Some sad news, and our reflections on it

Today has been a very cold, grey day, a day for introspection - or not, depending on what your introspection may lead to.  I'm one of the lucky ones; I've noticed that the "indoorness" of winter days here does give you the chance to become more creative in some ways, not distracted by the spectacular natural world outside; things rise to the surface that might otherwise have remained squashed down by day to day life.  Sometimes a good thing; sometimes less good.

So, what's been happening?  I only started writing this post to keep my hand in, feeling that "absolutely nothing" was the probable answer, but realised as I did so that in fact there's been a lot going on - in many different ways and on many different levels.

A sense of some progress on the island has been marked by large bits of machinery arriving to clear the site for our new Bunkhouse, a funded project aimed at providing community-owned, up to date accommodation for visitors; it will be right by the campsite with views out over the bay and should have beds for up to around 20 people (  The diggers and tractors can be heard night and day, and ominous-looking smoke signals arise from the shore road where the huge tree trunks are being burned (although these are only a tiny proportion of all the trees on that site, thank goodness). Anyway, the new Project Manager for the Bunkhouse came over to get to know the island, and got stuck on Rum on his very first outing, as no boat came today.  We were all rather incensed by this as we feel we've survived the gales and storms of December only to be refused a boat in much more "clement" weather, although of course, it's better to be safe than sorry.  However, Rum people love a gossip and speculation abounds that it is a new "wussy" skipper who won't brave the admittedly choppy waters.  "It was far worse than this when we came over before Christmas!" we complain, then speculate further that this is precisely why the former skipper has gone elsewhere - traumatised by the sudden turn at right angles out of Muck's dodgy waters and into the coastline of Rum with a westerly gale trying to shove the boat in exactly the opposite direction.  I remember it well - at least my stomach does.

So, a freezing cold and wet day, with much more rain forecast for the week (at one point it was saying 1.6 CENTIMETRES for Sunday) and with no ferry to brighten things up, we instead lit an absolutely enormous fire at 3.00 pm, which is burning fit to bust as I write, making my face glow and keeping my knees warm, although the back of my neck is still cold!  Mel has gone to see if the contractors are alright for the evening; the Bunkhouse contractors are a new gang.  Actually, that should be "contractor" in the singular; his mates have all scarpered already.  He works long hours, possibly because he wants to get it over with: "In my last job I was put up at a four-star hotel and had all my meals cooked for me!"  "Is there no TV?" Abandoned by his maters, he is all alone in the hostel, which is STILL leaking despite everything Mel and her team can do.  Billy has promised to mend it, but isn't back yet from his break. And there is no money to sort the rooms out - as yet.
So the contractors were a bit desperate.  One in particular was so dismayed by the weather, lack of TV and lack of - well, anything really that he's used to, that he waited for the school boat (a tiny little ferry bringing two of the teenagers back to the island for the weekend) and asked the skipper to take him back to the mainland. 

On days like today I can't blame him.  It seems to be about eight weeks max that we can enjoy Rum without feeling a pressing need to escape and see other places, other people, especially familiar people; people we love and who love us.  I am still not able to get to grips with the total lack of sociable-ness the majority of islanders display (there are lovely exceptions and you know who you are), and was quite disconcerted when I realised last week that our newest resident, Debs, who has just moved up to join her husband, was the first person except for the Goddards to actually ask me to "pop in whenever I felt like it" for a cup of coffee/tea/something stronger.  This affected me more than I like to admit, as  I realised how lonely I had been feeling.  But I know it to be a temporary situation, I am luckier than some.  

Loneliness can go so much deeper.  Our most recent copy of West Word, our local community newspaper, told us that a resident of neighbouring Eigg had been found dead, and we understand that he killed himself on New Year's Day.  This terrible news - terrible for the islands as well as for his family - can't be glibly explained; I don't know the reasons why he killed himself, although I've since found out that suicide is more common in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK and more common in the Highlands (as a proportion of the population) than anywhere else apart from Glasgow.  Men are at particular risk, and so are people who are poor, suffer from addiction, have lost their jobs or simply live somewhere where there are high levels of deprivation (  Whatever the reason, it prompted sombre reflections from other islanders writing in the same paper, our very own Fliss bravely noting that while outsiders may envy us for the beauty of our landscape and apparently idyllic communities, these cannot be taken for granted and may conceal hidden isolation, pain and loneliness. 

