Thursday, 22 November 2012

No Time to Blog

This has been sitting on my laptop since the start of November when the weather had turned properly cold, leaving feathery ice patterns on my skylight window and a dusting of snow on the hilltops.  Now we’re more than three-quarters of the way through the month & I’m only just getting around to uploading it.  Where has the time gone?  Frittered away in numerous trips to the mainland...   

The path through the bluebell woods has disappeared under a bright coloured carpet of leaves; difficult to navigate by torchlight these days, lucky my feet know the way by now.  Last year I blinked and missed autumn - this year I've been trying to capture it with varying degrees of success.  The leaves don't stay long on the trees in these winds.

We had an excellent community engagement event at the end of September, part of the year of support I won us from the Scottish Community Development Centre’s ACE programme (Achieving Community Empowerment).  Almost everyone turned out for it, as well as our local councillor, MSP, and key people from Highlands & Islands Enterprise and Scottish Natural Heritage.  We had round-table discussions on four topics: housing, infrastructure, developments, and getting people involved, each one facilitated and focussing on how to achieve positive ways forward rather than getting bogged down in past gripes.  I was feeling a bit anxious about facilitating my table – I’ve never been in a room with everyone on the island before and I wasn’t sure what would happen.  What if people started shouting at each other?  The cheery chaps from SCDC advised me that everything would be fine and if things did start getting boggy, I could move them on by asking “what can we do to make this better?”  My fears were unfounded, everyone displayed thorough understanding of the issues, and there was a reassuring consensus of opinion.  Being a worrier, I’m still concerned about the ones who didn’t come – if they won’t get on board with an event with a free meal at the end of it, will they back whatever we do next, based on the outcome of this event?
 “What can we do to make this better” has especially resonated with me this month, as I’ve been attending a 5 day course on conflict resolution and mediation targeted at those working with communities.  The course was spread over 4 Fridays and a Monday, so it’s been pretty tiring commuting backwards and forwards to Glasgow, but I’m thoroughly enjoying the course and it’s not so bad compared to the Inverness – Aberdeen commute I did for the two years of my MSc.  Like the man said, everything’s relative.  The course has been useful in helping to identify my own response to conflict (Avoid! Avoid!), and to reflect on whether this is the most constructive way to deal with it (not always).  It’s also got me thinking about how we resolve conflict on Rum, since it seems like a fairly peaceful place compared to one of our near neighbours.  I suspect it has something to do with the relative equality on the island – as individuals nobody really holds any more power than anyone else, everyone has a similar degree of security.  Living on an island we’re very dependent on each other for survival; people will always help each other out, even if they wouldn’t particularly choose to socialise with them.  It’s also an island where women are the main decision makers and business owners; I’m not drawing any conclusions from this, just putting it out there!

Part of mediation involves allowing things to be as they are; allowing both sides the space to find their own solution, rather than trying to impose what you think is best for everyone, and this ties in neatly with a mindfulness programme I’m working my way through.  Can I just accept that things are as they are on the island, and stop making myself crazy trying to “fix” everything?  Can I allow events to unfold in their own time?  I suspect not, if that timescale is measured in decades rather than months and it’s the community bunkhouse we’re talking about, but in other areas, yes – perhaps I can.  Maybe this way I can find a little of the peace and harmony I’m seeking.  Our Rum Mum who departed last autumn for warmer climes was fond of reminding me that things will happen in their own time.

Someone made the radical suggestion to me recently that our island “characters” are as essential to the health and variety of the community as anyone else, and this has got me thinking as well.  People contribute in their own way, and maybe it’s not necessarily by being a director of the Trust, or setting up a community company.  As confidence grows, will more contributions be made in more obvious ways by more people?  This is a community which has historically had everything done for it by someone else.  We’re like a teenager who’s left home for the first time and it’s slowly dawning on us that clothes don’t get cleaned by magic, and the shelves don’t fill themselves.

Skye from Kilmory

Monday, 1 October 2012

On the Inside, Looking Out

I’ve been struggling a bit lately.  Feeling like I’m on my own – working alone, going home alone, everyone’s busy with their own thing.  An island of mainly couples can be a lonesome place for a single girl...  I’m also terrible at asking for help, yet when I do, I realise I have really good friends here and I’m not so much alone as I think.  I’ve had many kind words and buckets of good advice: one person can’t change the world, even a world as small as an island – I knew this when I came here, and I’d forgotten it.  Change will come in its own time and will be the result of everyone’s efforts, not just mine.  One day I’ll return to the island and see how much things have moved on, and I’ll know I was a part of it – but just one part of many.

