Gometra – Living off the Grid
A few weeks ago, I shared a video on my Facebook page showing an abandoned village on the remote island of Gometra. (The video is available to see here). I was quite suprised at the amount of comments that this video elicited. As a result of this, I started to think about how I could find out more information about Gometra. The island lies in Loch Staffa within the Loch Na Keal National Scenic Area and is located behind the Isle of Ulva. As a result, the island does not get many tourists, even though it is one of the most beautiful islands in Scotland.
I have visited Ulva, but I have yet to visit Gometra. A quick internet search brough me to the Isle of Gometra website that is run by Roc Sandford. I contacted Roc and asked him to take part in my ’10 questions with …’ series and below are his fascinating answers. One of the interesting points to come out of the interview is that the island is now down to 1 or 2 households and are potentially looking for new people to come and live on the island. See question 8 for details on moving to Gometra.
1) How did you come to live on Gometra?
I came to Gometra because I was farming on Exmoor and I needed a bigger farm. I saw Gometra advertised for sale and it had been on the market for about 18 months, but as soon as I came here I was hooked. Strangely I discovered, only after I had already moved in, that the farm had been sold by my family around the time of my birth and that my family connections with the island went back many, many years.
2) What are the best things about living on Gometra?
The best things about living on Gometra are its fertile farmland and good flock, it’s incredible wildlife, a stunning unspoilt sea and landscape and that you can relate to other people in a fulfilling way without mainland-style compromise – no cars, no TV, few clocks, no Muzak, no street-lights, no roads, no advertising, etc. As I get older, I get ever less easy with the noise of traffic, which my friend Sebastian calls the sound of the end of the world. The subliminal control mechanisms of society break down on Gometra and some people develop new depths.
3) What are the challenges to living on Gometra? How do you overcome these?
The worst things about living on Gometra are lack of reasonable access to medical care and schooling. We endure hyper-austerity at a level unimaginable on the mainland. I spent years trying to get some kind of provision but never got anywhere and I take my children away to school on the mainland. Lack of medical care is particularly stressful when you are bringing up children because you have to diagnose what’s wrong without proper training.
We are off-grid, which is fine except for no washing machine – hand-washing is no problem but in the winter, without a spin dryer, even if you wring them by hand or use a mangle, drying can take so long the clothes go mouldy before they are dry. Communications are difficult – sometimes landlines and mobile connection with the outside world go down simultaneously and we are cut off for a week upwards. Internet works (often) through a satellite and in my experience is slow, a bit like the old dial up, and sometimes packs in when it is raining, which is not helpful if you are running a business. And for the last few years our hot water in my house has not been working – sometimes you get soaking wet with no quick way to get warm again and it would be nice to get a hot bath. I’m working on that one. Working on off-grid solutions is strangely rewarding – I think because it exercises our ingenuity and also releases us from the subliminal guilt we feel about using fossil fuels and blithely destroying our children’s future. For instance, fixing up some solar panels and never having again to travel to mainland Mull to buy petrol for a generator which won’t start anyway is win-win-win.
Sometimes it becomes hard to engage with mainland people because they are in a different headspace. You become sensitive, raw, and vulnerable – the protective shell you grow on the mainland washes off. Finally, we’ve had endless trouble with salmon farms. Salmon farming is an environmental tragedy (through its effects on wild fish, seals, porpoises and whales) but a lucrative one, which also provides jobs elsewhere, though none on Gometra. We’ve been subject to abuse, smearing, threats, hate trolls and cyberbullies for not wanting the salmon farms to come to Gometra. We have stopped three but the industry never gives up and having captured the Scottish Government regulators and the more credulous members of the press, has installed a salmon farm against the wishes of everyone on the island. One of the first things they did was start shooting our seals. There used to be lots of seals in our harbour near the salmon farm, but they’ve all gone. For more information on stopping salmon farming around Gometra, visit the Save Staffa Archipelago campaign.
4) What is your favourite place on the island and why?
More or less everywhere so I can’t really answer that. The South and West coasts are particularly lovely.
5) How have you made yourself self-sufficient?
I’ve lived on boats before and the principles are the same – on the mainland there are thousands of people working for you without you even realising, sorting out your water, your gas, your electricity, etc., but on Gometra you are the person who has to make sure your water keeps running, you have gas or wood for cooking, fuel for heating, some kind of renewable set-up for charging a mobile telephone and a computer. You get into a state where you eke everything out, using old tea to wash up when water is low, or saving pasta water to heat the room as it cools, which is the state we should all be in really on the mainland too. Progressively phasing out fossil fuel use feels like a relief, not a hardship.
6) What wildlife can you see around the island?
We have Sea Eagles, Hen Harriers and lots of other species of birds, harbour and grey seals, sea otters, red deer, hedgehogs, porpoises and dolphins. A bit further off there are whales. And lots of fine Scottish Blackface ewes.
7) How can I get to Gometra and where can I stay?
It’s a seven or eight mile walk in from the Ulva Ferry off the Isle of Mull (which runs Monday-Friday 9-5 in the summer months) and then across the causeway to Gometra. We let out un-modernised but lovely Bothies on AirBnb for people who would like to stay.
8) Are you looking for new people to live on the island? If so, what kind of people do you need and how would they apply?
We are constrained by Scottish housing law, which is changing, but we believe we may still be allowed to offer three-year renewable repairing leases for our very basic, unmodernised accommodation. Gometra is incredible but it is also tough, and we ask people who think they might like to come to live on the island to book in to a bothy directly through AirBnb for a week or so to see if they can hack it before we start talking in earnest. Our policy is to favour people with experience of isolated living, livestock, boats, etc. but we’ve had lots of different kinds of people live here over the years and Gometra suits artists amongst many others.
9) How do you see the next 5-10 years for yourself and the island?
At the moment Gometra is dependent on its farm, and its farm is dependent on three of us – if any one of the three of us were to stop, I think the farm might stop, and I am not convinced anyone else apart from our families would want or even be able to farm it – sheep are being taken off surrounding islands, above all, because the logistics of getting them to market are too hard. Also, Brexit means the EU subsidies which keep marginal hill farms like ours going may be phased out, and then we would have to figure out something else to do with ourselves. So we are positive about the future, but we also have no illusions about how fragile we are.
10) Where can I find out more information about Gometra?
Our website gives lots of travel and health and safety information, and there is information about our bothies. Both Jane Ann’s Bothy and Teacher’s Bothy. are available to be booked for a short stay on the island. There is a booklet on Gometra for sale in our Art Gallery (details on Gometra website), and there will also be a book on the island available from the Gallery soon.