Water Part 1

Water Part 1

1 February 2022

The February 2021 rainfall was 46% below the 20 year average (91.60 mm). January was 21% below. This is relevant because…..

The fundamental difference between mainland life and island life is water: it surrounds us, it falls on us, we try to keep it out of our houses or we must pipe it in.  Our water source is our life. A house with no water is not a house. If you live here you need to know your supply and your rights to it. Old ordnance survey maps always list the many wells. Essential information.

Domestic water supplies are private; each household manages its own. Many, like ours, are shared. As the MD of a water management company you are responsible for its functioning, purity and the machinery needed to harness it and you are advised to know where pipes travel to and to be intimate with stop cocks. A new home dweller should be given a map of these essentials.

Fortunate people have a gravity feed into a tank in the house. Less fortunate need a storage tank in the garden with its own submersible pump and pipes. Fine. But, as  the island is uniquely limestone in a sea of granite, pipes and pumps randomly block. Chunks or slivers of lime lining the pipe walls can suddenly rearrange themselves. No water. The pump struggles and .. dies. Luckily many of us now also have boreholes courtesy of Yeoman Glensanda who were fully lauded in an earlier blog. But they need pipes and pumps too.

Water is fickle; springs can dry up or just go elsewhere. Something, a new build or a violent storm perhaps, can change its course. And off it goes. Hopefully not straight into the house. We have a good supply and this has never happened, although it has often been reduced to a trickle which is sufficient for normal life with careful usage.

We arrived in 1990. Pleased with ourselves. In love. Giddy even. Then, in a very short time I discovered that water, not love, ruled my life. Paradise was great but…no-one (especially the agent/solicitor) had said – better check the water if you want to live on an island. I had bought the view (below) but suddenly the view was irrelevant.

The pump in the garden broke because the pipes were blocked with lime. At  the time H was away at sea for several months and he was not a phone call or email away then. He wasn’t even a ship-to-shore away and I knew few people well enough to bother them except my neighbour Dollie Carmichael in Point Cottage where the water magically emerged from the raised beach vertical cliff , crossed her garden and went into her sunken bucket outside her house. The overflow crossed the road in pipes to us. Our overflow went to Mo Dhachaidh. I’m intimate with it now; I wasn’t then. Dollie gave me one of her magic cups of tea and a chocolate digestive, her patent medicine, and suggested I call Donald.

Point Cottage with Dollie’s cat

Donald MacLean was married to Stuart’s cousin Alison and he took away the pump, stripped it and, after a quite short time, I had water. But not for long. It broke again: a new pump needed he said and the pipe to the house will need renewing.

No problem. Dollie had a nephew in Oban who sold pumps and he would send one. Many phone calls and visits to Oban did not produce it.  Meanwhile I collected water in buckets and life went on for a few months much as it always had in earlier times. Or even more ironically as it was still going on in Point Cottage. To her last day on the island in January 1998, when she moved to Port Appin where water comes from mains, Dollie filled her kettle from a bucket. So doing the same was hardly a chore.

These days, to an extent, things are easier. We can order pumps online, Mull Builders bring supplies and although sadly Donald MacLean is dead we have Robert Smith who, even as I write is installing my neighbour’s new pump.

Once the problem was fixed and we had renewed the pipes and bought a new pump (always keep one in reserve) , H went away to sea and the water spoke again. This time it wouldn’t heat up. Plenty of it but it was all cold. It was winter. I called another Oban Plumber who came and tutted (why do people tut; answer – to make themselves appear better than the last tutter). Once that stopped he told me it was plumbed in the wrong way and my struggling system had failed. By some miracle (Dollie probably told me) I knew his firm had done the original plumbing. Tutting ceased and he said someone has interfered with it. Interfered, as if. It was almost impossible to get into the loft unless you were a monkey let alone interfere with anything. However when the bill came it was more money than I was ever used to knowing about let alone having.

I went to Oban and challenged it. Well…. I politely queried it. (To wrong foot them.) They were not embarrassed despite it being their fault! And I further politely asked why two plumbers had been needed to correct their error. ‘The second one was to hold the ladder.’ They actually said that. And I said: ‘we all know holding ladders does not require a qualified plumber.’ And I laughed (girlishly) just to show I was only mildly dangerous. And not a raving feminist who knew they were trying to do her.

Limey water is on the whole a problem . But it divides folk: some love it although I sometimes imagine it may harden arteries as well as pipes. There are degrees of hardness. Ours is very limey and after several new washing machines and a couple of dishwashers packed up we installed a water softener despite it being just another machine to malfunction. Environmentally it seemed to be the better of two poor options.

Those who who turn on taps from mains’ supplies cannot imagine any of this. They have outsourced the responsibility to a huge private company (where shareholders control your water). Consequently everyone who comes here to live, or stay for a while, or work discovers the wonder and power of water. Starting with the sea.

The sea controls our exits and out entrances. But that is the subject of Water part 2 my next blog.