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Animal Behaviour

Spring has well and truly sprung here on Croft 3. We may still be getting frost, snow may still adorn the high peaks and we are a long way yet from giving up the fire and hot water bottles at night but the Croft 3 creatures are telling us that there is more than just the extra hours of daylight to herald the change of the season.

First the birds. We started getting the odd chicken egg a couple of weeks ago but now we are collecting up to have a dozen eggs again each day, the cockerels are crowing and mating the hens and I really need to spend some time working out quite how the cheeky bantam that keeps getting into the fruit cage is managing it and block her entrance route.

The ducks are also in full on spring mode which sadly means that in their mating and egg laying they roam further afield. We keep spotting them way over on the other side of the river in the woodland and although we know they are laying eggs as we managed to collect one we will need to start penning them at night again to ensure that we are the ones enjoying duck eggs (or selling them!) rather than the hooded crows.

We found the first turkey egg of the year yesterday and today watched the stag turkey mating one of the hens. We have decided not to buy in any more turkeys so it really is down to these four to provide us with bigger numbers, particularly if one of them is to avoid being Christmas dinner later this year…

The geese are always the first to let us know spring is coming as the two ganders suddenly get properly feisty and start chasing us and hissing. They particularly like to run after Ady and bite at his wellies! A couple of the girls had started laying back where their nests were last year but as this is directly under some larch trees where the crows hang out it was a foolish location and their nests were quickly robbed by the crows and the ravens who took all the eggs. They seem to have learnt though and have built a new nest in a far better location which currently has five eggs already. If they carry on using that and one of them starts to brood the nest we will construct something around them to protect from getting hassled while incubating the eggs and to keep the goslings safe.

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We have never known what gender our guinea fowls are but some googling tonight tells me we have at least one female (you can only really tell by their call and we definitely have at least one giving the two tone shriek!) so we may even have guinea fowl eggs or even babies I guess.

But the big news on the croft is that Barbara Pig had her babies! On Sunday 29th March at about 4pm she finally went into labour. Scarlett and I sat with her as she went into a trance and was all but unconscious with no awareness of what was happening around her. After half an hour of heavy breathing and pushing we watched the first spotty little piglet be born, stay still for that first split second of life then wriggle and cry out, thrashing around to remove the birth sac and then straight up onto its feet, unsteadily making its way to Barbara’s belly where it latched on for a feed. It was amazing!

Over the course of the next six hours we sat, curled up together with Barbara as it gradually got dark outside and the wind blew, the rain rained, the hail hailed. Ady and Davies visited, brought us torches, a blanket to sit on, cups of tea. Ten more piglets were born giving us a total of 11. Barbara remained in a total trance for the duration so the wee piglets are utterly fending for themselves at that stage, the first born for over five hours. One was born still totally in its birth sac, two more were born not breathing or moving so those three required lots of intervention from us, a couple more were feeble and would likely not have made it to Barbara’s teats for that important first feed and more than once we had to redirect a roaming piggie as it went off track in its first intrepid exploring. We kept them warm, kept them close to each other and Barbara, cleaned them off and generally watched over the whole procedure. I now completely understand why we lost half of both the first two litters.
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Scarlett left about 930pm to come in and warm up, I stayed til the end, around 1030pm for the final three, the afterbirth and Barbara snapping out of her trance, getting up and being very surprised to see me so close to her newborns and in her pen and clearly not happy with me being there. At which point I stacked up some straw around the nest she had already made and decided to call it a night having realised how cold, wet, tired and hungry I was actually. Back indoors for a shower, clean clothes, a glass of wine and some dinner.

Scarlett and I agreed it was an amazing, awesome experience we were so grateful to have had. I have seen plenty of eggs hatch and various sheep deliver lambs but this was a whole new experience for me to be so involved. I loved it and was very moved by the whole thing.

