Friday, May 23, 2008


I love these little roll on roll off ferries. This one takes just 40 minutes to sail between Barra and Eriskay and operates several times a day throughout the year. When the weather is good, the views are spectacular. Apart from a variety of sea birds, there is always a good chance of spotting seals, porpoises, dolphins, basking sharks and the occasional whale.

Have spent the last two weeks at home, on holiday, starting to decorate the house with a friend. We've achieved a lot and now have three rooms, including the kitchen, almost habitable. There's something very satisfying about starting with bare plaster and concrete and watching it take shape and colour.It all takes a long time though and I think it will be well into the Autumn before I'm finished. The tiler is now working regularly, but the electrician has not yet returned to wire up the cooker and shed. The TV aerial man popped in two weeks ago to decide what bits of kit he needed to make my television work and I've not seen him since. There is still a problem with the installation of the wood burning stove, which I am hoping will be finally fitted tomorrow. On the positive side, the building inspector has been and approved the general quality of the work done so far. As soon as the electricians have finished, I should get the much needed completion certificate.

The house access track, which is about 120 yards long, is in appalling condition, having had little or no maintenance for many years. Any vehicle coming to the house, including my own, is in dire danger of having its sump and exhaust pipe ripped off because of holes, ruts, dips and slopes. Trying to get from the public road to the house is like negotiating a minefield and I wince every time I manage to hit an unseen rock. Can't bring myself to take a look at the underside of the car. In winter, the track is largely under water and the car has to swim through. Last year, I bought fifteen tons of roadstone from the local quarry in an attempt to patch the road and avoid the day when it would finally have to be rebuilt. Unfortunately, all my efforts with a wheelbarrow, and those of friends recruited to the chain gang, have had little effect. Three builder's lorries a day for the last six months, and the odd passing oil tanker, have now made the track almost impassable. After much keening, wailing and knashing of teeth, I've decided to have the track relaid professionally. When the last tradesman leaves, waving his handkerchief and with a tear in his eye, the road contractor is going to arrive to re lay the track and improve the drainage at the front of the croft. That work should be done before the end of the summer and is likely to ensure that I have to continue working full time until I'm about 78. So much for plans to wander round the ranch doing little but waving a shepherd's crook and tending the sheep. Still, mustn't grumble.

The recent wonderful weather has produced an explosion of flowers on the croft. Swathes of cotton grass appeared almost overnight at the front of the house and look wonderful swaying in the wind. Down towards the loch, the thrift has just finished flowering on the rock face, but there are now dozens of spotted orchids in full bloom on the slope at the West end of the croft. There are lots of as yet unidentified tiny yellow and blue flowers and I'm hoping to find the carnivorous sundew in the bog in the next week or two. These are amazing plants, like venus fly traps, which trap and digest small insects. There were thousands of them last year, so I'm hoping for a repeat performance this summer.

A former colleague from the South is coming to stay for a couple of days from tomorrow. He's a keen birdwatcher and is currently visiting North Uist, searching for a Snowy Owl, which is preening and displaying itself on fenceposts in Grenitote village, even as we speak. This bird, and another Snowy Owl, have been regular visitors in recent years and there is some hope that they will settle down together and breed here. Someone, presumably, has worked out that they are male and female, otherwise it's going to be a long wait. I have been chasing round the Hebrides for the last two years looking to see a Snowy Owl, but it's always flown away by the time I get there and I still haven't seen one in the flesh. Can't spare the time to go to Uist just now, but will be working there in a couple of weeks, so maybe it will wait for me.
Incidentally, the RSPB have set up an Eagle Watch for members at a small quarry in Griminish, North Uist. They have powerful telescopes focussed on the nest of a pair of Golden Eagles about half a mile away. The watch is being made available every Thursday evening from May 15, until any chicks have fledged and flown. For further details, contact Jamie Boyle, RSPB warden, on 01876 560287, or at

There are currently about twenty sheep and lambs being grazed at the back of the house and consequently, an increase in ravens searching opportunistically for casualties. My neighbour, who owns the sheep, has brought round a carcass of lamb, produced on this croft, which is now nestling coldly in the freezer. This is payment for the grazing and as I try not to eat too much meat, is likely to last a while.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

