Monday, June 29, 2009


Yellow Iris grow all over the islands and look lovely, but are past their best now. During the last week, the pink Spotted Orchids have appeared around the croft, cultivated Delphiniums are in bloom in the garden and escaped Mimulus, Yellow Monkey Flower, is growing in ditches throughout the village. The heads of white Cotton Grass are waving about everywhere.
The Orchids are late this year. Just a week ago, there were only a few scattered patches and individual flowers, but taking a walk to the bottom of the croft last night to see what's there, we found hundreds of them, which is very pleasing. I've been wondering if the Orchids have good years and bad years and if so, this one is a success.

I keep a close eye on the birds that inhabit the garden and croft and have had recent visits from a pied Wagtail, Turtle Dove and Black Backed Gull, in addition to the more regular visitors. Wheatears seem to be everywhere now though, but I'm not sure if they have been nesting on the croft.

The weather has been wonderful during the last couple of weeks and continues to be glorious. With the help of visiting friend, the peats have been cut and are now drying well . Lots of sunshine and a good wind should ensure that they will be ready for use long before Christmas. The village grazing clerk tells me that our peat banks are in a Site of Special Scientific Interest on the moor and the village gets a small sum of money each year for looking after the banks carefully. Consequently, with the guidance of the grazing clerk, we've cut the peats then put the turves from the top of the bank into the trench where the peat has been removed and it all looks neat and tidy again now.
I've friends coming to stay in August with their two children, who are aged about ten and twelve. I'm hoping to persuade them that it would be very exciting to bag my peats, bring them back to the house and make a nice big stack by the kitchen door for me. We'll see.

There has been a Government missile range on South Uist, with an associated tracking station on St Kilda and a military base on Benbecula, for about fifty years. As part of a cost cutting exercise, the Ministry of Defence has announced that it proposes to transfer some of the functions of the range to another site, in Wales, with the possible loss of up to 125 jobs on Uist. This is a terrible blow for the local community, especially in the middle of a recession when replacement jobs are few and far between.
Ironically, there was resistance against the opening of the range many years ago, but it has been a valued asset on the islands for a long time now. As part of their plans, the Ministry intend to remove all personnel from St Kilda, which has twelve people working there and all remaining equipment will be made automatic or operated remotely.
A task force has been set up locally to opppose the plan to reduce the workforce on the range and to minimise the impact of these job losses for the community. An uphill struggle I think.

There have been regular sightings of whales, dolphins and porpoises at the Butt of Lewis and Tiumpan head recently, so get here quickly if you want to see them.

I've been shilly-shallying about going to the Hebridean Celtic Festival this year, but have finally got my act together and booked tickets to see Karen Matheson at An Lanntair and Fred Morrison at the Community Hall in Breasclete.
Incidentally, I went to see Andy Irvine playing in Stornoway last week and was reminded that the last time I saw him play, with Paul Brady, was more than thirty years ago. Their version of 'Arthur Macbride', from the brilliant 1976 album 'Andy Irvine and Paul Brady,' still leaves me open mouthed in admiration.

Sunday, June 21, 2009


Balallan is a linear village at the head of Loch Erisort, on the road between Stornoway and Tarbert. It straggles on for about three or four miles and is said to be the longest village in Britain. Not sure if this is really true, but it does go on for ever and has tremendous views all along its length. Before I bought this house, I looked at several properties in Balallan and if I'd found anything suitable, I would have happily lived there.
Sub post offices all over the land continue to be closed and services centralised. The post office in my own village, which occupied the entrance hall to a house for over sixty years, closed permanently last year. There is another post office in the next village, but it only opens between 9am-3pm, so is no use whatsoever to me and I now have to use the post office in Stornoway, fifteen miles away.
For now, this pretty post office in Balallan, which also sells groceries, survives intact.

Each house in the village has its own peat banks on the moor a couple of miles from here. If they are not cut for a few years, they grow over or someone else starts to use them. My house was unoccupied for a number of years until I moved here and I had no idea where my peats were. Well, taking advantage of having a willing friend to stay for two or three weeks, we decided to cut some peats for the Winter. The Grazings Clerk came over this week and took us on to the moor to show me where my banks are. I had the choice of two different banks associated with this house in the past and idly chose the one closest to the road. The Grazing Clerk told me that the bank further away is better quality peat, so I will probably cut that next year. This is my first attempt at cutting peats though and is a bit of a practice run for the future. I'm using two peat irons which were owned by the family I bought my house from and in spite of them having lain unused in the shed for goodness knows how long, they are both in excellent condition. On the advice of several local people, I soaked the peat irons in water to stop the handles breaking and they served us well yesterday. No peat cutting today because it's the Sabbath, but we'll be back at it tomorrow.
Most people do the peats in April/May and have finished now, but better late than never. With a warm Summer and a good drying wind, I'm hopeful that the peats will still be dry in time for using at Christmas.

