Secondary to nothing

I remember quite distinctly the day that Davies did not start school. It was just before his fifth birthday and was a real landmark day as it marked the beginning of our official Home Ed journey. The same is true of the day Scarlett didn’t start school. Over the years we have marked the first day of the new school year in September a few times with Not Back To School Picnics. Indeed during a particularly politically active period back in the days of the Badman review we were part of some high profile events covered in the media protesting at Westminster, holding mass bubble blowing flashmob events and large picnic gatherings.

These days the start of a new school year largely passes us by. In Scotland the terms are different to England anyway and having never really got my head around the year groups (I don’t care what P7 means, just tell me how old the child is!!!) I have utterly failed to grasp the Scottish system. But I did realise yesterday that Scarlett would be about to start secondary school in the next week or so if we were not home educating. This feels like something worth marking – neither of our children ever went to primary school, we have home educated them both to secondary school age.

I don’t wish to compare – it would be impossible to try. Had they attended school they would be very, very different individuals to who they are today, having trodden very different paths through life already and had very different experiences. They have not and now never will do but instead I just want to reflect a little on what they have had instead following the path we have traveled together.

Freedom. I think the biggest gift we have given our children is freedom. Freedom to be who they are naturally. Freedom to get up when they wake naturally, wear the clothes that they are comfortable in and reflect their personal taste, style, personality, lifestyle. Never have either of them followed fashion in terms of hairstyle, clothing or accessories. Aside from brief periods in uniforms for groups such as Rainbows, Scouts or Badgers they have only ever selected their own clothes and worn them in whatever way they see fit.

Passions and interests. We have never restricted TV or console use although these days we do not have a TV and very limited electricity so these things have become self limiting. Both children are very discerning at what they watch or listen to, not for them mindless channel flicking or constant gaming. Their passions and interests remain very similar to the things which captured their attention as small children – art, drawing, storytelling, films for Davies. Wildlife, the natural world, animals for Scarlett.

We made the most of the childrens’ early years living 10 miles from Brighton and 50 miles from London, close to large Home Educating communities with easy access to museums, art galleries, theatre, cinema, beach, nature reserves. The children took swimming lessons,gymnastics and tumble tots, were members of RSPB Wildlife Explorers, Guides, Scouts, St Johns Ambulance, Young Archaeologists Club. We made full use of the local library, had monthly visits to London for museums, had an allotment, kept chickens and ducks. We had membership of local attractions including zoo parks, educational centres, went to the circus, the theatre, the cinema, saw pantomines, musicals, plays, Shakespeare productions, science shows, ballet, orchestral concerts, puppet shows. We had family holidays camping, in holiday cottages, youth hostels, went through the Channel Tunnel and visited France and Belgium, saw the ice museum and rode through Bruge on a horse and cart. We went to theme parks, history festivals, national trust properties, kite festivals, safari parks, Legoland, ice skating, group holidays to Centerparcs. We had snowball fights, made sandcastles, took trips on boats, trains, rollercoasters, were part of the team of testers for the opening of Heathrow Terminal Five. We went to parties, hosted parties, made fancy dress costumes, had Easter egg hunts, took part in nativity plays with life animals, sang at carol concerts.

When Davies was interested in dinosaurs we went to the Natural History Museum, visited the coast in Sussex and Dorset and found fossils, joined the archaeology club and met experts, collected many, many plastic toy dinosaurs and learnt all the names, lined them up in families, baked dinosaur cookies, played with kits to build dinosaur skeletons, bought the lego T rex kit, watched Jurassic Park. When he wanted to learn about space we drew the solar system to scale and had it adorning our lounge wall for months, went to the local planetarium and gazed at the night sky to identify Mars. When it was Wallace and Gromit we scoured ebay and car boot sales for the memorabilia, watched all the films endlessly, had a themed birthday party, won a cookware competition with our themed cupcakes, met the costume characters, made papier mache and soft toy and needle felted Wallace and Gromit toys. When Davies wanted to do more art we encouraged, ensured he had decent art materials, secured display space at three local libraries for him to display his art work, assisted with the set up of a small business selling his postcards and artwork.