My questions were of a different nature, my first thought being, well where would you go if you did need help?  We are so lacking not only in medical, but also emotional and psychological support resources up here in the Highlands; and on the Small Isles we have only one locum (there was a three month gap between his last two visits to Rum).  Mallaig itself currently has only one GP to cover its entire catchment area (around 3000 people), despite ongoing attempts to woo doctors to the practice.  Nick Clegg's statement yesterday that mental health services in the UK must be transformed so that mental distress is given as much help and as much funding as physical illness, only drove the message home.  Like many people I know I have suffered from depression and anxiety in the past (and am always vulnerable to anxiety), and apart from one very unusual exception, the service I received from the NHS was appalling, to the point where I would find it very difficult to seek out a doctor if it should happen again.  One lady on a Radio 4 programme I was listening to described her experience of being passed from doctor, to A&E, to the police, and back to the doctor, with none of them having the time or understanding to actually listen to what she needed.   And my experience is that doctors rarely have time or expertise to deal with psychological illness; their attitude often seems to be "if we can't throw a pill at it it doesn't exist."  Only last year did the NHS in Scotland finally put in place a more coherent strategy for addressing suicide and depression (, and services are just not joined up, even if they are publicised, which I haven't noticed so far.

The problems with suicide in Scotland have been known for a long time, so why does it take so long for things to change? Yes, rates have dropped since the introduction of the "Choose Life" project in 2002, but a recession can and does change that, with job losses and the resulting isolation and anxiety meaning far more people become vulnerable (I'm not making this up, have a look at the Samaritans website for more stats if you like that kind of thing). I did some research and found that searching for "mental health provision Mallaig" and similar, led to a page telling me to get in touch with my GP (what GP? see above) or dial 999 in the case of emergency, and failing this, the Samaritans.  There was a page called "Who can I turn to?" but I found it addressed only physical problems... Why is there is no intermediate kind of intervention; no centres where you can just go to explore the options, talk to someone who understands what is going on?  Why is our model of care always medical in the first instance, even though the new strategy notes that interventions must become "person-centred" and "compassionate" to be effective?  (And seeing as we're in 2014, not 1914, one would think that being compassionate and "person-centred" towards people in distress would be a given...but clearly not.)

There are other ways.  In Berlin there is an outstanding model of care known as the "Krisenberatung" (literally "crisis advice") - these are centres dotted about the city, each staffed by a small team of medical and psychological experts.  Their role is not to judge or to medicate but to act as a net to catch those in danger of falling further into the psychological pit of despair, whether this be due to everyday anxieties, circumstances such as poverty or bereavement, a new situation (e.g. marriage breakdown, loss of a job) which someone can no longer cope with alone, or underlying disorders such as addiction, psychosis, schizophrenia or paranoia.  The team listens to you, and can advise on next steps; if needed they can refer to a psychiatric hospital, a group or a clinic where further help can be obtained.  They are free and open to all, and operate seven nights a week, that is, as an "out of hours" service for those who cannot or don't want to talk to their GP.  They are funded by a partnership between the city government, the health system, and a number of charities such as the German equivalent of the Samaritans. I used this service on several occasions for various reasons (none of which required medical treatment as such) and was always overwhelmed by the team's compassion, common-sense and use of non-medical language to describe what was going on; their ability to engage with each individual, not just try to fit those individuals into a textbook description.  This is so lacking in the UK; and yet, as the Radio 4 lady pointed out today, it's the lack of joined up care that is costing money, not its provision.

Maybe things are better in London where there is a greater number of people who work with different models of health and wellbeing, and more support groups.  What is certain is that up here, where it is needed so desperately, there is very little help available (or if there is, why isn't it emblazoned in ten-foot-high letters on every information board and shop window?).  One can easily feel that there is no-one to help, unless you are lucky enough to be able to talk to family or friends, which isn't always the case; sometimes people have no friends or family, sometimes they don't want to burden them, sometimes family and friends are not equipped to deal with the level of suffering that they are confronted with.  Sometimes people don't know themselves what's wrong.  Sometimes no-one ever discusses it; as on Rum where there is a bit of a culture that it's wrong to find things hard or scary; everyone knows who's alcoholic, or may guess at who's otherwise struggling, but how to talk about it?   

