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.

So what's it all about, then, eh?

There has been quite a break since I last wrote a proper blog post.  Sorry. But I was thinking about you! I thought I'd run out of things to say.  It would be boring (I said to myself) for people yet again to read about eagles and how the weather makes all the big decisions about what happens here. Then I realised that there was another reason.  Phase 1 of being here had finished and I'd entered a different phase that I didn't like much.  New things are always exciting, not to mention a new life.   But of course after a while the newness is gone and you start to go more deeply into the experience, which means that you start to wonder more about how you fit into it and what it can do for you, rather than just thinking about it as a neutral observer.

There's a really good German phrase: an die eigenen Grenzen sto├čen.  This literally means, "to bump into your own limits".  Before we came here I cheerily said to many people that I was terrified because it meant I would be diving into the totally unknown.  It was true, I was terrified for many reasons (not all of which I admitted to), but as usual, the excitement won out and I felt I had to do it.  What I didn't think about was that constantly bumping into your own limits means you end up with a fair amount of bruising.  What I'm now experiencing is the feeling you have when you don't want to move off the sofa because every bit of you is going "ouch" - literally and figuratively. 

It's getting very cold now and I wear a hat and scarf even on sunny days.  But before we went away, autumn was still golden, and I did have an exciting eagle experience, as it happens.  I decided to struggle up Coire Dubh (the path behind the castle), not being at all in the mood, and get Beyond the Dam (the point where I've usually had enough and turn back, and the point where it goes into proper mountain country).  It wasn't so much "Come on! I can climb a mountain," as, "I don't want to but I'm going to".  Spurred on by friends who had just climbed Hallival, a REAL mountain, I wanted to know what it is like to conquer my limits - to see what it would be like to do something really hard.  And I was intrigued by the weather - for once it wasn't even cloudy and the mountains looked like we were in Spain or the Alps.  Suddenly I got my excitement back - I was in a foreign country! A blazing hot sun, too bright blue sky, nothing stirring except now and again a breeze in the rowans, and the waterfalls sparkling in the afternoon light. The hills were bare, deserted, the grass turning brown, not because of the heat but because of the autumn.  But it felt like Mallorca and I felt like it was summer. 

Just above the dam on Coire Dubh (Photo (c) L Becker)
Each time I got to one of the natural resting places I was keen to stop.  I had to keep removing layers because of the heat, I was sweating and grumpy, kept looking down and thinking, why don't I just turn back.  But something drove me on.  It was stony and I tripped up a lot, but I also kept seeing how far I had come.  I was a long way up and it was totally silent (at least once I'd got far enough not to hear Dave's annoying jet-ski).  Eventually, I crossed the "lip" of the coire - over the edge on to flat land, a green basin within the rocks, just a stream moving.  I felt I'd crossed into another world - another island.  The rocks stood up like statues.  And as I looked up there was suddenly a huge eagle up above me.  I could see a difference to the golden eagles we'd seen the previous day, and realised it must be a sea eagle, its giant, slow flapping movements taking it impossibly far into each glide. It circled above, seeming to approach and I felt frightened - it was just me and him (or her) in this lonely landscape.  An eagle, the sun and me. Irrational though it was part of me wanted to run away; part of me wanted to stay until evening, go even further up, scramble up those rocks and reach a pinnacle.  But I didn't.  I was too sensible or too scared - one or the other.  I also wanted to leave the eagle alone - somehow it felt like it wasn't my landscape, it belonged to her (or him). I had to get down.  I began almost to run, although it was too rocky to run.  Once at the dam, I breathed again.  I couldn't see the eagle any more.  Just the sea far below and the tiny symbols of human habitation: the castle, Gav and Laura's croft (which is finally taking shape), Nic and Adi's caravan, yurts, houses, boats. Part of me wanted to stay - part of me to go.