Scarlett’s love of animals has dictated her every birthday and Christmas gift – she has been zoo keeper for a day, seen dolphins and whales in the wild, watched every documentary David Attenborough has ever made, hatched ducks, chickens, bantams, quails from eggs, had a pet hamster who traveled the whole of the UK. She now lives on a National Nature Reserve with access to natural scientists, students studying wildlife here, the home of one of the longest running animal research projects ever, a community ranger, the place where white tailed sea eagles were released back into the wild in the UK, a marine protected area of sea abundant with seabirds and cetaceans, home to a quarter of the world population of manx shearwaters. She regularly volunteers for monitoring projects including shearwaters, bats, cetaceans and has breeding poultry and pigs here on the croft.

Our Home Educating status enabled us to take our year off in 2011 and travel the UK volunteering. We stayed at 14 different hosts all over the UK giving the children an amazing insight into how other people live. We stayed with families, communities, couples and individuals and lived in a campervan, tent, yurt and houses. Davies and Scarlett have learned tolerance, respect, an appreciation of the beliefs and lifestyles of other people. They have amazing social skills and are experts in relationships, conflict resolution, negotiation and discussion. They have strong views,opinions and are able to debate and hold conversations at all levels. They are patient, understanding and mature. They are respectful, appreciative and polite. Their lifestyle to date has given them maturity and capability along with a broad world view and a strong sense of environmental and ecological responsibility.

Both the children have a range of practical skills from chopping firewood and lighting a fire to growing their own food from seed, animal husbandry, running a house including baking bread and cooking a meal, managing a budget, dealing with emergencies, survival skills and excellent communication skills. The modern world has not passed them by and they have good IT skills and as all self respecting teens should they are far more adept with mobile phones and computers than their parents are! They both have a very broad general knowledge on all subjects from politics and geography to music and history. They are curious and love to learn, interested in the world around them and interesting people to talk to. Both have strong personalities, are very funny and engaging and able to hold a conversation with anyone they come across.

It has been an unconventional journey to secondary school age it is true. It is not the path we first set out on on that first day that Davies did not go to school back when he was five. They are not on track to be announcing their clutch of GCSE results in the next 2 and 4 years (although should they wish to do so I have no doubt whatsover in their ability to) but I do not think it could be considered lacking in any way, shape or form. I know that Ady and I have certainly learned far more than we would have done if they had been in school!

Bring on the secondary – if primary was anything to go by there is a whole lot of learning ahead!

The ferry giveth and the ferry taketh away

The Calmac ferry comes five days a week in the summer, four in the winter. It is the ferry which brought us here, which delivers our shopping, our fuel, the tourists who spend money with us, the family and friends who come to visit.

It is also the ferry which takes away anything we send off the island and has us tearily waving goodbye to people when they go again.

Today the ferry brought us our new scythe. We are very excited about this. Having gone through three strimmers since we arrived here on Rum trying to just keep down the paths across the croft, the perimeter of the pig fence and the grassy area directly around the caravan we knew we needed a better solution. In lots of ways a petrol strimmer was not in line with our lifestyle – the use of petrol, the need for maintaining the machine, the consumable factor of plastic strimmer line. Not to mention the noise and rather antisocial nature of strimming. Several friends have raved about scythes but we remained unconvinced until having had a go with one a few weeks ago.

We were converted. As speedy to use as a strimmer, but with no noise, no pollution, no petrol. The added bonus of cutting grass, reeds, flowers down in one smooth stroke meaning a whole heap of material to be gathered up with a rake and dried out to use as animal bedding, even food, or possibly cob strengthening material rather than the tiny shredded, much strimmed fragments that a strimmer creates.

We reverently unpacked and assembled our new toy this afternoon and both had a go with it on a small area of the croft. Sure enough we soon had a cut down area and a pile of cut grass to show for our fairly minimal efforts. Next we need to learn more about peening and haftng angles. I LOVE learning new skills and new words and getting introduced to a whole new world of techniques and terminologies.

The ferry also took away today though. We waved goodbye to Clara, a friend we met on our cob course earlier this year, felt an instant affinity with and have had here with us for a whole month. It has been a delight and a joy to share our lives with Clara while she was here and we are missing her already. Our lives have been the richer for having her with us this summer and we’re looking forward to having her here again whenever she wants to come back.

