“There’s something I find quite attractive about these remote Scottish islands”, says the First Mate, taking a sip of her coffee.
We have just anchored in the small southern harbour of the island of Gometra on the west coast of Mull, and are sitting in the cockpit basking in the sun. On some rocks to the side of us about half a dozen seals have the same idea, looking for all the world like curved bananas that didn’t quite meet EU regulations. We are the only boat here, and apart from one small cottage on the shoreline, we could be the only humans in the world.
Even though it is fairly close to Mull, in several ways Gometra has to be one of the most remote Scottish Islands – there is one permanent inhabitant, four or five houses, including Gometra House, used by the owner of the island. There are no shops, no ferry, and the only access is by the single road running from the small cluster of houses on the south-western end of the island to a bridge over the narrow tidal gap that separates Gometra from the larger island of Ulva. Even from the bridge it is a two hour walk to Ulva Ferry to cross to Mull. And that’s about it, apart from lots of heather and beautiful beaches.
We decide it is too beautiful a day to do nothing, so we clamber into the dinghy and row ashore. As we do so, we are followed by five seals poking their heads out of the water, inquisitive about these intruders in their watery domain. The first two see us looking back at them and shyly submerge. The other three stay a respectful distance.
As we land, we are struck by the heaps of plastic waste on the shore – pieces of old fishing net, ropes, milk containers, soft-drink bottles, even a toilet seat. To be fair, much of it seems to have been washed up by the sea itself, almost as though it has vomited it out and is saying to us “Here, I don’t want this poison. Take it back and deal with it yourself!”. Some of it is in piles, which we decide, hopefully not naively, has already been collected from the foreshore and awaiting collection for safe disposal.
But as we walk along the track, we also see much more – plastic fertiliser bags used to fill in potholes where vehicles have been stuck, old fish boxes discarded next to the road, a heating oil tank against a fence. I recall a recent National Geographic article I have read that globally 18 billion tonnes of plastic are dumped in the sea every year – this is only a tiny fraction of that amount, of course, but every little bit contributes.
We continue along the track with the narrow gut that separates Gometra and Ulva on one side, and a hillside of rough heather on the other. The tide is ebbing and already we can see the mud on the bottom and the normally-submerged rocks beginning to appear. Eventually the small stone bridge comes into view.
Crossing the bridge, we walk up to a promontory on the Ulva side and look across Loch Tuadh. On the other side, we can make out the tiny white dots of houses on the hillside, one of which is our friend Mark, whom we will be meeting tomorrow.
Retracing our footsteps, we pass two small buildings, one of which has two girls sunning themselves on the wooden seat outside. We guess that this is Jane Anne’s Bothy available for rent on AirBnB, but is very basic with no electricity, gas, bedding, cooking facilities or internet, has a shared outside toilet, and requiring an eight-mile walk in from Ulva Ferry, carrying all the supplies needed for one’s stay. Hot water and heating are from a coal stove with the coal being purchased in advance from the island’s single resident. Definitely one for the hardy, self-reliant and those fed up with modern society!
The second building is a small studio with a collection of craft work from the island’s only resident, Rhoda Munro. There is also a small pile of essential grocery items for the yachts-people that have run short, and sets of Gometra postage stamps (although these only get the letter as far as Ulva Ferry, beyond which a normal postage stamp is needed!). On one outside wall is a plaque in memory of Catherine MacQuarie McDonald, an inhabitant of Gometra, who facing abject poverty when her fisherman husband was drowned, took her ten children and emigrated to Australia. At the unveiling ceremony of the plaque in 2017, it seems that she now has more than 2000 descendants in Australia, including a MP!
We continue along the rocky track, deeply rutted in places, passing close to the shoreline with the waves lapping below, through a cut in the rock, before reaching a gate beyond which there are a cluster of four houses in a row at the base of a steep cliff. The first one, the Teacher’s Bothy, is available for rent like the first one we saw. The other three are also obviously lived in – one has a Land Rover and a quad bike outside it, and we surmise that it is where Rhoda Munro, the island’s farmer, lives. In front of the houses is a fenced off area with an overrun garden and a dilapidated polytunnel frame partially covered with green netting.
