(We are revising the home page, so whilst we think about it, we thought we would put up the blog about ‘One year On Gometra’)
After a year of living off-grid (indeed largely ‘off-power’) on Gometra, I begin this piece, hoping to finish it in time to mark the anniversary. We arrived just three weeks before the start of the Scottish Autumn term (August 16th 2018), having waited until the end of the English Summer term (July 20th 2018). So this year is the first ‘proper’ Summer break in two years, and, as I said, one year into our lives on the island.
Getting enough distance to write about the entire year isn’t easy. It would be hard enough in any case, but the loss of Andy’s dad – our Scottish patriarch, Bob Primrose – in 2019, and our beloved cats Buster and Percy in 2018, has punctuated our first year here with grief. I thought that we were going to have to bear yet another loss, having only last week had to hand over our very sick labrador to Helen, the vet on Mull, but we learned today that she is getting better after a massive release of infection from her jaw, and we will be able to have her home in just a few days. Stella-dog, her elder, who had stayed behind in the care of Helena and Mike, friends nearby to our old house, was finally laid to rest last week.
Finally, unless I’ve forgotten other traumas and woes, Andy’s skin cancer, diagnosed and treated during the Winter, while we were apart from each other, has, it seems, been resolved.
So we move on with shaky steps; unbalanced by the diminishment and shifting configuration of the family.
There’s a sense of ‘sure-footedness’ that you get when you’ve lived somewhere a long time that is completely shattered by a move like this. It has worried me that I’m becoming confused; forgetting things and finding difficulty expressing myself. The doctor here, though, (in fact there’s no permanant G.P. On Mull, but we have a part-time surgery staffed by locum doctors, about eighteen miles from us) in response to some other illness I had during the Winter, exclaimed that I am “only 52”. What elicited that comment I can’t recall, but it struck me as something very contrary, and very welcome, to the very depressing messages about getting old that I’d been having over the years in relation to my hip necrosis.
So, we misplace and lose things all the time after putting them in safe places, and are regularly blind-sided by completely unforeseen, or at least unpredicted, problems. Yesterday, for instance, our solar system died on us. It’s only a small motorbike battery attached to a modest panel, but we are completely reliant on it for charging our phones. We’ve had to give up on laptops and tablets since they are too power-hungry. So now we have plenty of data but no charge, which is a reversal of the position we were in only a few weeks ago, and interacts with frequent loss of network. When there are three in the house, during school holidays, the use of scarce power can become competitive, but so far we manage. I’m trying to complete this piece as fast as possible so as to hold onto at least some charge in the phone.
We’ve coped over the year with the entire loss of communications, but with our current medical needs (canine and human), there are risks to this scenario.
On Midsummer’s day, when we were heading to Ulva’s community buyout birthday party, the first prospect since moving here of some local revelry, I stumbled at Am Bru (the causeway between Gometra and Ulva), falling heavily onto my shoulder, and breaking the top of my arm. I knew it was broken straight away: nausea, sleepiness and a wish to stay on the ground told me that. But I made a decision that I very much regret: to get back on the quad bike, pillion, and let Andy drive me the eight miles of track over Ulva; take Donald’s ferry to Mull, and then ten miles in the car to the surgery. Whereupon I was was instructed to carry on the next ten miles by car to Mull Community Hospital for a sling, then to the Oban ferry, stopping on the way to buy water in order to take the pain meds the doctor supplied; crossing the 45 minutes’ ferry ride to Oban (on which the locum doctor was also making her retreat from Mull), and then take a taxi for the few miles to A&E. So I met Katy stepping off the ferry at Craignure, Mull, as I got on, and saw them leave for Gometra to return to the animals, as I proceeded across the water.
By the time I got to A&E, four hours had elapsed since the accident and I had no chance of getting back home that day. The radiologist who x-rayed my shoulder was very sympathetic and sorry to tell me that I’d broken it (quite badly), but there was no more advice and I left with a collar-and-cuff sling, a referral to the ‘virtual fracture clinic’ in Glasgow, who would ring me after the weekend I was told, my pain relief in hand, to find somewhere for the night. I got a room at the Youth Hostel.
This was a very bad start to the next several weeks of pain and disability I’ve embarked upon. Next time I will call out the emergency services and let them worry about the logistics of getting me to hospital so that I can take better care of my emotional health, which suffered quite badly.
