Gometra is the second largest and second most populous island in the Staffa Archipelago. It lies in Loch Staffa within the Loch Na Keal National Scenic Area near Staffa (2 miles), the Treshnish Isles (3 miles) and Iona (9 miles).
Gometra's assets are its islanders and its internationally significant wild islandscape and biodiversity. From Gometra you can see Little Colonsay, Erisgeir, Jura, Colonsay, Islay, Iona, Staffa, Dubh Artach, Maesgeir, Tiree, Bec Bec, Dutchman's Cap, Dioghlum, Skerryvore, Lunga, Fladda, the Carnaburgs, Gunna, Coll, South Uist, Ulva & Mull. The Small Isles and Skye are visible from a few hundred yards offshore. Red deer, feral goats and otters can be watched here and grey and common seals pup and haul out on the island, its islets and skerries, singing in the evenings. Golden and sea eagles scavenge our hills, diminishing quantities of salmon and sea trout pass along both coasts and basking sharks and cetaceans including individually identifiable bottlenose dolphins and harbour porpoise are seen from our shores, while minke and killer whales are sighted further off. Gometra, once a territory of the lords of the Isles, lost and regained several times over the centuries, is among various Hebridean islands held today by their myriad spawn, as well as being one of various islands held by the returning progeny of emigrants from the 18th and 19th century Celtic diaspora.
Gometra usually has three to four households and with the key support of Rhoda Munro and young Rhoda Munro, and family, is farmed and managed by Roc Sandford whose family connections with the island go back many years and who lives here part time, there being no school or doctor on the island. When we came here, Gometra was deserted, with one habitable house, having been on the market for 18 months without attracting a private or community buyer, and was two and a half hours return by Land Rover from the nearest human neighbour at the far end of Ulva. There are now five habitable houses of which two are occupied full time, two are holiday lets, and one is occupied by Roc's family. We are lucky enough to have had several dozen people including over a dozen children living here for varying periods over the last quarter century, either for free or at a nominal rent.
We breed Scottish blackface sheep and on occasion Border collies, and keep horses & cats, but no longer highland cattle or pigs. Mrs Munro is postmistress for the weekly incoming Royal Mail postal run, and runs the Gometra Post Office for outgoing mail. The Gometra Gallery at Baileclaidh is a centre of excellence showing the work of the island’s jeweller, Mrs Rhoda Munro, and artists including Polly Huggett, Liam Ryan and Sophie Baker.
Two of our four harbours, the best for visiting Staffa and the Treshnish Isles, are filled with yachts in the summer months and shelter our own boats in the winter. Kayakers, extreme swimmers, wild campers, climbers and access takers are welcomed at own risk. Accomodation can be booked via AirBnb. Please bring what you need including camping stove and sleeping bag. Health and safety information and disclaimers should be studied here; Gometra's hazards are augmented by our lack of medical services and isolation so please take this advice and information for tenants and visitors seriously, together with the risks note.
We have no reasonable access to a doctor or teacher, no reliable internet, mobile or land line, no cars or public transport, and we are off-grid. There is no working washing machine on the island. We usually have cold running water (though there are spells when the springs dry and water must be collected from the burns and boiled) and we often have hot or at least warm water. We are amongst the remotest and most service-poor communities in the Scottish Isles, and the tide of well-meant but inapplicable regulation, hard to satisfy in our extreme situation, may yet sweep us away. From landfall and access to doctors, schools & shops on Mull (a magnificent island off Gometra's North shore) and the mainland, our safest harbour is fifteen miles return across the turbulent, often treacherous Atlantic waters of Loch Tuath, white with surf and spindrift as I write. A rough hill track, which takes about five hours return to walk, three hours return to travel by quad bike and trailer or two hours return by quad alone, a journey in winter reminiscent of riding in a washing machine set on cold, leads across a causeway and tidal ford to a community little larger than our own at the East end of Ulva (a magnificent island off Gometra's East shore).
