Happy Birthday Davies

(And yes, this has sneakily been back dated!)

Back in September we celebrated Davies’ 21st birthday. As Scarlett’s 18th had been at the end of last year it was a lower key celebration than we may have planned in other times with less opportunity for travel, meeting up with family and friends, but it was a lovely day nonetheless.

As usual the ‘birthdayee’ gets to choose all food and activities for the day. As usual Davies chose pizza for lunch

and as it was a beautiful autumnal day we had a walk in the local woodlands which were filled with gorgeous falling leaves, fantastic fungi and once we were there lots of chatter and laughter.

This a recreation of one of my favourite photos of Davies and Scarlett hugging a tree which is the screensaver on all of my devices.

as always the day was rounded off with a piled up plateful of birthday brownies.

Every celebration and marking of a birthday, anniversary, Christmas or other festive time as a family is so very precious.

I’m never entirely sure whether official grown-up-dom starts at 16, 18 or 21 and to be honest despite having celebrated 47 birthdays of my own I am fairly sure I’m still not a grown up but Davies is certainly an adult now and a very fine one he is too.

Happy Birthday to our wonderful son – Davies (Dragon in the early days of this blog), an amazing man who lights up our days, weeks, months, years and lives with his humour, creativity, kindness, steady personality and intelligence.

The world is a better place for having Davies in it and we are so very fortunate to have shared his life with him.

Is this the real life?

I’m torn between wanting to believe this is a hiatus and a pause, that we will one day return to what we previously considered ‘normal’ or the suspicion that just like those fuzzy lost days of brand new parenthood you never in fact return to normal, you just adjust to a brand new life which after a while becomes normal instead.

I guess we’re all wondering the same.

This is my August catch up post, when we had at least a bit of a play at returning to the pre covid world even if there were considerable and constant reminders that we may never in actual fact be in a post covid world.

My new job as editor of the local newspaper had me aiming to get out and about, meet as many of the stockists and regular advertisers as I could and familiarise myself with some of the corners of the peninsulas we call home but I’d not yet managed to visit as possible. This was sort of work but not very arduous work.

For one of my other jobs I ran an eco art workshop which was lots of fun.

The garden provided plenty of harvesting of peas, beans, courgettes, broccoli, tomatoes, edible flowers and herbs.

Then in a real return to things we had missed a lot we had a day at the pared down Edinburgh festival seeing three shows which was just so special. There was such a collective feeling of gratitude to be with people, watching or being performers. It was quite emotional.

Our lovely friend E came to stay for a few nights

Meanwhile I stayed down in Glasgow for a few nights having some time with very old friends (the friendships are old, not the actual friends!)

Much fun was had, much drink was drunk, much singing was sung… and I got to swim in Loch Lomond too!

Back at home our nephew who had been staying with us for the summer headed back down south and we had a lovely visit from our sister in law and niece when they came to collect him.

We finished the month off back as a household of four once again but with a book and arts festival right here in the village which was fantastic for reminding us that while it’s lovely to get out and about further afield what we have right here is really very special too.

Another month passes us by

I have one of those ‘X years ago’ type reminders on my phone of photos taken on this date. For most of the last 18 months it was the sort of thing you would not want to look at as it just reminded you of the Beforetimes when there were friends to be with, places to visit and a life outside of lockdown.

Eight years ago today I did the long Saturday round trip of the Small Isles for a community council meeting – 4 hours on the ferry for 2 hours on the Isle of Eigg, where I had hugs with some Eigg friends, drank a cider and then spent another 4 hours to get back to Rum.

Five years ago we’d been out on the weekly boat trip looking for cetaceans and then spent some time fishing off the pier. We’d seen nothing and caught nothing, but the people who took the boat back to the mainland had spotted an orca.

Three years ago I’d been up my hill and then taken a photo of a newly sheared sheep who was trashing a croquet arch. I miss croquet on the croft – the garden here has no flat ground at all, which is ironic given the slope of the hill on the croft.

Two years ago we’d been to Rum for the day – to pick all the soft fruit (I’d made 29 jars of jam), slaughter and butcher the remaining sheep and bring a wheelbarrow of stuff back from the island.

One year ago we had Ben Fogle and the (very small) film crew here with us.

It’s a funny old life isn’t it?

In the last month I’ve been on TV again -this time on BBC Alba for the Gaelic news being interviewed talking about my job as editor of the the local newspaper. Later this week I’m on local radio talking about wild swimming. I’ve had columns in the local paper, am about to put out my first issue of the other local newspaper as editor, I’ve been mentioned in the neighbouring local newspaper (which was our local one on Rum). I met our MSP (member of Scottish parliament) last week.

Life is certainly not quiet.

Meanwhile it carries on ticking away. We have our nephew / cousin staying with us for the summer so are back to a household of five again. It’s nice to feel the house is being fully used and have new and interesting viewpoints tossed about over the dinner table.

Ady is still enjoying his job and learning lots of new skills as he takes on different challenges. Davies is signed up for his next unit of study to start in the autumn and is continuing to enjoy his time at the art gallery each week.

Scarlett has an extended contract at the croft and is really enjoying being there. She is loving spending time with the animals, particularly the goats and is learning a lot. Over the winter she will be learning more about some of the crafts at the croft including wool crafts and candlemaking.

