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.

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