SCOTLAND ODYSSEY : A RUM EXPERIENCE
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Across the aisle from me in the train is a rather wild looking chap with long grey hair and a large rucksack and all sorts of other bits and pieces. He was pouring over rows and rows of figures written on the back of opened-up toothpaste boxes which caused him to grunt every so often.
I break the ice and the next thing I'm sitting opposite him and he's telling me he's a caretaker on the island of Rum (also spelt Rhum) and one of a community of only 30 living there. He's a Welshman and he had been on Rum for 11 years.
I asked him all sorts of questions about life on Rum and he's very forthcoming. By the time we get to Mallaig I've found out all sorts of interesting things about him, how many children he had etc etc and that he's 56 years old.
Also on the train are three Scotsmen, two older ones and a younger one, and a lively bunch of Scottish schoolgirls, chatting flirtingly with the men.
The two older Scots and the one in particular are clearly under the weather but not obstreperously so. They don't pay much attention to us although I get the impression that they're quite curious about the fact that Rhys and I have struck up a conversation.
By the end of the journey I get chatting to them as well and find out that the more inebriated one is a McDonald and the other one who is less so is a McVarish. The youngster is also a McDonald.
'HH', the book that is my companion on my 'Odyssey', has some interesting things to say about the connection between the McDonalds and the McVarishes in this part of the world (p.98) so it's quite a coincidence meeting two of them together like this.
When I get off the train my one thought is that I need to buy a towel for my stay in the sleeper coach at Glen Finnan and I mentionthe the fact to my Welsh friend before we part company but I'm told that Mallaig's shops are all shut by now.
As I only have about half an hour before catching the return train to Glen Finnan, I can't venture too far and pop into the Marine Arms pub for a beer. There I again meet the older McDonald and McVarish but neither are too interested in me.
I end up chatting to another fellow who works temporarily in Mallaig managing the Marine Hotel and then dash to get on the train again.
Arriving at the train, who should be waiting for me but my Welsh friend with a plastic bag containing a green towel – one of his own. I was so touched and thanked him profusely but in no time at all the train was on its way.
I jumped off with another well-to-do looking couple at Glen Finnan and offloaded my things from the car into the sleeper coach which I had entirely to myself.
I chose a compartment with a double bed and enjoyed a luxurious hot shower before turning in, properly exhausted.
Before going to sleep I read up on Glen Finnan in HH (pp.98-9) and suddenly the penny drops. This was the famous place associated with Bonny Prince Charlie and the start of the ’45 Rebellion. How could I not have remembered?
So overnight I decide I'll drive back to Mallaig in the morning to have a proper look at the place which so intrigues me from what I had seen of it on the internet and also to surprise my Welsh friend by being at the jetty to see him off and to return his towel.
What a day it was to prove to be!
Fri 6.11.09 (Day 8): After a good night's sleep I got up early and set off for Mallaig as I had decided to do, planning to get back early enough to have a good look at Glen Finnan and especially to see Bonny Prince Charlie's famous column.
On the way down to Mallaig, a lovely drive known as the "Road to the Isles", I come across the cairn marking the Bonnie Prince's reputed departure point to France, fleeing for his life after the failed Rebellion. It's on a sea loch and it's an uncanny feeling standing imagining what it must have been like for the Prince as he left Scotland’s shores for the last time and thinking about all the drama that preceded his departure.
Then it was on back to the pretty little fishing and ferry port, Mallaig, which I could now appreciate by light of day.
I went straight down to the harbour as it was getting towards 10am when my friend had said the ferry left. I went to the ticket office and enquired about the possibility of a trip and found out that I could get a return ticket to Rum for just over 13 pounds which allowed me a couple of hours on the island.
After pondering it briefly I decided this was too good an opportunity to miss and bought a ticket, very excited at the prospect of what lay ahead.
The departure time was 10.20 but we needed to board at 10, which was when the ferry, Loch Nevis, pulled in to the dock. It actually backs in to a slipway so vehicles can get off and on. My friend arrived just before 10 and I returned his towel to him, announcing that he had company on the trip.
The weather was perfect with a clear view of the islands offshore, basking in winter sunlight and a glassy sea around. My friend pointed out which was which: Eigg on the left, Rum straight ahead with Skye to the right. Rum and Eigg are known as the "small isles" along with Muck and Canna.
