Sunday, February 14, 2010


The recent snow and ice are just a receding memory here now, with photographs being the only evidence that the island was completely white two or three weeks ago. Although the temperature is rising slowly and we've had some gloriously sunny days recently, it's still too cold to predict that Spring is on its way. Having said that, the daffodils shoots have emerged this week and there are some early lambs about. I'm being a bit of a wimp though and confess to having just bought a bag of kindling instead of getting my backside into the freezing shed to chop some up myself.

Down in Uist earlier this week, I listened to a tirade from a colleague who was complaining that more money is spent here on 'Otters Crossing' warning signs than on road safety instruction and signage for local children. I don't know if that is true, but driving on the Eriskay Causeway a day or two later, I had just passed the first otter crossing sign when right on cue, an otter ran in front of the car and only narrowly avoided being squashed under my front wheels. After leaping on to the side wall of the causeway, the animal stopped to have a good look at me before gracefully hurling itself into the sea.

Wind farms are a big issue here and a couple of years ago, a famous battle was fought to prevent 181 turbines being built all along the Barvas Moor from Stornoway to Ness. The anti wind farm protesters won the day on that occasion but no one is under any illusion that that is the end of the drive to cover the landscape with windmills. As far as I am aware, the three turbines shown in the picture are the only commercial windfarm currently operating on Lewis, but not for long. A Mr Oppenheim, the owner of Eishken Estate, some 20 miles South of Stornoway, received approval about a month ago to create a windfarm on his land. His original application was for permission for 133 turbines, but the final approval is for only 33, which presumably, he believes he can make money from. It's being claimed that 150 full time equivalent jobs will be created for the construction phase of the windfarm and 1% of the ongoing turnover will be used 'to enhance the ecological and cultural heritage of the Eishken Estate'.

The Stornoway Gazette reports this week that the Western Isles Council has to make budget savings of £10 million over the next few years and proposes to cut the number of schools here by half, to 21. The targeted schools have been named, causing great anger among parents in those catchment areas. Local education provision is considered vitally important in helping these remote communities to thrive and attract young families. Opposition to the closure plans is being mounted all over the islands, but it seems inevitable that some schools will have to close eventually, meaning lengthy daily bus journeys for many children and continued depopulation in some areas.
Lochmaddy, in North Uist, with a population of about 300, has a bank, ferry terminal, shop, petrol pumps, two hotels, Post Office, Arts Centre and Museum. The school roll is currently 10, rising to 14 in August and an expected 20 pupils in the next couple of years. It's a lively, successful village, popular with holidaymakers and parents of school age children are outraged at the plan to close their school.

A man living in Stornoway, who has Prostate Cancer, has hit on a novel way of raising money for Macmillan Nurses. He has apparently worked as a brewer in the past and using his contacts in the industry, has persuaded the owners of a brewery on the mainland to allow him to use their premises and equipment to produce a strong bottled beer. He has called his 6.9% beer 'Brewers Swansong - A beer to die for' and describes it as a sweet valedictory mild. He is selling the brew now, the proceeds going to Macmillan. Not sure how much he has raised yet.

The new Lewis Distillery, Abhainn Dearg, is in production now and have announced that their first single malt whisky is to be bottled early next year in time for sale at the 2011 Royal National Mod. Visits to the distillery are welcomed. Further details from

Finally, silly joke of the week.

Two snakes are moving through the jungle.
One turns to the other and asks 'are we venomous or constrictors?'
Second snake replies 'for goodness sake, why do you want to know that?'
First snake - 'I've just bit my lip.'

