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.

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