Monday, April 27, 2009


I'm a bit of a stone hugger on the quiet and every now and then I like to go and sit in one of the numerous circles here and commune with who knows what, to clear my head a bit. For reasons that you will understand, I don't do this very often and when I do, it's usually early in the morning or late in the evening, when there are no other souls about to look at me sideways. Callanish 111, shown above, is a wonderful small circle, situated on a little hill and surrounded by big hills. The views are sensational on a clear day and I often wonder what the prehistoric folk who raised it there were intending to achieve in placing the stones in that position. These stones are about half a mile or so from the main Callanish site and by no means inferior. No one really knows why standing stones were erected and there are many theories. One local legend says that giants living here on the island refused to be converted to Christianity by Saint Kieran and were then turned into stone as a punishment. I think that is probably as good an explanation as any.

Technology Rules ok. The Royal Mail have announced that the first post vans in Europe to be fuelled by Hydrogen will be based at the sorting office in Stornoway and used to deliver mail all over Lewis. Two Ford Transits are being adapted to burn Hydrogen and will be delivered this Summer. We have a recently built multi million pound high tech waste disposal site here which has a bio digester to process rubbish without it having to be buried or taken off the island by boat. Organic waste collected from wheelie bins is decomposed in the digester to produce Methane. The Methane then powers a gas engine, to create electricity which is used to electrolyse water to produce hydrogen, which will fuel the vans. As always with tecky subjects, I haven't a clue what I'm talking about and have gathered this fascinating story from a newspaper.

Now for geese and cockles. During the time I've been writing this blog, I've regularly mentioned the war of attrition that exists between crofters and the rapidly increasing Greylag Goose population here. The geese are considered a major nuisance because of the amount of good grazing grass they eat and the damage and mess caused by their droppings. In some quarters, they are considered to be public enemy number one, well in front of the poor hedgehogs and the vicious mink, both of which are being progressively eradicated throughout these islands by trapping.
A variety of methods, including scaring and shooting, have been tried to reduce the geese numbers, but still they breed and multiply. With obsessive desperation, Scottish Natural Heritage are about to start an ingenious sounding pilot scheme to control the breeding productivity of the geese by oiling their eggs. The plan is for SNH staff to locate goose nests and then coat all eggs found with liquid paraffin. This will seal the shell and sterilise the egg. The theory goes that until the egg deteriorates over a period of weeks, the birds are fooled into believing they are sitting on viable eggs. Eventually, they may lay a second clutch of eggs, which are then also oiled. If the experiment works, the oiling project will become widespread all over the isles.
I don't for one moment think this will be the end of the Nation v Greylag Goose battle and I look forward to boring you rigid with further updates in future blogs.

The plane to Barra lands on the beach runway on Traigh Mhor. The sands there are home to huge amounts of cockles which have been collected for hundreds of years by local people for food and more recently by professional collectors to sell. There are a few people who earn a living by harvesting the cockles. A new study has just discovered that the number of cockles present has dropped dramatically in recent years and that current levels of harvesting are not sustainable. Earlier studies, between 1964 and 1993, found a total of about 1000 tonnes of cockles on the beaches. The mass of cockles found in the new study is the lowest ever recorded at about 200 tonnes and no one is quite sure why.
The Western Isles Council and Scottish Natural Heritage, who funded the latest survey, are now going to ponder the implications of these findings and come up with a management plan.

In my blog of 1 November last year, I told the tale of how the lifeboat and coastguard on Skye were called out to investigate some red and white flashing lights which had been seen offshore and were thought to be from a boat in distress. The lights turned out to be attached to a model boat which had been launched and which carried a banner bearing the legend 'Happy 42nd Birthday Ollie'. The rescue services were not pleased to have their limited resources used in this manner.
Well, a similar event has happened again, this time in Orkney. An air and sea search involving 50 people was called off yesterday morning after what were believed to be distress flares turned out to be paper Chinese lanterns launched from Kirkwall. Members of the public had contacted the coastguard to say they had seen multiple red lights in the sky. Two lifeboats and a helicopter from Orkney searched the area for seven hours, assisted by a Northlink ferry. Kirkwall airport had to be opened so that the helicopter could refuel twice during the overnight search. The police also lent a hand, but nothing was found. Later, the coastguard discovered that a group of people in Kirkwall had launched some glowing red paper lanterns into the sky. The lanterns apparently have candles inside and work like miniature hot air balloons.
A spokesman for the coastguard is reported to have said, ' I don't yet know how much this major operation cost, but I wish people wouldn't do this sort of thing'.
Not a happy chap.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


