Mainlandland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Bonnie-versary

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day trips and seed sowing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ice then fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As it got dark the fire raged on and edged closer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

The Rum March

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

And what a month it has been.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Higher than an eagle

Back in 2011 when we were WWOOFing we had a list of experiences and sights we were keen to see. The list contained lots of WWOOFing related things such as milking a cow, assisting in birthing an animal, butchering meat and so on but it also had some wildlife and nature related things too. When we arrived in Scotland in the September of that year we had some specific items to tick off which included seeing the salmon leap, seeing red deer (and maybe seeing part of the rut), seeing the northern lights and spotting eagles. The Falls of Shin gave us a fabulous salmon leaping experience  , we saw many red deer and a few far away spottings of eagles. The aurora remained elusive. Since we have been on Rum the northern lights have made a fairly regular appearance, tempered of course with the realisation that what you see in the sky is not quite what you see on those amazing pictures in terms of colour. But eagles…. they are often a near daily sight.

Rum was the location for the re-introduction of the white tailed sea eagles back in the ’70s and ’80s. We actually know one of the children of the warden at the time who was part of the team and have heard stories of the release pens, the grumpy eagles and the reluctant children dragged out to witness monumental history in the making fed up because it was a rainy Saturday evening and they were missing their favourite TV show. These days we get to watch them ourselves. In the spring they are performing courtship rituals as they pair, mate and build nests – currently we are treated to a near daily fly by of a courting couple as they circle high above the croft, circling and dancing in the sky, looking as though they may crash in mid-air and sometimes briefly locking talons and spiralling downwards. Later in the year we may see them taking their young on maiden flights as we have in previous years. Teaching them how to fly and writing the dialogue in our heads for those scary, exhilarating first flights.

Rum skies also see the golden eagles fairly regularly, smaller but no less amazing than the sea eagles. We also see buzzards, hen harriers, merlins, owls, kestrals and sparrow hawks, there have been peregrine falcons spotted off the coast too. But there is no doubt that the larger eagles are the stars of the show and the biggest draw for visitors. So I’ve been attempting at re-creating them in yarn so that Rum visitors can take home a momento of their eagle sighting from the Shed. It turns out that eagles are not quite as easy as you might think to capture in 3d yarn…

I think I’m getting there. Feedback from  my family may suggest otherwise.

In other news the solar panel is now fully up and running and does indeed provide always on internet. An unexpected bonus on windy and sunny days appears to be sufficient power to run Davies and Scarlett’s X box.

Sunshine all round!

The clipboard walk action points

Because we try hard not to just be about the talk…. although I confess there is quite a list of things we have ‘carried over’ or simply allowed to slip off the bottom of the list over the years.

The chickens are now all hanging out in the ‘walled garden’, There are three permanent beds (out of, I think 18), two are strawberries and one is asparagus. These have been covered over and protected with a variety of stuff. The other beds are being worked over by the birds. We are throwing their feed on to the beds so they scratch around and get all the weeds out, tread their own manure in and generally do a good job of turning over the soil, eating bugs and snaffling the weeds as they start to grow. We will be able to collect their eggs from that contained space, protect any chicks they hatch this year from the crows and at the end of the season we can mulch all the raised beds with their used bedding and a hefty layer of seaweed. Hopefully next year we will have a really good start of nice, rich, compost to start growing in in there.

The ducks are carrying on doing a similar job in the adjacent cage, keeping the grass low and hoovering up the bugs, grubs, slugs and other creatures who might be considering making their homes on the fruit bushes and trees in there. Once those bushes start to show signs of life we will move the ducks out. Note the naughty sheep hanging around the gate of the fenced area hoping to get in.

It’s been a week of extreme seasonal swings. Three mornings of frozen pipes meaning no water supplies and very cold nights sleep. This morning there was even ice on the containers of water we’d got in preparation for non-running taps. Cold cold nights mean clear clear skies though and we’ve been treated to amazing star gazing, spotting the first star in the night sky (which is actually Uranus, not a star at all) and several shows of aurora dancing too. Days have been clear blue skies with a pair of white tailed sea eagles performing an almost by the clock lunchtime fly by dancing in the air and performing their majestic mating ritual moves over the croft.

We had a delivery of 400 tree saplings. Although we have them ready to plant it was simply too windy over the weekend to even try and start putting them into the ground – the tree guards would have been blown all over the croft and our toes and fingers would not have lasted more than half an hour outside. I did however brave a couple of hours each day over the last three days to work my way down to the pier and back re-doing the faded wellies on the welly trail. adding a new sign here and there and replacing a few wellies which have been lost over the winter. It’s all looking nice and smart and shiny ready for the start of the tourist season.

