Wednesday, March 25, 2009


Originally built in 1703, the Carinish Inn was a hostelry from then until late last year. The owners, a local building firm, put it on the market and after a few false starts, it was sold to the Free Church of Scotland. With one gigantic bound, the pub metamorphosed into a church on November 18. Services are now being held there regularly and one end of the building is about to be converted into a Manse, to house the new Minister. Two small long established churches on Uist have been sold to help fund this project. One of the brains behind this pub to church transformation has been a Minister on Benbecula, who I have regular contact with through my own work. Over the years, my views on the Church and religion in general have been fairly lukewarm, but this particular Minister, a good man by any measure, has helped to restore my faith. He is particularly interested in addictions and his church has set up a variety of non judgemental support services and self help groups for people with drug and alcohol problems, of whom there are many on these islands. They have a full time paid alcohol worker and whenever I have needed to get someone into rehab urgently, he has obtained funding and a place at their residential addiction rehabilitation centre in Northern Ireland quickly and without fuss. An application for a state managed rehab would involve vast amounts of form filling, problems over funding and a wait of many months and sometimes longer.

The issue of the Sabbath and Sunday ferry sailings to and from Lewis continues to generate great passion on both sides of the argument. Last week, the Islands Member for the Scottish Parliament raised the subject with the Government. The response was - "We recognise that there are very different and irreconcilable views about the potential introduction of Sunday sailings on the Ullapool to Stornoway ferry service." The Government spokesperson went on to say that "Calmac ( the ferry operator) is best placed to consider this issue". Calmac have indicated that they will take no action on Sunday sailings until the new reduced ferry fare structure is reviewed in three years time. So that's it then. No prospect of change for at least three years. Pro Sunday ferry campaigners are dismayed at this news whilst the Lord's Day Observance Society are dead chuffed.

During the last few years, electronic tagging has become commonplace for some released prisoners and as a sentence at court. Well, the idea has caught on and the EU currently have an intention to introduce compulsory electronic tagging and individual recording for every single sheep in the land. There are hundreds of thousands of sheep wandering around Lewis and Harris and the notion that they all be tagged to keep track of them sounds like bureaucratic lunacy. At present, a company called SERCO has the contract to monitor tagged offenders here and I suppose they could moonlight by keeping an electronic eye on sheep who are not complying with their curfews on Saturday nights. You may think that I'm spinning you a yarn and making this up, but not so. It's a genuine proposal from the politicians. Understandably, the National Farmers Union and Crofters Union are not best pleased and are making urgent representations to Brussels to stop this nonsense before it starts.

I've just started to feel that I'm emerging from hibernation after a long harsh Winter. The days are lengthening, it's warmer and it's raining less. My daffodils have still not burst into flower yet, but after months of dark evenings of self imposed confinement in front of a warm radiator with an improving book, I'm beginning to get out a bit more. Last night, I went into Stornoway to see an Island Book Trust slide show and presentation on the the history of migration between Lewis and Patagonia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Rivetting.
Tomorrow night, it's a trip to the cinema to see Frost/Nixon and Friday evening, it's a concert by a brilliant group of female Gaelic singers called Lewis Women.
Hell, It's becoming one endless educational and social whirl. If I can find time in between engagements, I'll blog again.

Monday, March 16, 2009


Have been spared for another week, but only just. Returning from Benbecula on Thursday afternoon, the pilot was about to land the plane on the runway at Stornoway when we were caught by a fierce gust of wind. The plane hit the ground with a bang, tipped onto one side and narrowly avoided flipping over on one wing. The Captain, my hero, regained control and immediately took off again. We circled for about ten minutes before the pilot approached the runway from a different direction and landed us safely. We get used to flying in difficult conditions here, but this experience left me silent and sucking my lips for an hour or two.
The plane is not tiny. It's a BAe Jetstream nineteen seat twin prop aircraft and there were fifteen passengers and crew on it at the time of this little adventure.
I'm beginning to think seriously about taking my car and driving to the Southern Isles via the ferries in future. As well as laying bets about the chances of my returning safely from the plane, colleagues are also checking to see if I'm travelling before booking flights themselves. They seem worried that I'm cursed and unlucky.

Uist and Barra are carpeted with cheerful daffodils now, but mine have still not burst into flower yet. Barra is about a hundred miles South of here, so maybe my daffodils will emerge in the next week or two. The round blobs in the frog spawn are beginning to take on the shape of tadpoles and the lambing season is about to start.
The poor weather continues though and while it's reasonably warm and high winds have subsided, apart from at the airport, I can't remember the last day it didn't rain heavily on the croft.

Since my first and last trip to St Kilda over twenty years ago, with son and a friend, I've wanted to return and explore the main island, Hirta, and see all the places I've often read about, but never visited. Until recently, the journey there was difficult and expensive, but there are now regular reasonably priced charter trips in the summer tourist season. Well, I've got myself booked on a boat to St Kilda with an organised group in mid July and I'm quite looking forward to that. The organisation is called the Island Book Trust, which manages written historical archives about the Outer Hebrides and arranges regular talks about places and people of local interest. Of most interest to me though, throughout the Summer, they hire boats and take members to normally inaccessible small islands, like St Kilda, The Shiants, The Monarch Isles and the Flannans. I love visiting remote islands, especially if they have a past history of permanent occupation and hope to go on some of the other trips in future years.

