things I have seen on Rum this week

a pair of stonechat by the pier
a yellow wagtail on the battlements
swallows in the rain getting ready to fly away
then no swallows
14 oystercatchers in the bay
1 seal
4 sunrises over the mainland mountains
3 mornings of rain
1 curlew
several herons
5 ponies being taken up the mountain to Harris
4 roaring stags
50 (?) hinds in the dunes
antlers on a hut
gannets diving
a gull-and-gannet feeding frenzy far out to sea
1 minke whale in the middle of it, following the fish
2 eagles in the sun
the rusty wreck of George Bullough's car from ca. 1910, suddenly appearing on the beach as the tide drops
midges
3 black labradors
hundreds of geese
1 palmate newt
a road with no people on it

Stags, whales, cows, ponies...who owns this island anyway?!


Time to get out of the village and find out more about the rest of this amazing island...

There are only two "proper" roads on Rum (i.e. tracks made specially for humans...there are lots of so-called "pony tracks" that humans are allowed to use too, if their boots are good enough).  One leads to Kilmory - the other, to Harris.  They are both completely different places, almost as if they were on different islands.  Autumn is stag rutting time so that means it's time to go to Kilmory!


Stone99 (c) Ali Morris
Stag at Kilmory (Photo (c) Ali Morris)

Kilmory faces north, to Skye, Soay and the mainland, a sheltered beach at the end of a valley full of deer.  It's bleak, stony and isolated, a few houses dotted about to remind us of when this used to be home to just two girls who spent all summer here doing laundry for the grand folk up at the castle (Lady Monica and George didn't like to see knickers hanging from a washing line).  Now it's home to Rum's deer research team, two or three people (and their laundry) who spend their days tracking the animals to find out what they get up to, which ones are the most successful breeders, which ones are most likely to get ill and which have the loudest roar (I may have made that one up - proper info on www.isleofrum.com/wildlifedeer.php).  If you've seen Autumnwatch over the last few years, you'll have met some of our stags and hinds on TV - and our researchers have names for them all.

Kilmory Beach (with bathing beauty) (Photo (c) L Becker)
We leave our bikes at "the junction" (the bit where the proper track stops and turns into just stones).  It's a long, lonely walk down the glen with no-one and nothing about, not even an eagle...until we spot our first group of hinds. Their stag can't be far away, and sure enough, there he is - up on the hillside tracking us, making sure we're not about to threaten his harem. Even at a distance we can tell he's a big, experienced beast - he'll have won some battles in his time to prove he's the best.  He's dark, looking threatening against the hills - a deliberate ploy from rolling in peat to make himself appear more impressive.  Soon we spot the competition too - and hear it.  There are at least four stags roaming the hills, three with their own hinds, but one without.  He's moving into a strategic spot, ready to challenge the other stags, trying to get the ladies to come over to join him and leave their current mate.  Stags don't always fight - it's dangerous and they try to avoid it if possible, so they start off with roaring to impress the hinds with their big voices.  They will "face off" each other as well, trying to stare each other down.  If this doesn't work, they'll fight, horrendous battles where they are liable to be maimed or even killed.  Their necks swell up and their roars echo down the valley - nearly as far as the village.

Inquisitive hind (Photo (c) L Becker)
At the beach, there are hinds everywhere, hiding in the dunes, wandering by the shore and listening out for the stags calling to them.  It's hard to tell where the noise is coming from, it bounces off the rocks and sounds as if there's a stag just behind our picnic spot.  We try to stay out of their way - they can be dangerous during the rut.  The former laundry house is now the chief research hut - no-one to be seen, but a pair of antlers hanging above the door gives it a strange, primitive look.  One of the huts is full of antlers found in the hills; an even bleaker hut, mended with gaffer tape at the moment, is for the volunteers who come here each year to help out.  We walk back up to the village, after a brief chat to a volunteer who doesn't even know the hostel moved out of the castle in June; she has spent the last two months just at Kilmory. I try to imagine what kind of life they lead, and why they might do something so lonely. The deer are not friendly, although they're not hostile either unless you get in their way; they keep to themselves, with the occasional foray down to Kinloch to steal food.