Sadly, but rather predictably with such a large litter we have already had casualties. One of the piglets managed to get outside the pen this morning between Ady checking them at 730am and me checking them again at 930am and was dead, cold but untouched. I guess with 10 others to tend to Barbara would not have responded to his cries if he made them. Despite checking them every hour or so throughout today we found a second one dead in the pen this evening when Barbara came out to feed and I went in to check them all over. This tiny one had been crushed, which is pretty common, particularly with such a large number of piglets. I guess this is why they have such big litters. We have put a barrier across the pen which will hopefully deter them from wandering out until they are big enough to wander back in again too but the crushing is a hazard we really can do little about. Hopefully Barbara finds her slightly smaller litter of nine a little easier to manage but having realised how lucky we are both to have such a large litter and to have got them all born and through their first night if not far beyond we are grateful for every one which survives.

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It’s good to talk

If you know me in real life you’ll know I talk a lot. Even if you don’t know me in real life you could probably have gleaned that information from this blog. Living on a remote island with only 30 odd other people can leave not a lot of space for talking. Sure, we talk all the time to each other but Rum topics of conversation can be a little limited to the Rum bubble sometimes.

This last week I have had many, lovely, enriching, joyous opportunities to talk. To all sorts of different people. Some I knew already, some I’d never met before. I’ve talked loads and loads and loads. About why we moved here, what we did before, why we choose the lifestyle we do, why we home educate, how we home educate, about education generally. I’ve talked about life before children, life as a new parent, various places we’ve lived before, our early days here on Rum.

A couple of opportunities to talk a bit more have presented themselves this week. None of them are ready for sharing just yet but they have had our little family unit doing lots of talking and have reminded me anew of the great pleasure in conversation, sharing ideas, discussing and debating and ruminating.

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A cosmic week

It’s been a busy week (again).

Many late nights, some filled with natural wonders such as the northern lights, another attending a pre-eclipse talk from one of our residents who just happens to be a bit of an eclipse chaser, another couple with socialising, eating and drinking (in the case of some of us rather too much drinking…)
We have friends visiting, not staying with us but down in the village and generous enough to host us for dinner which is always a luxury.

It’s felt like the start of the season too, with the first tourists coming off the ferry, roaming the island with stuffed full rucksacks, waterproofs and sturdy boots, cycling and making us jump as we realise the person in the distance walking towards us is not an islander as we don’t recognise their walk. On Tuesday we had visits from local tourism and accommodation providers for the annual Familiarisation Visits where we invite folk over on a chartered boat to learn about Rum, our Ranger Service, our local facilities, produce, foods, crafts and attractions so that they can better inform their customers about visiting Rum. Ady and I attended to chat about Rum Venison, Croft 3 produce and general Rum stuff.

On Wednesday another charter boat full of folk arrived this time those interested in tendering for the stag cull for the next two years. So there were plenty of people dressed in camo print being driven around the island in landrovers.

On the croft we finished the Big Pig Move of 2015 and both Tom & Barbara are happily settled in with Barbara due to farrow in the next week or so and looking very pregnant it is great to have them now in their next patch of croft. Our big news though, and the dominating project of the week is a flushing loo in the caravan! It is still a compost loo with elements of dealing with and processing the waste afterwards, with the solids being captured below the caravan in a basket inside a tank, ready to be deposited in a larger tank with worms to aid the composting process and the liquids draining away and processed elsewhere. This is a real experimental system based on an article we read on the concept and having bartered and gathered the various component parts to put it together for zero cost. So far so good and it is not only a real improvement in our current accommodation and will ease the workload in dealing with waste weekly it also allows us to learn more about options for the cob project waste solutions.

I have done a couple of post office shifts, Ady has done a hostel shift, we had an animal feed delivery, have processed firewood, done some crafting and Davies and Scarlett dug out their bikes and have spent hours cycling, walking and playing on the beach.

We have had our first duck and goose eggs of the season which leads us to have a sense of urgency for next weeks projects of bird housing to enclose them overnight until they lay during the summer months for ease of egg collection.

And finally it was the solar eclipse for which we were fortunate to have excellent visibility, a splendid view from our croft and a whole crowd of good friends to share it with. We drank tea, watched as the world went dark and then bright again, observed the spooky effect on all the birds and the sun looking like a crescent moon.

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Northern Lights

The novelty of seeing eagles, red deer, stunning landscapes and panoramic views from our window every day never wears thin.

I love it even more when we get amazing displays from our sofa at night time too.

