Thursday, January 29, 2009


There are about twenty sheep on the croft just now and the only thing in life that seems to interest them is food. Their owner calls up to feed them every day with supplements, which they love. They consider all humans as great providers and whenever they see me, charge forward at a rate of knots. I can't leave the house without being followed and they can spot me from five hundred yards. Makes me feel like the Pied Piper. The sheep shown above are staring at me through the kitchen window in the forlorn hope that I will go out and ply them with whatever it is that sheep eat. It can feel quite spooky to walk into the kitchen to see this lot standing there waiting for me to appear.
There's something of the appearance of the Midwich Cuckoos about this flock.

Lots happening on the islands this last week, some good, some not so good.

The young man who went missing in South Uist on Boxing Day has still not been found and the real mystery is that there have been no sightings whatsoever of him, nor any clues to what his fate might be. The anguish his family must be suffering is unimaginable and it must be harder to maintain hope as each week passes.

Some time last year, I mentioned that there was a plan to build a wave farm at Siader, Barvas, here on Lewis. That plan has now been approved and construction will commence shortly.This will be the very first commercial wave farm in Scotland and is wonderful news. It will create about 70 badly needed new jobs and will produce 4MW of electricity supplying the needs of about 1800 homes. Lewis residents are keen to support renewable energy schemes that don't wreak havoc on the environment, unlike the recently rejected outrageous proposal to erect 181 giant turbines on pristine moorland in the North and West of the Island.

Down in Harris, at Scarista, there is a golf course sited in the most spectacular position overlooking the ocean. Golf club members have applied for a grant of £75,000 from SportScotand to upgrade the clubhouse and improve the drainage. The awarding of that grant is now at risk because the club refuses to open on Sundays. SportScotland, who have agreed the grant in principle, say they will not hand the money over until the club agrees to permit golfers to play on the course seven days a week. A spokesman for the club has said that religious beliefs prevent them agreeing to open the course on the Sabbath and they seem to be prepared to lose the grant funding as a consequence. SportScotland say they are unable to provide finance for clubs or groups who do not make their facilities available to the public every day. They say that they have responsibilities under 2006 Equality Legislation to ensure that all schemes they help to fund are accessible to all, "regardless of gender, race, disability, age, religion or belief, sexual orientation, marital/civil partnership status or social background." So there we are.
Just now, there is stalemate over this issue, but a compromise is currently being searched for.

A skellybob has been found over in Uig on the West side of Lewis. A human skeleton, thought to be 4000 years old, was discovered after soil erosion caused by one of the recent severe storms exposed a small stone coffin, known as a kist. The remains were found inside. The archaeologists have gone into raptures at this find and one of them said "when we find a burial in a small kist, we automatically think of the Bronze Age." Indeed we do.

Do you know, it is 62% more expensive to heat a house in Stornoway than in Bristol? I only know this gem because our local MSP received this information in response to enquiries he made in Parliament. It's apparently because of the wind chill factor we experience here, denied to the good citizens of Bristol. Why Bristol? I have no idea.

Every month, I get the plane to Benbecula to spend three days working in the Southern Isles. Twice during the three years I've been making this journey, the plane has turned back in mid air after developing technical problems. Those experiences make flights interesting and unpredictable and colleagues have started laying bets on the liklihood of my returning safely each time I travel. On one of those occasions, when buzzers buzzed loudly in the cockpit and red lights started flashing in the cabin, the passenger in front of me collapsed with an anxiety attack. There are no cabin staff on this flight and reassurances from me had little effect. The poor soul left the aircraft back at Stornoway a bumbling wreck and has not been seen since.
Well, last week, in my absence, the same plane was landing at Benbecula when the tail smacked the runway tarmac causing some damage, but no injuries to the ten passengers - apart from traumatising them for life. The airline has refused to comment on suggestions that the incident was caused by poor cargo and baggage loading. The plane is being repaired this week by the nice man in charge of sellotape, glue and sealing wax. Life was never so exciting in the South.
In case you want to look out for my welfare, I'll be travelling to Benbecula again on this plane on 10 February.

