An extended stay on the Isle of Muck
Today’s blog post is by Esther Rutter, an author temporarily resident on the Isle of Muck, who
will be telling us how she and her young family came to stay on the island, and what life has been like for them since they arrived.
We decided to stay on Muck almost by accident. Well, not quite. For the last several summers, we have enjoyed holidays on the West Coast of Scotland: camping on the Outer Hebrides, staying with friends at Achiltibuie, renting a caravan on Canna, hostelling on Skye. Every time we’ve had to leave long before we’ve had our fill of these beautiful places, and usually we start planning next year’s holiday as soon as we are back home.
Walking on Canna
Muck first entered the periphery of our world about 14 years ago, when my father-in-law came to camp on the island. He was enchanted by Muck’s beauty and quietness – and by the fact Lawrence MacEwen, the island’s then-owner, encouraged him to pitch his tent anywhere, completely free of charge! He sampled the delights of the tearoom and loved watching the boats come and go, falling asleep to the gentle sound of the waves washing over the rocks at the edge of the bay. ‘You must get to Muck one day,’ he urged us, but somehow we never quite made it to this isle of dreams.
Then, in the summer of 2022, we found ourselves with an intriguing prospect. As a geography lecturer at the University of St Andrews, my husband is periodically offered a semester of paid research leave. This meant that he was looking at six months with no teaching or administrative obligations, giving him time to focus specifically on his own research. It also meant that he wouldn’t have to be within easy reach of St Andrews during that time – in fact, we would be free to be wherever we liked, as long as it promised peace, quiet, and a decent internet connection.
I was also looking at a period of time without any work commitments tying me to a particular place. The research and writing work for my next book (coming out in 2024) was done, and I was expecting a baby that autumn, meaning that I would at least have the guarantee of maternity allowance for the following nine months. Our eldest daughter was four and not yet at primary school; when she was a baby we relocated to Tromsø in Arctic Norway for a summer so my husband could work at the Norwegian Polar Institute. We really enjoyed our six weeks in the land of the midnight sun so, as the kids would still be little enough to not miss friends or home life too much, we thought it was a good time to have another extended family adventure.
We quickly decided that we’d like to try life on a Scottish island, and began to look for an affordable place to rent. We had already planned to have a week’s holiday on a yurt on Eigg that summer (2022), and so focussed our search on the Small Isles so we could scope out options whilst we were there. We soon discovered that, providing we went off-season, Muck offered the possibility of longer-term accommodation, and after a quick email to Ruth, whose husband Colin owns Muck, we arranged to come and visit the island. We were keen to stay somewhere our daughter could continue to play and learn with kids her own age; Muck offered both a state-funded nursery and a primary school, with six children on the combined roll. We were also reassured to discover that the Small Isles have excellent internet provision, thanks to the superfast broadband offered by HebNET, and after a flying visit courtesy of the Sheerwater (we saw a pod of dolphins on the way over, which seemed like an excellent omen; after all, Muck’s name is supposed to come from the Gaelic for porpoise, muc mara), we decided that Muck was would be home for the first few months of 2023.
The baby arrived safely, December passed in a blur of wrapping paper, night feeds and excitement, and in early January we stuffed our car with three months’ worth of possessions and supplies, strapped our bikes to the back, and headed for Mallaig. After a night in the bunkhouse at Arisaig, we arrived at the CalMac ferry terminal and reversed the car on to the boat. Even from the harbour we could see plenty of white horses racing across the sea, and everyone agreed that it would be a fairly lively crossing. They weren’t wrong: by the time we’d called at Rum and were crossing the Sound to Muck (incidentally, going right past the house we would be renting) the wind was gusting nearly 70 mph and the swell was about six metres. At that point the skipper turned us around and we headed back to port. It was our first, salutary lesson in island life: the weather calls the shots. Fortunately none of us felt very sick and the CalMac café staff dubbed the youngest traveller ‘the baby with the sea legs’ as he alternately slept and smiled throughout the crossing.
Choppy CalMac Crossing
After a few more nights back at the bunkhouse, the day we actually arrived was magical. Snow had fallen across the island and the mountains of Skye and Rum were majestic in their snowy robes. We steamed out of Mallaig under icy blue skies and as we arrived on Muck, were greeted with sunshine and an island sprinkled with snow. It is extremely usually for the Small Isles in general – and low- lying Muck in particular – to have any snowfall, so this felt like a benediction. We wheelbarrowed our belongings up to our cliffside cottage, thrilled to have finally arrived at such a beautiful spot. And the following day, when our daughter went off to nursery on the neighbours’ ATV and spent the morning tobogganing in the snow, we thought how lucky we are to be able to call this place home, even for just a short while.
Arriving on Muck in the snow
Having been here for a month now, we have begun to get to grips with all the varieties and vagaries of island life. Ordering our food from Mallaig co-op via phone and email, then waiting nervously to see if the ferry will be able to get in with those all-important pints of milk, bags of flour and tins of tomatoes, is certainly very different to popping to a shop on the mainland. The doctor or nurse from the Small Isles Medical Practice visits once a fortnight but if that date coincides with bad weather, the doctor’s boat simply doesn’t come. But we’ve been able to keep the baby up to date with his vaccinations, and when he did get sick late one night we were expertly cared for during an emergency helicopter transfer to hospital.
Bringing the shopping home by wheelbarrow
We also do not want for excellent on-island food. Bruce at the tearoom does very good pizzas on Wednesday night, as well as coffee, superb pastries and fresh bread on a Saturday morning. The farm sells wonderful lamb (minced and joints) and fresh eggs, and Gallanach Lodge offers a range of island game. At the weekends, we have a spacious community hall at our disposal, complete with cupboards full of games and toys, as well as a whole island to explore, including several beautiful beaches. Everyone has welcomed us: we’ve been to a birthday party, weekend playdates, a community beach-clean, and I’m looking forward to seeing what the island offers as the weather warms and spring begins to arrive. I can already tell that a few months isn’t going to be long enough to do justice to this extraordinary place; this stay has already carved the Small Isles onto our hearts.
You can read more about Esther's time on Muck here and on the following links: