Are you a chiff-chaff or an eagle? You decide...

Life has been looking up.  We have two of our oldest friends, Elaine and Lukas, here to visit, which is magically like being on holiday ourselves, lots of walking in the sunshine, cooking special meals and enjoying each other's company in front of a lovely blazing fire, watching birds and being by the sea.  It makes me realise what a special place Rum can be and how lucky we are to experience this utter quiet and solitude when we need to, how amazing it is to be able to walk for 2 hours and find ourselves at the top of an admittedly quite small mountain, but a mountain nonetheless...

The season has changed, and we all change with it.  Leaving winter behind and moving into spring is an emotional time it seems on the island - people open up, talk more about what they've left behind, what they might need in the future, how they struggle and what things they love here.  Some are contemplating leaving as it has just been too hard, while others make new plans.  Really, we are very like birds - the evenings are light, the days are warm(ish), and now instead of huddling inside, we congregate outdoors chattering away, some of us newly migrated to the island, some of us on our way elsewhere, some hardy settlers who don't go anywhere.

But the main thing is that spring is definitely here, with the first chiff-chaff arriving, daffodils in flower and new life pushing up everywhere, even in our seed boxes where the broccoli is winning the race for first seedlings of our collection!  We sat outside at the back of the castle on the year's first really warm day, planting lots of things to put out in the polytunnel now it is finally up, while thrushes and chickens scrabbled around hoping to get some seed left-overs - no chance, we hurried them (the seeds) all back inside to keep warm as the nights are still extremely cold.  And the nights are clear too - we went out one evening with our telescope and Lukas' special "sky app" which helps you identify the constellations and planets on a little lighted-up screen rather than peering through the night to identify them on our plastic star chart.  We could see Venus, Jupiter and Mars, and Saturn should be visible now too.  The castle was just a dark silhouette in front of the night sky and once you looked away from the torches, you could see nothing at all but stars.  But the castle's emergency lights are always on and it was comforting to return to it and walk through the Great Hall at night, knowing this is our home at least for a time.

Eagle magnets and intrepid explorers..above Coire Dubh
Elaine and Lukas seem to be eagle magnets, and on one walk we saw an eagle three times, once flying lower than we were walking.  That was a really special walk - up to Coire Dubh and then over the "lip" into the actual coire, walking along the little stream and crossing it to join the path up and over the ridge into totally different territory.  Once up the steep hill, we were suddenly on a plateau looking up to the bulk of Hallival on the right and down to an earthy and huge dried-up river-bed to our left, dropping steeply down the mountain.  We wondered what it was, but it seems it's not an ancient geological phenomenon but a newly cut valley caused by the massive amount of rainfall and rocks washing down over the past months.  We felt and looked tiny in this weird landscape, skirting the steep valley and looking down to a lower plateau where the Shearwater Hut is summer Lesley leads walks up here in the dark (!) to listen out for shearwaters and their babies making troll noises in the night.  Across from us, we could see the Nevis mountain range covered in snow and the distant sight of Eigg seeming small in the big blue sea - a trick of the height we were at made it seem as though Eigg was below us, although we weren't so very high - around 450m.

Top of the world

Looking down - Hallival to the right, Eigg ahead, river valley below
Anyway, we set off down the rocky track and eventually came to the edge, where we stopped for a picnic.  The wind was biting and chill although the sun was warm.  As we set off again, a sea eagle glided silently past below us and incredibly fast.  They seem need no wing-beats at all to get them from one side of the island to another.

I'm an eagle!
It was the first time I had been up so high on Rum and made the island feel very different.  With the sunny weather and the ability to climb (!), it starts to feel as though I could actually be adventurous, roaming off-piste as well as on the not very pathlike paths.  For the first time I felt the call of being high up, not conquering but getting to know the mountains and the tracks.  Some of which are hardly tracks at all but places where deer and goats have trampled down the ground - but following them seems to work, if they can do it, we can!  (Well, that's what we say when we are getting lost, anyway.) We did another walk the next day around Long Loch - the first time I have been really inland, where you have to walk through knee-high grass never knowing where a sudden hole in the ground might open up (walking sticks help to make sure you don't fall in them!).  We saw nothing but huge woolly feral goats, staring at us curiously as we made our cautious way around the loch, following deer tracks we think, and back again to the bridge to cycle home.  

