Saturday, June 21, 2008


Every now and again, as I'm wandering around the islands, I see a sight that makes me look twice, smile and then burst into fits of giggles like a madcap. One example recently was a crow that flew low over the house with a sock dangling from its beak. Another was the digger shown above, which is currently parked ( moored?) on a little island by a causeway on North Uist.

By and large, its been a good week. I've managed to motivate myself to do a couple of hours of decorating every evening and feel like I'm moving forward now. The housewarming is planned for October, so that's my target date to get the majority of the work done and the house knocked into shape. Still some minor irritations though. There are one or two not very serious plumbing problems to sort out, but having sacked the plumber a couple of weeks ago following a dispute with him, I'm not going to ask him to return and will have to find another solution.

The best news of the week is that I saw the Building Inspector yesterday, who has done his final inspection, agreed that all of the house renovation work is up to standard and is now going to issue my Completion Certificate. Yippee! No more hassles or expensive changes, probably.

A couple of weeks ago, I told of the application by the Free Church of Scotland to purchase a hotel in North Uist and turn it into a church, manse, cafe and meeting rooms. Interesting developments. The Western Isles Council have approved the proposed change of use, but the local Community Council, consisting of North Uist residents, have objected. They seem to be arguing that there will be loss of amenity to the community because the existing hotel has a function suite and that converting it to a church 'will remove a place for young people to meet.'
North Uist is a small island with four other hotels within a few miles and is hardly likely to go down the pan because one drinking establishment disappears.

Incidentally, I have a nostalgic fondness for the hotel in question, the Carinish Inn. It's the very first hostelry I stopped to have a pint in on my very first visit to the Western Isles in June of 1978. The hotel was really just an unmodernised drinking den then and I vividly remember going into the public bar to see a group of fishermen, drinks in hand, staring silently at a television mounted on the wall, which had no picture other than flickering snow. In those days, TV reception was poor throughout the islands and telly was still something of a novelty in some areas.

There's fighting in the streets of Stornoway over the arrival of new supermarkets. Tesco have bought out Somerfield and are making some alterations to the store before reopening, but the Co-Op, the only supermarket on the island just now, have objected to Tesco's plans and look like delaying the opening date. Lidl have announced that they would also like to open a store here and the Co-Op have objected to them as well. I've always been a fan of the Co-Op, but they are expensive, have a complete monopoly and their objections seem remarkably like sulky sour grapes in the face of much needed competition.

There has never been a legitimate whisky distillery in the Outer Hebrides, the nearest one probably being Talisker, on Skye. A company called Uisge Beatha nan Eilean have just submitted a planning application though to create a new distillery on the Isle of Barra. If approved, the premises will be 90% powered by renewable energy sources, support up to 10 jobs and use barley which will be grown on the island. If it does get off the ground, I'll be quite elderly before the first bottle of 12 year old malt staggers into the shops for sale, but It's an incentive for me to hang on so that I can road test the product and give you my learned opinion of its strengths and weaknesses. Will keep you informed of progress.

Finally, the mythical Snowy Owl has returned and was seen yesterday at the RSPB reserve at Balranald, North Uist. I consider it my life's work to get a decent picture of it to put on this blog. I shall be working there again in about a week, so who knows.

Friday, June 13, 2008


The lovely weather we have had recently seems to be going South, but It's still quite warm, although a bit wet and windy. As a result of the doubling in the price of heating oil recently, lots of peats have been cut all over the island and are now drying nicely, like those above. I haven't had time to cut any myself this year, but will do so next year now that the stove is installed and working. Volunteer peat cutters may be offered free B&B next April/May. Apply now.

Well, what an exciting week. Rare birds and Donald Trump. The bird is a Common Crane, far from common in the UK and only recorded once previously in the Outer Hebrides. This particular feathered friend arrived about a week ago on the outskirts of Stornoway and once its presence was announced, twitchers started arriving right left and centre to see it. Every plane and ferry was full to bursting with sensible, mature individuals who had travelled hundreds, nay, thousands of miles and spent large amounts of money to get here and put another tick on their bird sighting list. There was no need to ask where the bird could be seen, 'cos you just followed the binoculars and telescopes draped around the necks and shoulders of intense looking men wearing spectacles, who gathered in the middle of Stornoway to swap notes and purchase sandwiches and coffee.