I was hugely excited to have seen a sea eagle, and I told people all about how amazing it was. But I wouldn't admit that alongside the excitement I was definitely scared.  Eagles never attack humans unless they are in danger themselves and so I felt like an idiot.  But it was something to do with feeling isolated - however much we love the eagles, they will never love us back or if they do, we'll never know.  And this is how it should be - all we can do for them is leave them alone.  And that is why I am struggling - because this is the first place I've ever lived that is not set up for humans at all.  We have a bit of a foothold, but not much, and we're still working out what we should/can take and what we can give back.  I like the idea of "living in harmony with nature" - but what does it actually mean when you're a human?

I was struggling even more on Tuesday when we attempted to get to Bloodstone Hill.  This is a magnificent, terrifying bit of rock on the other side of the island, which you can only get to by cycling four miles to Malcolm's Bridge, then struggling up a barely-marked path, through a bog and over a "beleach" (the dip between two mountains).  Once we got to the beleach, the view was incredible - right across to Canna, a tiny island set in a bright blue sea, and down the dizzying slopes to Guirdil, the bothy on the beach that can only be reached by "contouring down" the hill (i.e. guessing where you might be able to put your feet next). We could hear stags roaring in the glen below and then we saw them - they looked impossibly tiny. That was how far up we were.  One of the most beautiful views I've ever seen...

View of Canna from above Glen Guirdil - Guirdil bothy right at the bottom (Photo (c) "Kinley" from the Scottish Hills Forum)
I never made it to Bloodstone - maybe next time.  I got quite a long way, but I was exhausted and grumpy from not knowing where the path was (because there wasn't a proper one - don't argue with me Scottish mountain-climbers, there definitely WASN'T) and continually falling into the bog - much to the amusement of certain other people (you know who you are). "The island hates me!" I groaned childishly after the seventh or eighth bit of clumpy grass fell away beneath my feet to deposit me in a foot of mud.  Footpaths!  How I long for a lovely Ordnance Survey map with the footpaths clearly marked - I don't care how steep or how muddy, at least they are there! We don't realise how lucky we are in England. 

One of our better "paths" (not me on it...) (Photo (c) "Kinley" SHF)
I want to think more about how people interact with landscapes that they don't have much control over and so I've been desperately trying to find books that help me out.  One of them is Simon Barnes' How to be Wild. (He also wrote the better known book How to be a Bad Birder). He tries to analyse why we as humans are so unhappy in the human-filled world we've made and why we need outdoor spaces, animals and "nature" to be truly ourselves, and urges us to find the "wildness" in our lives, whether that is in the African desert or in our local park.  So far I agree, it's a vital message.  But Simon (though he's travelled widely, and to far more dangerous spots than I have) lives in Suffolk.  Presumably he has a local council, local buses and local doctors.  Also, and more importantly, he has footpaths. The countryside he lives in may be rural, but rural England is a place where people belong, generally.  Here, we don't.  That means our relationship with the island is very different.

I want to love the wilds (and I do), but actually living in them makes you think about your priorities and who you really are.  Does it matter that we spend so much time planning how to obtain, grow or order food?  No - it's a good thing, it makes you realise what harvest festival is all about and you appreciate every individual parsnip or potato when it's had to be ordered a week in advance and travel to the island by ferry, or be grown with months of care and hard work, and protected from destruction by bad weather, turkeys or pigs. Does it matter that there are no pubs?  Yes it does! 

Looking for help, I opened up a book at random - Letters from Iceland by W.H Auden and Louis MacNeice.  The two poets travelled around Iceland in the 1930s, partly to escape their growing dread of war and fascism in Europe.  Iceland at the time was a remote, tiny civilisation of farmers and fishermen - kind of similar to Rum, really.  I'd never read the book before.  So maybe it was fate that I opened it at the page (p. 27 if you're curious and have the Faber edition) where Christopher Isherwood is asking Auden in a letter:

                What feelings did your visit give you about life on small islands?

Auden replies:
If you have no particular intellectual interests or ambitions and are content with the company  of your family and friends, then life on Iceland must be very pleasant, because the inhabitants are friendly, tolerant and sane.  They are genuinely proud of their country and its history, but without the least trace of hysterical nationalism.  I have always found that they welcomed criticism.  But I had the feeling, also, that for myself it was already too late. We are all too deeply involved with Europe to be able, or even to wish to escape [...] I think that in the long run, the Scandinavian sanity would be too much for you, as it is for me.  The truth is, we are both only really happy living among lunatics.
Substitute "the mainland" for "Europe", and "Rum" for "Scandinavian", and there you are!

