Rum Time

Yesterday was our six year Rum-iversary.

Six whole years since we drove off the ferry and started our new lives here. Over a third of both Davies and Scarlett’s lives.

So many highs, a fair few lows, so many memories and experiences, adventures and lessons. A friend who no longer lives here and infact was only here for about half as long as we already have been once told me that Rum never leaves you even if you leave Rum. Local lore has it that you don’t choose Rum but Rum chooses you – if you are meant to be here then the Rum gods will make it so and be kind, if you are not then you will be shown. A place which is so sparsely populated that you can almost see the footprints of everyone who has ever walked here, almost still hear the echoes of voices whispering every word ever said. Without a shadow of a doubt our time here has forever changed all four of us.

Friendship and family mean something different here, there is a dialect so local that only the residents understand every word and Rum-specific phrase, currency is not spent in sterling, time is not marked in minutes and hours, Rum customs and festivals mark the passing of time along with the first cuckoo calling,  the first shearwater fledging, the first stag roaring, the hills changing colour through the seasons, the ferry timetable switching from summer to winter to summer to winter.  We speak here of ‘Shop o’clock’, ‘Ferry o’clock’, Rum Time.

I’m attempting to capture the essence of that in my newest In The Shed line – Rum o’clock clocks on recycled slates. I’ve got them displayed in the Shop, Bunkhouse and will soon have them at the other businesses on the island too.

That six years has both been a lifetime and passed in a flash.

Mainlandland

We had a three night trip off Rum back to the mainland over the weekend.

The purpose was an orthodontist visit for Scarlett – usually about a ten minute exercise which unfortunately necessitates a three night trip off the island with all the expense and upheaval that entails. We are into tourist season in Fort William which is our nearest town and location of our dentist so accommodation is harder to find and priced accordingly. The same rooms which cost under £30 a night during the winter in the ‘budget hotel’ chains can be as much as five times that per night during the peak season and were double that already.

The dental appointment proved to be the final one for Scarlett. Over two years after her first visit to the orthodontist she has endured a phenomenal amount of treatment including extractions and a palate expander, train track braces with bands joining her top and bottom jaws. bonded retainers on the backs of her front teeth and retainers worn for hours every day. She has dealt with multiple impressions, hours in the chair, pain from tightened braces, the rubbing of the metal on her gums and cheeks and broken wires digging in. Her diet has been massively restricted and the way she eats and drinks affected.

We have been so proud of the way Scarlett has managed all this with her usual cheerfulness and stoicism. She is scrupulous about brushing and dental hygiene, philosophical about the pain and only on this final visit confessed that actually she is really quite anxious about the appointments in advance.

But she’s done. All signed off and back to regular six monthly check ups at the dentist like the rest of us. Scarlett has always had a beautiful smile, now she has beautiful even teeth in that smile.

So aside from baths, food shops and catching up on junk TV what else could we do to make the most of being off anyway? The ferry timetable dictates it was a 3 night trip giving us a whole day with nothing planned. A mere 50 miles away from the Highland Wildlife Park which we visited back in 2016 now home to a new polar bear cub which had only emerged with it’s mother from their den a few weeks previously…. not really much of a dilemma!

There is also a drive round safari, wolves, wildcats, lynx, tigers, snow monkeys, several types of owl, wolverines, red pandas and snow leopards but the polar bear cub is definitely the star attraction just now. Sexed just the say before as a male and only coming out with his mother for a short time each day we caught him having a swim and a play and it was just magical.

 

A Bonnie-versary

I have always been scared of dogs for as long as I can remember. My Dad tells me I was nipped at by a terrier as a toddler and I can certainly recall being snapped at by a German Shepherd as I ran past it in a park aged about ten although I was already scared of dogs by then. It has definitely been a fear which affected me in life. I would cross over the road to avoid walking past a dog even if it was on a lead. If I was going to visit someone who I had not been to the house of before I would check if they had a dog and I have never yet rung a doorbell without feeling trepidation about the noise being followed by a dog barking or seeing the shadow of a dog jumping up on the other side of a door. I have had to ask friends to shut a dog away or left somewhere where a loose dog was around. Walks in woods or on the downs were always hampered by the idea of a dog appearing. The heart racing, breath catching, sweat forming fear of a dog coming close was always with me.

