Away with the Birds

Starlings, Canna (c) Lukas Becker.
This has been the busiest month I've known on Rum, both of us engaged up to the hilt with little time to stop and reflect or keep pace with our own experiences.  Looking back much of it blurs into just random pictures, impressions of all the things we have seen and done and felt.  The Small Isles Games (no more pictures needed I think!).  Lovely visits from our friends and a perfect late summer day out at Kilmory, watching the deer on the beach and the white waves come rolling in to the shore.  The Quiz Night, which was great fun, but now overshadowed by poignancy, as the group lost their friend the following day.  Waiting to hear what had happened to him and the sadness when we did.  The same day, the amazing dolphins, an hour and a half of happiness as we sat at the end of the pier just watching them leap and play in the blue sea.  The swallow fledglings practising their flights, from our battlements.  And yesterday's trip to Canna to see the production of "Away with the Birds", an incredibly beautiful transformation of birdsong into human calls, outside in the harbour as the tide went out and the real birds swooped around us.
Canna is a strange island, joined by a bridge to Sanday, once an island in its own right.  It has far fewer inhabitants even than Rum, but is run by the National Trust, and many of the houses dotted into the landscape are actually holiday homes - making it seem in some ways completely foreign to us, even though it is the island closest to Rum.  Its fertile landscape, at least around the harbour, is very different too, and the driving force behind its community was, for a long time, the study of Scottish folklore and the Gaelic language by the owners of Canna House, John Lorne Campbell and his wife Margaret Fay Shaw.  John left the house to the National Trust and since then it has been a museum. Canna is a place very conscious of its status, of its context within British and European culture; more self-consciously a place to be visited, a place representing the Highlands in a more sophisticated way than the other islands - a place seen very much from the outside as well as from the inside, which gives it a completely different atmosphere to Rum.  And with its little white houses, its low-lying hills and its churches and early Christian settlements (not to mention its rabbits, sheep, sparrows, starlings and cows) it feels more like Ireland than Scotland - somewhat to the dismay of our visitors who came with us, they having had a rather "difficult" Irish experience...But in the end, it all turned out well. 


When we booked the tickets we'd thought of "Away with the Birds" as perhaps a nice, low-key little event to give us locals something a bit different to do on the last August weekend.  Far from it! Elaine and Lukas arrived on Friday telling us of "hordes of people" filling the CalMac with their horn-rimmed glasses, man-bags, laptops, beanies and glamping equipment on their way to Canna. "It looked just like Glastonbury in the Highlands!" Filled with dread I now envisaged crowds of Brighton-dwellers covering the island with their pop-up tents, organic knitwear and children called Archie, Maisie and Jack, while we struggled to find a space to sit down in our muddy waterproof trousers...
Of course, in the end neither of these images turned out to be true (although there were some very dodgy outfits going on, e.g. the tiniest shorts I have ever seen combined with pristine Hunter wellington boots).  True, when we stood at the pier on Saturday morning and saw the CalMac arriving it did look scarily busy...but once we'd made our way up through the packed cafe (no chance of a veggie breakfast today!) on to the observation deck, we found we were among just a few people standing at the front of the ferry, gazing out to sea at the bright white gannets flashing in and out of the grey waves.  Arriving at Canna, people poured out of the boat onto the slipway; we were first and as locals, we knew what our priorities were: "Grab a table at the cafe, Elaine!" 
More cake! More cake!
So while everyone else was still stood wondering where to go first, we had headed down to the tiny village and ensconced ourselves on a bench where soon we were munching bacon sarnies and drinking lots and lots of tea, while looking out across the lovely bay.  It was strange to see Rum, dominating the skyline just as it had done at Muck; while the sun shone on us, dark clouds covered Bloodstone Hill and Fionchra was disappearing into the mists.  It is strange to live on the biggest of the Small Isles, to look up at those sheer cliffs where we had lain on our stomachs back in June to gaze down at Canna, which had looked tiny, rural and remote, seeming nothing like our dangerous island; and think of it being the place we call home.
Rum from Canna

