Mostly sunshine and midges

Still no rain…. it’s been weeks! The midges are here in force now, certainly feeling like the worst year we can remember and other islanders agree. After a few pretty hellish nights we have Taken Steps and now have two new fans, new foam sealant around the windows and Scarlett and I (the two most affected by the heat) have special cooling towels which have meant better nights sleep all round as we keep the midges outside and the temperature in the static slightly lower. It’s still quite a challenging run of unusually hot weather though and the dry, while lovely in terms of being able to roam around in normal shoes is starting to prove slightly worrying as our drinking (well every really) water supply is a mere trickle. I think we have some rain forecast for next week and it it will be pretty welcome. The island is also tinder dry so risks of more wild fires are pretty high too – hopefully the large volume of visitors will continue to be hyper-cautious and heed all the warning posters around the village and at the ferry pier.

It’s far from all doom and gloom though – everything looks and feels better in the sunshine doesn’t it? Rum is beautiful, everything is green, the seas and skies are blue and if we’re getting plagued by the midges and cleggs (a sort of horsefly, very bitey!) we’re also being treated to plenty of more welcome wildlife such as cuckoos calling, dragonflies starting to fly, the first dolphin and porpoise sightings of the year out on the Sheerwater boat trip and the red deer stags with their antlers grown back and covered in velvet while their coats redden up. Along with our weekly boat trips I also went out with SNH this week volunteering as scribe for the annual nesting sea bird count around the south coast of Rum. I was noting down the numbers for people spotting guillemots, razorbills, shags, fulmars, gulls and kittiwakes sitting on nests. It’s lovely to see Rum from different perspectives and realise how many hidden treasures and undiscovered corners our little island has. It’s only 8 miles across but is covered with such diverse landscapes and nooks and crannies.

It’s been a busy couple of weeks In The Shed – top seller is our little crochet Highland cows, which are not flying off the shelf but are certainly ambling along at a good speed. Today was a very midgey day keeping me indoors for most of the day so I managed to make another two to replace sales.

We got our certificate and stickers to show we are approved Scottish Crofting Producers which are now on display in the shed and sent off a parcel of our items for display on the Scottish Crofting Federation stand at the Royal Highland Show too.

Jam continues to be a good seller, along with our eggs and we’ve had another big order for bread, cakes and quiches which kept Scarlett and I busy for a whole afternoon of kneading, baking and decorating.

Ady and I have had a couple of fishing sessions. Just for an hour or so each time, coinciding with the ferry. The first time we caught a mackerel which we shared as a starter that evening – sea to plate in about an hour. The second time we only caught a tiddly fish so threw it back but it’s coming to the big mackerel season so they should be on our menu more and more frequently in the coming weeks.

Also in season now are the strawberries, with a huge bowlful ripe every other day. So far we’ve noshed the lot between the four of us but Ady is dreaming of strawberry jam so I may yet hold back some. Last years lavenders are in bloom so I’ve harvested some of the flowers to dry ready for bramble jam season in a few months time – bramble and lavender is one of our best sellers. The rest of the flowers I’ve left for the bees, along with the comfrey which is starting to flower and various other flowers I am growing for the bees including calendula.

The peas are starting to pod, the herbs are ready to plant out in the newly spruced up herb spiral that Ady sorted out this week and the sweetcorn and tomato plants are doing well in the polytunnel.

We’ve planted out 60 new tiny lavender plants this year including a boxful attached to the front of the decking around the caravan – for the bees, for us to smell and enjoy and for picking and drying the flowers.

Outside there are tiny apples forming where the blossom is dying back, the raspberries, loganberries and tayberries are also starting to form and the blackcurrants, redcurrants and gooseberries are all growing fatter and starting to ripen too.

We have started making plans to buy or hire a ram for our three ewes this winter so that we can have lambs next spring. We’ll be shearing the sheep in the next week or so and while I am still saving up for a spinning wheel I have made a start on processing the fleeces from last year with a drop spindle, which I am getting better at with practice.

Alongside all of this activity we have also found time for several rounds of croquet each day which is Ady and my new favourite thing. The croft is a million miles away from a flat, manicured croquet lawn but the quirks of the pitch make it all the more fun, the dodging of goose poo, and often geese themselves, along with Bonnie attempting to fetch the balls and Kira trying to chase them, frequently with a side order of midges distracting us makes for great hilarity and a well deserved G&T or beer afterwards.

