Outside looking in...inside looking out

Human needs (1)...somewhere to wash, something to look at (Photo (c) L Becker)

What makes a home a home?  What makes a place somewhere you want to go to, somewhere you want to stay?  Is it the state of the décor? The cleanliness of the bathrooms?  Or is it more about the things it lets you dream of?

It's been a strange week, visitors coming to look at us, inspecting our progress, discussing our home.  People looking from the outside in - and us trying to get them to see it from the inside out.  And autumn is now definitely no longer merely approaching but in the porch taking its wellies off and getting ready to settle down in front of the fire (when the fire lights, that is...).  Autumn is here - and the island's moods are changing with it.  We're subdued, and we're thinking about what the future may hold.  So in advance, I apologise for a slightly more serious blog...with a bit of history and some drunken ranting thrown in for free!

The last few days have seen lots of comings and goings with visits from "SNH folk" - Scottish Natural Heritage, the government body that looks after the nature reserve and used to own the whole of the island's assets after Lady Monica sold Rum to them for a knock-down price in 1957.  Now, most of the assets belong to the Community Trust, set up to make the island a place people can call home, an independent community with businesses and its own infrastructure.  Once upon a time, Rum was known as the "Forbidden Island" - first forbidden to ordinary folk by its wealthy London owners, then, after Lady Monica sold it to SNH, reserved for birds, beasts and conservationists, with anyone else tolerated if they were lucky, not welcomed.  Tensions ran high at times between "locals" and "government busybodies".  That's changed now, with all of us doing our best to look after the island in the way it needs - the Community Trust owning most of Kinloch, the only village, and SNH looking after the nature reserve, castle, roads and electrical supply.  But now suddenly, a visit from one of the SNH Board members from far-away Edinburgh means that someone is looking at us from the outside - and their grasp of what the island does, what it means and how it all works, is a long way removed from ours.

We know we don't have much money.  We know that the castle costs a lot to maintain, and that it's a real problem for SNH to know what to do with it.  But it feels wrong to have someone look at the castle and basically see it as just a statistic, a big piece of brickwork draining money from the coffers.  I realise I have a confession to make - I've fallen in love with the castle and I want to make other people realise just how special it is.

We're meeting in the hall to welcome our visitor and for a meet and mingle event where islanders can ask questions and find out what SNH is planning for the castle and NNR, and how the Trust and SNH are going to work together in the future.  Wine flows; canapés, lovingly prepared by Claire, are eaten.  But many people are too shy or too unaccustomed to negotiation to discuss their concerns in public with a Government representative.  Clearly, that representative - Andrew - is trying to show "the community" that SNH is on their side now.  They don't want to stop things developing, on the contrary.  They want...what do they want?  There is an awkward moment where Andrew, having giving his talk, asks for questions and no-one speaks up for a while.  I think we're not sure what to say.  He's spoken vaguely about SNH has to do what government wants and how this means they won't invest in island and castle unless we can show it will bring "socio-economic benefits".  But who gets to decide what this means? Does this in plain language just mean everything has to turn a profit?  Or does the word "benefit" have a more holistic meaning? I get the feeling that he thinks islanders are still wanting to "move on" from its SNH past and from the elite world that the castle represents...

After I've had another glass of wine or so, I manage to get a proper word with him and ask what he's trying to say - especially about the castle.  From what he says, it feels as though SNH think the castle is an anomaly, something that shouldn't really be there, or at least shouldn't be on the island taking money away from more important things.  True, it's not SNH's normal remit to look after old buildings. But Lady Monica was insistent - the island and the castle belong together, you can't have one without the other.

And I agree. Lady Monica was way ahead of her time, doing what academics now call "cultural geography" - believing that landscapes and people interact to create identity. Cultural geography suggests that a landscape isn't made up of opposing elements that can be separated out simply into "natural" and "man-made".  Memory, fantasy and action shape our landscapes, even those that seem most untouched.  All of Rum has been shaped by human beings and their behaviours - there are traces of farms, burial places, religious sites and tracks going way back into pre-historic times. The castle is part of a long tradition of humans on the island, but it means something more.  It represents what Rum was in a very specific bit of the past, but it also represents the Bulloughs' fantasies about what an island should be - a refuge, a fairy-tale, a holiday home, a hunter's paradise, a "wild" place, a business.  That hasn't changed.  The island itself is all these things for different people in our time, from conservationists to mountaineers to hikers to deerstalking addicts, to those who are simply wanting to "get away from it all".   Most of those people recognise the castle as part of the whole identity of Rum, not something that takes away from it.

