Sunday 3 May 2020

Eigg - Alone in the Barn

It was 2016, just before Easter. Officially it was still winter in Scotland.

I had planned a week out in West Scotland, first to visit a couple of isles of Inner Hebrides before spending the rest of the days in Skye. After staying in Muck for two nights with barely any human contact, I left for Eigg on stormy seas. The west coast weather had turned as usual. I had learnt to accept this as normal by now.
The Small Isles - Isle of Muck

With a population of about 90, Eigg is the most populated of all the small isles. This is the only one of all the Small Isles to have proper roads, though non-islanders are not allowed to bring their cars to this island. At 9 km by 5 km dimension, it did not need one. I had booked a couple of nights at the Glebe Barn on Eigg. This was an old barn that had recently been converted into dormitory accommodation. When I visited, the place was still undergoing renovation.

The Glebe Barn is located on the cliffs of Eigg, about a couple of kilometres on steep roads from the ferry terminal. There wasn't much around it apart from a rundown building, which too was undergoing renovation. From the road, I could see no other human habitation in the vicinity. A few sheep were grazing on the wild grassland. Standing alone on the grassy cliff by the sea, Glebe Barn painted a pretty desolate picture.

Glebe Barn from the road
The building next door, under repair

It didn't seem anyone was in when I arrived. I walked around the building trying out all the doors, but they refused to budge. Suddenly one of the doors flew open, startling me. A smiling face greeted me. This was Tamsin, the owner of the barn and luckily she was around as she was working on the conservatory. The barn was still being built. The door was unlocked, but for some reason had got stuck. It was just another fix needed to the building. Came to know that the original barn belonged to Tamsin's family. Her childhood days were spent playing in the old barn. After returning to the island with her family, she had decided to turn it into an accommodation for visitors. She herself lived in another part of the island.

The building was built in two stories. The ground floor had the shared kitchen and a spacious lounge with an attached conservatory. At the back of the building, there was a toilet and utility room from where the stairs led to the upper floors. On the first floor were three rooms set up as dormitory accommodation and a separate complex that could be rented as private accommodation. The second floor had two more dormitory rooms. The place could accommodate up to twenty two boarders. And of course each floor had its own set of bathrooms. For what it matters to this story, there were a lot of unlocked doors with rooms behind it. And of course as I mentioned before, there wasn't any lock on the main door either.

Spread across three floors, it was a massive place and I was the only boarder for the night. I settled in one of the rooms in the first floor, taking a bed by the window. The views looking out to the sea was gorgeous.

View from my room, looking out to the sea
I was preparing my dinner in the shared kitchen when Tamsin knocked on the door. She was leaving and inquired if I had comfortably settled down. Knowing I was alone, she told me to call her up if I needed anything. On the island, mobile network is barely available adding more to the feeling of remoteness. There was a payphone installed for this purpose in the corridor by the lounge. She assured me there was nothing to worry about. I had lived in remote places in Scotland on my own, so I assured her I would be fine.

I finished my dinner and settled down in the lounge with a book. The storm had returned with a vengeance after a short respite. The wind was howling as it passed through the gaps in the woodwork. The building stood exposed on the sea cliff and didn't have much shelter from the elements. There was a fireplace in the middle of the room and Tamsin had left a box of firewood too. It was March and still cold. I lit the fire and cuddled up on the sofa, with a throw warming my legs. The hours ticked on.

The lounge and the fireplace, clicked the next morning
I was woken up by the sound of the wind battering the glass panes. At some point I had dozed off on the sofa. The twilight was long gone and I woke up in complete darkness. The single bulb I had switched on in the lounge accompanied by the dying fire, created more shadows than illumination in the nooks and corners of the room. All I could hear was the wind, nothing else. The night was dead. It was time for bed, but I needed a shower before that.

The house was in completely darkness. I did feel a shiver running down my spine as I stepped out of the lounge. It was not just because of the chill away from the fire. I have an overactive, imaginative brain.
I walked up the stairs switching on the lights of the corridor as I passed, the wood creaking under my feet with every step. The voltage wasn't that great and the lights emitted a faint, yellow glow. I switched on my room lights, then returned to switch off the lights on the ground floor. The dark space was making me uncomfortable, so I shut all the doors. I opened the main door for a look and stared at the pitch darkness. The wind with the accompanying rain hit my face. I quickly shut it and headed upstairs.

I ran the shower, the water was hot. I felt secure in the tiny, well illuminated space of the bathroom. I started to relax under the shower.
But not for long.

A deafening shrill shook up the house. An alarm had gone off somewhere in the building. My first thought was that I had been careless with the fire and the house was now burning down. With no time to collect my clothes, I wrapped the towel and ran downstairs. The shrill alarm was deafening and disorienting. I ran into the lounge, and thankfully there was no sign of smoke. It looked peaceful. I was not! I ran to the kitchen to check for any sign of fire, but nothing looked out of place. I ran back to my room to get my mobile phone. There was no network on it. I looked for change for the payphone downstairs, but I did not have any either. I scrambled around the house and in one corner found a feeble signal. I dialled Tamsin. After a few rings she picked up, but it was impossible to hear her amidst all the ruckus. Multiple redials, interrupted communications and through a flurry of crackling noises I gathered she was telling me to switch off the alarm using the instruction in the ground floor corridor. Her husband was already on his way.

I located the alarm instructions by the payphone. I needed to punch in a few numbers. But the board was too high for me to reach. Still wrapped in my towel and dripping wet, I dragged a chair from the kitchen and climbed on it. I could now reach the buttons. I frantically entered the numbers as mentioned in the instruction. Nothing! The alarm was screaming along. I climbed down, checked the numbers on the instruction again, climbed back and punched them in. Still nothing. The alarm kept blaring. I was dizzy and disoriented and half deaf by now. I figured, this is all I could do and returned to my room to get dressed and wait for Tamsin's husband.

After about ten minutes Tamsin's husband arrived. The noise was too loud to talk, so he headed straight for the alarm. He punched in a few numbers and finally there was peace! The sudden quiet hit me hard. My ears were buzzing and I felt I would faint any moment. We checked the numbers on the instruction and figured, a couple of numbers had been mistakenly interchanged, hence my inability to switch it off.

He introduced himself as Tamsin's husband, and I think mentioned his name as Stuart. He was now laughing at my predicament and pulling jokes. I probably looked petrified, in complete shock and definitely disoriented. He guessed there was a malfunction, but taking pity at my shaken self, he assured he will do a thorough check of the whole building to look for anything amiss. We visited each room and looked in. Before heading to the second floor, Stuart continued to strum on my very weak and taught nerves. He suspected there was an unannounced guest in one of the rooms having a puff, which must have triggered the melee. I followed him meekly, peeping into the room from the doorway as he looked around. He came out and gave the all clear.

Wishing me a good night's sleep he left. But of course, he also apologised for the situation and said he will look into the electronics the next day.

By the time Stuart left, I had calmed down.  His cheerfulness had helped tremendously. Also having been through the whole house, I was now feeling less edgy. The adrenaline was running high, making me feel a lot braver.

Surprisingly, I slept pretty well that night despite all the excitement of the evening. Looking back, I do feel proud of myself for having the nerves and not completely freak out. But then visualising me running around in a towel, all panic stricken, it does make me laugh too. It was a situation I would not have experienced had I not been on my own. The joys of solo travel...

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