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Home away from home…

I love reading the visitor books in places. Whenever we stay in a holiday cottage or at an attraction it is so interesting flicking through and seeing who has been there before you, what they thought of it, where they came from…

We are just over halfway through our first week away from Rum. Ady will return back after just this week off, the rest of us are heading way down south for some time catching up with family and friends.

About three weeks ago I commented to Ady that I *almost* wished the holiday was already over so I could be looking back on it fondly and feeling refreshed rather than in that anticipatory state of fretting about details and anxiety about possible derailments to our plans. Life on Rum is always at the mercy of ferries, weather conditions, livestock and people. So any deviation from our day to day lives means even more vulnerability to outside factors out of our control. Ady corrected me that I could relax once we arrived at our booked holiday cottage on the Isle of Lewis because that would mean Croftsitter Jen had arrived safely on Rum (a trip from England for her which also involves public transport, an overnight stop and a ferry crossing), we had left the island (a ferry and car journey) and arrived on Harris (another ferry and another car journey). As it goes that first night we arrived in the cottage was not really that relaxing – the car had failed to start on the day we left Rum (easily remedied by starting one of our other cars, which doesn’t always start, rolling it close enough for the jump leads to work – scary when the brakes are unreliable and it’s a giant car rolling towards our tiny mainland car, all done with an audience of Croftsitter Jen and a random tourist who stopped to watch and chat to us), the ferry had been delayed and when we arrived at the cottage after a long day travelling, it was very cold, the oven was unfamiliar and we burned our pizzas and the wifi was patchy and slow.

I should have projected myself forward to last night as that was the point that relaxation kicked in fully. Two bubble baths, lots of stunning views and bracing walks on beaches, huge amounts of laughter and fun and in-jokes, quite a lot of crap TV, several good nights sleep, plenty of nice food and drink and all was well with the world.

We’ve been to the very bottom of Harris, bought some wool from the tweed shop, Ady surprised me with a bottle of Harris gin (he double backed in to get it for me after I’d fallen in love with the sample). We’ve been to the very top of Lewis – the Butt of Lewis lighthouse, the Callanish Standing Stones, Carloway Broch, to Stornoway. Our last full day is tomorrow and we’re planning a return to the stones to go to the visitor centre and a trip to the Blackhouse museum.

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broch

butt

lighthouse

stones

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And that ‘home away from home’ title? It’s a much used phrase in visitor books. Here at our holiday cottage it has been used by visitors in the past to describe the fully stocked kitchen with touches such as a radio, utility room complete with washing machine, tumble dryer and dishwasher, the comfy sofas, cosy bedrooms. None of these things are what we have at home these days. What is making us feel at home away from home is wild and windy weather, either outside the window right now, or evidenced by everything being tied down in anticipation of it – wheelie bins are tethered, shed doors are very secured. The lack of shops – we called in to a petrol station / groceries store yesterday to buy tonic water to have with my Harris gin and were told ‘Not till next Tuesday…’ a very familiar tale back at Rum shop. The attitude of the people, used to their lives being fascinating because they live on a remote island, well versed in the usual questions, slightly tired at the end of what has no doubt been a busy tourist season here too.

We came here because it seems mad that we live so far from our previous lives in a wild and remote place yet there is relative civilisation further away from the mainland than us. Because we live in the Hebrides but there is an ‘Outer Hebrides’ and we wanted to know what was more extreme and outer than where we are. Because one day, when we no longer live where we do we will probably live somewhere more anonymous, less documented. But while we live here, we should explore more, take the opportunity to visit the places which are, relatively speaking, on our doorstep.

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A busy week

In classic almost back to school style we have been super productive when we have a deadline looming. We are off for a holiday next week. When we moved here it was with an idea that the perfect life is one you don’t need a holiday from and I still firmly believe that.

However… it’s been a long season. A chaotic start to our year, a busy season with loads of sales in the shed shop, lots and lots of new livestock – bought in and bred here, some really hectic volunteer events, a lot of visitors, plenty of community events, lots of writing work, the launch of the bell tent camping… the list goes on. And we’re ready for a break. One of those simply stopping because actually there is nothing you should / could / can be getting on with. No firewood to chop or stack, no weeding, no animals to feed, no windows to clean. That sort of break. And despite loving our lives here very very much it will also be incredibly luxurious to have a washing machine and a fridge and a freezer inside the same building as we are in rather than a mile walk away. And a bath… and electricity and wifi all the time. In the old days we used to go camping three or four times a year and delight in *not* having all those things on tap, now we are looking forward to a few days with them!

Anyway, more on that when it is actually happening – there are ferries and travelling and croft sitters and all sorts of carefully planned but inevitably precarious until they are actually happening logistics before we can full breath a sigh of relief and be doing that.

