All was merry and bright

Our first Christmas here in this house. It’s been a perfect Christmas house – lots of space, lovely high ceilings to accommodate a nice tall tree, lots of light so Ady has been able to have poinsettia, hyacinth and amaryllis bulbs all ready to flower for the big day. We have a stair case in the open plan downstairs living area which we have strung with lights.



It’s been lovely heading into Fort William which is our nearest big town every 10 days or so to get a dose of festive countdown madness and see the Christmas lights in the high street.

I’ve been in to the lovely local independent shop which sells fair trade, ethical and no waste items for a furohiki workshop and learned the skill of fabric wrapping so all of my gifts were wrapped with recycled fabric – mostly brightly coloured bedding sets from charity shops along with some fabric from my own stash.

All now tidying folded ready for re-using, The others all used up previously bought wrapping paper but I’ve promised to teach them all to fabric wrap too and will aim to carry on picking up suitable fabric from charity shops to wrap future gifts with. I think things like tea towels or scarves will be perfect as they will become part of the gift too.

We’ve always managed to make our own Christmas cake and mincemeat in autumn ready for Christmas but it’s been a juggling act in limited space finding room for it in the caravan. This year we had plenty of space and were able to make extra mince meat to sell at the local Christmas Fayre. I also made some festive flavours of granola to sell too. Davies had three designs of Christmas cards printed out to sell and Scarlett made some amazing festive Christmas cup cakes. I also made some little santa hats to go on my crochet midges. We had a great day at the fayre, which was held at the local community centre where I work in aid of the high school. It was fab to be feeling part of the local community, realising how many people we already had gotten to know, selling our various wares and getting in the festive groove, albeit still back in November!

We even managed to attend a couple of Christmas staff parties. We had been invited to four different ones for our various self employed, volunteer and other roles but chose just two.

It’s been fantastic to add these new things to our run up to Christmas. It’s also been lovely to continue our closely held little family traditions too and all the more special to be sharing them with Megan this year for the first time.

The first of which (after Solstice celebrations) was Christmas cracker making. In the style of The Good Life, which regular readers will know is a source of constant inspiration to us, we make our own crackers and shout ‘bang!’ when we pull them. We make the hats from newspapers, write our own festive jokes, make a small gift to go inside and stuff it all into a loo roll inner.

This year, having saved our very favourite Christmas movies to share with Megan we cleared a big floor space on Christmas Eve and laid out all the supplies. Pens, packing paper, supermarket weekly specials leaflets, loo roll inners and our badge machine to make the gifts. Davies and Megan particularly took it very seriously and were still hard at work many hours after we started creating cracker masterpieces.

Scarlett decorated the Christmas cake, going for a melted snowman theme this year. As ever she amazes me with her skills in cake decoration and her vision for her designs.

We all ushered in Christmas Day staying up past midnight with carols on the TV – which reminds me Ady and I also managed to attend a local carol service with mulled wine, mince pies and the chance to sing along – bliss!

The big day itself was beautiful with sunshine. I went for a morning swim in the loch where I found the best Christmas star!

while the others opened their Christmas stockings. Then after a festive breakfast we exchanged gifts. A fantastic mix of thoughtful and lovingly chosen presents. As ever we have gone for some experience type gifts to be enjoyed through the year – for Ady a lunch at a restaurant he is very keen to visit, for all four of us a show in the spring, for Davies, Scarlett and Megan photo calendars of some of the best memories of their 2019s to take into 2020. For Scarlett a trail cam which she set up and captured footage of a pine marten of that same evening, for Davies a set of headphones, for Ady a couple of ‘toys’ to play with including a crystal ball for photographs, for me a good supply of lovely gins and fancy chocolates and a non-leaking travel cup to replace the very unsatisfactory one which has leaked tea over me on the last few car trips I’ve taken it on.

We had replaced Scarlett’s now too small Christmas jumper and found one for Megan in charity shops over the past few weeks so once all the gift giving was complete we headed outside into the sunshine for our now traditional Christmas jumper photos.

And took Ady’s new crystal photo ball for a first try out too.