For possibly thousands of years, these strong hardy ponies have lived and worked on Eriskay, a small island neatly sandwiched between South Uist and Barra. Eriskay is the Island where the SS Politician came aground in 1941 with 24 thousand cases of whisky on board. The subsequent efforts of islanders in liberating the whisky were famously recorded by Compton Mackenzie in his book Whisky Galore, later made into a very fine film. I digress. The ponies have never been crossed and are believed to be the descendants of the wild ponies which roamed Scotland before people lived here.They stand between 12.0 -13.2 hands high and are usually grey, although an occasional black or bay animal occurs.Throughout history, the ponies have been used by crofters for everyday tasks such as pulling carts, harrowing the land and carrying home peats and seaweed in basket work creels slung over their backs.
By the early 1970's and partially as the result of the widespread use of tractors, the total number of ponies on Eriskay and therefore on the planet, had declined to around 20 animals. They were heading rapidly towards extinction when a group of local people, including crofters, priest, doctor and vet decided to try to save the ponies.Through their efforts, small breeding groups of Eriskay ponies were established throughout the British Isles. A society was formed to look after the interests and future of the ponies, but this split into two groups because of differences between the people involved.The Eriskay Pony Society obtained registration under UK and EU law in 1995 and exists to promote the animal throughout Britain by holding breed shows and offering practical advice to anybody wishing to own and keep these ponies.They now have approximately 400 registered ponies.
The other official society, recognised in 2001, is known as the Eriskay Pony(Mother Society).It concerns itself solely with breeding the ponies only in the Western Isles and particularly on Eriskay.The ponies in the photograph above, which I took last week, are part of a herd of about 20 animals which wander freely around the roads and hills of Eriskay. Having lived in close proximity to humans forever, they are friendly animals and will happily let you get close to them.They look after themselves and remain outside throughout the year. If you visit Eriskay and can't immediately see the ponies, ask any local or at the shop and it is likely that they will be able to tell you where on the island the ponies are grazing that day.
In spite of the work done in recent years to protect and increase the breed, the Eriskay pony remains on the Rare Breed Survival Trust's Critically Endangered list.

Two steps forward and one backward with the house. A friend is visiting for three weeks and as well as being good company, he's not a bad decorator too. During the last few days, we have painted two bedrooms and the difference is astonishing. All of a sudden, I can begin to see what the house will look like when it's finished. I am taking two weeks holiday from work from next Monday and am hopeful that we can complete all of the upstairs before he returns South.
The CORGI plumber finally arrived and he has installed the propane gas hob, which seems to be working well. I'd forgotten what a hot meal was. The plumber installing the solid fuel stove was due to do the job on Saturday, but phoned to say he was too busy with other things, so that may or may not happen next weekend. Have had no luck in locating a decent tiler yet, so the bathroom and kitchen remain bare for now.

Many households in the Western Isles now have oil fired central heating. During the last eighteen months or so, the cost of heating oil has doubled, causing hardship, especially for elderly people and those on fixed incomes. The rising cost of oil has had two unpredictable consequences. The oil is usually stored in the gardens of houses, in big green plastic containers, which typically contain 600 - 1000 litres. At 60p a litre, that's a lot of money sat outside. Well, thieves have worked this out for themselves and there has been a spate of thefts of oil all over the island. Putting locks on the tanks doesn't help, because the plastic can be drilled and the oil removed by gravity, or with small pumps. Many tanks are close to the road, highly visible and easy targets. So far, the police have not been able to work out how so much oil is being taken away, presumably in large containers, without the culprits being seen. These thefts make the community feel insecure, especially because this is traditionally a low crime area, which has prided itself on trusting thy neighbour, in the past. The other result of high oil prices is that there has been a huge increase this year in the number of people cutting peats for fuel, as a means of controlling heating costs. Even though oil central heating is commonplace, many houses still keep an open fire or Rayburn type stove. The right to cut peat on the moors comes with the croft and I think that non crofters may be able to apply to the Grazings Clerk of their village to be allocated a peat bank. The peat is cut with a peat iron, or Tarasgeir, in April and May, before being left to dry out on the moor for several months. The peat irons last for years if looked after and are passed down through the generations. There is one remaining blacksmith in Stornoway and he has been inundated with orders to make new Tarasgeirs from people who want to cut peats to save on heating oil.

Job of the week. -- Mink Trapper £13980 per annum.

Scottish Natural Heritage are advertising for a mink trapper to work throughout Lewis and Harris as part of a project aiming to eradicate American Mink from the Western Isles. Like the hedgehog, the mink are non native, were brought here years ago and are now a major problem. The hedgehogs were originally introduced by a well meaning, but misguided gardener, whilst the mink were probably escapees from mink farms, or released maliciously by animal rights activists. The mink, in common with the hedgehogs, will take ground nesting birds and eggs, but also kill domestic poultry, in large numbers. Hen keeping was once much more common than it is now, but many poultry keepers stopped keeping birds years ago because they were unable to protect flocks adequately from destruction caused by mink. If the mink project is successful, I expect to see chickens everywhere within a short while.

Fuel Watch --- Diesel is 136.2 pence per litre this morning in Lochmaddy.