists are not keen on the idea of getting on a speedboat to cross the choppy Little Minch, especially in the rain, snow etc even if it was able to run then anyway.  During the recent "replacement ferry service" we lost quite a few tourists, hostel bookings and catering orders due to tourists losing their nerve, plus had lots of complaints about "feeling sick".)

Oh, "community" - what does it mean?! Tomorrow I am responsible for the Community Tea-Shop - as opposed to the "normal" tea-shop, the Community one is run on a voluntary basis to make sure we have a tea-shop on a Sunday.  Before we went away I was approached by several people separately (not quite in dark alleys) with the seemingly casual suggestion, "You know you said you like working in the tea-shop...would you like to put forward an application to run it next year?" Although Claire's tea-shop is great, there have been mutterings that it would be nice to have a change or an alternative using more local produce, keeping it open for more hours, offering different dishes etc...Hmm.  I agree it would be nice, but there are things that need sorting out first...

Lots has been achieved since 2009 - the crofts, the community hall, a housing plan, a management plan - but lots of things that we take for granted elsewhere just don't exist.  Imagine those really frustrating work meetings you sometimes have where everything goes round in a circle - well it can be just like that, but without the organisational "rules" that you can usually refer back to at work.  The Directors of the Trust are still relatively new to the job, and some of the people on the island just want to do their own thing.  It's a dilemma - should everyone who lives here feel like they are part of one organisation, as if living here was a "job"?  Or should we just all do what we like, without worrying about what other people are up to?  For example some people don't want to pay the road charge that is levied every year (£36 for the year) that pays for the roads to be repaired.  "I don't care if they're repaired or not," they say, "so why should I pay?" Because if you don't then the Trust can't afford to keep them maintained and the whole island suffers.  It's pretty much the same question that applies to the rest of society as well, but on a smaller scale.  But the difference here is that you can actually influence what your "taxes" are spent on fairly directly, whereas in the bigger scheme of things you can only influence this very very slowly.  And it frustrates me beyond belief that some people are not in the least bit interested in influencing what happens - they just want to stand outside the shop and complain about it, not realising how lucky they are to have the chance to change things.

But I've realised it's not easy.  Theoretically I subscribe to the idea that living here means you are part of a community, not just on your own and I try to act accordingly.  But I'm taking it slowly - I need to check things out first.  Despite pressure from "above" I realise I'm not ready to apply to run the tea shop next year, as it turns out there's a whole lot of island politics bound up in this that I don't want to get involved in at the moment (plus I don't rate my cooking highly enough!).  I also can't measure yet how long it takes to "make things happen" if you do want to get involved in projects or how much energy it would take up.  There is a new project going on to build a community bunkhouse and a new visitor centre, which will be amazing.  But it's going to take a lot of arguing, stamina and optimism to get there...

I vow I will try harder!

So, I haven't heard any more "cawing" from the chimney...I am going to have to risk going back in...will keep you updated!  Off now to bake some pies.