Sunday, April 27, 2008


There are lots of Red Deer wandering about the moors here on the islands, many on shooting estates. They will often come to the roadside to graze because the foraging is better quality. Recently, a local newspaper printed a photograph of two stags begging food at a car layby on the A9 near Inverness, where a burger van was parked. Motorists were stopping to buy food and the stags had worked out that this was an easy source of free meals.They are usually very wary of humans, who tend to shoot them, and I think this was probably quite unusual behaviour for wild deer. Those two stags appeared regularly and have become a tourist attraction. The deer on Lewis are much more cautious and a long lens is usually needed to get decent photos.Incidentally, there are only Red Deer on these islands. No one, as yet, has had the bright idea to release Roe, Fallow or Muntjac deer.

Just a week or two after telling you all about the dead Cuvier's Beaked Whale washed up here, it's happened again. This time, a six metre Minke whale was beached a couple of days ago at Brue on the Westside. The animal was alive when first seen, but died within a short time. No one knows the cause of death, or why the whales get stranded, but there was a Naval exercise going on in the area recently and there is local speculation that Sonar interferes with the whale's navigation mechanism and disorientates them. The Navy deny this.

Following the decision earlier this week by the Scottish Government to reject the huge wind farm proposal, the developers and the Western Isles Council are predicting long term doom and gloom for the Western Isles economy. Already though, the decision has started to concentrate the minds of politicians into thinking about proposals to kick start and develop the local economy without wrecking the landscape.It's still not certain though that the Lewis Wind farm company won't continue to try to obtain permission for another land based wind farm in some form or other. They talk about a plan that involves, among other proposals, the community receiving 50% of any future profits from the turbines. This demonstrates a complete failure to understand that the 11000 objections were not about money, but about protecting this beautiful island.

In my last blog, I mentioned that there is a plan to build a tidal generator at Shader, Barvas, on the Westside of Lewis.The plans and proposals have been made public and lodged with the Scottish Government in the last few days and look really exciting. The idea has arisen from residents within the village of Shader,who have been looking for ways to create a small harbour and shelter for creel boats.The scheme is known as the Siadar Wave Energy Project( SWEP). If it gets underway, it will be built by a consortium from npower renewables and Wavegen and will involve the construction of a series of generators built into a breakwater and linked to land by a causeway. This is designed to absorb the power of heavy seas and create a sheltered inner harbour for both fishing and leisure boats.There will be a slipway on the shore, to be used by commercial crab and lobster fishermen as well as sea angling boats. Huge pistons driven by wave and tide action will pump air up and down the interior of concrete towers to generate electricity. They will produce 4 megawatt, apparently enough to power 500 homes each year, a fifth of all households on Lewis and Harris. The project is currently costed at about £20 million pounds and if granted planning permission, could start next year and create 50 jobs during the 18 month construction period.

The Sabbath continues to be attacked from all sides. This time, it's by the Stornoway golf club, who want to play golf on a Sunday.
In 1923, Lewis was owned by Lord Leverhulme, who gifted Lews Castle and 64000 acres of land to the people of Stornoway Parish. The Stornoway Trust was established as a not for profit organisation to manage the estate on behalf of the community and has done so ever since.
The Trust is the landlord of the golf club, who want to be able to hit their balls on every day of the week. At present, members can only play Monday to Saturday and have asked the Trust for permission to play on the Sabbath.
The Trust has responded by stating " (We Are) not inclined to accede to the request for seven day golf". They have declined to give detailed reasons for the refusal, but there is a local belief that the Trust is infiltrated by members of the Lord's Day Observance Society, who don't want any erosion of Sabbath Observance by any of us. The golf club, with lots of important and influential members, as well as ordinary poor people, is not taking this decision lying down.They have consulted the lawyers and further developments are likely in the near future. A ludicrous consequence of the current position is that whilst golf club members can't play on Sunday, non members can and do. Not being a golfer, I don't understand this, but there we are.

Having battled with tradesmen during the house renovation, I now have to face the unpleasant reality that the biggest impediment to further progress is myself.I know, from long, bitter past experience that I am of world class standard at displacement activity, when I should be buckling down and getting on with the job.I had lifted a paint roller last night and had it poised mid air, ready to strike the first blow against an unpainted wall, when my ex landlady and her cousin turned up clutching a bottle of wine. They are much more congenial company than ten litres of vinyl silk, so no contest. Here we go again today though. The radio has a really interesting programme on that I must give my full attention to, this blog needs writing, friends and family need to be phoned and I really have to go and see if there any flowers out on the croft just yet. Where is my friend going to sleep when he arrives on Wednesday?