It was a fear I was desperate not to pass on to Davies or Scarlett. From an early age I warned them of the danger of approaching a dog and ensured they always checked first with a dog’s owner about how friendly they were or took their cue from the dog itself for while fear of dogs is a rational phobia – after all they can do some serious harm to you, it was also something which I knew at times was too controlling and out of hand for me and eclipsed self preservation from harm, particularly with tiny dogs or ones which I was assured were friendly and harmless. Both the children appreciated that I was afraid of dogs but neither of them were and Scarlett particularly loved dogs from an early age.

When we were planning our WWOOFing adventures I was very aware that this could pose a big problem for me. I knew that many of the hosts we would be staying with would have dogs, loose dogs who I would need to coexist alongside. There were times over that year when my bravado left me and I got scared and I don’t think I ever let myself be in a situation where I was left alone with a dog but I definitely got over the worst of my fears and only once of twice did Ady have to step in and get between me and a dog so I felt safe again.

Even so, if you’d ever told me I might one day own a dog I would never have believed you. Such a notion would definitely be up there with having children, not sending them to school, learning to love camping trips, spending a year in a campervan, living off grid, helping a pig deliver a litter of piglets, plucking turkeys and chickens….. So when we were planning our move to Rum I found myself planning getting a dog. There were certain pre-requisites to meet – it needed to be a puppy so that I was never scared of it, a clever and easily trainable dog, one with plenty of energy, one suited to our new lifestyle, one we could collect between Sussex and Rum. We have rehomed lots of rescue cats and I would usually encourage giving unwanted animals a home rather than paying for pedigrees from a breeder but a rescue dog is likely to come with a back story that doesn’t fit with a nervous owner so a border collie from a breeder local to Rum with the right age puppies ready to collect was the right option for us.

So six years ago today we exchanged a wad of cash for a little black and white bundle the night before we moved to Rum. We had a few possible names for her but none of them suited her and Davies came up with the idea of Bonnie, in homage to our new move to Bonny Scotland. It fitted perfectly, just like Bonnie herself. I will probably never own another dog, a long haired breed was a foolish choice for a lifestyle where gills and webbed feet might have been more appropriate, bringing a small puppy into an already complicated enough new life was an additional complication and I still really prefer cats. I remain scared of dogs I don’t know, and quite a few I do.

But on balance, offering love and devotion, loyalty and the most delighted welcome even if you only left for half an hour Bonnie has been a splendid addition to our family, adapting marvellously to all our quirks and foibles, tagging along for stupid adventures and coping well with 18 drives and ferry trips. She’s by no means perfect which is why she is a perfect fit with us.

Day trips and seed sowing

The weather is classic April – sunshine and showers. T shirts and hot water bottles!

It does feel like spring is definitely on the horizon though and the days are certainly much longer.  The birds definitely feel the season is upon us – we have been gathering chicken, duck and goose eggs and indulging in plenty of baking and egg eating – scrambled eggs are back on the menu and today I happily turned the signs round on the egg fridge (for storage and display rather than chilling you understand, it is not plugged in!) and put the first eggs of the season out for sale.

We’ve already had some good sales from the shed and sent jams and crochet midges over to the mainland for sale in the shop and craft fayre in Mallaig. I’m already about a third of the way to raising the funds for the spinning wheel and we’ve sold the first clock.

I’ve added some Highland cows and a red deer to the cuddly creatures too.