Two of our hens co-hatched a chick which is currently being co=-parented by them. The garden is doing well with an abundance of flowers, mutant potato plants, so many peas, brassicas which are growing wild, strawberries aplenty and lots of lovely salad leaves and herbs.

Meanwhile although we are cautious about what life may bring next we are also keen to restart life again as much as possible and have been making the most of being able to book music, comedy and other live events over the coming months with some day trips and even overnight adventures for various combinations of us planned.

New horizons all round

Time is definitely the weirdest it has ever been. As we get older it seems to move more quickly, as the pandemic and lockdown continue it seems to have stretched and bent and almost caught up with itself coming around the other way.

I can’t believe how quickly Friday comes around every week and often wonder if there are not somehow two of them each week instead of just one. It surely cannot be mid June already and yet 18 months ago feels like 18 years ago…

Anyway, since the last blog post which was only last month (just!) lots has changed for us.

Davies has started an informal work experience opportunity at the local art gallery. It is an excellent place which in ‘normal’ times hosted not just regularly changing exhibitions of amazing art but also events. In the year before lockdown we attended many such events there, indeed I covered a few of them for the newspaper. These included live music, a book launch, opening of art and ceramics / sculptures / photography exhibitions and talks and an amazing artist demonstration.

The gallery also has a framing service and as well as being open to visitors has an online presence on social media, an excellent website and sells online. Davies is getting a fantastic overview of all of these aspects to the business, learning loads and really enjoying being there for a day each week.

Davies has finished his studying for this academic year and has slightly altered his planned path for next years studying taking on a more increased study load and adding in philosophy to his psychology studies which he is really looking forwards to starting in the autumn.

Scarlett is continuing to love her job at the croft and is really enjoying the combination of learning new skills, doing lots of hands on practical stuff and getting plenty of time to hang out with the animals. It’s perfect for her.

Ady also continues to love his job too and is really looking forwards to the times ahead when the full on PPE is no longer necessary and his clients can see his whole face!

Meanwhile my jobs have rather changed….

When Ady took on extra hours at his job and negotiated use of a pool car which meant we could very happily go back to just running one family car rather than two we stopped our holiday cottage cleaning contracts, which was just as well as Scarlett soon started her job. My work at the community centre / youth work had stopped during lockdown and as I was on a zero hour contract there was no real certainty as to when and indeed if that would start again.

My writing work for the newspaper was less than it had been although I have still been writing a semi regular column for them, alternating between writing about Crofting and Mental Health Matters, diverse but both very relevant to the Highlands. I have also been doing increasing numbers of hours for the local mental health and wellbeing charity I started freelancing for last summer including some writing, some project management of various initiatives and some development of new services.

I have also been doing various voluntary bits and pieces including joining the committee for the local newspaper which was undergoing a slightly difficult phase but has a lot of local support having been running for 40 years. When it became apparent that there may be an opportunity for a paid role as editor of that I decided it would be a perfect fit for my other bits and pieces of freelance work and applied.

Yesterday I had an interview, was offered, and accepted that post. So I will now be combining the three roles of editor of the local newspaper, columnist / correspondent for the larger newspaper and project officer for the mental health charity. I feel incredibly fortunate to be combining my passions, interests and the things I would have told you I wanted to do when I grew up when I was a little girl to being the things I get paid to do.

It is wonderful that currently all four of us are managing to follow our passions, feel as though we are contributing to our local community, learning new skills and still have time for the other things we love doing and spending plenty of time together at home too.

Meanwhile whether it all falls into place or not we are starting to book and plan things for the coming months and into next year, which feels filled with promise and hope.

Scarlett starts work

We never had first days at school photos. I had vague notions to take first day of not going to school photos over the years but always lost track of when it would have been a first day.

We often used to go to Home Educators ‘not back to school’ events on the first day of autumn term / start of the school year when we would reclaim the parks, beaches, museums which suddenly felt quiet again during the day times, but there was never any real official marking of it because we why would you officially mark something you were not doing?

But a first official day at work feels very much worth marking and this week that is exactly what Scarlett had. Two days of induction and training, health and safety and risk assessments, payroll forms and uniform ordering and official changing of status from ‘home educated’ to ‘in employment’.

We dropped her off for her first day, took a ceremonial photograph and then I went for a swim and spent the whole time pondering about ends of eras and quite how my little baby was suddenly a grown woman with a job!

Here she is on her first day at work

And as only seems appropriate I’ll hand over to her to share what that has been like.

I’ve had my first two days at work doing induction and training. I’m working alongside someone else who has just started which is really good as we can learn together.

I also went along to a forest bathing / nature walk which the croft run at the weekend where we took a group of people on a guided walk around a local woodland.

Lots of the first two days have been about policies, paperwork, health and safety and necessary stuff like that but we’ve also been able to spend some time meeting the animals. There are goats, sheep, chickens, cows and a horse. I’ve been around chickens for as long as I can remember and we had sheep on Croft 3, but there are lambs at Darach croft which we never got to have on Rum.