Thursday, April 24, 2008


Well, who would have believed it? The Scottish Government has taken a principled stand and turned down the application to build a 181 turbine windfarm here on Lewis. The scheme has finally been refused consent on the grounds of incompatibility with European Union law. The government concluded that the windfarm would have had a seriously negative impact on the Lewis Peatlands Special Protection Area and would be in breach of the EU bird directive. The statement also said that there had been 11000 objections to the windfarm with only 98 in support of the project.
In his statement, the Energy Minister said :
-- " The Government will now carry out work on how to develop renewable energy in the Western Isles in harmony with its outstanding natural heritage. This work will result in an action plan for sustainable development on the islands and will be ready in the autumn"

I am amazed that this decision has been made because the cynic in me assumed that the powerful vested interests involved, Lewis Wind Power and the Western Isles council particularly, would have bulldozed the application through. They are now complaining bitterly about the lost opportunities and loss of potential jobs and have retreated to consider their next moves.
The people have spoken though and the Government has listened. Astonishing. Gladdens the heart and restores a little faith in politicians.
There is much support on these islands for renewable energy schemes, but most people want to see small scale developments that bring direct benefits to the communities involved and do not create the environmental havoc that this windfarm proposal would have caused.
Around the island, there are a number of villages that have lodged applications for planning permissionl for wind farms of their own, usually involving just a few turbines. There is also a pilot scheme for a tidal generator at Shader, Barvas and many schools and community centres here have single or twin wind turbines producing electricity.
Don't think I've mentioned the goose problem before. There are thousands of Greylag geese on the islands. They are a resident, rather than migratory species. They are grazing birds and are increasing in number year by year.This increase in the goose population has led them to be regarded now as major pests by many crofters because of the significant damage they do to grassland and other crops. As a result of the need to protect the agricultural interests of crofters, especially in Uist, where the problem is most acute, UGGMS was born! The Uist Greylag Goose Management Scheme is sanctioned by Scottish Natural Heritage and works to protect crops from the birds by shooting ( known in the trade apparently as lethal scaring) , leaping about looking frightening and the use of devices such as kites and gas guns. Almost 1500 geese were shot in Uist last autumn and UGGMS has recently received approval for a further three years, although not from the geese themselves obviously. The Stornoway Gazette helpfully printed recipes a while ago on the best ways to cook your goose.
Little happening on the house just now, but I'm about to burst into action and start the decorating. The builder is slowly working his way through the remaining minor works. The flexible chimney liner for the stove has still not arrived almost a fortnight after it was ordered. It's now almost three weeks since the CORGI plumbers were asked to come and connect the calor gas hob and they still won't give me a firm date for the job to be done. The kitchen and bathroom are to be tiled and a tiler with a good reputation for reliability arranged with me to come to the house this evening to measure up and give me an estimate. I came back from working in Uist to be here for him and he has simply not turned up. No phone call, no explanation.

Furthermore, diesel is now 130 pence a litre all over the island.
The weather is brilliant though. Too hot to wear a jumper for the last few days and wonderful sunsets each night this week so far.

Thursday, April 17, 2008


This derelict cottage is a good example of the housing that many people in the Outer Hebrides would have been born and raised in until relatively recently. It was occupied until about ten years ago by an elderly man who eventually died in the house at the age of 101. Like many other similar cottages, it is slowly rotting and will soon just be a pile of stones. Some of these houses, particularly in the Uists, have been renovated and are let as holiday homes .They look very pretty when painted white and rethatched, but cost huge amounts of money to restore to modern standards. The earlier versions of these cottages had no chimneys and were/are known as Blackhouses. They had a peat fire in the centre of the living room floor and the smoke from the fire simply curled up into the thatched roof, where it remained. Every couple of years, the soot enriched thatch would be removed and dug into the garden or croft land as fertiliser and the house would be rethatched with straw. This was a good sustainable method of maintaining fertility on the croft but not very good for the long term health of anybody living in the cottage. Historic Scotland maintain a fully restored Black house at Arnol, here on Lewis, which is open to the public everyday. It was lived in by a family until the late 1960's and the custodian lights a peat fire on the floor daily, for the tourists. It's well worth a visit, as is the completely restored Gearrennan Blackhouse village, which is situated in a lovely position by a cove on the West Coast of Lewis. The village was occupied until about 1974 and comprises several holiday cottages, a youth hostel, restaurant, working museum and public loos. It is free to walk round and has been beautifully renovated over several years. Further information on the internet.

Now, my own restoration works. I had hoped to be able to tell you this time that the show was over and the circus had gone home. I was fantasising that I would wake up one morning this week, discover that the house was finished, all workers gone and that I would be writing 'That's it folks, nothing else to say, the blog is closing down.'