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Enough to make us venture outside and get a closer look
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Mothering Sunday

It’s Mothers Day in the UK. My 15th Mothers Day as a mother and based on the fantastic mix of gifts and card I was given by Davies and Scarlett I seem to be doing ok. I have been blessed with amazing children who love, appreciate and celebrate with me. I had a fine selection of fizz, chocolates and flowers along with a book (the latest River Cottage book on Pigs and Pork – very appropriate), a hand made bracelet and painted penguin from Scarlett and cards from them both. The two cards were as individual and personal as the child who gave them to me. Scarlett’s was glittery, shining, filled with love and light and enthusiasm. She had spent her own money on a gift for me, spent the whole week planning gifts and bounced into our bedroom this morning to shower me with love and kisses and brought me cups of tea all day today. Davies’ card was more measured, thoughtful and conveyed his deep and considered feelings with a hefty dose of Davies humour and poetry. Davies is all about words, Scarlett is all about actions. I love their differences. They had me crying this morning before breakfast!

mothers day

But Mothers Day is not just about me. I am fortunate to have my own mum, an inspirational woman and loving mother, to have several other women in my life who are maternal in their love and support of me or are role models to me in my own parenting so I have been in touch with all of them today.

Here on Croft 3 though we have spent our focus and attention on our very special mother to be – Barbara Pig who is about to eclipse me in my motherhood and go for the hat trick of motherhood mark three. She is expecting her third litter of piglets any time in the next two weeks and so today was the big day in the Big Pig Move of 2015. The sun shone, we saw the first bee of the year and everything went smoothly and calmly as we erected the new pig area, dismantled the old one and moved Tom and Barbara to their new corner of the croft. They seem pretty happy.

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Crop Plans this year

This year is planned to be mostly about the cob project.

The livestock will tick over and we hope to have a decent healthy litter of piglets from Tom & Barbara to raise for processing towards the end of the year, the birds will hopefully increase in numbers themselves (we have plans to create brooding pens for any birds who start sitting on nests, to protect them and their young) and we have arranged to take some lambs from our fellow crofters here on Rum. We are hoping to do better at egg collecting this year than last year too, as the utter free ranging nature of all our birds means the crow often get to the eggs before we do.

The Community Polytunnel blew down during the winter storms this year and at the most recent community meeting it was decided that prior to recovering it with polythene it should be moved to a more central, accessible and sheltered location in the village. So we are back to our fruit cage, our walled garden of raised beds and some plans for perhaps a geodesic dome, mini polytunnel or similar constructed from scrap material we already have. We need to keep most of our time and focus for the cob project so won’t be putting massive efforts into growing this year but the spring has nudged at our self sufficient dreams enough to have us still planning to sow some seeds and get our hands dirty in the soil again.

The fruit cage doesn’t need much attention now I have fixed the netting, mended the door and moved some of the containers from the polytunnel into there safely away from our birds and roaming deer. I have planted some containers with seed potatoes and will get some salad and some peas started off in there too. The fruit bushes and trees are mostly all still dormant but there are the start of some buds on a few of them.

The walled garden needs some attention. Firstly there is in-filling to do in the dead wood fence. There has been some damage to part of it during the winds so those areas need fixing back up and then it all needs a fresh load of dead branches put in to give it some height. The beds are looking pretty good and are all ready to start taking things planted in them (after a bit of weeding) but they all need netting fixed over them to stop our birds from eating everything. The first year we made net frames from old tent poles but they blew down. Last year I made arches from willow to support the netting which worked better but the netting is cheap and didn’t last. I think the best option would be custom made frames for each bed with netting fixed to the frames that can be lifted on and off to allow for weeding and harvesting. A big job but one which will only ever need to be done once. We have plenty of scrap wood and probably enough of the netting to fix on to. That task has made it to the 2015 Job List.

Also on the list carried over from last year and now crossed off was making an entrance arch. I had seen some ideas online and in magazines so had a vague notion of what I wanted and even cut down some branches and began nailing them together last year. But the nails didn’t really work and at the time we didn’t have a drill so that job got put off. Now we do have a drill so I cut some more wood and yesterday and today we built the arch, put it in place and added some extra bits. I’m really pleased with it, it looks just how I wanted it to.

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More on the under glass / plastic ideas once we have actually come up with them properly.