There is going to be a fair bit of practical work like fencing and helping to put up a polytunnel along with getting the animals used to us. Particularly the goats as part of my role will be doing goat walking. The croft has a licence to walk the goats along certain paths so we have walked some of the route and done risk assessments for potential issues such as what we do if a dog is off a lead, or people / horses are walking towards us. Where would be suitable places to stop for rests for the people or the goats, checking locations which may have evergreen trees which are toxic for goats.

Mostly I am looking forward to getting started.

Growing

In our first year back on the mainland we grew nothing other than some strawberries. We did bring some chickens over from Rum and got back to Rum five times to pick fruit, deal with the sheep on the croft and generally just settle in here and get back there as much as possible.

Last year though a combination of more work tying us to the mainland and lockdown preventing us from getting to Rum at all meant we did some growing in the garden here. On the decking I created a container / pot garden with herbs and flowers in a huge variety of pots. Our strawberry bed started to establish with runners bought across from my plants on Rum, we put up a mini greenhouse and turned our spare room into a growing space for starting off seedlings too and we created two large raised beds in the garden.

Slugs were my nemesis. They munched through a vast proportion of what I had grown and even munched through replacement sowings AND a few more established plants which I bought off a friend. I think four crops of chard made it into the beds. Four crops of chard were enjoyed at various stages by slugs. No chard at all was eaten by any of us. The greenhouse was not up to the job either, despite many repairs, a whole new cover, bracing and tethering efforts and several emergency dashes outside in high winds it really struggled with the weather here.

My dwarf beans were a lot more dwarf than I had anticipated. I am still giggling at myself for my grand arches I constructed for them next to much smaller pea supports. The peas grew up and down the supports several times reaching up and beyond…. the beans grew about 3 inches, were mostly eaten by the slugs and I think I picked one single bean which was sad and small and curled up, quite probably feeling inadequate in the face of the towering bean arch!

I sowed too many peas which meant I planted them out too close together and probably had no bigger crop than if I’d planted half that number although that was by far the strongest crop providing garden snack opportunities for all and several dinners.

I lost the potential sweetcorn crop (although sweetcorn outside up here is always ambitious) to a late frost despite us covering the beds with old sheets to try and protect them. My cabbages, broccoli and cauliflower were all slug fodder. They also munched on all the carrot tops and any salad leaves or lettuces I sowed into the beds.

I tried egg shells and slug picking at nightfall, neither seemed to have much impact.


My leeks, finally harvested on St David’s Day were more spring onion than leek. Having tried – and failed – to grow leeks in sunny Sussex, wet and rainy Rum and now soggy and slug infested Strontian I may concede defeat and accept that it’s not them, it’s me.

The triumphs were salad leaves and other salady bits like tomatoes and spring onions, regular cut-and-come-again crops in containers, the peas, the herbs and all the flowers (including edible ones which we used in salads and as cake decorations.) Our decking was a riot of colour with bees and butterflies all summer long, glorious scents and lots of faffing around with arrangement of the pots opportunities as things grew up and got moved around. We also had fresh mint, coriander, rosemary, sage, garlic chives, lavender, basil for cooking with. I freezed and dried some of it and shared the lavender with the bees! We had a decent crop of potatoes although our plants grew like mutants and never flowered. We did worry that they may come and get us in our sleep as they were taller than me! I grew some comfrey which did quite well and I have planted some in the garden and chopped up some of the leaves to make a tea for feeding this coming years crops.

We built a little wildlife pond which we raised some tiny froglets to release in to and also rehomed a rescued toad that Scarlett saved from the beach (salt water is a killer for frogs and toads but they often find themselves washed down to the loch after heavy rain turns burns into rivers) although we have seen no evidence of either frogs or toads in the garden this spring. Bonnie Dog did bring a hitchhiking newt into the house last week though, riding on her back! This is excellent news for biodiversity in the garden, for slug population control and for having interesting critters around. It does mean we won’t stock the pond with frogspawn this year though as that might just be a buffet for the newts!

In the autumn once I un-netted the raised beds to let the chickens go back on the soil to scratch around, keep the weeds down and maybe help with the slugs we dismantled the greenhouse, saved what was salvageable from it (the plastic cover is being used to cover our log pile – more on the shelves in a minute) and planted loads of spring bulbs in the pots on the decking, around the fence line of the garden and around the pond. We have been rewarded with daffodils since early March, iris, crocus and now have tulips and grape hyacinths starting to bloom.

Which brings us to this year – the spring equinox has arrived and we’re already nearly in April. Despite a flurry of snow last week and a still cold feel to the temperatures the lengthening days and the calendar tell us it’s spring once more.

We have spread some manure from our neighbour’s horse onto our raised beds, I’ve emptied our own compost bin (which was beautifully rotted down other than a few eggs shells, which I spread anyway, assuming it can’t hurt to annoy the slugs a bit even if it doesn’t entirely deter them!). I have used a dose of nematodes on the beds too to see if it makes a difference and will attempt to both plant out seedlings a little later so they are more established and perhaps a bit more able to tolerate a bit of slug nibbling. I will also have a look at some companion planting tips this year, using some crops dotted around that deter slugs too.

