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.

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