But easily the biggest news is that two of our long planned purchases have arrived. Back while we were off talking about what would make life better for us here on Rum we came up with always on internet and a washing machine on the croft among other things. These were two relatively easy things to achieve and so we did plenty of research while we were off and last week placed orders. Today they both arrived – a 100 watt solar panel, carried up to the croft by Davies and Scarlett and hopefully set up and working tomorrow meaning that we should be generating sufficient power to run the nanostation which picks up signal for our broadband and the router which beams out our wifi.

And a twin tub, very low power, small capacity washing machine. It’s not a twin tub as so many of my friends remember having as children, it is very basic, very low maintenance and will require attention and care to operate. We have had automatic washing machines up here on the croft before and although they were a great idea the reality didn’t really work. Automatic washing machines are a bit like toddlers in that in our specific circumstances they are actually not that automatic at all and require constant supervision. Mixing water and electricity even in a standard house set up still needs caution. When your water is piped in from the river and your electricity is a petrol generator and your washing machine is outside there is not much of a labour saving element to it. The start up power consumption is huge – getting water to temperature and pressured filling, then an hour or so wash cycle with a big power need during the spin cycles meant we ended up spending a lot of time watching the washing machine. We then had the dilemma of where to store it – a damp island environment is not great for a delicate electronic bit of kit. In the end we broke the machine down for parts – the casing became a chicken house (and very successfully homed a broody chicken who hatched a clutch of eggs in it), the drum became a fire pit, the motor and electric bits and pieces were all stripped down for other projects or spare bits. So now we have this. It still requires care, attention and supervision. It only washes a small amount of laundry at a time. But it fits in the horse box, runs easily off the generator, we can control the water temperature, the spin cycle is amazingly efficient, it takes about 15 minutes per small load in total and in one hour I had processed a whole load of laundry (in three lots) and had it hanging out to dry.

This instead of a 3 mile round trip down to the castle to use the laundry facilities which may not be available for much longer and could take upwards of two hours of our time. This arrangement is within spitting distance of the washing line, easy access to the kettle and that newly always on wifi and means you can potter about doing other things around the croft / caravan while the washing is happening. Not automatic by any means but definitely a huge leap forwards.

 

Where it’s at

We had a whole list of reasons for our off-island winter adventures. We wanted a break from the survival-quest which is winter in an off grid caravan on a Scottish island. Wet, windy, cold. Six hours of daylight, battling against a mud bath of a croft, going out to collect firewood and feed animals, staying in to wipe down walls and windows. After five winters we knew we had nothing left to learn – or prove – about what the darkest months of the year hold for us here.  Instead we wanted to have a proper family Christmas with aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents. We wanted to catch up with friends and dip our toes back into our old lives to see whether we really missed what we thought we might, plus how we’d feel about not being here on Rum.

We had three very different chunks of time while we were off. Working – and enjoying all of the rewards of working in Somerset. Doing stuff for someone else at someone else’s bidding but compensated richly for it. A return to our old lives back in Sussex including a visit to our old house, picking back up the threads of our previous social lives and family times. Then in complete contrast our two months in Ireland, time spent isolated from everyone where nobody knew our names or was likely to come knocking at the door.  None were perfect, all were perfectly nice. None lured us back or made us want to stay beyond the time we had planned to.

In returning to Rum we all definitely feel we have come ‘home’. There are aspects of our lives here which we know are unsustainable long term. More than ever perhaps our lives here feel finite in many ways. We arrived home to no water, rodent invasions. Since returning we are realising quite how much of a physical toll our lives here take on us after nearly four months break from it. Today the ferry bought us 11 bags of animal feed and compost – four wheelbarrow-loads to move from the closest place we can get a car to the feed bins on the croft. The ferry tomorrow is already cancelled due to the wind that is shaking the walls as I type. But none of this is news. None of this is intolerable, it is merely the compromise of life here, in much the same way as early mornings, traffic jams, Monday morning meetings, boilers breaking down are the compromises of other choices in ways to live your life. These are the compromises we are making in order to have the freedom, the views, the time that we have here. All things we missed when not here and all things we are prepared to put up with a lot of down sides to protect and enjoy.