We've been asked to give our views as to what we'd like to see in the way of medical provision up in Lochaber.  Well, my vote will be for more support.  It doesn't have to be a GP costing £75k a year, though that might be nice.  Even more helpful would be some joining up of people who can provide a variety of services: support for carers, help with addiction, preventative screening through nurse clinics, wellbeing classes, forums where people can talk about their experience of life up here and what happens when you don't fit into the traditional community or don't feel that you do.

So I will get on and write a letter now.  But everyone out there - if you get a chance to tell the government and the NHS what you think, please do. And a final word - none of this takes away from the beauty and wonder of the Highlands, or people's love for their communities; it would just be nice to have a little bit more support to be able to enjoy it.

The Pig and Poultry Gazette, vol. 1

The other name for this post was going to be "Turkey Attacks!" but sshhhh....I don't want them to know I'm talking about them.

Nic and Ady and family were going off island for nine days, so asked if anyone could help look after their animals while they were away: four pigs (at time of asking) and assorted poultry, i.e. countless chickens, 6 turkeys, 8 geese and some ducks.  Somewhat nervously I volunteered - that was on a sunny, blue-sky day on a cheerful walk around the nature trail.  Actually looking after the animals included, as I'd expected, at least one day of torrential downpours, gales and falling over in the mud (me, not the animals).  All par for the course for hardy croft owners and my respect for Nic and Ady knows no bounds.  There is no let-up; come what may creatures must be fed and watered, and God knows this winter has been enough to test any crofter, however resilient.

Barbara, Tom and Piglet
The pigs were relatively straightforward, although just before Nic and Ady left the island I bumped into Ady and found out the penultimate piglet had had to be slaughtered slightly earlier than planned...Tom, its dad, had been getting too interested and trying to mate with it. It's never boring living with animals!
On my first day, all three pigs - Tom, Barbara and the last remaining piglet - were lined up at the top of their pen staring down anxiously towards the path, waiting for someone, oh, anyone to come and feed them...they'd been deserted for at least two hours! A noisy, joyous, if reproachful grunting greeted my arrival and the three of them hurtled heavily down the bank towards the gate where the feed is kept.  I'd also brought a bag of food scraps which I tipped over the gate, and within seconds, the pigs were mulching around in it, eating fast, but getting distracted by my throwing pig-nuts into the pen.  I attempted to scratch them behind the ears, but only Tom appreciated this treatment - Barbara reacted with suspicion and grunted at me, and I couldn't actually reach the piglet as he was too fast.  So I had to content myself with chatting to them and filling up their water by cunningly employing a stick to reach the tipped-over trugs without having to actually get into the pen...

Before the pigs, I'd run the gamut of a reception committee of poultry, also lined up to see who was coming up the path; except for one very slow chicken, who turned up late to the feed looking extremely perturbed. (Interesting behavioural observation: As the days passed, generally it was the chickens that noticed me first, while the geese, turkeys and ducks only seemed to catch on after the chickens had already taken up their place around the feed bin.  But there was one group of chickens that was always a little bit slower than the rest and on my way to the pigs I would bump into them hurrying as fast as they could down the muddy slopes, clearly annoyed that they'd overlooked feeding time yet again...)