A bit different from our trip to Harris a couple of weeks ago! That was full of inquisitive creatures...and it was the first time I'd actually made it out of the village to the other side of Rum.  Just in time - I'd started to feel there was no other side.  It was a blazingly hot day and we borrowed mountain bikes to attempt the stony eight mile mountain track.  Within about 10 minutes I was already pushing the bike as even the first part of the journey up to the "deer gate" (the barrier to stop the deer wandering into the village and eating everyone's beans and cabbages) was too steep for me to manage.  I thought I'd got fitter in London but getting through a Keiser Cycle class is not the same as scaling an actual mountain! Oh, alright...we hadn't even got to the mountain bit yet, it was just the path up to it.  Mel was sympathetic: "When I first came here I had to push the bike all the way there...you're doing really well." Really?  I feel like an idiot but I'm determined to show I'm not a useless towny tourist.  I keep going as much as I can as the landscape gets more and more amazing.  Pretty soon we are heading along Kinloch Glen, where the eagles hang out. No eagles today but views right across to Skye and the mainland, a pure blue sky and my lungs nearly bursting with the determination to keep cycling.   Every time I thought it had to get a bit easier, it just got harder.  "Don't worry, after the first four miles it's all downhill to the sea."  Four miles uphill?! We stopped now and again at the waterfalls that came down the mountain.  Rain comes straight off the tops here - clouds drift over from the Atlantic or the mainland and hit the mountain peaks, so that from a boat looking back Rum looks like the Forbidden Island it was once known as, with dark clouds swirling over the island like a whirlpool.  But if you're on the right side of the mountain, you'd never even realise it was raining.  That's what it's like today - we have even got our own weather, shared it seems only with the Rum ponies and Highland cattle, as we don't spot anyone else.

Photo (c) L Becker

Up and up we go, until eventually Mel's promise comes true and we can freewheel down the terrifyingly steep and stony track to Harris Bay.  My hands are numb with clinging to the handlebars, the wheels are bouncing off the track and I'm trying to concentrate on the road rather than get distracted by the views.  Trying to slow down to avoid a curious herd of Highland cows, it occurs to me at this late juncture that I will probably die if my bike hits a rock and I fly off....Mel is already a mile ahead down the spiralling path as she never puts the brakes on downhill - I grit my teeth and try to be as brave.


View down to Harris from the track (Photo (c) L Becker)
This is where the Bullough family are buried and where George wanted to build the castle.  Instead, only the Bullough mausoleum rests in splendid isolation at the edge of the coast: George, his father John and the lovely Lady M. are buried here.  The Atlantic rolls in, breaking on the jagged rocks and sheer cliffs.  It's like a different world to the tranquil bay of Kinloch.  For the first time I feel like I'm on holiday in a truly foreign country.  All my worries seem to have been left behind and I feel free just to sit and look out over the sea that is glittering in the sunlight.  We watch for dolphin and I spot a porpoise.  Butterflies land on us and we fall asleep.  I feel that in some indefinable way I've reached a milestone in my adventure - I'm able to move around the island without depending on anyone else, I've "conquered" part of my new world.  But the ponies and cows we meet are quick to remind us it's not just ours...I'm wary as I approach them, but they are determined to check us out. I get the feeling they know much more about us than we do about them...

Ponies small - or far away?

Ponies a bit nearer... (Photos (c) L Becker)
It's a weird feeling and makes me realise how distant things are here from my "former life". In London part of my job was trying to get other people to realise that we're part of nature - it's not an alien force we have to control but something that is integral to who and what we are, it's beautiful, it's amazing.  But here, our total dependency on natural forces (the ferry didn't come today as it was too windy...) is so obvious, that your interactions with the island take on a very personal feel - it feels like a personal achievement (so I've been told..) to be able to scale one of these mountains, or even just to cross the island on one of its exposed and risky roads. Yes, in London you're at risk from all sorts of other things - but generally danger is related to other people (will they steal my phone/job/seat on the Tube...will I get run over if I bike to work...?) not usually from the weather or animals.  Humans don't have much control over things here, at least not as much as I'm used to.  Here you can leave your bike, even your house unlocked and not worry, but a swift change of weather or a slip in the wrong place and going up on the mountains could potentially kill you (or more likely leave you waiting unromantically at the bottom of a wet and cold hill for the helicopter to arrive and winch you to safety).  It's easy to long romantically for a more "natural" way of life, when you're (too) safe in your London flat, but once you're out in the open fighting a gale to get home and the roof is threatening to cave in with the amount of water coming out of those massive clouds, or when a cow with very big and pointy horns is refusing to get out of your way on the only path, your relationship with "Nature" becomes a lot more interesting!


