Sunday, September 28, 2008


It's ordinary, everday events that often provide the greatest pleasure. Picture the scene. Stornoway airport one morning last week. The Loganair flight from Edinburgh arrived, the passengers went on their way and the plane was being prepared for the return journey. At some point, the ground crew noticed that the pilot had disappeared. A thorough search ensued and our hero was discovered trapped in the aircraft toilet, to where he had retreated for a quiet five minutes to recover his composure between flights. The door to the toilet was completely jammed and neither the pilot or the entire might of the airport ground staff could free it. Eventually, after much deliberation, staff broke into the toilet through the aircraft hold area and with one bound, Biggles escaped and was freed. By that time though, the direct flight back to Edinburgh was cancelled and 14 passengers were re-routed via Inverness and arrived at their destination one hour late. The airline made a statement saying ' We would like to apologise for the inconvenience caused.' In the tradition of fine journalism, the Stornoway Gazette printed the story with the headline 'Delay at Stornoway for Loo-ganair passengers.'

Dead whales washed up on beaches here are a fairly frequent event, but a few days ago, a live 20 foot Pilot whale was stranded on the beach on the island of Berneray, North Uist. The coastguard and a dozen local residents kept its skin wet with water, while getting a canvas sheet under the whale so that it could be pulled back into the sea. With the incoming tide, the animal seemed to recover and the rescuers went into the sea with it and managed to encourage it to swim away from the shore. It was last seen that day swimming out to sea and there was some hope that the whale would survive. Sadly, it was found washed up on the shore dead the following morning. The cause of death and the reason for the original beaching are unknown.

At long last, I've finished painting all of the rooms in the house and I'm now just waiting for the joiner to return to fit the wooden floors downstairs. When he's done that, every major job will have been completed and I hope that I can then begin to enjoy living here, rather than just feeling that I've got permanent occupation of a building site.There are still dozens of minor finishing off tasks to do, including fitting blinds and the application of large quantities of silicone and filler, which will get attended to over the next few weeks and months as motivation ebbs and flows.

Sunday, September 14, 2008


The main Callanish stones are justly famous, but within a mile or two, there are three other stone circles which get much less attention and publicity. That's a pity, because they are all in sensational surroundings and just as mystical. There is a path linking all of the stone circle groups, but the tourist coaches bringing visitors from cruise ships just take their passengers to the Callanish visitor centre for a walk round and a cup of coffee, before whisking them off to the next place on the 'see it all in 4 hours' itinerary.
The kissing gate in the photo guards the entrance to one of those other stone circles, known as Callanish three. At first glance, it looks quite a conventional gate, but if you look closer, it becomes much more interesting. The maker has built in representations of the sun, moon, mountains and people into the structure and it's a wonderful piece of work. Wish I'd got one.

Work on the house is moving forward steadily now. The contractor has completely finished the access road, which is now flat, straight and well drained. It makes an amazing difference to be able to drive along it without ripping out the undersides of the car. The postlady and delivery drivers are happier too.
The bathroom tiling has been completed and I've finished painting the downstairs bedroom, leaving only one room in the house left to decorate from top to bottom. In the meantime, I'm still wandering about on bare concrete floors, but the end is in sight.

There is a sawmill in the grounds of Lews Castle College, which makes fencing, gates and other stuff, as well as being a good source of logs for burning. For some time, I've been thinking that the new solid fuel stove needs a fire surround and mantelpiece, but couldn't find anything that I really like from commercial suppliers. Talking to the joiner at the sawmill a few days ago, he agreed to make me two uprights and a cross piece and I'm now the proud possessor of a fire surround made out of 6x4 solid planks. It's been cut from a fallen elm tree, which was growing in the Castle grounds, but came down in a storm a couple of years ago. The only problem is that the wood is unseasoned and is likely to split if it is subject to heat from the fire before it dries out. Any suggestions on how to speed up the drying process without damaging the wood?

During the next year, I'm going to put in land drains on the croft at the front of the house, to improve the grazing. I've also got plans to put up a polytunnel next Spring, but still having difficulty deciding exactly where to place it.