Auden is torn, it seems, between the satisfaction of dealing with the struggles of everyday life where politics don't seem to matter, and the need to engage with that "insanity" back in Europe.  Insanity wins - eventually.
But just after this, Auden's companion MacNeice wrote to another friend:
               
                           ...what am I doing here?...
                The reason for hereness seems beyond conjecture,
                There are no trees or trains or architecture,
                Fruits and greens are insufficient for health,
                And culture is limited by lack of wealth.
                The tourist sights have nothing like Stonehenge...
                And yet I like it if only because this nation
                Enjoys a scarcity of population...
                [We] do not remember
                The necessity of silence of the islands.
 He too seems to be idealising island life - huh, I think, it's easy to be snobby about "culture" when you're surrounded by London!  If only! But then he writes:

                We are not changing ground to escape from facts
                But rather to find them.

Maybe it's not a straightforward choice between boring "sanity" and exciting, if exhausting "insanity" in the "real world".  Maybe it's a bit more complex.  Maybe living here in this environment that demands such different skills to "back home", and is so silent, does act as a balance or a learning curve to deal with all that stuff happening out on the mainland: all those really noisy things that can make you feel helpless, angry or sad - but that still need dealing with.  Looking inside myself, I realise that humans are full of struggles and they are still looking for where they belong. 

I clearly need to give this whole island thing a bit more of a go.

P.S. We do have a bit of architecture (not much) and some trees. We also have a lot of silence.

Looking across to Orval and Bloodstone from the other side (Photo (c) Kinley, SHF)





One of the "top ten railway journeys in the world" starts here...

We hit a deer on the way back up to Fort William. It was already dark and the train was running fast to Spean Bridge when there was suddenly a loud bang and the train ground to a halt while we heard an uneven bumping rolling away under the train.  Everyone stopped and looked at each other but in a moment the train started up again. "It was a deer," confirmed Mel after a few minutes looking out, "I saw the body roll away."
It wasn't a good omen for our travel back to the island after a few days' break to do "practical" stuff on the mainland.  But the advantage of doing the journey during the day instead of overnight was that we got to see how empty the landscape became as the sun set over Loch Lomond and the water turned pink and gold in the light.  It was beautiful and the sadness I felt about the deer didn't last long - I've seen it happen too often in mountainous places - although I have thought about it a lot since then.  But it heightened the sense of anxiety creeping up on me - I didn't really want to go back. All the things I was worried about before I left London (what am I going to DO there? who will I talk to? who will I turn into if I live on a tiny island?!) were all proving well-founded fears...but first of all I have to deal with a Saturday night train ride from Glasgow through to Mallaig, which is an experience in itself...

We leave Glasgow around 6 pm - it's the shoppers' train that will at some point turn into the clubbers' train.  The shoppers have spent an exciting day in Glasgow and are worn out with buying stuff and are either falling asleep over their M&S, Accessorise and Primark bags (the teenagers) or sitting in groups drinking wine and giggling (the middle aged ladies).  As the journey goes on, more and more shoppers get off at the little towns or villages, while more and more teenagers get on, intent on a night out "up to toon" in Fort William.  A distinct smell of cigarettes and then of weed drifts down the carriage and now I understand why all the windows have been opened...Shortly before Fort William someone gets on and sits behind me, and the smell of ciggies and weed grows stronger.  He has recognised a young couple who are sitting nearby and decides to chat with them.  His observations are short but to the point: "It's fooking freezing, aye."  Pause.  "Aye, it's fooking freezing.  Youse guys going up to toon?" (Inaudible response from the couple).  "Aye. I fooking am an' all."  Another inaudible remark from the  couple.  "Aye. Fooking right". Pause. "Fooking freezing, though, aye."  There is another pause and then the conversation continues as a very loud monologue from the person behind me, which I can't understand most of as it's in broad Glaswegian.  I can only make out "Un' then he said...'n' I was fooking like, FOOK...fer fook's sake...fooking FREEZING it fooking was."