I'm not scary really (Photo (c) L Becker)
But in some way, it seems to make us happy...though maybe only because underneath we still feel that certainty that we do have some control.  On the other hand it's a challenge for conservationists - you want people to connect more with nature, but what happens once you've started to actually live this close to "nature" as a reality, not just visit it at weekends?  How much and what kind of "civilisation" do we really want and need?  What kind of island do we want? Who is the island "for"?  Humans don't like nature to get too out of hand; being here makes me realise how many primitive fears we still have about animals, the weather, the wilderness.  Maybe that's why some people feel an urge to cover it all in concrete or drill for oil in the Arctic. They haven't found a way to live with wildness.  I'm glad we're in a place where some of it still exists - and I will learn to get over my fear of cows!


Harris Bay (Photo (c) L Becker)







Outside looking in...inside looking out

Human needs (1)...somewhere to wash, something to look at (Photo (c) L Becker)

What makes a home a home?  What makes a place somewhere you want to go to, somewhere you want to stay?  Is it the state of the décor? The cleanliness of the bathrooms?  Or is it more about the things it lets you dream of?

It's been a strange week, visitors coming to look at us, inspecting our progress, discussing our home.  People looking from the outside in - and us trying to get them to see it from the inside out.  And autumn is now definitely no longer merely approaching but in the porch taking its wellies off and getting ready to settle down in front of the fire (when the fire lights, that is...).  Autumn is here - and the island's moods are changing with it.  We're subdued, and we're thinking about what the future may hold.  So in advance, I apologise for a slightly more serious blog...with a bit of history and some drunken ranting thrown in for free!

The last few days have seen lots of comings and goings with visits from "SNH folk" - Scottish Natural Heritage, the government body that looks after the nature reserve and used to own the whole of the island's assets after Lady Monica sold Rum to them for a knock-down price in 1957.  Now, most of the assets belong to the Community Trust, set up to make the island a place people can call home, an independent community with businesses and its own infrastructure.  Once upon a time, Rum was known as the "Forbidden Island" - first forbidden to ordinary folk by its wealthy London owners, then, after Lady Monica sold it to SNH, reserved for birds, beasts and conservationists, with anyone else tolerated if they were lucky, not welcomed.  Tensions ran high at times between "locals" and "government busybodies".  That's changed now, with all of us doing our best to look after the island in the way it needs - the Community Trust owning most of Kinloch, the only village, and SNH looking after the nature reserve, castle, roads and electrical supply.  But now suddenly, a visit from one of the SNH Board members from far-away Edinburgh means that someone is looking at us from the outside - and their grasp of what the island does, what it means and how it all works, is a long way removed from ours.

We know we don't have much money.  We know that the castle costs a lot to maintain, and that it's a real problem for SNH to know what to do with it.  But it feels wrong to have someone look at the castle and basically see it as just a statistic, a big piece of brickwork draining money from the coffers.  I realise I have a confession to make - I've fallen in love with the castle and I want to make other people realise just how special it is.

We're meeting in the hall to welcome our visitor and for a meet and mingle event where islanders can ask questions and find out what SNH is planning for the castle and NNR, and how the Trust and SNH are going to work together in the future.  Wine flows; canapés, lovingly prepared by Claire, are eaten.  But many people are too shy or too unaccustomed to negotiation to discuss their concerns in public with a Government representative.  Clearly, that representative - Andrew - is trying to show "the community" that SNH is on their side now.  They don't want to stop things developing, on the contrary.  They want...what do they want?  There is an awkward moment where Andrew, having giving his talk, asks for questions and no-one speaks up for a while.  I think we're not sure what to say.  He's spoken vaguely about SNH has to do what government wants and how this means they won't invest in island and castle unless we can show it will bring "socio-economic benefits".  But who gets to decide what this means? Does this in plain language just mean everything has to turn a profit?  Or does the word "benefit" have a more holistic meaning? I get the feeling that he thinks islanders are still wanting to "move on" from its SNH past and from the elite world that the castle represents...

After I've had another glass of wine or so, I manage to get a proper word with him and ask what he's trying to say - especially about the castle.  From what he says, it feels as though SNH think the castle is an anomaly, something that shouldn't really be there, or at least shouldn't be on the island taking money away from more important things.  True, it's not SNH's normal remit to look after old buildings. But Lady Monica was insistent - the island and the castle belong together, you can't have one without the other.