I will sow fewer peas, install taller pea supports and smaller bean supports. I will sow fewer tomato seeds (says every gardener every year and almost never manages to do it – if you live near me I bet I’ll be offering you baby tomato plants a month or two from now!). I was very conservative with my seed purchasing this spring, although Ady ruined my sensible behaviour by arriving home with six multipacks of flower seeds and some more pots so the decking will be florally adorned again this summer despite reticence in vegetable plans.

The main plan for this year though was a more fit-for-purpose place to start the seedlings off. I’ve been collecting loo roll inners and plastic pots to cut up for plant labels, digging out the sunflower and lettuce seeds I lovingly harvested, dried and saved last year and shuffling through my seed packets like a deck of cards putting them into sowing date order, crops we most like eating order and alphabetical order since early February waiting to get my hands in compost.

A friend gave us some old windows and Ady picked up an old pallet so one day a couple of weeks ago we assembled the windows, the pallet, power tools, screws and brackets,a clear space on the decking (we decided that was best – ease of location for regular watering and monitoring, south facing for most sun with east and west aspects too, backing on to the house for shelter / additional warmth, elevated away from slug action) and spent about an hour holding windows up in various configurations, talking ourselves in and out of ideas, measuring and cogitating. Finally we came up with this.

Three smaller windows around the front and two sides, a larger window on top, a pallet on the back. It is secured to the decking and to it’s component parts. The top slopes down to get the most daylight / sun and it has plenty of gaps for ventilation as condensation was a big issue with the mini plastic covered greenhouse. We repurposed some of the window hinges we took off to make the door on the front hinged. Originally the plan had been to have the top able to be lifted off but it is *so* heavy it would have been unsafe.

It is super sturdy and has been comprehensively tested with some very high winds. The recess of the glass set into the frame on top was collecting rainwater but Ady has drilled some holes so it now drains. We have sufficient windows left to create an extension to it once we get another pallet for a back. The pallet back means we can cover it with cloth on cold nights or open it up when it is warmer so we can control the temperature a little in there too. We could also cover the whole thing with something white and reflective (that old sheet!) if it got really too hot in there.

After giving it a day or so to ensure it was definitely up to the job and test in heavy rain (hence drainage holes) and high winds I was finally able to get sowing. Scarlett has collected all sorts of useful things off the beaches, mostly fish farm rubbish like fish boxes and trays which are really useful seed trays. I also have supermarket meat or veg packaging trays and of course my loo roll inners which with a few snips and some folding make perfect modules for sowing peas, beans, sweetcorn etc.

I managed to cobble together some shelving from the old doomed mini greenhouse too so there are several hundred little seeds all tucked up in warm compost doing their thing in there now. Watering proved slightly trickier than in the walk-in mini greenhouse where a fine rose on a watering can did the job but Ady had the genius idea of a pressure sprayer which he picked up for me from the supermarket for under a tenner. Thanks to it’s long arm I am able to reach in and perfectly deliver the right amount of water to each module AND feel like I’m in Ghostbusters (or is that just me when using a pressure sprayer?).

Two weeks on and this morning when I went out to water and cheerlead I was thrilled to spot the first little green leaves peeking through. Even more excitingly these are from lettuce seeds that I harvested, dried and saved myself last year.

Of course the reason I saved them was because they had bolted and gone to seed, so I cut them off, dried the seed pods and kept them, then crushed them open over the compost a couple of weeks ago. I am currently taking this to mean I am an excellent seed saver although if they bolt again then I may have to accept they are simply a very energetic and enthusiastic breed of lettuce and feed them to the chickens!

Excitingly though this could mean we are eating home grown salad by the end of April.

I have some seed potatoes to go in and some currant cuttings from a friend to get put in the ground, plus a bramble which I would like to train growing in the strawberry bed (train to grow in a certain direction, not train to do tricks!) and of course I need to keep doing succession sowings of things every few weeks too. It’s great to feel that the garden is coming back to life after winter though and think ahead to all those lovely summer days spent out there last year.

Some of the ‘Watch This Space’ stuff.

If you know us in real life, or even have just been following us for a while you will know that Davies is the artist and Scarlett is the naturalist.

If you read back to the start of this blog and then all of the various posts along the way you will discover how these passions have shaped not just their lives but also the direction our whole family unit has taken.

Of course they both have other interests too and in fact Scarlett is also a very talented artist and Davies is very knowledgeable on all things nature related too but in the same way as the first thing Davies reached for as soon as he was able to make a move in a certain direction as a toddler was an unattended pen to scribble with or even a mug of tea to dib a finger in and daub somewhere, Scarlett was grasping for our pet cats, or slugs in the garden.

Home Education, in the autonomous style we followed has allowed them both the freedom to follow these passions without distraction. A story I will tell for the rest of my days is of kissing a barely-school age Davies goodnight, sitting on his bedroom floor for a while and then heading downstairs confident that he was moments away from sleep after a relaxing dinner, bath, cuddles and story bedtime routine before bed. Only to discover many hours later when I finally headed up to bed that he had filled half a notebook with an entire retelling of the story (it was Ted Hughes The Iron Man) of the story in picture form. It was way past midnight but set the scene for the rest of his days and in fact still does even now he is an adult, when his most productive, creative, imaginative and brilliant moments are late at night when the rest of the world sleeps.

