Stags, whales, cows, ponies...who owns this island anyway?!

Time to get out of the village and find out more about the rest of this amazing island...

There are only two "proper" roads on Rum (i.e. tracks made specially for humans...there are lots of so-called "pony tracks" that humans are allowed to use too, if their boots are good enough).  One leads to Kilmory - the other, to Harris.  They are both completely different places, almost as if they were on different islands.  Autumn is stag rutting time so that means it's time to go to Kilmory!

Stone99 (c) Ali Morris
Stag at Kilmory (Photo (c) Ali Morris)

Kilmory faces north, to Skye, Soay and the mainland, a sheltered beach at the end of a valley full of deer.  It's bleak, stony and isolated, a few houses dotted about to remind us of when this used to be home to just two girls who spent all summer here doing laundry for the grand folk up at the castle (Lady Monica and George didn't like to see knickers hanging from a washing line).  Now it's home to Rum's deer research team, two or three people (and their laundry) who spend their days tracking the animals to find out what they get up to, which ones are the most successful breeders, which ones are most likely to get ill and which have the loudest roar (I may have made that one up - proper info on  If you've seen Autumnwatch over the last few years, you'll have met some of our stags and hinds on TV - and our researchers have names for them all.

Kilmory Beach (with bathing beauty) (Photo (c) L Becker)
We leave our bikes at "the junction" (the bit where the proper track stops and turns into just stones).  It's a long, lonely walk down the glen with no-one and nothing about, not even an eagle...until we spot our first group of hinds. Their stag can't be far away, and sure enough, there he is - up on the hillside tracking us, making sure we're not about to threaten his harem. Even at a distance we can tell he's a big, experienced beast - he'll have won some battles in his time to prove he's the best.  He's dark, looking threatening against the hills - a deliberate ploy from rolling in peat to make himself appear more impressive.  Soon we spot the competition too - and hear it.  There are at least four stags roaming the hills, three with their own hinds, but one without.  He's moving into a strategic spot, ready to challenge the other stags, trying to get the ladies to come over to join him and leave their current mate.  Stags don't always fight - it's dangerous and they try to avoid it if possible, so they start off with roaring to impress the hinds with their big voices.  They will "face off" each other as well, trying to stare each other down.  If this doesn't work, they'll fight, horrendous battles where they are liable to be maimed or even killed.  Their necks swell up and their roars echo down the valley - nearly as far as the village.

Inquisitive hind (Photo (c) L Becker)
At the beach, there are hinds everywhere, hiding in the dunes, wandering by the shore and listening out for the stags calling to them.  It's hard to tell where the noise is coming from, it bounces off the rocks and sounds as if there's a stag just behind our picnic spot.  We try to stay out of their way - they can be dangerous during the rut.  The former laundry house is now the chief research hut - no-one to be seen, but a pair of antlers hanging above the door gives it a strange, primitive look.  One of the huts is full of antlers found in the hills; an even bleaker hut, mended with gaffer tape at the moment, is for the volunteers who come here each year to help out.  We walk back up to the village, after a brief chat to a volunteer who doesn't even know the hostel moved out of the castle in June; she has spent the last two months just at Kilmory. I try to imagine what kind of life they lead, and why they might do something so lonely. The deer are not friendly, although they're not hostile either unless you get in their way; they keep to themselves, with the occasional foray down to Kinloch to steal food.

A bit different from our trip to Harris a couple of weeks ago! That was full of inquisitive creatures...and it was the first time I'd actually made it out of the village to the other side of Rum.  Just in time - I'd started to feel there was no other side.  It was a blazingly hot day and we borrowed mountain bikes to attempt the stony eight mile mountain track.  Within about 10 minutes I was already pushing the bike as even the first part of the journey up to the "deer gate" (the barrier to stop the deer wandering into the village and eating everyone's beans and cabbages) was too steep for me to manage.  I thought I'd got fitter in London but getting through a Keiser Cycle class is not the same as scaling an actual mountain! Oh, alright...we hadn't even got to the mountain bit yet, it was just the path up to it.  Mel was sympathetic: "When I first came here I had to push the bike all the way're doing really well." Really?  I feel like an idiot but I'm determined to show I'm not a useless towny tourist.  I keep going as much as I can as the landscape gets more and more amazing.  Pretty soon we are heading along Kinloch Glen, where the eagles hang out. No eagles today but views right across to Skye and the mainland, a pure blue sky and my lungs nearly bursting with the determination to keep cycling.   Every time I thought it had to get a bit easier, it just got harder.  "Don't worry, after the first four miles it's all downhill to the sea."  Four miles uphill?! We stopped now and again at the waterfalls that came down the mountain.  Rain comes straight off the tops here - clouds drift over from the Atlantic or the mainland and hit the mountain peaks, so that from a boat looking back Rum looks like the Forbidden Island it was once known as, with dark clouds swirling over the island like a whirlpool.  But if you're on the right side of the mountain, you'd never even realise it was raining.  That's what it's like today - we have even got our own weather, shared it seems only with the Rum ponies and Highland cattle, as we don't spot anyone else.