And I agree. Lady Monica was way ahead of her time, doing what academics now call "cultural geography" - believing that landscapes and people interact to create identity. Cultural geography suggests that a landscape isn't made up of opposing elements that can be separated out simply into "natural" and "man-made".  Memory, fantasy and action shape our landscapes, even those that seem most untouched.  All of Rum has been shaped by human beings and their behaviours - there are traces of farms, burial places, religious sites and tracks going way back into pre-historic times. The castle is part of a long tradition of humans on the island, but it means something more.  It represents what Rum was in a very specific bit of the past, but it also represents the Bulloughs' fantasies about what an island should be - a refuge, a fairy-tale, a holiday home, a hunter's paradise, a "wild" place, a business.  That hasn't changed.  The island itself is all these things for different people in our time, from conservationists to mountaineers to hikers to deerstalking addicts, to those who are simply wanting to "get away from it all".   Most of those people recognise the castle as part of the whole identity of Rum, not something that takes away from it.


Fantasy island.  Where George and Monica insisted on being buried on Rum...
And I think most islanders feel similarly.  For most of us, "Rum" is more than the sum of its parts.  Like the mountains, the deer, the sea and the shearwaters, Kinloch Castle (and all the other "historic" bits of Rum) is part of the reality of the island, both its past and its present.  People, including those who mainly come to Rum to climb mountains, are passionate about the castle.  They fall in love with its bizarre history and its even more bizarre furnishings.  They want to know more about it.  They want to stay in it (sorry you can't yet!).  They spend money here coming to see it and many insist that there's potential for it to be used even more, in all sorts of ways, and ask why we're not doing more to get people to come and see it. In other words...they dream.


...and how they chose to live. Ever fallen in love with somewhere you shouldn't have fallen in love with? (Photos (c) L Becker)
Yes, says Andrew, but in times of Government cuts how can we justify the expense of the castle's upkeep? This is a common argument at the moment, but to me it doesn't make sense. Yes, if by not restoring the castle we could eliminate child poverty in Scotland - great, let's do it! But it doesn't work that way. Would that money really go into helping others?  More to the point (as SNH really does have a responsibility towards the island) would abandoning the castle help Rum? I think it wouldn't, though I don't expect them to keep paying for it - I believe eventually the castle should pay for itself with enough investment. But I've moved on now from just making an economic argument, I realise I'm arguing a bigger point, maybe against an invisible opponent. I try to explain (on my third glass of wine now) that no-one would think of demolishing the Tower of London or Westminster Abbey because the money could be "better spent elsewhere".  Those things have a different meaning to schools or new roads. They are part of our history, part of what it means to be human.  And the castle has a special place in history here in Rum, a place seen as nearly uninhabitable for much of its history.  The Bulloughs with their castle changed that, they made it not only a desirable, but an ultra-desirable place to live, a place where dreams could come true.  I think it still inspires people to dream, dreams that Rum could become a place not only with a thriving community, but a place that has a bigger significance within Scotland and beyond.  People don't visit places (or even live in them) just because they have shops and schools.  They visit them because something about them speaks to their inner fantasies and needs.  And Rum speaks to a lot of people in this way. It's a place with an 8,000 year human history, a cultural as well as a natural asset, and our castle is an essential part of that.  It's got so much to teach people and means that our island isn't just about economic survival - it means way more...

I don't know if I managed to get any of this across in my slightly tipsy, if passionate discussion with Mr Thinne - the poor man was probably desperately hoping someone would come and take me away.  But I was desperate to get him to see the island and the castle from the "inside" not just the outside.  And it made me realise that despite all my reservations, I am becoming more of an "insider" - not just a strange Southerner with a hankering to live in a castle.  (And the next day I found out it wasn't just me getting passionate about the island - apparently too much wine flowed after I'd left and an inter-islander fight nearly broke out at the shop over a question of policy...) I guess having an "outsider" looking into our world, made us realise that our community is still fragile and there are still many unresolved questions about what's going to happen to Rum and what should happen to it.  That's why we need those on the outside to listen to us on the inside and understand what it means to live on Rum, as opposed to merely reading statistics about it.