Dinner – as cooked by Ady – was delicious.

Our Boxing Day, along with many people, saw us all venturing out for some much needed fresh air and vitamin D. For Davies and Megan that was a brisk walk. For Ady, Scarlett and I it was a slightly wetter experience as Ady finally took the plunge – quite literally – and joined us in the loch!

Super brave of him and he assures me he was not entirely put off and would definitely do it again. I’ll let you know if he actually does!

We continued our traditional Boxing Day dinner of bagels with smoked salmon, cream cheese and leftover turkey but this time Davies and Megan took over the bagel making duties. It felt slightly strange teaching an American to make bagels!

It’s been a fabulous Christmas so far. We’re looking forward to seeing 2019 out, welcoming 2020 in and seeing what the year ahead will bring.

To all our readers we wish you a very Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays or whatever winter festival you celebrate (or indeed summer if you are in the Southern hemisphere!) It is so lovely for us to know that so many people are sharing our story.

Our NHS

One of the most amazing things in our country is our health service. We have been incredibly fortunate – so far – to have needed to call on it fairly few times but both Davies and Scarlett were born with NHS midwives in attendance, Ady obviously had his emergency operation and both he and I have had routine or non-emergency appointments over the past few years.

It can be tough to give back, outside of national insurance and income tax contributions and not using up precious resources unless necessary. On Rum we participated in a long running survey being interviewed 3 times over several years about the service the islands received. We ensured we attended any first aid and first responder training sessions and engaged as fully as possible with consultations about ways to improve the service and to take responsibility for community-led services.

When we lived down in Sussex Ady and I gave blood and we are all on the organ donation lists with Ady and I both also registered for living donor lists too. On Rum giving blood was a logistical impossibility but as soon as we were settled back here we registered for the next session in Fort William and in June we donated, along with Davies who was now old enough too. Last week we donated again and this time Scarlett was also able to donate, just 12 days after she was eligible. It was a super smooth first time for her and she loved all of the information the nurse was able to give her about the process including having a hold of the bag once it was full ‘It’s so warm. And heavy!’ So close to Christmas there were giveaways of tree baubles for donors too.

Poor Davies had a slightly less smooth experience for his second time as he stood up off the bed and promptly fainted and fell back to the floor. He managed a fairly spectacular drop with a cut to his lip and a big bump to his chin but after a lie down and something to eat and drink other than a couple of extra bruises to go with the one on his arm where the needle goes in he was none the worse for wear. It’s always good to have a heroic tale to go with a bruise I think. I’m really proud of them both for donating and hope it’s the start of a years-long habit.

We also volunteer in health service supporting services – Ady in the local hospital transport project, which offers lifts to people attending hospital appointments in our very rural community. Davies and I volunteer for a mental health helpline service and are also trained ambassadors for the local Women’s Aid charity. These services are so very important in remote areas and on Boxing Day I took a call to the helpline – a stark reminder of how difficult this time of year can be in the middle of feasting, lights and making merry.

For some few years Ady has felt that if the opportunity arose he would be interested in working in a caring type role. He really enjoys working with people, is passionate about empowering people to live independently and supported rather than ‘looked after’ and particularly likes getting to know and being around older people. He put some feelers out when we first moved here but found that not having previous experience or qualifications could prove something of a barrier. He then found work at the tearoom over the summer along with our various housekeeping contracts and so nothing more came of it.

Recently though, with no real work (both of the above roles are very seasonal) his thoughts turned again to that type of work and with a bit of research and a very well written application demonstrating how cross transferable his many varied skills could be he was offered an interview for a post a few days before Christmas. Competition was fierce and he was the only unqualified applicant granted an interview. His first interview in well over a decade, his first ever panel interview with five people on the opposite side of the table. He came out having learned more about the job and even more keen to do it. Later that afternoon he took a phonecall offering him the job!

So yet another new chapter of life is upon us with yet another new role. Loads of new skills to acquire, lots to learn, to understand and to embrace. It’s a perfect fit of a part time role which allows us to continue with our flexible housekeeping posts between the four of us and my part time jobs too, while still ensuring that time together as a family remains our top priority and that which gets most of our focus.