Like I said, sunshine makes everything look and feel better…

Traffic and travel

It is crazily hot here as I type. Inside the caravan it is currently over 30 degrees. The sun has shone day in day out (for over 18 hours a day) for at least two weeks maybe more. The midges have returned with an absolute vengeance and I am envious of friends moaning about rain storms or posting pictures of them enjoying leisurely evenings sitting outside. No pleasing me is there? Complaining in the winter about the wind and mud-causing rain and whinging in the summer about the sunshine and insect life! Along with the midges we are playing unintentional host to bees, wasps and beetles. All of which are interesting to photograph and identify (we have several bug ID books) although we do have to evict any who show intentions to share our home long term – a very persistent wasp has finally been dissuaded from creating a wasps nest in the shed after several removals of it’s groundwork!

A close existence to nature has it’s very definite ups and downs. For me the ups are the spring and autumn and the downs are high summer and deepest winter. I have not the complexion, build or temperament for being too hot and fortunately for me it is usually a blip rather than the norm living here in the Highlands to have prolonged high temperatures and still, sunny days like these.

It’s far from all bad though,  I have to admit that walking around the croft in normal shoes (and sometimes even barefoot, which would always be the preference for both Scarlett and I), along with it being perfect conditions for the young chicks and the broody ducks (two) and geese (four) all sitting on nests, along with ideal for ripening strawberries, currants and bringing along the peas and tomatoes in the polytunnel very nicely.

We’ve had two glorious Thursday afternoon boat trips – no sea life to speak of spotted in the way of cetaceans but the shearwaters and puffins are back.

We had a weekend off Rum catching up with friends – a quick overnight trip to Inverness for me (city break!) with a coffee shop visit and a meal out in a restaurant, a mad 100 mile round dash to Fort William to do a supermarket stock up of essentials for Ady and I and some midnight trips to the beach for the teens with their friends, along with some stressy car driving in our own vehicle, some stress free driving in a car club car and an unplanned but very lovely evening of sitting with musicians singing. The car issue is now perfectly resolved by us once again not having a mainland vehicle and instead just booking the car club car(s) as and when we need to drive on the mainland. The relief – both mental and financial – is huge.

It seems if we’re not off visiting then we are here being visited. This weekend just passed we had a lovely visit from our very first WWOOFing volunteer who was first here with us nearly four years ago. It was great to catch up with him and see through his eyes how much things have changed and progressed here on the croft in the last four years too. When he was last here it happened to be an islanders birthday so there was a big party with musicians and late night drama of the air ambulance taking someone away. We assured him then that both were fairly unusual so it was ironic that he returned on a weekend that fellow islanders had arranged a mini festival with a whole crew of visiting musicians and the helicopter coming to airlift someone injured out walking….

The bank holiday, amazing weather and huge influx of visitors have meant loads of customers for us. The shed has been doing fantastically with several large sales of clocks, cuddly midges, eggs and jam and I’ve had several special orders for bread and cakes. The most recent order for cheesecakes proved especially challenging in this heat but the glowing feedback made it worthwhile.

Our crafts and produce will be displayed at the Royal Highland show in June at the Scottish Crofting Federation stand as we now have the Scottish Crofting Produce mark for our jams, eggs, photography and crafts. If you have not looked before please do check out our etsy shop .It really feels as though our work towards setting up the Croft 3 brand and finding ways to use all our different skills is starting to slowly pay off.

On a similar note we had our annual visit from a student group who visit Rum each year on a field trip and meet with various islanders doing various things. We chat to them on the croft about our lives here, what we have done to set up and improve the croft since we arrived and what challenges and impediments we have faced. It’s always interesting to be faced with a sea of people watching and listening to you start to tell your crazy life story and see whether they are engaging with you and interested or whether you are failing to reach them at all.

A tour of the croft and a chat about island life is something we have been approached to offer before and have done for various groups of students and school children. We often wonder whether there would be a demand for it on a wider basis for visitors to Rum.

Davies and I have finished our studies and submitted our final assessments. We will get our marks back in about 6 weeks or so but Davies is already signed up to continue studying in October with the OU for a degree in Psychology. He is enjoying the freedom to pursue his other passions for the summer but is looking forward to that in the autumn. I have decided not to continue studying at this stage. I like the idea of committing a set period of time each week to something though and have a few ideas of other things I could focus on myself come the autumn. I’m very proud of us both though – a middle aged woman who left education some 25 years ago and a never-been-to-school Home Educated teen. We both really enjoyed the content, learned plenty of new skills, had some amazing conversations and spin-off learning spilling out to Ady and Scarlett too and completed our studies over an academic year filled with all sort of distractions including living in three different countries and a largely off-grid life with limited internet access.