                     The performance venue
After a while when the tea had all gone (and we'd also eaten most of the cake we'd brought with us), we made our slow way along the shore path, debating whether or not to have a proper walk. Fairly soon, though, we decided it was actually time for a proper was nearly midday after all.  So we sat in the lee of a hill and ate our sandwiches while, to our joy, a sea eagle flew backwards and forwards across the horizon; we speculated it was probably one of the pair that regularly fly back and forth between Rum and Canna.  Full of picnic we made our slow way back: "I'm not really in the mood for a big walk," we one and all confessed to each other.  By this time, I was so tired I could literally have fallen asleep on the cafe bench; instead I bought some coffee and cake, just for the pleasure of having someone else make me a lovely cup of coffee. After this I really did fall asleep.  We lay under the trees at Canna House and dozed until a couple of hours later, when tea was served in the marquee; then we sat there some more.  We wandered down to the shore where exciting things were starting to happen; girls in grey tunics and red tights wandered past and people were doing sound-system checks and setting things up, but we weren't supposed to be watching! "The idea is that everyone gathers at the marquee and then comes down to the shore TOGETHER," we were reprimanded by one of the ladies organising things.  So we wandered back up again.  After a considerable wait, where the lawn got fuller and fuller of people wondering whether anything was ever going to happen, it got rather quiet, and at that point, the director brought us all together and asked us to follow her in silence down to the shore. We made our way down, and found places on the little stools they had put out, looking out to where the girls were now stood in the ebbing tide...and after a while they began to sing.
Canna Harbour (Photo (c) Lukas Becker)
We weren't allowed to take photos, which was good, as it meant all we could do was sit and listen...and the hush between each piece was immense.  The little girl sat with her daddies near to us fell completely under the spell of the music, and we could see her mouthing the words, trying to do the same actions as the girls who were being the birds.  She was perhaps just three years old, and was as intensely involved, if not more so, as everyone else...completely rapt in the music, the birdsong and the experience of sitting with eighty other people, doing nothing but give ourselves up to the waves of music and sound that suddenly allowed us to see how human music - the Gaelic songs that the composer, Hanna Tuulikki had found - and bird music - the redshanks, shearwaters, crows, raven, cuckoos and gulls - come from the same place, or at least go to the same place when they enter our minds; the birds may be separate from us, but we are not totally separate from them, not in this way.
Our tiredness gone, we travelled back on the CalMac in the evening light, watching the sea where a minke whale appeared off our coastline, making its determined way to...somewhere.  The sunset turned Canna into a phantom island of mists, but turned Rum suddenly into a warm, solid place to call if they had swapped places in the course of the day.  We were glad to get back to the castle and spend the rest of the evening just absorbing our experience..after the fatigue of the past week, I had to say thank you to our day for giving us a perspective on life again.
Away from Canna

25th August - In the midst of life

Life as a gift given just to this world - to nowhere else so far known in the universe; things could hardly have felt more alive than just in the last week, but often life is felt most keenly when you know that death isn't far away. On Rum and on the mountains it is easy to feel you are on the cusp between life and death, because often, you are.  But at the moment, we feel all the weight of what that means in reality, not just as a symbolic idea.  This weekend one person walking on Rum lost his life to the mountains and we are mourning someone we didn't know, who came here to experience the beauty of the island, but to experience its challenges too, and we are left knowing more consciously than usual that our island is a place where the intensity of life goes hand in hand with its dangers.
Of course this is true all the time, death is always around us, but it's often in the most beautiful places that you are most conscious of the enormity, strangeness and fragility of life.  We were watching dolphins in the bay on Sunday when the search party was out looking for the missing person, and it couldn't have been more beautiful, and along with our sadness at what had happened we felt awed to be part of this world and its wonders.  We still do I think.  I hope this is something of what he felt too on his walk on the mountains, on one of the most beautiful days we've had this year.

One year on, a hundred years on...

It's gone from torrential rain this morning, to raining with that Highland glimmery rain this afternoon - much like it did when I arrived here almost exactly a year ago today.  The island disappears into the mists again, and it seems like more than just two days ago that we went to Kilmory in the sunshine, with the berries and waterfalls sparkling in the clear daylight and the Highland breeze blowing the fog and the midges away.

So much has changed in a year, yet sometimes I feel I am in the same place. Other people express similar feelings; sometimes Rum seems to carry you forward on a wave of enthusiasm and positive energy to create something new, at other times it seems to laugh in your face and take you three steps back again. Either the mud gets to you, or the midges, or the sheer bloody-mindedness of some of the people here, that can make you despair of the island ever "getting off the ground" in its quest for independence and financial autonomy.  The art of living here seems to be to ride the wave and accept the mud.  (Interestingly though, someone recently described how another of the Small Isles, having achieved its mission to set up a "proper" community and succeeded in embedding the structures and businesses you need for it to work, has totally lost its motivation now a new generation is coming up, and those teenagers are no longer interested in putting their energy into something already formed by someone else.  Would we get stuck in the same way if we stopped being an experiment?)  