Having been left to our own devices for many years, we are now notorious for mounting the Save Staffa Archipelago campaign and petition to avert a 2 kilotonne factory salmon farm operated by the Scottish Salmon Company which threatens both our own safety, in forcing us out of the lee of the island into the often foul seas of Loch Tuath to access A&E, schools and other services offshore, and the breath-taking biodiversity and wildness which are all we have to offer residents and visitors. Objectors to the Gometra salmon farm have faced dirty tricks, smears, harassment, abuse and/or intimidation for drawing attention to the scientific evidence for the adverse impacts of salmon farms on biodiversity or of farmed salmon on consumers and their unborn children. We have been denied a polling station; our political representatives are unaccountable and none has any real experience of the island. No one on Gometra wants the salmon farm, and that should be enough. We will fight until it is taken away.
If you find an animal in difficulty, distress or dead please text 07765 951502 / 07899 335486 and/or tell someone immediately - time is crucial. Please let us know if you have any suggestions or complaints. Thank you!
Are visitors welcome on Gometra?
Very welcome. But please see our risks note for potential hazards, and please respect the privacy of islanders around homes and in workplaces and gardens.
Is it free to travel to Gometra?
It’s free if you are a suitably experienced walker with the right equipment, though you will have to pay the Ulva Ferry fare if coming from Mull. To the causeway it's 6 miles along a rough mountain track - about a 99 minute brisk walk.
Can we use the Gometra pier?
We recommend being suitably equipped for adverse conditions and accessing Gometra by the rough hill track via Ulva Ferry. The Gometra pier is a farm pier designed for moving livestock not people. There are slip, trip and deep water hazards. The pier dries at low and floods at high water. Unfortunately we cannot allow commercial use, nor take any responsibility for your commercial or non-commercial use of the pier, and if you want us to take such responsibility you must not use it. If you would like to use the pier, please get in touch so we can try to find a way to enable this safely.
Why do you have a health and safety policy?
We do our best to evaluate risks and let you know about them, but we ask you to take responsibility for your safety and come at your own risk.
Do you speak English?
The Gaelic and Norse of our ancestors are alive in our place names, but the first language of most of us is now Scots and English.
How does the island pay for itself?
Our farming, stalking, and holiday let businesses brings in much of the money we need, and we continue to explore new sources of revenue.
Does Gometra have a green policy?
Professional deniers paid to blow smoke have confused many people, but climate science and all academic institutions are unequivocal. Our species is in deep trouble, burning fossil fuels is making it worse, and we must stop. Gometra is open to the Atlantic in the direction of the prevailing South West winds, and is experiencing more powerful and frequent storms and higher rainfall which the scientific evidence links with human fossil fuel use. Gometra’s policy is to progressively phase out fossil fuels where consistent with survival. We have a long way to go, we may fail, but we have achieved much. There are no working cars or tractors on the island (but there is a Land Rover) and we use generators infrequently. Much of our space and water heating is wood-fired though we still also use coal. Many journeys are made by walking and hitching, but we do also make many journeys and transport animals using a petrol-engined boat and a diesel engined car offshore, together with public transport. We take few flights. The trend of our fossil fuel use is downwards. Our ideal is for people joining the community to be sensitive to these low-carbon aspirations.
You claim to be Green, yet you still use fossil fuels?
We are fast approaching the sauve qui peut point – and saving only for so long (in both senses) then. After that, we may not be able to continue to satisfy our criterion of downward trend in greenhouse gas emissions – above all because we will be starting from an abnormally low base. Scientific knowledge, public policy and our own policy in these areas are rapidly evolving so please keep in touch for an update.
Do you provide free housing on Gometra?
So far island policy has usually been to provide housing rent-free or at a nominal or voluntary rent. There have been no strings attached, but in practice residents often helped out in return so at best it is a win-win situation and contributes to the health of our community and business. However, this means we do not have the money coming in to repair or improve our housing stock, and we now need as a minimum for our expenses to be covered. Because of Scottish Government housing legislation, legal compliance issues mean that we are re-examining the voluntary rent for un-modernised housing model which may no longer be legally allowed.
We have experimented with charging rent for holiday lets and for some leasehold properties and are also seeking a social landlord partnership to help us pay for improvements - if you as a social landlord are interested please get in touch. This is a moving target, as we try to strike a fair balance between our legal compliance obligations, our needs as a business, and those of our tenants, so best to check latest situation with us directly if you would like to live here. Tenants are responsible for council tax, food, fuel and transport, and some choose to forage outwith the money economy. We ask people to come and camp or rent one of our bothies for a week or so directly through AirBnb before discussing anything in detail to get a sense of the realities of living here. We don't currently have accommodation to offer, but this does change.
Why do you keep your cottages empty?
Of our four houses legally available for residential occupation, one is occupied by my family, one is leased on a long let, and two are used for holiday lets and decanting long term residents. We have a new family currently in the process of moving here.
What is your housing allocation policy?
We give priority to people who have prior connection with Gometra, experience of off-grid living, livestock and boats, and who support our green aspirations, but notwithstanding this we like to make contact with anyone who would potentially like to live here.
Sometimes there is a legal reason why we cannot let, e.g. there are not enough rooms for children of different genders or a property is not legally allowed to be lived in. Housing law is strict and when we have spare accommodation we try to strike the right balance between obeying it and getting people housed, subject to protecting the interests of the existing community and the potential tenants. Decisions are taken by consensus of existing stakeholders. Over the years we have successfully housed over three dozen people. On two occasions over the last 20 years when we have had space and there has been no legal impediment we have felt at first meeting that there was already evidence of a breakdown in any potential working relationship however good the intentions on both sides. The wrong match could sink us.
What kind of leases do you offer?
We normally offer formal and informal licences to occupy, Scottish short assured tenancies, and longer self-repairing leases. We are concerned that we may no longer be able to offer new leases due to the increasing compliance responsibility on landlords, some of which applies even to rent free accommodation like ours. However, we are hoping to identify a means of continuing to offer licences to occupy.
Who owns Gometra?
Own is an odd concept when applied to a fine old lump of basalt which has been lying in Loch Staffa for millions of years. I prefer hold. Hold means I get to keep my sheep and/or cattle here, fix up and rent out houses, and live part time in one myself. In return I have to pay the mortgage, most of the bills, and take a fair amount of stick.
I have family connections with Gometra which go back many years. I am the descendant of eighteenth and nineteenth century emigrants from Scotland, Ireland and Wales to the New World, as well as other Irish, Scottish and English people who stayed put the Old World.
I came to Gometra 25 years ago when it was deserted and after it had been on the market for 18 months with no community, charity or private buyer. I have spent somewhere around 8 years of my life on the island, which is as much as anyone in recent years. Likewise my children hold the recent record for proportion of their lives spent on the island. In obedience to a High Court Order and in the absence of a Gometra school, they go to school on the mainland. I try to be here every calendar month, but often fail.
How many people live on Gometra?
Normally we have around 2 or 3 full time households and 1 or 2 part time, as well as many long and short term visitors. We usually suggest that you come camp or stay for a week in one of our cottages while we talk it through. We do not currently have employment to offer.
How many people used to live on Gometra?
We had around 70 in the 1841 census and up to 160 in the 1830s (after rapid population increases from an eighteenth century base of around 10-30) during the relatively short-lived kelp-boom (which enabled food to be imported), but this fell back to around 20 by 1861 after the potato crop which was our principal food supply failed.
Was Gometra cleared?
During the Great Hunger of the 1840s, when the potato crop became diseased and rotted, the island was held by Isabel MacDonald (née Campbell) and her daughter, also called Isabel MacDonald. No one is known to have died of hunger, but the island’s population fell rapidly by emigration. The MacDonald ladies are remembered with fondness locally and I have not found evidence that they evicted anyone, but I am still searching for primary sources. It is important to get this straight, so please let us know if you have insights. Their brother, Colonel MacDonald of Inch Kenneth, who helped with the management of Gometra, was commended by the Glasgow Relief Board for his humanity and kindness.
Why do many people choose to live on Gometra part time?
We go overseas for countless reasons. We may need: a teacher for our children, a doctor for ourselves or our children, a job to replenish our money, access to reliable telecommunications and a regular postal service, access to public transport, to see friends and family, or to rest from the cabin fever and physical rigour inevitable on a small, sparsely populated, off-grid, weather-beaten island with no pubs or shops, but an excellent art gallery.
Why do so many people leave after 2 years?
There is a pattern – typically you either live on Gometra full time for up to 2 years but then leave, or you live on Gometra part time, and last much longer.
Could you be forced to live here full time?