Our poor sheep are suffering from the heat – we are in the throes of sourcing some shears and will be shearing them again in the next week or so. In the meantime I have been gathering the shed pieces of fleece around the croft as they scratch themselves on posts and buildings and spinning it very slowly by hand to make a tiny ball of wool. I am on the look out for a rented spinning wheel or saving up for one of my own but in the meantime this is a nicely meditative and zen activity while sitting in the shade!

Birthday and birth days

I seem to report on the weather rather a lot here. We do live very closely with nature and so tend to both notice and be affected by the weather and of course so much of what we do on a day to day basis is influenced by and impacted on by the weather in terms of livestock and crops, choosing to do laundry or collect firewood, wear sunscreen or waterproofs. And indeed head down to meet a ferry to send stuff off or collect it, or not bother as in the case during this last week the ferry was cancelled due to poor weather. Which meant a friend arrived for a visit a day late, the annual ceilidh celebrating community land ownership (nine years this year) didn’t happen as the band and many of the intended ceilidh-goers couldn’t get here and our very first etsy sale did not leave the island as intended on it’s way to it’s new owner.

In the last week we have had all of the above – sunscreen and sitting outside, cancelled boats and howling winds. We’ve also had plenty of days of perfect alternative energy with both the wind turbine and the solar panels giving us oodles of power.

We had a meeting with Marine Harvest – the company who are building a fish farm off the coast of Rum along with a shore base and housing development on the island, creating new jobs, new houses and new opportunities for existing and prospective islanders. To welcome or not welcome them was a much debated and considered topic for the islanders over the last couple of years and after a lot of serious thought we have gone ahead and will hopefully secure a more sustainable future for generations to come here on Rum with employment and investment in our little island. On a day to day basis this is likely to have little affect on us here on Croft 3 although it is great to see the island population numbers boosted and new faces calling Rum home, along with offers of help with island infrastructure and issues with transport and logistics. Several of the issues which scuppered island plans over the last week or so may well prove to be issues of the past once Marine Harvest are set up here with their two all weather boats heading back and forth to the mainland on a regular basis.

Ady and I got the strawberries all moved across to their new area and covered with plastic hoops. We have plenty of strawberry flowers so are very hopeful of good crops this year. We also have promising blossoms on our apple and cherry tree and our currant bushes so it could be a good year all round. Early jam sale mean some currant and berry crops helping to bolster our stocks before the bramble season begins would be very welcome. This years new lines in the shed are starting to sell well with a cuddly pony, several badges and keyrings all selling. It’s really great to see new ideas proving popular and worth the investment of time and money on materials paying off.

Mrs Turkey finally returned home to the croft having been away sitting on eggs for weeks. Sadly she returned alone; we did find her nest but it was empty. There were a few smashed egg shells around so she had laid eggs but whether they were infertile and she gave them up to the crows and ravens or she did manage to hatch chicks which were taken we just don’t know. Mr Turkey is very pleased to have her company once more though and has stopped his almost incessant calling for her.

The broody hens have been slightly more successful hatching a few chicks between them. They are not all making it but we are not intervening and leaving them to see how they do left alone. At least we know our single cockerel is fertile.

The biggest birthday on the croft though was Ady’s this weekend just passed. We celebrated with an evening at Rum shop with island friends, a whisky club night which is a Rum tradition and a barbecue with friends on the croft with our own sausages and lovely brownies. The sun shone for all of the above and Ady declared it one of his favourite birthdays ever.


A wet week

It’s been a soggy start to May along with plenty of winds. The Sheerwater boat which does runs from Arisaig on the mainland to the Small Isles during the summer should have started it’s twice weekly visits to Rum this week but both days it would have come have been wild weather. Our plastic has arrived to create new strawberry covers but it’s been too windy to be outside trying to wrangle plastic sheeting. Fortunately none of the broody birds have hatched any chicks yet although we are due both chicken and turkey chicks any day now.