Logistics are key to everything about living on Gometra, and don’t really get any easier. We’ve had some prospective visitors who’ve made it, but some who haven’t, once they and us have had to grapple with the practicalities. The difficulties are multiplied by disruptions to ferry services due to bad weather and/or technical problems: both surprisingly frequent. So as not to put people off coming I tend to make encouraging and positive noises when I hear their itineraries, and keep shtum about the many weaknesses in any plan for getting to and from Gometra.
Andy has a knack, when he is out and about, for meeting folk who have the means, time and determination to take him up on open invitations: so we’ve had visits from kayakers, still dripping, and trekkers taking momentary pauses in international schedules. Last week we put our heads out of the door to inquire about the people walking past our window, who, delightfully, turned out to have lived in our house until the 1980s. The man was seven when they left, and his mother told us how she used to teach him at home when their boat couldn’t make it up the Loch.
When we first arrived we used to walk the eight rough miles each way between Gometra and Ulva Ferry, for bringing in supplies and for our version of the ‘school run’, and then for another few weeks into the Autumn term Katy used her bike for the journey whilst I ran alongside: returning in the dark on a Friday evening and leaving for Oban school hostel again on a Sunday morning.
We’d never have managed that during the Winter, so it was a good thing that a small contribution to school transport costs from Argyll and Bute Council saw us able to afford a quad bike. Being on my own, though, meant that I had to get to grips with the bike more quickly than I liked. Andy was working away all Winter, building the grain bin holiday chalets in Shropshire, and joined us permanently only at Easter.
So, for much of the Winter I was alone here. When I saw people walking through, or when the farm required intensive activity, I had a rather ambivalent feeling about it. It’s in my nature to retreat from view and wait to be alone again, but there were also times when I felt an obligation to greet strangers and acquaintences. When I’d gone to such trouble to approach, I was sometimes shunned or, at the least, ignored, and I often felt quite paranoid. I still can’t put my finger on it. I’m not sure if my social expectations are off-kilter here, but the effect until recently was for me to wonder at what offensive thing I might have done. For a while I became preoccupied with this, wanting to be accepted, but I realise that the only sane response is to live and let live. I don’t emanate the most welcoming signals myself, so I’m no objective arbiter. On the other hand, Andy does, but has been knocked-back sharply on a few occasions. We lick our wounds and face the world again next day, and the wounds become less frequent.
Human contact was rare, and consequently heightened, during the Winter, but contact with the elements was continuously challenging. Water drove its way into the house on the back of gales which ripped off roof slates and lifted oddments from the sea right up to the house. It brought in whole tree trunks to the storm beaches, which Andy is now, in milder weather, recycling for firewood. Without a chainsaw myself, Winter fires consisted of salvaged fenceposts, which I released from their tangled coils of wire using a bolt cutter, and cut into firewood with a bow saw, all of which was usually done in chilling rain. A few days under salvaged sheets of corrugated tin dried them out in the salty winds. I cooked on the wood-burning Rayburn, so everything depended on those posts.
Then there was light to consider. At 3pm each day I now have a switch in my brain that tells me to start gathering-in: to light a fire and a lamp; to get food cooking and to arrange everything that I’ll need during the evening and in the morning so that I can lay my hands on it. It was usually time for bed before 8pm, just to hunker down for warmth. In these long Summer days I have to manually return my mind-switch to the ‘off’ position and tell myself to relax: it won’t be dark till after 11pm, if at all some nights. Going to bed early is still my preference, though it doesn’t offer much comfort now, being immobilised in a sling.
Since his arrival Andy has broadened our investments from the house and vegetable garden to the sea. The garden spent most of the Winter under layers of storm-cast seaweed that was brought up on the quad bike from the beach. Andy also experimented with using bracken as mulch (we are always trying to think of uses for the rampaging bracken, and although we haven’t given up on trying to form it and burn it, the briquettes are a project on hold). It didn’t rot, but warmed up the beds beautifully this Spring. We were able to raise crops straight from seed without propogating first. However, we spent so long trying to decide what to grow, and where to source the seeds, that it was a good thing that we were finally prompted by having some unexpectedly sent to us. Seed potatoes, carrots, kale and radish, carefully selected for their suitability for the Mull area by Janine and Sarah, who have made it here on visits twice now, are proving themselves good choices. The potatos went under the seaweed bed, and if the foliage is anything to go by (which it might not be), they’ll be good.