We are not teenagers but we have to summon up that kind of energy to create something new, while combining it with the maturity of adults to cope with whatever Rum throws at us, not to mention coping with each other.  At the same time, there are continuous, small efforts towards changing things for the better, like drops of water on a stone.  And the size of your effort doesn't matter here so much as its effect:  "Small things that you do, the good things, they ripple on for ages," said Ady today.  I hope so. 

But the ripple effect is just one of the ways in which Rum changes shape as you get to know it. With each new experience, each new thing I learn about the island, it seems to expand and grow. Looking back at how I saw it a year ago, that picture seems almost two-dimensional compared to how I perceive it now; each bit of history and geography, even each interaction adds a new dimension, turning it from a flat cardboard cut-out of itself (a looming volcanic island with a pink castle stuck on the front!) into a place with all sorts of people, events and objects popping up wherever you look: a gamekeeper who caught influenza in Glasgow in 1926 and so couldn't bring the fish eggs over to Rum; a sundew catching insects in its greedy botanic trap; an elderly pony getting too short-sighted to notice when the others go off to Harris, and having to be taken back to find them; a cottage that burnt down when someone left a lighted cigarette in it, replaced by a caravan and boatshed; that bit of mud where I sat down rather abruptly when a turkey flew at me; Monica fishing in the burn a hundred years ago in the exact same spot where "Hamish" and "Angus", the itinerant stags, crossed over to illegally graze in our pasture every day this spring; repeated, uncomfortable ferry trips by Glasgow contractors (accompanied by vast quantities of telegrams) to install a new boiler and kitchen range in the 1920s, and repeated, uncomfortable trips by Inverness ditto to mend that same boiler now; the place where a sea eagle suddenly flew out from its hiding place among the rocks above the Third Bridge, just when I hoped one would appear; the beautiful couple in the photographs of a middle-aged Scottish lady who appeared one day in the cafe to show us pictures of her grandparents, John Stewart and Catherine Murray, who worked on the island in the 1900s. There they are, sat with their colleagues on a Day Out by the burn that rushes down from Coire Dubh in the winter and creates our electric lighting now.  So many places where histories overlap; our memories of them, their physical presence, our attempts to link up past and present, as if they weren't already linked, all the time.

Visitors often say that they take a lot of new energy from the island, inspired and gratified by its strangeness, its beauty and its (ad)ventures.  But they give us so much back, not least these added dimensions. Every time we have a visitor they get excited by something we haven't ever even noticed, whether that's tiny flowers and lichens, the engravings in the castle, the opportunities afforded by Chinese businessmen (a complicated story...), the sense of loneliness and defiance echoing still from the Clearances, the diptheria outbreak at Kilmory that killed a whole family in the 1870s, the clash between Scots and English creating conflict even today, a broken blue china cup in the walled garden that is the duplicate of one we have in the Library.  This time, Pam's empathy for the poorer people who lived here made me realise I don't think enough about them; I don't search out their history enough.  Then again, it's hard to find the evidence.  Even the Bulloughs left few (labelled) photographs of people; there are plenty of the landscape, deer and fish, but few of the actual inhabitants, including the Bulloughs themselves.   A few group portraits of guests, but not many; gamekeepers; gardeners; then, lots of pictures of the Rhouma and her crew.  Are there more photographs in the archive vault held by SNH? Does anyone have them?

Anne Metais, nee Thomas, came into the cafe with the story of her grandfather and grandmother, who met and married on the island, but had to leave service when they did so (as was common in Edwardian times).  She showed us photographs of her elegant grandmother, Catherine, then a young, straight-backed woman, a buttoned-up, dark-eyed enigma with a hint of irony and challenge in her smile, sharp square shoulders narrowing to a tiny, nipped-in waist, coat flaring out in a precise dark triangle, neat as a new pin, giving nothing away; she could almost be the lady of the house, a glittering black diamond among a group of other maids and menservants, reservedly smiling in their stiff formal clothes.  And her grandfather, John, his face difficult to make out on the old photographs, but still clearly a good-looking man. We gazed for a long time at the pictures, trying to work out where they were taken and what was happening, to see into their minds.  As if one could.  "Did she ever talk about the castle?" we asked hopefully. "No, not really.  They were a very quiet pair," said their matter-of-fact, middle-aged granddaughter. "But I do remember she was very particular about setting the table correctly.  Very. Everything had to be in exactly the right place and everything had to be shiny and clean." 

