The Lismore Life

ISLE OF LISMORE, SCOTLAND: January 5-22, 2014

Leah: I think my life goal is to live somewhere where a piece of mail can reach me simply by someone writing my first name and a vague geographic reference to my location on the envelope. This is a decidedly drastic departure from my years of telling Steve we need to live no farther than 30 minutes from an airport, but after our time on Lismore I think I may be committed to this decision at some point in my life.

After Hogmanay festivities and time spent in Edinburgh and Glasgow, we bussed northwest to the small port city of Oban where we then caught a ferry to the Isle of Lismore, a small island about 10 miles long and one mile wide sandwiched in Loch Linnhe between the mainland and the Isle of Mull. Despite the choppy ride and our incredulity at sharing the ferry with only two other people—a young couple from St. Louis—we made it to Lismore 50 minutes later and were soon greeted by our Workaway host Sarah and her delightfully charismatic terrier Buzz; her husband, Yorick, was busy driving their youngest son back to school and wouldn’t be home for a few hours yet.

It was quite apparent that we had hit the Workaway jackpot when Sarah’s warm manner and easy conversation immediately relaxed us, along with the warm lump of dog in my lap and the glimpses of windswept, craggy island that we could make out through the grey clouds and blowing rain. The farmhouse where we’d be staying was bursting with instruments and art (this family is comprised of musical powerhouses and creative entrepreneurial spirit) and in addition to Buzz, we’d be in close proximity to three cats, three gutsty chickens, 38 Shetland sheep (with the most exquisite wool I’ve ever seen) and quite a few cows. And then there was the landscape…I think the only other Workaway that’s even in the same category in terms of unrivaled ocean views and jaw-dropping scenery would be our time in Barry’s Bay, New Zealand. And the rainbows! The constant stop-start rain and sun exchange meant that we typically saw at least one rainbow daily, but often two at once or different ones every few hours.

Once we’d spoken a bit more with Sarah and Yorick over a delicious dinner, we knew we’d immensely enjoy our two weeks here and could already tell that the time would fly altogether too quickly. Sarah plays piano, guitar, sings and is an accomplished textile artist by trade, even supplying items to stores in the US. She explained that she goes through phases with her work and right now she’s experimenting with lampshades and birds, although if you have a poke through her website and online store you’ll see that her work also encompasses window treatments, accessories, pillows and much more (we did have fun, however, chortling at how her current pieces echo a hysterical Portlandia clip involving plastering birds on everything. Even Sarah’s family is famous; the version of Auld Lang Syne in the Sex and the City movie is sung by none other than her sister, Mairi. I had never followed the show or movies and therefore had to google the song, but apparently Mairi still receives an annual check for her haunting version.

Yorick formerly played conga drums and percussion for a few bands, most notably Orkestra del Sol and the Co-Creators, although he’s also a skilled piano and guitar player as well. A builder by trade, he maintains undeniable woodworking and construction skills and will play a key role in turning a currently collapsed croft dwelling into their future dream house. While we stayed with these two we also saw them screen a few potential movies to show the community on an environmental theme, fracking in particular, and Yorick especially seemed to take matters to heart and fired off letters to his political representatives and researched everything he could online.  They’re also both virtuosos in the kitchen, deftly whipping up a range of dishes that filled the stomach and warmed us from the inside after working in the cold rain. Indeed, some of my favorite times were spent talking in the kitchen during and after dinner, often a wine glass in hand as the cats and Buzz wove among our chairs and the stove crackled with heat. Sarah and Yorick have both experienced so much that life has to offer, from travel to family to pursuing their passions, that it was invigorating to talk with a couple without much money about how they’ve still made ends meet, enjoy a robust social life, have family and friends that adore them and basically lived a blessed life. This close to the end of our trip, I need all the reassurance I can get!

Island life in a community of 180 definitely takes a certain type of person and in a concentrated population size, one can quickly see how the eccentricities and personalities provide more reality-TV style drama than your average cable channel. We were gobsmacked to learn that Sarah and Yorick, who in a way reminded us of our Barry’s Bay, NZ hosts, were also embroiled in a land access dispute with their neighbor, just like our NZ family. Then there’s the resident priest who has been known to kit himself out in camo gear and stealthily hunt island game, having terrified some tourists enough that they called for help after seeing a man lurking in the bushes with a gun. Reverend Rambo anyone? There’s a character Yorick jams with who wrote a lovely tune called “The Wanking Song” (he even sang it for us in person), and then there’s the combo fireman/postal worker, Steve, who could always be seen tooling around the island in his bright red Royal Mail truck.

Musicians abound, as do artists and activists of all sorts, juxtaposed with gentried landowners sporting long bloodlines who nance about with a vaguely aristocratic air, feeling very much like big fish in a small pond. And there are committees galore: the Historical Society, the Lismore Lumieres (they show films in the community hall and encourage everyone to BYOB), The Energy Council, the choir (which Sarah teaches) and even a visiting doctor a few times a week. Everyone comes together for weddings and funerals no matter what grudges may be going on and we delighted in seeing the pictures from Sarah and Yorick’s wedding only a few years ago (they’ve been together 19 years and had two sons but only recently got married) that featured a horse and cart, many kilts, soulful music and a rip-roaring party.

There aren’t many families with young children on Lismore but there is a single primary school where kids of all ages are schooled together in one room. Older kids typically go to school in Oban; they’ll stay in town at specially designated “hostels” for students during the week and often take the ferry home to be with family over the weekend since commuting via ferry simply isn’t an option during the week due to cost and often weather which can cancel the ferries. There is a small fire station with a fire engine and a designated grass clearing meant to be a helipad (a woman was air-lifted out while we were there) and as part of the volunteer firefighter team, Yorick wears a pager 24/7 and has to report for maintenance and checks at the firehouse every Monday. Lismore also boats a shop, a post office, a seasonal cafĂ©, a small museum, a few B&B options, the church and several ruined buildings and castles of historical note.