Scarlett, who does not have an official diagnosis but is probably dyslexic came late to reading and writing, despite having a groaning bookshelf and surrounding herself in bed each night with a heap of cuddly toy animals and a pile of animal related books. During the day if she was not out exploring she would be glued to a dvd / tv documentary channel about animals. If David Attenborough was explaining things to her then so much the better but Gordon Buchanan, Steve Backshall, Steve Irwin or Chris Packham were just as acceptable. Despite being interested in the natural world myself she had far outstripped me in her ‘specialist subject’ before she reached double digits in age. I distinctly recall walking around Edinburgh museum with her when she was 12 as she confidently identified every single creature on display asking me to cover up the labels on things. Not only could she tell me what bird or animal they were she could also reel off a whole load of facts and information about each one too.

Our pre-travels, pre-blog life had us arranging educational workshops and experiences, family holidays and weekend trips and any opportunity we could find around supporting Davies and Scarlett in their interests. Whether it was zoo trips and keeper for the day experiences for Scarlett, joining the RSPB wildlife explorers and supporting her through bronze, silver and gold awards with the RSPB, finding educational sessions at the British Wildlife Centre, Longleat safari or Drusillas Zoo Park or camping in Scotland planned around the very best time of year to spot dolphins in the wild. For Davies it was sourcing decent art materials, taking him to every art gallery from Brighton to London and beyond, supporting him in booking display space at three local libraries to put up his first public art displays aged 7 or finding him as many opportunities to experiment with creative art techniques as possible.

These were children who were always offered as many diverse opportunities as possible but were dragged away from and distracted from their passions as infrequently as possible because we believe that even at a very young age a person already knows best what it is they most want to invest their time in.

Our original travel adventures and eventual move to Rum was as much shaped by the dreams Davies and Scarlett had as those Ady and I had. For our poetic, artistic son a whimsical land filled with dramatic landscapes, wild weather and endless inspiration for creativity. Our little shed shop was home to much of Davies’ creative output. For Scarlett a whole croft full of animals where she was around to rear hatchlings, witness piglets being born, be around to help with feeding and tending the animals and understanding what keeping livestock meant in all it’s full technicolour good and bad glory. As a National Nature Reserve and home to world famous natural research and monitoring projects including the red deer who feature on Autumnwatch, a massive share of the world population of Manx Shearwaters who return to the island each year to breed and rear their young, the release site of the reintroduction of white tailed sea eagles back into the wild in the UK as well as access to a community ranger, visiting and resident animal researchers and weekly boat trips to spot sea birds and cetaceans.

During our seven years on Rum the young children we moved there with became adults and so when the time came for us to leave it was as four adults with diverse and collective ideas about what happened next. Davies has been selling his art, alongside his studies and voluntary work. Scarlett has been involved in more practical life stuff like making sure that when the rest of us are working or studying we are supported with food and so on, looking after the chickens, cats and dog and helping in various part time jobs when an extra pair of hands were required.

Scarlett was also seeking her own voluntary opportunities and along with hours every week on the beach collecting rubbish and plenty of citizen science projects last year she has been working through the training to volunteer with the local Cats Protection League and pre lockdown was involved with a local social croft – Darach Croft where she was helping with various animal related tasks on an ad hoc voluntary basis.

All of which meant that when some paid work experience / apprenticeship / training opportunities arose at Darach Croft she was perfectly placed to apply for one. This week she had her first ever job interview, having previously put together her first ever CV and job application and did wonderfully well, being called back the same day to be offered one of the posts.

It was amazing to see Davies and Scarlett from nearly 6 years ago feature on the TV this week being asked about what they might want to do in the future. Davies talked about travelling – a dream which should have become a reality last year were it not for the pandemic. That is fine, he has simply got more time to further plan for that exciting adventure. Scarlett talked about how she would like to work with animals, probably on a croft. The day before the show aired she had just been offered precisely that opportunity.

She starts in a few weeks time and I am sure there will be updates from her on how it is going once she is settled in. For now though we could not be more proud and pleased for her. As well as slightly relieved she did indeed stop trying to grab and eat all the wildlife as she did with that first garden slug!

Revisited

Back in the brief lift of lockdown in the summer we had our first visitors to the house. They came socially distanced in a car each, wearing masks, with all of us taking daily temperature readings and applying regular hand sanitiser.

Way earlier in the year, before Coronavirus was even more than a passing news story off in a different continent we had had an email from the TV company who filmed New Lives In The Wild with us way back in 2015. They were planning a revisited series and wanted to know if we would be up for it.

We explained that we no longer lived ‘in the wild’ and had left Rum the previous spring. That while we still lived a slightly unconventional life we were now in a house, connected to the grid, running a car and even though it was still a 60 mile round trip involving a ferry we could actually get to a supermarket! That we would consider ourselves now more rural than isolated, semi-feral rather than wild….

We were persuaded that we still had something interesting to talk about – that a ‘life in the wild’ was about more than just chopping firewood and living in a caravan. After some discussion between the four of us and several more phonecalls with the TV company we decided to go ahead with it.

