Sunday, August 24, 2008


Saw a most curious piece of animal behaviour this week. Driving along the Westside on Friday, I could see a single sheep charging something stationary on the road in front of me. When I got closer, the sheep, a blackface ewe, ran off and the object on the road turned out to be a dead Grey Lag goose. It was fresh and almost certainly a recent road kill. There are a lot of Grey Lags about and they fairly regularly throw themselves in front of passing cars. The unusual feature of all this is that the ewe was headbutting the dead goose and moving it around the road. I did wonder at one point if the sheep was trying to eat the bird, but that seems unlikely. Lambing time is long past so I dont think the ewe was protecting its offspring. There were no other sheep anywhere close by and I have no idea what this was all about. Any animal behaviourists out there with an explanation?. When I drove away, I had only gone about 50 yards when I looked through the rear view mirror and saw that the ewe had returned and continued to attack the goose .

Work here continues apace. The contractor is busy repairing the access road, which will be a great improvement when it's finished. Tons of stone have been dug out and moved so far and the road is much flatter and wider already. Much of the stone removed is dressed and probably came from the walls of the original blackhouse, which lies as a ruin behind this house.
An unforeseen benefit of having the road done is that a lot of peat, dug out in the digger bucket while creating drainage ditches, is usable as fuel. During this weekend, I've been busy cutting up suitably sized lumps of peat and have laid them out to dry behind the house. There won't be enough to last throughout the Winter and as it's so late in the year, I'm not sure it will be dry in time to burn in the stove at Christmas, unless we have a really warm and windy autumn. The newly cut peat has the consistency and colour of wet dark chocolate and is very heavy until it dries out.
The man on the JCB digging out the road and ditches tells me that he has never seen so many frogs on one croft before and confirmed my own observation that the frogs here come in a huge range of colours from yellow, through to green and almost black.

The new tiler has almost finished the bathroom, which is smart and one more tick off the list. There is now loads of decorating to do when I've got the time and the only major job left on the renovation is to have the wooden floors fitted in a month or two. Having the floors fitted will make a tremendous difference because the current concrete floors downstairs create huge amounts of dust and the lounge and kitchen are impossible to keep clean.

My long suffering brother in law has decided he needs more punishment and is coming back for a week in about a month's time to help with the remaining jobs that need two to tango. Having another soul to talk to is a great boost to morale and motivation.

About eight miles South of Barra, there are two uninhabited islands called Sandray and Fuday. Two years ago, the government disclosed that those islands were on a list of twelve sites that are considered suitable for storing thousands of tonnes of unwanted nuclear waste. The local council have told the Defence Secretary, Des Browne, 'we really don't want nuclear waste here' and he has announced this week that no dump will be built if local opinion is against it. That's sorted then. We can all rest safely in our beds now knowing that the state is listening to people and won't do anything we don't want them to do.

Many years ago, Compton Mackenzie wrote a satirical comedy novel called 'Rockets Galore', which told of islanders opposition to the building of a rocket range on the islands. The protestors captured and painted two white gulls pink and because they were feted and accepted by the establishment as a previously unknown species, the government gave in and took their rocket range elsewhere.
In reality, the rocket range on South Uist was built in 1957 in the face of a great deal of opposition and has remained there ever since, providing much needed local employment. It initially tested Corporal missiles, which were Britain's first nuclear guided weapons and now tests Rapier surface to air missiles and unmanned air vehicles.

It will be a couple of weeks until the next blog because I will be working away and visiting friends and family until then.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008


There are lovely sandy, unpolluted beaches like this throughout the Outer Hebrides, some of them stretching for long distances. Even on warm sunny days , they never get crowded. This particular beach, at Uig in the far West of Lewis, is an absolute gem, being surrounded by hills and moors. It also has the distinction of being the place where the Lewis Chessmen were discovered in a stone chamber, in the 19th Century.
Some friends are visiting this week for the third year in succession and they willingly drive over 500 miles each way so that their children, aged 9&12, can spend their days playing on safe, clean and beautiful Lewis and Harris beaches. Like all modern children, they are welded to technology at home, but utterly content to do little but run about on the sand throughout their holiday. No ice cream vans, no kiss me quick hats, but lots of fresh air.

3 o'clock, Tuesday morning. Couldn't sleep for worrying about the slow pace of the house renovation and searching for reasons why I have had so many problems with unreliable and excessively expensive tradesmen. They have all been paid promptly and treated with consideration, but little has gone smoothly. The original tiler has finally disappeared, apparently for ever, leaving the kitchen literally half finished and with electric sockets hanging out of the wall. He has left his tools here and I have no idea if he will be back to collect them.
Just as I was sinking into a depressive torpor, wondering if I am somehow the cause of all these difficulties, there was a huge flash of light from outside the bedroom window. It occurred to me for a second or two that Armageddon was upon us, but no, it was shooting stars. They were whizzing all over the clear bright sky every minute or two and I stood and watched them for half an hour or more. A magical experience and I soon went back to sleep thinking that life is not all bad.

