20th May - What lies beneath...and above

Rum in the rain - still beautiful
Our visitors came, which was lovely - besides the pleasure of their company, we got to read a paper that wasn't the Press and Journal or the Scottish Daily Express (thanks, contractors), for the first time in months! (Though the puzzles page of the P&J is WAY better than the one in the Guardian, plus I'm now convinced that Ottolenghi is actually part of the puzzle page. Can see no other reason for his totally incomprehensible recipes, which make less sense to me than Sudoku). And we got to exchange all sorts of news and views about London (where?), Rum and Elsewhere (is there one?).  For our visitors, they got to see Rum at probably its most extreme spring-like state. The weather wasn't bright and sunny most of the time, and I wished it hadn't rained so much (sorry!), but the green of the island gets more incredible every day.  Christening our naughty deer "Hamish and Angus", our visitors spent much time watching them graze untroubled on the lush paddock in front of our castle.
Angus and Hamish
But they hoped to see even wilder wildlife.  And luckily, they weren't disappointed.  The very first evening, as we stared out at the still, blue waters, we saw a strange splashing, like a giant fish twisting out of the water. "Hang on...you can't see fish jumping from here, it's too far."  I grabbed the telescope and yelled "Dolphin!" But it wasn't even a dolphin...Launching itself up from the sea was a minke whale, lunging up to catch whatever it had spotted above.  I could hardly believe it, but it seems minkes do occasionally - if rarely - breach entirely clear of the water, although it seems when you watch them their bodies would be too heavy to leap so far.  Even with the naked eye you could see the shape, its black body sinuous in the water, then the whole narrow, pointed black and white length of it twisting clear and falling back down with a tremendous splash into the sea.  It was an amazing sight and I was happy for our guests that they'd seen this spectacle, although it did rather make it difficult to manage wildlife expectations for the rest of the trip...we don't normally see minkes from our living room window.
Minke whale feeding on small schooling fish
What lies beneath!  A minke whale (ours wasn't THIS close - this pic is courtesy of http://www.whaledolphintrust.co.uk/)

I was happy generally that our guests were here.  They marvelled at the castle, and had some great thoughts about the island, helping us to disentangle what we think ourselves.  And then they helped me to remember my grandma's death a year ago.  We toasted her memory with whisky on the turret, looking out to the sea she loved (a sea more northern than hers, but still the sea) and hearing the sounds of the island evening, the cuckoos, songthrushes and chiff-chaffs below us and looking at the intense green of the hills and forest all around the castle, feeling we were on top of the world. I hope she finds it a fitting tribute.  Thoughts about her death don't detract from the aliveness of things - her life was amazing, and I am in awe both of the aliveness of the world here, and how lucky I am that my life coincided with hers, for a whole 41 years.  Hope I can make the most of my own life, too.

Rum from the turret

17th May - Sail away, sail away, sail away...

It's still proving really hard to find time for writing at the moment and to find your voice when you do get a chance; except when the tea-shop is quiet (I wrote nearly a whole story in the tea-shop last Tuesday, plus I got serenaded by a boy with a guitar! It was a sunny day and everyone was up a mountain except us I think).  So sorry if this is a bit repetitive.  The season is incredibly busy, it's like living on another planet compared to winter.  I am either baking for the tea-shop, working in the tea-shop, planning menus, counting money, doing a cleaning shift in the hostel, doing a castle tour or doing the gardening...not to mention all the usual tasks like laundry, washing up, and emailing people randomly! Oh and blogging of course. And staring even more randomly out of the window. Also, I am determined that working in the tea-shop doesn't totally stop me cooking for Mel and myself...but this is difficult, as when I get home I normally just want to eat chips.  This is BAD especially as it is so easy to buy oven chips (though sadly, not proper chips), and relatively difficult to buy other stuff...
Tomorrow we have visitors arriving - hurrah! - so we have been doing extra cleaning.  The flat is finally fragrant(ish) and tidy, without chaotic collections of empty beer and wine bottles, jars and cardboard cluttering up the spare loo (it may be a Spode toilet, darlings, but to us, it's always going to be the "where did you put the spare bogroll?" and "where's the wine?" room - AND we have to keep our recycling in there as there's nowhere else); a kitchen covered in flour and overflowing with cake tins of various sizes (I am currently feeling persecuted by cake tins and dreamt that Mel and I were being forced to build a castle out of cake for a competition...); or a bowl of bubbling sourdough mix in the spare room. The flat is large, but feels very small sometimes when it's hard to find time to tidy and there is lots of baking to be done. 
"Heb Princess" by day, and unknown sailing boat
Luckily we also have other duties to keep us (relatively) sociable on this very wet and windy Saturday.  After our visit from the Hebridean Princess, or "Heb Princess" as we call her, a large group came today on the Ocean Nova and we did a relay tour at 3.30, one half of the group going in the opposite direction to the other until they catch up with each other on the stairs (but hopefully, not too early or I don't get time to talk about Lady Monica and the stuffed humming birds).  Today was a nice group, they laughed at our jokes and were surprisingly goodnatured, considering that the wind is driving the rain into everyone's faces and it's nearly impossible to walk anywhere.  As always I am heartened by their enthusiasm for the castle, their admiration for Lady Monica's decision to sell it as a nature reserve rather than abandon it to developers, and their ability to enter into the spirit of things despite the weather.  It makes me feel more optimistic about the future of the castle, and even the island.  As they are leaving, having struggled to put their wet boots, overtrousers, raincoats and hoods back on in the tiny entrance hall, I run out to see if Dave is arriving on his buggy to drive them back to the pier...feeling like the lady's maid in Gosford Park I stand in the rain finding people's missing gloves, bags and hats until everyone is safely stowed on the buggy and ready to return to their ship.
Ships are a never-ending source of fascination.  So many anchor at Rum, a place I would hardly even have heard of two years ago yet seemingly a key stop-off point for boats doing tours of the Scottish Islands.  We have discovered the awesome www.marinetraffic.com where you can find out what shipping is around your area, or going to be, or was in the past.  Just on Thursday we had a huge yacht call in, the Adix from Falmouth, a five-master nearly as long as George's Rhouma (209 feet, as opposed to 221).  The masts were startlingly high, looking nearly but not quite out of proportion to the stunningly elegant hull.  She sailed blithely across the bay in bright sunshine while all of us in the tea-shop stared from the decking, peering through our binoculars in amazement; the Adix would look more at home off the Côte d'Azur rather than the Côte de Rum.  Nevertheless, she stayed.  The lights twinkled all night long and as always a pang of longing to be out and away on board struck me as she set sail the next day and disappeared (although not before getting stuck for a considerable time just out of the bay as the wind hit her and one of the sails had to be taken down again!).

Adix getting underway...

...and "in irons" struggling to choose a direction!
I always wonder what people think when they anchor in Loch Scresort and see the castle just opposite them.  It must be both a beautiful and a bizarre sight, a totally incongruously romantic pink building set in the wilds of Rum, almost on the shore, with just a paddock in front dividing us from the sea.  At the moment, usually a paddock with naughty deer eating the grass.  They know they aren't really allowed down here - at least we think they know by their furtive looks up at the castle as they chew away.  The other night, the moon was nearly full and the whole island was lit up - it did not get dark at all, but when I got up at 1 am to see what was happening, there were the deer by moonlight, at least six of them, wandering about.  It was bright as full day by 5 am.  Nights like that you want to be awake all night to catch the beauty of it all.  But I was extremely sleepy the next day...probably why I said yes without really thinking to doing a "jamming session" with resident musicians Mike, Steve and Sean.  I hadn't picked up my viola in a few years and I should have been nervous, but instead I felt completely at home and grounded as soon as I started to play. 

