This month at FINDRA we’re celebrating the mini-adventure, grabbing life by the horns and making the most of every moment that we have. Marion Shoote turned a weekend away on the Isle of Rum into both a mini adventure and an environmental win.
The problem of plastic waste is one that has been on my mind for a while, but really hit home earlier this year when I went on a bikepacking and hiking weekend to the beautiful Isle of Rum. The thing I love about northwest Scotland is the rawness of the wilderness, the fact that nature is in control and humans just have to fit in around it, visit it when conditions allow but never take it for granted. We’d taken the morning ferry from Mallaig with our bikes loaded with camping equipment and cycled across to Harris Bay which we would use as a basecamp for a bit of hiking in the famed Rum Cuillin. What an amazing place to call home. For a few nights – a windswept beach with an arc of dramatic hills beyond, a rushing stream for drinking water, and nothing but some grazing cows and goats for company. That’s what made it so upsetting to discover the grey stones of the beach littered with absurd bits of coloured plastic, wedged between the rock outcrops and half-buried under seaweed and storm-scattered cobbles. By the end of our weekend of hiking, I had made myself a promise: that I would come back and try to do something about all that plastic, to try and help restore the incredible dignity of nature in that place which humans have mindlessly damaged.
A long weekend in October offered the opportunity to return with some friends, this time armed with gloves and bags (and plenty of snacks). This time we stayed in the new super cosy community-run bunkhouse in Kinloch and cycled over to the beaches each day, having arranged with the ranger that they would collect and transport what we collected back to Kinloch. Rum is a national nature reserve, owned and managed by Scottish Natural Heritage, with the community also owning some of the land at Kinloch itself. But with only two permanent members of staff, the rangers are so stretched to look after the island that they were very happy to have some helpers for the weekend.
On the Saturday we headed over to Harris Bay again. The ride across the island is on good landrover track and only around 10 miles but a bit of a hill to climb and we had slightly mixed views with squalls of drizzle coming and going. After a long descent to the beach, we left our bikes on our previous camp spot, waded the stream and set about our mission. When we started we could hardly take a step onto the beach without coming across some fragment of plastic, bottle top or piece of rope catching our eye. After a couple of hours’ work we had already filled three big bags and gathered various other crates and old buoys but only cleared the first ten metres or so of the beach. The amount of litter was simply staggering, and of all sorts; mostly plastic: particularly drinks and milk bottles, but also bottles of cleaning compounds, bits of plastic cord, a range of shoes from flip-flops to wellies, bottle tops, food containers, crates; also glass and bits of metal. As soon as you moved a cobble to free up the piece of litter you were holding you would look down into the hole you had made an see another piece of something buried under the next layer of stones. We wondered how much litter there was buried out of sight in the depths of the beach. The other thing that struck us was how easy the plastic disintegrated into smaller fragments when you took hold of it; easy to see how the ocean has ended up full of micro-plastic fragments.
We stopped for some lunch and to carry the bags up to the end of the track, then back to work. Another three hours saw us finished clearing the first beach. Twelve big bags of rubbish and a pile of other debris were the fruits of our labour – a huge amount for a relatively small beach, and we hadn’t even started on the other smaller bays beyond a big rock outcrop. We’ll just have to go back and finish the job sometime. With only an hour to get back to Kinloch before we started losing the light, we reluctantly left the beach behind and started the climb back over the island.
The following day we decided to cycle to the north side of the island, to explore the glen and beach at Kilmory where there are the remains of a village and an old graveyard. It being deer rutting season we were excited to see what the stags were up to, and we took along our beach cleaning equipment as well. The ride was relatively easy, without the climb of the day before, and we soon started to hear the stags’ bellows as we free-wheeled down towards the sandy beach at the end of the glen. Wheeling our bikes across the bog to the shore we stopped for some food and watched a stag further along the beach who had managed to entangle a bit of seaweed in his antlers to impress his lady-friends, and was now chasing them around on the sand. Being careful not to get too close to the deer we walked across the beach, looking for litter as we went. It was interesting that here on the north side of the island there was much less plastic than at southwest-facing Harris, but much more rope and cord from fishing boats. Although the overall amounts were less, we still quickly filled five bags with rubbish just on the area of beach we could access without disturbing the stags.
On our last morning on Rum, we explored the village and visited Kinloch castle which is now in need of renovation but is still home to some amazing artefacts from around the world, gathered by its former owners. Catching the ferry back to Mallaig we reflected on a very satisfying but also pretty sobering weekend – even after two days’ work we felt that we had only really made a dent on the amount of plastic we had encountered on the two beaches we had visited. Who knows how much else had washed up on the less accessible bits of the island? We’ll definitely be back to carry on the work, but this is not a problem that is going to be solved by filling bags at weekends. Every time I go to buy a plastic bottle now I think of that beautiful beach and wonder whether I really need to buy it. Until we change our habits and take responsibility for the indescribable damage we are doing to the natural world through our obsession with the convenience of plastic we aren’t giving our wild places the respect that they deserve. It’s time for a change, and it’s our responsibility to bring it.
You can turn your mini-adventure into whatever you want but we bet that giving a bit of your time to make the world a better place will make you feel even better about your time away. Let us know if you’ve had any similar adventures.