A little bit further on, reminding us of a mother hen in charge of her chicks, is the larger Gometra House, where the owner, Roc Sandford, lives. Sandford is an interesting character. He is a millionaire, having made his money in tourism, property and publishing, and is a self-avowed environmental campaigner, making a point of minimising his carbon footprint and living sustainably. Although he lives in London, to get from there to Gometra he travels by bike, train, ferry, bus and rowboat. Reading about him later, I find myself warming to him. He plans to gradually phase out the use of all fossil fuels and shift the focus of the island’s farm from methane-emitting livestock production to carbon and amenity farming, and probably because of this, publicly advocates a carbon tax to internalise the social costs of carbon dioxide emissions. Good for him.
We walk to the top of the hill overlooking Loch na Keal and eat our sandwiches and munch our apples. The views on a brilliant day like this are stunning. We make out Iona in the distance, Staffa and Inch Kenneth, where we had sailed a few days previously, and then further westwards out to the Treshnish Isles, and Coll and Tiree, where we hope to be in a few days’ time. On the grass below us sheep graze nonchalantly, apparently oblivious to the view. Down to our left, there is a pretty little beach which apparently one of the previous owners used to have herself driven down to in her Rolls Royce (a distance of about 200 metres) and would swim naked!
“It’s beautiful”, sighs the First Mate, “but I am not sure I could live here. I need people, and there are not enough here.”
I muse to myself whether I could cope with island living, particularly on Gometra, which is remoter than many. For me, there is a definite attractiveness about the concept – the self-sufficiency, the escape from the rat-race, the closeness to nature, the time to read, think and write. But, it takes a special kind of person to thrive in such conditions – no mod cons (not even a working washing machine), no doctor or nurse, no school, no shop, limited phone coverage, limited social interactions, mail deliveries and collections once a week, and the nearest public transport nine miles away, meaning a three hour walk or two hour drive by Landrover. Alright if one is fit and healthy, but what if one took ill? There is no ambulance service, and evacuation is by lifeboat or helicopter. And the weather – could one tolerate the winter gales and biting winds coming in from the Atlantic? We were seeing on a perfect day. It is interesting that people who come with the intention to stay full time on the island last only about two years, while those who come and go last much longer.
I think to myself that I could maybe find ways around these challenges somehow, but decide that for me it would be a mixture of having something meaningful to do and social interaction that would decide whether I would survive or not in such a setting. Before I retired, I found that I could work on something for two or three days at home before needing to go into the office again to meet and talk with colleagues. Rhoda Munro is a farmer and has her farm to keep her busy and give her strong ties to the land, and family and friends who live on neighbouring islands. Those who leave after two years presumably come with some purpose such as writing a book or painting, and once that is finished, find it difficult to stay and make a life there. I guess we all have our own ways of trying to find some meaning to our lives, and island living is just one.
Below us, a solitary yacht makes its way around the tiny Maisgeir island at the south-west corner of Gometra, only its foresail out. It is where we plan to go in the morning on our way around into Loch Tuadh.
“Will we be going around that island, or through the gap?”, asks the First Mate, pointing to the narrow channel between Gometra and Masgeir.
The Atlantic swell surges through the gap and breaks on a couple of rocks in the middle, throwing up spumes of foam.
“Probably around the island”, I say.
The First Mate chucks her apple core down the hillside. “Come on, let’s go.”
“You know that is biological pollution, don’t you?”, I say. “Some botanist might come here in 20 years’ time and think she has discovered that apple trees are native to Gometra, just like that botanist did on Rum.”
“Don’t worry. A sheep will come along shortly and eat it”, she says. “And anyway, why do you think the botanist will be female?”
“It’s a sign of the times”, I say.
The next morning, as I sip my first cup of tea for the day on deck, I see the two girls we had seen the day before in the bothy walking back along the track to Ulva Ferry, bulging rucksacks on their backs. They seem to be in a hurry. I wonder to myself if they have enjoyed their short interlude of off-grid island living.