Instead we’ve spent a lot of time indoors dashing out between showers, or sometimes just putting on waterproofs and braving the elements. Inspired by the bramble baskets I read some of my bush craft and countryside craft books to find out which materials can be harvested to craft with at this time of year and spent some time experimenting with reeds / rushes – an incredibly plentiful resource here. We have far fewer on Croft 3 these days thanks to regular cutting and grazing but we still have clumps in the wilder areas of the croft and a handy supply of very green and verdant ones inside the polytunnel. I cut some and made some cordage or twine with them.

I have made a small bracelet with it to see how it fares with changing temperatures. So far it is holding up well and is still pretty strong.

Ady and I had a victorious afternoon of replacing a broken part on our chainsaw. Getting the part in the first place proved trickier than expected with our original source failing to get it to us after several weeks so we had to resort to an online purchase which finally arrived this week. In theory it should have been a straightforward like for like swap with just a couple of screws to remove the friendly looking casing to reveal the scarier innards of the machine but this also released a tightly wound spring coil which we then had to re-wind and re-insert. You tube helped with that – hurrah for the internet! But the final hurdle was something we couldn’t find help with online so after some feeling the fear and doing it anyway we worked out a theory and went with it. And we were right! Our greatest triumphs since we’ve been on Rum – and quite possibly in our whole lives – have been in having faith in ourselves and being up for trying something that feels right even though common sense (as in what everyone else might caution you to do!) tells you to not to incase you get it wrong.

Half an hour afterwards I was not needing that jumper anymore as Ady had chopped up a load of firewood and we’ve been cosy ever since!

Continuing in the vein of lifelong learning Ady has followed in my footsteps as I followed in our teens and joined instagram – home of pretty pictures online. So there has been much talk of hashtags and @-ing people, which ties in rather nicely with some of what Davies and I have been learning of the impact of globalisation on individuals, culture and language development.  The north side nature trail on Rum borders three sides of our Croft and we recently put up some signs at the top of Croft 3 encouraging people to stop, look up, down and around, listen and pause giving some suggestions of things to look and listen out for. Today we added some seasonal tips such as listening out for the cuckoo (who we’ve started hearing again in the last week) and asking people to share their photos online. We also added a sign at the Shed for people to check in there on facebook or instagram.

Sometimes though you just have to brave the rubbish weather. I remember when I was at primary school and we would have days when it was too rainy to go outside at playtime / lunchtime. A double bell would be rung instead of just one to signify we should stay in our classrooms. The teachers would still get to leg it to the staff room for their coffee fix and older kids would be sent to monitor the younger kids classrooms. The lack of running around outside fresh air time would kick in pretty quickly though with kids squirming in their chairs and being rowdy in class, unable to concentrate. Despite never having done ‘sitting down structured learning’ with Davies and Scarlett we would still sometimes get ‘wet play syndrome’ if we’d been indoors for too long so we’d don wellies and head off to splash in puddles and find raindrops on spider webs, or wait for the smallest break in the rain and get outside to smell the wet pavements and see how the colours changed from wet to dry and back again.

It’s not practical to work in heavy waterproof clothing here, we don’t have much room to dry wet clothes and when it’s as windy as it has been this week you can’t do much anyway outside without risk of things blowing away. But we still have to feed animals, collect eggs and pop down to the village to collect the post, fetch food supplies from the freezer or deliver eggs to the shop and so just as when Davies and Scarlett were little we have been deliberately slowing down and deciding if we are already soggy we may as well linger and enjoy the difference to the landscape that a downpour brings about. Rivers running faster and wider, the colour changed to dark and peaty as the water gathers debris from the land, the spring colours of the shrubs, trees and flowers in brighter relief against the low mist than the blue skies.

Beauty everywhere. I can’t deny a bit of sunshine would be nice now though!

April in all it’s glory

April is always such an unknown quantity with weather conditions and temperatures. We have had a few evenings without needing to light the fire and a few days of being outside in t shirts, the ticks are out in force and we are mere days away from the midge season. We’ve had days of tens of people coming off the ferry for a day trip and ferries being cancelled due to bad weather.

The last few days have been the very best of all April conditions though – plenty of wind and plenty of sun. That means not only are we rich in power with the wind turbine and the solar panels meaning as much power as we can use we have also had perfect laundry drying conditions. The novelty of a washing machine on the croft has still most definitely not worn off.

The birds are all in full lay mode with a half dozen duck eggs collected every morning and a further dozen chicken eggs most days too. We have two broody hens sitting on a clutch of eggs each so are expecting chicks to hatch in the next 10 days or so.