Picking blackberries for wine has been therapeutic; keeping eyes and hands busy so the mind is free to wander.  I had a good visit from a mainland friend which reminded me there’s a whole world beyond this island – it’s easy to forget this and become too focussed on the minutiae of life in a small community.  I’ve resolved to be more positive and outward-looking, less introspective and dark.  It’s easy to get lost in the woods, especially now the nights are getting longer.  I'm also on an 8 week course of mindfulness meditation, to help me recognise the difference between a practical problem which can be puzzled over and solved, and an emotional reaction which quickly descends into a spiral of self-doubt and frustration if I think about it too much - trying to "fix" it only makes it worse.

In a National Geographic article recently one of our Muckity Muck neighbours described these as “Wee places...not much travelled today, inhabited by dreamers and stoics. Retreats from the world. Blank canvases for quixotic quests.”  Dreamers and stoics – perhaps you need to be a bit of both to thrive here.  There was an interesting piece in the Scottish Community Alliance newsletter (a.k.a. Local People Leading) this month  about how social capital – or wealth measured in terms of local networks and people working together – can help communities survive natural disasters.  The article suggests that social capital can be built through engaging local people in discussion groups, social events, and just by making a little effort to get to know one’s neighbours.  Programmes like HIE’s Community Account Management may be the best strategy for the survival of vulnerable communities like mine, by investing in the social infrastructure of community trusts, as well as assisting economic development.

We had a really good community engagement event last month, facilitated by the Scottish Community Development Centre.  22 of the 31 adults on the island turned out for it, along with our local councillor, MSP, and representatives from SNH and HIE.  Housing, infrastructure, developments past, present & future, and how to get more of the community actively involved were up for round-table discussion, with a great deal of consensus and some radical ideas for solutions.  There is hope for the future on our small island – in contrast to our other neighbour which continues to haemorrhage residents at a depressing rate.

I’m leaving the island for two weeks now – the longest I’ll have been away since I moved here.  I have to admit, I’m very much looking forward to a change of scenery, and will be interested to see how I feel about coming back.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

The More Things Change...

This month I got stranded by the weather for the first time.  I meant to return from a car club meeting on Eigg on the Sheerwater, a little passenger boat which runs from Arisaig.  However, no amount of eyelash fluttering would persuade them to brave the waves across the Sound of Rum, so I had to take the Calmac ferry back to Mallaig and spend the night there.  I'm lucky to have a friend there who lets me stay in his spare house at times such as these.  It was like having a day off from my life, and reminded me of some of the long solitary journeys I made in my more youthful days; that sense of being in limbo, between places, outside my self.  On the other hand, being on Rum is often like being on a mythical fantasy island, removed from the outside world.  The mainland is erased by cloud and the goings-on of the village become suffocatingly everything.  Being not-on-Rum, but looking at it half obscured by mist, it seemed tantalisingly easy to just not return; to not stop at Mallaig but keep going away, away, away.

I’ve been examining this tendency in myself to pack up and leave when things get a bit ... well, a bit much.  A friend across the water recently set herself the challenge of not leaving the similarly isolated community in which she lives, for a whole year. She’s making a film about it, which I’m looking forward to seeing.  At the end of the year she fled to London and hasn’t been seen since – I can understand this, but wonder if the pull of the wild land and open spaces will eventually be too much.  I am absolutely certain that not leaving Rum for a whole year would drive me insane; but perhaps it wouldn’t.  Perhaps standing still and acknowledging what’s going on is a more healthy way of doing things.  Running is easy.  Sitting through the turmoil is much more difficult.

I haven’t measured the time since I came here by photographing myself in the same place every day.  I haven’t kept a diary with any regularity.  I do try and sit in stillness for ten minutes each day, but have lacked even this simple discipline in recent months.  I strive to measure time by what I achieve between one point and the next, but have found it unsatisfying to do that here, because of the way time works – nothing happens for ages, then everything happens at once.  Time moves in stops and starts; backwards, forwards, sideways.  A week can seem to last a month, but there are some months I can’t account for at all (August, for example).

I find change unsettling, and yet staying in one place doesn’t stop things from changing.  When I came here I didn’t know what to expect, but I did expect there to be some kind of stability or continuity.  It’s a remote, isolated island.  Surely all that changes is the weather?  In fact, there is a constant coming and going of people.  Again and again, I form quick, deep bonds with people who move away after a few months, and so I start all over again with new people; but how long will they last – how long will I last?

I’ve been thinking hard about my motivation for coming here – the job, the sense of helping a community to achieve something.  But the community is fragmented, we don't speak with one voice, we're a collection of individuals rather than a single organism.  I'm tired of writing the same thing over and again in funding applications, of consulting everyone yet again on the same project becuase this is what funders require.  If only we had our own money & could just make things happen without being at the mercy of grant funding.  Many of the beneficiaries of my hard work seem completely indifferent to the changes I’m helping to bring about.  If nothing happens, as nothing has happened historically, what difference will that make?  Change is unsettling.  Time will tell.

