All at sea

I posted earlier this week about enjoying life here on Rum but so far this week seems to have mostly been about enjoying life off the coast of Rum.

It’s a funny old balance here – the time of year when you feel you should be out working the croft as much as possible also coincides with the time of year it is largely unbearable outside due to the midges. They have been dreadful this year, which we were anticipating after such a wet, warm winter and we are practically living in our midge jackets and managing to feed animals, water the polytunnel and do odd bits and pieces outside in and around the swarms. We are also admitting defeat when it is really bad and planning to catch up properly on the weeding, building and other tasks on the days when th sun shines or the wind blows and the midges are not quite so fierce.

So instead we have been retreating out on to the water to enjoy the wildlife rather than endure it. On Monday we finished our week of Shearwater worship with an evening boat trip just around the coastline of Rum to see the rafts of shearwaters gathering at sea ready to come in as dark fell. It is a different feel altogether being out on the water in the evening. The light is different, the sounds are different, the behaviour of the birds is different. We saw a huge colony of kittiwakes on a rock face including lots of fledglings. Our skipper told us that they were much, much bigger than the chicks off the coast of Mallaig, just 15 or so miles away. We speculated on whether this was an earlier hatching or better feeding here on Rum. The noise of the colony was deafening, they were really rowdy. Very excitingly an eagle was perched on the rocks above the kittiwakes, waiting to drop in on them for his dinner. We scared him off (they had done the boat trip the evening before and startled the same eagle from the same spot) making the boat the kittiwakes new best friend!

Today we were out again, this time on our regular Thursday trip aboard MV Sheerwater. Usually we head towards the isle of Soay, just off the coast of Skye as the Sheerwater has the contract to deliver their weekly postbag. The island has just 3 permanent residents at present so they don’t get a lot of post! Today there was no post at all and so we were off whale and dolphin chasing instead with no specific route to adhere to.

Straight away we were veering off sharply with the cry of ‘Whale! coming from the front of the boat and sure enough we found a minke whale. We have had several close encounters with these gorgeous cetaceans during our time here on Rum including a couple of multiple whales together, a very curious young whale who appeared as interested in us as we were in him, popping out of the water headfirst and eyeing us up. Today was by far the largest minke we have seen though – this was an older whale, complete with big nick in it’s dorsal fin and was just enormous. They can be over 20foot long and this specimen certainly was.

We stayed with the minke for a fair while and then reports came in of a superpod of dolphins not far away so we chased off in the direction of them. We saw them long before we came close as they were highlighted by three bright orange boats with the pod of dolphins all around them. Dolphins are super curious and love being around people, seeming to play in the waves and wake of boats and almost put on a show for their delighted audience. This group was no different and we were treated to a splendid amount of leaping, beaching, splashing and what certainly looked like playing. There were probably between 30 and 50 in the group of varying sizes including several young and they were leaping well clear of the water before splashing back in again, delighting us and ensuring most of us went into high pitches squeals and squeaks to rival the dolphins themselves! Above joining in with the feeding frenzy that the dolphins were engaged in were a large number of gannets, flying and crashing into the water in their own, equally impressive display. It was definitely the sort of memory one treasures for ever.

Our camera battery died, which is always the mark of the best experiences – whether that is sods law or actually a really good thing as you tend to watch far closer and commit way more to memory if not watching from behind a camera lens and stressing over capturing the perfect shot I am never sure, but I don’t need a photo to remind me of the experience. Sorry I can’t share one here so you can get a little of it but you’ll have to trust me that Scarlett’s much repeated catchphrase of our first summer here was very true today. The sea was alive!

Living It Up

It’s the Busy Period here on Rum. Tourists aplenty, lots of visiting friends, stacks to be doing on the croft (not all of it getting done!) but also in true tail chasing manner it is the very time of year when you most want to be taking time out to enjoy the many things which make Rum so very special.

