Sunday, July 27, 2008


When I wrote about the 1919 Iolaire disaster two or three weeks ago, I was aware that many families on the island had been affected, but had no idea that someone from my own house had been lost that night. Looking around the Internet a few days ago, I came across a detailed list of victims with addresses and photographs of their graves. One of those men was a 20 year old Leading Deck Hand in the Royal Naval Reserve, who had survived the First World War intact and was about an hour away from being reunited with his family at this house, when the Iolaire foundered. He is buried in a lovely graveyard a few miles from here, in a beautiful position overlooking the beach and sea. This place had always been owned by the same family until I came here a couple of years ago and looking at the age of the sailor who died that night, I think he may have been the Great Uncle of the man I bought the house from.

An army of Octopuses has invaded the waters around the Outer Hebrides and we're all doomed. Fisherman all round the islands, but particularly on the Westside, have found huge numbers of Octupus turning up in their lobster creels in recent weeks. They seem to be attracted by either the bait used in the creels or by captured lobsters, which octopus like to eat. Scottish Natural Heritage have said that the beast concerned, the Curled Octopus, is prone to occasional population explosions and the current invasion is probably nothing to worry about, unless you are a fisherman of course. Other experts, including a body called the Marine Climate Change Impact Partnership, fear that the arrival of all these animals is a firm sign of increased water temperature caused by climate change. Whatever the truth of this, there doesn't seem to be a local market for Octopus, but I'm more than willing to help out with a frying pan, a little oil, garlic and black bean sauce.

Another rare bird, a Rose Coloured Starling, turned up here this week, causing some interest. It's a starling, with a rosy pink coloured front and back.

The MV Muirneag leaves Stornoway harbour at about midnight every evening to take and collect freight from the mainland. It plays an important part in keeping the islands stocked with food and the other needs of daily life. On Friday morning, the Muirneag crashed as it was about to berth at Stornoway pier on its return journey. It apparently hit a reef and is now being examined for damage. It's not thought to be a serious incident, but the boat has been grounded until at least Monday and this may lead to a temporary shortage of meat, vegetables and milk in the co-op and Tesco's. Well, providence smiles. We can always fall back on Octopus to survive on.

The tiler tells me he really wants to finish the work here, but repeatedly fails to turn up. He's had a succession of problems with housing and his car and helps to support his family in Poland, so I'm loathe to sack him. It may come to that though because the work has to be done soon.I can't find an alternative tiler though, so maybe I should just stick with the current one.

Good news about the ceilings though. I managed to find a decorator and he's going to paper the ceilings and fit coving , while I'm working away this coming week. He seems enthusiastic and reliable, so I'll come home on Thursday evening with anticipation and a look of joyous expectation on my face. If the ceilings are done this week, I can then get on with painting the walls downstairs and look for a joiner to fit the wooden floors.

It's a beautiful warm, clear and still day today. One of those summer days that make it a joy to live here. I have a compulsion to get my strimmer out and do some gardening, but it's the Sabbath and I don't feel like upsetting neighbours just yet.

Sunday, July 20, 2008


This is quite possibly the last flower picture of the year, so make the most of it.

The house. Oh dear. The tiler has been given notice to quit his rented house because his landlord wants it back for his own family. Consequently, the tiler, who has a young family, is understandably much more concerned with finding a new home than with my kitchen and bathroom. The work has ground to a halt again and I may have to search for someone else to finish the job - an almost impossible task here just now. Whilst the rest of the UK building industry seems to be going into terminal meltdown, builders and tradesman here have probably never been busier. The explosion of house building continues and it's quite difficult to find a village anywhere here that doesn't have new builds springing up in every corner. Still not absolutely sure what this is all about. These islands are too remote, too time consuming and expensive to travel to to attract many second holiday home owners with no connections here. Unlike Cornwall, the Lake District or the Cotswolds, it's not practical to bring a family here for regular weekends unless you're very well heeled. Many houses being built now seem to be for islanders who have made their way in the world, often offshore and are returning to work or to retire. Some crofters are selling off pieces of their land as house building plots to the highest bidders . There is a year on year increase in the number of incomers from England, Central Scotland and the EU, who escape to here for a better quality of life for themselves and their families. New arrivals are welcomed by most, but there are undercurrents of complaint that the islands are being taken over by outsiders, who are sometimes blamed for hastening the end of Gaelic culture and language.

Some good news is that the bedrooms, landing and stairs were carpeted this week, so the upper floor is now comfortable and usable. I can't start to decorate downstairs though, or have the flooring fitted, because I can't find a plasterer to skim the ceilings or decorator to paper the ceilings as an alternative.

Brother in law has now gone home for a rest after working himself into the ground for a week. He painted doors tirelessly, but his greatest use was as a shifter to help me take old fridges, washing machines and cookers from the shed to the tip, which I couldn't have managed alone. Have invited him back next week, but in spite of being well fed and watered whilst here, he doesn't seem very interested.

It's the Hebridean Celtic Music Festival this week and thousands of visitors have arrived to listen to musicians including Julie Fowlis, Saw Doctors, Red Hot Chilli Pipers and lots of local Gaelic singers. The headliners perform in a big blue tent in the Castle grounds, but there are many other festival concerts held in village halls and other venues all over the island. I went to see a wonderful band called the Hunger Mountain Boys a couple of days ago and would have gone to more concerts if this wretched house renovation was not pre occupying me so much.The festival creates a real buzz about the place and is probably the cultural highlight of the year, although there are lots of other good reasons and events to travel here for at any time.

The owner of the Macleod Motel at Tarbert in Harris is having extensive refurbishment work done and was concerned about loss of trade while his bar is shut. Being an enterprising character, he came up with the solution of buying an inflatable pub - really - which is now on site and is inflated and let down daily. Locals and tourists alike seem to love it and he's doing a roaring trade in hen and stag parties.

Following his recent 2-3 hour trip to Lewis to visit his family home, Donald Trump has been embraced as an esteemed member of the local community and has been made an Honorary Life Member of Stornoway golf club. Mr T has accepted this honour and indicated that he may play a round of golf on the course if he visits again in the future. This must make the golf club committee writhe with anticipation and excitement. I expect they will be offering similar membership to local care workers, bin men and fire fighters in the near future to demonstrate impartiality.

Fuel price watch.

I heard someone on the telly a few days ago whingeing that the cost of diesel on the uk mainland now averages £1:32 per Litre. We are much luckier than that and now have the privilege of being able to pay £1:49 per litre. What makes buying fuel more fun here is that no petrol station has the usual illuminated boards that show the prices before you drive on to the forecourt, so it's not easily possible to compare, unless you drive up to a succession of pumps and then drive off again. That is something of a pointless exercise though because limited competition leads to all of the petrol stations charging much the same prices.

Sunday, July 13, 2008


This cotton grass grows in front of the kitchen window and like the other flowers, is now past its best for this year. The spotted orchids have done particularly well, with many hundreds growing in two specific areas of the croft, but I have not been able to find any other type of orchid.

Decided to increase the speed of the decorating and other jobs needing to be done around the house by taking a few days holiday from work.
I've been driven to the point of madness for the last few weeks by hand stripping the original dog leg staircase, which had seventy years of paint on it, but has now emerged as a plain, but handsome object and well worth the effort.
My brother in law, newly retired and enthusiastic, flew in on the big silver bird a few days ago to help and things are now moving on apace.
We are busy stripping the two ceilings that have not been replaced in the renovation, painting doors and taking mountains of accummulated rubbish to the community skip in the trailer.It's amazing how motivation is increased by the presence of a willing helper. It's not all work either. We reward ourselves for being fine industrious fellows by taking a small libation at the end of each day and even managed to find the energy and cash to take ourselves off to a restaurant last night. Oh happy reckless days.
The tiler has returned from his annual holiday to his home in Poland and is going to restart the tiling on Monday evening. I don't mind when work on the house is going slowly, but do get frustrated when it grinds to a halt. After much deliberation and scanning of bank statements, I've finally decided to go ahead with having the access road renovated. It's about 130 yards long and is in such poor condition that it's almost impassable. The nice man with the digger and road roller is coming to see me on Tuesday and all being well, I'll have a level, flood free road in a month or two.
Can't remember If I said, but the Building Control Officer has sent me my Completion Certificate, which has made life much easier.

It's the Sabbath today and all outside work has stopped. The leg of lamb, produced on this croft, is in the oven and it's going to be a day of interior painting and tidying up. Brother in law is having a late lie in and no car has passed the house yet this morning.

This continues to be a community of contrasts. Tesco opens next week and whilst it's welcomed by most people, there are a minority of folks who consider this particular supermarket chain to be the spawn of the devil. One interesting snippet though. Tesco have confirmed that the Stornoway branch will be the only one of their shops in the UK to be closed on Sundays.

The fight continues by the Lords day Observance Society and others to stem the tide of change here. The ferry still doesn't sail, the sports centre remains closed and the childrens playparks can't be used on Sundays in most villages.
Driving through Uig yesterday though, I saw a sign saying that the shop on Bernera is going to be open every Sunday afternoon from now on. Goodness knows what fate will befall the manager when this becomes widely known. I can hear the thunderbolts and gathering storm already.

In the midst of all this, the Stornoway Amenity Trust has unveiled plans for a 'futuristic' transport system to carry passengers from the middle of the town to the grounds of Lews Castle College, a distance of less than a mile. If it comes to fruition, three robot like vehicles, made by a French company called Robosoft, will travel at 12 Kilometres per hour and each carry ten passengers. The vehicles will have no drivers and all functions such as acceleration, braking and steering will be computer controlled. This system would be the first of its kind in Britain and has a current estimated cost of £700,000. A report detailing the viability of this great idea has been sent to the local council. I assume the robotic vehicles will take a day off on Sundays to have their batteries recharged, like the rest of us.

Saturday, July 05, 2008


I found these primroses a few weeks ago, growing in front of the grave of Sir Compton Mackenzie, comic writer and author of 'Whisky Galore' and 'Monarch of the Glen', amongst many others. In a long life, he wrote over a hundred books, led a very colourful existence and lived in a house on Barra, which still stands, just by the airport. Mackenzie died in 1972, having previously arranged for his body to be buried in the churchyard near his Barra home.

One of the joys of living here is that unexpected sights and events occur regularly. On Wednesday, on the ferry between Eriskay and Barra, I was having a little snooze for half an hour when I became aware that the boat had changed course. Other passengers were staring and pointing out of the window, so being pathologically nosy, I trotted over and found myself open mouthed at the sight of a group - pod? - school? of basking sharks swimming at the side of the boat. Because they were ducking and diving, I had difficulty counting them, but think there were eight animals altogether. Most of the sharks appeared to be about twenty feet long and seemed very unconcerned about the close proximity of the boat. The skipper was good enough to circle the sharks for a few minutes so that us passengers could get a good look, before we continued on our way to Barra.

During the last couple of years, I've seen two or three Short Eared Owls sat on fence posts in Uist. They are lovely pale birds, but quite difficult to get close to. Well, I've spent three days this week working in Uist and have seen seven Short Eared Owls in that time. They're everywhere just now. Although one or two of these Owls were sat on posts, most of them were quartering fields at the side of the road, looking for prey. I do wonder if there are more of them this year because food is plentiful.

On 1st January 1919, a disaster occurred here which affected the islands for generations.
The First World War had ended. Approximately 1000 servicemen from the Outer Hebrides had died fighting for Britain. Soldiers and sailors were being demobilised and returning home.
The Admiralty motor yacht, HMY Iolaire, was sailing from Kyle of Lochalsh to Stornoway with 284 passengers and crew aboard. The passengers were mainly discharged naval ratings hoping to be back with their families in Lewis and Harris for New Years day. The boat was within sight of Stornoway at 1:55am, when it hit rocks known as the Beasts of Holm. The sea was rough that night and as a consequence, 205 men lost their lives, just 50 yards from the shore and safety.There were 79 survivors. It is believed that every family in the local community was affected either directly or indirectly by this tragedy. The combined loss of men on the Iolaire and servicemen killed in the War deprived the Island of a generation and was said to be partly responsible for a decline in the population between the First and Second World War.
There is now a permanent memorial to the victims of the Iolaire near the rocks where the boat foundered.
Close to the Beasts of Holm is a popular fishing spot and on Thursday evening of this week, myself and a colleague from work took our rods and went to try our luck at mackerel fishing for a couple of hours. We were using a trace with shrimp lures and started to catch fish almost immediately. I caught six mackerel on my second cast and my colleague was doing even better. The local seals are extremely cute though and know a free meal when they see one. Very quickly, two or three of them arrived and we could see them clearly attacking fish caught on our lines. The seals took a number of the mackerel as we were hauling them in and at one point, I reeled in to find just the head of a mackerel on the hook. The seal had taken and eaten the body of the fish as I was about to land it. Whilst this was all a bit frustrating, because the seals were taking the fish faster than we could get them out of the sea, it was riveting to watch them and we both felt a grudging admiration for the cheek of the seals and the skill they used to allow us to do the work while they waited to reap the benefit.
Perhaps fifty yards away, two or three other men were fishing and appeared to be having less luck than us. We were both astonished when one of those men produced a rifle and started shooting the seals. Within about twenty minutes, he shot and killed four of the animals. This was appalling behaviour and is a high price to pay for a few mackerel. Neither of us are sure if this is legal or not, but when we spoke to the man with the rifle, who was a bit scary looking, he suggested that we should be grateful that his efforts had enabled us to catch fish.