It was new for me, playing folk music, let alone Scottish ballads, and I realised soon enough that I don't have the "feel" for Celtic music yet.  There's an immediate emotional pang to it that I've been taught, as a classical musician, to distrust; my learning, as an academic as well, has made me feel that somehow emotion should only be accessed via a more "serious" engagement with the music; the more complex the music, the more authentic the emotion it creates.  Becoming conscious of this makes me realise it is a fallacy, really based not on my training at all (and certainly not on my upbringing, where one of my earliest memories is of Mum singing folk songs) - it seems to arise out partly out of a respect for what is difficult, a need to fight back against the prevailing notion that difficult has to equal inaccessible, but partly out of a less admirable state of mind, probably that somehow I am "better" as a person if I can "master" more difficult, more challenging things - whether that is in the field of music, or in life, as in "I must be able to make a success of living on a tiny island..."
Sometimes though it is maybe best to stop trying and to let things judge you, rather than trying to pre-empt their judgement by trying to be the best all the time.  I wonder if I can think this because I've been playing music again, making me a real person, rather than a set of attempts to do something.  And if it's to do with the kind of music, as well.
Folk and especially Celtic music demands a totally different technique to playing classical music, and it's liberating to play something where it's about how it sounds as a whole, about reaching other people, more than mastering the technical niceties.  Of course, all music is more about how it sounds as a whole, but a break from playing has made me realise that in the past I'd too often focused on how "well" I was playing, rather than how good the music sounded...focusing on your own achievement rather than listening to what you're actually doing.  It sounds obvious but it wasn't in the past.  Now it is.  (That doesn't mean I can do it though!  The twiddly bits still sound twiddly rather than romantic...the high bits still sound squeaky rather than lyrical...but I shall keep trying.)  Also, it's fun playing with a mandolin, a guitar and a set of drums rather than a cello and two violins!  Especially when they turn up the amp and say, "just go with it"...
I suppose that this is another gift from being on Rum.  Playing music just because you can, without worrying how good you are, and caring more about its sound than your own ability, is something I should have been able to do a long time ago, but hadn't ever.  Obviously ability is very important - the "feel" of the music can't exist without the discipline of each note.  But which discipline to choose, which of all the many techniques to use for any given bit of music - that's the art I suppose.

Whatever it is, it's fun for others too.  People visiting here are really happy when anyone plays any music.  I think they expect to arrive and find folk musicians penny-whistling away on every corner while wearing kilts, or gathered round a campfire with whisky and a small bodhran.  Perhaps it would be nice (depending on the legs of those in the kilts) but it doesn't happen very often.  But in the past few weeks I've found out more and more about what people do.  We have artists, chefs, woodcarvers, jewellery makers and musicians - and probably much more.  These talents tend to lie hidden, though, as we're all so private, except when we need to make some money and sell stuff. It would be even nicer if we could see these things happening all year round, for us - for now it's nice to see them in the tea-shop!

Claire and Kate's crafts...Lukas' pictures!