Sunday, 5 August 2012


July was a month of visitors.  I suspect my parents view my move here with some bewilderment and I’m never sure what to do with them when they visit.  They’re not really walkers, birdwatchers or nature enthusiasts, and there’s little else to do here.  I could just let them sit around and read books, but they can do that anywhere and I want to share my lovely island with them and somehow make them  understand why I’m so smitten with it.

A friend and I hitched a lift to Harris & walked to Papadil on the south side of the island.  The sea sparkled blue in the lovely summer weather we’re starting to take for granted, and Papadil was cradled under Sgurr nan Gillean like a little lost world.  I was briefly excited by movement in the bay at Inbhir Gil, primed to look for minke whales by a number of recent sightings, but it was just a seal observing us with typically detached curiosity.

We had a visit from the Minister for Environment & Climate Change, though we were unimpressed by his apparent lack of interest in what we’re doing, and left wondering why he bothered to come at all.  Our Climate Challenge Fund project, Greening Rum, is proceeding with typical slowness – the polytunnel is still not up, the rotor composter hasn’t arrived yet, and when we went to roll out the loft insulation we discovered woodworm which will need to be treated before we cover it with fabulous non-itch ecowool made from recycled bottles.

I’m rueing the day I thought it would be a good plan to apply to the new Coastal Communities Fund.  With only £1.8million for the whole Highlands & Islands, we went for a middling amount to get the Byre redevelopment off the ground and were invited to submit to stage 2; a rare event, by all accounts.  However, the amount we’ve requested is only around 10% of what we need for Phase I now that the Feasibility Study is complete with figures.  I’m stumped about where we’re going to find the rest, but I’m sure we’ll find it somewhere.  I’m thoroughly daunted by the two 38-page forms I have to fill in for what is essentially a teeny tiny amount of money.  Luckily about 10 pages of each form are guidance notes...  Making the Byre project happen feels a lot like standing at the bottom of a very steep mountain & wondering how I’m going to get to the top.

This month I managed to spend 28 straight days on the island, but it was good to get away for a weekend of hillwalking in Perthshire.  Two days felt like two weeks.  Must remember that I don’t need to do everything, and it’s ok to let things evolve in their own time.  I don’t know if it was just being in one place for four whole weeks, but it feels as though the relentless onward march of Time slowed down this month, and July went on for ages.  Not a bad thing.  I’m hoping that August will proceed at a similar leisurely pace.
Rum from Muck

Monday, 2 July 2012

Don't Mention the Midges!

Apparently it’s been the wettest June on record in the UK – except for the North West of Scotland, where it’s been remarkably dry.  Unfortunately, this has not affected the midge population.

Rather than avoid the subject of our less welcome residents, the Isle of Rum Think Tank got together and decided to embrace them and hold a festival in their honour.  So MidgeFest is born – put it in your diary for the 4th August; you have to get up early to catch the ferry (or come on the Sheerwater from Arisaig later on) but you can spend 10 hours on Rum and take part in various Rangery, crafty and fun activities.  It’s aimed at families, but everyone’s welcome!  Watch the Isle of Rum website for info.

Last week I went to Ullapool for one of the Local Development Officer get-togethers organised by our funders, Highlands & Islands Enterprise.  I value these events as I get to show off to my fellow D.O.s about how much funding I’ve drawn down recently and what excitement is going off on Rum (What? Competetive? Me?).  I also get reminded that I’m not alone in wading through treacle, and the numerous frustrations dragging me down day to day are the same ones experienced by people in community development everywhere.  People are what they are – wonderful, maddening, individual, and communities are the sum of their people parts.

One of our residents has left to return to her native New Zealand – it’s a big loss to us as she was an active volunteer as well as working for the Trust.  She was probably the best ambassador for the island we had; cheerful, chatty, friendly, and spreading the word wherever she went.  She was instrumental in making me feel welcome when I arrived, helping me move in, showing me around, and introducing me to everyone.  I will miss her a lot, and I’m sorry I didn’t spend more time with her when I could have – her departure is a timely warning against taking things (and people) for granted.

So here I am counting my blessings: I’m young(ish), healthy, I have wonderful friends here and elsewhere, I live in a most amazing place, I have a nice house and a good job – and things are moving; slowly, but definitely moving.

Yet I’m feeling a bit stale.  I’ve achieved all my personal goals.  What I’m doing at work should be enough for one person – taking forward two big building projects as well as all the small day to day stuff – but as my friend in the Scottish Parliament likes to say: if you’re not growing, you’re stagnating (he says it with an ironic face on).  I still haven’t figured out what I’m doing here or which direction I want to grow in, but the island meets several of my Requirements for a Happy Future Life, such as:
  • Off-grid living
  •  Potential for near self-sufficiency on a community scale
  •  Shiny, happy, like-minded people
Yet I’m still reluctant to commit to being here for a longer term than the length of my contract.  I still feel temporary.  What’s that about?