It's the long delayed housewarming party here on Saturday evening. Have invited mainly colleagues from work to come and have a nosy round, so looking forward to that. Most of the people I work with are sober, sensible and mature, but I'm hoping someone will disgrace themselves and provide much needed Winter entertainment.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


This is my favourite lighthouse. It's sited at the Northernmost point of Lewis, about 30 miles from here. The light, made of red brick, became operational in 1862 and was built by David Stevenson. It's 121 feet tall and has been fully automatic since 1998. It has a range of 25 miles. The lighthouse functions as the monitoring station for automatic lights on the Flannan Isles, North Rona and Sula Sgier and is itself now remotely controlled from the Northern Lighthouse Board headquarters in Edinburgh. There are great views out to sea from all round the light and it's probably the best place on the island to look for whales, sharks and dolphins. The cliffs all around the Butt are home to a variety of seabirds, making it a birdwatchers delight. A few years ago, I was sat on the cliff top there when I watched a Peregrine falcon strike a rock dove out of the sky, before taking it away to eat.
I love sitting quietly near the lighthouse on rare warm and still sunny days, watching the Gannets plunge diving for fish, just offshore.
The Butt of Lewis, according to the Guinness Book of Records, is the windiest place in Great Britain.

Which brings me nicely to current weather. It's cold and moderately windy right now, but the Met Office have forecast overnight winds of between 50-60 miles an hour from about midnight tonight. I've just looked up the Beaufort Scale, which describes winds of these speeds as:
'Storm force 10-11, seldom experienced inland. Trees will be uprooted, there will be loss of roof slates and chimney pots and considerable structural damage is likely'.

I've been working away in the Southern Isles this week and was stranded again on Barra for two days on Wednesday and Thursday, when the ferry was confined to harbour as a consequence of poor conditions at sea. Finally got home yesterday evening and very pleased I am to be here. It only takes about an hour to get the central heating to warm up the house and the stove roaring away. Now that the renovation is complete, the house is easy to heat, largely draught free and welcoming.

Although jobs continue to be lost here, some new posts are being created. Scottish Natural Heritage are advertising for 15 temporary field workers for the Uist Wader Project. As in previous years, the successful applicants will trap and collect hedgehogs, which have been eating their way through the eggs of ground nesting birds and causing a reduction in the bird population. Originally, the captured hedgehogs were killed, but attitudes have changed and the spiky beasties are now sent to the mainland for rehoming. The field worker posts pay £7:50 per hour for a 37 hour week, between now and mid May.
The British Trust for Conservation Volunteers are also advertising an interesting sounding job, for an apprentice to work on the management of Machair- the fertile, species rich coastal strips of land here. The person appointed will work as part of the RSPB team and learn about habitat management for Corncrakes, Corn Buntings and the endangered Great Yellow Bumble Bee. Sounds like a wonderful opportunity and I quite fancy it myself, age and lack of relevant qualifications notwithstanding.

Have gathered up a sleeping bag, torch, mint imperials and a glass of red wine. Almost time to go to the Anderson shelter to wait for Armageddon. Hope to blog again if I'm spared.

Monday, January 12, 2009


I photographed this lovely sunrise on my way to work a few days ago. The weather was warm, dry and settled, very different from today. As I write this at the kitchen table, the rain is hitting the double glazed windows horizontally and causing them to vibrate loudly. The wind is howling round the eaves and lifting the tiles on the roof. There was some damage to the roof caused by the last storm a couple of weeks ago and I'm waiting for the roofer to come and do the repairs. He called in earlier this week and discovered that about twenty tiles need replacing and arranged to come back yesterday to fit them. This storm has been blowing more or less constantly for about 36 hours now and was so bad yesterday morning that it would have been madness for the roofer to climb up his ladders. Hopefully, the weather will settle and he'll come back this week to finish the job.

