Tuesday, February 17, 2009



Last summer, I managed to get a lift on a boat to the Island of Scarp, a short distance offshore from the village of Hushinish in North Harris. Like many other Scottish islands, Scarp has a sad history of having had a reducing population for many years, leading to eventual abandonment. In 1881, there were 213 people living on the island, but by the 1940's, there were only 100 folk left. The Hydro Electric Board persistently refused to provide an electricity supply to Scarp and in 1966, the Church of Scotland decided not to replace the lay preacher. The school closed in 1967, followed by the post office two years later, which led to a complete cessation of mail deliveries to the island. The telephone cable was damaged in a storm and the General Post Office refused to repair it. Life became so intolerable for the few remaining islanders that they finally abandoned their homes in 1971 and left to live elsewhere. One book I have says that there were twelve people living on Scarp at the very end, whilst another says that only seven remained. There are two or three houses still used as holiday homes during the summer, but as far as I know, no one lives on Scarp all the year round now. The church in the photo was left with its pulpit and pews in place and there they remain to this day, slowly rotting away.
A very interesting and quite famous experiment took place on Scarp in 1934. A German Inventor, Dr Gerhard Zucker, decided to try his hand at launching rockets, containing the island mail, from Harris to Scarp. Regrettably, the venture failed when the rockets kept exploding in flight and the containers with the letters in them were scattered all over the land. I read somewhere that some of the stamped letters that survived occasionally turn up at auction. This whole episode was the subject of a decent film called 'The Rocket Post', made a few years ago, but which failed to get a general release. I saw it at the film club in Stornoway and it's well worth watching if you can find a DVD copy on the internet. By complete coincidence, I met a woman this afternoon who was an extra in the film.

Two much valued community facilities, probably unique to the Outer Hebrides, are in danger of being closed down for ever. In a number of villages on the islands, there are small residential care units, where elderly and infirm people who don't want to go into a home or leave their communities, can live independently, but with care staff on 24 hour cover available for when they need them. These care units also take people for short term respite stays, which helps users and their families when they need support, but enables them to remain in their own homes the rest of the time.

The second facility probably about to vanish are first and second year secondary education units attached to primary schools. Several of these schools provide education for children up to the age of about 14, so that they can be taught in their own communities before transferring to one of the bigger secondary schools, usually many miles away, in the third year. Most people agree that this benefits the children by helping them to develop confidence and cope better with the larger schools when they do transfer.
A permanent obsession with cost cutting and increased centralisation has led the local council to propose closing the care units and S1 and S2 secondary schools. It looks as if the care units will go soon, although the council is thinking of renting them back to residents as tenancies and offering home help support.

The Scottish Education Minister has refused to allow the closure of the schools for now, but it's almost certainly only a matter of time before they go.

The care units and schools are important to this community and help remote islands such as this to continue to survive. The money ought to follow facilities identified by residents as socially necessary. Instead, as in many other parts of the UK, the politicians here are constantly nibbling away at community resources to save money. This may well ultimately contribute to the demise of island communities like Lewis, which provide a wonderful quality of life and a generally safe and secure place to raise children without many of the problems found in heavily populated urban centres.

All well at the Chateau this week. Number one son and grandaughter arriving Thursday. I'm taking a few days off work to spend time with them.

Sunday, February 08, 2009


There are lots of lovely beaches to choose from on Lewis and Harris. This is one of my favourites. Even in mid Winter, it's a glorious place to visit, especially during fierce storms, when the waves boil and come crashing in from the sea. It's small, reasonably sheltered and has fine golden sand which is great for children to play on. It's only a few miles from here and I plan to take my grandaughter there to build sandcastles when she arrives in a couple of weeks, if the weather is good.

Oh the weather. I've spent the last week or two fantasising about being marooned by fifteen foot of snow, unable to get out and go to work. House cosy, stove chugging away and food in the fridge. Curled up on the sofa with one of the many unread books here and occasional flicking of the remote control to move between repeats of Sherlock Holmes, Midsomer Murders and Pie in the Sky on daytime TV. Friends have sent photos of cars and gardens in the South which have been completely engulfed by snow. So where is it then? Well,It's not here. I feel completely cheated because all we've had are a few flurries during the last few days, none of which has settled. It's quite cold and icy, but no worse than usual at this time of year and I'm really cheesed off about it.

Did the house survive the housewarming ? It certainly did. Sadly, no one behaved badly, so relatively little to report back. Lots of food, music, wine and games. Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves and the last few guests didn't leave until 4am on Sunday morning. Have lived alone so long that I've almost forgotten how nice it is to have a house full of people making merry. Think I might repeat the event in the Spring.

Last blog, I mentioned the dispute going on between the Harris golf club and Sports Scotland, who are withholding a £75,000 grant because the club was refusing to open on Sundays. Since then, the club committee have met again and confirmed that they will not agree to make the course available to the public on the Sabbath under any circumstances and it now looks as if they may lose the grant. I do love to hear of a principled stance.

This morning, about 9 o'clock, I was sat eating my breakfast and musing about the future of the world, the true meaning of life and how stupid I am to have forgotten to buy a new bag of coffee yesterday. Looking out of the window in between these great thoughts, a buzzard arrived and perched on a fence post about a hundred yards away. This bird often hunts on the croft, moving from post to post and ruined house gable end to rocky outcrop, in a regular circuit. It usually spends up to half an hour on one perch, but today, this buzzard has remained on the same post for about five hours without moving. I've been watching it all morning, so am quite sure that it hasn't flown away and returned. The weather today is dry, windless and about 4 degrees. Any ideas why it stayed in the same place for so long?