From the deep voice and the bad smokers' cough that is going on behind me, I imagine a tall, rugged, scary Glaswegian man, maybe in his late thirties with a habit of going out and getting pissed on the train and who doesn't wrap up warm enough on autumn evenings.  Hope he doesn't notice we're gay.  Maybe he and his mates will beat us up at the next stop...Maybe I should offer him my coat. I don't dare look round in case he catches my eye and asks me what the fook I am staring at. 

The next stop IS Fort William and I breathe a sigh of relief as I hear sounds of preparing departure from behind. Finally I dare to turn my head.  A short, spotty boy with a snub nose and a bad red anorak is sat behind me, quite a bit shorter than I am.  He looks about twelve years old.  "Aye, well I'm fooking off now,"  he says unnecessarily to the couple, and departs.  They follow, quietly.

It is now extremely cold (he was right about that) and once the majority of travellers have departed for their pubs and clubs I shut the windows.  The next group of people to get on is more sedate...mostly middle aged types who look as if they are going on holiday to do birdspotting and they probably are; and an "alternative" looking American in a baseball cap reading the Guardian and wearing a Death Metal T-shirt (I know he's American because he asks one of the passengers for a light).  Two of the teenagers have stayed on, one of them is a girl obviously training to be an actress, also American and very loud:  "And then these guys made me wear this crazy costume, and wanted me to cut my hair off, and it made me look like a LESBEEYUN!" In the carriage up ahead there is a rowdy group of four gentlemen, one of which I recognise as the only non-white man I've seen so far in Mallaig - one of the bartenders from the Steam Inn, where we are staying tonight.  I'm enjoying this cross-section of the Scottish population: teenagers, geeks, on-train smokers, bartenders, shoppers, birdwatchers, elderly ladies...but by the time we get to Mallaig I've had enough of it and just want to go to bed. It's nearly midnight, after all.

As we leave the train I see that the table where the Steam Inn group was sitting.  It's impressively covered in three bottles of whisky, a huge number of cigarette papers and about 10 empty cans of Tennents.  It's trashed and so are the guys. Pretty much next to the notice on the train that tells you that ScotRail no longer allow alcohol on trains after 9 pm.  Someone had a fun night!  They are all still stood on the platform smoking cigarettes in a wobbly fashion.  The bartender looks at us suspiciously, he knows he's seen us before.

We get to the Steam Inn.  Mel says, "Great, now we just have to walk into a small Scottish pub at midnight and tell them we've booked a room together."  "It'll be fine," I say without conviction. We walk in.  There are three teenagers sat at the bar, one couple playing pool and an extremely drunken group of bar staff sat in a corner.  It's a bit quiet.  Mel approaches the small person behind the bar, who seems also to be a teenager.  "Er...we've booked a double room."  Silence.  "I'll have a look for youse".  Teenager consults the book.  "No, um, nothing here." "Well, we definitely booked it". Teenager consults another book. "Oh...umm....maybe...was your name Melanie?" "Yes it was."  "Be with you in a minute".  Teenager grabs a key and goes over to the group of drunken staff. She says something I think means she's going to show us to our room so will be gone for a minute or so.  The most drunken member of staff, who must be the chef judging from her trousers, turns round to look at us.  "FUCK!" she shouts.  "Don't worry," the girl says to us, "it's been one of those days...she's just hammered."

We follow her up the stairs and just as we are getting to the room she does a double-take and goes back a couple of steps to a different door.  "Sorry, we don't have a double after all. Is a twin ok?" Fine, anything is fine.  She unlocks the door and then you can't see her for dust...

I am torn between despairing about where I have come to live and finding it hilarious. After about twenty seconds I can't stop laughing. This is the road to the isles and I want to enjoy it while I still have a sense of humour!  Even though it's not quite what they put in the tourist brochures.