We are so proud of Ady, ready and willing to start anew in something completely different, something that he will love. We think he will be brilliant at it, a perfect match for his caring nature, unflappable approach, skills in getting to know and helping people.
Ady is proud to be joining and becoming part of a team of people we have long been in awe of and thankful for – our NHS.

Solstice 2019

We began celebrating Solstice quite some few years ago and while on Rum it became a real turning point of the year when we lived so close to nature and were so dependent on natural daylight. Our days were so dictated to by what was happening outside be it weather or hours of day and night time, as were those of our animals and our crops.

After attending the amazing Burning the Clocks celebration in Brighton back in the early 2000s we have followed the tradition of lighting up the longest night with fire and celebrated the rising of the sun for the following day when it stays in the sky that tiny bit longer than the day before.

I know that solstice can move about to a day either side of 21st December, in the same way as summer solstice can do in June but we have tended to stick to that date. Two years ago we were in Glastonbury for Solstice which was a magical place to sit around a bonfire with dear friends and talk about the year gone by and dreams for the year ahead. Last year we were back on Rum for a bonfire.

This year we are a family of five as Davies’ partner Megan has joined us from America to celebrate a month’s worth of special times including Solstice, Christmas and New Year which also happens to be Davies and Megan’s anniversary.

To mark a mainland Solstice and our increased number we decided to do something special this year so took advantage of it also being the 30th anniversary celebrations of the Nevis Range centre on Ben Nevis meaning they were offering gondola passes at the same price as back in 1989 when they opened.

This meant that after a solstice morning swim for me we headed off to the foot of Nevis and took a cable car ride part way up the mountain. As we climbed higher and the ground below us began to be snowy and the view spread out it was a truly magical experience. We’ve been up a couple of times and it’s always special but this was really wonderful.

The snow was not too deep – although in characteristic fashion we deviated from the proper path and found ourselves wandering in sometimes really quite deep and often rather perilous places with at least two of us getting wet feet as a leg disappeared down a hole! We walked to a viewing point offering splendid panoramic views of snow capped mountains all around, lochs far below reflecting the pink of the sun set skies and nature truly dwarfing man. We’d taken flasks of hot chocolate to enjoy and toast the shortest day with.

Someone was blowing giant bubbles off the balcony of the centre at the top, which drifted magically by, sometimes bouncing off the snow before taking off again.

Back at home, night fell, the clock struck midnight and we took our solstice candle block cut from last year’s yule log on Rum and lit the candles on our decking. We all had a sparkler to fully light up the night and said what we were grateful to nature for. Then we stood while the breeze blew the candles out. The final flame lasted quite some while, almost going out several times and then reigniting before a gust of wind finally extinguished it.

Later that morning, once the sun had risen again I had another swim in the loch, this time with friends. Mountains, lochs, stars, sun rises and sun sets – we felt we continued our tight connection to nature as we marked the shortest day, the longest night and the turning of yet another season.

Happy Birthday Scarlett

Scarlett is finally 17. I say finally not because she was desperate to reach that milestone birthday like I was when I was her age – it was my most longed for birthday because it heralded my provisional driving licence and start of my driving lessons, followed as swiftly as possible by my first car – to this day the most exciting test I’ve ever passed and possession I’ve ever owned, filled with possibility, opportunity and adventure. No, Scarlett doesn’t really care about driving. She, like Davies when he reached 17 has her provisional licence but they are both yet to have a lesson or look at theory tests to begin the road to a full licence.

No, for Scarlett this landmark birthday meant she was now eligible to give blood, something she has been looking forward to doing since she first came with Ady and I as a very small girl.

For me it was a good birthday as for some unexplained reason I have never quite felt 16 suited her. I’ve no real idea why, I just never quite got my head around her being 16 and stumbled over it every time I had to say her age. 17 feels just right. For one whole month all four of us are odd number ages, maybe that feels tidier somehow. I’ll ruin that soon by becoming even again – I think odd just suits me better!

