Escape to the Edge: Christmas on the Isle of Oronsay

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The calm before the storm. A walk with Oscar on the beach at sunset, the last calm day before storm Barbara rolled in from the west and a week of gales set-in.

Its certainly been while since I last blogged and not surprising really as the last couple of months have not exactly inspired me to write about anything much. In the last week though that has changed, as we have had the opportunity to escape the grind of job hunting and grimy east London, and travel to Britain’s wild edge for a mid-winter stay on the island of Oronsay. With this opportunity has come a lifting of our spirits and for me, the impetus to blog again and catch-up on where we are nearly 4 months after finishing our GR1 hike. The long distance hiking we have done over the past year has had a profound effect on both of us and, unsurprisingly, we are still struggling to translate our experiences and insights into our life post-trail. The experience of life as a long distance hiker takes us to a place, mentally and philosophically, that can be hard to come back from. There is so much on returning to ‘mainstream’ life that no longer makes much sense, and that insight can be a gift and a problem in equal measure.

Through these last few months, the GR1 has stayed with us in some form. I still sense a space within, like a still pool, that I can reach into when I need space and calm. I see that sense of inner spaciousness as the transformation of those many quiet miles and feel reassured that something remains. However, if we set out on the trail to (in part) seek answers to how we wanted to live, we have probably returned with more questions and an even greater sense of dislocation than when we left. Of course we have changed, but Britain has changed (or is changing) too, if not that tangibly yet, then at least psychologically. I wrote in our blog about our despair at the Brexit vote, but there is much else besides that makes us feel alienated from the way of life around us. Britain does indeed feel like a foreign country to us now and we’re not sure if we even want to fit back in. To ‘succeed’ within this society we feel we must walk a very narrow path, and it is a path that doesn’t really offer anything we are both looking for in terms of quality of life and fulfillment. I wonder why we keep trying at all, and perhaps that is part of the problem…..

Our time living as nature reserve wardens in Orkney a couple of years ago, allowed us to walk the line between opting in and out; we held a regular job but but were able to live away from it all, surrounded by nature and managing our own time. Such opportunities are rare now however and can’t be relied upon to come up when we want them. We have had lots of time to think over the past months, and I can’t say our thoughts and direction are much clearer, maybe we are just too risk averse to seize something different, to try something un-tested and out of our comfort zone? There is also such as thing as having too much time to think! If nothing else, the more uncertain times we live in are also forcing us to clarify how we maintain those things which mean most to us.

The last few months have certainly left us in limbo for too long, and with little outlet for our energy, so when the chance to help our old boss and friend out over Christmas and New year on the island of Oronsay came along, we literally leapt at the chance! Finally a tangible plan, and chance to escape to a place that we love, a place to sooth senses made ragged by town-living, a place we feel at home.

Oronsay is a small island in the southern, Inner Hebrides, one of many hundreds of islands which lie offshore from the spectacular, scraggly coastline of western Scotland. It is connected to the slightly larger island of Colonsay by a tidal strand, uncovered twice a day when tides and weather allow. As if the two and a half hour ferry ride from Oban to Colonsay was not far-out enough, crossing the strand to Oronsay feels like traveling to another world. As we crossed, Andy told us the the tides would make it impossible to get back to Colonsay for at least a week, and that the impending storm Barbara would also cut Colonsay off from the mainland as the ferry could not dock safely. My only thoughts at these increasing degrees of isolation was relief at leaving it all behind and excitement at the coming drama of weather. We had last been on Oronsay back in late September, and then, just after the hay-cut, the island had been benign and bountiful, the weather still and sparkling.  This time, we were keen to see the other face of life out here, to feel the rumbling force of storms, the squall lines marching in across the ocean, the sting of racing sleet, the gleam of deep winter sunlight.

Andy and Sandra met us from the ferry at the small port of Scalasaig and helped us load an embarassing amount of luggage into the Land Rover- no lightweight hiking principles here! We were packed to the gills with warm clothes and food shopping from Lidl and Tesco, not to mention plenty of books for the long evenings and a digital radio to keep Barry happy. Food was a worry as the local shop is limited and very expensive, plus the fact that we would not even have access to that for the first ten days due to tide and storm. Soon we were ensconced in the small volunteer cottage on Oronsay, with views out across the island to the south, where Barnacle geese (winter visitors from Greenland) with their beautiful black and white barred plumage, lifted and tumbled over the fields. Sandra gave us a long string of coloured Christmas lights to make the cottage more festive, I filled the cupboards with food, set our books out on the coffee table, lit a stick of sandalwood incense, and soon we were sitting in the deep glow of candlelight with hot tea, wondering at the miracle of us actually being here.