Events seem to have taken a turn for the better this week. I found a joiner last Wednesday who has a reputation locally for being a good tiler as well. He was unavailable when I was first looking for a tiler a few weeks ago. Well, I couldn't help but smile when I heard that he was doing the joinery on a new build garage last week, when the bricklayer got drunk and disappeared on a bender leaving him in the lurch and all work on the garage stopped. A very familiar story for me . He found himself without work for a couple of weeks until his new brickie starts and consequently, I have a new tiler. He came round to look at the job on Wednesday evening, we agreed a price and he started work on Thursday morning. He is now halfway through tiling the bathroom and his work looks good. The decorator turned up this morning and between 8am and 5pm, has papered three difficult ceilings well. I can now get on with painting walls. Out of the blue, the road contractor turned up as well today and even as we speak, he's on his JCB, like a big Tonka toy, digging out ditches on the croft prior to repairing the road. All of a sudden, I feel a great sense of elation and optimism that the end might just be in sight.
The new sofas have arrived too, although several weeks before they were due and the window blinds are on their way.

There has been lots of speculation on the island that the ferry company, Caledonian Macbrayne, were about to announce that they are going to start Sunday sailings between Stornoway and Ullapool. They have now denied this but said that they will review the situation at the end of the year after the new reduced fare structure has been in place for a month or two. They pointed out that they have had many more representations in favour of Sunday sailings than against them. It very much looks as if they will eventually make a decision on economic grounds, rather than on local religious sensitivities.

Sunday, August 10, 2008


St Kilda is a group of islands situated about forty miles West of North Uist. It is an extraordinarily remote and beautiful place, designated as a World Heritage Site. The main island is called Hirta, with the smaller islands of Dun and Soay nearby. The island of Boreray, plus two huge rocks, Stac Lee and Stac An Armin are also part of the St Kilda group.

One of the great experiences of my life was to visit St Kilda with number one son and a friend, twenty one years ago. The return journey then took three days from Oban. Travelling to St Kilda was difficult and you really, really, really had to want to go there. Nowadays, subject to good weather, fast boats make day trips to St Kilda from Tarbert and Leverburgh during the tourist season and charge about £160 for the privilege.

Hirta was continually populated for thousands of years until 1930, when the few remaining residents asked the British Government to evacuate them because life was becoming far too difficult to sustain. There was no real cash economy, a diet of puffin, gannets and mutton was limiting and illness without a doctor was a problem. It could take days or weeks to get the sick to hospital and the population had reduced to the point where there were not enough young and able bodied individuals left to do the daily work.

The Soay sheep shown above, like Mouflons, are primitive sheep, which are believed to have been resident on Soay since prehistoric times. Some of them were moved from Soay and released onto Hirta when the island was evacuated and have lived a feral existence on both islands ever since. Soay sheep have been taken off St Kilda and there are now flocks throughout Britain and the USA and maybe other parts of the world as well. There is also a second breed of St Kildan sheep, Borerays, which are confined to the island of Boreray and were the product of cross breeding in the nineteenth century. A few of these animals were removed some years ago and there are now small breeding flocks of them in several places in the UK, including Temple Newsam in Leeds. Borerays are the rarest breed of sheep in the UK and on the Rare Breed Survival Trust's Critically Endangered List.

The house renovation soap opera continues and there are times when I feel like walking down to the Loch and throwing myself in.The tiler has stopped all work, leaving part of the kitchen and all of the bathroom unfinished and I have no replacement for him lined up.

There was a problem this week with the new toilet flushing continuously. When I lifted up the pottery lid to investigate, I managed to drop it and break a piece off the side of the cistern. It's at times like this that I wish, just for a moment, that I had bought a smart new build house. Some better news though. The man arrived to put up the coving and has done a good job. The ceiling is being papered a week on Monday and then I can finish all of the remaining decorating before having the wooden floors laid. When I'm in self pitying mode, I can get a bit overwhelmed by the difficulties I've had in modernising this house, but most of them are routine problems experienced by everybody who sets out to bring new life to an old property. I have been disappointed by the unreliability and cavalier attitude towards customers of Lewis tradesmen, but maybe it's just the same elsewhere. When I'm feeling particularly cheesed off, I watch a repeat of 'Grand Designs' and get cheered up by the magnitude of the problems that other people overcome when renovating or building their own houses. I might add that my house is neither grand nor designed and is a much more modest undertaking than any of those on the TV programme.

As I was feeling particularly low on Friday, some friends arrived from the South and Mike had a look at the overflowing cistern. He is a Health and Safety scientist, with a good logical mind and within five minutes, had managed to sort out the complicated insides and get it working again. Bless him. He also helped me to get a big wardrobe upstairs which the builders had told me could never ever be manoeuvred up the dog leg staircase. Well, we did it without damage, so boo sucks to them and thank you, thank you Mike.

The battle between the Co-Op and Tesco is hotting up and getting quite exciting. The Co-Op have issued vouchers giving £10 off every £30 spent on groceries and Tesco have put up signs saying they will accept any money off vouchers issued by the Co-Op. Don't suppose it will last, but for now, it's good news for shoppers.

The campaign to eradicate mink from the Outer Hebrides, to protect biodiversity, continues. Since February 2007, 434 of the animals have been trapped and dispatched. This has been a hugely expensive undertaking, but Scottish Natural Heritage are confident that they can eventually capture all of the mink and that the cost and effort will all have been worth it. The trappers are working their way to the area where I live, which is said to have a large mink population, although I've never seen one.