Taking Stock

This week we have been regaining focus on the croft, on getting (as) ready (as we can be) for the winter, in making plans for next year, working out how we can make a living from the croft and coordinate some sort of house build for next year.

We are revisiting our original business plan for the croft and have been talking about how the things which first brought us here to Rum are no longer the things which hold us here. Way back in 2011 when we were deciding where life should take us next we had a fairly short list of essentials:

  • We wanted to live somewhere beautiful. Rum is always, ever beautiful. Beautiful in all four seasons, in all sorts of weather conditions. It ticks every single box for wildlife, landscapes, coastline, river side living…
  • We wanted to have land. Enough land to grow most of our own food and excess surplus to sell. It is a challenging but true fact that we used to grow more food in our allotment and back garden in Sussex than we have managed to grow on our entire 8 acres here on Rum. The soil is poor and we are starting from nothing, working to condition the ground, battle with the elements, protect crops from deer, birds, rats and mice. It is a long, slow process and although I can see how far we have come and how much progress we have made with our raised beds and walled garden, polytunnel and herb spirals I can also see the long hard road ahead. The market for selling excess produce is small, possibly even non existent as the people here who care about home grown produce over imported food from the mainland already grow their own in their large gardens. The tourist market for produce is very small too although we are hopeful that with increased visitor accommodation on the island moving forward that may increase, particularly if we target our growing accordingly for cash crops and dual purpose or long lasting crops (eg soft fruit that can be sold as fruit or turned into jams, herbs that can be sold fresh or dried and stored).
  • We wanted to rear our own animals for meat and dairy and egg production. We have done a fairly good job of this but have also lost a lot of young animals. We have learned not to take piglets through the winter, now know the signs of Barbara pig in labour and that we need to check her more regularly to assist with any piglets who need attention while she is still birthing subsequent litter mates. We have lost more baby birds than I care to count to rats, crows, ravens and quite possibly an owl this year. Chickens, ducks, turkeys and geese have all been predated on as young birds, either hatched here on the croft or bought in as poults. We are getting better at creating good housing for them and knowing how to keep them as safe as possible but this knowledge has come at the price of bitter experiences.
  • We wanted to live somewhere with a sense of community. We have certainly achieved that. It is true that sometimes the intensity and hot bed of living here and being part of the community comes with challenges and difficulties. Certainly being a director of the community trust is no picnic with many hours every week of voluntary time spent on tasks associated with the role, often wondering whether it is a worthwhile endeavor and one which is best use of my time. But it is the community as individual people which has kept us here on Rum. It is the hands of friendship, the camaraderie of being one of the people who live here, who have made it through two winters, three summers, winds, rain, 18 hours of darkness a day, ferry cancellations, midges, ticks, clegs, tourists…. the in jokes, the knowing that we all look out for each other and all care, tolerate, accept, respect and think about each other which has made Rum feel more like home than anywhere else we have ever lived.

So a mixed bag going forward then. Some victories, some opportunities to do better. Some real glowing positives and some hurdles to overcome. We have a plan, or six…. in coming posts I’ll be outlining the various things we have come up with to try and make things work for us here on Rum. Some new ideas, some revisiting old ones,some creative ways of approaching things. Watch this space!

A little bit country

There are many indicators that a human has finally matured and become a grown up. Could be leaving home, getting your first paycheque, getting married, becoming a parent, finding that first grey hair or fine line of a wrinkle in the corner of your eyes. Is it when you start making an ‘ahh’ sound as you sink down into a chair, or bemoaning the lack of lyrics in the pop music of today?

I think for me the mark of maturity was deciding that there was a lot of wisdom in the lyrics of country music.

My current favourite is Silver Lining by Kacey Musgraves – have a listen, it’s lovely.

“If you’re ever gonna find a silver lining, it’s gotta be a cloudy day”

“If you’re ever gonna find a four leaf clover, you gotta get a little dirt on your hands”

Here is what I have been getting my hands dirty for this year so far – reckon I found the odd four leaf clover here and there.

chillies and peppers



harvested onions drying off


five chicks hatched in the old repurposed washing machine now being used as a nesting box. All doing well do far.

many jars of jam ready for selling (and keeping us in jam!) – already sold the first few jars from the croft gate

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wee turkeys, now out free-ranging on the croft and doing well

seed harvesting

The raised beds in the walled garden have yielded well for their first year – onions harvested and drying out in the polytunnel so the skins go nice and hard, first and second crops of potatoes already eaten! Rhubarb, asparagus, cauliflower and cabbage all planted out and doing well. First lot of beds dug over after harvesting crops and chickens are now scratching over to prepare the soil for the next lot of sowing. Next job is to fill all the beds, do some weeding, do some fence mending and put any autumn crops in ready to over winter.

The fruit cage is doing well, I think all of the fruit bushes survived their rough treatment of three moves in their first year – nothing in the way of fruit this year but all seem to be growing well and coping with the soil here. We have staked the fruit trees – pear, plum and cherry as they had all outgrown their original stakes and are doing well too. I have placed an order for 8 apple trees from a Scottish orchard, grown and suitable for this part of the UK. They will arrive in their dormant time in the winter so in the meantime we need to do some more work on drainage and get the top of the cage netted.

The polytunnel has had a big end of summer tidy up and all the ‘spent’ soil has been put on the compost heap in the walled garden ready to spread on the raised beds along with some seaweed when we collect some from the beach. Tomatoes are starting to crop, along with cucumbers, chillies and peppers. We have onions drying out in there and various harvested seeds drying out too – I have collected enough peas for next years planting and am drying out about 12 onion flower heads to see if I can collect those seeds for next year too. Next job in there is more sowing for winter greens and starting off some crops for animal forage next year to try and reduce our animal feed bills a little.

This year we have invested time in moving our growing slowly along, creating the walled garden, extending the fruit cage, putting water to the polytunnel. We have spent money on seeds and trees and bushes but will hopefully save money next year by harvesting some of the seeds from this years crop.

Our herb and edible flower area up next to the static has grown from one herb spiral to a collection including a flower circle and the mint circle (which we like to call ‘the polo’.) – we have plans to increase this next year and grow more but also some cunning plans for some produce ideas to make money from these areas too.

Definitely worth the little dirt on our hands.

After Ever After

I’ve been thinking recently about what ‘happily ever after’ is supposed to look and feel like. I know the idea has been the concept of a few clever books and films – what does happen when the credits roll and the last chapter’s words run off the last page?

Arriving on Rum felt like it was maybe supposed to be happily ever after for us. It felt as though the music should play and the picture slowly fade off the screen as we got on with our dream life, finally found after our big adventure and soul searching and interview on Rum and epic move up here.

Then it felt as though it should surely be the end after the mini sequel which was Getting The Static On To The Croft.

Maybe after the trilogy of Surviving Our First Winter. Even if Surviving Our Second Winter became part of the dvd bonus features on a second disc….

Recently we thought we may end up taking on a proper employed job. Ady and I would have shared the role, it was far from what we originally came here to do but the benefits and security would, we thought, outweigh the obvious compromises in terms of being away from the croft and the children and the stresses and commitments of what the post would entail. It was not to be. Which when you have spent several weeks convincing yourself into doing can be a bit tough to talk yourself back out of again.

There is something about Rum which pushes you to your absolute limits, like a jealous lover asking you to prove, over and over again that you really, really love them. Treating you cruelly just to challenge, to test, to ensure this is definitely what you want to do and where you want to do it. Just as you are on the very brink of deciding that actually this is not for you after all the sun breaks through, the blackberries ripen, kind and thoughtful words are said, new chicks are hatched in the old washing machine and a huge pod of dolphins swim close to the shore at ferry time, leaping out of the water and making a whole crowd of excited onlookers point, exclaim and cry out with delight and sheer joy and life.

I’m not always sure but I think this might be what happily ever after looks like.

Transition Times

I was reading a blog post earlier that talked about August being the month of ‘transition to Autumn’. I like that. Autumn is definitely in the air with nights drawing in and a nip to the evenings, brambles starting to ripen and a new wave of colour coming on Rum as yellow summer flowers fade and the more purple autumnal ones start to bloom.