The plan to use the chickens to clear the walled garden area of raised beds is going splendidly. Our next big plan for that area is to create some decent paths between the raised beds. The whole area gets very muddy each winter and barely recovers during the short summer months each year despite a drainage ditch along two sides taking excess water away. The idea solution would be something like gravel, wood chippings or a similar material laid down in bulk between the beds but that would be a mammoth task to get to the right place so we are pondering solutions perhaps using pallets which we have plenty of to create boardwalk style paths around the beds.

In the meantime I have been sowing a smaller number of seeds than in previous years as I am sticking to what I can grow either in containers or in perhaps one or two cordoned off beds – mostly herbs, salad, tomatoes, peppers and peas. And some flowers.

Our biggest planned and hoped for crops this year though will be strawberries. We all love strawberries and when we lived in Sussex going strawberry picking at the local PYO farm was a weekly treat throughout the summer. We would spent a whole afternoon there and come home laden with freshly picked fruit and veggies and sometimes maybe slightly strawberry juice stained lips! It was often a struggle to pick enough to guarantee we would have leftover fruit to make into jam even with a whole field to pick from but it’s worth trying restraint because home made strawberry jam on home baked bread in the middle of winter is such a treat of remembering that summer will be back once more.

Strawberries are one of the crops which actually thrive here on our rather rubbish land. Soft fruits generally do well in Scotland and on Rum with wild crops of brambles, raspberries and blueberries on the island. The acidic and nutrient poor soil doesn’t seem to bother them and the wet climate and long daylight hours seem to happen at just the right times in their flower to fruit cycle to give us excellent crops with little effort. Indeed foraging for wild brambles and raspberries has long been a summer activity for us here, but the cultivated crops of red and blackcurrants and hybrids such as tayberry and loganberry do well for us too. And our strawberries here are the only crop I have ever done better with on Rum than I ever did in Sussex. I think my entire patch, which has grown year on year is still going strong from an original 20 or 30 small rooted plants I bought in our first year with the community polytunnel and then dug up after it blew down. We transplanted them into the purpose built mini extension to our little polytunnel where they continue to do fantastically well fruiting heavily right through from June to September and sending out plenty of runners which I harvest to plant elsewhere. Last year we extended to two more large raised beds, and at the end of the season I took runners from them and we built a caged area with black plastic sheeting covering the grass and planted the little runners through small crosses cut into the ground.

When we got back there was not really much sign of those runners, and what was there was winter beaten and withered. But Ady and I covered the area with some plastic (given to us by the man who came to take furniture from the castle to be deep freeze treated for moths and bugs. The furniture was wrapped in large sheets of plastic for transportation and protection while in the freezers and was destined for the skip after use when it came back here but Ady asked if we could have it and the guy was only too happy not to have to find somewhere to dump it) about 3 weeks ago and weighed it down . Today I cleared out the dead leaves and removed runners from the original patch and took them to the new area to plant and was amazed when I pulled back the plastic to see the growth of the plants underneath.

We need some paths in between plants in there too and a better method of covering the area with plastic but have a plan involving dismantled pallets for in there too. Which is next week’s job list.

It’s not all craftin’ and plantin’ though. We’ve been to the village to have tea and cake and meet the new CEO of SNH who was over on a visit, Ady and friends went up the hills on Easter Sunday, our community ranger launched an exhibition of her art and photography in the village hall, we had a friend up for dinner and a trip across the island to Harris bay for a spot of beach combing.

Scarlett’s haul of ‘ treasure’ included some bones from the minke whale we found over there this time last year and a life buoy from a boat which thanks to the wonders of the internet we were able to find online and see photos of.

We also checked out the aftermath of the fire last week. You can clearly see the area that the fire had raged across and still smell the charred stench in the air over there.

Davies and I have both had our third tutor marked assessments back and are pleased with our results. I got a very high mark (97%) and Davies got some really great feedback with words like ‘excellent’ and ‘very good’ littered throughout it including high praise for the standard of his spelling, grammar and written work which was lovely to hear. We have now actually finished the material of the course and are taking a week off before doing the final assessment essay which will conclude our access courses. We are both well on track for good passes and Davies has already transferred his study to a BSc in Psychology with the credits for this course going towards that. He will have the summer off studying having done both the access course and an online course in academic writing and essays alongside it and then carry on in the autumn. I am still undecided as to whether to carry on or not but I have largely enjoyed it so suspect I might.

