I love islands. I have always found them places where I think clearer, unwind and put my own small world into perspective. Today The Guardian publish my piece on Holy Island in Northumbria, a place I run to when life gets a little tumultuous.
The start of week two found me sitting in a living room surrounded by cans of scrumpy beer and hung over twenty somethings. The volunteers working on the island had been up late but still welcomed me and made me coffee.
We wandered to the forestry plantation where I threw myself on the mercy of the local volunteer co-ordinator. I explained that I had come to Eigg to work and was reluctant to leave so soon. Did she think anyone else on the island might put me up and feed me in exchange for some help? She said she would see what she could do.
By the end of the day nothing definite had materialised so I retreated to the Glebe bunkhouse to do my washing and eat the first hot meal for two days. That evening a sea eagle sailed past my bedroom window and seals hunted in the bay below.
On Tuesday I met John (the bird) a man from my own McDonald Clan who was smoking a pipe and looking for great spotted woodpeckers. He drew me a map to the Massacre Cave where the entire Mcdonald Clan on the islands had hid from marauding Mcleods, who had set a fire in the narrow entrance to the cave and suffocated the lot of us.
I crawled into the blackness with a torch and gave my long lost relatives my sympathies. I crawled out and lay on a rock as ravens rose from the cliffs and sortied to decide on the likelihood of eating me.
On Wednesday a message came through. The local school’s retired head teacher was willing to take me in exchange for cleaning her windows and doing her gardening.
We met. She was a friendly women with many tales of her life teaching in the islands. I cleaned her windows all morning as the sea becalmed and sang with light. At lunch I returned to the hostel, packed my bags and hauled the wheelie suitcase up the hill to her home. My forth since leaving England less than two weeks ago.
Window’s Clean I turned my attention to weeding the garden. I weeded in dreich weather and fair. I weeded as the clegs came to bite. I weeded until I resembled a muddy creature from the bog and had to be hosed down. In the evenings we shared a meal and talked of life on the island.
On my day off I made it to the Loch of the Big Women, paddled my feet in the waters and left the Pictish Queens a red apple with one bite taken out of it as a gift. I got lost in mist climbing the Sgurr. I searched for otters which never revealed themselves.
When the ferry came to pick me up on Monday morning. I was sad. A friend from the Glebe Barn summed it up. “It is like we’ve been in another world.” she said. We had. A world of night skies that never quite darkened, of waking to the sound of sheep and curlews not traffic. A world where people greeted me at the dock. I knew there story and they knew mine.
Eigg is not idyllic, not lost in another century, not an easy place to live and work. It is not a toy town built for tourists but inhabited by real people and in many ways ahead of the rest of the world. It is beautiful to be sure but what I will miss most are the deep peace that comes when the cars are left behind on the mainland and how easy it is to feel part of a community when you are all on an island only 4 miles long.
It is a place which I already have plans to return to.
My first week on the Isle of Eigg was spent working on a croft where they grown willow and make beautiful baskets. I installed myself in a caravan under the cliff face and worked hard cutting the weeds around a giant willow plot with a small sickle. It was hard and hot work. Above me, on the cliffs, the ravens played and a golden eagle floated across the moorland.
All day I bent to the task, listening to Radio 4 and drinking gallons of water. On days when the mists descended and the rain rolled in from Rhum I worked in the barn sorting stacks of willow called Flanders Red into different lengths. I poured each bundle of willow into a dustbin sunk in the floor and shook it vigorously, measuring the twigs against a large makeshift ruler. More silence, more radio 4. The world poured into the barn on the hill while I helped create baskets as islanders have done for centuries.
My host was taciturn. A man of few words who freely admitted he didn’t like company in the house. I worked alone, cooked and ate my meals alone and, at night, sat alone in my caravan reading as long eared owl chicks called outside and mars rose on the horizon. I was not lonely but it was isolating, having no one to speak to.
The scenery made up for it. In the evenings I would sit with a beer and watch the sun set behind the mountains of Rhum or I would walk through fields of heath orchids and cotton grass to the Singing Sands, a white beach which squealed as you walked upon it. I swam in the icy zircon blue water. I surprised hen harriers who ghosted through the grass looking for voles.
On Friday two volunteers came up from the Eigg heritage trust to help. My host left me in charge while he went to the mainland for two days. I relished the chance for human company, to swap stories and laugh as we worked. We cut the fields with scythes all day until the sweat ran from us. In the evening I fetched the man’s washing in and looked after his house. When my host returned he wasn’t happy. “Do you mean to tell me that is 15 hours work?” he said. “Why didn’t you all split up and work on different projects” I explained that I felt it would be more sociable for the two volunteers to work together. “Being sociable is not something I care about,” He said. “It’s the work that is the point.”
I retreated to my caravan and cried. It seemed so unfair to be told off when I had worked so hard and wasn’t even being paid. The rain poured down all day and the caravan was damp. The heating wouldn’t work and I didn’t dare ask my host for help. By the evening I had decided I was leaving. I packed my bags and hauled my rucksacks and wheelie suitcase a mile over a rocky, puddled mountain track past bemused sheep and cows. The volunteers who had worked with me on Friday took me in and offered to let me sleep on their couch. It wasn’t the end to the week I had planned.
spending two weeks helping out at a croft on the Island of Eigg and enjoying the amazing scenery and wildlife including hen harriers, golden eagles and long eared owls.
Head over to the RSPB website to read my guest blog on my work with farmers in North Kent. The site describes me as a RSPB volunteer farm advisor which isn’t quite true as I work independently of the RSPB as a paid consultant but the support and advise I receive from the RSPB is fundamental in making the project a success.
Read the blog here
Some days it seems there is not much good news in the world but today I learnt for definite that two black winged stilt chicks, one of the rarest birds in Britain, have successfully fledged from farmland on Sheppey.
The adults have patrolled tirelessly throughout the year to drive off marsh harriers, buzzards and even the RSPB expert who came to see them.
They and the farmers deserve every bit of this success. These are the first birds ever to fledge outside of a reserve in Britain and, for today, that is enough to make me happy.