Turkeys approaching...
On the first occasion I managed to scatter their grain without mishap; they were so intrigued by this new routine that they clearly forgot to worry too much about the actual food.  It was a different story a couple of days later, when I donned my hardiest waterproofs and headed down the stony trail towards the croft.  It was raining and I had to lift up the heavy stone on top of the bin, set it down carefully and then get the feed out.  As usual, the chickens were gathered waiting and as I started to scatter the feed, I heard the sound of the geese and turkeys catching on. Those turkeys are total drama queens.  There is no other word for it.  With squawks of outrage as if to say"Why didn't you tell us you were coming?!" they run down the croft, flapping their wings and lowering their heads as if going into battle.  And on this occasion they were!  Just as I had a cup of feed in my hand, the oldest and biggest male turkey, his blue wattles quivering with determination, came up and started pecking the bag and trying to get into it.  I fended him off with the lid of the bin, but he kept coming back and, as I bent down to pick up the stone, he flew at me with an especially loud squawk!  I'm ashamed to say I did not preserve my dignity...I yelled at him and then inadvertently sat down in the mud.  I tried to tell myself I had scared him off, but I think it may have been the other way round...
...getting closer...
Returning humiliated to the castle I explained dolefully that I had been attacked by a turkey...sadly it only made people laugh.  The next day, I made sure I practised my assertiveness training and despite the torrential rain, assumed an air of competence and ability to deal with any poultry...but I didn't hang around long with the feeding.

Be afraid!
The very last day I spent a bit of extra time with the pigs and was sorry to be ending my shift.  It has been a great experience and reminds me of how nice it is to have some responsibilities here for creatures other than myself, and how much of a commitment it is too...just as over Christmas, knowing I had to look after the chickens kept me going through the awful gales...I had to overcome my fear of the dark to go out and shut them in after dusk, 70 mph gusts or not, and returned with a great sense of triumph - not to mention the pleasure of listening to them clucking away contentedly in their straw.

We have now been offered chickens by Jinty, who is trying to rationalise her large flock by giving some away.  Caution has to be observed though, apparently it's important to have three chickens rather than two as then they are less likely to fight (they can't work out the pecking order when there are three...a bit like humans maybe), and the type of chicken is also important!  Ali up at the cottage has made the mistake of taking on small black chickens next to the large white ones she already has and the small ones are getting bullied.  We are looking for henhouses and already looking forward to fresh eggs.  It is not too much of a commitment, either, because everyone on the island likes having chickens, so if either or both of us are away, there will always be someone to look after them.

And in other news this week:  The rain earlier in the week caused the burn to rise by around 18 inches in just one day, but by the next day, it had fallen again.  I am still not used to how quickly the weather can change here.  No-one has removed the tree trunks from the river yet and my enquiry as to when it might happen met with the response, "I'm sure Dave or Rhys or somebody will remove the logs when they need them."  There is no such thing as a deadline on Rum...
The drama of getting fuel here continues. On Tuesday, someone finally came off the ferry who had a licence to drive the tanker...we were meeting the boat and so we saw him get off, but then once we were home, watched the pier mystified as the tanker did not move for at least an hour (Yes, we do watch the pier on boat days to see what's going on!)
Then I saw Sean turn up at Mel's office in the tractor, so rang her to get the news.
"The tanker man is too fat to get into the tanker and he doesn't fit behind the steering wheel."
So in the end Sean did the driving just as he would have done in the past, "supervised" by the tanker man, who got to have a ride on the tractor and a look at the castle, before going back on the boat a couple of hours later.  Our first visitor of the season!
He was followed closely by our second, an Italian man with a carrier bag and an iPad, who wandered around the village consulting his iPad at all times and looked at us suspiciously when we tried to get him to remove his headphones so we could talk to him.  But he did seem to have a purpose:
"The castle, is it open?"
"Yes, there will be a tour at 12.30."
"Very good."
So at 12.30 Mel waited at the castle for 15 minutes without him turning up.  Where was he? Where did he go between arriving at the village with his iPad, and departing from it two hours later, still clutching his iPad and carrier bag and not looking us in the eye...? We will never know.  But still - a bit like the first swallow - the first tourist has arrived.

January brings the snow...

And it does!
What a strange new year it has been so far...rather than the usual big bang of New Year's Eve followed by a reluctant and grumpy head back to work, this has been more of a slow burner gradually easing our way into 2014.

