Sunday, December 16, 2007

The builder is an excellent communicator, who makes a point of meeting me at the house regularly to keep me informed of progress and to pass on his latest bill for extra work that needs to be done. As the result of demands from the building inspector that I superinsulate the walls, the roof space and undertake a variety of other unanticipated work to new building regulation standards, the renovation is now 20% over budget and looks like over running even more before completion. When presenting his bills, the builder adopts a gloriously sympathetic expression, tells me that he understands the feelings of loss of financial control I must be experiencing and assures me he has cut his profits to the bone to help me. A wonderful human being indeed. This week's good news is that having thought about it, the builder thinks he knows how to solve the wet wall problem. Something to do with roof tiles not overhanging enough and driving rain getting in. All sounds a bit dodgy to me, but if he dries out the wall, I'll sign the next cheque willingly.
I've spent the weekend moving most of my property from the upstairs rooms to a friends' house, so that the electrician and plumber have free access to do their jobs. The slight glitch here is that neither of them have turned up yet. The electrician swears over his mother's grave that he will arrive tomorrow and the plumber, who was supposed to arrive two weeks ago, is still not on site. Bet Sarah Beeny never had these difficulties. Sadly, charm doesn't work on tradesman here. To his credit, the builder is hustling them as best as he can, but I suspect little will happen now before the new year. When the heating, bathroom and new wiring are installed, the builder should be able to finish off the remaining work very quickly. I'm still putting him under pressure to complete the job by the last day of January and he responds by sucking in breath, looking sad, shaking his head gently and telling me that 'it's all a bit tight, but I'll do my very, very best '.

Temporary break in blogging for ten minutes now. My lovely landlady, who owns this flat and the restaurant downstairs, has just arrived at my door with a plate of Tiramisu,(?) made with her own fair hands. Fine woman.

Had an interesting wildlife experience yesterday. Was driving in a remote part of the island, when I saw a buzzard on the side of the road in front of me, apparently eating something. When I got closer and the buzzard had flown off, the prey turned out to be an almost pure white mountain hare, the first I have ever seen. Unfortunately, an extremely dead one.

A few miles West of here, there is a most spectacular beach called Uig sands. It's surrounded by mountains and is jaw droppingly beautiful. In 1831, a local man called Malcolm "Sprot" Macleod, was walking on the dunes by the beach when he came across a stone chamber, which had been exposed by the wind. Within the chamber were 93 chess pieces, carved out of Walrus Ivory and of great quality.They became known as the 'Lewis Chessmen', are world famous and regarded as national treasures. No one really knows how the hoard came to be in the sandbanks, but the experts now believe that they were carved in Norway about AD 1150, possibly in Trondheim. There was Norse occupation of the Outer Hebrides for about five centuries and it is now thought that the chessmen were hidden towards the end of the viking period. Fairly quickly, the chess pieces were removed from the island. Eleven of them are in the Royal Museum in Edinburgh, whilst the remainder can be seen in Room 42 of the British Museum in London.Plenty of information about the Lewis Chessmen on the Internet for those interested enough.
For some time now, there has been a move to have the chessmen returned to a permanent home here on the Isle of Lewis. A recent copy of the Stornoway Gazette had a letter from a reader making a cogent argument for the chessmen to be housed in Stornoway or Uig. This would almost certainly result in a huge increase in the number of tourists who visit here, but it seems unlikely that the museums in Edinburgh and London are going to give up their spoils willingly or easily. It's all reminiscent of the Elgin Marbles dispute really. One of the reasons for not bringing the chessmen back to Lewis is security. They are regarded as priceless, but why can't secure housing be provided for them in the museum in Stornoway? The benefits to the Island would greatly outweigh the dubious advantages of the proposed gigantic windfarm, which will destroy the visual landscape for at least a generation.

I'm working away in the Southern Isles for most of this week and off on the Stornoway- Ullapool ferry( weather allowing) next Saturday to spend Christmas in the South with family and friends.
Hope you all have a great holiday. More Tales from Lewis in the New Year.

PS. Have been asked by several people to include more photographs in the blog. Can't do this just yet, because being away from home, I'm having to write this on my work laptop and don't have the cable to connect my camera/memory cards to the computer. Will try to sort this out soon.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Just when I thought this house renovation was going well, the first problems have occurred. Water is getting through one gable end wall in spite of the builder having tried various expensive methods of sealing and curing it. No one seems to know quite why it's happening because the solid stone walls are fifteen inches thick and the pointing is new and substantial. We're now waiting for the cavalry to arrive in the form of the Building Inspector, who has given me a building warrant at last and ought to be able to offer some solution or way forward with the wet wall. In addition, the plumber has failed to turn up as promised and the electrician disappeared without trace one day last week and has not been seen since. The builder is doing his best to cope, poor man, but cannot continue with ceilings and walls until the rewiring, heating and bathroom are installed. Consequently, the work has almost ground to a halt for now until the plumber and electrician reappear. At present, there is an explosion of house building and renovations here on the island and all decent tradesman have as much work as they want, can pick and choose which jobs to do and charge prices that would not be tolerated on the mainland. It's essentially a case of take it or leave it. The notion that I might move back into the house at the end of January now looks a tad optimistic. Still, mustn't grumble.