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The view from the cottage on our first day, the Barnacle geese swirl over the landscape with the hills on the island of Jura in the distance beyond.  

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Geese tilt and catch the sunlight, they are a constant and welcome spectacle on the reserve this time of year.

The land on Oronsay is managed for wildlife (notably corncrake and choughs) by the RSPB, and our old boss Andy, is now manager of the reserve. Although a spectacular and privileged place to live, especially in spring and summer, life out on the island can be tough in the unrelenting winter weather. With the other two staff away for the holidays, we are volunteering to help out with the care and feeding of the livestock and any other maintenance tasks that need doing. The livestock are fed every morning, and Barry and I take in turns to accompany Andy in the 4×4 to distribute the feed to the various flocks and herds around the reserve. The cattle, a local breed from the island of Luing, are particularly frisky when we arrive, and crowd around Andy as he pours the feed on the ground. Sometimes we move the stock too, and I remember the sight a few days ago as the herd walked calmly in-line behind us, of the sun rising and lighting their tufts of ginger hair and the steam from their breath, it was beautiful. In moments like that I can glimpse the deep satisfaction and even joy of working with these animals. Looking after the animals is a big responsibility however, and Andy shows a conscientiousness with them that is inspiring. Barry and I both value the chance to spend this time with him and learn as much as we can.

feeding-cows

Feeding the cattle on a blustery morning. Already the high clouds ahead of Storm Barbara are reaching across the sky from the west. It would be the last day without gales for over a week.  

After the morning stock-check we have a list of other jobs to get on with, mainly repairs around the yard, shoveling plenty of muck(!), re-tensioning fences and repairing the drystone walls across the island. Repairing the drystone walls is one of our bigger projects and something that we will chip-away at over the coming weeks. Mainly it will involve replacing the top-stones that have fallen or been pushed off, and which through their weight and locking with adjacent stones, give stability to the wall. One afternoon, out replacing the top-stones, I took a breather for a moment and stood in awe at the land and light around me. It was a feeling I remember from our days on Orkney; out working on the reserve on winter days, a curlew would fly over, its call crisp and perfect in the cold air- the wonder and disbelief as we realized where we were and the luck of it all. Out repairing the walls on Oronsay, the cold of the marsh water seeping into my wellies, the sour smell of peat, distant bird calls, brought back many good memories, and out together that day, we fit back into it like a glove. Oscar is in his element too of course. Having grown up as an island dog, he takes to this environment like a fish to water, he knows it instinctively. Out walking or working, he races up and down between us, jumping from tussock to tussock, with so much joy its hard to see how his small terrier body can contain it.  Playing on the beach with kelp stems (tangles) is sheer heaven to him.

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Out repairing the dry-stone walls with Oscar in attendance, the hills of Jura behind.

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Sunlight streams through a cloud-break as I inspect the drystone walls. 

So, we have been sheltering from severe gales for the last few days, and there is more on the way. The final ferry before Christmas did not manage to get to Colonsay, so the Christmas turkeys that the islanders ordered will not arrive in time…dinner will be improvised! The days pass quietly in the sort of deep silence that can only be found in far out places. There is nothing out here to mark or disturb the cycle of days other than nature itself, it is a world where we humans barely exist. I like this sense of being so small in the teeth of such powerful forces, I feel calmer in the midst of these storms that I do in a town high-street. The cottage is very drafty and with the wind this strong, the storage heaters barely keep an ambient temperature, but we have our sleeping bags to huddle down in while we read (currently the diaries of John Muir) and watch the candle flame flicker. On Friday night Barbara arrived with full force, the chimneys rumbled and boomed and there was a power cut. Not knowing how long it would last we went to Andy and Sandra’s and sat eating dinner with them by torchlight. An hour later the power came back on, the isolated island darkness transformed to cosy homeliness again, and an evening in front of the telly together. To have electricity or not is such a fine line that can mean so much out here this time of year.

We are looking forward to sharing Christmas and pooling our resources of nice things to eat, it is strange being so far away but I can’t say we miss the seasonal mania, the pink glow of tree lights and carols on Radio 3 is just fine for us. Afterwards, we hope to find gaps in the weather to complete our work tasks on the reserve and also get out and enjoy the island in its winter glory. There are a couple of job applications to think about and adventures for a new year to plan…and yes hiking will also be in there somewhere. A round-island walk is in the offing also, so watch out for more pictures on Instagram and further blog updates.