The trip was exceptional and takes about an hour with the mainland slipping away but still clearly in view and the islands getting ever nearer.
Docking at Rum, I recognised the bay from photographs in books I’ve read, overlooked by the imposing but quite gloomy Kinloch Castle..
En route we also passed close to the point of Sleat which, looking at the map, I now realise is the tip of Skye. Skye is linked to the mainland by a roadbridge across Loch Alsh up the Sound of Sleat - does that mean that, strictly speaking, it's no longer an island?
My friend and I disembarked and he retrieved his bicycle which had left unlocked standing where he had left it and where it had spent four weeks waiting faithfully for him!
Bicycles in SA are nowhere near as loyal or patient and also have many other aspirant owners.
We then took an amble around the bay with my friend's pack and other impedimenta loaded on his steed, discussing life on Rum all the way.
We passed the island's little school which he said was staffed by a teacher and a principal for five pupils. Quite a teacher-pupil ratio! Apparently the teacher and principal also look after other island schools so perhaps their job isn't quite as cushy as it sounds.
On board the ferry I had met two of the other members of the Rum community, a girl with her dog 'Jock', a black labrador, who works at the Kinloch Castle Hotel, and her boyfriend, who also lives and works (self-employed doing odd jobs) on Rum and was on his way back to be interviewed for a job as a lineman, catching and releasing the ropes when the ferry leaves and docks at Rum. He had been in Edinburgh having some major dental work done.
My friend showed me his "Bothy" and introduced me to the two people with whom he shared his part of the building, a couple.
There's also a New Zealander on the island who enjoys scrabble and we went to her "Bothy" thinking that I might challenge her to an international match but she was on duty at the Castle.
We had passed the Castle on the way and my friend mentioned that the likes of himself are only allowed to use the back entrance, the front entrance being reserved for 'special guests'.
Castles and stately homes, I'm afraid, leave me cold. That's not what I came to Scotland for and it was the Baronial types who were responsible for the clearances, also on Rum. It's amazing that such places are celebrated.
Everyone seems so matter-of-fact about the clearances. No talk of land restitution here. Surely there's a good case to be made for it? After all, the Scottish clearances were also happening at about the same time as the famous clearance of the Xhosa back home in my part of the world around Grahamstown.
I took leave of my friend and went off for a stroll but not before getting a photo of him at the door of his 'Bothy'.
He had the funniest laugh which just came out of nowhere, starting off as a chortle and welling into a kind of high-pitched cackle.
At the local post office-cum-store-cum pub-cum restaurant-cum community hall there was a display of happy photographs which featured my friend in quite a number. He is obviously a local character.
He told me that people come and go and it's obvious that most who do a spell there do so to sort out certain issues in their lives whatever they might be.
On the train he also told me that he loved reading and indulged his thoughts in scribbles which he briefly showed me.
He also confirmed that part of his being on Rum had been to contemplate and discover the meaning of life and that he spent a lot of time in philosophical musing. We agreed that as for the 'meaning of life', everyone has to provide their own answers.
My walk took me to the end of the road beyond where my friend stayed and then through a gate and across a muddy field where I found a strange instrument mounted on a gatepost whith a glass orb into which the sun refracted and captured an image of its surroundings including bright red berries growing near it.
On our way from the ferry we had noticed some people on the 'beach' who Rhys said were gathering winkles. My walk took me onto the beach which was now very exposed but I had to cross a lot of weed and water flowing down from the hills to get to the sand. I shed my shoes and walked barefoot through the freezing water and over the sharp rocks and spiky mussels, keeping a close eye on the time as I had to be back at the jetty to catch the return ferry at 1.50pm. I made it back in time as the ferry was approaching and there to see me off was my friend.
The winkle-pickers were also there with their haul of 20 bags each containing 25kgs of winkles. I got chatting to one of them who told me that their harvest was destined for the Spanish and French markets and made them a tidy sum. It had taken them two days to collect the 20 bags.
According to him, you boil them and then pick them out of the shell with a toothpick and they make good eating. I told him that periwinkles (the same thing) are found in profusion on our SA coastline but I had never heard of anyone harvesting or eating them.
Apparently no permit is required to collect winkles on Rum and there is also no limit.
All too soon I was back on the ferry as it pulled away from the jetty, exchanging farewell waves to my new-found friend who was gradually enveloped in the view of the bay as we headed back to the mainland.