So for now, certainly for as much as anyone really is able to have a long term plan we have settled on one that we think works for us. No more winters in the caravan. We don’t need to be off for as long as we were this past winter – probably two months would be sufficient to miss the worst of it. We don’t need to go as far away from here as we did this time either, indeed staying somewhere that we could return for visits would be preferable. We don’t need to have quite so many compromises as we do here – we have a lightweight washing machine on order along with a bigger solar panel to mean that laundry can all be done here on the Croft and Davies and Scarlett can have pretty much always on wifi. We’re looking at ways to put a porch space on the caravan with a re-roof over the top.

We have also been looking at the croft with a critical eye, working out what does bring in income, what does enhance our lives as in makes us happy or are things we enjoy doing. Our livestock holding is currently at nice manageable numbers in terms of animal feed. Our sheep are doing a great job of grazing the croft and we will get another three fleeces from them in the summer. Thanks to the very cold winter this years fleeces are looking fantastically thick and full. Also in my online order basket is a spinning wheel. A bit of an investment but something I am really excited about learning to do properly and something which should easily return the investment in wool from the 3 fleeces I already have from last year, the 3 we’ll get this year and the amount of wool that will give me either to sell or to make things with to sell.

Our chickens and ducks have always enjoyed a very wide free ranging life but it has meant that our egg collecting is way tougher than it could be, with most of the eggs feeding the crows. We currently have the ducks penned in our soft fruit cage, primarily as we are re-educating them that they live here on the Croft after a winter spent down in the village. They are also doing a great job of clearing all the grass and weeds around the currently dormant fruit trees and bushes and eating all the bugs, slugs and moths that can damage the trees later in the year. We’re collecting the eggs they lay too. We will let them back out once the weather dries up so they can swim on the river but may well create a penned area for them to be put away in at night so we can still collect the eggs.

The chickens are free ranging at the moment but after a managerial style walk around the croft yesterday with virtual clipboards Ady and I decided that our walled garden of raised beds is never going to perform well for us with crops until we improve the soil in there. Every year I do really well with getting seeds germinated and growing in the polytunnel and then I plant them out into the raised beds and they fail to thrive despite watering, feeding and weeding. This year we won’t even try – we will pen the chickens in that area and they can forage and scratch all the weeds out for us, then we can add a mulch of their manure-rich bedding on the beds covered with a hefty layer of seaweed from the beach and leave the whole lot to rot down nicely for next year. Meanwhile we will be able to collect all of the hens eggs too, bolstering our eggs sales and reducing our feed bill, while improving the ground ready for next year. We will concentrate on the large areas we have given over to strawberries and soft fruit and use the polytunnel and mini greenhouses to grow herbs, salad, tomatoes and peas.

I have moved things around and added some of the crafts I had worked on over the winter off into the shed. We have ordered some bits and pieces for other crafty ideas we have to make and sell and Ady is working on some more photography for postcards. I have at least one off-island outlet for selling my jams, an online shop for selling my crafts and a plan to work more on expanding both of those.

Davies has transferred his study with the Open University from an access course to a BSc degree in Psychology with the credits from what he has already studied going towards that. He has a choice in how fast or slow he takes that studying depending on what else he does with his time. He is considering a variety of other pursuits including some work experience, some travelling, following his other interests in art and film making and still has the option of looking at a bricks and mortar university at some future point should he decide he wants part of that uni experience after all. But for now he has a clear plan, with lots of interesting, exciting and challenging options ahead of him. The part time study since the autumn has shown him what he is most interested in, confirmed the areas he thought he wanted to learn more about and highlighted for him the skills he needs to invest more time and energy into improving.

Scarlett is really pleased to be back on Rum. She is still working out quite which direction to throw her energy in, but has many possible options she is exploring and in the meantime we are all getting to eat a lot of delicious and beautifully decorated cupcakes as she hones that particular interest and skill.

At the end of our virtual clipboard croft walk Ady and I sat on our favourite bench looking our over our favourite view with the last cup of tea of the day. A plan, a feeling of contentment and enough of a streak of uncertainty and adventures still to be had makes for a pretty good combination as far as I’m concerned.

Settling back in.