Gometra is like an oil rig without the oil, and anyone who tries to make a prison of it will find that the inmates just swim away laughing.
Are babies born on Gometra?
For many years now, we have journeyed to the mainland a few weeks before term to access midwives and medical facilities should anything go wrong, and we return a week or so after the baby has been born.
Is Gometra off-grid?
Yes. That means no mains electricity, water, gas, etc. We have an intermittent landline and a not wholly reliable satellite internet link. Vodafone and EE mobile telephones sometimes work from headlands on the South and West sides, though not where our houses are.
Do Gometra children go to school?
It varies. Some children are home educated, some children board in a local authority hostel on the mainland, some move away with their parents during term time to be near mainland schools, some resolute parents drive a Land Rover back and forth across Ulva for five hours each day so their children can go to Ulva Ferry Primary School. Unfortunately we are outwith the catchment of Tobermory High School on Mull, our nearest High School but unrealistically distant, which means there is no school-run provision for High School children. Some of us would like a teacher for the Gometra school.
What do Gometra people do if they need a doctor?
The Salen Surgery is extremely helpful in giving us telephone consultations and sending out prescriptions by the postman to Ulva Ferry. If one of us is dying or in danger of losing a major limb, and provided there is a way of summoning it, a helicopter is sent. We have a triage problem if we can’t say how ill we or our children are, lacking as we do the training to determine this, or finding ourselves in shock. This has caused genuine hardship of an extreme nature and we are working with the practice to try to ameliorate the situation. Some of us would like paramedic training, and for a boatman to be put on a modest retainer to ferry us overseas to the Salen surgery for triage if need be.
Do you have a stakeholder engagement policy?
We enjoy engaging constructively with neighbouring stakeholders so please text or email to arrange a meeting on Gometra. We can sometimes meet overseas if help with transport and accommodation can be provided, or if we are already making a journey for other purposes.
Can you pay my travel expenses to Gometra?
Unfortunately no – we are sorry but it is expensive and the business does not earn enough to charter transport.
Does Scottish law obtain on Gometra?
We slip up often, but endeavour to obey all laws which are not immoral. Sometimes we obey even those if the punishment is sufficiently harsh.
Does Gometra have a Post Office?
Yes, the Gometra Post Office (G.P.O.) operates a local post for the transport of two way messages and freight, and one way outgoing mail. The Royal Mail operates a once weekly incoming only postal service. For details, please contact the Postmistress, Isle of Gometra, PA73 6NA.
Are there any shops?
Gometra has a small gallery and bookshop, an honesty shop with some tinned and packet food, and a post office operated by Mrs Rhoda Munro, our Postmistress. It is at Baileclaidh, at the South East end of Gometra.
Salen Spa (daily except Sunday) and Dervaig Village Stores (Wednesdays) on Isle of Mull (an offshore island near Gometra) can sometimes send orders to Ulva Ferry with good notice. From Ulva Ferry, the Gometra Post Office can sometimes bring them to Gometra.
What do you do all day?
Including lambs we sometimes have over 600 sheep, including grandchildren 10 children; we provide low-cost housing, holiday lets, stalking, oysters, teaching; we plant and weed and fish our food, harvest our electricity, trap our water, chop our wood; fix buildings damaged by the increasingly energetic storms, by errant tenants or by time; winnow a river of paperwork, try to defend our biodiversity, wildness and enchantment from eager and rapid destruction by bottom-line corporations working hand in glove with propaganda-model media and government-for-sale (this is never a surprise, but what is, is how cheaply); journey overseas to replenish our dwindling money supplies and find teachers and doctors and friends and other excitements when needed.
Why are you against sea cage salmon farms around Gometra?
Sea cage salmon farms erode the wildness values and compromise or annihilate the whale, dolphin, seal, porpoise, wild salmon and wild trout populations on which our economy and Gometra’s enchantment depends, without creating the extra jobs they promise. Eating farmed salmon elevates your cancer risk and the likelihood of birth defects in any future children you may have, which is why there have been consumption advisories not to eat farmed salmon if you want to have children (e.g. cf. Hites et al., 2004).
All text and Images © Roc Sandford, Gometra, 2015 unless otherwise stated. Please let us know of any corrections or suggestions. To contact us click here.