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.