It was truly great to catch up with Ben again, to hear about his last five years adventures – scaling Everest, living through lockdown, home schooling his children…. and share our stories about life after Rum. Obviously in a 45 minute show with a large proportion of the time being spent on flashbacks to the original there is a limited amount of new footage that can be fitted in, particularly when life has changed as much as it has for us in the past five years.

It was good to take Ben for a swim and give him the opportunity to reconsider some of his own ideas about home education and childhoods in the wilderness. It was also nice for us to see the finished show this evening when it finally aired – some 7 months after it had been filmed. Despite the rather harsh story it told of our life on Rum we all enjoyed seeing the us of 6 years ago, the animals and the life we had then.

As happened last time we have already had a flurry of communication via the internet – friends who saw it, people who went to school or worked with Ady or I decades ago who were reminded that they once knew us and a mix of people who have lovely things to say (always welcome obviously!), genuine questions or interest in our story (equally always very welcome) or simply want to say something (more or less welcome depending on what it is they want to say!).

For us this show, as was the previous, was a snapshot of our lives at a particular point in time. It is lovely to see and to have as a momento, it was lovely to catch up with the crew and with Ben. And like the ten years plus worth of archives along the side bar of this blog it will become another of our memories, of the things we did and an opportunity we decided to take when it was offered to us.

2 year mainland-iversary

On 9th March we marked two years of leaving Rum and arriving back on the mainland. It’s been a very strange second year as just as we marked a year here the Coronavirus pandemic altered everyone’s lives across the whole world.

In many ways our experience of living a remote island existence prepared us really well for lockdown life. We have always Home Educated (not home schooled – there is a very big difference!), Davies was already completing his university studies remotely with the Open University, a lot of our socialising had always been done remotely via internet connections or telephone, we were very used to being at home all day every day with each other. Baking bread, sowing seeds and feeling isolated from family and friends for long periods of time was something we had blogged about for years. Bulk buying and making do with substitutions for missing ingredients or cooking from scratch had been our way of life for nearly a decade already.

We all four felt pretty fortunate for seeing out 2020 in a house on the mainland rather than an off grid caravan on a remote island though. More than most islanders (hooked up to the island grid for power and relying on kerosene for heating and hot water) we relied on deliveries of bottled gas or petrol to back up our wind turbine and solar panel power supplies for cooking and heating or charging up devices to connect with the outside world.

Our celebration of the good things about a return to mainland life is therefore a little more muted and hypothetical as a result of many positives not actually been realistic during our second year off the island, but we wanted to mark it anyway with some contributions from each of the four of us about what has been good and what has been bad about leaving Rum and coming back to mainland Scotland.

Ady
Bad:

A return to working in an employed role. Although I am part time and I am in a role I love there are still associated pressures with having to be at a certain place for a certain time. There are pressures and stresses associated with work which I never had in our island life.

The need to have a car means expense and worry and regular maintenance and upkeep. The expense of tax, insurance and fixing things we are not able to bodge ourselves is huge compared to our ability to run a clapped out old car on Rum which was not always reliable but we were usually able to get going again.

I miss the people from Rum and the community feel. I miss being part of a time and place so unique. I miss the social life – some of the best and most memorable nights of my life were spent sitting with Rum residents outside of the shop drinking beer from cans. It would not happen anywhere else than during island life.


Good:

I like being able to get in the car and go to places without relying on ferries. Lockdown restrictions aside there is more freedom to get to places on the mainland.

I love living in a house again. I love it when it is bad weather outside and I don’t need to worry about the roof / leaks / keeping things warm and dry.

Despite mentioning working in bad as a restriction of my freedom I do consider my actual job to be a positive. I like the commute / drive to and from work, I like the pride attached to working for the NHS and feeling like I am making a difference to people’s lives.

I like that we have maintained a level of living a slightly wild life and feeling enabled to fix things and stay connected to nature – from collecting firewood to dealing with a frozen water supply.

I don’t miss the mud of our crofting life, the dampness of the caravan, or the logistics of getting everything across the river and up the hill.

Scarlett

Bad
:

There is less freedom and less wilderness on the mainland. There is always evidence of people whether it is houses, roads, power lines. You can’t escape civilisation whereas Rum felt truly wild and as though every footstep you took could be on land which no one else had stepped on for years.

There is so much mainland litter compared to island life. Even during lockdown there is so much roadside, beach and village litter, some of which must be from locals. On Rum no one who lived there would ever litter, in fact all of the residents used to collect litter and take pride in keeping the island clean.

I miss having livestock. While we do have chickens, they are probably the least affectionate of all the livestock we have had. I miss the sheep, pigs and ducks we had on Rum. While you can have livestock on the mainland obviously there are more predators, more issues to worry about with neighbours than we enjoyed on Rum. It is also not entirely safe for Bonnie to roam, certainly if we are out at the beach or close to a road, whereas on Rum she could be out of sight but you knew she was safe.

I miss the sense of community of island life. Once you were accepted as a proper permanent resident on an island you were almost part of a family. Even in a small community there is not the same necessity to deal with people, resolve and accept differences.

There is a loss of safety and security and a lack of trust being back on the mainland. There are suddenly strangers and people you don’t know, there is crime and the ability for people to run away from their actions in a way that island life does not allow.