And finally I leave you with my definite favourite image of the week – back to the last cup of tea of the day being enjoyed outside on the sporran. Hurrah!

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Four seasons in one week

There was a day last year, quite probably in March actually, when I took a picture facing north, south, east and west and each one showed different skies, weather and conditions. This week has been much like that. We have had storms, rain and hail, gale force winds that threatened to rip the roof of the caravan off and did damage to the fruit cage, the chicken house, uprooted trees in the village, we have had bright sunshine and been outside in t shirts, there have been frosty mornings.

Ady once said that Rum is ‘Forever April’ – always sunshine and showerss, a state of flux but this week has certainly chucked every possible option at us.

The enduring weather to cling to, obviously, is the glorious sunshine we had today though. A full day spent topping the woodshed back up, planting out the seed potatoes, checking very pregnant Barbara Pig (Big Pig Move of 2015 is on schedule for next week awaiting some fence widgets hopefully coming on the ferry tomorrow), doing some maintenance on the log burner chimney, making a start on the wooden archway for the walled garden, popping to the village to say goodbye to some contractors who visit every winter and are done for this year.

Cups of tea outside in the sunshine, spare moments spent doing a row of scarf knitting to ensure a decent stash of crafts to sell during the season, working outside on the croft until nearly 7pm when it finally gets too dark to be out there.

Scarlett and Davies headed off to play on the beach today with Scarlett asking if it was definitely too cold to go swimming in the river. We reminded her that just 2 weeks ago she was asking to go sledging in the snow…

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Not being chicken

Yesterday was Rum at its worst weather wise.

Winds of over 60mph with gusts exceeding 80mph. You could not open the door without risking it being blown out of your hands, maybe even off the caravan altogether. The roof rattled, the walls shook, we moved things away from the sides of the caravan. The fire roared as the draft coming down the chimney was fierce so we had to keep it under close control. It rained and rained and rained. The doors leak and so do a couple of the windows so we are constantly mopping up puddles and the carpet infront of both doors is sodden.

It was pretty grim. Enough to make you sit and wonder on just what we are doing living like this and whether we actually are properly crazy rather than simply indulgently eccentric as we like to imagine ourselves. Enough to make us question whether our time here is up, whether the ups are worth the downs or not. Whether we should just stop, go back to the days when we never worried about the weather forecast or gave a thought to midges. To the times when we knew what would happen next, life had order and rhythm and other people told us what to do, when to do it and we could ring someone if it all went wrong and they would come and sort it out.

It was with those thoughts from yesterday still whirling round my mind that I headed outside this morning to do some repair work on the fruit cage. Some of the panels had blown loose, the netting had come away in several places and ripped in a couple more. Some of the stakes supporting fruit trees were blown out of place, the cage door was broken and had come off and been wedged back in place on one of Ady’s mercy mission runs outside during the winds.

Today it was blue skies, mostly calm and still, warm and peaceful. I spent some of the time just listening to Rum – the sound of the river running, still swollen from yesterdays rains. The sound of our birds on the croft – the ducks quacking sounds like laughter, the chickens coo and make low noises, the guinea fowl call sounds like they are saying ‘come back, come back, come back’. The turkeys have a sound all of their own, a series of noises not unlike a fax machine, the geese were out of hearing range but I could see them in the distance. Then I turned on some music on my phone and sang along. It was on a random playlist but it seemed to be thought provoking. Mary Hopkins ‘Those Were The Days’

“Remember how we laughed away the hours
Think of all the great things we would do
Those were the days my friend
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day
We’d live the life we choose
We’d fight and never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way.
….
Then the busy years went rushing by us
We lost our starry notions on the way
….
Oh my friend we’re older but no wiser
For in our hearts the dreams are still the same”

While I was stitching the netting back together and onto the panels of the fruit cage Bonnie was herding birds around and around me. We have a lot of birds here on Croft 3 and although Davies and Scarlett claim to know the difference between the various chickens, ducks and geese and say they have names I would not pretend to be able to tell you the difference between one brown hen and another. There are a handful which I do recognise though, in particular one little brown hen with scruffy neck feathers called Calgon. She was one of the Symbolic Chicks from last year that hatched in the repurposed washing machine and escaped the hooded crows and ravens. She then got attacked by the other chickens hence the ruffled feathers which got pecked bald and never grew back properly. She came into the caravan for a few days in a cage and was looked after by us until she was big enough to take her chances out on the croft. She is pretty tame and will often hang out near you if you are working outside.