There are scores of tattered old creel pots on the island, and any number of buoys and lengths of rope, so with advice from Rhuri Munro from the Boathouse on Ulva, and David Munro (a commercial fisherman and the son of Rhoda from Gometra), we’ve had catches of crab to add to some occasional foraged meals of scallop, oyster, mussels and varied shellfish.
The seaweed is my own personal fascination, and I add to meals from the vast range of weeds here-abouts. Our very small and aged dinghy goes back and forth on the quad between Ulva Ferry and Gometra so that we can employ it for transport and for creel-potting. Thanks to Donald (the ferryman) and Nick (the engineer from Mull), the outboard was rescued from its bid to escape from the shed at the Boathouse, and was mended back to a better condition than before. (For a while we didn’t appreciate how good the engine was, and Andy always ended up swearing at it and giving up. It kept stalling, not because there was anything wrong with it, but because we didn’t open the breather valve.)
Anyhow, these kindnesses, which keep coming, make life here feel possible. They are additional to the many kindnesses from our friends elsewhere; helpful and generous words, games, weather-proof clothes, food and seeds, to name some of the things that have been lavished on us.
My current state of physical incapacity has me feeling desperate and also sorry for myself. It reminds me of my helplessness when I broke my back in 2003, and the pain and struggle during the years leading up to my hip replacement last year. These accidents shook my life up, and I fought back to fitness each time, and back to running and climbing. But it’s hard not to despair at yet another improvised rehabilitation, and hard not to feel angry that, just as my life is now more physically demanding than ever, the smallest menial tasks take so much time and effort. I have to use my teeth if I want to hang washing on the line, which is soaking wet because I can’t wring it out, and has had to be dragged from the house because I can’t carry it. Annoyances like that! As well as all that there is the considerable inconvenience of not being able to drive. I’ve walked the eight miles each way to Ulva Ferry a few times now since the accident, which adds to the soreness of the arm.
But I’m trying to let it be an education to me rather than simply a curse. I’m also trying, now that my sister had registered me for the Longmynd Hike (a 50 mile fell run over the Shropshire Hills, in October) to believe that I will be able to run again. So it looks as though another fitness-drive, undertaken jointly with Faffy-dog, is in prospect, but October seems very soon. She (my sister) seems to know best, though, since she registered me for a similar event soon after my hip replacement, and it got me running again.
Either there are more strong and independant women here than most other places, or for some reason they are more visible. We aren’t used to seeing so many women working on the land, and running the show. But then a lot of the men work at sea, so at least some of these apparantly lone women might have families with men in them, doing equally arduous things, and maybe having to work away for weeks or months at a time.
Gometra, as Roc Sandford’s booklet about the island describes it, is ‘enchanted’. The very morphology tells you so: the so-called Fairy Mound, one of the several sharply conical hills, with its extraordinary sugar-loaf profile, mirrored in Jura’s more relaxed sine-wave shape, visible on the horizon behind it, has a bearing on your outlook here, as does the thump of the blow-hole suddenly voicing itself after unaccountable silences.
We sit on the step of our house, facing South, looking at Little Colonsay and Ardmeanach behind it, the Ross of Mull stretching along the horizon, Jura sometimes in its place behind and way beyond it. Moving my head to the right – Westward – there’s a small gap in the land, closed again by the intricate rise of Iona’s shores, edged by the monastery. The view is broken between Iona and our place on the step by Staffa. It is also slowly and lazily animated by fishing boats (usually including David Munro’s), sightseeing boats (often ‘Turus Mara’, out from Ulva), yachts, cruise ships, commercial boats, and sometimes even Tall Ships.
If we walk a little Westwards, our steps veering North, we can sometimes spot Col and Tyree, and we usually have a good view of the Treshnish Isles, much closer to home. Drawing a map by eye from here would be the work of a season at least, since no single configuration of islands seems visible more than once: rain clouds, rain storms, mists, heat hazes, atmospheric anomalies, high seas, low seas – you name it – perpetually alter the land and sea scape.
My mood shifts just as profoundly, between the complacency of a clear, warm day and the anxiety of unrelenting weather that competes with physical comforts like food and warmth. During the Winter I retreated to the kitchen. The rest of the house was visited in the style of an expedition, and the door to it was kept closed at all times. It was stressful for Faffy-dog and the new kitten, Mara, who both followed me everywhere through fear of being caught alone behind it, and at weekends myself and Katy risked cabin-fever if we stayed indoors, and risked getting an irreversible soaking and chill if we ventured out. We played games and burned masses of candles.