In early November, I ordered a dining table and chairs from a company in England and was given a three week delivery date. It will be no surprise to regular readers to hear that that promise turned out to be nonsense and the dining set failed to arrive. Consequently, I was left with the prospect of eating Christmas lunch off the kitchen floor. A flurry of increasingly tetchy emails to the manufacturer resulted in them discovering that they had sent my goods to the courier on the day they said they would, but the courier had let the furniture sit in their warehouse for eleven days and failed to deliver them to me. No one was able to explain why, but at that point, on the 22 December, the manufacturer got their act together and told me they would try and deliver it by Christmas. I had no confidence that the table and chairs would arrive, but lo and behold, the door bell rang late on Christmas Eve morning and there was a nice man from the local delivery service with my stuff. Christmas was saved and the sequel to this story is that the maker has contacted me since to say that they were so fed up with their courier that they've sacked them and employed a different company. Result!

During the last year, I've bored readers of this blog to death with stories of unreliable and unavailable Lewis tradesmen and their generally arrogant attitude towards paying customers. Well, ironically, the tide has turned, the credit crunch is biting hard and many of these same tradesmen are now touting for work in the local newspaper. I'd like to tell you that I wish them well, but I just can't bring myself to utter the words. I suspect that if I was doing my renovation now, it would be done more quickly, less expensively and to a higher standard. Never mind.

In the early hours of Boxing day, a 21 year old man from South Uist disappeared on the way home from a dance. There has been no sighting of him, but he is not thought to have left the islands by boat or plane. Police and volunteers have been looking for him every day since he went missing, but his disappearance remains a complete mystery. Much of the land mass and many of the lochs on Uist have been searched by search parties and divers, without any clues being found. No evidence of accident or foul play has been uncovered, but the hunt for the missing man is beginning to wind down and concern for his safety is increasing.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009


Happy New Year to you all.

The pretty derelict cottage shown above is situated a few yards from the entrance to The RSPB Balranald nature reserve on North Uist. There are hundreds of similar cottages all over the islands, slowly decaying into the ground. Anywhere else, they would be sold at a high price or renovated, providing housing for families and holidaymakers and improving the landscape. I've never been sure why so many houses are left to rot and fall down here, but there are a number of possible reasons. Many properties have been in the same family for generations and the attachment is so deep that the current owners can't bring themselves to sell on to strangers. Often, the house will be owned by people who live abroad and have plans to retire to the family home and croft, but for many reasons, never do so. Houses can be owned collectively by several family members and squabbles and disagreements about future use will prevent sale or renovation. Perhaps most often, people who inherit these unmodernised houses are simply unable to afford to restore them, particularly now that it is almost impossible to obtain renovation grants unless the property is on a croft.
For now, the cottage in the picture serves to provide a daily roost for starlings, lined up on the roofline and chimney stacks.

So, what's to become of us all this year? Relatives have gone home after a lovely Christmas and with a bit of a struggle, I returned to work yesterday with a fixed smile on my face and goodwill in my heart. After a couple of hours, it felt like the holiday had never happened. Familiar?
Now that the house is more or less finished and habitable, I plan to spend more time outside in the coming months.The shed is badly in need of paint and repairs and I want to create vegetable patches in various places on the croft where I can find arable land. Much of the croft is rock, bog and deep peat and crops don't grow easily. The front garden(?) remains waterlogged and the plan for it is to improve the drainage, dry it out a bit and establish some flower beds, difficult with the ferocious winds we have here. Putting up a polytunnel is part of the master plan, but I haven't yet decided where it can be sited or how it can be protected to prevent it being blown away to the mainland.
I'm expecting a variety of visitors throughout the year, all of whom will offer welcome suggestions, advice or muscle. Heating costs are a major expenditure in Winter, so I intend to cut peat this year and persuade unsuspecting souls to come and have a bit of a break here in April or May, in return for help wielding a peat iron.

Nothing too dramatic happening on the island so early in the year. The weather has been calm and fairly mild for the last week or two and most folks are just scurrying about, quietly getting on with their lives and looking forward to the end of regular storms and longer hours of daylight.
The employment situation continues to be dire, with lots of redundancies recently, but there is a glimmer of hope because the Harris Tweed industry seems to be picking up and the local fabrication yard, which has been making turbine towers, is said to have secured new contracts.
Woolworths and the fish processing factory have gone, but the local small craft brewery remains open and the good quality restaurants have done well over the holidays.