Calgon managed to find a way into the fruit cage and despite me catching her and posting her back outside again she kept coming back in. This caught the attention of Bonnie who then thought it was a game and started chasing around the outside. Several times I put Calgon back out so she could use the whole of the rest of the world to get away from Bonnie but she kept coming back in again. I’m not sure if she felt safe because I was there, or because it was a cage and Bonnie couldn’t get in, but Calgon is a bird and can fly which she does, often. She had no need to be in the cage.

I laughed at Calgon and called her ‘chicken’ in the style of a child taunting another in the playground, then laughed at myself for calling a chicken ‘a chicken’. When I went to have some lunch she came out of the cage with me and headed off elsewhere on the croft.

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Inside that cage it was safe, I could still see the outside world but the bad things couldn’t get me even though I knew they were out there. But I would rather have my freedom, choose to fly even if that means the wind might blow me from the sky, the dog might catch me. A riskier, more daring, more exciting life lived outside the cage is so much more attractive than the one the chicken might choose.

I don’t want to be older but no wiser, singing a song about the dreams I once had and wondering why the singing and dancing stopped and I lost my starry notions on the way.

We appreciate all we have here in our lives but I know that without the storms and reminder of the fragility of life here of yesterday the blue skies and freedom of today would not have meant quite so much. I fixed the cage door this afternoon. The chicken and I are both safely on the outside of it again now.

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Meetings, not really spring and goats

One of those weeks where we seemed to spend more time walking to and from the village than doing anything either on the croft or indeed in the village.

Ady has been productive out on the croft – he has cleared the polytunnel site of all our containers, compost and tools as the polytunnel hoops are to be removed and taken down to the village. The polytunnel was a grant funded community project which ended up on Croft 3 due to some issues with location and planning permission. As the soil up here is poor, particularly compared to the excellent soil down in the village, which was imported top soil back when the castle was built late 1800s / early 1900s, people are not prepared to walk the mile up to the croft from the village along the uneven track to make use of the polytunnel and we are pretty vulnerable to the Rum elements up here on the croft a decision was made at the community meeting this week to move the frame down to the village before re-polythene-ing it. It is a shame (for us) as we have made good use of it while it was up here on the croft but hopefully it will be productive and well used down in the village by the wider community. We have various plans for other ‘under plastic’ options including geodesic domes and other weather resistant ideas.

Also out on the croft, between and sometimes during the many, many downpours of rain, hail and snow this week we (for which read mostly Ady) have built a new pig house on the corner of the croft where we are planning to move the pigs this year. They have been on the south west corner for well over a year now and it is tired and ready for them to move on so we can allow it to recover and graze it with the birds (and hopefully some sheep later in the year). We want to move them before Barbara has her litter of piglets due at the end of the month as it is easier to move 2 pigs than 4, 6, 8, 10 or however many it ends up being. Plus it is slightly closer to the caravan making for easier through the night checks on her when she goes into labour and is on nice, fresh ground which will provide food and be kinder to tiny new piglets than the knee deep mud they are on just now coming out of winter. The next step is to scythe a path for the fence and then move across the electric fence, battery, solar panel etc. That needs to be a nice day job as it always ends up taking way longer than you anticipate and hits a point of no return once you have moved a certain amount of the fencing.

We have a long list of outdoor jobs to do, quite aside from the cob project but the weather has prevented any of that from happening. Maybe next week…

We helped a friend load her moving van between boats and waved her off as she said her final farewell to Rum. I went to many, many meetings. I’ve been booking people in for volunteering stints throughout April which is very exciting.

We went down to the school for a World Book Day community event which was great, we all love talking about and sharing books.

And finally we discovered two goats at the bottom of the croft. There is a feral population on Rum of about 300 but they are usually only found out in the wilder areas away from the people here. This pair, we think both male have wondered along to us and have been hanging out in the small wooded area between our croft and the river. Scarlett has spent literally hours edging closer to them and trying to persuade them they should stay. A sea eagle spent about half an hour this week circling ever lower over the croft too. I love the wildness that lives alongside us here, accepting us as part of their landscape.

