On 9th March we marked two years of leaving Rum and arriving back on the mainland. It’s been a very strange second year as just as we marked a year here the Coronavirus pandemic altered everyone’s lives across the whole world.
In many ways our experience of living a remote island existence prepared us really well for lockdown life. We have always Home Educated (not home schooled – there is a very big difference!), Davies was already completing his university studies remotely with the Open University, a lot of our socialising had always been done remotely via internet connections or telephone, we were very used to being at home all day every day with each other. Baking bread, sowing seeds and feeling isolated from family and friends for long periods of time was something we had blogged about for years. Bulk buying and making do with substitutions for missing ingredients or cooking from scratch had been our way of life for nearly a decade already.
We all four felt pretty fortunate for seeing out 2020 in a house on the mainland rather than an off grid caravan on a remote island though. More than most islanders (hooked up to the island grid for power and relying on kerosene for heating and hot water) we relied on deliveries of bottled gas or petrol to back up our wind turbine and solar panel power supplies for cooking and heating or charging up devices to connect with the outside world.
Our celebration of the good things about a return to mainland life is therefore a little more muted and hypothetical as a result of many positives not actually been realistic during our second year off the island, but we wanted to mark it anyway with some contributions from each of the four of us about what has been good and what has been bad about leaving Rum and coming back to mainland Scotland.
A return to working in an employed role. Although I am part time and I am in a role I love there are still associated pressures with having to be at a certain place for a certain time. There are pressures and stresses associated with work which I never had in our island life.
The need to have a car means expense and worry and regular maintenance and upkeep. The expense of tax, insurance and fixing things we are not able to bodge ourselves is huge compared to our ability to run a clapped out old car on Rum which was not always reliable but we were usually able to get going again.
I miss the people from Rum and the community feel. I miss being part of a time and place so unique. I miss the social life – some of the best and most memorable nights of my life were spent sitting with Rum residents outside of the shop drinking beer from cans. It would not happen anywhere else than during island life.
I like being able to get in the car and go to places without relying on ferries. Lockdown restrictions aside there is more freedom to get to places on the mainland.
I love living in a house again. I love it when it is bad weather outside and I don’t need to worry about the roof / leaks / keeping things warm and dry.
Despite mentioning working in bad as a restriction of my freedom I do consider my actual job to be a positive. I like the commute / drive to and from work, I like the pride attached to working for the NHS and feeling like I am making a difference to people’s lives.
I like that we have maintained a level of living a slightly wild life and feeling enabled to fix things and stay connected to nature – from collecting firewood to dealing with a frozen water supply.
I don’t miss the mud of our crofting life, the dampness of the caravan, or the logistics of getting everything across the river and up the hill.
There is less freedom and less wilderness on the mainland. There is always evidence of people whether it is houses, roads, power lines. You can’t escape civilisation whereas Rum felt truly wild and as though every footstep you took could be on land which no one else had stepped on for years.
There is so much mainland litter compared to island life. Even during lockdown there is so much roadside, beach and village litter, some of which must be from locals. On Rum no one who lived there would ever litter, in fact all of the residents used to collect litter and take pride in keeping the island clean.
I miss having livestock. While we do have chickens, they are probably the least affectionate of all the livestock we have had. I miss the sheep, pigs and ducks we had on Rum. While you can have livestock on the mainland obviously there are more predators, more issues to worry about with neighbours than we enjoyed on Rum. It is also not entirely safe for Bonnie to roam, certainly if we are out at the beach or close to a road, whereas on Rum she could be out of sight but you knew she was safe.
I miss the sense of community of island life. Once you were accepted as a proper permanent resident on an island you were almost part of a family. Even in a small community there is not the same necessity to deal with people, resolve and accept differences.
There is a loss of safety and security and a lack of trust being back on the mainland. There are suddenly strangers and people you don’t know, there is crime and the ability for people to run away from their actions in a way that island life does not allow.
Easier access to seeing existing friends than we did on Rum. It is possible to get to people the same day you left home. Although we still need to have pet / house sitters if all of us want to be away from home it is so much easier to arrange than it was on Rum.
There is so much more to explore here, even locally. With a short drive we are able to access a whole load of interesting walks and places.
We are able to access stuff like craft materials, ingredients and so on. On Rum we had to hope that what we had ordered online would be right and that ferries would run. Here we are able to visit several shops and find what we are looking for or get stuff delivered here so much quicker.
Rum was a microcosm with everything that was available all within a small space. Mainland life means everything is spread out and not as accessible.
Individuals do not have as much of a voice back on the mainland. On Rum all decisions would be voted on and you had a real impact on shaping what happened. Now there is not that opportunity to make so much of a difference to what happens around you.
More opportunities – greater accessibility to opportunities for things like work experience.
Access to deliveries, food shopping and general supplies is easier.
People coming to visit or stay is much easier. Megan has been here for 9 months this visit and had previously been for two month-long stays. That would not have been possible in our caravan and even in a house on Rum the logistics of her getting to us would have been trickier.
