05.05.2013 - 25.05.2013
It's May 5th and supposedly late spring in the British Isles. It's totally miserable; freezing cold, blowing a gale and lashing rain, as it has done since I returned from Central American at the end of March. The sea conditions are such that sick bags are handed out on the Larne to Troon ferry. Then a difficult drive north in heavy rain; up through Glasgow, along the banks of Loch Lommond and then swinging west through even more famous Scottish landscapes, not an iota of which I am able to see. I get to Oban in the early evening and stay in a BnB, next morning getting another ferry to the Isle of Mull. Once on Mull I have another couple of hours drive on single track roads in my steamed up car (the rain still has not abated) before arriving in the utterly depressing village of Fhionnphort. For a bit of warmth and courage I bolt down a coffee from a vending machine in the village's only shop, before driving the last few miles to Fidden where I have been told to park my car and wait for a small boat, capacity three people, to come pick me up. I can see the channel of water, then another island with nothing on it but a row of cottages. It's Erraid. This is going to be my home for the next few months. I am officially cacking myself.
I've always had terribly romantic notions about the north of Scotland. I am unsure as to the origins of these romantic notions, given that haggis, Robbie Burns and Rab C. Nesbit are the linchpins of my knowledge about the place. So, I shall blame it entirely on the movie Local Hero, a gentle whimsical 1980s take on small town life, somewhere in Scotland. I'm sure it was something to do with the landscape or the light that seduced me then, it normally is. Or maybe it was the lure of potentially seeing the Aura Borealis. But I'm certain I've long harboured dreams about being Scotland in early summer, the type of dream you're not consciously aware of, the type of dream you sense can only ever remain a dream. Then last October I spent a week at FIndhorn, a spiritual community near Inverness, a place I had a real affinity with. It was there I learnt they had a community on a tiny island in the Inner Hebrides, a place called Errraid; an island where people tried, as far as possible, to live their life in harmony with nature. Hardly a day passed in Central America in which I did not think about Erraid.
But first, some dry details to tickle your taste buds, or not. Erraid is an island, a tiny one mile square island. To be precise, a tidal island, linked to Mull ( the middle of nowhere in Mull) at low tide by a sandbar of light yellow sand. In the mid 1880's the island's destiny was altered by the famous Stevenson dynasty of engineers and lighthouse builders extraordinaire. They used the island to quarry granite for the building of nearby Dubh Artach lighthouse and well as building cottages, gardens and out buildings to house the families of the lighthouse keepers and act as a service station. It was these very same buildings in which I was going to live.
When Scottish lighthouses were mechanised in 1956 the island was abandoned, save for one croft. Seven members of the FIndhorn Community arrived a full twenty years later, having being asked to act as custodians of the island by its new Dutch owners. Erraid's biggest claim to fame is that the then unknown Robert Louis Stevenson, son of one of the aforementioned engineers, set his novella 'The Merry Men'' and chapters of 'Kidnapped' on Erraid, after being inspired on one of his visits.
But back to the present. I was accompanied on the boat by an odd assortment of items; bags of carrots, lengths of guttering, a suitcase of laundered duvet covers, trays of spinach and chard plants, I could go on but I won't. We all managed to remain in/on the boat for the short but hairy crossing, after which everything had to be hauled up the slippery metal staircase and up onto the pier. I was embarrassed at my large bag; bulging at the seams with puffa jackets, fleeces, jumpers, rain coats, welly boots, thermal socks, hot water bottles. Early summer or not, my terrible fear of the cold meant I wasn't chancing anything. In my mind an 1850s cottage on a windswept island conjures up many images, none of them involve heat. When I got to 'the street' there was much excitement. One of the Jacobs sheep had just given birth to twins, beautiful black lambs with a little smudge of white on their forehead. The excitement was because no on had any idea the sheep was pregnant. At the time I was on the island none of the permanent residents came from a farming or horticultural background, so in relation to animals management and growing our food, it literally was the blind leading the blind, often with little help other than google searches.
