On Ulva, the island with just six residents, life goes on amid coronavirus
‘It’s not unusual for me to go two or three weeks without seeing anyone.’
Barry George, 59, lives on the Scottish island of Ulva, where there are just six residents: Barry, who’s been living on Ulva for 25 years, Wendy Reid, who moved over in September 2019, and one family, Rhuri and Rebecca Munro and their two children, Matilda, nine, and Ross, six.
The residents of the island are uniquely equipped to deal with the imposition of lockdown and social distancing due to the coronavirus pandemic.
On an island with just six people, it’s easy to stay apart.
Ulva is a three-mile across, seven-mile long island in the inner Hebrides, just a five-minute boat ride off the west coast of Mull. Once upon a time it had a bustling population of fishermen, farmers, and builders. Then people grew tired of small-island life and moved to the mainland to chase bigger dreams.
The population dwindled until they were down to just five people (the sixth person to join is Wendy, who arrived in 2019), the island then owned by a wealthy landlord.
Murmurs of change began with a community buyout in 2018, when the North West Mull Community Woodland Company petitioned to give the island back to its people and start making improvements.
Plans began to grow the population, – they hope to have 50 people living on the island within the next 20 years – bring the fishing farms back into use, and renovate the properties to attract a new generation
In the meantime, Ulva has a life of two halves.
In the off-season, the cold winter months, it’s just the six residents growing vegetables, exploring the valleys and hidden paths, and heading over to Mull when they need a break from their very own island.
Then in spring, thousands of tourists arrive. Last year by mid-April 100 people were on the island each day, waking up the sleepy area with the bustle of families keen to explore nature and snap photos of highland cows (a recent addition to the island), repeat visitors who have come to Ulva for peace and quiet for decades, and couples seeking solitude in what feels like a remote, mystical land.
This year, however, that rush of people won’t arrive.
Coronavirus has put a stop to tourists’ plans to visit Ulva. The sole business on the island, The Boathouse, a pub and restaurant run by the Munros, is closed. The ferry taking people between Ulva and Mull has stopped, only available for passengers in moments of absolute need.
For the first time, the six residents of Ulva have the island entirely to themselves for the spring and summer. They have to contend with the strangeness of a full year alone and what the lockdown will mean for their community longterm – along with the immediate threat of the pandemic.
No one on Ulva has experienced any symptoms, and the shutdown of the ferry means it would be difficult for coronavirus to make its way over to the island.
But there have been multiple cases of Covid-19 on Mull, where both Wendy and Barry have been at least once in the past month.
Rebecca Munro’s son Ross has asthma, making him vulnerable to the disease. While Rebecca says she’s coping fine now, at first the news of coronavirus made her panic.
‘It was difficult emotionally because of our son’s asthma,’ Rebecca, 32, tells Metro.co.uk. ‘I was so paranoid about him catching it, I wasn’t coping with the worry well.’
The Munros began taking precautions long before official lockdown measures came in, but the rest of the island didn’t seem worried.
‘There are some people who weren’t taking it seriously,’ says Rebecca.
Barry George’s biggest concern about coronavirus is not catching the illness himself, but how the disease could be used to restrict our freedoms.
‘I’ve been talking to people all over the world Corsica, South of France, Moscow, Philadelphia, New York, Newcastle, Leeds, and I’m yet to speak to anybody who knows anybody who’s got the virus,’ he says.
‘Boris Johnson is considering more stringent measures. My concern is once this is over, will those stringent measures be lifted?
‘Is this a red flag? Is this virus as bad as they say? Or is it just an excuse to introduce new laws and new regulations to suit the government?
‘I’m a left-wing socialist left over from the seventies.
‘I’m a great one in freedom of speech and freedom of movement. It’s a bit worrying for me thinking what might happen once this is all over.’
Wendy, who works for the North West Mull Community Woodland Company as the development manager for Ulva, worries about the longterm impact a halt on tourism could have on the island.
She says: ‘Longer term – will people come back? When will they start coming back? How long will this go on for?’
‘It’s a bit of an unknown. We just don’t know what’s going to happen and just how quickly things will pick up again once restrictions are eased.
‘If it goes on for most of the season we will have lost a significant amount of income for a year. The island closes down over the winter.
‘It’s going to have a devastating impact on a lot of people’s livelihoods.’
While the future is a concern, everyday life for Ulva’s residents goes on.
Barry is unable to work as the bus he drives part-time on Mull has stopped service. Instead he’s enjoying roaming the island.
‘Coronavirus has given me the opportunity not to go about,’ Barry tells us. ‘It means I can do more things for myself on Ulva, like my garden and my studies.
‘It means that I’m not going anywhere so I’m at home all the time. I’m quite happy with that.’
He’s able to enjoy the island’s beauty without interruption.
‘It’s beautiful,’ says Barry. ‘It has an atmosphere, it has a soul, it has magic. There are magical places on Ulva, fairy places. When you walk in certain places the hairs stands up on the back of your neck.’
Wendy is enjoying having the island to herself. Having only moved here last year, she hasn’t experienced Ulva in its full tourist-packed swing, and is making the most of what may be the only time the island will be empty while the sun’s out.
‘I can walk for two or three hours and know that I’m not going to see anybody,’ she explains. ‘I don’t have to stay within the confines of my garden. I have the whole island to explore. I don’t feel constrained in any way.’
The closure of the Ulva School in Mull, means Matilda and Ross are at home for their education instead of taking their usual five-minute boat ride and bus trip to school.
In the mornings Rebecca and Rhuri help the kids through the textbooks and worksheets their school gave them before lockdown, and tackle the daily task set by their teacher over video. In the afternoon they head out on walks, do gardening, and enjoy the island.
