Just like starting over

We’ve had friends staying the last few days. Very good friends who have visited us on Rum many times and we have spent time with them too. This is the third ‘home’ they have come to visit us in – a static caravan off grid on a remote island, a quirky rented house in Eire and this rented house here in mainland Scotland.

Our lives are very, very different to each other in many ways. We are both happy families of four still living with two parents and two teens, similar in age with a cat and a dog. We share plenty of common interests but the list of ways in which we are startlingly un-alike would cover many more pages than they ways in which we are the same.

It is our little family which is the unusual one – our children have never been to school, none of us work full time or even have any one particular job title, our hobbies and interests tend to be on the quirky side. Our most recent move from Rum to here marked one more move in a list of several changes in address, all of which have been remarkable in their own way.

The conversations my friend and I have shared over the many years we have been close often follow a similar path with her wanting my take on something to better understand how our approaches can be so very different, on how the things which would keep her awake at night worrying about are either of no consequence to me, or are actually motivation for doing something in the first place – risky? unknown? probably a bad idea? untested? just so very different to how everyone else is doing things?

For my 40th birthday Ady bought me a bag with the slogan ‘ignoring advice since 1974’ – I posted about it at the time remarking that most of the best choices I have made in my life so far have been as a result of ignoring advice. Settling down very young, moving away from family and friends with a very small baby, not sending children to school, jacking in jobs and heading off around the country in a small campervan, moving to a remote island, dragging a caravan up a muddy hill…. all of my favourite memories, happiest times, things that make me smile, decisions I am most proud of have come from doing things differently to how most people do them.

During this particular visit we were talking about the various jobs we have found here, the new life we have built for ourselves since arriving in March when we had a house rented but no jobs and no friends yet. At least half of the various things the four of us are finding ourselves doing did not even exist as jobs before we got here, some of them were not advertised.

In my 20s I must have applied for 100 jobs. I must have attended 25 interviews, I had 10 different jobs. In my 30s and 40s I have come to realise that what I was doing wrong was applying for jobs that already existed and trying to make myself fit them. Where I am succeeding now (and by succeeding I mean paying rent, finding things to do that I find rewarding, worthwhile, enjoyable and fit around the other things in my life that I want to do, both in terms of actual hours I have to work, when those hours are, the rate of pay, the flexibility, the people I am working with and how well I am actually doing them) is by seeking what suits me rather than attempting to change myself to match a job spec.

Parenting taught me a lot of those skills, home educating taught me even more. WWOOFing topped them up massively, life on Rum honed them, moving here is fine tuning them. I fully anticipate plenty more twists and turns in my future to continue shaping them, adding to them, growing them.

Starting over is exciting. New things to learn, new ways to present yourself, new opportunities to find where your strengths and previous experiences may be useful and what you need to learn and develop that you didn’t already possess. Starting over means new people to get to know, new rules to understand. I love the constants in my life, they are what enables me to feel secure enough to thrive on a big dose of changes. Working out what should be the constants and what can be let go in favour of a shake up has definitely been key in all the startings over we have done so far.

To dye for

It’s funny how so many of the things I had planned and dreamed of doing but never managed in all those years on Rum have been possible since leaving. It turns out living in a house with easy access to so many of the things we didn’t have on Rum does indeed make life easier. It comes with it’s own price for sure but I’m enjoying both the actual luxury of four solid walls and a solid roof along with the luxuries that a rather easier life (in many ways) provides.

One of the skills on my very long list of things I wanted to learn was rural crafts. I wanted to learn to shear sheep, spin the fleece, dye it and make things with it. In classic reverse order I learned to crochet (I could already knit) long before I learned to make the wool, before I even had the sheep actually.

Then came the sheep, followed a year later by the shearing and thanks to a kind Rum friend a first taster of spinning. Sadly the caravan had no room for a spinning wheel and although I had a drop spindle I failed to master the skill so the bagged up fleece remained bagged up.