The day started with a birthday breakfast of french toast – always the better for using our own chicken’s eggs. This year they are laying so much later into the year and we are still regularly getting an egg or two most days. And present opening. Scarlett’s main requested gift was a waterproof camera for swimming with. There was also a selection of smaller items and a fabulous picture from Davies.

After much deliberation about how to celebrate the day itself Scarlett decided to go to Treasures of the Earth – a local crystal, fossil and gems museum. The kids and I had been before quite some few years ago but Ady had never been. It’s a small and rather tired place but has a real charm to it and was reminiscent of the places we used to go to when the kids were little. We were in there for a couple of hours and enjoyed it.

After that we headed into Fort William for lunch. A new American / Italian diner style restaurant had opened up earlier this year on the high street and we’d been keen to go and try it so in we went. Another ‘couldn’t have done that on Rum’ type treat. We had really nice food in a really colourfully decorated place.

Later back at home it was Scarlett’s favourite dinner followed as per tradition no matter where we might be by birthday brownies.

And maybe a glass or two of something cold and fizzy to toast the birthday girl.

We are very fortunate that we have always been able to make a huge fuss about birthdays. Ady and I have always taken the day off work for ours and of course neither of the children have ever needed to be at school, so the day is always all about the birthday person including food choices and how the day is spent. Of course on Rum the choices were rather more limited although we always seemed to manage something special and appropriate for the person celebrating.

It was lovely to say goodbye to 16 (which I insist never suited her!) and welcome in 17 with a very Scarlett day – different, sweet, interesting, fun, family-focussed, filled with love and laughter and all her favourite things.

Happy Birthday to our wonderful daughter.

The glorification of busy

I realised the other day I had been misrepresenting myself.

When you move somewhere new, or start a new job, join a new club, meet a new social circle, or in the case of me do all of the above at once to a degree your slate is wiped clean.

No one here really had much prior knowledge of me and so their idea of who I am is largely based on what I have told them and what I have done. Which is of course a fair measure of who someone is in many ways.

Just as many of us go through different life phases and while the essence of who we are deep inside remains the same we wear different coats, carry different external identities or play out different roles the person I am presenting here just now is rather different to anyone I have been before.

In many ways this is an accurate portrayal of me – I’m no longer a scruffy student, a stroppy teen, an ambitious young career chaser. I’m no longer a Home Educator mother of two small people (although I’ll never feel I’ve lost my Home Educator status, no matter how big those people grow…), I’m no longer an off gridder, an island-dweller (well I am, but the island is rather bigger), not a pig / sheep / duck-keeper.

Instead the two things that I am most regularly greeted with when I meet people just now are talk of swimming and talk of busyness. I seem to have become the local crazy in-the-water-most-days wild swimmer. I’m known for it. I also have the reputation of being ‘everywhere’, ‘always busy’ and ‘never at home’.

I’m more than happy with the swimming tag. I am indeed in most days and while I still wouldn’t class myself as much of an actual swimmer, more a ‘messer-about-in-the-water’ if you’re going to do something most days then it’s fair to get tagged with it. And I’ve never much minded a crazy tag (with no offence at all meant to anyone who is triggered by that term).

I am less comfortable with the ‘busy’ label.

I looked it up in the dictionary – busy is defined as ‘working hard’, ‘having a great deal to do’ and ‘overloaded, swamped’. It can also be taken to mean ‘overly decorated or ornate’. The opposite of busy is idle, leisurely or indeed free.

And right there I realise what I’m kicking against with the term busy. Because I am not particularly working because I try not to consider anything I do as work, just as what I’m choosing to spend my time doing. Various of the things I choose to do mean I earn money but in the main I actively enjoy doing all of them. There are elements of each task that can be mundane or not entirely joyous but sufficient highlights in every one to make the overall endeavour a pleasure. Whether it is finding the fun, humour or photo opportunity in a holiday cottage cleaning morning or some banter with the young people at school breaking up a shift at the community centre.