They are not in any of the other photos we've found; they must have married early in the history of the castle.  But they are as haunting and fascinating as Monica and George themselves.  And at least we know their names.  And so I know when I walk along that burn now, I will see them there too, think of them running in and out of the back door, as we do, and living with the mud, midges and deer.  As we do; but not with our thoughts or our freedoms or our politics.  I am grateful to them, for being a different dimension; for making our lives here bigger.

Viking invasion!

 "A 100 foot long Viking boat will be docking at Rum some time this afternoon..."

This was the unusual email that we all received yesterday - causing a flurry of excitement, tinged with ancient memories of more fearful times in the North: "The Vikings are coming!"

And at about 3 pm a long, deceptively narrow and primitive-looking boat slid out of the mists into Loch Scresort, heading towards our small harbour and carrying 32 "Vikings" - the Swedish, Norwegian and American crew of the Drakan Harald Harfagre (Dragon Harald Fairhair).

No scary Vikings these, but still mostly blonde, tall and scarily tough - these men and women had completed hundreds of nautical miles on the Drakan's maiden European voyage, sleeping under the stars, rain or cloud (their single tent was only big enough for eight at a time), manning a huge ship built to hold a hundred men and women on exactly the same lines as their Viking forebears would have built it 1,000 years ago. (That's the theory; for the first time researchers have concluded that the Vikings would have been not only capable of building, but really did build, such massive vessels.)  But instead of one hundred crew, they have just thirty-two men and women - the weight of the other sixty-eight is made up for by GPS and other navigation equipment.

Finally they docked at our slipway and the brave crew made their way on to Rum not to pillage and destroy, but for showers ("You have showers??!! We can use them?? Where are they???"), toilets, a tour of the castle - but most impressively, allowed us to come on board and view life on the ship.  They got to tour our home - but we felt extra lucky to be allowed to tour theirs!

On board
Everyone wanted to see it! So, at one of the highest tides of the year, the waves lapped at the hand-carved bows and the rain pattered on the tarpaulin that is the crew's only shelter, while we made our slippery way across the fenders and ropes, down a wooden ladder and down to the decks.  Here we said hello to travel-hardened voyagers cooking and cleaning huge tureens of food; clutching thermo-mugs of tea; swabbing the decks; checking the navigation routes and cleaning the middens.  We gazed in awe at the huge mast, a replacement for one that broke off Shetland. Both the original and the replacement had to be imported; there were no trees tall enough in these countries, and the mast has to be made from a single trunk.

Somehow, the boat felt different to a modern boat, even boats that are wood too and have a shallow draught; it just felt, I don't know, creakier? Perhaps because everything on it was so solid-looking; the black, resin-sticky ropes, the enormous shaft to wind the main ropes for the single square sail, the thick, beautifully carved planks that had been bent into shape to form the boat's sides; each "rib" of the hull having to be formed, again, from a single trunk of wood; the boat's makers were not only scientifically but aesthetically precise. It is a beautiful boat and as we gazed across the side at the distant castle, we felt the call of the sea and envied, a little, the adventure these people were embarking on. As we gazed, a surreal time-shifting moment occurred; another sailing ship veered into view out of the mists - the Bessie Ellen, built in 1904 but looking to our romantic eyes as if she could have sailed out of the 18th century...

Bessie Ellen and the Drakan Harald in a timewarp! (Although I'm not sure Vikings would have voted for an independent Scotland...)
"Where are you off to next?" we asked our Vikings. "We don't know yet - we're just heading north-west into the wind and see where it takes us!" Brave considering that the last of Hurricane Bertha is currently swirling round the north-west of Scotland...but they've probably seen worse. We could only marvel, jealous of their hardiness abut also quite glad to be going home to a bed not shared with 30 other people..."Privacy is a privilege hard to come by," it warns would-be volunteers on the website...but we suspect that after a while, they were having too much fun to care!

Vikings having fun

Shelter - only put up when they are in dock

Contemplating life at sea...better or worse than life in a castle?
The next morning they were off - after a lengthy struggle with the ropes and the sail, they finally got the sail up and managed to tack in strong winds out of Rum's shelter and out into the Little Minch.  We could see them on the horizon for ages...who knows where they are now.

