23 October - Alligator sporran, anyone?

Judging from my book on dinghy sailing and its helpful weather chart, I think we are currently experiencing a "Strong Breeze," where anyone foolish enough to be out in a dinghy, "should return immediately to shore, if possible with assistance".  You can see the long waves breaking out at sea and the whitecaps nearer to land, with an occasional burst of sunlight illuminating Skye and the mountain range behind Mallaig, before showers make everything invisible but the field outside. Luckily I am not in a dinghy but am attempting a bike ride in the short interval between showers of rain.  However, returning to shore (i.e. castle) proves to be a good idea as once past the Deer Gate, it becomes near-impossible to cycle against the wind, up-hill.  I can see the storm coming in from the west - if I happened to be on one of those mountains I'd be able to see it coming in from the Outer Isles...I'm wildly tempted to go on and climb one of the mountains, but I would probably fall off and cause all sorts of problems for the coastguard.  You learn not to be too impulsive here...

This late-autumn weather blows in all sorts of migrants and other wildlife surprises.  Once safely back in the flat I can see a huge flock of gannet and gulls out in the Minch, there must be hundreds if not thousands of them diving into the sea.  Last time that we saw so many, a minke whale reared up amongst them, birds and whale alike "following the fish".  I watch for a while through the telescope, but no whale this time.  Then I have to go and ice a cake.  It only takes about five minutes, but by the time I've got back, the birds are gone - where did they all go?  Closer to home, we have flocks of redwing and fieldfare arriving for winter, and yesterday I saw - finally - two dippers that were flying up and down the stream underneath "George's Bridge" where the stream comes down from Coire Dubh and flows out to sea.  Dippers are lovely birds, as big (or small) as thrushes, a dark chestnut-black all over except for their fronts which are bright white, and when they perch on the rocks they bob up and down, searching the water for shrimp before "dipping" in.  They don't migrate, so they must have been here all the time...but where? Today they are gone too.

All these creatures are tiny miracles in their own right.  Each of them so different from the others, and each of them intent on its own purposes.  I feel so lucky to be able to just share an island with them, and the longer I'm here, the more I realise that the general idea of "nature" is totally inadequate to describe the wonderful, miraculous world of life going on outside our windows all the time. But I have to admit to a secret love for the not-so-wild wildlife on Rum too.  And as the weather is so wet, it's a good time to hide in the castle with all the creatures collected here...
Some of our animals (Photo (c) L Becker)
Like most Edwardian castles, this one too has its proud display of stuffed animals and birds, collected over the years by George and Monica to show off their hunting and travelling experiences.  There is a capercaillie; more stags' heads than you can shake an antler at; several huge tarpon (the giant fish that Lady M. liked to catch off the coast of Jamaica, from the M.S. Rhouma), plus the half-tarpon that was being eaten by a shark when she caught it, in pride of place outside the ballroom; a golden eagle with a mountain hare (not sure where the hare came from; in the immortal words of Wallace and Gromit there are "No hares here"!); eider duck, far bigger than you'd think when you're looking at them on the water; foxes (again, not from here); the humming birds that died when the heating broke down; and many many other birds.  But strangely enough, no alligators.

The story goes that in the extravagant and exotic world that was Kinloch Castle back in the 1900s, Sir George (or perhaps Monica) decided that the conservatory was not exciting enough and needed alligators.  Small, fierce amphibians were therefore imported and released into the pools in the conservatory.  Unfortunately, they were not content for long to sit and admire the landscape, but decided one evening to escape and wander around the castle.  Amidst cries of horror and excitement, Sir George came to the rescue of his guests and shot the alligators before they could do any damage.  But what happened to them?  Surely, in the normal way of things back then, he would have had them stuffed to add to the collection?  We speculate as to what became of them.  Maybe they were made into shoes for Lady M.  Or handbags.  Or boots for Sir George.  Or maybe - a flash of inspiration - they became alligator sporrans!  We have no evidence, of course, but it's a nice thought...

Some more animals (Photo (c) L Becker)
I can't help loving the stuffed creatures.  There is something comforting about them, like surrounding yourself with your favourite teddy bears.  I spend most of my days on my own and I like to think of all the creatures living around us on the island; not only are they beautiful but it's very grounding seeing all these birds, animals and insects living their own, separate lives, and watching the weather and the island change from day to day.  But having the castle is fun, like having a giant doll's house to play with.  I don't go so far (yet) as to talk to the stuffed animals, but it's nice to know they are there and have been so carefully kept for posterity - they must have been loved in a way.  I wonder what will happen to them in the future.

They don't feature in the new conservation report that has just come through from Rob, our conservator, who is advising us on how we can best get the castle up to a point where we can apply for "accredited museum" status.  That would mean far more credibility when applying for funding and would give the island a real boost in terms of what it can offer visitors.  But there is so much to be done before this can happen.  Rob was horrified to know that we don't have enough electricity to make a de-humidifier work!  "You mean you don't have enough money for one?" "No, we can't get enough wattage from the hydro." "I've never come across that before," he says, looking worried.
More importantly though to start with, we need to know exactly what is there.  Apocryphal stories tell us that back in the days where SNH was not so interested in looking after the castle, visitors were allowed to roam around as long as they wanted, unsupervised, with no way of checking if they took anything with them.  Former castle managers, too, are related to have been less than scrupulous when checking the contents and some items may have "slipped into their luggage" when packing to leave. Maybe that's where the alligators went!

I'm going to make a start on the library.  And I've already been in to have a look at what's there.  It's a strange mix, seemingly untouched since Monica and George left.  I'm sure that's not true, but it feels as though they could walk in again at any moment.  There are personal things mixed up with the most boring books, and I'm intrigued as to what I find.  I understand why people can become obsessed with the castle...it's like a haunted house that is haunted by some very nice people. And their animals, of course.

Our own stuffed animals.  Less impressive, but no animals were harmed in the making of this picture.

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