Some of the croft fencing was taken down while the road was being renovated and the sheep were taken away to graze elsewhere over the summer. The owner brought them back yesterday and I am pleased to have them here again. They're not very bright, but they do have character. They are currently grazing at the back of the house and making hostile noises towards a flock of grey lag geese which arrived about half an hour ago to steal the grass. A Buzzard and ravens have been hunting on the croft this morning and I seem to have acquired a flock of about a dozen pigeons, which have taken a liking to my bird table.

Sadly, a young Osprey was found dead at the side of a road here a few days ago. It was born in June on the Scottish mainland and had been satellite tagged to track its movements. The people who were monitoring it noticed that the satellite signal was stationary, gave the coordinates to the RSPB here and the dead bird was located. When found, it was severely underweight and is thought to have been hit by a car.

Sunday, September 07, 2008


Last Sunday morning . So there I was, washing pots at the kitchen sink, when I looked up to see this huge black Highland cow staring at me through the window. If you look closely, you'll see that it's chewing a mouthful of my best grass. The village common grazings adjoin the croft and this animal and several other cattle, having eaten all the grass there, broke through the fencing to find richer pickings on my property. Having worked as a farm labourer in my extreme youth, I knew that all you have to do with cows is to wave your arms about, look them straight in the eye and say 'cush cush' to them. Well, I did and the cow looked at me as if I was insane and just carried on eating. It seemed to enjoy having it's photo taken and was in no hurry to leave. Poser. Eventually managed to make it return, reluctantly, to the common grazings. The owner has now moved his herd to greener pastures.

Had intended to be away for much of this week visiting family and friends, but events have conspired to keep me here. Turned up at the airport at 8am last Friday to find that the planes were unable to land because of fog. Waited five hours to see if conditions would improve, but they didn't and BA cancelled their flights to Inverness, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Consequently, I missed my Ryanair connection from Inverness and lost all of my money, including a car hire paid up front, because they will not accept responsibility for poor weather. Tried other ways to get off the island on Friday and Saturday, but eventually gave up, dispirited and defeated. The only consolation is that I've been able to do more decorating during the last few days.

Every August, a group of ten men sail from the Port of Ness here on Lewis to the remote small island of Sula Sgeir, some forty miles to the North. The object of the exercise is to collect and bring back 2000 Guga, or young gannets, which are considered a delicacy. Gannets are protected birds under EU law, but the annual Guga hunt has taken place for around five hundred years and the Scottish Government issue a special licence for the tradition to continue. The young birds are captured, killed, salted on site and then stored in barrels, before being brought to Ness when the men return. The hunt takes two weeks and is well supported within the local community, with many people queuing up at the harbour side to purchase the salted birds when the boat arrives home. I've never tasted Guga, which is apparently boiled for hours to make it edible, but people I know who have, tell me it's disgusting. The demand is always high though and the hunt is likely to continue, in spite of some opposition from animal rights groups, who consider the tradition cruel and want it stopped. Interestingly though, the RSPB and other conservation bodies do not oppose the Guga hunt, which they accept as ecologically sustainable. Catching the birds can be a dangerous occupation and one of the hunters had to be helicoptered off Sula Sgeir this year after breaking an ankle in a fall.

Some time ago, I wrote of the plans to open a whisky distillery on Barra. Well, they've been pipped to the post by the new Red River distillery at Uig, here on Lewis. The owner has started to age his whisky in casks and hopes to produce 10,000 litres this year and double that next year. The first bottles are expected to be on sale in 2011.

Finally, it's correction time. On the blog of 5 March, I put up a photo of a letterbox which I had been told was a sculpture of a pineapple. The owner, Calum, came across the blog accidentally, recognised his letterbox and was mildly miffed to see it described as a pineapple. He dropped in for a chat a few days ago and told me that the letterbox, constructed by a sculptor called George Wylie, is in fact a very fine palm tree. Calum and his wife entered a competition in which they had to list the reasons why they would like to own the letterbox , and won. I'm very pleased to print the truth.