Thursday, March 20, 2008


Lews Castle sits in lovely wooded grounds, across from Stornoway harbour. It was built about 1844 by Sir James Matheson, with part of a fortune obtained from drug dealing, condoned and encouraged by the British government. Matheson and his business partner, William Jardine, founded the trading company Jardine Matheson, which has gone from strength to strength and is now one of the largest business conglomerates in the far East. At the time of our story, Matheson and Jardine were importing tea and silk from China into the UK and in return, were exporting vast amounts of Opium from British India into China. Opium was apparently legal in Britain, but perhaps unsurprisingly, not welcomed by Chinese rulers because of its effect of turning millions of their citizens into drug addicts. The then Emperor tried to stop the trade, but Jardine Matheson appealed to the British Government to support them in continuing what they considered to be legitimate business. The Government agreed that the mass export of Opium into China was a very good thing and Jardine Matheson prospered. Britain defended its interests in the Opium trade, leading to the occupation of Hong Kong and the Opium wars.
Shortly after, Matheson purchased the Isle of Lewis, reputedly for £170,000 and did good works here for some years. He is said to have implemented a variety of schemes to reduce poverty on Lewis, which was suffering badly from the potato famine at that time.
As far as is known, he made no attempt to turn Hebrideans into junkies and by all accounts, was generally regarded as an OK feller.
A few years ago, a monument to Matheson was proudly erected in the castle grounds and current members of his family were present at the opening ceremony to pay homage to the great man. It is not recorded if representatives of the Chinese government were also invited to reflect on his achievements.
Lews Castle is now derelict and in a sorry state, but there are plans to turn it into a five star hotel and a new museum for the Islands.

The Isle of Skye is very attractive, easily accessible from the mainland and has long attracted incomers to live there. A Skye resident told me recently that 68% of people living on Skye are now incomers and that most people accept that this change in the balance of outsiders to indigenous population is generally considered to be positive. Here in the Western Isles, about 10% of the population are thought to be from outside and this is likely to increase year by year. The most beautiful and remote area of Lewis, where I am staying while my house is being renovated, is Uig, in the West, where about 470 people live. The population there has declined significantly in recent years, but seems to be increasing again because of an influx of new arrivals from England and the Central Belt of Scotland, looking for a quieter, less pressured and better quality of life. House prices here have rocketed during the last 3-4 years, like most other places in the UK, but are now beginning to stabilise and some advertised properties are being reduced to sell. This remains one of the cheapest places in Britain to buy a house, but the great advantage, apart from lack of pollution, good schools and spectacular scenery, is that you get much more space for your money than elsewhere. Most houses, away from Stornoway, are detached and often have large gardens or crofts attached.

Work on the house continues slowly. Although there have been no disasters or breakages during the last few days, I am thoroughly fed up and have told both the plumber and builder that I am moving back into my home on the 29th of this month and expect them to have completely finished their work by then. Am I confident they will take any notice and make a big effort to have the house ready for me by then? Of course I am.
Have been struck down with Cabin Fever once again, so have decided to go to the mainland for a week, for rest, recuperation and shopping. Will adjust my attitude while I'm away, become more optimistic and persuade myself that I will return to a completed house with a nice new kitchen and bathroom and a gloriously welcoming wood burning stove. Poor naive fool.

Thursday, March 13, 2008


The renovation is at an interesting stage now where the end is in sight, but the builder and plumber have started to blame each other for a variety of small problems and deficiencies -- 'It's not my job to dig that hole, it's his' --. It's like referreeing a football match between young boys. They clearly don't like each other very much and the solution is probably just to get the job completed as quickly as possible so that they can both go their separate ways. Wherever the responsibility lies, I've learned from bitter experience during this rebuild that I will end up paying in the end. In general, I've not been too stressed about this project so far, but it is beginning to get to me now, especially after the theft of the plumbing stuff, and I just want the workers to go away and leave me alone. A further blow is that the new bath and wash hand basin have both been damaged and none of the workers are accepting responsibility. It very much looks as if I'm going to have to replace them at my expense.
This final stage of the work is dragging on and progress is too slow.
As I write this, the South of England is under siege from poor weather and is in dire danger of being drowned by high tides. Well, for the last few days here, the weather has been bright, dry, sunny and warm. After weeks of sufficient rain to float the ark, it's turned out nice again. Most welcome after a long, harsh Winter.
I'm working in Uist again this week, which is always a pleasure. Went to the ferry terminal at Eriskay this morning for the crossing to Barra, only to find it cancelled because of rough conditions at sea. It's a lovely clear day today and a disappointment when the boat fails to sail.
Yesterday, I was able to tick off another sighting on my 'must see' list. Driving from Lochmaddy to Clachan near Langass, on North Uist, I saw an eagle flying towards me. As the bird flew over the car at about 50 feet, I got out and could see that it was a white tailed sea eagle and not the more usual golden eagle. It's small unplanned events like this in life that cheer me up and give the most pleasure. I later heard that this particular bird had been seen hunting near where I saw it for most of the morning and lots of people had spotted it. Still a very exciting sighting for me though.
Interesting fact of the week - I've discovered that the residents of the Isle of Barra -- population approximately 1300 -do not have to MOT their cars or lorries because there is no testing station on the island. Their vehicles can remain untested as long as they are not driven off Barra, when they would be subject to the same rules as the rest of us. Was quite incredulous about this little gem of information, but have checked and it seems to be true. The same rule may also apply to other remote Scottish Islands lacking testing facilities.

Thursday, March 06, 2008


This striking letter box is owned by a man who attends the same Gaelic class as me. I'm told that some years ago, there was a competition on the island to produce the most unusual letter box. This one is 6-7 feet high and made of sheet metal. It is lovingly cared for and repainted regularly.
So, who dares to be the first to ask me how the renovation is going? Well, not too bad really, thankyou. The plumber keeps working and the builder is doing his best to finish inside. The new kitchen has been ordered and is arriving on Saturday morning, probably.
The rain has been torrential recently and there is still outside rendering to complete, plus gutterings and downpipes to fit when the weather eases up. I'm hopeful that I will be able to move back in at the end of this month.
One depressing and surprising event this week though. The copper cylinder, pump and fittings for the new central heating system were stored in the loom shed and have been stolen. My house is about 150 yards from the road and not in a position where casual or opportunistic sneak thieves would be likely to pass by.The cylinder disappeared some time last week and Northern Constabulary are now on the case. Thefts like this are still rare here and I'm quite hurt that it's happened to me. The shed was closed, but not locked and now has to be made secure. People living here have always trusted each other and often leave houses and cars unlocked from one year to the next, but I guess that will change as crime increases. A new cylinder and bits is going to cost me about £300. Oh well.
The other scandal of the week occurred on the Island of Barra.
The tourist organisation here,Visit Scotland, has found itself in hot water. They thought it would be a good promotional idea forBarra if they spent part of their £15 million marketing budget on a film showing three young nude male surfers prancing about in the surf, just as the plane was coming in to land on the beach. This film was part of a plan to present Barra as a romantic and adventurous tourist destination - Oh give me strength! The modesty of the actors involved was protected by carefully placed surfboards, but Visit Scotland seem to have omitted to check out locally if anyone would find this offensive. Fairly predictably , the local Priest just happened to be passing whilst our unclothed heroes were frollicking in the freezing cold sea. He took great umbrage, along with a small group of parishioners and complained very loudly and angrily to Visit Scotland. They responded by issuing a statement saying "We received feedback that some people were quite offended. We have apologised. Our intentions were good, but we got it wrong. The film has now been destroyed and will never be shown". Wonder how much that all cost? Bless 'em.