We're having a dramatic week. There is a gale blowing, there are eagles and ravens seemingly everywhere, and yesterday Laura, our first-time mum-to-be on the island, went unexpectedly into labour. The first we knew of it was when we heard the helicopter circling the castle and as it sank to the ground, we could see it was the air ambulance. We all stood around hoping nothing was wrong, while Neil drove the midwife and paramedic up to the farmhouse. Some time afterwards he drove back again with Laura and Gav too. From a distance we saw Laura emerge and be strapped into a makeshift bed in the back of the helicopter - then to our dismay we realised Gav wouldn't be able to go too. Those helicopters are really tiny! It left as we waved, while Gav stood, hunched over, on his own. Some time later Gav managed to charter a boat from Knoydart to take him over, before borrowing a car to drive up to Inverness to the hospital. We hope they are both ok. That night at the Community Trust meeting in the hall, we are all subdued.
Feeling useless at not being able to help, several of us decide to go and do something about Gav and Laura's unfinished house to try to keep it weathertight before Gav comes back. So this morning, four of us met up outside the hostel and traipsed up to the croft. It was raining with a storm forecast for 4 o'clock, the wind already getting up, dark clouds over the bay. Up in the clouds a sea eagle was soaring, and as we got higher up the hill, two buzzards flew out of the trees and circled around, flapping lazily but so close we could almost have touched them. We got to the croft. The house is nearly complete - Gav and Laura were working on it all week to try to get it ready, and were nearly finished. It's a wood cabin, smelling of pine and resin and surrounded by mud and various tools and bits of plank. All the planks, concrete mix, roof coverings and sand for the foundations had to be carried up by hand from the river bank below the croft, the nearest place a van can get to. Day after day we'd seen Gav and his mates heaving huge planks up a very boggy and treacherous field, before finally, we began to see the house taking shape. Now it looks a bit sad and deserted; but it only needs the roof ridge and the side panels putting on.
It's not a tiny house. The roof is definitely at least ten foot above us. And the only big person here is "Big Dave", a gentle giant with a seam of dry Scottish wit and the ability to remain calm even when trying to stop a cement mixer falling into a six-foot hole (he tells us). The rest of us are short girls with no useful qualifications whatsoever and a tendency to start tidying up the construction site rather than actually build things. But we're fired up with the determination to help - although my determination is somewhat dampened when Dave explains that in order to put the roof panels on, we have to balance a roof ladder on our shoulders while someone else climbs up it with a big drill. The house is too tall for the roof ladder simply to rest on the ground and the ground is too boggy to use a bigger and heavier roof ladder. "Is this how you and Gav did it?" we ask incredulously. "Aye. But with less giggling," Dave drily replies.
"So", he goes on, "Are you sure you want to do it, now? No-one should try to be a hero..." "I'm not sure it's a good idea," I say. I have visions of Mel falling off the roof and the ladder collapsing on top of us, or a sharpened roof panel sliding down and causing horrendous injuries. However, the others seem keen so who am I to judge? I have no knowledge of building houses...and I've had enough of feeling like the one whom no-one picks to be in their team. And when it comes down to it, I trust the people here to know what they're doing. Mostly.
First up the ladder is Mel, while Vikki and I hold the ladder down below. Mel then grabs the roof panel as Dave passes it up to her. Then Dave climbs up the ladder as well and leans over to drill the holes, while Mel's weight at the top holds the ladder against the roof and our shoulders below support it so it doesn't slip off. My arms are killing me and Mel's leg has gone to sleep, so we hear, while Dave shouts instructions from above. "I'm just going to move my foot to the other side of the ladder!" "Ok Dave!" (weight shifts about). "I'm moving back to the next rung down!" "Ok Dave!" "Are you ok holding that panel Mel?" "Yes!" Another eagle passes overhead but I don't like to mention it at this juncture.
Finally it is done! We have tea and cake to celebrate.
"And how do you girls feel about the other side?"
The other side of the roof is much further away, as there's no decking below to stand on. Just unadulterated bog.
"It's too high for the ladder!" Mel thinks. "But we could tie ropes on the ladder and fling them over the top of the roof and hold it on the other side!" So we do. Actually, this side is easier...if anyone's going to fall off, it's better that they fall in the bog than onto the wooden planks. And just as we're about to start, Adi turns up from the next croft. Phew, another man! Now we're starting to feel like professionals. Adi and I support the ladder from below while Vikki holds the ropes on the other side...and it works!
Two more panels need to go on the ridge, but Adi makes an executive decision that it is too late. The storm is due in and you can't leave the roof half-done...the panels would all need to go on, and we don't want to risk anyone getting tired and falling off. I think partly we'd quite like to go on heroically during the storm but we know it's for the best that we don't. We drink more tea and get going, feeling like a team. Suddenly, being on Rum seems much more fun. Maybe it's the hard work. Maybe it's the fact that I proved I'm not so useless as I thought. Or maybe it's just doing something with other people that works and is a success.