As the population rises to 40, Rum Isle sees a future in the mist

With four new families arriving recently, the remote and rainy Hebrides island is experiencing its version of a population boom, though residents new and old admit it’s not easy living here.


ISLE OF RUM, Scotland — No doctors. No restaurants. No churches. And worst of all for some: no pubs.

Life on a remote island in the Scottish Hebrides is not for everyone.

But Alex Mumford, one of about 40 people who live on the Isle of Rum, says he loves it, although admits having a drink can be an adventure, with the nearest pub on the neighboring Isle of Skye.

“We were thinking about kayaking across and stopping by for a drink and then kayaking back,” said Mr. mumford. “But it’s 10 miles there and 10 miles back, so it’s probably not ideal.”

Despite all the challenges of finding a home here, the island has seen something of a recent population explosion, at least in percentage terms.

Just a few years ago, this isolated outpost had fewer than two dozen residents and only two students left at the school. So the islanders, heavily outnumbered by Rum’s deer, appealed to newcomers to join them.

Several thousand emails came in showing interest. Four couples were selected from approximately 400 applications assessed as serious, most of them with young children.

Rum’s widespread search for new faces drew attention to a larger problem on Scotland’s more than 90 inhabited islands, many dealing with similar existential crises.

“In the past 10 years, nearly twice as many islands have lost population as they have gained,” said a 2019 Scottish government document, warning that forecasts suggest they were “at a further risk of depopulation”.

That has been averted in Rum, at least for the time being.

Despite torrential rains when they arrived in the winter of 2020, and then a summer plagued by mosquitoes – persistent biting flies – the newcomers are still there, the families in four new Scandinavian-style wooden houses rented at attractive prices.

Mr Mumford, 32, who moved here with his partner from Bristol, a city of more than 460,000 people on the other side of Great Britain, works both as an administrator at the village school and as a visitor services manager at the Bunkhouse, a visitor hostel .

People called their decision to move “crazy,” said Mr. mumford. “I think the people who are crazy are the people who live box to box with people in flats and cram in trains at rush hour. For me it was an obvious, easy choice.”

He added, “I was just done working full-time for a big company.”

Most of the other newcomers kept their jobs and worked remotely thanks to Rum’s broadband Internet access, installed by a salmon farming company that employs one islander full-time and periodically hires other workers.

What the island lacks in restaurants and pubs (the only cafe is open only in summer) it makes up for in natural beauty. At dawn, Rum is bathed in red light, as seals bob along the waterfront and herons soar overhead.

Deer casually saunter around the outskirts of Kinloch, the only settlement, while eagles inhabit the island’s volcanic peaks.

But if this is an attractive island, it is also one with a difficult history. In the 19th century, the Gaelic-speaking population was driven out during the so-called Highland evictions when landlords set up large sheep farms.

By the end of that century, Rum was the playground of George Bullough, an eccentric English magnate who built a hunting lodge known as Kinloch Castle, complete with a menagerie that reportedly included a few small alligators. Strangers were discouraged from visiting, and rumors spread of seedy parties behind the castle walls.

None of the island’s current inhabitants have lived here for more than three decades.

Fliss Fraser, 50, is one of the residents with the longest tenure, arriving in 1999. She now runs the bed-and-breakfast Ivy Lodge.

She admitted that the island’s appeal is hard for some to appreciate.

“Some people come here and look around and say, ‘It’s foggy, it’s muddy, it’s raining, there’s nothing to do, why would you be here?'” she said, looking out at a scenic coastline from which them even in winter. Rum, she added, “gets people or not.”

In the summer, islanders enjoy spectacular deserted beaches, impromptu barbecues and the occasional ceilidh (pronounced KAY-lee), or a feast with traditional music.

On the other hand, while very supportive, the community is so small that nothing remains secret for long.

It is best not to argue with neighbors as they are impossible to avoid. And islanders have to be resourceful. When Mrs. Fliss asked a mainland technician to repair the pay phone outside her home, she was instead given a replacement device to install herself.

The arrival of new families has rejuvenated the school, the number rising from two to five, according to Susie Murphy, 42, one of two teachers who take turns coming from the mainland. “It was quite a challenge, but also a lot of fun,” she said.

The school, which was once a small church, teaches children up to 11 or 12 years old. Older students are sent to a high school on the mainland and return to Rum on weekends, weather and ferry permitting. The accommodation for home visitors is a well-equipped caravan or caravan.

“In wild weather, the caravan shakes,” said Ms. Murphy, adding that sleeping in September can be difficult because “during the rutting season, the deer roar through the night.”

Kim Taylor, who runs the cafe in the summer, also has a small game shop. Little has changed in that work for more than a century: the carcasses of animals culled to support the deer population are collected from the hills by wild ponies.

Rum has no real farming, something one of the newcomers, Stephen Atkinson, 40, hopes to change by keeping pigs. He has yet to get permission. The village is owned by a community trust and the rest of the island is owned by NatureScot, Scotland’s wildlife agency, so decision-making can be slow.

While he said winter nights can be depressing, Mr Atkinson, who has moved to Rum from northern England, doesn’t let the rain put him off.

“We now live in a world where people associate sunny and warm weather with positivity and happiness and rainy and dark as negative,” he said. “But everything has beauty and I quite enjoy cold, windy and stormy weather.”

With so few people, the social interactions that take place can be intense, Mr. Atkinson, with a short trip to the village shop extending into an hour-long outing with all the necessary stops to chat.

“We always say it’s not far enough in some respects,” joked Mr. Atkinson, who moved here with his partner and young son.

As the islanders think about the economic future of their home, they see clear potential for new tourism work, perhaps as guides for hiking tours or as local experts for adventurers looking to swim and kayak in the rough waters.

But how much visitors should be encouraged is controversial. Aside from the two rooms in Mrs. Fraser’s bed-and-breakfast, Rum has some camping facilities and the hostel Bunkhouse, which Mr. Mumford is renovating.

The big question is what to do with Kinloch Castle, which provided shelter for visitors and tours of its great rooms but was closed during the pandemic.

NatureScot is considering proposals, but repairing the deteriorating building could cost millions of pounds. And some fear that increased tourism could threaten the wildness of Rum’s landscape and the tranquility of life that attracted residents in the first place.

The newcomers seem to have embraced Rum’s serenity and slower pace, though Mr Mumford admits that he is occasionally annoyed that friends and family in England see him living on some sort of Celtic treasure island, rather than the challenges of a remote conquer settlement.

While sheltering from driving rain one recent day, waiting to find out if his car would return from a mainland garage on the ferry, Mr. Mumford made the mistake of calling his father and expecting some sympathy.

“Do you enjoy paradise?” his father asked.

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