Fantasy island.  Where George and Monica insisted on being buried on Rum...
And I think most islanders feel similarly.  For most of us, "Rum" is more than the sum of its parts.  Like the mountains, the deer, the sea and the shearwaters, Kinloch Castle (and all the other "historic" bits of Rum) is part of the reality of the island, both its past and its present.  People, including those who mainly come to Rum to climb mountains, are passionate about the castle.  They fall in love with its bizarre history and its even more bizarre furnishings.  They want to know more about it.  They want to stay in it (sorry you can't yet!).  They spend money here coming to see it and many insist that there's potential for it to be used even more, in all sorts of ways, and ask why we're not doing more to get people to come and see it. In other words...they dream.

...and how they chose to live. Ever fallen in love with somewhere you shouldn't have fallen in love with? (Photos (c) L Becker)
Yes, says Andrew, but in times of Government cuts how can we justify the expense of the castle's upkeep? This is a common argument at the moment, but to me it doesn't make sense. Yes, if by not restoring the castle we could eliminate child poverty in Scotland - great, let's do it! But it doesn't work that way. Would that money really go into helping others?  More to the point (as SNH really does have a responsibility towards the island) would abandoning the castle help Rum? I think it wouldn't, though I don't expect them to keep paying for it - I believe eventually the castle should pay for itself with enough investment. But I've moved on now from just making an economic argument, I realise I'm arguing a bigger point, maybe against an invisible opponent. I try to explain (on my third glass of wine now) that no-one would think of demolishing the Tower of London or Westminster Abbey because the money could be "better spent elsewhere".  Those things have a different meaning to schools or new roads. They are part of our history, part of what it means to be human.  And the castle has a special place in history here in Rum, a place seen as nearly uninhabitable for much of its history.  The Bulloughs with their castle changed that, they made it not only a desirable, but an ultra-desirable place to live, a place where dreams could come true.  I think it still inspires people to dream, dreams that Rum could become a place not only with a thriving community, but a place that has a bigger significance within Scotland and beyond.  People don't visit places (or even live in them) just because they have shops and schools.  They visit them because something about them speaks to their inner fantasies and needs.  And Rum speaks to a lot of people in this way. It's a place with an 8,000 year human history, a cultural as well as a natural asset, and our castle is an essential part of that.  It's got so much to teach people and means that our island isn't just about economic survival - it means way more...

I don't know if I managed to get any of this across in my slightly tipsy, if passionate discussion with Mr Thinne - the poor man was probably desperately hoping someone would come and take me away.  But I was desperate to get him to see the island and the castle from the "inside" not just the outside.  And it made me realise that despite all my reservations, I am becoming more of an "insider" - not just a strange Southerner with a hankering to live in a castle.  (And the next day I found out it wasn't just me getting passionate about the island - apparently too much wine flowed after I'd left and an inter-islander fight nearly broke out at the shop over a question of policy...) I guess having an "outsider" looking into our world, made us realise that our community is still fragile and there are still many unresolved questions about what's going to happen to Rum and what should happen to it.  That's why we need those on the outside to listen to us on the inside and understand what it means to live on Rum, as opposed to merely reading statistics about it.

But why now? Well, it's not just a coincidence that these visits are happening now (we've also had visits from an independent conservator (who loves the castle*) and other SNH staff).  Listen up, castle-lovers - Kinloch Castle is at a crossroads.  Currently an options appraisal is going on to decide the immediate fate of our very own "temple to Edwardian decadence". There are lots of ideas, but a consultation showed that most islanders want the castle to stay, with the museum at the front and the empty parts at the back turned into housing and "posh" visitor accommodation (to attract wealthier visitors, for example groups who might want to do deerstalking.)  This is a perfect example of how SNH and the Community Trust could work together to improve things for Rum - we can offer fantastic stalking for those who want to pay for it.  But currently, there's nowhere appropriate for them to stay.  If we could invest enough in the castle to turn this around, it would be a huge benefit for the island as a whole. 

Will Government listen?  Can we show that investment is desperately needed, but also that it will eventually pay for itself - perhaps eventually even taking the castle off the government's hands? We have to fight our corner and do our best to get the help we need....and we hope that all those people who love the island will make their voices heard too. 

Human needs (2)...dream castle and a few more human necessities (Photo (c) L Becker)

*On cultural geography: our conservator, Rob, told me about how he'd gone out to Africa a few years back as part of his job.  Why?  Because Nigeria has medieval castles and churches hidden away in its forests, that are going to be restored.  I fantasise about historians and conservators of the future approaching Rum in their teletransporting units, and digging beneath the layers of sand, mud and rock to find a pink Edwardian castle...complete with jet-spraying jacuzzi bath.  It would be sad if it had gone...

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