The following year (last year infact) we improved our shearing skills and buoyed up by this, along with a donation from a blog reader I invested in a better drop spindle and set about improving that skill too. Many hours of practise later, along with quite a few swear words and spindles and bobbins bouncing about the place I had managed to spin enough wool to form part of an heirloom blanket project for my Mum, a hat for Ady and a pair of cosy socks for when I’m ill for myself.

The notion of dyeing was there nagging at me but once again the caravan and the limitations of our Rum life made it a tricky one. We had no spare pan and wooden spoon for a dye bath, our hob ran on bottled gas which we had to carry up the hill and was a precious resource providing our cooking and hot water. An hour or more of boiling a pan just to colour some wool was not a wise investment of such a resource and the levels of condensation from an uncovered pan bubbling away for an hour would have made me very unpopular with the others.

This year though, with the bag of fleece now a wheelie bin filled with the fleeces of 8 sheep the time has come to embark on the final step of that woolly adventure skills acquiring. So armed with a pan I bought from the local re-use centre for a pound and some freshly spun wool I started learning about natural dyes.

I’m sharing here what I’ve learnt from what I’ve done rather than any sort of guidelines. I’ve not measure properly or timed anything and some of what I’ve discovered goes against some of what I’ve read, while some of it supports what I’ve read. There is not a wealth of information about natural dyes and certainly nothing definitive, there seems to be lots of contradictory advice out there. Which of course I am now adding to too!

The key things I had read were that most natural things (leaves, fruit, fruit and vegetables and their peel, berries, seeds, needles, fungi, lichen, flowers…) can be used to extract colour from to make a dye but there are different ways of treating different things to get different results. The colour you get is not necessarily the colour of what you are using eg blackberries won’t give you a purple dye, a green leaf won’t give you a green dye. Some dyes require a mordant or fixative, some will be changed again with the addition or use of a mordant.

I have read about various mordants – some you treat the wool with before dyeing, some during and some after. They range from chemical to natural. To me if I’m using natural things to dye with I wanted to be using natural things to fix it with. Natural mordants include ammonia, vinegar and iron water. Iron water is made by soaking a rusty piece of iron in water, ammonia can be urine.

I’ve read about extracting the pigment from things by soaking them in the ammonia or iron water and then creating a dye bath for your wool or fabric from that, or by adding everything together. Some things require long soakings, some require heat.

If it’s all sounding a bit like a dark art then you are concluding about the same as I did from reading about it. I decided doing was better so armed with a suggestion from somewhere that lichen does not require a mordant and having seen someone local dyeing yarn by boiling it in a pan with some lichen I decided that was my starting point.

I am lucky enough to live in the woodland which is rich with lichens of many types. I am no botanist and while I can fairly confidently call a lichen a lichen the only variety I would have a go at naming is lungwort. I was aware that different lichens give different results so I kept the three types I had gathered separate.

Almost all lichens are protected and you should not pick them from where they are growing – it can damage both the lichen and what it is growing on. Fortunately (for me) at this time of year there is plenty of windblown lichen lying around on the woodland floor so I was able to gather a decent handful or two without disturbing anything growing.

I started with a pale green almost fluffy looking type. I put the wool and the lichen in a large pan of water and simmered it for about an hour. I kept an eye on it, didn’t agitate it too much in case the wool felted and when it looked like the colour had mostly left the lichen and was staying in the wool I drained it and rinsed the wool through. The colour stayed fast!

Out to dry – thee skeins on the left are dyed, three skeins on the right are not

The wool is pure white to start with. This first lichen took the colour to a pale yellow – almost identical to what the wool had looked like before I washed the lanolin and general croft dirt out of it after I’d spun it.

Next I tried a more lungwort-y looking lichen. This had quite a bit of tree bark debris, mostly because I had gathered it off the firewood we had chopped up and bought in. I didn’t gather so much of this so I suspect a bigger haul would net a deeper colouring, but maybe not.

This gave a darker result than the first one.

Left to right – dye number two x 2, dye number 1 x 3, undyed x 2

Over the weekend we went on a walk to some local woodland which was rich with all sorts of foraging treasures. I gathered a large handful of lungwort which I had been told would create a darker brown. This was my biggest volume of lichen in a dye bath yet which no doubt accounts in part for the deep colour but look at this!