Suddenly we have done a third summer and are facing a third winter. Life and time marches on and I look at pictures of our early days here on Rum and am already marvelling at how much Davies and Scarlett have grown, how Ady and I have aged….

Life looks set to change again with new possibilities and opportunities on the horizon, shifts in ideas, re shaping of plans and ambitions. The cast of characters for this winter on Rum looks rather different to last year. As ever, taking stock, rationalising responsibilities and being realistic about the capacity for the number of hours in a day is something to be considered.

For now though we’re picking brambles, making jam, feeding animals and enjoying the light evenings while they last. The 18 hour night times are not long around the corner…

Need to know basis

In my last post I talked about how much I have learned about birds and wildlife since moving here to Rum. As a Home Educator I am often to be heard talking about how we don’t learn everything we need to know in childhood and how humans should be lifelong learners. About how I have learned more in my adult life, particularly the last five years than I ever did as a child. About how easily we learn and retain knowledge when it is relevant, pertinent, meaningful and in context.

My friend Kirsty who runs the fabulous untrappedlife website and I were chatting over new year – a time when we all reflect on the year passed and pin hopes on the year ahead. Kirsty was reminding of me of how much knowledge I have to share and how people are interested in the things I know about. It is in no small way thanks to those conversations that we took the plunge of WWOOF hosting this year and Kirsty was right – our wwoofers have been scribbling notes, taking photos and videos and stroking my ego no end with what I have learned and do know about various things in livestock, growing fruit, veg and herbs, permaculture ideas, off grid living and more.

An on island friend who is a very skilled person in lots of rural crafts that Ady and I are desperate to learn more about has been sharing some of his skills and yesterday we spent a very exciting hour in his company getting a first lesson in how to sythe. We are on our fourth strimmer in two and a half years and hate the use of petrol and noise pollution that strimming creates, while still needing to keep paths clear to walk up and down the croft, harvest the grass and reeds for animal bedding and prevent our crops from being choked by grass and weeds. Sytheing may well be the answer – new skills and a low impact, sustainable solution. I commented to our friend how lucky we were to have him here willing to teach us and he told me that a skill is not a skill until you share it. What a deep thought and one which has echoed through my mind countless times since he said it…

This morning when I was answering questions about living in a campervan for 9 months. This lunch time as we all sat down to fresh baked bread and home made soup and then our visitor made the bread dough and pizza dough for this evening – a skill she had not possessed two weeks ago when she arrived her but I have shared with her. At breakfast when we spread jam on our toast made in a collaborative effort between Scarlett and I, this afternoon when Davies headed off to water the polytunnel calling back over his shoulder ‘I know, don’t over water the chillies…’ and came back having picked the very first tomatoes. Later this evening when Scarlett and I walked back to the croft the long way all around three sides of our land and we picked a posy of wild flowers and grasses to put in a jam jar and brighten the static.

My grandmother is a florist and I have many childhood memories of sitting in her flower shop, eating marmite on toast, surrounded by great buckets of highly scented, rainbow coloured blooms. I love the smell of cut flowers and that taking me back 35 years ago in time quality the smell has but have always been rather snooty at the idea of having cut flowers in my house – expensive, imported at great carbon footprint cost, a token of ostentatious spending rather than genuine thoughtfulness… but the flowers on the croft make me smile every time I walk up the hill. Over the last 3 summers I have learned the names of most of them – asking people who live here and know the names, picking a specimen and searching in our wild flower guide book, going on organised wild flower walks with the ranger.

Today Scarlett and I picked the posy in the photo above and could both name all of the flowers – ragwort, sneezeworth, common birdsfoot trefoil, devils-bit scabious, meadowsweet. celandine, ling heather, clover, orchid and various rushes and grasses. 

Never in our old lives would we have sought to gain or retain that knowledge, it simply would not have sunk in. What new thing did you learn today?

Walk on the wild side

I got distracted while on the phone to my parents late this afternoon – Happy Birthday Dad! – by this short eared owl putting on a fly-by display over the croft. He was hunting all over the croft and we walked around while he flew over our heads for a good half an hour. He was not at all bothered by us and at one point was flying straight towards me so close and low that I ducked. We briefly made eye contact and it was a haunting experience that will stay with me for a long while.