Goodbye, Vikings!

Round and round the rugged rock of Rum the shearwaters flew..

Things feel different, somehow something has changed, coalesced perhaps...and I wonder what has caused it.

The Small Isles Games were part of it - realising that we can all work together as a team, or perhaps just that I am now, to the outside world, "from Rum" - meeting people who didn't know me from anywhere else but just saw me as part of the "Rum Team" which made me realise: that's what I now am.  Somehow, living somewhere for a while, if you engage with it, you do become part of it, without even meaning to.  Then it's strange to realise that you've become part of something you saw as totally alien, that your "way in" may be totally unlike other people's, but somehow has got you to the same point.  (Even if you do then get over-confident and end up telling someone off in a meeting...but that's another story.)

Perhaps it was just that recently, I've looked at Rum literally from the outside, from a different place than just from within myself and my own emotions. Standing on the deck of a ship with other Rum people looking out to sea on the one side, and up to the mountains of Harris on the other, was an amazing experience; seeing Rum as an island in the Hebrides, northern, sea-locked, completely different from the other Small Isles, its own place: next stop the Uists and St Kilda, next stop Iceland.  Not somewhere "too far away from England" but somewhere in its own right.  Somewhere I would have liked to visit if I didn't live here.  To see Rum as a place in itself, not just as a symbol of what we feel - that is quite an achievement too.

Rum in the evening light - Hallival (right) and Askival (left) hidden in cloud
Eigg from the sea
This wasn't just the Games, but a couple of other things that can only happen in summer - that I didn't experience last year.  At the end of July we booked on to the "Shearwater Trip" - part of a three-day event with shearwater boat trips, climbs up the mountain to hear them at night and general shearwater madness.  We were too cold and sleepy to go up Askival again in the rain and at night (not to mention coming down again at 3 am next day), but we just had to go on the boat.  The idea was to go out in the evening - around sunset - and sail round to the Askival side of Rum, where the birds form great rafts sitting on the water, before darkness falls and they head inland to feed their chicks.  The rafts themselves are an amazing sight - thousands of shearwaters gradually coming in to land on the water, bobbing up and down in the late sun, with the Rum mountains looming in the background.  But as we traversed the coastline, we came to a dark cliff full of kittiwake and fulmar nesting, their cries almost deafening as we drew closer. Amidst the white snowfall of birds swooping in and out of the rocks, a darker shape flapped through them, causing havoc - a sea eagle, hoping to pick off ailing or dead chicks while the parents weren't looking.  It was huge, careless of our presence, intent on its own evening meal - but it wasn't to be. Perhaps we disturbed it after all, as after a few minutes, it flapped slowly back up the cliff, coming to rest on a rock where it was instantly perfectly camouflaged.   Meanwhile, we headed back out to sea, looking for more shearwater, as the evening sun disappeared and big dark clouds came up on the horizon...

Shearwaters gathering

This was another situation where a group of Rum folk got on a boat and were viewed somewhat doubtfully by the more professional-looking "outdoorsy" people, with their new waterproofs, Tilley hats and huge cameras to pap the birds...we must have looked very strange in contrast, with our things covered in mud and giggling at the rain...but it was nice to feel part of a group and to know that despite our odd looks and irreverent behaviour we do actually know something about this strange landscape - we do actually manage to live in it, despite everything.  So contemplating going away in the near future for a while isn't, this time, a matter of wanting to escape - it's a practical thought, but one that carries a lot of questions.  Will I really be able to write when I am away?  Will I be able to finish off this "book", turn it into a book is more like it?  Will I be able to study at the same time?  Most of all: will I be homesick for the castle, for the island? That's quite a new feeling.

I feel an immense sense of loyalty to the castle, and I feel I have something to complete here - a process that isn't tidily bounded by exams or a job or a payment for something; something less tangible but just as important.  It's nice to think I might miss Rum. Perhaps it's also because we went up on the turret the other night to look for the "supermoon" and saw not the supermoon but some meteor showers and heard the silence of the island: "This is what we'll miss".  And I've wondered for the first time why I have felt so close to Lady Monica, so needed to identify with her, when clearly, she and George loved the island and I, to start with, really didn't.  Perhaps that's exactly why I needed her or the idea of her to help me through...