Long Loch - Skye to the right...

...and another eagle
So now it is back to more normal life but with the determination to get to know the island better.  I am otherwise immersed in domesticity - baking what seems like an average of a cake a day, for our visitors and for Mel's Familiarisation Event on Rum (a very nice event where visitors from other tourist attractions came to get to know the island, albeit mainly in the rain), and for birthdays. The Friends of Kinloch Castle were here and "entertained" in the hostel, so we got to know the lovely people who are among the more obsessed fans of our castle (if only there were more of them!).  They have cleared the borders, done lots of cleaning and generally been nice to us, making me realise how much I miss having older people around - our community is generally quite young.  Debs and I are going to take on the tea-shop twice a week, and I am looking forward, somewhat nervously, to providing tea and cake not only for visitors but for us!  Then we have been building the polytunnel and I have been determinedly digging up the ground, even though it is backbreaking work at times.  But the pleasure of being in the walled garden on a sunny afternoon and hearing nothing but birdsong and the occasional Calmac signal as the Loch Nevis comes into the pier, makes up for it all. 

It is strange to be so domestic in such an undomestic setting.  But thinking about it I have realised that I am a lot like most of the women here, even though at times I've felt so different and alien, not a mum, a crofter, a scientist or "islander" (not even a chicken owner!).  But we do have things in common.  We all seem to have this mix of being very "domesticated" (cooking, baking, gardening, "doing crafts", painting etc) with being very adventurous, dreams of practical self-sufficiency being I suppose akin to dreams of being "outside" normal communities and places.  I reckon far more women have this need for real - not just financial - independence and freedom than we let on. Maybe we're not so domesticated or it's the wrong word - maybe we are more trying to make homes in unhomely (unheimlich) places (the German word "unheimlich" literally means "unhomely" but also "spooky" or "weird", so seems quite fitting...). I know for me it recalls nothing more than being about eight years old and "making camps" outside, running about wildly with the gang but always coming back to the hidden places we had made for ourselves.  Perhaps part of us would like to be wild, but part of us likes to feel we can make friends with the wildness instead.  How possible is this?  Still not sure and nor is everyone else, it seems. But if I've learnt nothing else here, it's that things evolve slowly, the important things anyway.  And the other thing I've learnt?  When the sun is out, things seem so much more possible.  

Our Garden - the story so far

Before (left and back) and After (right). Our three raised beds - thanks Mike!
Nice fork!

Bet Lady Monica never went out looking like this.

Ready to plant!

It's Spring! And so much to tell..

Sign of spring (1)

Well, where to start? So much has happened in my comparatively short absence...fears of boredom as I returned simply can't be justified, as there have been dramas, comings and goings and news at every turn. 
Eigg (left) and Rum from the train

I came back on what seemed to be the first day of Spring, although the day that preceded it was anything but.  Travelling from a hot and sunny Cambridge with blossoming trees, blue skies, cheery tea-shops and flip-flopping students, 500 (?) miles north to a freezing cold Glasgow my heart sank as I arrived at Queen Street and was greeted by sleet, rain and hordes (well dozens) of drunken Scots who had been to see the rugby.  Slept for four hours on the train, and just managed to download "Call the Midwife" (final chance to download anything before island internet kicks in!) before falling into my Premier Inn bed and instant sleep.  One huge breakfast and a beautiful train ride later I was ready to board the ferry...the sun was shining, the sea calm and blue and birds singing away as if winter had never happened.  The sky and sea were so clear, everything was reflected like glass; a far cry from the "keep your eyes shut and pray" journey last time around.  It was lovely to arrive at Rum and see Mel waiting, and walk along the shore road to the accompanying sound of blackbirds, robins and who knows what else (haven't had a chance to check yet!) singing their little hearts out and catching up on each other's news, while I caught up with ours.

Rum...from the boat, 10th March
Since then, my enthusiasm has taken the normal knocks (the internet is soooooooooo slow! the rain is soooooooooooo horrible! etc etc...) but a general sense of excitement is still alive in there, somewhere! So what has been happening? Get on with the gossip, I hear you say...

Tea-shop ructions as Claire gave an ultimatum to the rest of the island about having sole use of the community hall (our only public space)...we said no, and so she has pulled out for good!  Who will provide this vital service now? (See below for some ideas!) The new playground equipment for the children has arrived and is being constructed next to the shop...giant swings and what looks like a survival course climbing frame are first up for use! Debs has started a spinning group - not cycling but actual spinning, some lovely wools are now being produced.  The Ranger has resigned, and a new one is being sought.  Our poor castle has suffered so much from the perpetual rain in February that the ceilings are now buckling ("Just run quickly through the hall and you'll be fine").  

New roof on the hostel (behind the trees) and invisible new roof on the turrets!
The hostel is FIXED, and the roof no longer leaking...Billy has created a brand new one, with an actual slope!  Dave has finally started mending the roads now that the rain has stopped, and several potholes have vanished - it will be strange not to fall in them every night after dark, but apparently some are still irreparable as the rain has just gone too deep.  And it's not only the fabric of the island that the continual rain and darkness of February affected;  February proved just too much for some people and certain set-tos resulting from carelessly worded emails led to an unspecified "police incident", now all peacefully resolved. 

Sign of spring (2) - turkeys displaying
But although today it's raining again, we know that Spring is here.  It's not only the daffodils finally pushing through to the light, or the birdsong, or the turkeys attempting to get it on up at the croft. It's something about the fact that it's now light until 7 pm rather than 3 pm, the way we can walk around the village without wearing three hats and five scarves, a birthday celebration that takes place in the light not in the dark.  A sense of new beginnings.  Which everyone needs in spring, but we need it perhaps just that little bit more than those sun-spoiled Cambridge types. Being away has given me a bit more perspective and it's so clear from people's stories that winter is just really, really tough here.  We're not kind enough to ourselves.  We didn't create a social space for ourselves over winter, didn't continue the Sunday tea-shops (or any tea-shop), didn't think about how we might deal practically with the undoubted fact that the word isolation comes from the Latin word for island.  How can we make it better?

Everyone has their own story.  Gav and Laura and their new baby are living in a friend's room, the weather has been too awful for them to finish their croft, and they wonder how long their resilience will hold out, much as they want their new life here to work.  Debs is new to the island like me and, also like me, is here because of her partner's job, spending much of the time on her own at home; self-sufficiency and "being creative" is all very well, but...One couple's marriage has (we hope only temporarily) broken down.  Other people struggle with accommodation issues.  Yet on the other hand, this can be such a wonderful place to live.  We talked yesterday (during an all-day Six Nations TV marathon - yeah!) about how we could stop being so isolated, have more fun, enjoy things more.  

I came back full of positive thoughts, ideas to make things work better, things I can do myself to help out.  What stops me?  Fear that nothing will come back from others - this is a real issue, so often the impulses I have had here and the suggestions I've made have met with no response whatsoever - more daunting perhaps than an outright "No." Or perhaps I've set the bar too high. This isn't like at work, where you can ask people for things and they are bound to help you if they can.  No-one here has to do anything, if they don't want, and many people are busy enough already.

However, it's amazing what just talking to people can do.  Chatting to Debs in her sunny kitchen over lovely coffee (the first time I've been to someone's house for coffee!) we hatched a plan to take on the tea-shop for two days a week - daunting but exciting.  And also, what is even more daunting, to try to set up a coffee morning (or afternoon) one day a week.  A drop-in?  A book group? Or just a place to sit and drink excellent coffee (very much lacking on Rum!)?  I now have to work up the courage to actually ask people!  It sounds so odd, but it can feel as though the onus is entirely on you not only to ask a question, but to provide the answer yourself too.  

There are many things that need doing besides this.  The archiving.  The tea-shopping. The Rum guide-book which I am applying to write.  Keeping the flat clean (now it's Spring we can see all the dust!).   Ordering food.  Keeping an eye on those dodgy ceilings.  Plus, we are now starting a garden; this is a long-held ambition, and the outgoing Ranger has very kindly bequeathed us his raised beds in the back of the walled garden...we have started digging them over, but I can see there's going to be a lot more work involved...

But I feel sure that having some kind of island get-together, a daytime chance to sit and just chat, is the most important. Probably because it's the most important for me.  Hell, if no-one comes along I'll just eat all of those cakes myself, and what will I have lost?  Nothing really.  But the fear of failure really can be more than just worry; it can stop you doing absolutely everything.  So we have to overcome it.  Or nothing will ever change!

Sign of spring (3): smiling!