Very sadly, Hebrides News has just reported that a body, believed to be that of a young man who went missing on Boxing day, was found in a Loch in South Uist this morning. He disappeared after a dance and there have been daily searches for him since then.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


The flu worsened last week and I ended up spending three days off work. Although I do enjoy curling up on the sofa in front of a warm fire with a cup of cocoa and watching rubbish on TV, I much prefer to do it when I'm feeling well. This dose of flu has hit me hard and made me feel quite old. Can't cope with even minor illnesses now as well as I did just five or six years ago. I'm left with a permanent headache and catarrh, but went back to work a few days ago because it was more interesting there than here.

Signs of Spring abound. The weather here has been vile for the last month or so and I'm getting mighty fed up of it. This is not the place to come for tropical sunshine and banana trees growing in the street, but the weather has been seriously crap this Winter and It's time for an improvement. The daffodil stalks are up in the garden, though no flowers yet, and the rock doves are cavorting with each other in the most outrageous and wanton manner, usually in full view on top of my bird table. Having led a reclusive, modest and sheltered life so far, I've been quite thrown by their shameless antics.

For the last two or three years, the frogs have spawned in deep ruts in the access road to the house. Now that the road has been levelled and improved beyond recognition and a proper drainage dyke opened at the side of it, the frogs have adapted well. Sauntering down there this morning, I came across almost continual masses of spawn for about 100 yards along the dyke, so it looks like being a good year for amphibians. Whilst the Winter has been rubbish with almost daily rain, it's not been too cold and I've been surprised to note that the frogspawn is about two weeks later this year than last, which was much colder.

Pleasingly, I've been adopted for the last week or so by a trio of beautiful greenfinches, who are feeding from the bird table for all they are worth and look very healthy and colourful. A couple of hooded crows have also started to feed from the birdtable every day and they scare off all the other birds while they're here. They are quite handsome creatures though and I'm grateful that a variety of birds are now visiting the garden on a regular basis.

Over in Sin City, Stornoway, the Co-Op have announced that they are going to open a franchise of Peacocks the clothing shop, within the store, but more importantly, they're also going to open a Fairtrade coffee bar. That's a very good thing and I'll be pleased to give them my business. Tesco are also expanding and I think that's got the Co-op a bit rattled.

Off to work in Uist and Barra for a few days from tomorrow, so see you soon.

Monday, March 02, 2009


Tripping the light fantastic down the West side beaches of Barra a week or two ago, I came across this Royal Navy chopper parked on the grazings. It had arrived the day before to take a seriously ill person to hospital in Glasgow, but developed mechanical problems and had to return to Barra. A second helicopter was summoned to take the patient to hospital, where he made a full recovery. At the time I took this photo, the crew were getting bored waiting for an engineer and spare parts to arrive from the mainland.

Life is a little empty and quiet now that son and grandaughter have returned home. I had completely forgotten what a high energy job looking after young children is. GD is a happy smiling two year old bundle of joy who was making her first visit here. She didn't like the wind very much, but chugged around like an express train and seemed to enjoy herself. There is a fantastic award winning playground for children at Ness and an indoor soft play area at the Sports Centre in Stornoway, both of which we visited and which she loved. When the weather was poor, much time was spent grovelling around on the sitting room floor with a variety of toys. I can proudly tell you that I have now fully re-aquainted myself with the goings on of Noddy and Big Ears and the rest of the population of Toytown.

Whilst driving to the beautiful beach at Bosta on Great Bernera last weekend, we were lucky enough to see a pair of white tailed sea eagles at close quarters, hunting across the ridges to the side of us. This was a first sighting of these birds for son and was a great thrill for both of us. The eagles continued to soar nearby for quite a while, giving us wonderful clear views of them. They are gigantic, with a wing span of about two and a half metres and are often referred to as looking like flying barn doors.

Bad news for Kittiwakes, but possible good news for Harris. The population of Kittiwakes and Puffins, here and in Shetland, have decreased dramatically in recent years. Both of these birds feed largely on sandeels, which seem to be disappearing, probably because of warming seas. When the birds can't find sandeels, they try to eat snake pipefish, which have little nutritional value and which they can't digest. Unless a solution is found soon, the pretty Kittiwakes and colourful Puffins may become rare sights.

Down in Harris, the residents have voted this week to make the entire island a National Park. With a turnout of 71%, 732 people voted in favour of the proposal, with 311 against. The pro Park steering group will now approach the Scottish Government to begin consultations, which they hope will lead to the creation of Scotland's third National Park. The hope is that Park status will preserve the landscape, help develop the local economy and breathe new life into the Gaelic language and heritage.
This might just be the right time to raid your piggy bank and buy that cottage in Harris you've always wanted, before prices rocket.

In the last blog, I was exercised about the proposed closures of first and second year secondary schools and care units in the community for elderly people. The penny pinching continues. The council have now agreed to increase home help charges by 30%. They are also raising the charge that pensioners in care homes pay for their cups of tea by 300%, from 20p to 60p. Residents of care homes are also going to have to pay double the current rate for their meals.
All is not lost though for the rest of us because Western Isles council have announced that they have frozen the council tax for the third year running. Why? I don't suppose they have one eye on re-election.

Have to go now 'cos I've got a serious and possibly terminal dose of man flu that's getting worse and I need to put my jim jams on, get some cocoa and go to bed.

See you next time, probably.