But why now? Well, it's not just a coincidence that these visits are happening now (we've also had visits from an independent conservator (who loves the castle*) and other SNH staff).  Listen up, castle-lovers - Kinloch Castle is at a crossroads.  Currently an options appraisal is going on to decide the immediate fate of our very own "temple to Edwardian decadence". There are lots of ideas, but a consultation showed that most islanders want the castle to stay, with the museum at the front and the empty parts at the back turned into housing and "posh" visitor accommodation (to attract wealthier visitors, for example groups who might want to do deerstalking.)  This is a perfect example of how SNH and the Community Trust could work together to improve things for Rum - we can offer fantastic stalking for those who want to pay for it.  But currently, there's nowhere appropriate for them to stay.  If we could invest enough in the castle to turn this around, it would be a huge benefit for the island as a whole. 

Will Government listen?  Can we show that investment is desperately needed, but also that it will eventually pay for itself - perhaps eventually even taking the castle off the government's hands? We have to fight our corner and do our best to get the help we need....and we hope that all those people who love the island will make their voices heard too. 



Human needs (2)...dream castle and a few more human necessities (Photo (c) L Becker)


*On cultural geography: our conservator, Rob, told me about how he'd gone out to Africa a few years back as part of his job.  Why?  Because Nigeria has medieval castles and churches hidden away in its forests, that are going to be restored.  I fantasise about historians and conservators of the future approaching Rum in their teletransporting units, and digging beneath the layers of sand, mud and rock to find a pink Edwardian castle...complete with jet-spraying jacuzzi bath.  It would be sad if it had gone...

22nd September - Harvest time, a harvest moon and all about shearwaters





Blasda today - the Scottish celebration of local food and drink and an excuse to bring everyone together for a slap-up meal! 

Preparation has been going on for some time with those amongst us who love cooking busy planning meals and harvesting produce from their polytunnels and gardens.  And those amongst us who just love eating were invited to come along and join in!  In the end, 26 big people and four little ones turned up - and there was, as always, just enough food with a little bit to spare.  Among the islanders were some visitors too - Sean's Mum and Dad, and our singers and story-tellers from yesterday's shearwater festival (more of which anon).  It was lovely to have a mix of locals old and less old along with people who just enjoy visiting us, and we set up one long table down the middle of the community hall to make sure everyone felt part of the day.

Now where's the next course?
For me as a newbie it hasn't been so easy to source "local produce".  My patch in the community polytunnel remains so far just a patch.  My optimistic order to the Co-op ("Scottish marmelade please, NOT Golden Shred") for my marmelade puddings, resulted in three jars of...Golden Shred.  Likewise, I did not milk my own cow to get the cream for the cranachan (a dairy is one thing we lack on Rum, although the Victorian dairy house is still there!)  However, eggs were very local indeed as were the raspberries (kindly given to me by Vikki) and the blackberries (picked by me at enormous expense to my fingers and clothing).  But other people managed cabbages, turnips, carrots, onions, fennel, chervil, chives, potatoes, courgettes, venison...resulting in an impressive three course menu.  Among the more exotic items was a chili venison curry and home-made custard made with goose eggs!

Cranachan - just add cream, raspberries, blackberries, oats, honey, whiskey...
Having eaten until we could eat no more, we would probably have been happy just to sit around and gently nod off over the tea and biscuits, but suddenly Tim, one of the visitors, got up and unpacked his accordion.  Last night he had played to us mournful and funny Icelandic and Gaelic songs of birds, the sea, unrequited love and, er, egg-hunting  - from St Kilda, Orkney and Iceland, where in the "old days" young ladies tested their admirers by setting them near-impossible tasks such as scaling huge cliffs to collect gannet eggs.  Today he and Danny, who plays the guitar, struck up a medley of tunes ranging from the Charleston to traditional folk music.  We all gradually joined in playing whatever instruments lay to hand - mainly spoons, coffee cups, tables and glasses, but with a good deal of clapping and stamping too.  Most of us adults didn't quite manage to get over our self-consciousness enough to dance, but one five-year-old didn't stop from the moment the accordion was unpacked to the moment it was put back into its case.  We wonder if Tim might be persuaded to come back for the Hogmanay ceilidh - our band has fallen through and we are worried there might be no live music at all (anyone with an idea, let me know!)