Good:

Easier access to seeing existing friends than we did on Rum. It is possible to get to people the same day you left home. Although we still need to have pet / house sitters if all of us want to be away from home it is so much easier to arrange than it was on Rum.

There is so much more to explore here, even locally. With a short drive we are able to access a whole load of interesting walks and places.

We are able to access stuff like craft materials, ingredients and so on. On Rum we had to hope that what we had ordered online would be right and that ferries would run. Here we are able to visit several shops and find what we are looking for or get stuff delivered here so much quicker.

Davies
Bad
:

Rum was a microcosm with everything that was available all within a small space. Mainland life means everything is spread out and not as accessible.

Individuals do not have as much of a voice back on the mainland. On Rum all decisions would be voted on and you had a real impact on shaping what happened. Now there is not that opportunity to make so much of a difference to what happens around you.


Good:

More opportunities – greater accessibility to opportunities for things like work experience.

Access to deliveries, food shopping and general supplies is easier.

People coming to visit or stay is much easier. Megan has been here for 9 months this visit and had previously been for two month-long stays. That would not have been possible in our caravan and even in a house on Rum the logistics of her getting to us would have been trickier.

Nic
Bad:

I would echo what the others have said about loss of freedom and autonomy with a return to the mainland meaning a need to fall back into the constraints of society again. I enjoy the various work I do but the ties of meetings / phonecalls / deadlines which are a necessity of employment do curtail my ability to do what I want, when I want. I am fiercely protective of maintaining the balance as much as I can but I do still sometimes question whether the positives outweigh that loss of absolute control over my time.

I also miss the close connections and almost family-like relationships with fellow islanders. Although we are still in a smallish village here and I have made some very good friends who crossover between work and social life (in a small community you always find everyone wears several hats and has various jobs, volunteering posts, hobbies etc) it is now possible to avoid someone if I don’t want to deal with them and the intimate relationships of understanding who people really are which are inevitable in a tiny island community are something which despite the associated frustrations, on balance I miss rather than am relieved by the absence of in my life.

I miss the ability to just do / make / set up / create something whenever I feel like it. On Rum and on the croft we could simply decide to put up a shed and make a shop, to get interested in a new craft or new skill and set it up as a little trading opportunity or business. We could decide to start keeping any animals or experiment with building styles. Of course there were huge barriers in terms of logistics of getting materials or deliveries, of the challenges of the weather or of the survival requirements of our lifestyle but space and permission were not issues to overcome in the main.

I do also miss what Davies touched on about having both a greater voice and a heavier weight of responsibility living on Rum. While there were of course people who lived on the island and did not engage fully with decision making, volunteering for the community trust, contributing to finding a shared vision for the direction of the island and making it work even their voices of dissent or apathy still counted for something. Despite living in a small community still that pioneering spirit, feeling of being fully in control and having a really loud voice and steering your destiny is definitely something I miss from our Rum life.

Finally I miss the quiet and the peace. I miss the lack of noise and distractions. I miss the being utterly present in the here and now which was so much a part of Rum life. I still capture it here, but I have to work harder. People on the mainland are never without a phone, or a set of car or house keys. There is traffic and timetables and watching the clock. There is no ‘we just popped down to the shop for some milk, but we stayed for a beer and someone got a guitar out and oh suddenly it’s 2am, but that is fine because no one has to be anywhere but here.’ The loss of that is something I definitely mourn.

Good:

This is a difficult one to phrase as I don’t want want to compare living in a caravan to living in a house as that is not really comparing island life to mainland life. However in some ways, for us, it is. If we had lived in a house on Rum we would have indeed had more space, less exposure to the elements / midges than we did the caravan. We could have been hooked up to the island power grid, we could have driven to our front door rather than had to wheelbarrow everything up to our croft.

However we would have either been renting a house down in the village, away from our croft, away from our livestock and therefore still requiring that need to get animal feed / infrastructure to support water supplies and power supplies etc. up to the croft, or we would have had to build a house and the surrounding infrastructure. Either of those options would have meant a substantial financial investment and a continued income beyond what it was feasible to earn on Rum doing the sort of jobs we feel are meaningful, soul feeding, making best use of our actual skills. The moneyless existence of self sufficiency, bartering and skills / products / service swapping which was our philosophical ideal required a climate, community and set up which simply does not exist on Rum at this present time.

Which brings me (in a classic Nic, very long winded and roundabout fashion) to my actual good, which is that the mainland does offer what Rum could not in terms of opportunities to live as closely aligned to our ideals of swapping some of our time and skills in the things we can do for trading in exchange for the things we can’t. I cannot grow tea or coffee crops, I cannot easily grow, grind and process wheat or sufficient year round fruit and vegetables, rear animals off the land, store crops and so on to sustain four adults while living in a caravan with a self set up water, heating and power supply. There are not enough hours in the day or resources at hand.

I don’t want to work for 40 hours a week so that I can have my groceries delivered in packaging, an automatic washing machine and heating which turns on with a switch on the wall fuelled by a twice yearly delivery of fossil fuels either. Our new mainland existence offers me the mid-way compromise between those two lifestyles in a way which Rum was never going to be able to. I’m not great at being a realist rather than a dreamer and schemer, but I am adept enough at finding balances to know that for now at least our current life offers a better option than our previous life did between my absolute ideal and what is actually achievable.