The croft sheep were gathered and sheared this week and have been moved to better grazing at the front of the house. Two Blackface interlopers were found and they continue to graze happily at the back adjoining the loch. No one seems to know who they belong to and I expect they just hopped over the fence to join the permanent flock some weeks ago. I'll ask about to try and get then reunited with their owner, but in the meantime, they're coming to no harm. They do need shearing fairly soon though.

It's Summer Solstice today and people travel from all over the UK to celebrate at the Callanish Stones. A friend, who's into that sort of thing, phoned me earlier to ask if I had been up at daybreak to watch the sunrise. Regrettably, I was too welded to my bed to get up early, but have just popped down there to see what's going on. There are twenty or so tents and benders put up by visitors, many of whom were fast asleep on the grass or in vehicles, having been awake all night carousing. It's all good harmless fun, taken seriously by those involved and I don't dislike the smell of dope wafting gently on the breeze around the stones. In spite of the remoteness of Callanish from the rest of the nation, more and more people seem to arrive for Solstice here every year.

I read somewhere that the ex manager of a Woolworths store in England has reopened the shop as an independent enterprise, selling much the same products and calling itself Wellworths. A similar thing is about to happen here. Since Woolworths went bankrupt and the branch in Stornoway closed last December, a clothing chain store, with a small shop here, has aquired the premises and is about to move in. Two local business people, along with the last Woolworths manager, have announced that they are opening a Woolworths lookalike shop called WeeW in the vacated store of the clothing chain. It will open in the Summer and create 28 jobs, some of which will go to former staff of Woolworths.

Monday, June 08, 2009


I was working away most of last week and photographed this tennis court at Bunavoneader, Harris, on my way South. It was apparently constructed by a small charity which provides recreational facilities for the people of Harris and claims this to be the most remote tennis court in Britain. Whether or not that's true, it's in a spectacular setting and I think it would be very easy to get a fast ball in the face when looking at the surrounding landscape instead of your opponent. The court has been built away from any other facilities and looks quite surreal just sat there, surrounded by lochs and mountains. It's available for public hire, except on Sundays, for those wanting to play tennis somewhere different.

Collecting a friend from the airport at Barra a few days ago, I was surprised to come face to face with a Southern work aquaintance I've not seen for several years, but not as surprised as she was. Having been with her partner for many years, they decided to fly from the mainland and have a secret romantic wedding at the Registry Office on Barra, in the expectation that there was no possibility that they would bump into anyone they knew. Well there you are then. Let that be a lesson. I have not previously seen her since I came to live on the Islands and she had absolutely no idea that Barra is part of my working patch. I shall savour the look on her face when she got off the plane and saw me waiting, for the rest of my life. She told no family or friends of her plans to marry, so I've promised to keep her secret until after she gets round to telling them.

The island has suddenly come alive. The weather has improved recently and there's an explosion of flowers. They seem to come in waves of colours and just now the croft, verges, ditches and Machair are a dazzling yellow, with Marsh Marigolds, Iris, Gorse and Tormentil everywhere.
There are a lot of tourists about and I've just read that twenty five cruise ships are expected to call at Stornoway during the Summer. Two of them have moored overnight at the bottom of the croft this week while offloading their passengers to look at the delights of Callanish and other attractions on the westside of the island.
I have friends staying for most of June. Two who were here this last weekend have never been to Lewis before and I enjoyed showing them round. Everybody who comes wants to see the Callanish stones, but the beaches have a strong wow factor and come a close second.

The circus is coming to town! The Continental Circus Berlin are arriving with their six hundred seater big top at the same time as the Hebridean Celtic Music Festival next month, so that should be jolly. Although Stornoway has some character, it's not an exciting or dynamic place and the Festival gives it a real buzz for a brief while. It's nice to see hordes of people thronging around enjoying themselves. This year, the main attractions will be La Bottine Souriante, Karen Matheson, Sharon Shannon Band and Blair Douglas, with lots of other musicians playing at venues around Lewis.