I cannot possibly be busy when I can choose to take an hour out of my day, pretty much every day, pretty much at a time of my choosing to go and swim in the loch. I cannot be busy when every day I have time to pause, look out of the window or stand and stare at the sky, the clouds, marvel at the light, spot raindrops on cobwebs and buzzards in trees.

I cannot be busy when I find time every day to do so many things which I earn nothing for but which bring me such joy, a strum of my ukulele, a curled up cuddle with a teen while watching something on TV, a half an hour snatched in bed in the morning to finish a chapter of a book rather than get up just yet, a spinning of fleece, a crocheting something on a whim because I felt like it, a baking a cake ‘just because’.

I cannot be busy when I sit here, on a Tuesday morning typing this and pondering my third cup of tea of the day.

Busy feels negative, it feels something to be bound by, as though it should almost always come with the word ‘too’ in front of it to be used as an excuse, an apology, a regret.

I won’t call myself busy any more. And when next someone asks after my swimming and then comments on my busyness I shall correct them. I’m still pondering on quite what I am instead…. fulfilled? Lucky? Fortunate? Maybe I’m just doing exactly what I want to be doing….

Wild Swimming

I posted a couple of weeks ago about the double wild swim I’d done in a day and have mentioned a few times that Scarlett and I have been out swimming quite regularly.

Regular readers will know that during our last year on Rum I walked part-way up one of the hills there on a very regular basis right up until we left. I’ve also gotten back up that hill on a couple of our visits back. I wrote about me and my hill back in January when I marked 100 times up the hill.

When we moved here I was very keen initially to find a replacement for my hill. A walk of a similar distance / challenge to do regularly. Despite searching I never really found one.

But the loch was calling me instead. Literally at the end of our driveway (although the driveway is over half a mile long) lies Loch Sunart. We drive alongside it every single time we leave the house, to go to work, to the shops, to go anywhere. At times it is flat and calm as a mirror, at others as churned up and choppy as a washing machine on full spin. Sometimes it reflects blue skies and fluffy white clouds, sometimes it appears menacing grey with murky depths. Herons, gulls and eagles soar above and land around the shores, seals are regularly spotted basking on the rocks and small islands exposed at low tides or peeking curiously out of the water.

I’ve blogged before about my first few dips and the lead up to the two epic swims (neither of which were in Loch Sunart actually, they were Loch Linhe and Loch Leven) but over the past few weeks I think I have found my new hill – and it turns out it is a loch!


My hill offered me various things – exercise being one obviously, and loch swimming is certainly offering me that. A connection with the natural world was a huge one though – encounters with wildlife, being in tune with the changing seasons, weather, temperature, light levels and sights, sounds and smells of walking the same path every day. It also offered me headspace – a meditative experience of being alone with my thoughts and feelings in a different atmosphere where I was not working, or at home, not parenting, crofting or crafting – I was just being. Finally it offered me a creative opportunity to mark what I was doing, the changes and the staying the same from the same walk each time as I took photographs in the same place – of myself and of the view.

The loch is ticking a whole load of the same boxes for me – I have improved my swimming and in a very slow but certain way I am improving my breathing and fitness. There are also a whole host of reported benefits to cold water swimming for both physical and mental well-being and certainly there is a real high during and post-swim, which seems to be increasing as the temperature decreases.

In just a few weeks I have seen the colours on the hills and woodlands surrounding the loch change from summer to autumn. The loch just now has floating fallen leaves in it too. I’ve seen rainbows above the loch, the first snowfalls atop the highest peaks and been in the loch when it’s been pouring with rain. I’ve shared swims with Scarlett where we chat, laugh and point things out to each other and swims all alone. I’ve talked to people in the car park and on the shore walking their dogs, heading back from their own swims, photographing or just enjoying the wildlife and landscapes.

I was planning to save this post until I’d seen the passing of more seasons, had more memories to share and no doubt I will be back with more tales of my swims in the future but in the last 10 days I have had two magical encounters with wildlife that have felt worthy of a blog post.

