Saturday, October 27, 2007


Oh dear. After two weeks away visiting family, friends and working in the Southern Isles, I came back to find the house uninhabitable. The builders have been working hard in my absence and have laid new concrete floors, ripped out fireplaces, wall linings and ceilings. Unfortunately, they've also taken out the central heating boiler, the water supply and the cooker.I had planned to remain in the house while the renovation was under way, by moving from room to room, but now find that impossible. Not quite sure why I thought life could be tolerable during major rebuilding works.I slept in the house on Thursday evening and had to wash and clean my teeth with bottled fizzy water. Enough is enough! Realised I can't live like this for the next few months and moved out last night. Have now rented a flat above a restaurant in a very beautiful part of the Island and can sleep, keep clean, eat and have great views without moving very far.

It was lovely to see family and friends once more after months of relative isolation here. It's striking to see how much people change physically when you only see them every now and again. Number one son, his wife and happy smiling new grand daughter all very welcoming and hospitable. Could easily get used to being plied with good food and wine on a daily basis without having to make an effort myself. A bit sorry that I didn't have enough time to visit various other friends and two God Daughters.

Not sure yet where I'm going to spend Christmas. Hope to be back in my own home, but can't be sure that the work will be finished. It would be good to think that the house will be cosy and warm by then, but I'm not holding my breath.

The weather here has now started to become very wintery. We've had a couple of fierce gales recently and it seems to be raining almost continually. The sheep on the roads look miserable and I feel a great temptation to round them up, let them sleep in my shed and give them a good meal on Christmas day. Incidentally, a friend here has just bought a sheep made out of resin and is moving it round the garden every few days. Looks like it belongs, doesn't need shearing or drenching and costs little to feed.

Saturday, October 13, 2007


Well, the tourists have gone, the temperature is dropping and there's a definite autumnal feel descending on the island. It's a 15 mile drive from home to work, across the moor, which has changed colour to multiple shades of brown during the last couple of weeks. Lots of people think of the moor as unremittingly desolate and boring, but I've always felt quite overwhelmed by its quiet beauty and vastness. It's one of the great remaining pristine wild spaces left in Europe, but is in imminent danger of being spoiled for ever. There is a plan to build a wind farm of some 181 turbines, each several hundred feet high, spread across a distance of about 30 miles, from Stornoway to Ness in one direction and down the Westside road in the other. The visual impact on the landscape and noise generated is likely to be substantial. If finally approved, the project will take several years to complete and will create some badly needed temporary and permanent jobs, but will also cause huge damage to the Barvas moor. Miles of concrete access roads will be built and it is anticipated that much harm will be caused to nesting and flying birds. Both the developers and the RSPB have calculated that a number of Golden Eagles, still relatively common in Lewis, are likely to be killed by the turbine rotors during the lifetime of the wind farm. Acceptable collateral damage I suppose. The electricity generated will not be used to supply the island, but will be exported by undersea interconnect to England. Understandably, there are lobbying bodies for and against the turbines, but the local council have given their approval and I will be surprised if the development does not go ahead eventually, when it has been considered by the Scottish Executive.

The work on the house is in full swing now. The outside has been stripped of render, cracks in walls and chimneys repaired and the roof patched up. I will be away visiting family and friends- including my lovely recently born grand daughter - for the next week and am hopeful that the builders will put in the new concrete floors whilst I'm away. We'll see. Not yet sure yet whether I'll need to move out for a while when the work really gets going inside.

At the end of the croft, to the east, is a ridge which leads directly on to the village common grazings. This morning, whilst day dreaming and pottering about, I looked up and saw a buzzard being mobbed by three ravens. This is a reasonably common sight but it's always exciting to see these dogfights taking place at close quarters. The ravens always win, with the larger buzzard eventually admitting defeat and disappearing over the horizon, whilst the ravens perform triumphant aerial acrobatics with loud kronking noises.

Roddy, who owns the sheep grazed on my croft, turned up yesterday to announce the imminent arrival of a slaughtered sheep as payment for the grazing.Delighted as I am to accept this gift, I only have a small domestic fridge freezer, so we have agreed that he will drip feed the meat to me over the next few months as space appears in the freezer. An agreeable solution.