It’s just gorgeous. And the four different colours all together look stunning.

Next adventures include trying something other than lichen, experimenting with more or less lichen per bath and (very exciting) dyeing some fleece before spinning it. I have this idea that it would be cool to create some yarn with two different colours.

I also want to try knitting or crocheting something with my newly dyed yarn. Any suggestions?

Another season

We are well into autumn now and having moved here at the very start of spring there is only winter left for us to experience. Here on the mainland winter festivals are already very much in evidence, a bit of a culture shock after nearly a decade out of that particular loop. Has it all started even earlier or did we just forget?

Certainly in Ady and my working life in retail, going back many years ago ‘season’ meant something very different to what was happening outside in nature. Having worked in high street fashion and card and gift retail, DIY superstores and garden centres as well as a huge shopping mall with a Christmas grotto branch to the business we are not strangers to Christmas starting in August. But it felt largely in the planning and the behind the scenes side of the businesses back then – looking at recruitment for Christmas temp staff, interviewing Santas, making space in the stock room for the influx of deliveries or packing away the last of the unsold summer clothing ready to bring back out again with slashed prices for the January sale (which incidentally started earlier each year and reached Boxing Day even within my retail career lifetime).

Here though we are still managing to mostly retain our appreciation of the season changing to the leaves turning colour and falling – a spectacular event that living right in the middle of ancient oak woodland is making one of the most photogenic autumns I can recall. To the decreasing day lengths – now when I wake it is to the sun directly shining in through the bedroom window because it is that low in the sky, the chickens are going away every earlier each night, the fire is being lit, we are back to carrying a ‘just in case’ torch in a pocket once more. Today I dug my doc martens back out to start wearing in favour of my shoes.

There remains an off-duty feel to where we are living, in common with Rum. There are fewer people about. Our holiday cottage cleaning has come more or less to an end (although we have potentially picked up a new contract for next season which is good), there are less cars on the road, our trips into Fort William which we aim for every ten days or so to do food and supply shopping are notably quieter in the shops and on the roads, the ferry has less people and traffic, the lambs who were both a delight and a traffic hazard gambolling about in the roads are now indistinguishable from their parents and barely look up as cars pass.

Ady, who is still working six nights a week at the tea room is reliably home most evenings well before 10pm, sometimes even by 9. I am already on the first half term break from my youth club, we have a table booked at the ‘Christmas’ craft fayre locally and this week we made our Christmas cake. A time honoured Goddard tradition happening sometime in October, or very sometimes November depending on ferries bringing the ingredients or us not being on the road somewhere.

We are continuing to settle in here nicely. We are starting to make plans well into next year which suggests we are planning on this being a permanent (for now!) address. We are enjoying the benefits and opportunities that mainland life offers and are fairly regularly being very grateful we are not heading towards the winter in our caravan.

Bring on the seasons. We’re loving every one so far.

All for the swim

I’ve mentioned on here a couple of times that Scarlett and I have begun wild swimming in the loch. We even took a visiting friend in with us in August.

We had been driving alongside the loch most days and walked around various parts of the shores in our early months here and looked longingly at it – it looked cooler than the inside of our car during heatwaves, it looked beautiful and inviting and exciting. When we started doing the marine identification workshop and surveys and learned more about the plants and animals living in and around the loch it was even more attractive to think we’d be sharing the water with starfish, anenomes, crabs (the small ones at least!) and so many varieties of beautiful seaweeds.

Then I interviewed a local swimming coach to write an article for the paper and that felt like the final prompt we’d needed. We booked a guided swim session with her, initially planning to hire wetsuits from her but the same week found bargain wetsuits on offer when we did our food shopping (one of those supermarkets with middle aisles filled with non food items you didn’t even know you wanted or needed in your life until you spot them there!) so we arrived for our guided swim clad in our own wetsuits. I had not previously left the house without cleavage on display since about 1992 and Scarlett hates anything restrictive so we were tugging on our necklines and wriggling about uncomfortably feeling both exposed and restricted. By the end of that first hour we were converted!