It was a lovely and inspiring end to my difficult "Week Five", when, as I am reliably informed, disillusion can start to set in for newcomers who've spent four weeks in an idealistic haze of excitement ("I'm living on an island! No-one lives on an island! It's amazing! I live in a castle!  On an island!" etc etc etc).  The point at which you start to realise this could be for the long haul - or it could turn out to be a disaster.  The point at which you question everything everyone does and wonder if you can really bear to live in a place with only 40 people and no "normal" structures (all the things you take for granted in a mostly functioning society -  all the structures we've put in place to allow us to cope with conflict and make decisions without actually killing each other, starting from the bottom with things like sports clubs and choirs, parent-teacher associations and village councils, through to the judiciary, government and the EU. And that's before I've even got on to the lack of shops, entertainment, pubs and restaurants); we're still in the process of creating those decision-making structures or getting the ones we already have to work. This is part of the excitement but sometimes it can feel very hard. I'm not employed here, I don't have a role - I'm not a manager, a doctor, a farmer or even, as yet, an official volunteer.  So what is my position here?

It was a relief last night not to have to worry about it, just sitting back and going "Wow" while someone else does something amazing.  Yesterday we had a visit from a touring duo, Tim and Malcolm.  Both multi-talented enthusiasts about Scotland, music, the sea and seabirds, they are touring the islands to perform their "Shearwater" play and hold workshops for islanders (http://vimeo.com/51081620).  And before you stop reading and go "oh no, not birds again" - let me try to get you interested.  Shearwaters are amazing black and white birds, the albatross of the northern hemisphere.  They can travel up to five million miles in their lifetime and on a single fishing expedition may travel up to 1200 miles.  Imagine going 1200 miles to the supermarket every time your fridge was empty! (oh, hang on, that's a bit like us...) They mate for life, and can live for 40-50 years or even longer. They lay a single egg each year in burrow underground, and their fluffy grey chicks fledge at night when their parents are far out to sea, running (or waddling) down to the ocean by the light of the moon - or in the dark if they're lucky, moonlight is dangerous as it means the fat little chicks can easily be picked off by predators.  They make a crazy noise to the extent that the Vikings (and many people after them) thought there were trolls and demons in the mountains, when it was in fact just the shearwaters.  That's why (we believe) one of our mountains is called "Trollval".  Thousands of them make their burrows up behind Coire Dubh and in September you can go up to view them at night, if you're brave enough to go up a mountain in the dark that is (I'm not yet).


http://www.surfbirds.com/media/gallery_photos/20070923011155.jpg
Manx Shearwater (copyright www.surfbird.com)




The play talked about why we love nature, how we love it but often destroy it.  Global warming means there is no food left for many sea birds in the north of Britain and their numbers are plummeting.  But as well as the sadness there was the excitement about being somewhere where we're lucky enough still to be close to such strange beings.  Why do humans love being close to birds and animals? Maybe once upon a time we used to be closer to them still.  We are totally unlike birds but in some ways we are like them, or maybe want to be like them.  Bonding for life is just one example...they do it, and we just try our best. 

 We all sat enthralled before leaving to prepare our Blasda food...I am determined to get up the troll mountain one day! And it reminded me too that we (I) need more than organisations and structures to survive and be happy, we need songs, good food, friends, mountains and amazing places.  A bit like being on Rum.  Sometimes.

Harvest moon, 19th September


 















The meaning of tea-shops...aka losing my Rum virginity...


(No, not in that way).
In a random moment I said to Claire, who runs our tea shop, that I'd be happy to help out with shifts as she is currently short staffed.  The tea shop was another reason I agreed to come here.  An island without a tea shop is not an island as far as I'm concerned - I'd be rubbish on Desert Island Discs!

Now she's taken me up on the offer and I am quaking at the thought of having to do some actual work after many of my days  so far have been spent wandering around in a kind of dream, absorbing island life but not having to contribute to it.  I've wanted to - I've felt strange not having any role to play.  But part of me has needed to "do nothing" - in other words to play, rather than be at work.  I hadn't had a holiday since New Zealand and the past three months have been the hardest I've ever known...true, but see how I'm already feeling the need to justify "not doing anything" rather than just enjoying it.

In reality, doing something so new is so worthwhile in itself, that I don't want to have to justify it.  Didn't I want to leave London in order to get away from the attitude that only work that makes money is worthwhile? I want to work to live, not the other way around - even better I want work and life not to be separate entities - work should have a "real" outcome not just a financial one. So logically, here I am in a tea shop!

Teashop!  Shown here on a "Community Teashop Day" with cakes by Fliss.