Much to my utter relief, my new home, cottage number three, was warm and toasty. I was sharing it with one other guest and Bill, previously an engineer and now a long term resident of the island. The Rayburn was central to life in cottage number 3; it kept the house warm and heated the water, so having a ready supply of wood outside and remembering to keep it topped up through the day was number one priority. Bill had a system for this. The running water for washing was bog water. Drinking water was UV treated rainwater and had to be fetched from the community's main kitchen. Bill ensured there was a system for this. Then our own little kitchen had to be kept topped up with basics; home made bread, baked en masse once a week and frozen, eggs from the chickens collected each morning, oat cakes, milk homemade jam, all organic of course. Bill had a system for this. If Bill and I were to share house for a full two months, I think there might be a murder to investigate, but for this first week it was a dream. The house was always warm, always clean, always supplied withy things to meet my needs, even my own bedroom, a place to retreat to after being out working in the cold and rain. And Bill was a gentleman too.
Guests who visit the island pay for the privilege (it's what pays for the food, electricity, wood, the boat etc), but they also are expected to contribute to life on the island four days a week. It is called ' love in action', both a simple and a complicated concept which I am loathe to try and explain competently. Guests choose the work on offer each day, ranging from working out in the gardens, splitting logs, household maintenance, bread making, cleaning, boat maintenance or whatever, it changed depending on what needed to be done. What was new to me was the love in action bit, an attempt to bring the attitude of love and respect to the task we are engaged in and the people we are engaged with. This was as it's easiest In the garden; being consciously aware of the power of nature, the soil, water, the seeds we were sowing, the weather, influenced my attitude to how I dug, weeded, planted, watered. It even extended to he care of the tools at the end of the day, care being the operative word. They were cleaned and oiled before put back in the tool shed, a far cry from my usual practice of neglect, my small garden being a graveyard for rusted and rotten tools left out to the elements. It was harder to draw on love and respect when cleaning the kitchen, but maybe that's a lifetime's work, for me anyway.
Most of my time was spent in one of the three main gardens. Spring hadn't quite arrived in early May 2013, so it would have been foolish to put anything in the ground so early. Most of our time was spend digging; turning over previously used beds and digging ones that hadn't been cultivated for a while, removing grass roots and knotweed. I would always arrive dressed for arctic conditions,; looking like the Michelin man, my ensemble was topped off with a fake fur Russian hat which I also took to wearing indoors when the weather was particularly nasty.
The birds, on worm alert, were big admirers of our work. They were fearless, swooping for the worm a few millimetres from where I dug. A blackbird's nest in the tool shed became a source of excitement for us all, as did a mouse nest in the compost heap. One minute I was calmly shovelling a spade of compost into a wheelbarrow, the next I have three baby mice curled around each other on the shovel, eyes not yet open, fur not yet grown. I start to shriek when I see a nest with forty more babies, waiting for it to be time to wake up and begin life.
It was a pleasure to do this work with other people, a pleasure to pause and look up, an utter joy to take in the light over the sound in that moment, the colour of the Ross of Mull, the light on Iona in the background. Very often my breath was taken away by what I saw. Even on working days their was plenty of free time. For those first few weeks the thrill of exploration lay in every walk from my front door. The beaches; the Narrows, the Caribbean and Ballfour Bay were phenomenal. Colours of blue and white I had never seen before. A quick climb and I am rewarded with views over Mull, Iona or the hundreds or uninhabited islands surrounding us. Everyday it looks different depending on the light. This view from the observatory quickly became and remained by favourite spot. If you can watch the video, I'm sure you will have some appreciation of why.
In those early weeks nature hadn't completely come to life yet, but low lying willow bushes were opening into bloom, ferns were unfurling in sheltered spots and baby lambs put on a display of madly beating tails each time they fed from their mums. Very quickly I became intoxicated by the actual physicality of the island, as well as what you might call 'nature'. I regularly return from walks completely out of it, stoned, high, whatever you'd like to call it. Yip, island life was working for me. With bells on.