Fast forward a couple of months and we now both own two wetsuits each, have snorkel masks and goggles, gloves and tow floats and towel ponchos. Our downstairs shower is almost always host to at least one dripping wetsuit and I seem to wear waterproof mascara more often than I did in my tearful teenage years! We keep a stock of ‘after swim pear drops’ in the car and my instagram feed is filled with pictures of us looking dry and anticipatory or wet and happy before and after shots of our swims.

We are both able swimmers having had swimming lessons as children – in my case rather more years ago than in Scarlett’s, at the same swimming pool in Sussex, albeit 30 years apart. When Davies and Scarlett were having their lessons I started swimming again in fact. I was not a fan of sitting in the overly heated viewing area and never really clicked with the other swimming lesson mums chatting about schools so I used the time instead to get in the water myself. In 2010 I did two charity swims and raised nearly £500 shared between Marie Curie and Aspire. The first was a 2.5km all in one go swim and the second was the cumulative total of the English Channel over a 12 weeks period.

Since then though with the occasional exception of a couple of isolated swimming pool opportunities and the odd dip in the river on Rum swimming has not been part of our lives. Both of us have flaws in our techniques and I was a committed breast stroke swimmer with a firm aversion to getting my face wet. Wet suit swimming in salty water is not best suited to breast stroke though as the added buoyancy gives you a funny curve to your back if you keep your face out of the water and the words of the swimming coach who did life guard duty and watched me swimming up and down that pool nearly a decade ago have never stopped echoing in my head. She said I had all the stamina and determination of a good swimmer but needed some help with my style and that I would be a good candidate for adult lessons.

So I’ve had a few lessons to try and get my front crawl sorted and while I am still not totally there and may well have a couple more lessons to really crack it my confidence has soared. I’ve done a couple of group lessons too and found the camaraderie and support of fellow learners to be a brilliant motivator. Sufficient enough for Scarlett and I to sign up for two wild swims with the fantastic Highland Open Water Swim charity. We signed up months ago when October 5th seemed like a date so far in the future we needed even think about it yet. We had grand plans for training schedules and proper preparations and every so often I’d get email reminders or look at the website and then close it down again with a nervous fizzing in my tummy. August was so busy and even though we were in the loch several times a week we did a lot more looking in wonder at the world beneath the waves and leisurely floating on our backs gazing at the sky and marvelling of the beauty of being at loch level than we did actual swimming.

Suddenly the date was edging really close and just as we’d started to start thinking about measuring distances and looking at timings I fell ill with a really nasty cold. We managed just two dips in the weeks leading up to the swims and if I’m honest I was feeling very underprepared indeed. I’d met several others who were doing one or both of the swims and we all seemed to share the same anticipatory feelings of ‘it’s going to be amazing!’ and ‘I am utterly terrified!’.

And then it was yesterday – the day of the swims. I was finally better and recovered sufficiently to feel underprepared but well enough to swim. We had all the details printed out, knew where we were parking and what time we had to be there, which ferry we hoped to catch but had a reserve later one just in case we missed it, or it was full. Ady had the evening off work, Davies (who is largely nocturnal) was primed ready to get up many hours before his usual awakening time to come and cheer us on. I woke with butterflies ready to start easing myself into my wetsuit only to hear the distinctive sound of coughing and nose blowing coming from Scarlett’s bedroom. Sure enough she had been awake most of the night struck down with the very germ that I had finally seen off after three weeks suffering. Scarlett was out of the game and I was swimming alone.

Ady, Davies and (well wrapped up, tissue toting, sad faced) Scarlett in tow I arrived ready to go for round one. We headed across as foot passengers on the ferry, joining a crowd of fellow wet suited up people one way across the Corran narrows, which is the closest two points in Loch Linhe, where a ferry crosses every half hour during the day to make the trip from the Ardnamurchan peninsula to just south of Fort William. It’s about 380m but is very tidal so the drift means all but the very strongest swimmers end up covering rather more of a distance as they fight the tide.