Oil lamps, passed down through the family, taken from Scotland when Bob moved away, and returned by us last year, were put to use. That was once I’d managed to get some lamp oil. Our two Tilley lamps also saw service. That was once I’d got the bits to repair them, and managed to get paraffin. In the very depths of cold and darkness, in February, I hauled back a bag of coal at weekends and bought gas canisters for the camping stove, but it was a job keeping warm and sufficiently dry, and difficult cooking food on a single burner. I put all my efforts and cash into making the weekends bearable for a thirteen year-old daughter, and shivered under my laurels for the weekdays in between.
Our gift to ourselves in the Spring was a larger camping stove/mini-oven, powered by a large gas bottle. Hot food is easy now.
I’ve never known a place, other than the high mountains, with such a marked distinction between the seasons: natural and human. I’ve never much noticed the arrival of insects after Winter, let alone found such pleasure and happy anticipation in seeing them (even midges). Neither have I ever been one to deliberately set out to spot wildlife, but happen-chance is enough here to see the eagles, otters, seals, dolphins, owls, seabirds, extraordinary butterflies, and bats. The tropical vibe of the songbirds around the house contrasts excitingly with the oceanic calls of the seabirds. Come Autumn, the barks of the deer in the rut echo against the cliffs and the houses so that you might as well be out there yourself, roaring and butting.
We are watched ourselves: mostly by the deer and Young Rhoda’s charges: the flock of sheep. (Young Rhoda is one of Rhoda’s daughters, and she is a renowned shepherdess hereabouts). We are also observed by the (sadly diminishing) herd of wild goats. Rhoda’s horses sometimes watch, and sometimes don’t, but are a picture as they graze in the bay, overlooked vertically by majestic volcanic cliffs.
I used to see sheep as ‘much of a muchness’, but the Blackface flock here have forced themselves into my affections. Maybe it’s living at such close quarters, or maybe it’s the terrain and lifestyle, but they seem to have more about them than the ones I’ve know till now. We lived quietly alongside one another during the Winter, but then Spring brought the lambing explosion, and the endless job of tip-toeing around in vast detours to avoid disturbing the new-borns. I felt as though I was trying to contain a mass of human and canine energy that could inadvertently spell disaster if it spilled outside, and the end of our residency here, the house being plonked right in the middle of the birthing flock. It was a tense few months.
Faffy is good around sheep, but they are not to know that. A few ewes briefly took an interest in the kitten, who hid under the quad bike so that all they could see was her lamby aspect: her black face and long bent nose. The gangs of ‘adolescent’ lambs enjoyed her too, and enjoyed following the cockerel around, who failed to be allowed to mind his own business. His business by now, though, turns out to be ours. He wakes all life up before sunrise, is fed seeds by whoever of us gets up first, and spends his day with us on the step and in the bell tent (workshop), often simply sleeping.
And that is that. The lambs are weaned now and the flock is out on the hills away from the houses. Quietness has returned.
The human population swells and retreats similarly. After a Summer of island visitors, some actually destined to see us, and a buzz around the Boathouse as we passed through Ulva Ferry, the contrast come last Winter was stark, and will be again in only a few months from now. I realised how sparse the population of Mull and the islands is, once the seasonal workers and tourists leave. Amenities close down, signs disappear, and leisure is over. The ferries are fewer so disruptions become harder, and services take longer.
I went to collect Katy one Friday from the ferry, only to see it turn about and return to Oban. It could sail in 30 knot winds but not birth at Craignure, and was the last ferry of the day. It was lucky for Katy that the plane for Col and Tyree couldn’t fly, because this kept the hostel open for those pupils and gave her a roof over her head for the weekend, but what turns out okay (or has up till now) involves a good deal of stress at the time.
There is no benchmark for Gometra, with so few inhabitants, so no matter how you try to explain why something that should work, or be easy to arrange, does not (like the technologies or the journeys) it’s hard for people who have to get involved to accept (like BT, for instance, who are mandated to maintain Rhoda’s landline!). It was, perhaps, more straightforward to live here in the past, in some ways at least, when there were villages and a schoolhouse, and when a puffer brought post and provisions round the loch. A sea-going boat might be the answer, and probably will be one day when funds permit, but that would be no way to get to know our neighbours on Ulva.