Saturday, November 29, 2008


Before I came to live in the Outer Hebrides three years ago, all my belongings were packed into cardboard boxes and there they've remained ever since. Now that the house renovation is more or less finished, I've started to unpack the boxes, many of which contain books. Having built some bookcases recently with the help of a visiting friend, there is now somewhere to put them. I was a bit anxious that the books would have been damaged by damp and cold, but they are all fine. I originally packed them well in shredded paper and bubble wrap and apart from a little mustiness, they are all in good condition. It has been quite exciting to rip open boxes to find favourite old books, like long lost friends.

The island is much quieter now that the tourists have gone and we're all battening down the hatches for the Winter. The sheep have been taken off the croft for a few weeks, to be put to the ram and the weather is deteriorating rapidly. As I write this, It's snowing heavily, unusual for here and I haven't seen a car for a couple of hours. The hills of Uig and Harris, seen through the kitchen window, look lovely, with a covering of snow on the tops.
I've started to feed the birds regularly again and a pair of chaffinches are competing with the rock doves at the bird table just now. Bird sightings of the month for me have been a Sea Eagle perched on a fence post at the side of the road in North Uist two weeks ago and about 20 waxwings feeding off berries on the Rowan tree outside of my window at work a couple of days ago.

The recession has started to affect the island with potentially serious consequences. The salmon processing factory in Stornoway is closing down with the loss of 130 jobs. With magnificent timing, the owners, a multi national company, have decided that the gates will close after Christmas. In addition to those redundancies, there are also likely to be jobs lost at the local hauliers who transport the fish and at a company who produce the boxes that the salmon is packed in. To make matters worse, Woolworths, a long established store in Stornoway, are in financial trouble and will probably close down in January with the loss of further jobs. On a small island like this, those jobs can't be replaced quickly or easily.

Figures provided by the Halifax this week show that the Outer Hebrides has the second lowest house prices in the UK. It's also regarded as one of the most agreeable and beautiful places in Britain to live, with good schools, clean air and a generally low crime rate. Before there is a general stampede for the ferry, fuel, groceries and household items are expensive and there is a serious shortage of public housing. Unemployment is rising and the weather can be quite bracing.
The cheapest place to buy a house, according to the Halifax, is said to be Pendle in Lancashire. I rather like Pendle, so perhaps it's there next.

I'm off to Inverness next weekend for a pre Christmas shopping trip. There are still a number of items I need to complete the renovation, which I can't get here, so a visit to B&Q and Homebase is called for. Apart from work, I haven't been away from the island for many months, so I'm really looking forward to the break. The last time I tried to get away, the plane failed to fly due to poor weather and it was a bit of a blow being stranded here when I had arranged to see family and friends. I'm planning to go on the ferry this time, so that I can bring stuff back with me in the car. At this time of the year though, when the weather is fiercely unpredictable, the sailings are cancelled regularly and the ship often remains cosy and secure in Stornoway harbour.
Now that the house is comfortable and warm, I've decided to remain on the Island this Christmas for the first time since I moved to live here. My sister and brother in law, who live in the South of England, are flying here on 23 December, so we all have our fingers crossed that the weather will be mild and the planes will fly.

Sunday, November 09, 2008


Some parts of the Islands continue to farm traditionally, especially in the Southern Isles. These corn stooks, an alternative to combining, sit in fields near Balivanich. I think they will be used for Winter cattle feed and they also have the advantage of providing shelter and homes for little furry things.
The weather has been dire for much of this last week, but I've enjoyed being on holiday and myself and visiting friend have achieved quite a lot in beween watching reruns of Morse and Miss Marple on daytime television. Bookcases have been built, blinds fitted and the utility room floor painted. I guess we could have been more productive, but step by step, the house is coming together and feeling less like a campsite. The recent drop in temperature has provided a good opportunity to test the oil central heating and solid fuel stove for long periods and both seem to be working well.
With a secure, office based job, it's easy to forget that life is much harder for some people here. Earlier this week, a shellfish trawler sank off the East coast of Lewis, but fortunately, the crew of three managed to get into a liferaft before the boat went down. A rescue operation by the Coastguard and Lifeboat got under way, but the fishermen were picked up by another fishing boat, which happened to be in the area and arrived at the scene before the rescue services. This could easily have been a disaster and incidents like this occur not infrequently, but tend not to be reported widely outside of the North of Scotland.