Photo (c) L Becker

Up and up we go, until eventually Mel's promise comes true and we can freewheel down the terrifyingly steep and stony track to Harris Bay.  My hands are numb with clinging to the handlebars, the wheels are bouncing off the track and I'm trying to concentrate on the road rather than get distracted by the views.  Trying to slow down to avoid a curious herd of Highland cows, it occurs to me at this late juncture that I will probably die if my bike hits a rock and I fly off....Mel is already a mile ahead down the spiralling path as she never puts the brakes on downhill - I grit my teeth and try to be as brave.

View down to Harris from the track (Photo (c) L Becker)
This is where the Bullough family are buried and where George wanted to build the castle.  Instead, only the Bullough mausoleum rests in splendid isolation at the edge of the coast: George, his father John and the lovely Lady M. are buried here.  The Atlantic rolls in, breaking on the jagged rocks and sheer cliffs.  It's like a different world to the tranquil bay of Kinloch.  For the first time I feel like I'm on holiday in a truly foreign country.  All my worries seem to have been left behind and I feel free just to sit and look out over the sea that is glittering in the sunlight.  We watch for dolphin and I spot a porpoise.  Butterflies land on us and we fall asleep.  I feel that in some indefinable way I've reached a milestone in my adventure - I'm able to move around the island without depending on anyone else, I've "conquered" part of my new world.  But the ponies and cows we meet are quick to remind us it's not just ours...I'm wary as I approach them, but they are determined to check us out. I get the feeling they know much more about us than we do about them...

Ponies small - or far away?

Ponies a bit nearer... (Photos (c) L Becker)
It's a weird feeling and makes me realise how distant things are here from my "former life". In London part of my job was trying to get other people to realise that we're part of nature - it's not an alien force we have to control but something that is integral to who and what we are, it's beautiful, it's amazing.  But here, our total dependency on natural forces (the ferry didn't come today as it was too windy...) is so obvious, that your interactions with the island take on a very personal feel - it feels like a personal achievement (so I've been told..) to be able to scale one of these mountains, or even just to cross the island on one of its exposed and risky roads. Yes, in London you're at risk from all sorts of other things - but generally danger is related to other people (will they steal my phone/job/seat on the Tube...will I get run over if I bike to work...?) not usually from the weather or animals.  Humans don't have much control over things here, at least not as much as I'm used to.  Here you can leave your bike, even your house unlocked and not worry, but a swift change of weather or a slip in the wrong place and going up on the mountains could potentially kill you (or more likely leave you waiting unromantically at the bottom of a wet and cold hill for the helicopter to arrive and winch you to safety).  It's easy to long romantically for a more "natural" way of life, when you're (too) safe in your London flat, but once you're out in the open fighting a gale to get home and the roof is threatening to cave in with the amount of water coming out of those massive clouds, or when a cow with very big and pointy horns is refusing to get out of your way on the only path, your relationship with "Nature" becomes a lot more interesting!

I'm not scary really (Photo (c) L Becker)
But in some way, it seems to make us happy...though maybe only because underneath we still feel that certainty that we do have some control.  On the other hand it's a challenge for conservationists - you want people to connect more with nature, but what happens once you've started to actually live this close to "nature" as a reality, not just visit it at weekends?  How much and what kind of "civilisation" do we really want and need?  What kind of island do we want? Who is the island "for"?  Humans don't like nature to get too out of hand; being here makes me realise how many primitive fears we still have about animals, the weather, the wilderness.  Maybe that's why some people feel an urge to cover it all in concrete or drill for oil in the Arctic. They haven't found a way to live with wildness.  I'm glad we're in a place where some of it still exists - and I will learn to get over my fear of cows!

Harris Bay (Photo (c) L Becker)

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