Wednesday, January 30, 2008


The plumber who failed to turn up has been sacked. Having failed to arrive for four consecutive weeks, he contacted the builder yesterday to say he still wanted to do the job, but the price was now £1000 extra and he wanted paying up front. The sort of tradesman who gives cowboy workmen a bad name. He was told to sling his hook and the builder is now fishing around to find enough to do on the house until we find a new plumber.
This has all sent me into a depressive tail spin, but perhaps next week will be better. I've contacted two other plumbers, who may be interested, but they all have months of work and there is no reason why they should delay someone else's job to do mine.

Lots happening on the island just now. The application to build a windfarm of 181 four hundred foot turbines, covering a vast area of Lewis, was approved by the Western Isles Council some time ago and then sent to the Scottish Executive for a final decision. It seemed very unlikely that the Executive would refuse the application, because of the number of jobs it would provide during and after the construction phase and its contribution to achieving national renewable energy targets. All the more of a surprise then, to see it reported in the newspapers this week that the Executive has indicated that it is 'minded to refuse the application on environmental grounds'. A final decision has not yet been made though and the company behind the project, Lewis Wind Power, have been given 21 days to show why the windfarm application should not be rejected. This development would have a profoundly negative effect on the landscape and on the flora and fauna of the huge area of moorland on which it is planned to build the windfarm. It is highly likely that tourism, increasingly important year by year, will be badly affected if the construction of the windfarm goes ahead.
The vice chair of the Western Isles Council, who approved the windfarm initially, has now stated :
' Rejection of the windfarm will be a bitter blow for the WesternIsles. An opportunity to help us revitalise our economy has been lost. However, at least we now know the cost of environmental designations to the Western Isles - 400 construction jobs, 70 jobs at Arnish ( Fabrication yard near Stornoway likely to build some/most/all of the turbine towers)' 70 jobs associated directly with the windfarm, £6 million pounds per annum in community benefit, £4 million in rental payments'
Many people against the windfarm have disputed these figures and assert that supporters of the project consistently fail to look at other ways in which the economy of these islands can be developed. Whilst some of the jobs created will go to local workers, many of them will be given to individuals with specialist skills from all around the world, who will not be spending much of their income in the local economy.
Lobbying for and against this hugely environmentally invasive project has been intense during the last year or two and one survey result published suggests that approximately 50% of the local population are for the windfarm,with a similar percentage bitterly against it. Another survey claims that 90% of the population in the area affected by the windfarm are opposed to it.
There is support for smaller scale renewable energy schemes, including windpower, that would generate energy to be used directly by individuals and communities here in the Outer Hebrides. The current windfarm plan will export all of the energy produced to the mainland of Scotland and England and none will be used here.

Another thorny issue troubling Lewis is the Sunday ferry service, or lack of it. Petitions have been sent to the shipping company, Caledonian Macbrayne, (popularly known as Cal- Mac), requesting that a regular service be provided and a head of steam in favour of a Sunday ferry seems to be building up. It seems inevitable in the not too distant future that ferries will go to the mainland on Sundays from Lewis, but at present, the Lords Day Observance Society are fighting a vigorous campaign to prevent this happening.
Cal Mac are in a difficult position because they are going to upset either the pro ferry lobby or the LDOS, whatever they decide. The company announced last year that a decision on Sunday sailings would be made by last November, but that date was then moved to the end of January of this year and has now been deferred again to March. Cal Mac have stated that the delay is because -- ' We are going to take a well informed and balanced decision on the evidence and the economic arguments in front of us.'

Finally, a development on the illegal drugs front. These Islands have not previously had a major problem with drugs, although usage of cocaine, ecstasy, cannabis and amphetamines has been increasing year on year. Last week, following what the police have described as an 'intelligence led operation', a man from Lewis was arrested in a car after leaving the Skye - Harris ferry and found to be in possession of cocaine with an estimated street value of at least £70,000.
Not surprisingly, he is now in custody whilst the police make further enquiries. If eventually found guilty, his immediate future appears predictable and secure.
This seizure of cocaine is the largest drugs haul ever in the Western Isles to date, but it is unlikely that this arrest will deter others from trying to make their fortune in this manner.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

These Islands are about forty miles offshore and have a total population of some twenty six thousand people, spread along a length of one hundred and fifty miles. Approximately eight thousand people live in or around Stornoway, the administrative centre and only town in the Outer Hebrides. Although a little rough round the edges, Stornoway is a busy, working town with fishing and ferry harbours, two decent supermarkets, wonderful arts centre, museum, hospital and large council offices - much like many other small towns on the mainland. It has some nice buildings, a bustling centre and more takeaways than you can shake a stick at.

The space, beauty and remoteness of the islands can lead visitors to believe that the town has none of the problems associated with urban areas elsewhere in the UK. Not quite. During my first few days here, I was open mouthed in amazement at finding myself in a half mile traffic jam on the outskirts of Stornoway, when travelling to work each morning. That jam continues to this day and is caused by a couple of bottlenecks that the traffic planners seem to be unable to do anything about. It really is quite surreal to sit in the car, going nowhere and to think about all the advantages there are to living here in isolated and uncrowded splendour.

Try parking a car in the town centre. The principal car park by the harbour is usually full during the day and it's a common sight to see people driving round and round and round and round looking for parking spaces. There is a reasonably good bus service throughout the islands, but not good enough for people living in outlying areas to leave their cars at home when coming to work or shopping.