The storms are gone for now, but it's January alright, with the mountains on both sides of the Minch powdered and in some cases blanketed over with snow and hail. Billy's gang is back bravely mending the turrets in the iciest weather, back from their cosy (we hope) mainland homes and making do instead with a wood fire, endless cups of tea and old copies of the Sun and the Press and Journal in the old hostel in the evenings; when they've gone we raid the common room for newspapers to light our fire and catch up on month-old Scottish news; mostly stories about the independence vote, trouble on the A82 and Gaelic gigs in Aberdeen, not to forget the all-important puzzle page. 

Poor castle!
While Billy and the guys move from turret to turret on their cherry-pickers and ladders, we move from room to room, seeking out the warmest spots and dragging up heavy bags of coal to keep the fire going, and burning the old Christmas tree to give the room a smell of pine rather than soot. Cries of "are you trying to smoke us out?!" come from the roof where Billy is trying to re-point the chimney and after dark an eery light shines from under the tarpaulins where work carries on until well into the night.  But despite the cold, the days feel lighter already, the evenings are starry clear and the skies often blue.  The storm clouds have gone and we can see Jupiter and all four of its moons through our telescope, Orion is just above the horizon. It feels like a foretaste of spring, but will another, harder winter kick in after this short reprieve?

People are gradually meandering back to the island after the Christmas break.  There must now be around 30 people again, which feels like quite a lot after it was just about 10 over New Year.  I have signed up to look after pigs next week when the Goddards go off for nine days to the mainland; my first pig-keeping experience (and possibly my last depending on what happens!).  Rivers and burns are running high after our weeks of gales, and there is evidence everywhere of the damage the winds have done.

Stopping to greet Martin "The Deer Man" back from his two-month break (now starting another stint of month-long isolation at the Kilmory research station), we learn that deer have been found dead of the cold, which isn't usual in early January.  The sea has come right up over the shore road and dumped bricks and seaweed everywhere; the road to Kilmory and Harris is full of big stones washed or blown down from the mountains, trees have fallen into the river and ground that felt relatively stable is now marshy bog, as I found when I got lost in the wood across the way. That was an experience; on a short trip to feed a neighbour's cat at New Year, I decided to take what I hoped would be a short cut, through the once-Japanese garden (Lady Monica's).  From the castle, you can just make out abandoned statues and old rose arbours in the thickets of the wood, but nothing else is visible.  

Into the woods
To get to it, you cross a short, high wooden bridge painted red and spanning the normally sedate stream that runs down to the sea.  At the moment, though, the stream is a torrential flood, crashing over the rocks and heading down to the sea urgently, as if its life depended on it - the bridge is a slippery few steps above it. Nervously, I wonder if it's been damaged by the gales and if it's actually safe to walk on; I've never seen anyone actually cross it before, though Katharina did stand on it.  That was in summer, though.  Oh well, I'm on it now.  Having crossed it with caution, I am on the edge of the secret garden, towering rhododendrons to my left, the river to my right; surely it'll be easy to find the way, if I just keep the river on my right side, Vikki's house will be over...there. No, there.  No - wait a minute...By this time I've been making my clumsy way not along the river, as the ground there has become a large, soggy pool, but around the bog, which means going from log to log, tuft of grass to tuft of grass, balancing while holding on to the jutting black branches of fallen trees...and into the wood, where I realise I no longer have any sense of direction. It's raining hard and the rain is freezing cold, making it hard to see, but I get a sense of light over to the north and make for it.  Apart from the rain, it's uncannily silent and I can't see the castle, or the sea, or any signs of human habitation whatsoever.  I can only have been walking (or jumping) for about ten minutes, but it feels like I've been gone for hours.

The light is's suddenly open fields, which means I've come way too far...I'm on the edge of the fields below Hallival and Askival, where eventually, there must be the pony track to Dibidil...but this is real swamp now, with icy water below the clumps of slippery grass.  I'm not mad enough to venture out on that, but where should I make for?  Back?  Turning around I realise I can't make out which way I came...the tangle of dead trees, huge green rhododendrons and the occasional holly give me no help whatsoever.  I try to think clearly; surely if I'm on the edge of the fields, Vikki's house must be back and further inland, and I haven't crossed the river again, so logically it must still be behind me and now to my right, so if I go diagonally right, that must be more or less ok.