I would echo what the others have said about loss of freedom and autonomy with a return to the mainland meaning a need to fall back into the constraints of society again. I enjoy the various work I do but the ties of meetings / phonecalls / deadlines which are a necessity of employment do curtail my ability to do what I want, when I want. I am fiercely protective of maintaining the balance as much as I can but I do still sometimes question whether the positives outweigh that loss of absolute control over my time.
I also miss the close connections and almost family-like relationships with fellow islanders. Although we are still in a smallish village here and I have made some very good friends who crossover between work and social life (in a small community you always find everyone wears several hats and has various jobs, volunteering posts, hobbies etc) it is now possible to avoid someone if I don’t want to deal with them and the intimate relationships of understanding who people really are which are inevitable in a tiny island community are something which despite the associated frustrations, on balance I miss rather than am relieved by the absence of in my life.
I miss the ability to just do / make / set up / create something whenever I feel like it. On Rum and on the croft we could simply decide to put up a shed and make a shop, to get interested in a new craft or new skill and set it up as a little trading opportunity or business. We could decide to start keeping any animals or experiment with building styles. Of course there were huge barriers in terms of logistics of getting materials or deliveries, of the challenges of the weather or of the survival requirements of our lifestyle but space and permission were not issues to overcome in the main.
I do also miss what Davies touched on about having both a greater voice and a heavier weight of responsibility living on Rum. While there were of course people who lived on the island and did not engage fully with decision making, volunteering for the community trust, contributing to finding a shared vision for the direction of the island and making it work even their voices of dissent or apathy still counted for something. Despite living in a small community still that pioneering spirit, feeling of being fully in control and having a really loud voice and steering your destiny is definitely something I miss from our Rum life.
Finally I miss the quiet and the peace. I miss the lack of noise and distractions. I miss the being utterly present in the here and now which was so much a part of Rum life. I still capture it here, but I have to work harder. People on the mainland are never without a phone, or a set of car or house keys. There is traffic and timetables and watching the clock. There is no ‘we just popped down to the shop for some milk, but we stayed for a beer and someone got a guitar out and oh suddenly it’s 2am, but that is fine because no one has to be anywhere but here.’ The loss of that is something I definitely mourn.
This is a difficult one to phrase as I don’t want want to compare living in a caravan to living in a house as that is not really comparing island life to mainland life. However in some ways, for us, it is. If we had lived in a house on Rum we would have indeed had more space, less exposure to the elements / midges than we did the caravan. We could have been hooked up to the island power grid, we could have driven to our front door rather than had to wheelbarrow everything up to our croft.
However we would have either been renting a house down in the village, away from our croft, away from our livestock and therefore still requiring that need to get animal feed / infrastructure to support water supplies and power supplies etc. up to the croft, or we would have had to build a house and the surrounding infrastructure. Either of those options would have meant a substantial financial investment and a continued income beyond what it was feasible to earn on Rum doing the sort of jobs we feel are meaningful, soul feeding, making best use of our actual skills. The moneyless existence of self sufficiency, bartering and skills / products / service swapping which was our philosophical ideal required a climate, community and set up which simply does not exist on Rum at this present time.
Which brings me (in a classic Nic, very long winded and roundabout fashion) to my actual good, which is that the mainland does offer what Rum could not in terms of opportunities to live as closely aligned to our ideals of swapping some of our time and skills in the things we can do for trading in exchange for the things we can’t. I cannot grow tea or coffee crops, I cannot easily grow, grind and process wheat or sufficient year round fruit and vegetables, rear animals off the land, store crops and so on to sustain four adults while living in a caravan with a self set up water, heating and power supply. There are not enough hours in the day or resources at hand.
I don’t want to work for 40 hours a week so that I can have my groceries delivered in packaging, an automatic washing machine and heating which turns on with a switch on the wall fuelled by a twice yearly delivery of fossil fuels either. Our new mainland existence offers me the mid-way compromise between those two lifestyles in a way which Rum was never going to be able to. I’m not great at being a realist rather than a dreamer and schemer, but I am adept enough at finding balances to know that for now at least our current life offers a better option than our previous life did between my absolute ideal and what is actually achievable.
This leads me to all of the other goods, which I will probably just list rather than bullet pointing them as they all fall under the same broad title. It is good that I can wild swim every day – again I could have done that on Rum but a two mile walk back to a damp caravan would have had me hospitalised by December in my first winter of attempting it. Being under a hot shower and a warm blanket in a cosy house has made wild winter swimming if not entirely sensible at least not complete lunacy!
I like the opportunities to do things I am really passionate about – to write, to shape my own freelance career based on what I really, really want to do rather than where I spotted a gap. I like that the volunteering opportunities are still here and I can still make a difference and that sometimes I can walk away without feeling worried about there not being anyone else to pick up the slack.
I like seeing the opportunities Ady, Davies and Scarlett are able to explore too. They all three have work and voluntary opportunities here which are a perfect fit and would not have been options back on Rum.