Coming to Rathlin (3)
Alison McFaul wanted to get away from it all but soon found herself mucking in
Coming to Rathlin is a series from three different authors, spanning different generations and with strikingly different perspectives.
I was charmed by a year on Rathlin in 1982 and finally satisfied a search for some permanent accommodation, by purchasing an old cottage at south Cleggan, late in 1990.
Coming from England, Essex and Wessex formed my background, a mix of town and country. I had been working full time as a nurse, with two additional part-time jobs and lodgers to help meet the mortgage and bills.
I came expecting to live a less stressful and unhurried life, more in tune with natural cycles of day and night, tides and seasons. I admired my island friends for their abilities to make things by improvisation and adaptation: making do and mending, collecting and storing rather than throwing away and disposing.
Everyone seemed to be able to turn their hand to what was necessary to sustain their own lifestyles – the men immensely strong and persevering in tasks in which others would yield to machines or not attempt at all, with the patience and tenacity to repair cars and tractors, boats and water tanks.
Able to lift whole engines out by hand, fashioning washers from car tyres, manipulating metal into spare parts. And all these things without the aid of power tools, after a day’s hard graft on the land or sea, in the meagre light churned out by a thumping generator, or by candle light when the generator itself was broken.
Women did the weekly washing by hand, heating the water on peat-fed stoves, turning out tasty meals from tinned and dried foods with no fridges or freezers for storage. Every gallon of diesel for running the engine had to be sent for to the mainland, lifted off the boat, carried home and poured into the tank. A precious commodity, a time consuming exercise and a very expensive electricity bill!
That was the life I was hoping to enjoy. An island idyll where the only strains of life are felt in the shoulders, back and knees and the cares of career, of fashion and life in the fast lane would drop away.
But I arrived here at a time of change. An Island Trust, formed to restore and regenerate the prospects of the island, had bought the Manor House. Islanders were working to create a community centre at the heart of a new Island life – a life with mains water, mains electricity, and mainland standards. I was a bit disappointed at first.
I spent a year in the old style – running a generator and running indoors in the dark on windy nights after stopping it out in the shed. I never ironed, hoovered, or switched a kettle on. I never used the fridge or washing machine, which stood idle in storage. Fifty pounds a month for a light at night and a little power left over to run a TV with a permanent poor reception.
A wee peat-filled Doric with a water tank stuck on the back wall gave me the luxury of hot water on tap. So, right from the start of my island life I was better off than some and could enjoy a bath by candlelight. The water came down the hill in a half inch pipe right into the house from a well where others had to walk to collect a bucketful.
I got used to fixing ball cocks and removing mini-beasts from the valves. I wrote home with tales about cleaning out the septic tank, digging the garden, clearing ‘sheughs’, scraping the ‘loanen’, learning the lingo and working with sheep and cows.
All a novelty to be treasured as a memory, and I’m grateful I had that year, but I soon fell in with the prevailing mood – that there could be more to life on Rathlin than keeping on top of the chores, and I was swept along into helping that future take shape.
I was elected onto the Development and Community Association, feeling privileged to be asked, but soon realised that it was because everyone else was exhausted with effort and needed my new blood to sustain them. I gave it willingly, thinking that for whatever it was I wanted to get out of living here, I would have put in what I could.
I followed a Business Start Up training programme, through LEDU, with six or so islanders full of good ideas and keen to open opportunities. Then I was on a course learning how to use a computer. A book-keeping course followed, then fundraising techniques, community business leaders’ course and a trip to Spain. Opportunities came so thick and fast to develop skills and usefulness, that it was soon completely overwhelming and wore me out too.
The issues we were, and still are, trying to deal with as a community are basic – electricity, water, harbours, ferry, roads, transport, waste management and housing – all those things that a lot of communities take for granted.
We formed a co-operative and an arts development programme, bringing islanders together in learning old and new crafts – for enjoyment, social activity and, for some, in the future, an income.
The old livelihoods of fishing and farming are now mostly of the past, and certainly do not sustain a modern existence on their own. Most working islanders hold two or three part-time jobs – to make up one full time income and to maintain the level of services needed to keep everything running.
I’ve had several combinations of part time jobs – administration in the Manor House restoration project, home help and café waitress, heritage centre and classroom assistant, summer information warden at the seabird viewpoint and camping barn proprietor. I’ve helped refurbish three old cottages, raising standards of comfort and convenience and providing accommodation for holiday makers and other ‘trial’ islanders.
The hours and effort add up to working much more than fulltime, but they have been mostly happy hours and I’ve found further happiness in weaving my life’s pattern into an island family tapestry and becoming part of the ancient fabric of land and sea, through marriage.
Life here isn’t what I thought it would be – there’s far more to be done than we can possibly achieve. The pressures, if you let them get to you, can be immense. The stress and complexity of the logistical organisation for any scheme of work can undermine one’s confidence of completion. But then you look around and see yet another possibility of a good idea for development and it’s hard to sit back and let it slip by.
By Alison McFaul