Rebecca moved to Ulva in 2006 to run The Boathouse with her husband Rhuri, who grew up on the island back when the population was at 30. They welcomed two children, a new generation of Ulva residents.
‘Because of where we are we can go out and go for walks,’ she says. ‘We’re not as limited. I mean, officially we have our one walk a day… but there’s no one here. It’s a lot easier to do social distancing.’
While those in cities struggle to get toilet roll and a pack of spaghetti, the residents of Ulva aren’t having much difficulty accessing the essentials. A volunteer service is offering to do food shops for the residents, sending across orders by boat and dropping items off in the wooden shed by the pier for people to collect.
But everyone’s already stocked up. Life in isolated Ulva means buying in bulk, in case the weather prevents travel across to Mull.
‘Living where we do, you always have lots of food in stock,’ Wendy explains. ‘Everybody that lives here will have a full storecupboard of food and freezers full of stuff.
‘Of anybody, we were probably well prepared for the lockdown because we haven’t had to panic. We’re all used to stocking up.’
Barry has his own vegetable garden. In the winter he made large amounts of vegetable soup, enough to last throughout the lockdown, which is all safely in his freezer.
Social distancing is in place as well as official lockdown rules put out across the country – stay indoors, only go outside when essential or for one bit of exercise a day – but in Ulva going without seeing other people isn’t much of an adjustment. There’s not much need to stay indoors, either. Any time Barry, Wendy, or the Munro family head out, they’re unlikely to see each other. If they do, they keep their distance.
The loneliness and boredom city-dwellers face amid lockdown aren’t a problem for the people of Ulva. They’re more than used to it.
‘I chose to live here,’ Wendy notes. ‘I lived through the winter. You just get used to being – not lonely – but not having people around. If you were a person who didn’t like that, you wouldn’t be living here in the first place.
‘Inadvertently we’ve been practising social distancing all winter.’
Barry agrees: ‘I’m not really bothered. I’m more or less self-sustaining. I can be alone for long periods of time. I don’t have a problem with that.’
In fact, orders to stay apart suit Barry quite well – because there’s no risk of members of the North West Mull Community Woodlands Company coming to talk to him.
Ulva is not the idyllic socialist commune you might be picturing in your head – not at the moment, anyway. Decisions are not made by a hands-up vote of the six residents, rent must still be paid, and while the buyout emphasises feelings of community, tension is simmering due to what Barry feels is ‘offensive’ exclusion.
‘Since the community buyout I haven’t had a say in the island,’ Barry claims, stating that when the committee was formed he was the one adult on the island who wasn’t included. ‘I get an email, that’s it. The decisions will be made and I will be informed. I would say our community is fractured.’
A major issue for Barry is the plan to renovate the island’s homes, something that he is strongly against but cannot prevent as he doesn’t own his cottage, but rents it.
‘Their plan is to rip the heart and soul out of my home and make it all open-plan,’ he says. ‘I hate open-plan. I like snug little rooms. I have pleaded with them, please don’t do that.
‘The reply I got was: It’s not your house, you’re a tenant who pays rent. I was bowled over.’
Barry says he hasn’t spoken to Rebecca in over a year, despite their homes being a few minutes walk apart.
The lockdown won’t stop the renovation of the house where Barry has lived for decades, but it will press pause on plans. It also allows Barry the freedom to make some of the changes he’s longed to put into play, without having to worry about anyone stepping in to stop him.
‘This coronavirus is a good thing because I’m not seeing them now,’ he says. ‘They can’t come over here. Good riddance as far as I’m concerned. I’m left to get on with stuff. I can do what I want and what I want is for the benefit of the island.’
Barry is currently crafting seats out of trees that have fallen over and resurfacing roads – both tasks he says he’s taking on because, he says, the North West Mull Community Woodlands Company ‘have done nothing’. Wendy has helped Barry get his quad bike certificate, allowing him to move materials around the island more easily.
Next he wants to introduce new paths around the island.
‘The walks on Ulva have been the same walks all the time I’ve been here,’ he explains. ‘I want to put new walks in, so when people come they can see the same views but from a different angle. They can go up that little valley and go up this little glen, so people can see the parts of the island only I see, because they’re off the beaten track.
‘I’ve been waiting for [North West Mull Community Woodlands Company] to contact me and they haven’t. To Hell with them. I’ll just do it myself. They can’t stop me, they’re all on Mull.’
While in some spaces the pandemic has pulled communities together – neighbours teaming up to do online orders, the whole country clapping for the NHS, the kind gestures strangers have done to show their support – on an island like Ulva it’s easy for each household to be completely contained in their own private bubble, living out their lives on the island distant from one another.
There’s a shared attitude, however, of just getting on with things.
‘We’re all in the same boat,’ Rebecca says. ‘It’s easier now than it was at first. We adjust quite quickly to these things – you know what to expect now.
‘We’ve all had a couple of weeks to adjust, and we are probably in the best place possible to get through it.
‘Everyone’s in the same position. Everyone at the end of this is going to understand why things have happened. There’s nothing we can really do. We just get on with it.’
Wendy adds: ‘It is what it is and we have to do what we have to do. There are guidelines in place for a reason and if you stick to them, what will be will be.
‘This has come along, we will deal with it, and we will move on. There isn’t anything else you can do.
‘Panicking is not going to make any difference whatsoever, it’s not going to change the outcome. All we can do is whatever is within our power to stop the spread, according to the guidelines.
‘We can be supportive of our neighbours and our friends and make sure everyone is getting through it as best they can. But actually, we can’t change it.’
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