It’s a week today that we got back into the caravan. In that week we have:
* Had a delivery from the local Co-Op who will take orders by email and stick them on the ferry for the Small Isles residents (we were supposed to be popping back off again for a couple of nights today for a dentist check up for Scarlett but I couldn’t get a sensibly priced hotel, the weather is looking iffy for us getting back next Tuesday and so we rearranged it for a few weeks time, but we had anticipated that follow up trip off and put off stocking up from the supermarket in our already overloaded car.)
* Sent off an empty jerry can of diesel and had it refilled and sent back by the fuel merchants.
* Filled up water containers from the river until the cold water worked again, done plumbing repairs and finally got the hot water working again, meaning we could all have showers.
* Felled trees and chopped firewood including getting the chainsaw stuck and getting it unstuck again.
* Got the wandering ducks home. During the winter our ducks had left the croft and joined some of our rehomed chickens down in the village. Ady managed to recover a few each day and all the girls were home but the drake remained in the village, shrewd to Ady’s efforts to catch him. This morning he went to try again but couldn’t find him anywhere. When he returned to the croft (a mile away and up-river from the village) there was the drake hanging around outside the cage where the girl ducks all were. He was only too pleased to be ushered into the cage.
* Welcomed the turkeys back to the Croft. Our friends who looked after them while we were away bought them home today. They seemed pretty happy to be back and got straight back into joining in with the feeding time frenzy.
* Baked cakes (Scarlett), and bread, made soup.
* Carried on with studying (Davies and I), working on our third assessment which is due in a couple of weeks.
* Fixed the wind turbine which we had taken down for the winter but also planned to give a bit of an overhaul to. The plastic is brittle and broken in various places and we had been doing in situ fixes with strong tape and metal bracing plates. When we took it down we decided we would do a proper fix and re-enforcing job on it before we put it back up. Ady had been doing lots of research on the best way to do this over the winter and so we removed all the tape, unscrewed all the brace plates, drilled holes and ‘stitched’ the broken sections back together with cable ties. Then we put it back up and reconnected it. So far it is working really well and is turning much more smoothly than before.
* Had our first visitors to the Croft – Rum friends, visiting friends and a photographer who was on the island taking pictures and chatting to islanders about a book he is working on. He spent a couple of hours with us taking photos and chatting about our lives here and his own life.
* Fixed the gate which had dropped on it’s hinges, fixed the netting on the fruit cage, fixed a flat tyre on the Jeep.
* Started getting the shed ready to reopen for the season. Labelling and pricing the new stock I’ve been working on while we’ve been away, freshening up the layout, looking at some new ways to display things and generally tidying up.
* Organised to send some more stock of jams to a mainland supplier who is also getting ready for the start of her season.
* Caught up on all the many loads of laundry that we bought back with us, had left behind, created in the clean up of the caravan and have made by being back a week. Next week we’re ordering a twin tub machine which will run off the genny and we will be able to have up here on the croft.

Homecoming

Be it ever so humble….

It’s almost as if we’d never been away.

Just as when we first arrived on Rum (and countless times since to be honest) the grand return was not entirely straightforward. We had arranged a lift for Ady, Kira and I along with the essential first night back stuff to the bottom of the croft. Davies, Scarlett and Bonnie walked from the pier.

We arrived back on a stunningly beautiful Rum day. It was blue skies and sunshine, ice twinkling everywhere and uncharacteristically rock hard ground. It was also bitterly, bitterly cold. The first glimpse of the island from the ferry followed by welcome home hugs from friends and balloons tied to the Shed echoing the sentiment were enough to have me feeling happy of heart.

We fed the chickens, geese and sheep who were very happy to see us and walked up the hill carrying the first of many loads back up.

The first step inside the caravan was not quite so pretty or poetic. We were not alone. Unfortunately in our absence some other creatures had decided to make use of the space and we had been invaded by a pair of rats. This was always a very real possibility, Rum has a big population of rats with very few natural predators and plenty of food in the way of bird eggs, dead deer and so on. Our presence on the croft has both attracted rats with bird feed and crops and repelled them with Bonnie, Kira and our careful monitoring of them with occasional intervention by way of rat bait. With us gone for nearly 4 months the deterrents were absent and all of the lures still present.