When I started visiting Lewis years ago, one of the first sights I came across, which intrigued me, was this 19 foot high whalebone arch stood outside of a house in Bragar, on the Westside. The arch has an interesting history, which I've only discovered more recently. It's from an 80 foot Blue Whale, which was washed up on a nearby beach in 1920. At the time it was discovered, the poor creature still had the harpoon which killed it embedded in its back. The whale lay rotting and falling apart on the beach for many months until the local Postmaster decided to remove the lower jaw bones and take them to his home as a permanent memento.
Some time in the Autumn of 1921, the men and boys of the village manhandled the two halves of the jawbone onto a sledge pulled by two horses and the procession wound its way to the Postmaster's house, where it was eventually proudly erected. The harpoon, which forms the centrepiece of the arch, was taken to a garage, where it was being cleaned and painted, when the harpoon head exploded and drove a huge hole into the garage wall. Mercifully and amazingly, no one was injured.
The arch has remained in the same place ever since and is now on the circuit of tourist attractions which the coach parties come to photograph.
By 2000 though, the arch had deteriorated to the point where restoration was required and consent to repair was given by the Western Isles Council and Historic Scotland. The arch was dismantled and taken to Stornoway, where a local company filled the cracks and other weather damage with Isopon car filler and then encased it in 12mm of fibreglass. From a distance, the arch looks ok, but this was a deeply unsympathetic travesty of a restoration and at close quarters it looks like a cheap plastic replica. It might have been better left to decay at its own pace, like the whale it came from.

Spent the last week with family in the South and had a lovely time, but am always pleased to be back in my own home. One of the things that struck me while I was away was how early the flowers were down there, compared to here. Other than a few daffodils, I've no cultivated or wild flowers in bloom yet, but Sussex is covered in Rhododendrons, Bluebells, Wood Anemones and Primroses just now.
The most absurd sighting during my trip , pointed out by my eagle eyed sister, were mobile telephone masts, disguised as trees, complete with artificial branches and a little aerial sticking out of the top. They look ridiculous but I suppose they're better than having ugly metal masts everywhere.

I have a tendency to be a lazy slob during the week after getting home from work, but tonight has been different for some reason. I've made a clootie dumpling to take to work for colleagues tomorrow and the breadmaker has just produced a freshly baked loaf. Plants have been potted on and I've had a wander round the village looking at lambs and taking in a gloriously warm, light and clear evening. I can feel an attack of smug self satisfaction coming on, which I'm going to try hard to suppress.

Did my second stretch serving coffee and cakes at the gallery on Saturday. There's something very satisfying about dispensing espressos and lemon drizzle cake to the public for a few hours, but not sure if I would want to do it all day, every day, for a living. Still it will keep me off the streets for a few months.

Saturday, April 04, 2009


Until the 1950's, Sheilings ( Gaelic 'An Airigh ') were in regular use throughout the islands. The one in the picture is a a modern version, probably replacing an older stone and turf building on the same site. Between May and August each year, the cattle were taken to the summer grazings on the moors and would be looked after by the women and children of the family, often while the menfolk were away fishing. The women would live with their children in these huts, which would have had home made chairs and tables and beds of heather.
The tradition of living in the sheilings during the summer died out about fifty years ago and many of them have fallen down and been absorbed into the landscape. Now, lonely gable ends with chimneys intact are often the only signs that a sheiling was there. There are a few left standing and still used, particularly on the Pentland Road and at Cuishader, Ness. Some families have maintained or restored their own sheilings as peaceful places to visit and spend time away from the everyday world.

Now the clocks have gone forward, the island is lighter, seems warmer and Spring is almost here. One of my neighbours has just started to cut his peats for next Winter and the rest of us will follow during the next few weeks. The first lambs have been born and are gambolling about happily, blissfully unaware of what the future holds for them. There are grey lag geese all over the croft and nearby grazings and I heard the first drumming snipe of the year circling the house after dark on Wednesday evening. The corncrakes will arrive in the next few weeks, although this village does not really have the right habitat for them. They are much more common a few miles up the road, where they can find plenty of cover in reeds, iris and butterbur.

I seem to have found a new career for myself. A friend has an art gallery and coffee shop some distance from here and has asked me to help out on occasional Saturdays throughout the Summer. After being closed for the Winter, the gallery opened again today with an exhibition of new paintings and I have spent all of this afternoon happily making coffee and serving cake to dozens of visitors. Have started to learn the fine art of making espressos and cappucinos with one of those great gurgling chrome Italian coffee machines and have thoroughly enjoyed myself. My weekends can be quite unstructured, so this new occupation helps me use my spare time usefully.

The funeral of the young South Uist man who went missing on Boxing Day was held today. Many people on Uist searched every day for weeks until his body was found in a loch a couple of weeks ago. There is a sense of sadness throughout the islands at his loss and buses were provided to meet ferries so that people from far and wide could attend the funeral and pay their last respects.