Have been on holiday for the last week whilst a friend has been visiting and it's been lovely to take a break from work, potter round the island and talk to another human being for long periods. Like me, this friend had an ambition to see Golden Eagles at close quarters and we were lucky enough to see a pair circling above the road as we were driving a few miles from here. It does lift your spirits to have the privilege of seeing these majestic creatures flying freely and largely unpersecuted.

It's back to work tomorrow until Christmas, then another couple of weeks off when the entire office closes over the festive season.

When I first came to these islands in 1978, there were two seaweed factories still functioning at Keose here on Lewis and at Sponish on North Uist. The seaweed was gathered from around the coast by freelance collectors, who sold it to the factory, where it was dried in enormous tumble dryers before being milled and bagged on site. The powdered Alginate was then sold all over the world for use in the manufacture of cosmetics, medicines and for putting the head on beer, among other uses. Sadly, because of competiton, particularly from the Chileans, who started to process Alginates more cheaply, the Hebridean factories closed down about twenty five years ago.
Well, what goes round, comes round. During the last few years, the demand for processed seaweed has increased as new uses have been found for the product, prices have risen and it has now become economic for the factories to reopen. The plant at Keose, just outside of Stornoway, went back into production a few months ago under new ownership and an enterprising businessman in South Uist has bought new dryers and milling machines and is about to open a factory there. The raw seaweed, of two distinct types, is readily available, although the cutting and collection of it from the shore is dirty, cold and hard work, but potentially very profitable for those willing to work independently in all weathers.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

When I bought this croft, in November of last year, the house had lain unoccupied for three or four years. The elderly lady who lived here had become frail and moved into a care home on the island, where sadly, she died at almost exactly the same time I arrived here. She and her late husband had built the house themselves in the 1930's following their marriage and raised their children here. When it was constructed, there were no local builders and each crofter built his own home with the help of family and neighbours who had building skills. Much of the stone for the house came from the remains of the old 'black house' or thatched cottage, on the croft, which the family had lived in previously. This house was a vast improvement, with a slated roof, sanitation and more space. The family I purchased the croft from had owned it continually since the house was new and this is the first time it has ever been sold. The property came with all of its contents and I have kept some household goods to maintain links with the previous owners. There are some interesting old crofting tools in the loom shed. Until recently, when oil central heating became widely available, almost every family here would have cut peat on the moor for fuel to heat the house and to cook with. Each croft has its own peat bank to this day and I will use mine next year.The peat is cut in April and May and then left to dry on the peat banks for several months, before being taken home to the croft for stacking and use in winter. A tool called a peat iron is used to cut the peat and the peat irons belonging to this croft were left in my shed and are still in reasonable condition, considering that they may be a hundred or so years old. I intend to keep them in good order and use them to cut peats next Spring for my own stove. All of the wooden handled croft tools, and the horns of the sheep, were stamped with a branding iron, which had the house number and village stamped on it and was used to identify tools and sheep belonging to this croft. The two branding irons are also in the shed and like the peat irons, are irreplaceable pieces of social history.

Since writing in an earlier blog about my ambition to take the plane and land on the beach at Barra, controversy seems to have arisen about the suitability of the beach as a landing strip. The advantages of it are that the pilots can approach from several different directions depending on the weather and the arrival of the plane has become a great tourist attraction in recent years. The beach is lovely, in a beautiful setting and throughout the year, visitors and locals will sit and use the cafe at the terminal whilst listening for the the plane's approach over the hills before it makes its final descent. There is much affection on the island for the beach runway and many residents consider things should be left as they are. However, the local Member for the Scottish Parliament seems to be behind a campaign to get rid of the beach landing strip and to build a hard runway somewhere on Barra or the neighbouring island of Vatersay, which is attached to Barra by a permanent causeway. Her reasoning is that as current plane arrival times are ruled by the tides, it is difficult to integrate the Barra plane with other flights. She claims that a hard runway would allow a fixed timetable to coincide with other planes and encourage 'the wider economic development of Barra'. Many people consider the beach landing strip to be a wonderful asset to Barra with far more advantages than disadvantages and I don't think the community will give it up easily. Who knows though? Watch this space.