It’s lovely to be back and enjoying our usual eclectic mix of no two days being quite the same and a blend of enjoying the now and looking forward to what is to come.

Ice then fire

On Wednesday afternoon Ady and I were out on the croft. We’d been to the pier to collect deliveries from the ferry and bought everything back up the hill, had some lunch and were getting on with various things. I was doing some laundry and Ady was putting up some posts to display some signs I had made to help visitors spot interesting things along the north side nature trail which borders our croft. Ady spotted some unusual looking clouds and we realised after watching for a few minutes that it was actually smoke, not clouds at all.

It was hard to make out quite where it would be coming from – around that corner it’s a fairly long way (relatively speaking, Rum is pretty small after all, only about 8 miles across) to the road where (a limited number of) vehicles might be, or the only buildings – the red deer research base buildings are over at Kilmory on the north side of the island, otherwise there is nothing but land, grasses, a few patches of sparse woodland and wildlife. We watched for a while, I rang the nature reserve office on island and left a message and we decided to keep an eye on the sky and see if anything changed. Shortly afterwards we heard by email that a fire on the hill on the north side of the island had been reported by our neighbouring isle of Canna and that the fire service had been notified and would try to attend.

Rum is nearly 20 miles from the mainland. We have no fire brigade or on-island method of fire fighting. Residents are hyper cautious of fire risks in our homes, buildings, gardens and land and out on the island as well. There are smoke alarms, fire extinguishers, fire blankets in houses and given many of us have regular contact with risky stuff like jerry cans of fuel, bottled gas, open fires and log burners we are aware that in the event of a fire breaking out we can’t dial 999 and get help. Even so within living memory here two houses burnt down and a fire out on the nature reserve was started accidentally by campers burning their rubbish and not being careful enough. Despite the island being very wet from heavy rainfall and peaty ground the large open areas, windy conditions and plains of long grasses and woody shrubs can mean that responsible behaviour and plenty of vigilance are imperative.

Later in  the afternoon a helicopter flew over several times, first to take stock of the situation and then to deploy some water bombs in an attempt to bring the fire under control. It was already deemed too late to put the fire out by that point and the nature reserve staff were tasked with monitoring the situation through the night with a planned return of the helicopter in the morning. While the settlement village of Kinloch – where the ferry comes in and most people on Rum live – the site of our village hall, shop and the castle is on the east side of the island the deer research area of Kilmory and the historic lodge and mausoleum site  of Harris are both on the west side of the island where the fire was. The wind overnight was forecast for a change to a westerly direction which could have proved dire. We on our croft would have been the first in line being a mile closer to the middle of the island than Kinloch village. This rather daunting fact echoed round our minds more than once during the course of Wednesday evening…

As the night drew in and the sky got darker so did the plumes of smoke as the fire spread.

I often say that the sunset makes it look as though the sky and the hills are on fire. This time it was actually true. Fire is such an amazing element, just like the ocean. It it so powerful and mighty, can be so life-giving while also so destructive and scary. The mesmerising quality of the flames mean that even while you are feeling prickles of fear at the potential consequences you are also thrilled at the excitement and charmed by the beauty.

All four of us kept drawing each others attention to the view out of the window, dashing outside to take photos and videos. All the while though we were forming evacuation plans and plotting what to do with livestock, what to snatch from the caravan should we have to leave it for the last time. That sounds dramatic but potentially it could have been. The fire had spread more during the afternoon than the distance between where it was at that point and where we are.

As darkness fell we saw the first flames through the smoke.