 
The tea shop is a very important thing on Rum.  It is run by Claire as a business, which is more complicated than it sounds.  It has huge benefits for the island as a whole - making a visit to Rum a more inviting prospect, giving people somewhere to go for refreshment that isn't their own kitchen - in other words creating a public space, which we otherwise don't really have except for the equally important "standing outside the shop with a beer" that takes place every evening.  But it is also important for Claire to be able to live from it, at least during the summer.  This can be difficult, as it's near-impossible to predict takings - like so much else on the island, visitor numbers are weather-dependent besides being subject to the myserious laws of tea shops everywhere in the world - why is everyone eating chocolate cake today when yesterday they all wanted scones?  Why is there always a run on the most complicated food when we are short-staffed?

Claire rents the community hall in order to have a space but uses her own equipment and pays her own staff.  Me! I am excited as well as scared - will I forget the orders?  Break the cups? Drop the cakes?  Probably. But I'll also get to meet people in an "official" capacity and "out" myself to tourists as a resident of Rum. 

I soon realise that besides being excellent training for a future life as a tea-shop owner one day, the main effect of this job really is to turn me into a Rum resident in super-quick time.  Like everyone else I too will now spend a good deal of time answering questions such as: "How many people live on the island?" (44 now I'm here!); "Why isn't the castle open all day?" (we can't afford to staff it); "When does the shop open?" (it depends); "Wasn't the castle on one of those TV programmes, um, with Prince Charles?" (yes it was, Restoration - we came second! Please, Prince Charles, come back and help save the castle); "Why isn't the hostel in the castle any more? Such a shame, it was so much more romantic..." (because no-one likes to share a cold shower with 60 other people and the bedrooms were getting mouldy...actually that's only two of the reasons...I can't go into it here...sorry).  Like the other 43 residents of the island I will become needlessly defensive towards "yachties" (the contrast between our muddy boots/ancient jeans and their pristine Hunters and Joules outfits is sometimes all too worrying - you can tell they often feel the same way...),  become fiercely protective of the island's unique weirdness in the face of any (even imagined) criticism yet also fiercely want people to get involved and be interested.   There is a temptation in this kind of small community to imagine you are totally self-sufficient - well, we're not.

Anyway, in the midst of all these questions I am running about trying to remember who ordered what drinks to go with what meals. (All the Victoria sponge does go - obviously a Vicky sponge day not a chocolate one...why?! The cakes are all home-made by people on the island and are amazing.)  We're fairly busy today although Claire assures me this is nothing compared to last week when 84 came in off the Sheerwater.  84!  I am not the cool, calm, collected manager I liked to think I was in my last job (as if...) but an anxious bundle of tea-shop nerves.  Claire remains cool, calm and collected.  I concentrate on smiling and answering the questions.  It seems to work as a combination but I'd like to get all the drinks right next time too.
A Rum resident. Can I have two puddings please?

At 4 pm everyone is just about gone and it's time to tidy up and count our takings.  Claire pays me!  I am in receipt of my first Rum wage.  It is very exciting and I skip home.  On the way, however, I realise I've lost my Rum virginity...no longer hovering on the outskirts of the community I too have now unconsciously taken on that "them and us" feeling.  I don't want to feel that way, though.  After all, I was an "outsider" myself until just a short time ago - to everyone else on the island, I probably still am.  And the island, or at least the castle, needs outsiders and always will, to survive.  George and Monica were the ultimate outsiders - they owned the island, but didn't live on it.  But they did love it. That, at the time, kept people employed (although without many rights), helped the land to thrive and at Monica's wish, ensured that the island would be kept as a nature reserve after their deaths.  They could have sold it to the highest bidder, but they didn't.  They kept it safe - though not for us necessarily.

Even if we wouldn't want those days back (or at least not for long, I'd love to revisit it just for a couple of hours!) the island still struggles without the wealth that could create more of an infrastructure here.  No-one has any capital, for example to start a business, open a restaurant, build new housing.  We keep on pondering this lack of money and what it means for the island.  Some people here are not ambitious for Rum, they are happy with things as they are.  Others (a mix of old and new) would love more things to happen and to make it more of a welcoming place, not to mention to give us islanders more "stuff" to do.  A visitor today told me he and his wife have a house on Shetland (now that's remote), and up there, they are already preparing for their long, long winter of almost total darkness - they are starting up evening classes, organising weekly events and preparing to transform their lives while waiting for the planet to move slowly around the sun.  Then in summer they will transform back into "outdoors people".  For us, it's harder - we don't have evening classes, cinemas, theatres, pubs or restaurants.  But we do have plans - and the tea shop is the beginning of all civilisation!

