22nd September - Harvest time, a harvest moon and all about shearwaters

Blasda today - the Scottish celebration of local food and drink and an excuse to bring everyone together for a slap-up meal! 

Preparation has been going on for some time with those amongst us who love cooking busy planning meals and harvesting produce from their polytunnels and gardens.  And those amongst us who just love eating were invited to come along and join in!  In the end, 26 big people and four little ones turned up - and there was, as always, just enough food with a little bit to spare.  Among the islanders were some visitors too - Sean's Mum and Dad, and our singers and story-tellers from yesterday's shearwater festival (more of which anon).  It was lovely to have a mix of locals old and less old along with people who just enjoy visiting us, and we set up one long table down the middle of the community hall to make sure everyone felt part of the day.

Now where's the next course?
For me as a newbie it hasn't been so easy to source "local produce".  My patch in the community polytunnel remains so far just a patch.  My optimistic order to the Co-op ("Scottish marmelade please, NOT Golden Shred") for my marmelade puddings, resulted in three jars of...Golden Shred.  Likewise, I did not milk my own cow to get the cream for the cranachan (a dairy is one thing we lack on Rum, although the Victorian dairy house is still there!)  However, eggs were very local indeed as were the raspberries (kindly given to me by Vikki) and the blackberries (picked by me at enormous expense to my fingers and clothing).  But other people managed cabbages, turnips, carrots, onions, fennel, chervil, chives, potatoes, courgettes, venison...resulting in an impressive three course menu.  Among the more exotic items was a chili venison curry and home-made custard made with goose eggs!

Cranachan - just add cream, raspberries, blackberries, oats, honey, whiskey...
Having eaten until we could eat no more, we would probably have been happy just to sit around and gently nod off over the tea and biscuits, but suddenly Tim, one of the visitors, got up and unpacked his accordion.  Last night he had played to us mournful and funny Icelandic and Gaelic songs of birds, the sea, unrequited love and, er, egg-hunting  - from St Kilda, Orkney and Iceland, where in the "old days" young ladies tested their admirers by setting them near-impossible tasks such as scaling huge cliffs to collect gannet eggs.  Today he and Danny, who plays the guitar, struck up a medley of tunes ranging from the Charleston to traditional folk music.  We all gradually joined in playing whatever instruments lay to hand - mainly spoons, coffee cups, tables and glasses, but with a good deal of clapping and stamping too.  Most of us adults didn't quite manage to get over our self-consciousness enough to dance, but one five-year-old didn't stop from the moment the accordion was unpacked to the moment it was put back into its case.  We wonder if Tim might be persuaded to come back for the Hogmanay ceilidh - our band has fallen through and we are worried there might be no live music at all (anyone with an idea, let me know!)

It was a lovely and inspiring end to my difficult "Week Five", when, as I am reliably informed, disillusion can start to set in for newcomers who've spent four weeks in an idealistic haze of excitement ("I'm living on an island! No-one lives on an island! It's amazing! I live in a castle!  On an island!" etc etc etc).  The point at which you start to realise this could be for the long haul - or it could turn out to be a disaster.  The point at which you question everything everyone does and wonder if you can really bear to live in a place with only 40 people and no "normal" structures (all the things you take for granted in a mostly functioning society -  all the structures we've put in place to allow us to cope with conflict and make decisions without actually killing each other, starting from the bottom with things like sports clubs and choirs, parent-teacher associations and village councils, through to the judiciary, government and the EU. And that's before I've even got on to the lack of shops, entertainment, pubs and restaurants); we're still in the process of creating those decision-making structures or getting the ones we already have to work. This is part of the excitement but sometimes it can feel very hard. I'm not employed here, I don't have a role - I'm not a manager, a doctor, a farmer or even, as yet, an official volunteer.  So what is my position here?

It was a relief last night not to have to worry about it, just sitting back and going "Wow" while someone else does something amazing.  Yesterday we had a visit from a touring duo, Tim and Malcolm.  Both multi-talented enthusiasts about Scotland, music, the sea and seabirds, they are touring the islands to perform their "Shearwater" play and hold workshops for islanders (http://vimeo.com/51081620).  And before you stop reading and go "oh no, not birds again" - let me try to get you interested.  Shearwaters are amazing black and white birds, the albatross of the northern hemisphere.  They can travel up to five million miles in their lifetime and on a single fishing expedition may travel up to 1200 miles.  Imagine going 1200 miles to the supermarket every time your fridge was empty! (oh, hang on, that's a bit like us...) They mate for life, and can live for 40-50 years or even longer. They lay a single egg each year in burrow underground, and their fluffy grey chicks fledge at night when their parents are far out to sea, running (or waddling) down to the ocean by the light of the moon - or in the dark if they're lucky, moonlight is dangerous as it means the fat little chicks can easily be picked off by predators.  They make a crazy noise to the extent that the Vikings (and many people after them) thought there were trolls and demons in the mountains, when it was in fact just the shearwaters.  That's why (we believe) one of our mountains is called "Trollval".  Thousands of them make their burrows up behind Coire Dubh and in September you can go up to view them at night, if you're brave enough to go up a mountain in the dark that is (I'm not yet).

Manx Shearwater (copyright www.surfbird.com)

The play talked about why we love nature, how we love it but often destroy it.  Global warming means there is no food left for many sea birds in the north of Britain and their numbers are plummeting.  But as well as the sadness there was the excitement about being somewhere where we're lucky enough still to be close to such strange beings.  Why do humans love being close to birds and animals? Maybe once upon a time we used to be closer to them still.  We are totally unlike birds but in some ways we are like them, or maybe want to be like them.  Bonding for life is just one example...they do it, and we just try our best. 

 We all sat enthralled before leaving to prepare our Blasda food...I am determined to get up the troll mountain one day! And it reminded me too that we (I) need more than organisations and structures to survive and be happy, we need songs, good food, friends, mountains and amazing places.  A bit like being on Rum.  Sometimes.

Harvest moon, 19th September


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