There were 90 of us, some in wetsuits, some brave and hardy folk just in skins (swimsuits) and as the ferry left to head to the other side so did we. Accompanied by kayaks and ribs with safety support off we went. The large group soon spread out – the fastest swimmers were going there and back and before I was two thirds across there were already swimmers heading back and crossing me in the opposite direction. I have no record of the time I made other than knowing Ady, Davies and Scarlett were still on the other side when I got out of the water so it was within the half an hour window. By the time I had cheered on some fellow swimmers, posed for some jubilant photos and walked along the shore a bit they were coming in on the next ferry. We crossed back over again to hand in my tag (all swimmers were issued with numbered tags referenced to our personal details and emergency contacts incase of problems) and grab a cup of soup and then headed back for home to have lunch and try and get my swimsuit and wetsuit at least partially dry.

Then a few short hours later it was time to head off again. Leaving by now even more poorly Scarlett behind with Davies to look after her Ady and I drove back (using the ferry this time!) heading towards Glencoe. The second swim of the day was a night time one. Twice the distance of the daytime one although not quite so tidal with the added excitement of night falling while we swam. I gathered with fellow swimmers, this time adorned with glow sticks attached to us for the second safety briefing of the day before getting back into the water. This time it was Loch Leven and a swim around the Ballachulish peninsula, a headland that juts into the loch and is around a kilometre in the water.

The double distance, the falling light, the buffeting of the incoming tide pushing me towards the land and the fact it was my second swim of the day meant this was more challenging. I had completed the first swim with a grin on my face the entire way. This one was longer, closer to an hour in the water (although again I have no absolute record of the time) and allowed me time to go through all sorts of feelings as I swam. I felt alone and small, but mighty and powerful, just me and the tide and the waves. I felt part of something bigger, although I was not interacting with any of the swimmers around me I kept pace with the person infront wearing two glowsticks in the band of their goggles, motivated to swim that bit faster again when they pulled ahead, reassured I could slow up a bit again when I caught them up. I was aware of the kayakers close at hand and as the light faded and the people around me went from clear arms out of the water and faces with goggles turning to the side to breathe to blurry glowsticks and splashes in the darkness I also felt safe and surrounded by others doing this crazy thing.

I knew that this ‘race’ was my own. At any time I could call it over and make for the side and wait for the rib to collect me without anyone judging me but that I wanted to do it and that the feeling of achievement if I swam to the end and walked out of the water would be huge. As the mountains of Glencoe went from clearly defined peaks in the distance to looming shadows, the sky turned from grey to black and the tide grew fiercer creating waves that engulfed me and gave me mouthfuls of salty water I was super aware of my place in the world, at one with nature, yet the lights of the hotel I was aiming for, tail lights of cars driving that iconic road through Glencoe and the intermittent flash of the camera taking photos of people as they emerged from the water up in the distance along with the feel of my wetsuit and my spluttering out of every gulp of loch reminded me with every stroke that I was human and not really designed for being immersed in water.

As the ending lights grew nearer and I started to hear people on the shore my marker buddy ahead and I both sped up. I told myself that it would be less than 100 strokes to the end. Then I told myself it would definitely be less than 100 strokes to the end when I reached 112 and started my counting again. Finally my third ‘last 100 strokes’ proved correct and I could hear Ady calling out to me and it was me causing the flashes as the photographer captured my emerging images.

I’ve done some pretty mad things in my time and had some very memorable experiences. Yesterday definitely makes it high on my list of top memories. I am really sad not to have shared it with Scarlett and I missed her with every stroke as I know how much she wanted to do it and would have enjoyed it. I could hear her voice urging me on and see her face as I have done so many times in the loch over the past few months as we grin at each other and say in unison ‘this is amazing!’ when we spot a starfish, emerge breathless from a big wave or float on our backs in the middle of the loch with mountains all around us.

The best thing of all though is that our wild swimming adventures have only just begun. There are more places to discover, more skills to hone, more challenges to meet.