I’d quite like the weather to recognise it’s allegedly spring though and stop being quite so wild.

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Feels like Heaven

It’s March and while the blizzarding snow today and wind related ferry cancellations for this week would prove me a liar I do know from the extra hours of daylight we’re enjoying that spring really is on it’s way so I’m going to claim a third winter on Rum survived.

And I know from my early days as an islander that winters survived is the currency that folk deal in from tourists to the ‘back in the day’ brigade. So get us, no longer winter survived token paupers and with surely a few extra points for with children, in a caravan, off grid, away from the village, no track yadda yadda yadda…

In many ways it’s been the easiest yet – the weather has been kind. Did I really just type that? Clearly there is an element of getting used to Rum weather at play in that statement but instead of the previous two winters offering of warm (well okay mild but it’s not as alliterative), wet and windy this winter has been (relatively) cold, dry and not quite as relentlessly windy. We knew precisely and exactly what we were heading into this year. I knew from bitter experience that I personally find November hard, that we need to be kind to ourselves and not place stupid expectations other than merely surviving on us. We had regular doses of friends visiting, a planned visit off to make February hasten, ensured that our focus remained on us four rather than anyone or anything else. We have made incremental improvements to our day to day living which have also made life easier too. Not mod cons as such but certainly a big step up from our early days here of filling jerry cans from the river and lugging them across to the caravan, of gathering sticks to burn on the fire for an hour each day even during the depths of our first winter.

In other ways though it has been the toughest. In our first winter we were able to tell ourselves it would be just this one and we could get through that. In our second we spent every testing moment promising ourselves it would be the last. This year we have had to face the reality that this is not a blip, just a small minor part of the process to an end result, this is actually our lives. We do really live in a caravan and have done for nearly three years. There is no sense denying it or pretending it is anything other than the truth. Yes, we hope it is genuinely temporary and five years from now it will indeed be a blip and part of the process but for now it is quite simply our reality and our life. Accepting that is quite hard. It’s not supposed to be who we are, it wasn’t our plan, not the dream we sold ourselves and the reason we gave up what we left behind. It is quite frankly pretty grim at times with very little in the way of romance about it. We lack privacy, space, stability. Our life here is tenuous, precarious, fragile. Our generation have been brought up on believing in bricks and mortar, a roof over our head, our home as our castle, conditioned to work for great chunks of our lives in order to secure the best possible address which we spend more time out of at work than inside living simply so that we can call it ours.

While the weather has been relatively kind we have still suffered seasonal losses at the hand of the elements. Our ducks have been the livestock hardest hit this year – all but two of the ten new ducks we bought in last season have died, our original ducks are still all fine, the younger ones simply were not able to cope with the weather. We only have three of the five guinea fowl we started the season with. The fence around the walled garden has blown down, the community polytunnel which we had pretty much full use of had all the polythene blown off along with the doors, taking with it all of our salami, all the overwintering salad, the early sowings of peas and garlic, the strawberries are exposed to snow, frost and whichever pests choose to feast on the remains.

This winter however was the winter in which we four made a decision. We decided that we would not allow the chance weather, the tough bits and whatever hardships were ahead to control us. We decided that this is our home and we’re going to find the way to make it work even if that does mean accepting we currently live in a caravan. We opened our eyes and saw the wonder around us. Dramatic landscapes call for dramatic weather, extreme and exciting lifestyles come hand in hand with extreme and exciting challenges. We took joy in the people around us here, in being part of this place at this time. We talked to family and friends and realised that when we speak of our lives here it is with a sense of passion, excitement and enthusiasm. We have discovered ways of making this craziness work for us.

It’s March. Midges are but two months away. It should be properly spring with us outside digging the cob build plot and catching up on the time we have slipped behind on. Instead we have been largely caravan bound thanks to the continued extreme weather. That could be cause for despair, depondency and a feeling of defeat. Or it could be the inspiration for venturing our barefoot, capturing snowflakes to look at under a microscope, photography, art and writing.

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