Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.
It would be hard to miss the colourful entrance to Rubha Phoil – Skye Permaculture when you step off the ferry from Mallaig at Armadale pier on the southern tip of Skye. The Sleat Peninsula, known as the garden of Skye and the 16 acre spit of lush verdant woodland at Rubha Phoil is just that in microcosm – a meandering magical woodland garden. Rubha Phoil is Gaelic for Paul’s Point, named after Paul Macdonald who landed there with his brothers in their flight from Glencoe following the massacre of 1692.
The Macdonalds themselves settled further up the road but their landing place remained just that. Their descendant Lord Godfrey Macdonald sold Rubha Phoil to its present owner Sandy Masson – site unseen- in 1989 when, according to Sandy ‘land was cheap’. Sandy a warm, tanned and and vibrant woman in blond pigtails, blue dungarees and wellies talks to me as she walks
Fell in Love
Sandy is supervising her band of volunteers as she goes, searching all the while for her precious rake which ‘someone has pinched’. She arrived on Skye by motorbike and fell in love with the island. A maker and retailer of soft toys from east Yorkshire, surprisingly, Sandy found the climate on Sleat warmer than her native North Sea coast.
The move was chiefly inspired by a permaculture course Sandy attended in 1989 run by Graham Bell of Coldstream, now an elder of the permaculture movement. Sandy claims the course changed her life. “It made me look inwards as well as around me and I realised it was time for a change. They were teaching about climate change and if people had listened then, would it have made a difference?”.
After a spell working as the National Coordinator at a permaculture centre in Devon where she found ‘lots of people who cared about the planet’ , Sandy moved to Rubha Phoil permanently. Taking up residence with her partner initially in a caravan in the Meadow they build their own wooden house and had moved in by 1991.
I realised it was time for a change. They were teaching about climate change and if people had listened then, would it have made a difference?
Permaculture ethics emphasise care for the earth, gaia, and its inhabitants and for the equitable use of the planet’s resources. The ethos is based on sustainable agriculture methods which aim to produce more energy than is consumed, to save and retain soil, recycle nutrients and waste and provide food for local consumption.
At Rubha Phoil they grow organic vegetables, herbs and flowers for food and remedies, and have a flock of roaming hens who produce fresh eggs . The produce is eaten by Rubha’s team of residents and volunteers, surpluses are shared or sold to campers and local people.
Everywhere on Rubh [pronounced Ru], as Sandy calls it, there are colourful painted wooden signs, posters and notices instructing and advising visitors on the ethos and principles of Skye permaculture, on the traditional Gaelic terms for herbs and how they were used locally and about composting. A distinctive feature of the site is how they manage waste – food, water and human. Composting is a key activity onsite and the earth worms, ‘our friends in low places’, are everywhere honoured as the stars of this particular show.
Sandy has the distinction of being the ‘Compost Mentor’ for Skye and Lochalsh. There are open water sewage systems, compost toilets, reed beds and willow urinals – ‘Les Pipes’. The worms, busy in their boxes under the charming wooden toilets dotted around the glades, keep the place surprisingly clean and odour free. It is a remarkable place altogether.
According to Sandy, “People come here looking for something they are not finding elsewhere in society. A place where they can be creative.”. Sandy speaks about Mary Queen of Scots whose embroidery and colour work with her threads kept her sane during those long years of imprisonment. “Being creative is what keeps your head together”. The evidence of that is everywhere.
The place is a hive of happy industry in preparation for a forthcoming Midsummer Party and Gardens’ Open Day. Young people are painting and erecting signs, potting plants for sale, baking cakes, setting tables, weeding and clearing paths. They are volunteers spending anything from a week to months at a time on site. In exchange for the work they do they are given bed and board. They live in tents, in the community house or in one of the log cabins dotted around the site. French, Spanish, English and Glaswegian conversations could be heard around the place.
Vision for Rubh
There is a serious side to Sandy’s vision for Rubh. She is concerned about youth homelessness and unemployment with many young people unable to get a house because they have no job. Scotland’s high rate of heart disease and of suicide, particularly among young men, is also a worry. She is convinced that young people can learn important lessons and skills at Rubh – how to live and work on the land, build cabins, cook and look after themselves and others. They can do physical and creative work to help keep them mentally and physically well.
In a recent venture, Skye Permaculture was registere by Highland Council as an Activity Agreement Provider to young people in Skye and Lochaber. Rubh lends itself well to providing an activity-based experience of work and learning. Mentoring and guidance are available to young people who haven’t secured a college or training place.
“People come here looking for something they are not finding elsewhere in society. A place where they can be creative.”
Budget and Cook
The scheme aims to help them develop skills and confidence, how to budget and cook on a low income and to plan their future. Rubh has also been given Scottish Innovation Grant Funding to establish a textile workshop. The wooden building designed by local architect Magnus Gunnison of Broadford was opened earlier this year.
“Being creative is what keeps your head together”
This part of Skye is popular, with 220,000 visitors per year arriving by ferry from Mallaig. The beautiful natural environment of this unique Visitor Centre has much to offer day trippers and visitors. It has an Eco-campsite and according to Sandy, “People say it is the most beautiful campsite they have ever seen. They always want to come back – to enjoy living close to nature, to sit round campfires and walk in the woods”.
“People say it is the most beautiful campsite they have ever seen.
Each of the private pitches has its own name: Calum’s Camomile Camping, Kevin’s Eigg View and its own fire-pit. Most have their very own seaview overlooking the Sound of Sleat. There is a little cabin in the woods for the use of campers when it rains and they are always welcome in the community house.
Havens for Children
The woodland walks leading through a maze of rhododendron tunnels and the Faerie Glade are havens for children, seals are a common sight on the shore and the rock cave is popular. Gentle Bahii visitors built a quiet meditation cabin among trees they planted as part of the International Peace Forest. Recent ventures include the addition of yurts, a wigwam and Seagull Sanctuary Cottage for holiday lets.
They always want to come back – to enjoy living close to nature, to sit round campfires and walk in the woods”.
Rubha Phoil is now a charitable trust and Sandy an acknowledged elder of the permaculture movement in Scotland. Perhaps the early permaculture visionaries knew what was coming when they began to alert the world to climate change and to advocate a greener future for planet earth and its inhabitants. A visit to Rubh is a delightful introduction to these principles and who knows, aside from a grand day out, it may change your life.
A version of this article first appeared in Scottish Islands Explorer Magazine Sept/Oct 2014
Rubha Phoil Forest Garden
Isle of Skye
Tel: 01471 844 700