Mrs Turkey has also been absent for a good 4 weeks so she is due to return with a brood of wee turkeys too fingers crossed. The geese are all feisty and furious and we are managing to collect the odd goose egg if we happen to spot where they lay them but more often than not the ravens are beating us to those. We are hearing their trademark croak over the croft more often than any other bird call just now. Ady heard the first cuckoo of the season in the village yesterday but the rest of us are yet to hear one and nothing yet here on the croft. We did have an exciting avian encounter on Monday though when a sparrowhawk landed on a tree guard just outside the caravan. I managed to get a picture and we spent ages looking at our bird books torn between various possible birds of prey before throwing it out to the facebook world for confirmation.

Isn’t she (confirmed female sparrowhawk, thanks to many birdy mates and experts) gorgeous?

The sheep were due their tick medication. We tend not to medicate any of our livestock if we can help it but the ticks are really bad here on Rum and we are already picking them off ourselves and the cat and the dog. On a routine catch and check ’em over look at the sheep last week I spotted a couple of ticks. They have magnificent fleeces this year thanks to the very harsh winter but we are still a good month away from shearing them. The ticks would struggle to navigate through those fleeces but their faces and bellies are prone to getting them. Having handled the sheep so often and petted them when they come for feed it is a stress-free exercise and we just bring them into a pen for feed, close the gate and catch one at a time to apply the treatment.

One of the skills I have long wanted to acquire is basket weaving. I did a couple of day long courses at the local college with my sister-in-law years and years ago when our children were tiny and really enjoyed it. I have various books on the subject but the correct time to harvest the material is the middle of winter and I’ve never quite managed to do it. I stumbled across an course advertised online for woodland and wild crafts which included bramble basket weaving using green (as in freshly cut rather than stored or treated in some way) brambles though and did a bit of research to find a simple basket. In a short break during an otherwise very soggy Sunday I managed to cut some bramble and weave a few baskets. They were fairly easy to do and look really nice although they are a fairly short lived basket (the online video I found was someone showing you how to make a speedy receptacle to gather berries if you find yourself out and about and stumble on a harvest without a suitable bowl).  They are currently holding eggs although we did toy with other uses!

I am inspired anew to gather suitable weaving materials once the season is right at the end of the year.

I’ve been making more clocks and some hanging signs too using slates but today my new toy arrived on the ferry – a badge press! Scarlett and Davies have long collected pin badges- and actually I do too, of places we visit. Our fellow Small Isles all have badges for sale but no one here on Rum has them so we decided we would. I’m currently playing around with designs and we will likely end up with a whole basket full of individual ones, maybe it will encourage people to choose more than one?!

But that is another of those rainy day / morning / afternoon / snatched hours between sunshine jobs and today was a sunny day so Ady and I did some work in the strawberry cage. We are waiting on a part to arrive for our chainsaw and so our original plan of working with dismantled pallet wood would have proved too time consuming and with all this perfect growing weather the strawberries have been going crazy. Having spotted lots of growth on them last week yesterday we realised that not only were the leaves touching the plastic sheeting we had laid over them there were also quite a few plants with flowers on already.

So we dug out the old hoops we had used on the raised beds with netting before we caged that area off and made some cloches. We need some more plastic so only managed to cover half of the area which meant moving some of the plants across to ensure they are underneath. We have more plants to move across to the other half of the cage once we have some more plastic but this is a good start. It was good to be doing it on a windy day as we were able to check that our work was Rum-proof even if it did make for a few comedy moments of the pair of us holding a large sheet of plastic like a sail as the wind battled to take it from us. It did prompt us to use some green shading around two sides of the cage to be a windbreak though.

At this rate we could even be eating our first fruits of the year before May is out…

In the polytunnel the peas, herbs, tomatoes, peppers and flower seeds I sowed are all starting to do their thing.

The currant bushes are all greened up with leaves and tiny fruit and some of the fruit trees even look promising this year for the first time. Putting the ducks in the fruit cage has been an inspired plan – we’re getting all the eggs and they are having a feast on all the bugs and beasties who usually turn up around now to start chomping on the fruit tree leaves. There is a perfect ditch running through the cage to keep the ducks happy with splashing about and they have done our usual job of painstakingly cutting down the grass around all the trees and bushes in there for us.

It’s six years since we arrived here. Three years since we had a film crew staying with us. It’s funny to reflect on how much we have learned and achieved in that time and exciting to realise there is still so much new stuff to carry on learning too.

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.


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.