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.