The wildlife, the weather, the landscapes, the interesting people, the produce, the foraging…

Rum is famous for so many of the creatures we share our island and surrounding waters with; the red deer, the sea eagles and golden eagles, the midges (!), the dolphins and whales, the dragonflies, the winkles (!). We are also the summer host to a quarter of the worlds population of Manx Shearwaters, fantastic little birds who return here every year to meet up with their breeding partner (they stay with the same partner throughout their breeding life), use the same burrow as in previous years, mate, lay and incubate their egg and rear their chick until it fledges and they migrate to their winter habitat. During the day time the birds are out feeding at sea where they are graceful, elegant creatures, swooping low over the ocean with alternate flashes of black and white (their wings are black on top, white on the underside), sometimes gathering in large rafts, bobbing on the seas surface. As it gets dark at night they return once more in to land (their burrows are holes dug high into the mountainside using their beaks and wings) to feed their chicks, calling to each other with eerie high pitched squeals believed to have been incorrectly identified as trolls and goblins by the vikings who landed on Rum and named the cuillin range Hallivall, Barkeval, Askival and probably the reason behind the name Trollaval. On land they are clumsy, struggling to walk along on legs set far back on their bodies, vulnerable to predation.

On Monday we were fortunate to assist as volunteers in some of the shearwater burrow monitoring, where selected specific burrows are checked for productivity each year. Rum is the location of countless scientific research projects on many species, habitat, weather, flora and fauna.

Our part involved a walk ‘up the hill’ (about 3/4 of the way up a very high peak) on a very hot day but the views each time we stopped to catch our breath were more than worth the effort required.

and the shearwater chicks themselves once we got there were definitely worth it! We had a lovely few hours up there checking burrows, finding chicks of varying sizes, a couple of adults birds and a couple of pipping eggs. We also found a dead bird which was sad but still interesting as we could learn more about the shearwaters from looking at it’s remains and speculating on how it may have died.

Then then long walk back down the hill…

On Thursday we had our usual weekly summer treat of the Sheerwater boat trip. The conditions were perfect – a roasting hot, midge infested day back on dry land made for a welcome sea breeze, millpond flat shimmering blue ocean, cloudless blue skies and a gorgeous trip out from Rum to Soay, around the isle of Soay and back to Rum again. We saw loads of porpoises, plenty of seals, tons of jellyfish and plenty of gannets.

These close encounters with nature are a big part of what makes our life here so amazing.

Last night we ventured up the hill again, to the same part as we had been on Monday but this time in the evening. We walked up just as it was getting dark, installed ourselves on comfortable rocks and sat to wait for the adult shearwaters to come in for the night. It was an amazing experience. Sitting amid the screeching calls, the flapping wings, the shearwaters landing all around us, appearing in the drifting clouds and fog and then disappearing again while we sat, a group of 14 of us close together, speaking in hushed whispers and exclaiming on how amazing it was.

Photos are poor, mostly because the light was not good for photography but also because such an experience can never be captured on film. It is the stuff of wildlife documentaries which makes you desperate not to view it through a tv screen but to be there, experiencing it, feeling it, seeing it, hearing it and living it for real.

That’s us. Living it. To the full. And a lot of this week up in rather high places too.

One day on, one day off

We’ve been having some very changeable weather here on Rum with days of full sunshine and overpowering midge attacks interspersed with days of heavy rain and gusty wind. Enough to remind you of all of the best and worst of Rum nature all in one go!

We’ve celebrated various Rum residents birthdays this last week – birthdays here tend to come in clutches. We had a lovely evening over at Harris on the south coast of the island barbecuing over a fire from gathered driftwood. Sadly that was one of the midgier evenings so we were dancing not to the music we’d taken over with us but to avoid the little black monsters!

Market Day is up and running and it’s great seeing the different arts, crafts, makes and bakes on offer from talented islanders. I’ve been gathering as many raspberries as I can and turning them into jam although we seem to be eating it quicker than I can jar and sell it! Raspberry jam really is very delicious… the herbs in the herb spiral are doing well and there are several tomato plants with fruit starting to look red rather than green. The strawberries seem to be all but done for this year and the soft fruit is all looking healthy in  terms of growing and looking happy in the cage but not so good in terms of producing much fruit this year. We’ve been eating peas for weeks along with salad and the onions are looking almost ready to harvest, along with the broccoli and cabbages. We harvested the first lot of tatties a few weeks ago and there are a few more ready to be dug up soon.

We’ve been on some great ranger events lately – the kids went along to a biodiversity walk and we all went to a splendid foraging afternoon with a cook up afterwards of all the gathered up goodies. Seafood galore in the shape of winkles, muscles and clams along with some orache and plantain, followed up with some wild raspberries.