It’s definitely been the year for close wildlife encounters and I was reflecting earlier today about how much we have all learnt about the wildlife here on Rum. I can now identify so many creatures I could never have picked out before, some of the birds by their flight pattern alone. We remain utter amateurs on this island full of wildlife experts, researchers, rangers, national nature reserve officers, scientists and birders but the delight of sharing our home with so many of natures amazing creatures never wears thin.

Game for anything

There has been a distinct lack of ‘here’s what we’re doing on the croft just now’ on the blog of late. Mostly because it has been majorly midgey this year – by far our worst summer of midges here and it’s our third on Rum and actually our fourth on the west coast of Scotland. We were anticipating it after such a warm wet winter but it has still been a shock and really does prevent much outside stuff from happening.

We have also been very busy just making the most of the summer and living life here to the full. Frankly you don’t jack in a conventional life on the south coast of England with hot and cold running water, a proper roof over your head, company car and pension plan to go and live in a midge infested caravan on a remote Scottish island to spend all your time working! Life is far too short and the pay off for the endurance that our lives sometimes feel like is the hefty dose of enjoyment grabbed whenever we can.

We currently have a friend / volunteer staying with us. Someone we met on our Cob Course earlier this year, hit it off with and stayed in touch with and who is very interested in our lifestyle and learning more about permaculture, self sufficiency, low impact off grid living and so on. She is staying with us for a whole month and is living alongside us learning as much as she can about how we do things – this has included plenty of watering the polytunnel, pulling up ragwort, feeding the animals, carrying things up and down the hill, breadmaking, jam making, selling produce at Market Day and hanging out with Davies and Scarlett. It has also included coming along on all the various adventures we have had in the last week – from climbing mountains in the dark to sit and listen to shearwaters come in for the night around us to various boat trips wildlife spotting.

This weekend our adventures took us to the only of the four Small Isles we had yet to visit – Muck. The smallest of the small isles and different to Rum, Canna and Eigg in the same way as all four are different to each other. The occassion was the Small Isles Games. An annual event hosted by each of the island in four year rotation. It is part old school sports day, part highland games, part fierce inter island competition, part first class hospitality from the host island and fully fun.

Muck put on a great show, is is a lovely island, really tiny but with a similar size population to us on Rum. There were about 20 of us there from Rum for the games (about half our island population meaning our post office was closed, family members were drafted in to man our shop, other family members were called on to come and compete alongside us for Rum, the island was on ‘skeleton crew’ of those left behind) and we took our tents, pitched up ‘Camp Rum’ and let the games commence.

The games were an excellent mix of true sportsmanship such as rifle shooting, hill racing, proper flat race sprinting, tug of war and good old fashioned fun such as sack race (done in mail bags), tattie and spoon race, welly wanging and the utterly ridiculous such as four people in a bulk bag told to get to the finish line by whatever method they chose as long as all four people were still in the bag! The obstacle race fell into the final category too with running with a section of culvert pipe around your middle, followed by four person skis, wheelbarrow race, quad pushing, bouncing on a buoy and going under a scramble net. We were all so helpless with laughter for most of these that the competitive element was utterly immaterial!

I don’t remember the last time I have had so much fun looking like quite such a fool! And remember I live in a caravan on top of a muddy hillside so I have plenty of opportunity!

We had the best time and were really proud to come second to our hosts who won (again!).

The games were followed by a splendid barbecue, loads of delicious cake, an epic ceilidh with two bands and plenty more fun and laughter and dancing until the early hours.

This morning was spent exploring Muck, drinking tea and post mortem-ing the day before with tales from the games and the ceilidh getting retold and embellished as all good days do. We had chartered one of the local boats to come and bring us home and had a lovely trip back to Rum speeding between the Small Isles watching gannets dive and the odd porpoise leap from the sea.

It was a magical weekend, full of feeling of belonging, of being part of a small and slightly larger wider community. Of spending happy fun filled sunshine-y days with people we know so well and share our lives with.