15th September - the storm has arrived...

So, as we walked home in the dark to the castle after the quiz night (£107 raised for the hall roof to add to the growing funds...whoop whoop! We need £11,000 to make the roof wind- and watertight, get rid of the woodworm and repair the big hole that no-one is allowed to mention any more until we can afford to get it done), the wind was getting up and by the time we were in bed we could hear the first blasts booming around the castle.  The wind doesn't whistle here...it makes a noise a bit like a door slamming (sometimes it IS a door slamming - they were fitted with patent anti-slam devices in 1899 that have the effect of making the doors slam much louder than normal doors - but mostly it's just the wind booming in the turrets...)

In the morning I was woken up by actual doors slamming and Mel racing backwards and forwards with saucepans and towels. "There's water coming through in the tower, let's hope it's not the water tank." There's an especially big turret in the middle of the castle which we go up sometimes at night to look at the stars.  You get to the top via a very narrow, steep spiral staircase with rope at the sides to help you and half-way up there is a door leading into "The Water Tank".  This is a giant lead container holding all the water for the castle and has a room all to itself.  Much like the boiler downstairs in the cellar which has been going since 1897 and has a big scary button on it saying "STOP".  "What's that button for?" I asked. "That's what you press if you see flames coming out of the cellar - it shuts off the kerosene supply."  "Aha - where does the kerosene come from?" The kerosene is in a giant reinforced plastic barrel out the back of the castle, there's a big ladder leaning up against it. "What's the ladder for?" "That's so you can climb up and poke the kerosene with a big stick to see how much is left." Um....
Doors of the original boiler - still powering our showers today!



Indeed.

We worry whether our friends living in yurts, caravans etc are ok.  The wind seems to be dropping overnight but we haven't gone to inspect the damage yet.  Claire told us that once she did wake up in the morning after a windy night and looked out of her yurt and there was an entirely different view to the one she'd had the previous day. This is why some people "go off" the island in winter.  It is fun to read about but not so much fun really living in a static caravan on a hillside in a gale in winter, on an island.  However, Nic and Adi think they will try to brave it out this year.  "It just feels wrong to leave, this is our home."  The children are quite excited. As our visitors, my friend and former au-pair child Katharina and her boyfriend, told us, Rum brings out your adventurish side. I hope they are ok in Mallaig today and can get back to where they need to be.

Having our first visitors here was lovely and it made me feel proud to be here. I was worried they'd be bored or anxious when the weather was bad, but instead they braved the elements and went out walking, falling in many bogs, getting followed by many animals and taking many photos of  mountains in the rain (and even in the sunshine).  Already I've started to worry less about rain and just go out in it and get wet.  It was an experience "climbing" the Kilmory Glen road in wet weather - the clouds had come down almost as far as the path and you couldn't see far.  A buzzard flapped right past us, unwilling to go higher into the mists.  Everything smelt of heather, wet earth and smoke.  The air was wet too.  By the time we got to the deer gate we were all dripping and quite cold, but kept on until we warmed up again.  A quick break by the waterfall with tea and whiskey helped! We chatted about German and English politics, neo-Nazis in Germany and the British attitude to Europe, our visitors' impressions of the island (good), whether rolling your own cigarettes is better than buying them readymade (their cigarette papers had got wet on their first walk and never recovered), and why you can't wear trainers to walk on Rum.  Katharina and Julian were keen to get up into the mountains but I had to explain that is is actually dangerous in bad weather and how swiftly good weather can change.  I don't think they believed me until they saw it for themselves.  Luckily, their last day was a golden day and we actually got up to Coire Dubh where Katharina went off-piste and decided to scale a (small) mountain. We followed her up across the non-path to a rocky outcrop where we were above the hills on the other side of the island so that we could see the lakes that are hidden on their summits, bright blue in their reflections of a perfectly blue sky.  It felt dizzy - the first time I've been onto the mountain proper, as opposed to wandering about beneath it.

For me and our visitors these changes were dramatic enough, but I know that soon winter will be here and what we've experienced so far will be nothing in comparison.  The boats are cancelled today and tomorrow, and so there won't be another until Wednesday.  This is with predicted 50 mph gales but it can get much worse! That's why I want to see as much of the island as I can now - so that I can picture it in my head even when in reality it's become inaccessible.