Heading homewards - Rum folk and their outdoor wear

A Day at the Races

But no horses were involved! (Or "lil' ponies", as our recent American guests in the cafe said...)

No, instead it's our legs that are aching. We are still only just recovering from the Small Isles Games on Muck last weekend.  This annually observed ritual takes, as I understand it, many forms depending on what island you are on, who attends and the quality of the after-games entertainment.  Last year on Rum I missed it, but Rum was the proud winner of the tug-of-war, coming second to Muck in the other games due to the high number of Muck children taking part (you get a point for everyone who takes part whether adult or child - we think this is very unfair as we only have five children, most of whom are too small to participate...). It sounded like a great day, full of welly-wanging, axe-throwing, three-legged races and a Hill Race for the fitter amongst the islanders.  Only the evening was somewhat overshadowed by the after-games entertainment, namely some Eigg participants drunkenly trashing our benches and driving someone else's car into a ditch...

This year everything was most civilised.  To my surprise, nearly everyone on Rum was planning to go and so early on Saturday morning we encountered the unexpected sight of everyone up, dressed and slogging towards the ferry with huge rucksacks at 8.30 in the morning. Armed with sleeping bags, tents, cookers, changes of clothing, emergency food, cigarettes and dogs the Rum team trudged down the sunny slipway towards a Calmac breakfast and the chance of seeing whales en route for Muck (I mean we were en route, not the whales, although at one point they did seem to be...)

It was a beautiful day and once we had breakfasted we headed up on deck (well, some of us - others took the opportunity to nap in the Calmac cafe or exchange gossip about last year's Games), excited by the opportunity to see Rum from the Other Side.  The Saturday ferry calls at Canna first, then goes round the back of Rum towards Muck before heading to Eigg...a whole different view of our island.  We called at Canna and saw that everyone on the island seemed to be going to Muck - there are only about 12 of them, but normally they don't take part at all, so this was an encouraging sight.  We marvelled at the number of churches on Canna and the strange sight of cows grazing the fields - like a different world compared to Rum - and were to be astonished again by how different Muck is to either...

Rum from the Other Side...
Soon we were heading out past Bloodstone Hill towards the Atlantic coast of Rum.  In the world of exciting marine life, this is where everything happens and we weren't disappointed! Within a few minutes two minke whales had appeared amongst the diving gannets off our coast, seemingly going in opposite directions but clearly visible arcing up in the flat calm surface of the sea.  The Calmac whistle made us all look up but instead of an emergency the captain announced, "Just to let you all know, there's a minke whale off to our left.  To our left..." Passengers who had been near-comatose in the cafe, full of bacon butties and chocolate, hurried up on deck...but by that time they had gone again.  We were very lucky to spot them! Now we just needed some eagles to fly by...

Glen Harris with mausoleum just visible on the left
Gradually we came around the headland of Bloodstone and saw how very different this side of the island is.  The cliffs are gnarled rock, sheer and a pale pink colour in the sunshine, unlike the grassy green boggy landscape on "our" side.  The deep clefts between them invited us to look for caves and eagles perching on the ledges, while the gannets divebombed the waves and flew alongside us in the sun. Out to our right was the Atlantic, where in the far distance we could make out the Uists perhaps, but nothing exhilarating sight when usually our view out to sea is bound by the mainland.  Eventually we came to Harris, the mausoleum just visible as a tiny Lego-type building amidst the mountains, and finally an eagle, even tinier, flying high above Glen Harris and scaring the crows.  By this time though we could see Muck and excitement grew amongst those who, like me, had never been to another Small Isle before.

Approaching Muck harbour, Rum in the background
Muck really is small.  It's about two miles across, with no mountains and the bizarre sight of a fish farm being built outside the harbour.  It's all about farming on Muck generally - a completely different way of life to here.  We speculated whether the fish farms would have to go now that the Small Isles have been declared an MPA (Marine Protected Area) - nobody really knows what this means for the day-to-day practicalities of living on the islands. although we on Rum are very pleased about it - hopefully no more dodgy French trawlers hiding out under Dibidil...

 Shearwaters flew in huge flocks around the ferry as we approached while I looked in astonishment at how imposing Rum is when seen from the water.  We are the biggest of the Small Isles and yet perhaps the least accessible. I thought about how much of the island we could see and how little of it is inhabitable - how hard it is to penetrate into that rocky, boggy interior.  But at the same time, how proud I was to live there.  Perhaps I was becoming a "Rummite" (or "Rummette") after all - or perhaps it was that team spirit asserting itself in preparation for our very own Olympics!