Crime is less of a problem here than elsewhere, but drug and alcohol abuse is increasing and the cause of many appearances before the Sheriff Court. Those people sentenced to imprisonment are taken off the island by plane or ferry to serve their sentences on the mainland, usually at Inverness Prison.

Among the good reasons to be here though are that most folks are friendly, polite and welcoming, there is no atmospheric pollution, education for children and adults is brilliant and there are usually seals to watch in the inner fishing harbour.

All this prattling on about daily life here is simply a delaying tactic on my part to avoid slipping into a fugue state when thinking about the slow progress on the house.The plumber has still not arrived in spite of many promises and I have no idea when he will appear. I don't really have the option of sacking him, because there no others available at short notice. The builder carries on valiantly, but is slowly but surely running out of work to do until the plumber has done his stuff.The electrician can't complete his job, the kitchen can't be fitted and the remaining plasterboard remains on the floor until the pipework, heating and bathroom are replaced.

I can feel this turning into a mighty whinge and promise that if the situation is unchanged at the time of the next blog, I will lie through my teeth and tell you all that the house is finished.

Spent much of this week working on Uist and Barra, where the weather was wonderful. While the weather can be painfully wet and windy during the winter, it's not usually very cold - Gulf Stream and all that - and there are an increasing number of Winter tourists. These are usually younger retired couples who take advantage of off season rates in local hotels, which have made some efforts in recent years to smarten themselves up and become more attractive to visitors. Some years ago, many of the hotels and bars were dour, grim drinking dens, but that is now changing rapidly. About three or four years ago, I came here for a couple of weeks in February and drove around the islands, staying in hostels, which are cheap and remain open throughout the year. The hostels are often situated in sensational surroundings and are a wonderful resource for young people, or anybody travelling on a budget, who wants to visit the islands inexpensively. The peace, solitude and clarity of air make winter a glorious time to come and see the Outer Hebrides, assuming unpredictably changing weather doesn't bother you and is viewed as part of the attraction. If it rains, or gets blustery, go inside until the next rainbow and rays of sunshine appear.It's often said that weather here can go through four seasons in a day.
For those requesting more photos, I now seem to have cracked the idiot proof technology and have attached pictures to every one of the past blogs, so feel free to browse the back catalogue.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Happy New Year folks.
The holiday was over far too quickly and there was not enough time to spend with all the people I wanted to see. It was lovely seeing family and to have the opportunity to do some serious bonding with my grandaughter. I did enjoy seeing friends and exchanging gossip, news, triumphs and failures that have occurred in our lives since last meeting. It's easy to pick up the threads with old friends and to forget that it is now over two years since I arrived in these Islands.
Talking of failures, my heart sank when I got back to the house on Saturday. Not a jot of work has been done since I left the Island before Christmas. Phoned the builder, who was embarrassed to tell me that the latest plumber, the third, has not turned up, and like the first electrician, seems to have gone missing. Back to square one. Although there is still a fair bit of work the builder can do just now, the absence of a plumber to install the bathroom, oil central heating and kitchen pipework is something of a blow. All this seems to be the consequence of it being a sellers market here. A large amount of houses are currently being built on Lewis and there are not enough tradesmen, especially electricians and plumbers, to go round. Colleagues at work tell me that they have been waiting months to have quite urgent repair work done, so I suppose I'll just have to join the queue.Still, the weather is decent, the birds are flying and pressures at work are not too great.
So there I was, sat at at the kitchen table on Sunday morning listening to the radio, when I looked up to see a beautiful russet coloured long tailed field mouse sat on top of the curtain rail, looking at me hungrily. Whilst I do understand that these creatures belong in the fields and not in the house, it was raining outside, so I decided not to evict it immediately. The beast seemed utterly unperturbed at my presence and after a few minutes, I managed to get it to eat small chunks of the very finest Scottish Cheddar from my hand. St Francis eat your heart out. The mouse disappeared during the morning - at about the time the Archers theme music started - Tum ti Tum ti Tum Ti Tum- So we'll see if it returns. Incidentally, my landlady tells me that the garden birds have become so tame that she is able to feed thrushes and a robin on her outstretched hand.
Anybody even vaguely interested in Outer Hebridean flora and fauna might want to look up The section headed 'Recent Sightings' usually lists a variety of rarities spotted by enthusiastic souls with nothing better to do than take expert pictures of birds most of us are never likely to see, or recognise if we do. Another Hebridean birding website worth looking up is
One unexpected arrival here was a forty foot dead sperm whale washed up on a beach at South Dell on the Westside of Lewis last week. Although whale sightings and corpses are quite common, they always attract a lot of attention and cause the Environmental Health Department a bit of a headache in disposing of them, particularly if the dead animal is a large one. Because of the remote position where the whale was beached, the local council have now decided to leave it exactly where it is in the hope that Winter storms will take it back out to sea.For those desperate to see photos of this whale, go to the Western Isles Wildlife link above and look for recent sightings for 30 December.
Would be Robinson Crusoes will enjoy the website at Boreray is a 500 acre island in the sound of Harris, West of Berneray and about 4 miles North of North Uist. The island is occupied by one man, who seems to eke out an existence by keeping Hebridean sheep and letting out a holiday cottage in the summer months. I've never met this man, but his island looks stunning and I'm quite envious of his life, although not keen to have that degree of permanent isolation myself.