Aside from soft fruit I have done very little in the way of getting out foraging this year, I didn’t even gather elderflowers this year. I do have my eye on a fair few hazelnuts which look like they just might come to something this year though.

Exciting news of the week was that the duck egg which Scarlett very hopefully put under a semi broody bantam has hatched! The bantam seemed to spend as much time off the egg as she did on it and Scarlett sprayed it with water several times to keep the humidity up but we were not really very expectant, particularly as duck eggs need incubating for 28 days while bantam eggs only take 19 days. But to our delight Mrs Bantam has been out and about the last 3 days proudly leading her ‘baby’ around. Davies and Scarlett have christened it ‘Chuckling’

Dodging the elements

It’s been a real pick and mix of weather and general outside conditions these last few days. Sunshine, pouring rain, high winds and back to sunshine again. We’ve had rainbows aplenty and everything is growing like mad. With the weather come the beasties and the clegs have been out in force biting and buzzing around with the midges putting regular appearances too.

All of this means you have to really pick your moments to be outside or even in the polytunnel getting things done but we have managed to cut down the grass in the fruit cage, transplant asparagus into a raised bed in the walled garden and do lots in the polytunnel including planting on various things including chillies, peppers, rhubarb and tomatoes, cucumbers and melons. I have staked some tomatoes and pinched out the excess leaves, harvested the last of the first potatoes, onions and garlic and some of the peas which had gone over are drying out to save the seeds for next season. It’s been another good year in the polytunnel and while there is still lots of learn and ways to make it even more productive I feel I have made good use of it this year.

My current round of research when captured indoors due to too many beasties or bad weather is learning what best to do about the ragwort invasion that is taking over the croft!

Slow Days

This week for various reasons I have been reflecting, both personally and to others about the life we left behind. The trappings we used to have around us, the things which used to be important.

It’s very easy to look at our lifestyle here and make judgements. As a family we are super protective of certain things which to the casual observer may seem unimportant or trivial. We are fiercely precious about our time – our evenings together, our coffee break listening to Popmaster, our routine of trying to get home to eat lunch together, or relishing the last cup of tea of the day sat on the sporran looking out over the croft. There are reasons for this; we have given up a lot, sacrificed more than many people ever have in the first place to have this. We’ve decided that we will not work in meaningless, unfulfilling jobs which keep us apart for lunchtimes, make us weekend and holiday companions only. We made a choice 3 years ago that actually we decided to share our lives firstly with each other as a couple and then with our children as a family unit and that spending time together is our first priority. As such we celebrate these small rituals and guard against them being eroded for less important things.

Part of the slow progress here on Croft 3 is a very deliberate choice to move slowly through life – making time to stand and stare, to find meaning in the small things, beauty in the dew on the spiders webs, the tiny flowers hidden in the grass, the perfection of a still warm chicken egg collected from the coop, the joy in watching the piglets play with each other, listening as a bee buzzes past your ear. The other part is a philosophical choice in making small moves and therefore small mistakes. In learning about the land we inhabit and taking our lead from nature. In working in harmony rather than against and trying to tame.

Recently our washing machine died. It has been a marvelous, wonderful addition to Croft 3, brought here for us by friends who had found it on freecyle, bought it up as part of a trailer full of other items they re-homed here on the island, saved from landfill and given a new lease of life here, where it changed our life dramatically. Getting it up the hill was a feat for Ady, who after wrangling with it for a while decided that putting it on a tarp and dragging it up that way was far easier than trying to manhandle it. We then spent a while working out the plumbing and power required and it has always needed two different generators to get it running (one to give it the high energy boost to get started, the other to see it through the power hungry spin cycle!). It has been a boon, used three times or more a week here on the Croft since January. We will need to replace it and are looking for another second hand replacement to do just that.

Having ascertained it was beyond repair Ady set about breaking it down into parts. Long ago we would have tried to sell a second hand appliance before taking it to the tip. Having gotten more enlightened at the concept that ‘there is no away’ when throwing things away we may have latterly tried freecycle but had never had to be very creative in our thinking of ways to repurpose things until we moved here. Here an old freezer is an honesty larder to sell produce from, an old fridge makes a perfect insulated cool box with some refreezable ice blocks (or old milk cartons filled with water and frozen then refrozen again and again), and an old washing machine can be broken into parts and uses found for all of them.