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Now, you may not have given much thought to metal railings previously, but I think they are very lovely and well worth blogging about.
I attended an undistinguished inner city redbrick Victorian school that shared its architect with the nearby prison. The school, which I loathed, felt like my own prison and was surrounded by high brick walls to stop the likes of me from escaping until the bell went at the end of the day and the gates were flung open by the commandant caretaker. When I couldn't stand the pain of being shouted at in French, or being hit on the back of the head by the maths teacher any longer, I liked to walk out of class and escape via the one low wall at the back of the school, which had had its iron railings cut off at the base many years before. Those railings and similar ones attached to houses, schools and other buildings all over the United Kingdom, were hacked off and melted down to be made into tanks, guns and other items throughout the Second World War. At the time I used to play hooky from school, I was deeply grateful that our railings had been taken, allowing me to exit education, walk to the river and spend the rest of the day smoking fags and wondering what life would be like in the real world.
Very few railings survived the need for iron for the war effort, except for those in Stornoway.
By great good fortune, it was considered uneconomic to cut down the railings and ship them over to the mainland for melting down, so they remained exactly where they were and are now proudly preserved and beautifully maintained, as you can see from the pictures. Although I have posted photographs of only a few of these domestic and church railings, there are literally dozens of them attached to houses all around the affluent central area of Stornoway. I love them. A couple of years ago, the town museum put on an exhibition about the local ironwork and provided a guided walk to see them, but they are quite close to each other and easy to find without a guide.
After the snow and cold spell of two or three weeks ago, the temperature here rose and the thaw set in, until Tuesday of this week, when it started to snow all over again. Many of the minor roads are iced over and dangerous now and likely to remain so for a while because the council is rationing the road salt it has available. This is the coldest and darkest Winter we have had since I came to live on Lewis and I won't be sorry when it ends. My weather gizmo tells me that it has been below freezing outside the house every night for the last three weeks and I've used as much central heating oil in eight weeks as I usually use in six months.
The prolonged cold weather has brought in more birds to the bird table than usual and the Grey Lag geese are working their way through the accessible grass on the croft.
The positive side to all this is that the hills and moors look stunning covered in snow, a sight we don't see most Winters.
The recession, which Government spinners tell us has ended, continues to take its toll here. The Western Isles Health Board has a several million pound deficit and is talking of the possibility of redundancies.
Highland Airways, which is in very serious financial difficulties, stopped selling tickets one day last week and is now hanging on by the skin of its teeth. In addition to flying a number of routes and contracts on the mainland, the airline operates the daily Stornoway to Benbecula service and the government assures us that it has a contingency plan if Highland Airways goes out of business. The airline itself is desperately trying to obtain refinancing or a new owner and says it hopes to survive. It continues to fly just now but the 100 plus ground staff and pilots they employ are pessimistic about the future of the company.
Two more dead whales have been washed up here in the last week or two. A 26 foot Minke whale was found on a beach at Point, above Stornoway and a 45 foot, 35 tonne Sperm whale was discovered on the shoreline of Taransay, Harris.
The Harris Tweed industry has gone through very difficult times in recent years. The average age of weavers has been increasing year on year and there have been no training courses for some time, partially because there has not been enough work to go round. There seems to be something of a revival in the fortunes of Tweed weaving here though and two local mills are going from strength to strength. As a consequence, a mainland college, in conjunction with the Jobcentre, are running a 12 week Harris Tweed Weaver training course commencing in March. This is good news and it will be interesting to see later if the course is fully enrolled.
The other heartwarming story of the week occurred over in Uig, here on Lewis. There is a community owned co op at Timsgarry, which provides a lifeline grocery, petrol and post office service to one of the remotest communities in Britain. The shop thrives, but its elderly delivery van was on its last legs and there was no money in the pot to replace it. Just as the shop committee were considering how to raise funds for a new vehicle, an anonymous donor has purchased and given a £16000 refrigerated new van to the shop so that deliveries to the local community can continue uninterrupted. A generous gesture on the part of some kind soul.
The West Highland Free Press reported this week that a North Uist fisherman has developed a serious eye infection requiring hospital treatment after he looked skyward whilst out fishing and was hit in the eye by seagull droppings. He says he was left partially sighted by the incident, but mercifully, is now improving. Most unfunny. Remember you read it here first.
Does anybody have any idea why this blog won't allow me to paragraph? I include paragraphs as I write, but they disappear and squash up the entire script when I press the publish button. What am I doing wrong?