Despite anticipating rats and taking action to prevent them it was still unpleasant to discover we had failed and they had got in. Their entry route was gnawing through the plastic (why?!) grille that covers the vent to the fridge. They had then gone through the cavity behind the fridge into the cupboard under the sink. This had netted them the delights of chewing through the plastic container holding some sweet chilli sauce, four water jug filters and the labels on some tins of tuna which was all that was under the sink (aside from pots and pans). They had accessed the cutlery drawer from behind and chewed through the soft rubber grips on the potato peeler and the tin opener, had a good chew on a wooden spoon and the cutlery divider I had lovingly created out of wood when we first moved here. (The spoon and cutlery divider provided firewood, the tin opener and potato peeler have been sterilised and are now back in use as a reminder of ‘that time rats got in’. I can confirm that the presence of soft grip rubber does make them nicer to use than the chewed remains of harder plastic below, but not sufficiently to replace them). They had finally decided the party was over inside the cupboard and gotten out by chewing a small hole through the side out into the main caravan. There they had feasted on a tin of hot chocolate powder entering via the plastic lid and a tub of mixed nuts and raisins. There is no evidence of them getting into the bedrooms but the following day while cleaning the bathroom I found a single tube of toothpaste with a hole gnawed through. Thus proving that even rats recognise the importance of good dental hygiene after a feast like that!

It was pretty dire to come back to but we had cleared up the damage within an hour, dealt with one rat who was still at the crime scene hanging out in the cupboard and shortly afterwards Bonnie found it’s partner and dealt with that too. The plastic grille has been replaced with a metal one, all evidence of rats (other than souvenir kitchen utensils) have gone and all visitors to the caravan now are of the welcome variety.

The next challenge was three months worth of damp to deal with. Again this was anticipated and we had done what we could to mitigate the impact and brought back with us suitable cleaning materials to deal with it, along with brand new pillows, duvets, sheets and covers as we knew that these would be the likely casualties. Sure enough we had a days worth of wiping down walls and surfaces with mould cleaner and killer spray, a trip to the skip to dispose of mouldy bedding and a day of heating and airing the space. We are still in condensation and damp season, and living, cooking and breathing in the space only adds to the problem but at least we are now back to wipe down, air and heat the space again. Dehumidifiers are the obvious answer but power constraints mean they are not an option for us here.

The rats and the mould were semi expected issues. We knew they may be something we faced on our return and we had come back prepared to deal with them. What we did not expect was sub zero temperatures meaning that our water supply was frozen. We have had no water at least once or twice most of the winters here and usually anticipate it happening the morning after a very cold night and ensure we have a kettle or pan filled ready for that first morning cup of tea knowing it will have thawed out and be running again by lunchtime. In the early days we even had our bottled gas freeze but a cabinet for the gas and lagging the bottles seems to have alleviated that issue even in these very cold days. The water was a different story though as not only had the pipes frozen as the ground was frozen but the actual water supply in the river was also frozen solid. The waterfalls, rivers and ground were all rock hard.

This meant that both the clean up operation in order to make the caravan liveable plus the actual liveable-ness of being in the caravan was impossible. A quick family conference, taking in the implications of no water for cooking, washing, drinking or flushing the loo meant we all agreed that staying a night or two elsewhere while we got the caravan back into order was probably the best plan. So while Davies and Scarlett enjoyed a slightly prolonged dose of mainland delights of power and internet and slept off the journey, Bonnie and Kira moved back into the caravan / Croft with freedom to roam once more and rat prevention duties and Ady and I spent a couple of days blasting out music, getting a new cowl fitted onto the log burner so we could get that lit, unpacking the car and getting everything up to the caravan and put away, everything cleaned and organised and turned back on. After two nights away we were still without water but had collected sufficient to keep just outside the caravan and mean filling the loo cistern with a watering can and boiling pans to wash up with enabled us to move back in and sleep in our own beds again. The following day we had a trickle of water running once more and two days after that the big thaw has happened and we have hot water once more and today had our first showers back in the caravan. For a few days it was a return to our early days here though, walking over to the river countless times each day with containers to fill up with water.

That concludes the ‘getting the caravan back to normal’ task list and we have started moving onto the next phase of picking our lives back up again. Today this meant gathering ducks who decided over Christmas to migrate down to the village. There were 10 ducks hanging out down there, now there are four and six birds back up on the Croft captured in a pen while they are re-educated that this is where they live and get fed. Hopefully the remaining four will be gathered up tomorrow and the pair of turkeys who were also rehomed down in the village with friends will be coming home again too this week. Our livestock holding is depleted to what we had last year which is precisely what we wanted – less creatures, more efficiency.

The freezing conditions mean there is no urgency with crops just yet but it is only a matter of weeks until the ferry timetable changes to the summer schedule and with that will come the first of the seasons visitors so guiding people to the shed and making sure there is an attractive selection of items to buy will be next on the list of jobs to turn our attention towards.

As I said, it feels almost as though we’ve never been away.