Ady created a new fire basket / barbecue to sit in front of. The smoke keeps the midges at bay, rubbish can be burnt rather than going to landfill and food can be cooked on top by free, sustainable wood rather than bottled gas.

The plastic sleeve which housed the drum (and was infact the bit which had broken) is a perfect container with built in drainage to fill with soil and grow veg in – great for tatties, or placed high enough that carrot fly cannot reach them would be ideal for carrots or other roots.

The innards are very useful – all the wires and cables have been removed and will prove handy for little electrical jobs. The pump still works and will be useful for moving water around the croft at some point. Ditto the motor which is also still operational and will be used for some future project.

The washing machine glass door has been careful set aside as it’s quirky feel will make the perfect window for a bathroom one day – slightly obscure glass, thick, in it’s own frame and with  a story attached will make for the ideal addition to our forever home when we build it. The heavy blocks which keep the machine from dancing round the kitchen when on the spin cycle are perfect for the base of a cob pizza oven. Currently they are being employed to weigh down a tarp covering a generator but I have my eye on them…

Which leaves the actual casing of the washing machine – metal with a hole in it… what use could it possibly have?

Simple. Filled with straw (well actually cut and dried reeds from the croft, used as animal bedding) and positioned in one of the many chicken houses dotted around the croft it makes the perfect nesting box. As demonstrated by the half dozen eggs being laid in it each day.

I like to think that washing machine symbolises us in many ways. It’s experiencing a very different way of life to the one it used to know but no less useful, meaningful or worthwhile for all it’s unconventional and unusual take on things these days…

Back to life

A full on return to ‘normal’ life this week, infact I can’t quite believe it’s only a week since Davies and I drove off the boat and arrived home.

We are in full thrust of tourist season and along with the day visitors, campers and holidaying folk we also have various contractors putting the finishing touches to our community bunkhouse, the selection of people (we have coined the phrase ‘integrated randoms’) who visit Rum regularly enough to not be strangers and to sit, beer in hand at the shop telling us full time residents just how we should be doing things and sharing their fair weather wisdom… I understand from folk who have lived on Rum far longer than I that some of these people do indeed make the transition to actually living here properly so I will try not to sit in judgement too much. I wish they would extend the same courtesy. We have also had an influx of VIPs this week. Our co-land owners SNH had their new chairman and various other high level employees visiting the island at the beginning of this week. That made for some formal and more informal meetings for some of us, me included.

We were interviewing for our new Bunkhouse Manager, our Community Development Officer was over on one of his residential trips, it was our monthly residents association meeting. I helped at the Teashop, did my regular shop and post office shifts, Ady had a shift at the castle, we had an uneventful wildlife watching wise but very bumpy and rollercoaster-equse Sheerwater boat trip.

Suffice to say we did not listen to all five Popmaster round live at 1030am this week!

As ever though, it is the moments spent on the croft, in the company of our little family unit which make for the best times. The antics of the Croft 3 creatures forever make us smile. We have integrated the new ducks with the old and it has worked really well at calming the rather skittish new ducks who are now much calmer and come out to greet us for food rather than quacking in terror when we pass.

The geese have taken a liking to the paddling pool I picked up for Davies and Scarlett. It’s not for geese but nobody told them that!

Just as well we have a river to swim in aswell as a paddling pool (which was bought more for outdoor bubble bath type activities than actual paddling anyway)

The deer are still about – although cautiously as it is now the start of the deer stalking season. A hind walked past this evening while we were having dinner though.

And while I’m here and sharing photos here are a couple of other recent ones.

The car on the ferry. It was exciting to finally have it on board, and daunting to realise just how LONG it looked from above.

The Grand Decant – if you are going to drive 600 miles and foot the cost of a ferry crossing you may as well make it worth your while and fill the car right up!

Close encounters. I will never, ever get tired of the excitement of getting this close to minke whales.

Carbon footprints aside it was very exciting to see our beautiful country from the air. Davies and I enjoyed our flight experience very much.

Meanwhile Ady and Scarlett were enjoying a rather different view

Scarlett at the Royal Highland Show. Sheep are definitely our next planned livestock aquisition.