The Rumachs arrive at Muck...
Camp Rum
Getting off the ferry we immediately knew we were somewhere totally different to Rum. The village is all built on a low hill just next to the harbour, all of the houses looking different, some obviously "eco-houses" built almost into the side of the hill, others small stone cottages or wooden sheds containing exciting things: a purpose-built tea-shop and craft room (I can only dream...), a Muck shop with home-grown vegetables and Muck-made artworks, a brand new Community Hall with a library on the mezzanine floor (never mind the library, but a mezzanine! Goodness!), a field of solar panels and a wind turbine, and above all a sense of organisation: we were instantly taken in hand, shown where to go and invited to visit the tea-shop - which Mel and I, having no tent to put up, promptly did.  It was just as well we got in first as pretty soon the whole of Rum and Canna wanted to have lunch...
Tea! And cake!
After tea, we went to explore a little bit before the games commenced, but by 2 pm everyone was milling around the Games Field, in the rain, waiting for it to start.  And soon it did.  A man armed with a megaphone got us all into order: "Men's and ladies' races separate! Form your teams! We will start with the Flat Race! A point for each participant, four points for the winner and three for second place! Are you ready??!!" To our shame only two Rum men lined up for their first race...the rest were too busy smoking and drinking Tennents (just for a change) and despite the Rum ladies urging them on, there was nothing doing.  It was a different story when it came to the ladies' races however - there was hardly room for us all on the start line! Jostling (politely) and full of adrenalin we waited for the whistle...and we were off!
The Men's Flat Race.  Where are the Rum men???
But the Flat Race was nothing compared to what was to come. The "Tattie and Spoon" (egg and spoon in England) came next with Mel nearly second, only to fall at the last hurdle overcome by her own competitive nature ("I should never have looked at what anyone else was doing! It made me drop my egg, um, tattie!").  Certain men in the tattie and spoon frankly disregarded the rules that you had to stop and pick up your tattie if you dropped it, count to 3 and then start again...but we were honourable!
Honourable ladies
By this time we were all on fire to win for Rum. But the next race proved our (and everyone's) undoing...the Sack Race. This was not just any old Sack Race but a "four in a sack" race.  We grouped up into fours, stood in our bags and were convinced we had a great technique...the whistle went and on cue, everyone fell over with their first jump! Within five minutes no-one had advanced more than about a foot...then desperation set in and various groups dragged their sacks to the finish line while another, inspired, put the sack on their heads and ran with it...Meanwhile we were still lying on the ground laughing!



Try again!

Getting ready for the obstacle race...arms OUTSIDE the barrel Lesley...
We hoped to make up for our losses by winning at the Obstacle Course, which followed.  This involved (a) running with a barrel around you, (b) "sledding" where all the team had to march as one while walking on a "sled" and holding the ropes (see picture as it doesn't make sense otherwise!), (c) pushing a team-mate in a wheelbarrow, (d) pushing the whole team on a quad bike, (e) space-hopping to a net and (f) crawling under the net to the finish. It was a punishing routine and although we didn't win, I am proud to relate that we had the only team that managed, under Mel's leadership, to successfully sled as one!
The successful team practises their "sledding" technique - Trudi and Nic are dubious...

...but it worked!

Wheelbarrow Racing
Pushing the quad bike...a well-known Hebridean Sport

The Tug of War should have followed, which we won last year, so we lined up - yes, even the men. This was a point of honour! The tug-of-war was to be Mel's and my last event as we had to go home (Mel was working) with Bonnie the dog (she can't ceilidh) we got into place, grasped the rope and...fell over.  The rope had snapped!  While they were waiting for a new one to arrive, we sadly had to leave.  It was now pouring with rain so we sat in the ferry in the "Dog Area", eating chips and going to sleep, while Bonnie took exception to an unnecessarily adorned English Sheepdog ("why are you wearing a stupid bow in your hair?") and children threw cuddly puffins at us (well, one) had been an exhausting and wonderful Day Out!

Although we were not there for the evening, reports state that the ceilidh, barbecue and overnighting were lovely despite the heavy rain - so a successful day out was had by all. I was proud of our team and don't think I have laughed so much since coming to was great to know that we can literally pull together...even if we do fall over in the process.

That's where we live over there, that is!