For now, it’s been a busy week. The Escaping Sheep who were finding themselves outside of their pen about twice a day, playing chase the sheep with us around the outside of the pen for half an hour or so before taking pity on us and sauntering back in to their pen again have been tamed. I am not going to claim we have fixed their ability to escape because that would be foolishly tempting fate. I am however going to proudly announce that they have remained in their pen since Sunday when we did some work to it.

sheep pen

We have moved Barbara, Waddles and BenFogle the three girl pigs onto a new patch of grassy ground. They are nearer to the caravan for our croft sitter, have plenty of forage to keep them busy and a new house cunningly constructed from an IBC. The move itself was very smooth, we have moved pigs enough times now to have it down to quite an art. The gathering up of the posts and the rolling up of the electric fence was made slightly tougher by the very deep mud though…

muddy boots

Ady has been raking up all the grass and reeds he cut with a machine we have been borrowing. There are now multiple stacks of it scattered around the croft looking slightly menacing. Some are destined for mulch on the raised beds, some are destined for drying out to be animal bedding over the winter.

I have been weeding – five beds down, thirteen to go! The ones I have weeded have been covered with a layer of the chopped grass and rushes. There is a slight risk that there is grass seed in this cut stuff which may grow in the raised beds. I will aim to negate this risk by further mulching with seaweed and with other matter but the reality is that grass is a lot easier to weed out than some of the other weeds on the croft anyway and doesn’t do any real harm to the soil either.

raised beds

It’s been beautifully sunny and warm – short sleeves weather with the added bonus of midges already one so all of these tasks outside have been a joy rather than an endurance test. Hurrah for autumn!

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A confession

I am sure I have written before about my short attention span. About how I flit from thing to thing, getting utterly absorbed in it before getting bored and moving on. In the pre-parenthood days my cv was filled with 12-18 month stints in jobs before I got fed up and started looking for the next challenge. When I am doing something I do give it my all – if I were on a TV talent show I would say 110%! – but it doesn’t always last.

The only things I have ever really stuck with are my relationship with Ady – and Home Educating Davies and Scarlett. I suspect that full time parenting and educating relates really well to that personality actually, an ever changing, constantly evolving day to day pattern with two individuals who offer new challenges and questions all the time has been a perfect fit for me.

I am great at passion and throwing myself at something for a finite time, giving my all and fully committing to things. Just not always so good at still being in that same headspace a few weeks, months or years later.

Years ago on an online forum I was on a group of us made new years resolutions. The usual things were on people’s lists – losing weight, eating healthier, getting more exercise. I knew myself well enough to realise that committing to something like that would be setting myself up for failure so instead I went for one small change each month for the duration of that month. At the end of the month I could give that up and take on the next challenge. The hope was that a month would be enough to become habit forming and over ten years on some of the habits I formed during that time are still with me. They were small changes such as drinking more water… for every cup of tea I made, I would drink a full glass of water while the kettle boiled and I would have another large glass of water before bed. I still do that before bed glass of water. Another month I pledged to eat more fruit and vegetables, including trying things I either thought I didn’t like or had never tried before. I knew by the end of that month that I really didn’t like cauliflower or broccoli but I discovered that I loved asparagus and it remains my favourite (seasonal) veg. I have a raised bed of it growing and hope to one day eat my own home grown and picked asparagus. Another month I aimed to try different forms of exercise. That led to going swimming myself while Davies and Scarlett had their weekly swimming lessons instead of sitting reading a book. That led to two sponsored swims and raising over £1000 for charity including swimming the equivalent of the channel over a set time frame.

So my confession? It’s this butterfly brain that leads to me picking up one project and dropping it and moving on to the next one. It is why I am great at picking brambles and making hundreds of jars of jam during a one month window, or spending two whole days baking for a customer order, or a six week chunk of time furiously crocheting a blanket, but less good at long term, sustained, day in day out stuff. There are many reasons why our growing of food here on the Croft doesn’t go so well. External factors such as poor soil, challenging climate, pests such as deer and our own chickens play a huge role but also in there is my own bad form in starting off well and then starting to lose interest.

So for this next growing season – and I’m considering autumn to be the start of the growing season rather than the spring as I have a whole load of prep to be getting on with right now – to be my chance to sort this out. And I’m applying that tried and tested knowledge of how my brain works to help try and make it a success.

So this month… I need to weed the raised beds and cover them with mulch. Some of them have perennial crops in, some have autumn sowings but all need clearing of grass or weeds and covering with something over winter. Today I finished off weeding two of the beds that I had almost completed and pretty much did all of a third one. The mulch material is already cut and ready for me waiting to be collected and spread on the beds. An hour or so a day will get me to achieving this target. And for now, until next month, in project making my garden grow that is all I need to focus on making happen.