As it got dark the fire raged on and edged closer

As the wind continued to slightly change direction we watched it flare and die down. At times it looked like a city in the distance with strings of tiny lights and an overall glow. You could almost picture that the usually complete darkness beyond us into the island was populated once more by the hundreds of people who have lived on Rum in times gone by. Or that overcrowding on the mainland had finally pushed a development here and 24 hour supermarkets, housing estates and shopping malls were making their presence felt.

By now we had formulated a plan – we’d leave the croft gate open and release the chickens and ducks meaning all the livestock could flee in the opposite direction to the fire. We’d take the cat and the dog with us. We would rescue our most precious things and take wheelbarrows to the car. We’d disconnect bottled gas, move the generator and jerry cans of petrol, chainsaw, strimmer etc. away from the caravan so that in the event of fire sweeping across the croft they would not harm it. We already keep the area directly around the caravan very short, with rats and fire in mind but Ady doused the surrounding area with water so at least we knew we had done all we possibly could.

It was reassuring seeing the lights of the reserve vehicle heading along the road every hour and by midnight we started to feel that the fire was heading south rather than west and had passed us by. Suddenly though just before 1am the wind changed again and while the flames had died down the sky took on an eerie glow and I was sure I could see sparks over the hill that had been our benchmark destination for leaving when the fire reached.

Those two areas that look like lights are patches of flames. The higher one is the peak of one of the hills, the lower one is the bottom of the glen that heads towards us. We had planned shifts through the night to keep an eye on things knowing that it might take us half an hour or so to actually leave the croft should we need to. Davies was happy to sit up for a while so I went to bed at around 1am. Just after I did it suddenly started to rain heavily, which had been forecast (and much hoped for). Sure enough it extinguished all the visible flames almost straight away like natures own sprinkler system. We all slept much easier than we’d been expecting to.

Yesterday we woke to confirmation that the fire was no longer visible from the roads across the island and a later fly over by helicopter confirmed what the clear skies were already telling us that it had all burnt out. What remains now is acres of charred hillside.

The hill closest to us currently looks as though it is perpetually in shadow.

The fire probably only got a mile or so away from us on the croft, but a change in wind direction could have bought it across the island in a very short space of time. Thanks to the offered hospitality of friends and fellow islanders we were never at risk, but our property, livestock and belongings could have been. We likely won’t ever find out what started the blaze but the chances are it was human irresponsibility – a flicked cigarette end, not checking your campfire or rubbish burning has been properly put out, leaving litter such as a bottle which may magnify the sunshine sufficiently to create a smoulder on tinder dry grassland. Who knows?

On this occasion we were lucky on Rum. It will now be another of the many stories of things we saw, experiences we had, memories we recall. I’m glad the rain came and put an end to this particular drama at just the point we were starting to feel it was edging a little too close for comfort.

 

 

 

 

The Rum March

We arrived home on Rum one month ago today on the 1st of March.

And what a month it has been.

From that first glimpse of Rum off the ferry, to the people waiting to welcome us back. The arriving back at the croft and making the caravan habitable again .

Re-acquainting ourselves with our animals and gathering up and welcoming home those who had an off-croft winter break themselves.

Remembering the lows of living alongside nature from frozen water supplies… to the highs of sunsets, eagle fly-bys, spotting and identifying the first star in the night sky (which was Uranus, not a star at all!). A display of northern lights and that night sky that is incomparable to anywhere else we’ve been.

Heading over to Harris to help worm the ponies or helping with the deer count

The joy of the car starting, the solar panel arriving and working so that we have sufficient power for internet on all the time, the much researched washing machine arriving safely and working perfectly…

The first freshly laid eggs, the Rum venison, the pork from our own pigs once more. The home made bramble jam on the brought back from the mainland croissants we came home with

The getting the shed back open for the season; re-doing the welly trail, adding new signs and new wellies, ordering in new postcards, creating new product lines and the first sales of the season.

The tree planting on the croft (420 trees), getting gas bottles up the hill, felling and chopping trees for firewood, wheelbarrowing countless loads up the hill…

Catching up with much-missed friends and feeling embraced, welcomed, loved and re-integrated back into our community here.