Friday lunchtime last week. Went to the local service station to buy my usual Philadelphia and ham baguette - diesel at 142 pence a litre, but baguette a bargain at £2-30 - and there they were - Cameras, Goretex jackets in a fine shade of camouflage green and mobile phones welded to their ears. I was far too intimidated and lacking in confidence to speak to them, so sneakily followed them in my car to a farm on the edge of the airport--and there it was! As we arrived, this wretched creature flew in front of us, seven feet long beak to toes, pursued by other smaller birds, and landed in a field several hundred yards away from the assembled multitude. Out came the cameras. Lenses the size of drainpipes. Far bigger than my own pathetic example. My fairly compact camera just couldn't compete - and that folks, is why I can't provide any photographic evidence that the crane was ever here. Having read this, those still plagued by doubts about the veracity of this account should visit, where there is a very good photo snapshot of the crane on 'Recent Sightings 3 June.'

Donald Trump. A fine example of a decent billionaire. Donald arrived at Stornoway airport last Monday in his private jet with the word TRUMP emblazoned on the side in gold lettering. He came here to visit his mother's childhood home. First cousins, second cousins, two mongrels and a stray blackface sheep turned up to greet the great man. I would have been reasonably impressed had Mr Trump hired a fleet of taxis to transport him and his retinue around, but no, he was provided with a Porsche 4 wheel drive vehicle, said to be owned by 'a local millionaire.' Hebrideans are not usually impressed by ostentatious displays of wealth and power and few people turned out to see him and wave stars and stripes in support.
The wind was blowing that day and poor Donnie suffered the indignity of having his comb over go vertical and make him look as if he'd been electrocuted.
This was his first visit as an adult to Lewis, which he said he had been wanting to make for many years. Mr Trump remained on the island for a full three hours. He denied that his lightning trip to the Western Isles was a publicity stunt connected with his current application to build a £1 billion pound golf course -'the best golf course in the world' - on the coast in Aberdeenshire. That application is being opposed because, like the Lewis Wind Farm, the proposed development is sited in a particularly environmentally sensitive site of Special Scientific Interest, which is more important to some local people than this planned vast leisure and housing scheme. A public enquiry is now taking place. The billionaire has threatened to take his bat and ball home to America if the enquiry goes against him. Oh well.

Saturday, June 07, 2008


Some of the sunsets at the moment are ridiculously pretty. This one, photographed last week, was a particularly good one. I haven't bought any curtains or blinds yet, so getting to sleep when it's still daylight at 11pm can be a challenge.

House progress continues to be a bit up and down. The tiler has been working well and has tiled the kitchen floor to a high standard, but he has gone home to Poland for a month. Assuming he comes back at the beginning of July, he will start on the bathroom then.

Trouble with the plumber though. Whilst working here, he managed to break the tv stand and was responsible for a leak which the builder repaired as an emergency and gave me another bill for. As a gesture of goodwill and to keep him working to the end, I didn't initially charge the plumber for the damage, but was outraged when he sent me a further bill last week for 'extra materials.' Have returned the bill to him asking him to send me a cheque for the damage he caused. I am not paying his latest bill and don't expect to see or hear from him again. Suppose I will have to fit the shower screen and bathsides myself now.

The Building Inspector was unhappy with the length of the plinth the solid fuel stove sits on. Consequently, as an alternative to paying the builder more of my rapidly diminishing hard earned cash, I've built the required concrete extension myself. Although it wasn't rocket science, I'm not blessed with many manual skills, but it does look pretty neat. The Inspector is coming back for his final inspection later next week, so fingers crossed that he is happy and will give me my Completion Certificate.

The weather here on the island has been brilliant for the last month and there are successive waves of flowers appearing every week. Everywhere is alive with the smells, sounds and colours of early summer. The birds are particularly noisy and earlier this morning, a drumming snipe and nearby corncrake were competing for attention near the house. As I write this, the kitchen window is open and a cuckoo, which I can't see, has been cuckooing(?) for the last hour.

Interesting story from North Uist this week. The Free Church Minister there has long been concerned about the damage caused to individuals, families and the community by chronic alcohol abuse and to a lesser extent, drug misuse. For several years now, his church has been offering support, counselling and practical assistance to local people with addiction problems. His church has access to a residential rehabilitation centre in Northern Ireland, where motivated individuals can be offered a place on an 8 week rehab course, very quickly, at no cost to them. Getting someone into an NHS rehab centre can take months or years, so is often not accessible at times of crisis. Given the remoteness of these islands, it is not always possible for returners from NHS rehab to be provided with the support they might need to avoid relapse.

A difficulty with the church rehab centre though, is that they believe that sobriety and recovery can be achieved through a belief in God and the Bible, causing obvious difficulties for non believers. Nevertheless, the church is making a valuable contribution in addressing substance addiction here on the Islands.

Well, the story moves on. There is a hotel in North Uist, called the Carinish Inn, which is currently up for sale. The Free Church has revealed that it has put in a bid to buy the hotel with the intention of converting it into a large church, manse, meeting rooms and facilities to assist those with serious problems. The extent of the social services to be provided by the church are not yet public, but their two existing local churches in North Uist have been offered for sale this week in the Stornoway Gazette.
Oh the irony. Hotel, once a den of iniquity, converted to a Church.

Sunday, June 01, 2008


This is one of hundreds of spotted Orchids growing on the croft at the moment. They are such beautiful flowers and it's a real pleasure to see them. The carnivorous Sundew has appeared too and it's a joy to see them in the sphagnum bog. To the best of my knowledge, the croft land has never been treated with herbicides or pesticides and is fertilised solely by sheep droppings. I'm not a botanist, but think this absence of chemical treatments may be the explanation for the great profusion of wild flowers around the house.
Whilst walking the croft with a friend last weekend, we found the nest of a meadow pipit with eggs in it, which was pleasing. Over the next few years, I plan to make this place as wildlife friendly as possible and am particularly keen to create conditions suitable for corncrakes, which are to be heard calling up and down the islands this month.

Progress continues to be made on the house. Although I'm finding it hard to motivate myself into decorating in the evenings after work, others are working harder. The electrician has installed the cooker - hot food at last - and is currently putting lights and sockets in the shed. I've always, always wanted a great big shed to do nothing in and although the one I've got needs some more renovation, it's still good to have. It's about 30 feet long x12 feet wide and over the years, has been used for everything from accommodating a weaving loom, to storing fishing gear, tools and housing cattle and sheep.

The plumber has finished installing the multi fuel stove, although I've not been brave enough to light a fire in it just yet. Maybe tonight, although it's far too warm at present to have a stove chugging away in the lounge. The tiler is doing stirling work fitting tiles in the kitchen. His work is of high quality, but he, like some of the other tradesmen, is unreliable and often fails to turn up when he says he will and then appears out of the blue to do two or three hours work. At least his progress is forward though.
After some harrying, I persuaded the aerial man to return and I'm now the proud possessor of a working television with extra channels from a digi box. One more reason to delay the decorating.

Not too much out of the ordinary happening on the island this week.The most exciting thing that has taken place recently was the arrival of an expedition ship, the National Geographic 'Endeavour', which suddenly appeared and anchored in deep water in the loch right at the bottom of the croft. The passengers were taken off by RIB's, which delivered them to a small local pier, where they were collected and shown round the sights of the Island. The 'Endeavour' stayed overnight and looked very dramatic and overwhelming with all its lights twinkling in the dark.

Tourists have now started to arrive in ever increasing numbers and there are more cyclists than ever before, biking the length of the Outer Hebrides from Barra to the Butt of Lewis. They seem to be passing in front of my kitchen window every hour throughout the day now, although that may be an exaggeration. One of the good features of the islands is that there is accommodation ranging from decent hotels to basic hostels and so everyone from the well off to penniless students can find a way of visiting here. If walking or cycling, It's perfectly possible to get a cheap Island hopscotch ferry ticket from Calmac and visit here on a very limited budget, which is excellent. When the ferry fare drops dramatically from October of this year, tourism is expected to hugely increase and apart from the distance and sheer effort of getting here, there will be no excuse for any of you not to visit and have a good poke round this wonderful landscape.

Contentious issues such as the windfarms, Sunday ferry sailings, Sabbath observance generally and the imminent arrival of Tesco, are still bubbling under and I'll write about them more over the next few months as developments take place.

Fuel watch -- Diesel 139 pence per litre in Stornoway yesterday.