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Baaa!

It’s time for a livestock update. It’s been a big year for new Croft 3 creatures, both bought in and bred and reared here on the Croft and as we head towards the toughest part of the year we can think about how everything has settled in so far.

First the sheep. Three of this years lambs brought across from our neighbouring Isle of Muck. The four Small Isles – Rum, Eigg, Muck and Canna are geographically very close but are very different places in terms of geology, size, vegetation and even to a degree weather conditions. Rum is easily the harshest although I think Muck possibly has wilder winds. There is more livestock kept on the other three islands than here on Rum as there are established farms and crofts on the other islands where we are still quite newly established in keeping livestock and crofting here on Rum. Historically there have been sheep here but it was our fellow crofters on Croft 1 who brought the first sheep back to Rum since the clearances when they introduced Soay sheep back to the island a couple of years ago. Their initial stock of a few ewes and a ram bred successfully but struggled with last winter’s harsh conditions.

We have limited experience with sheep. Prior to leaving Sussex I signed up as volunteer Lookerer – part of a council run initiative to protect chalk grassland on the South Downs by grazing with sheep. The sheep were from a farmer, the land owned by Brighton Council and the flock who were grazed over various locations were tended by a team of volunteers who visited them twice daily to ensure they had water, their fence was intact and that all the sheep were fit, well and walking ok. We had a weekend of training in basic sheep handling, learned about the various ways that sheep die and I came away mostly with the message that keeping sheep is basically an ongoing battle with a sheep’s overwhelming suicidal tendencies! It seemed to be that a shepherd spends almost their whole time preventing a sheep from dying. It’s a wonder to me that sheep have not made themselves extinct. Foot rot, fly strike, liver fluke, getting tangled up and falling onto their backs… the list was endless. I had practical lessons in turning and handling a sheep, setting up and checking electric fencing.

We had quite a bit of sheep wrangling experience while WWOOFing – from the cossetted and named sheep we came across at two different hosts in Glastonbury – hand-sheared, hand fed, all named and kept as pets. We stayed at a farm during lambing with huge numbers of sheep, took lambs to a slaughterhouse and generally got involved in rounding up, herding, chasing and heading off large numbers of sheep who regularly don’t perform in quite such a sheep-like following the herd manner as common sayings would have you expect.

Keeping sheep on Croft 3 was always part of the plan and this year we finally made it a reality. As with everything we’ve done here we’re starting small. Three ewes, a hardy breed, good for meat and fleece, good grazers. They arrived safely, settled in well and after a couple of weeks became regular escapees! They seem to push under the mesh enclosure while eating and then look up and realise they are not inside their pen any more and seem really confused as to how that happened and how to get back in again. They are still on the croft, still penned in and secure within the croft fence and gates and showing no desire to roam any further, infact they seem visibly relieved when we manage to herd them back in their pen each time. But we have a pen to keep them in a set area so have today re-enforced the pen with a second layer of netting and pegged it down to the ground all the way around. This makes it at least four times harder to break out in my opinion. By no means sheep proof – if I’ve learnt anything in my brief period as a shepherd so far it is that sheep seem to enjoy proving you wrong – but certainly more secure than it was before.

In other livestock news the pigs have been pretty quiet this year and we’re hoping they remain that way for the duration – no surprise piglet litters until the spring please! We are aiming to keep everyone who might make that a reality apart until at least November but as pigs are also masters of escapology particularly when females are in season we don’t always manage that. So far I think we’re ok.

On the bird front we have five wee chicks still penned with their mother, a late surprise clutch of chicks who will just about have time to get big and be released before winter really settles in. This years older chicks all seem to be doing fine, growing well and mixing in with the flock. We will separate the cockerels from this year in the next month or so and pen them to fatten them. We will also do the same with any male ducklings from this years hatches. It’s still a little early to tell male and female ducks but early counting and educated guessing tells me it was a female heavy hatch which is good. The muscovy ducks are still penned as they seem to be the most vulnerable to crows, we could probably release them all now but we have a croft sitter here in 10 days for a week so may as well keep them penned and safe until after that. Particularly as they are captured in the fruit cage and are doing a fine job of eating any slugs and caterpillars and other wee beasties who might try and set up home on the fruit trees and bushes over winter and do harm.

The biggest challenge will always be taking animals through a Rum winter and it is fair to say that despite our care and attention only the strongest survive but certainly the born and raised creatures always seem to do the best. Fingers crossed we get through the coming season with as few casualties as possible.