Unfortunately, not so. Yesterday was a bad day. When I woke up, water was dripping down the walls in the hallway and forming a puddle on the floor. General panic. Not sure at that point if the problem was a plumbing leak, or water coming through the roof, which would be the responsibility of the builder. Called the builder, who came and cut a big hole in the wall upstairs and discovered a leaking pipe joint to be the problem. Then phoned the plumber, who arrived, had a good look, conceded that the leak was caused by a loose joint and expressed absolute astonishment that this could have happened. -- "It's never happened before mate, just unlucky." Whilst all this was going on, the postlady arrived with a letter from the Building Inspector. He has refused me a certificate of completion, which I desperately need, until a total of 29 items of building work have been completed or rectified. The majority of the points listed are very minor and the builder should be able to fix them quickly. He considers the refusal letter to be a 'snagging' list, while I think most of them are symptoms of sloppy workmanship, which should never have occurred. What infuriates me most of all is that the builder and plumber seem incapable of admitting responsibility, or saying sorry, even when faced with evidence of damage, or poor quality work, caused by them.

I moved back in to the house last week and was quite overwhelmed and almost paralysed by the amount of internal fitting and decorating I've got to do. I've been sitting on chairs in empty rooms wondering where to start and have not come up with a plan of work yet. The longer I dither about it, the worse it's getting. I think the solution is about to present itself though because a friend is coming to stay for two or three weeks shortly to help with the decorating and I've got absolutely nowhere for him to stay. He'll be here in two weeks time and I need to clean, decorate and furnish a room for him before then. Oh the pressure. He's a tolerant, understanding sort of chap though, so I'm sure he'll be fine if I have to house him on a bench in the loom shed for a while. I've been working away a lot recently and have to go South this coming weekend for a birthday celebration, so goodness knows when I'll manage to get the decorating started. It's quite difficult to get motivated after a long day at work during the week.

The weather here has taken a definite turn for the better during the last few weeks. It's still raining a lot and we've had a bit of snow recently, but it is generally warmer and the island seems to be waking up after the Winter. There are lots of new born lambs gambolling about on the moors and crofts with their mummies, and lots of Ravens, Blackbacked Gulls, Buzzards and the occasional Eagle trying to eat them. Nature raw in tooth and claw.

Once again, the frogs have been daft enough to spawn in the deep water filled ruts on my access road. Last year when they did this, I was able to take out a bucket, collect up much of the spawn and empty it carefully into a nearby drainage ditch. Unfortunately, with the builders in this year, they managed to drive their white vans through the ruts and over the spawn before I spotted it. There are plenty of suitable wet ditches on and around the croft and I have no idea why the frogs persist in spawning in the ruts.

Monday, April 07, 2008


The ferry, providing a lifeline service, plies its trade between the Outer Hebrides and the mainland of Northern Scotland. The journey takes two and three quarter hours each way.It leaves Stornoway twice daily throughout the year, with a third journey at lunchtime on some days during the Summer months. There are no sailings on Sundays, because of Sabbath observance, but that may change in the near future It's a comfortable boat, with a restaurant, bar and places for the kids to play. The ferry is capable of carrying up to 970 passengers and 123 cars, but would only carry those numbers during peak tourist months.

I had planned to put up a photo this week of a whale( Deceased) which was washed up on the shore at Balantruseil here on the West Coast of Lewis, a couple of weeks ago. The creature is apparently a Cuvier's Beaked Whale and is about five metres long. I heard about it a few days ago and went to look for myself yesterday. It's got a curiously shaped snout and is sometimes also called Goose Beak Whale . When I got there, although it was very recognisable as a whale, the gulls had set about it and stripped off much of the outer layers. I did take some photos, but after giving it a great deal of careful thought, have decided that it was too decomposed and gruesome to justify assaulting your senses with. Anybody who really, really wants to see it can contact me and I'll forward prints in a plain brown paper envelope - post and packing extra.

Exciting times at the house. The builder moved out yesterday and I'm moving back in this weekend. I shall be camping in one room until the decorating is done and that will probably take several months because I can't really take time off work to do it just now. It will have to be done in the evenings and weekends.
The heating, water and lighting are working well, the bathroom is in and looking smart, but there are still a number of jobs that will need to be done over the next few weeks. The Building Inspector won't issue me with a completion certificate until the builder has put some more ventilation panels in and the cooker and hob are not working yet because the plumber with the right qualifications can't come to fit the Calor Gas hob for another couple of weeks. Sandwiches and microwaved pasta until then for me I'm afraid. The wood burning stove will also be a few weeks before it's working, because the right parts to fit it in the chimney have to be sourced from the mainland.
This renovation has driven me nearly mad at times and I've had to draw on reserves of patience, particularly with tradesmen, that I never knew I had. At least the end is in sight now.