This leads me to all of the other goods, which I will probably just list rather than bullet pointing them as they all fall under the same broad title. It is good that I can wild swim every day – again I could have done that on Rum but a two mile walk back to a damp caravan would have had me hospitalised by December in my first winter of attempting it. Being under a hot shower and a warm blanket in a cosy house has made wild winter swimming if not entirely sensible at least not complete lunacy!

I like the opportunities to do things I am really passionate about – to write, to shape my own freelance career based on what I really, really want to do rather than where I spotted a gap. I like that the volunteering opportunities are still here and I can still make a difference and that sometimes I can walk away without feeling worried about there not being anyone else to pick up the slack.

I like seeing the opportunities Ady, Davies and Scarlett are able to explore too. They all three have work and voluntary opportunities here which are a perfect fit and would not have been options back on Rum.

Work – not just a four letter word

For various reasons I’ve been reading back on the very first year or so of keeping this blog when we were at the planning stages of our 2011 WWOOFing adventures.

Ten years ago, right about now, we were working our notice in our jobs and gearing up to head off on our year of unknowns. Nine years ago we were planning the move to Rum, two years ago we were about to move back to the mainland and our current life, picking up the threads of a slightly more conventional life and some of the ways we had left behind us.

Both Ady and I had had some form of employed work from our teens, working weekends or evenings while still at school, through college for me and then to pay the bills. Work was very much a means to an end and while we both would concede we learned a lot, gained some levels of job satisfaction and enjoyed the company and camaraderie of work colleagues the truth is that we mostly went to work to pay the bills. Worked to live, not lived to work. Stepping away from that ‘treadmill’ was one of our big motivators for heading off on our adventures in the first place.

Our volunteering year and subsequent years on Rum offered a rather more direct ‘you do this – you get that’ exchange for our toil, which while often harder and always more precarious at least offered an obvious reward and very much taught us to decide just what we wanted before deciding whether the necessary effort was justified. It was one of the lessons we were very keen to bring with us back to the mainland.

In our first year back here though, despite such noble ideals the reality was that shiny things and the peaceful sleep of the hard worked body as a reward for a days graft were not really suitable currency for our monthly rent, supermarket food shop, electricity provider or the DVLA in lieu of car tax. Yes it was still important to us to be doing jobs we enjoyed and see the point of but the previously rather dusty and dormant bank account, abandoned in favour of a largely barter based island economy had to be topped up to allow for the regular emptying each month.

Cue a year of hunting down and snatching up job opportunities wherever they showed themselves. Holiday cottage cleaning, washing up and waiting tables, taking the evening shifts at the local community centre supervising youth club and taking payment from people coming to attend yoga and football sessions. People would be almost constantly telling me how busy I was as I dashed from one job to the next, Ady and I swapping the car between us and facing the dilemma between a sit down daily dinner each day for all of us at 11pm when we were finally all back home or everyone foraging for their own food when they were hungry.

Our philosophies on work, on finding the right balance and only doing as much as we needed to do were something we had to hold very dear and remind ourselves of regularly and sure enough within the year we had re-established an equilibrium of part time roles, predominantly in work we enjoyed with scope for improving things further. A global pandemic putting an abrupt end to some of the jobs we were already hoping to withdraw from gave us space to further hone our vision, time to focus on some training and re evaluating and we will go into this coming March (which for some reason seems to be the Goddard New Year for starting new things) looking very close to ideal – for now at least.

Ady has been offered – and accepted – a permanent post with the NHS, just as his temporary one year post has come to an end. He has more training and maybe eventually scope for thinking about further career development if he wants it. A perfect next chapter for him in a role which is a perfect fit for his skills, personality and aspirations.

Davies continues with his studies and volunteering and there is scope for a couple of opportunities he is going to consider and explore further. Watch this space.

Scarlett has an exciting opportunity lined up for later this year too, offering her paid work experience in precisely the sort of endeavours she most wants to be spending time doing. Again watch this space for more on that once it is all finalised and actually happening.

And me? Volunteering has led to two paid jobs both of which I am loving. I am project managing an event for a local mental health and wellbeing charity, making loads of contacts, feeling as though I am helping people and making a difference along with learning and challenging myself. I am also still writing for the local paper and was thrilled to get my NUJ press card last month.

I am also working on my own watch this space project too.

It continues to be a strange time, with so many uncertainties and so few things feeling within anyone’s control. To be able to have work which pays bills at all feels like a massive luxury which we are hugely thankful for.

Ady and I would often sit, side by side, looking out over some wonderful view in a quiet corner of our croft and ask ourselves ‘what percentage of perfect are we at?’ We used to regularly hover between 80 and 90 percent, which is a pretty good place to be. I suspect 100 would be boring – where else is left to strive for at that point?

I’d say in terms of all the things which we currently have choice and autonomy over, the aspects of life which we can control and change we are certainly at 85% just now, with a clear plan for the elusive 15%, which could of course alter along the way. But that’s what makes it interesting and helps us look forward to whatever is yet to come.