Doing the GR1 this year was one of the best things we have ever done, and we are glad we seized the day to get out there and do it while we have the health, time and impetus to do so. The last few months have been frustrating at times, but doing what we really want in our lives always involves risks and challenges of some kind. Not taking such risks is a risk in itself I think. As the old adage goes, in the end we only regret what we don’t do. I suppose it depends on how honest we are prepared to be about what we want in our life. With the difficulties of our choices also come the rewards, and for us, these rewards are chances like this to spend time on Oronsay, to set off into the wild north at the drop of a hat, to go where opportunities take us, to stay on our toes and to keep seeking the right life for us.

Wishing you all a peaceful Christmas and a big thank-you for following our blog and adventures this year…there will be more to come in 2017.

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Cold sunset on the island edge. 

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9 thoughts on “Escape to the Edge: Christmas on the Isle of Oronsay

  1. Hey – left a Christmas message on your mobile earlier, which you’ll get when you get back to civilisation – or maybe from civilisation. Sending you lots of love for today and every day really. Hope to speak soon Mark

    Sent from my iPhone

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    • Hi Mark,
      Thanks for your message, we are out of mobile range most of the time here. Hope you all have a great time in the Lake District and say hello to the others from us. We appreciate having such good friends as you and Jane and hope we can spend some more time together (maybe out camping somewhere….) in 2017. Lots of love to you all, Barry and Rebecca

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    • Hi Janet, Great to hear from you. Hope you are having a good holiday. How is life going in Derbyshire and what are you all up to these days? Our plans are uncertain, jobs or more travelling, we’ll see what the next couple of months bring. Thanks for reading the blog and please keep in touch,

      All the best for the New Year,

      Rebecca and Barry

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  2. Hi Rebecca and Barry – a quick few lines from a gale-stricken Deerness. I have just enjoyed reading your blog about life on Oronsay and was delighted to see OSCAR enjoying himself there in the wilds and still chasing tangles. We still look at his photo most days.
    I wish you all the very best for 2017 and look forward to hearing where your travels take you next.
    Pauline.

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    • Hi Pauline, It’s lovely to hear from you. Yes, we have had a week of ferocious winds here on Oronsay too, although it was less strong and cold than in the Northern Isles. We have not had a boat arrive (with food) for the last week so we are all looking forward to our first visit to the community shop tomorrow! Oscar has really taken to island life again and has gone back to all his old ways. We are out repairing fences today and he started barking and trying to dig up the fence posts, he is such a funny dog and make us both laugh a lot. We hope you and Peter are keeping well and all the best for a peaceful 2017. Thank-you for keeping up with the blog also, we’ll be posting more when we have made some plans, jobs or travel, who knows!

      Best wishes

      Rebecca, Barry and Oscar.

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  3. Great to read your blog again , if you have the
    Time on your hands you should really write a book I keep saying it it you have a talent with words… what have you got to lose ?
    Enjoy the wild islands , take care and keep posting.
    Merry Christmas and a healthy,happy 2017

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    • Hi Allanah,
      Thanks once again for your encouragement. Each time you say about the book a little more of the idea seeps in I promise 😉 I am probably over-thinking or over-complicating what it would take to write something more formally. Maybe I could just keep it really simple! We’ll see, like you say, there is nothing to lose. The storms have finally subsided here and we had a fantastic winter sunset from Oronsay tonight. Hope you have a chance to enjoy some wilder places over Christmas/New Year too. Wishing you all the best for 2017 and please stay in touch….your blog/website looks very stylish by the way and I will be looking at your GR5 posts again for inspiration 🙂

      Best Wishes

      Rebecca and Barry

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  4. Rebecca

    I have just read your most beautiful of blogs. Superb content and so wonderfully constructed. You may feel out of place much/some of the time – but at least you are asking questions, which is something 99% of people don’t even do. There is no right answer – I feel that being comfortable in your own skin is so very important and don’t measure yourself against other people or other lives. What you two are doing is wonderful and you should keep walking your own path of happiness.

    Your comments about which world to live in (my words of course) are hugely thought provoking for me – lots of food for thought about how I want to live the rest of my live. I think walking long routes will play a part in that.

    We hope to hear from you soon and see you too of course.

    Love from us all.

    Mark

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