The road (yes, singular) is one-car only and quite narrow, so passing an oncoming car entails using one of the small pull offs designated on the side, sometimes necessitating backing up to access it. Farmers have real working dogs (we even saw some in action!), sheep dot the landscape, local collect mussels at low tide as an occasional food source and even line their garden beds with seaweed as a lush fertilizer that the worms are only too happy to process into rich soil. And when it comes times to catch the smaller, more frequent passenger ferry from Port Appin on the mainland back to Lismore, locals often put their shopping bags at the top of the ramp to wait for the ferry while grabbing a drink and a gab at the small hotel. When the ferry arrives the first people down the ramp just grab bags, boxes and whatever else has been stacked up and then they carry it on board—people sort out the bags on the other end.

Nobody locks their doors, there’s no theft or crime and even cars are left unlocked with keys in the ignition near the pier- we watched in amazement as Sarah hopped out of her car and into a parked one so that she could move it over in an attempt to create more parking space. The sense of community was palpable and a force unto itself; within days we were waving to familiar faces as we passed them on the road or when people stopped by the house to see Sarah and Yorick. I even had the supreme privilege of being in the room when postman Steve handed the day’s mail to Yorick and then turned to hand me my own package, a note and a DVD about huskies from Geraldine, our Irish dairy farm Workaway host. I had received my own mail and felt like a true local—couldn’t we just move here? Heck, just like in NZ there was even a beautiful property right near our Workaway hosts that sported heaps of live peacocks in the front garden and would be a blast to take over and live in—if only the price was in the realm of doable! And when it comes to exploring the island all land is accessible, which means that as long as you always close gates behind you and don’t enter private gardens, you can traipse over every inch of space and explore the nooks and crannies without having to worry about being shot at, chased off the property or given the evil eye.

Island life aside, work was physical but even the windy, wet climate couldn’t dampen our spirits at being able to commute to work on the quad with sweeping marine views. After chasing the cows away from the kitchen door and enjoying a relaxed breakfast, work usually entailed stocking the firewood supplies near the croft. This involved finding and removing wood from a nearby slope, chainsawing and splitting it, getting it up the steep, muddy hills in the quad and then filling the woodshed, especially since our hosts heat their home and water with a wood-burning stove that doesn’t mess around on the fuel consumption part of things. We also painstakingly assembled a glass greenhouse with fragile panes of glass (I shattered one and was paranoid for the rest of the day that more would follow), dug a pathway and lined it with beach stones gathered near the ferry ramp and carted back on the quad, and helped clear out materials from the croft buildings and sort them into the barn space. Steve even managed to dip back into estimation work when it came to light that Yorick had been avoiding the task for a while. The two of them would pour over the architectural plans with cups of coffee and an inspired soundtrack while Steve dusted off his previous life skills and computed the amount of supplies that would be needed to complete the new house, from cuts of wood to sewage pipes.

Steve: On our time off we were able to explore the small but enchanting island, both guided by our hosts and on our own. A stunning mixture of mountainous limestone crags and boggy valleys, we took advantage of the freedom afforded to all visitors to traipse around the land at will. One of the most memorable jaunts was when we stumbled across the ruins of Achanduin Castle. Cutting across a wide bog for views of a smaller islet we soon turned our attention to the ancient remnants that loomed from the top of a small crest. We were taken aback by the immense beauty of the views but maybe moreso by the fact that we were alone save for the ubiquitous grazing sheep. We shared the sentiment that, had we lived here year-round, this would be a place we would visit often to sit, read, and just think. However the more I think about it, the rest of the island and the Scottish highlands for that matter did not lack for such places; in fact Scotland probably ranks high in my natural beauty list and I've only seen such a small part of it.

Speaking of the beauty of the highlands, Leah and I also made a day trip with Sarah to the town of Plockton as she had a conference with her youngest son's teachers. Tagging along we were able to see more of the north's sites such as the mountain Ben Nevis, the Isle of Skye, innumerable forests and rivers, and even a glimpse of that little old lake they call Loch Ness. As beautiful as the ride was it was also nice to just chat away with our host. I had mentioned to Leah early on in our stay that unlike most hosts--even some of our favorites--there didn't seem to be much of a period of feeling things out; instead we were instantly comfortable in the presence of Sarah and Yorick, able to broach any topic and at once part of the household. It probably helped that the animals constantly sought us out for attention (or maybe just the warmth of a little body heat). Either way, from start to finish we felt like members of the family and honored guests of the whole island...

All of which made leaving Scotland so bittersweet. Months ago our holiday destinations of Dublin, Belfast, Edinburgh and treks throughout the Scottish and Irish isles was just a notation on our calendar, something to look forward to whenever things got tough (and believe it or not they do, even when you're travelling). Now that we are heading south to our last country on this epic voyage--and I can probably say that since there is a high likelihood of Scotland seceding from the U.K. if an independence referendum passes this September--I can say that I will sorely miss Scotland and Ireland and wholly plan to return one day. They were everything I expected and more: serenely and dramatically beautiful, full of good craic and brimming with haggis (Scotland that is). As we recounted our past several weeks and discussed the future over a couple of pints at a JD Wetherspoon in Glasgow--with Stone Double IPA on tap no less!!!--it became apparent that no matter where we went Scotland would go with us...a place this cool will stay with you forever. 



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