12 May - Two anniversaries

It's been difficult to focus on writing recently, probably just because there's so little time for reflection.  The season is in full swing but unlike Lady Monica's seasons on Rum, there's not much ballroom dancing (though there was a ceilidh), no shooting and not many parties.  No, our season involves mainly visitors!  Hiking groups, geology groups, muddy boots groups, fishing groups, small wiry individuals bearing huge bulky rucksacks (one of them had a rucksack full of wood: "I'm just off to the bothy overnight, it'll be grand"), kindly, meandering middle-aged couples here for a couple of hours between boats, people wanting cake, people wanting beer, people wanting castle tours, people wanting advice. Mel is on duty most evenings, which means taking a radio home, and it beeps at all hours, usually with people saying things like "the heating hasn't come on" or "the fuses in the kitchen have blown" or "why is there no hot water?" (we have had a definite diesel shortage, so apologies to those caught out by the lack of heating!) Our favourite, however, was the 7 am emergency..."Someone's moved my toilet bag!".   There are students on environmental courses wearing bad beanies and carrying pots of unidentified wildlife.  Sometimes sailing charters come in...we have had the Eda Fransen, a gaff cutter doing tours of the Isles,  and last night, the Hebridean Princess, our regular cruise liner, moored up in the bay in the evening and glittered in the blue dark, while small speed boats carried our late-night visitors across to shore...they pottered around the castle in the twilight while we watched them from our turret and bats flew around our heads.
The tea-shop has been a success so far, although visitor numbers and politeness levels vary hugely.  Most people are lovely, but some have rather huge expectations for a tiny island - I want to say, "Do you know we are just 30 people here?" My favourite so far was the man who missed his ferry and so spent most of the day in the tea-shop, then decided he liked it so much on Rum he would miss another one the next day.   He and his dogs became firm fixtures for the week.  The worst visitors were a reluctant group of posh students who had daddy's yacht moored up in the bay; they came ashore and opened up their hamper (!) outside the shop to eat their picnic, but when it started raining they were forced indoors, only to buy the cheapest drinks they could while shouting rude words to each other across the table and trying to get drunk on their own beer.  One of them came back for another coffee and when I said "That's £1.50 please" (it's proper coffee you know) he said, "Oh, really? I thought you did, like, refills?" Probably the same one who asked Mel if he could carry a guide book round during the castle tour and then put it back afterwards so he didn't have to pay for it....But usually we have lovely visitors who like the cakes and are really interested in Rum.  Debs has the amazing ability to chat to all visitors, no matter how tired she is or how moody they are, and seems to be able to charm them with just a smile, not to mention her amazing Gingerbread Bothies (just £5 to share!).  I can only watch and learn.
Otherwise, I have started working in the hostel and doing Castle Tours.  This is a great job.  I really love meeting the groups and telling them all about George, Monica and the castle.  It makes me feel proud to live here and I enjoy seeing how they become drawn into the story, and how much emotion the castle arouses in people.  People are genuinely enthusiastic about it, they love to wander about taking pictures, asking questions and comparing it to other places that have fallen on hard times or alternatively, have been rescued!  Another cruise boat, the Polar Quest, normally a traveller up and down the Norwegian coast, called in and 50 or so Swedish visitors came on a tour...Mel and I split them up so we did a tour relay, I only just managed not to catch her up in the ballroom!  The Swedish group were very interested; of course they all had excellent English, and told me all about their trip so far around the Scottish islands.  Two of the younger men were Norwegian and came from Svalbard, and one worked at the Ice Hotel...they looked as though they spent all their time in the snow, looking like explorers with their giant boots, waterproof all in one suits and bushy beards.  "Do come to the Ice Hotel...it is very cold." "How cold?" "Oh, just minus 40 or so."  I think that's a trip I will have to take in my imagination only...
The Manx Shearwaters are back.  I saw a huge flock of them flying in, it must have been a thousand. We aim to go up the mountain soon and listen to them calling out, their weird shrieks and shouts leading the Vikings to give the name Trollval to the mountain they live under.  We may not encounter trolls, but the island is full of other noises: cuckoos everywhere, willow warblers, chiffchaffs, geese, crows, raven - and full of creatures: the walled garden is full of butterflies and bees and the polytunnel was invaded by a giant bee the other day - I had to go away until it left.  I hoped it wasn't a queen and she wouldn't be followed by her loyal servants!  Walking under the lime trees to the hostel, we can actually hear a "hive" of bees in one of them, a deep humming from the trunk surrounding us as we walk by.  I wonder if they will actually swarm.

So the island has changed almost to a different place from how it was in winter. From being totally isolated, dark and near-silent, to a literally buzzing, busy place full of sunshine (mostly) - it is hard to imagine winter coming back.  And this incredible liveliness reminds me that anniversaries are coming up.  Not only was there an Anniversary Ceilidh on 9th May - to mark the anniversary of the island assets being transferred to the Community Trust - but it's nearly the anniversary of when I was first here, visiting after my grandma died last May. What I mainly remember about that first visit is the sheer intensity of life on the island.  It was strange, because I was so sad and in some ways just numb, but I remember arriving not in a bleak, cold place but somewhere where literally you could feel the life around you, growing, cuckooing, buzzing, swarming...that was my first impression of Rum, even though when I moved here "properly" in August, it did get bleak and lonely.  Really life should be this alive everywhere - not just on tiny islands.  Wouldn't it be amazing if England was this full of wildlife, irrepressible life shooting up through the concrete and tarmac?  Amazing - if rather difficult to get around.
Again I feel I'm back at that question of how people and nature live together.  Although I can't imagine winter at the moment, I know it happened!  And it will happen again, this time with even fewer people (probably) than last year.  We are now around just 30 people living on the island - three couples have left over the past few weeks and despite the visitor numbers, you can really tell.  The dynamic is very different with just this small change - but I suppose it's not really a small change - six people (seven if you count the baby!) means about one-sixth of the island population leaving.  We really miss the people who have left, but hope that maybe more will join us soon.  (A new Ranger may be starting soon, and a new Development Officer has started, although he doesn't live on the island.)  How can we make it easier for people to live here? 
But this is such a big question and at the moment, I just want to enjoy the beauty of the island, the amazing nights that don't really get dark (just midnight blue), and the fact that in the walled garden, things are coming up! It's not been so long since I felt I couldn't enjoy anything - so I'll leave the big questions to those who want to try to answer them, and for now, just make the most of the summer on Rum.