I've learnt a number of lessons whilst having this house rebuilt and thought you might like to receive the benefit of my newly acquired wisdom in case you ever want to renovate a house here.

1) Itemise every piece of work you want doing and get your builder to give you a detailed fixed quote. Through naivete and lack of knowledge, I missed out loads of essential works in my original job specification to the builder and consequently, my costs have over run by about 25%. I can just about fund this, but If I had not anticipated extra costs in recent weeks, the result could have been financially disastrous.

2) Always assume your builder will charge you more than his estimate. He will. Have a contingency for this.

3) For goodness sake, go to see the Building Inspector before you seek estimates from builders and certainly before you start any work. I failed to do either through unfamiliarity with the system here. This put me on an immediate wrong footing with the Inspector, who assumed I was being cavalier in my approach to the job. I've had to back peddle and grovel to get him back on side. He has been invaluable in pointing out work that needed to be done to comply with current building regulations - but all that extra work has cost loadsa money.

4) Don't assume your builder will always do work to building regulation standards automatically, without being told. Mine hasn't, even though he has been in business locally for over twenty years. This has been a real hassle to sort out later with the building inspector.

5) Assume the work will take twice as long as the builder estimates. It will and mine has.

6) Check all the fittings and materials yourself as soon as they arrive at the house. That should prevent the workmen from being able to deny damage they have caused. This is crucial and failing to do this has cost me dearly.

7) If at all possible, move all of your property out of the house before the work starts. The workmen simply will not consider your possessions to be as precious as you do.

8) If you have the skills and the time, do the job yourself.

9) If, like me, you have agreed with the builder that he will organise the plumber and electrician, question him carefully to ensure that he is able to ensure that they turn up sober, on time and when you need them. Unreliable tradesman have been my biggest source of stress during this renovation.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008


Nothing momentous has occurred recently, but no disasters either.

Spent last week in a cottage near Torridon in the West Highlands. All very therapeutic and relaxing and now feel ready to return to work and take on the building industry.

Whilst away, did very little apart from read books, stoke the log fire, go out for lunch and shop. Managed to return to the island with 100 Litres of paint in the boot, which should keep me busy for a few months in my spare time.
The most exciting event to happen when I was on the mainland was sighting a pair of Red Kites flying above the A9 at Black Isle, when I was on the way to Inverness. These beautiful large fork tailed birds of prey were once common in Scotland, but became extinct about 1900 as the result of persecution through poisoning and shooting. They were reintroduced in 1989 and following a few teething problems, have thrived, are now commonly seen and have become something of a tourist attraction. They nest in forestry, which is presumably the explanation for them being absent from the Outer Hebrides.
During my absence, the builder has kept his part of the bargain and finished most of the internal work. He has installed the kitchen, which looks brilliant and the house now has the early semblance of a home. Not quite sure what the plumber has been doing all week, 'cos his work seems very little different from when I left. The central heating and water supply, although installed, are still not connected and it is now only the lack of heating and water that is preventing me from moving back into the house. The new cooker has an electric oven which the electrician can wire himself, but the hob is worked from Propane bottled gas and the plumber has decided now is a good time to tell me he does not have the required certification to install it. Now have to find another qualified plumber to connect it , so more expense and time lost.

Three cheers for B&Q . Hip Hip Hooray. Went to see them at Inverness and told them my tale of woe about the damaged wash basin and toilet seat. Even though I bought them in January 2007 and do not believe B&Q were responsible for the damage, they readily agreed to replace them at their expense and to ship them here at no cost to me. The basin arrived yesterday and is being fitted by the plumber today, whilst the loo seat is in transit somewhere. My experience of the service provided by tradespeople and shops over the last year or so has been generally fairly negative, so I'm delighted to sing praise where it's due.

In a previous blog, I told of finding a dead otter on the road in Benbecula. Well, it's happened again, in my own village. Last Saturday evening, driving close to home, I saw this big dark shape run in front of the car in front of me, which did not stop. I did and was sad to see this lovely healthy looking otter quite dead in the middle of the road. The driver of the other car was not speeding and could have done nothing to prevent himself from hitting the animal. The otter was huge, more than a metre from nose to tip of tail, so I assume it was an adult male, the females being much smaller.
Great news dear reader. Tesco are coming to town! They have bought out six Somerfield stores here in the Highlands and Islands and will be taking over the Stornoway branch from May 12. Those of you who have brought and sent me jars of Tesco smoked garlic mayonnaise - a little weakness of mine - during the last couple of years, will be thrilled that I will soon be able to buy my own without having to trouble you any longer.
The social consequences of having Tesco, the possibility of Sunday ferry sailings and discounted air and sea travel are potentially huge. Some will see it all as progress, others will regret it, but daily life here is likely to be very different within the next few years.