Saturday, November 01, 2008


I'm feeling very chilled out just now. Finished work a couple of hours ago and have some holiday left, so not going back until a week on Monday. A friend is arriving tomorrow afternoon and is staying for two weeks. Although I do enjoy the solitude of this place, I'm always pleased to have company and someone to chat with for a while.

The house is warm and secure now, but has been sorely tested this week by horrendous weather. Winter has definitely arrived. A severe storm last Saturday lasted a full day and night. At one point, early on Sunday morning, the wind was hammering the house constantly and I thought the roof was going to come off. It helped to remember that the house has stood for nearly eighty years without succumbing to the elements. Long may it continue to do so. Mid week, we had a rare flurry of snow, which made driving very difficult for a few hours until the gritters got their act together. Ferries and flights have been disrupted throughout the week, but thankfully, the weather is calm and settled again now.
Only finishing off work remaining to do on the house. The one big job left is painting all of the downstairs skirtings and then it's just fitting blinds, bookcases, door knobs, coat rails and the like.
It's been almost exactly a year since the house was a semi derelict shell and the work started. Although I'm very pleased to have been able to breathe new life into an old property, it's been quite a painful experience dealing with builders and other tradesmen here and I have little doubt they have taken advantage of my naivete and inexperience, to my cost. The pain is rapidly receding now and a little voice at the back of my head is suggesting to me that I should renovate another house and do it all better, having learnt from this experience. I don't think so. Not yet anyway.

Grey lag geese have been officially appointed as villains of the month, hated by everybody it seems. They are particularly partial to Outer Hebridean grass and now have the combined might of the local council and crofter's organisations lined up against them. The problem is that life has been so agreeable for the geese in recent years that their numbers have increased quickly and there are now about six thousand of them eating and causing damage to crops and grazings here. Apparently, they leave so much of their droppings behind them that sheep and cattle are refusing to feed in fields where the geese have been. Well I never.
One councillor has said this week that there are so many geese grazing around the runway at Stornoway Airport that planes are in danger when taking off and landing. As I use the airport every three weeks or so, I have a vested interest in ensuring that the geese are removed as I'm about to fly. Maybe trained hunting eagles could be used to get them, which could also be developed as a tourist attraction, thus achieving two objectives at once -- " Roll up, roll up. geese killing by the Eagle Squadron will start in ten minutes time. Get your tickets here. Credit cards accepted".

In common with many parts of the mainland, there is a serious housing crisis here, with many people being unable to afford to buy a house and consequently, a huge demand for Social housing. There are currently about 750 people on the housing waiting list, with many of those having no chance of being allocated a home within a reasonable time. What houses that do become vacant are usually given to families and individuals considered to be high priority homeless. There is a perception here, that may or may not be true, that incomers are appearing on the doorstep of Hebridean Housing as soon as they arrive and are leap frogging the waiting list by presenting as homeless with dependent children.
The housing situation is now so serious that a Government Minister from Edinburgh is coming to Stornoway in the next few weeks to help find a solution, or at least a way forward.

A couple of nights ago, the Coastguard on Skye were called by the police to say that several red and white flashing lights had been seen a few hundred yards off shore by an off duty policeman. The lights were thought to be from a boat that could have been in trouble, so the Coastguard went to have a look and called out the Lifeboat at the same time. The lights could still be seen from the beach, but the Lifeboat was unable to find a boat or get any response on the radio. Eventually, after an hour long search with no success, the lights were seen again, apparently on the shore. When the Coastguard investigated, they found an eight inch long model boat with a red masthead light, a flashing white bow light and another red light on the stern. On the sail attached to the model boat was written the message " HAPPY 42ND BIRTHDAY OLLIE XXX". With admirable diplomacy and self restraint, the Coastguard manager said "The Coastguard and Lifeboat crew would like to wish Ollie a Happy Birthday and hope it was an enjoyable one." He added, "if anyone else is thinking about using a similar method of celebrating, we would be grateful if you would let us know in advance what you are planning, to save us having to call out the Lifeboat and Coastguard".