The first was a sea eagle, the UK’s largest bird and a regular spot in the skies above us here. It was actually on Rum that the sea eagles were reintroduced back into the wild so I feel a connection with them anyway and often spotted them over the croft or on my walks up the hill. It was here in the loch that I had my closest encounter yet though. It was a choppy tide and I was battling to swim against it so gave up on getting too far before I got too cold and was having my mid-swim float on my back where I look at the sky, listen to the sounds and ponder what is different and the same to the last time I was in the water. A pair of ravens had already been overheard making their distinctive croaking sound and the eagle had flown over much higher earlier but while I was floating it returned. I was enjoying the experience of watching it circle above, dipping it’s wings and tilting it’s head as the circles grew smaller and lower. Until I realised that actually it was getting rather closer than I was entirely comfortable with.

When I swim alone I use a tow float – a small inflatable attached by a tie to my waist. It means Ady (who spots me from the shore, I am never entirely alone) can see me all the time and it gives me something to hold on to should I get a cramp or get into trouble in the water. My float is bright pink and possibly looks not unlike a dead thing in the water. I was also lying fairly still and it is only my face which is not clad in neoprene wetsuit or hat. As I mentioned before there are lots of leaves floating in the water which may look like fish from above to an eagle. Whatever it was interested in was certainly in very close proximity to me if it was not actually me and so I splashed around a fair bit to show my size, hatched an emergency plan to put my face into the water should it actually dive at me and sure enough the eagle stopped circling me and headed away.

Me and the eagle…

marked incase you didn’t spot us above.

That was thrilling enough but yesterday Scarlett and I had an even closer in-the-water encounter with a seal.

I’d been reading on various online wild swimming groups about wildlife encounters and seals are quite a common one. Accounts range from the magical with tales of interacting with seals and feeling as though you have communicated with them, young pups getting really close and curious; to the slightly scary with a few folk telling tales of rather over zealous curious seals scratching or biting. None sound aggressive and I suspect if a seal was actually intent on harm they could so a bit of damage – they are very well armed with their teeth and claw-like ends to their flippers. I have heard a tale of a couple suddenly finding themselves surrounded in a circle by a group of seals which they found quite intimidating. In the main the advice and stories I have read have suggested that as long as you read the body language of the seal and take your lead from them you should consider yourself super lucky to be sharing your swim with them and as with all wildlife encounters you should allow the animal to be in charge of how long and how close your experience lasts.

I have also heard seals most frequently described as like dogs – mostly friendly, mostly curious and mostly wanting to get a closer look at you. Unfortunately as someone who is really quite frightened of dogs this is not really that reassuring to me!

I’ve been half expecting a seal encounter as I know they are abundant in Loch Sunart, we often see them basking on the island in the middle only a few metres down the shore from where I swim. I have also heard lots of other local swimmers talk about and seen pictures of them coming close to swimmers. So I guess it was more a matter of when than if and sure enough yesterday it happened.

Scarlett was in swimming with me, as she does once or twice a week and possibly our more noisy and splashy duo swim rather than my quieter and more direct solo swims attracted the attention of a seal. Ady watching from the shore watched it pop up quite some distance from us and then head speedily closer, popping up several times nearer and nearer to us before we noticed it.

no circles required!

The most surprising thing to note was how HUGE it seemed. A big head atop a strong body, so clearly designed for swimming, able to dive and power through the water in a way I could only dream of made my usual feeling of grace and buoyancy quite laughable in comparison. The seal more or less escorted us to the shore – we were mindful of it being pupping time of year and so keen to not be missing a message that we may have gotten close to somewhere it was steering us away from. Then it took a big dive and didn’t resurface again, obviously heading away under the water.

I’m sure I’ll be back with further tales of wildlife encounters and of course there is a whole season of winter swims ahead of me, but I’ll leave with a small montage of my before and after pictures which is my current creative endeavour alongside my swims. And a quote from a rather famous fellow wild swimmer, Rev. Kate Bottley who says ‘I’ve never yet got out of the water and wished I hadn’t got in.’

Just like starting over

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To dye for

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This gave a darker result than the first one.

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


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

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

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

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

Another season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All for the swim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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