I am now getting nervous as it seems to be getting even wetter underfoot and I still can't see any houses.  The wind is roaring in the trees above and I hear twigs snapping all around me.  I begin to get the unpleasant sensation that the trees and bushes are crowding up behind me as I go through, so that I can't go back.  Also, my childish fear of being followed or jumped out on is taking over...I know it is stupid, so I try to be braver, then tell myself that is even more stupid as there's no need to be brave when there's no danger.  Just, on this island sometimes anything seems possible...there is no reason why people shouldn't be lost for days if they do get lost.  Why would anyone look for me here, I think?  Tragic visions of myself cold and hungry (although at least not thirsty) come to me and I have to laugh.  Surely it can't be long now.  Then I come to another stream.  Huh?  Where did that come from?  Well, there's nothing for it; I have to ford it, I'm not going back.  Climb every mountain...
A lone survivor in the secret garden
I'm embarrassed to admit that at this point I'm close to panic in its truest sense, the trees, darkness, rain and invisibility of anything else - not even birds are around, they're sensibly hiding from the rain - making me feel that I could have stepped out of time.  Maybe I have, and I'm lost in the secret garden for ever. The stream is deep and comes to the top of my boots, but it's not too wide and so despite the strength of the water I'm not afraid of being swept away - anyway it's better than staying in the limbo land of the wood.  I'm over!  Still unsure of where to go, but trying to keep in the same direction, I crash forwards and there, suddenly, as if coming out of nowhere, is Lyon Cottage. I stop to breathe more calmly and look back; I still can't make out how I got here.  But my sense of direction obviously wasn't as bad as I feared; I made it, although I'm soaked and covered in mud.

Knowing I've been lost but found my way out has an exhilarating effect.  Yes, it has an obvious symbolism for how things are on the island anyway...but being actually lost is quite a bit more scary than being symbolically lost, where you know that at least theoretically, you can symbolically find yourself again as well.  When you are actually lost, or think you could be, there's no guarantee of that.  Having emerged victorious, like a mini Jennifer Lawrence in the Scottish remake of The Hunger Games (24 Tributes fight over a lone haggis and a bottle of Baileys...the survival kit a pair of wellies and a can of Tennents), I knew it was only a tiny moment of being lost and nothing had really happened.  But I still felt strangely proud of myself, and in awe at how strange the island is.  Just a few feet away from "normality" (contractors and tractors, Co-op shopping on a ferry, chickens clucking) is a little world where a once-ordered garden is going back to the wild, you can be totally invisible, and the strength of the rivers and the wind can be genuinely frightening (did I mention that the gale was still blowing at this point and any of the trees could have come down...?).  But this isn't a bad thing...

The only way is up!
This experience had such an impact on me that I wrote a short story about it, and I realised that I think fear, in some circumstances, has often been something that spurs me on, has been a vital experience. Fear is probably the wrong word, though - there's an element of being afraid, but it's more to do with coming up against something bigger and more powerful and feeling totally in awe of it. Similarly the other day when I pushed myself and my bike up a huge hill just to see the scary weather coming in over Harris - the awesome light and the gale pushing through.   

I've had experiences here that made me anxious or even upset, as well as ones that are exciting and beautiful, but the two that have affected me the most were situations where I was alone, in situations I sought out but still couldn't anticipate.  Firstly when I went up the mountain on my own and my strange encounter with a giant sea eagle circling round me as if I was its next prey.  Secondly getting lost in a tiny wood where I had no idea how to get out, or even where I was.  In both situations my natural reaction was to run away, but I was also awed by these encounters with the island itself in its raw form - what it's like to be just on the island with no other humans around, no hiding places and to feel my own ridiculous panic in a situation that really doesn't call for panic at all.  I mean - I've been walking in the countryside all my life. Nonetheless, I did feel panicky in a way I know some people feel on the Tube, or when faced with an A-Z and asked to find Tottenham Court Road or Wandsworth.  Guess it just shows what a town mouse I am, but these are the experiences that oddly, made me start to feel closer to the island; not such a stranger after all.  Though I will be back in London and happily clutching my A-Z for a while soon, I know I will keep these experiences close in my memory and draw on them when I'm scared of other, more rational things...

Winter companions