I can’t wait. Looking across from Gills Bay to the abandoned houses of the island of Stroma. I want to be in every house on that island. I just can’t wait. That 3-kilometre crossing over the traitorous Pentland Firth with its fast-flowing currents to the island is just not interesting to me. It is just a small hurdle to take and then I can be in the houses to satisfy my curiosity. I can not wait to be there!
Carefully I enter the house through the open front door. The entire building is covert with 30 centimetres of sheep dung on the ground level. You just never know when the floor will fall out from under you. The weather can be very challenging here on Stroma even for sheep. Sheltering in the houses is a good option in horizontal rain or wind force 12 gales.
O yukky, I stumble upon a decayed sheep carcass just under the window in one of the houses. Yes, death happens on an abandoned island in the middle of the Pentland Firth. And there is no one to clean it up.
Quickly I walk into another house, I find a green telephone on the mantlepiece. Modern times had arrived on Stroma. Definitely from the sixties. Funny, I remember my aunt having one just like that at her house. You would call it vintage now. Anyway, it matches the green moss covert walls inside the house. I look through the window. Half the windowpanes are broken and the intact ones are mossed over. Stingy nettles are poking through the broken windows. It adds to the decor.
The sound of pigeons makes me look up the stairs to the ceiling of the house. Hugh big slabs of sandstone lie on the roof. These slabs are not going anywhere in a storm. They will stay put for another 60 years if the wooden structure doesn’t give up before that time. Actually, You could still rescue this house, if you put in some elbow grease shovelling the dung out and a bit of money…The stones used for building the houses are found everywhere on the island. Stroma ‘flakes’ the flat sandstones used for building material, it is what the island is made of.
With that in mind, I walk while fantasising into the house next door. My thoughts are immediately stopped. What is that romanticly styled bed doing here in the middle of the room? Usually, there are box beds in these houses! It looks kinda French, especially with that baby blue paint on the walls. Well, not on the walls anymore as it is flaking off. The foam mattress hangs limp of the bedframe. I think the sheep are using it now.
I wander through the 2 rooms of the house, perhaps a newly wedded couple were living here and choose a romantic bed frame for their honeymoon. I will never know.
Yes, this is the type of bed I expected to see. A box bed with the bedding hanging right in the middle. Why didn’t the inhabitants take the bedding with them when leaving the island? Did they expect to come back and use the bed again?
I find some furniture lying in one of the box beds in another house. Perhaps it didn’t fit on the boat? Or it was too much out of fashion to take with them?
Walking in and out of the houses I find it fascinating to look at the flaking paint on the doors, windows and walls. There are so many different layers of colours of paint on the wood. The people kept their houses looking well. In 1901 there were living 375 inhabitants on the island! The most ever! And then the numbers declined to 12 in 1962.
This is where they kept their livestock, I see the wall divided by standing stone slabs into small spaces where an animal could be housed. A horse or a cow, pigs would be held in a small space just outside the stables. I find some empty bottles on the walls, secret whiskey on the job? This is the age before plastic, they used glass for storage. Much more sensible than all that plastic nowadays.
Inside the stable Bottles left behind
Just outside the barn, I find an old wooden boat and some rusty farmers equipment. A plough, a card of some sort. In the backyard, nature takes over, the rhubarb is the only crop still flourishing in each vegetable patch on the island together with the stingy nettle. But nettles aren’t your usual food crop, it is a plant that indicates disturbed soil and nitrogen richness. Only on spots where the sheep can not get to you might find some flowers.
Talking about flowers, I must keep an eye out for the rare and tiny Primula Scotica which supposed to grow on Stroma. Just hope the sheep are not too fond of this plant for eating.
Rhubarb Just out of reach of the sheep
I wander to the graveyard and find it still in use, people buried in the place they were born. It makes sense, going back to the island where you were born. The small ferry from John ‘o Groats passes the graveyard up the east side of the island. I walk along and find the second eastern harbour. A big fishing boat is still lying hulled up on the island. Was it left by the people who left the island of was it left later? Why though?
View over the graveyard Kennedy Mausoleum
Pondering this new issue I walk over to the gloup. A huge hole in the ground with a tunnel connecting it to the sea. Seals swim around in the seawater as it provides a shelter for the hunting Killer Whale at sea. Not too close to the edge it is a nasty fall down. The gloup must be a spectacle during a western storm, all that water splashing out…Note to self: must come here in winter.
The fishingboat The Gloup
I walk back down to the southern harbour. There are still a few houses left in great shape. They are in use as a holiday house by descendants of the people who once lived there. I have to stop myself from peering in through the windows. ‘Don’t be so nosy!’, I correct myself. All I want is to be is inside of an intact house of course. Resolutely, I turn around and walk to the church. I pass the war memorial of the first world war. As in every Scottish village and town, Stoma men fell in this war too. Quite a big church for such a small island, there are not many windows left in the building. But the sheep can’t get in and so can’t I, even the window openings are too high to have a look inside. I do feel very sorry for that telephone box outside the church. It is stript of almost al it’s bright red paint and nearly every window is smashed. At one point it has lost its door. There is a wooden replacement but it kind of loses its charm with this later addition.
It is fascinating to see all these buildings in various states of derelictness and decay, they all tell a story on how people lived and used the land. And my imaginations will fill up the gaps when necessary with a hint of romanticism.
And just when I walk back from the church, there it is. The Primula Scotica. Just look at it!!! It’s tiny!!