Ecology Natural heritage Scotland

Under the influence of Rum

An erratic boulder in Kinloch Glen and the North Side forest plantations, Isle of Rum National Nature Reserve, Scotland (1988) © J. Ashley Nixon


One visit to Rum, an island in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland, was all it took to know in my heart and mind that this would be the place to do my Ph.D. research. Immediately I was drawn into the beauty of its compelling, complex volcanic geology. There was a legacy of conservation research into the population dynamics of the red deer herd. The colony of Manx shearwaters, nesting in burrows clawed into the soft terraced sediments between the summits of Askival and Hallival had an appealing niche. The National Nature Reserve was home to well-advanced studies to return the Sea Eagle to Scotland. The rocky shores, exposed to the Atlantic Ocean’s full force over on the west coast at Harris, were fabulously rich in their biodiversity. The big question was: what should I study?

Dr. Mel Bradshaw and students from City College Norwich conduct fieldwork on the rocky shore of Harris, Isle of Rum (1985). © J. Ashley Nixon

Expedition to the Inner Hebrides

That first visit, in 1985, was run like an expedition. As a new lecturer at what is now called City College Norwich, I was teaching biology and environmental science, which included running field courses on Rum and the Island of Raasay, tucked between Skye and the west coast mainland. A group of thirty or so students, my fellow lecturer, Dr. Mel Bradshaw and technicians, Alison Dodds and Jane Lindsay, accompanied by wooden tea chests filled with provisions and equipment, made the epic journey by train from East Anglia south to London.

We then travelled north on the overnight train to Glasgow and across Rannoch Moor to Fort William. The journey on the West Highland Line, one of the most scenic railway routes in the world, continued over the Glenfinnan Viaduct and on to the port of Mallaig. We then boarded the Lochmor ferry run by CalMac (Caledonian MacBrayne) to make the two-and-a-half-hour sea crossing to Rum in the Small Isles archipelago.

The Lochmor, a CalMac ferry, sails into Kinloch, Isle of Rum (1989). © J. Ashley Nixon

Woodland restoration

As I learned more about the experimental conservation work on Rum, I saw several possibilities to examine environmental changes associated with the program of native woodland restoration that began shortly after the island was purchased by the Nature Conservancy and turned into a nature reserve in 1957.

Only a few small isolated relict woodlands remained on the island, as a result, in common with many upland areas of Britain, of a long history of woodland clearance, overgrazing and moorland burning, especially for grouse management. All sheep and cattle were removed from the island, and the grazing range of red deer was limited. An ambitious long-term woodland restoration program began in 1958, led by Peter Wormwell, Rum’s first Chief Warden, using 26 species of tree and shrub, known from the pollen record and relict sites to have grown there in the past.

With the help of Dr. Nick Johns at City College Norwich and Dr. Humphrey Smith, one of my ecology lecturers at Coventry University, my research proposal was approved. Seven years later, the thesis’s final title became “The influence of native woodland restoration on the soils and vegetation of the Isle of Rum.” Thirty years on, it’s high time to return to Rum.


The original photographs were made with a Yashica FX-103. Digital copies from Fujichrome slide film were created in March 2021, using a Fujifilm X-T4 camera. See J. Ashley Nixon Photography for more images from Rum.

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