Joke heard on Isles FM radio a few minutes ago

Woman walks up behind her husband and hits him on the head with a frying pan

'What's that for he cries'

'I found a piece of paper in your coat pocket with the name Betty Jane on it'

Man replies ' That's the name of the horse I put a bet on this afternoon'

Wife is embarrassed and sorry.

Wife appears again later in the day and hits husband on the head once more.

Husband - 'Why did you do that'?

Wife - 'The horse just phoned'

At the time, it seemed very funny.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

The story so far ----- Two years ago, after more than twenty years working as a Probation Officer in England, I was becoming increasingly jaded and set in my ways. A three month period of extended leave, to travel, left me with good experiences of other parts of the world, but with an increasing terror of returning to the daily grind. The Probation Service has changed dramatically in recent years and there is now much more emphasis on controlling people and achieving targets that I didn't believe in, than in trying to encourage people to change their ways for the benefit of all in the community. When I found myself spending about 80% of my time sat in front of a computer inputting information, instead of working with individuals, I realised I couldn't continue.
Just as I was about to return to work after travelling, I saw a job advert for a worker with my background to work in the Outer Hebrides, a group of islands perched in the Atlantic off the North West coast of Scotland. Having visited these islands many times over the years, the thought of living here had often crossed my mind, but it seemed unlikely that the opportunity would arise, because I was never going to do the hippy thing and just arrive here without employment to support myself.

Well, the rest is history. As a middle aged man, heading towards early retirement, the opportunity to start a new life in spectacularly beautiful surroundings was one I didn't believe would happen and couldn't ignore. Consequently, I applied for the job, got it and have lived here happily so far. After a year of living in rented accommodation and finding my feet, I bought an unmodernised croft house sat in a six acre croft and moved in last Winter. I work away from home regularly, so let the croft land to a neighbour, who grazes his Blackface and Cheviot sheep on it.
The renovation has now started, with builders and scaffolding everywhere and I't's really quite an exciting time. The work will take several months and should leave me with a comfortable, warm house to live in.

Living here feels like a real privilege but has been something of a culture shock. About 70% of people here speak Gaelic, as well as English and although I go to Gaelic classes every week, my progress is slow. These are deeply religious islands and Sunday observance is important, especially here in the villages away from the town. It is quite extraordinary to listen to almost complete silence on the roads on Sundays, with few people about and no work or commercial activity taking place. The mainland ferry doesn't sail on Sundays, almost all of the shops are shut and outside activities such as car cleaning and gardening are generally frowned on and viewed as disrespectful where I live. After a lifetime of living in cities and treating Sundays as just another day to shop and work, doing little and doing it quietly becomes an increasingly attractive way of spending the day.
Apart from the scenery, there are other advantages to living here. My neighbours, colleagues and other islanders have been really helpful and friendly and that makes it easier to settle down. Iain Hector over the road is a Harris Tweed weaver and Crofter and is always ready with a cheery wave and advice whenever I need it. Roddy, also a weaver,who grazes his sheep on my croft, turns up from time to time with a leg of lamb or bag of lamb chops. There is no street lighting and and the nights are inky black, but with little or no air pollution, the stars are clear and bright. Another bonus of the lack of pollution is that the Eczema and chest infections I used to suffer from have gone away.
The down side? Alcohol abuse is a long standing problem here and illegal drug use seems to be increasingly frequent, especially in the town.Nevertheless, there has never been a house burglary in my village that anyone can remember and serious crime is much lower than almost anywhere else in the UK.
The costs of leaving the island on the plane or ferry are horrendous. The ordinary return fare to the Scottish mainland on the ferry is currently £176 for a car and driver, for a journey which takes just two and three quarter hours each way. Can't afford to do that very often. The air fare is even more expensive if not booked months ahead.
The remoteness and isolation can be a problem in making new friends and the cost of travel and distance from the last town I lived in tests the commitment of existing friends and family to keep in touch. Email and webcam are Godsends and it has been gratifying to have a succession of visitors from my previous life who have made the effort to come here and maintain contact .

Further tales later.