Saturday, April 24, 2010


Spring is sprung, the grass is riz, I wonder where the airplanes is? Those pesky Icelandics. First cod wars, then financial meltdown. When those tactics failed to bring the UK to heel, plan C, a volcano, worked very well. In common with the rest of the nation, the Outer Hebrides has been brought to a shuddering halt by ash clouds smiling down on us from the ether. With only propeller driven aircraft and pilots who like to fly at 75 feet so that they can do a bit of sightseeing on the way, we expect our planes to fly through treacle. Not a bit of it. We've been grounded for most of the last couple of weeks and Loganair only started flying again yesterday afternoon.
I've been working in Uist all week and as a consequence of cancelled planes, had to come back as a foot passenger on the Sound of Harris ferry and then hitch a lift to Stornoway from a fellow traveller. Very exciting. The boat snakes its way round a myriad of sparklingly beautiful small islands on passage from Berneray to Leverburgh and I've always thought it rates as one of the great ferry journeys of the world, especially on a gloriously bright and warm April day. The crossing takes one hour, cheers up the spirits, costs £6-25 and is a real bargain. The 60 mile trip from Leverburgh to Stornoway is pretty good too and even more so when someone else is driving, allowing me the luxury of staring open mouthed at the spectacular Harris scenery without worrying about keeping my eye on the road. Luskentyre beach and the surrounding mountains are magical in any light and quickly followed by the grandeur of West Loch Tarbert. The drive through the Harris Hills over the Clisham is a joy that I would willingly pay money to experience, although I confess to feeling a bit carsick when going round hairpin bends and looking down into the valleys hundreds of feet below. The road North from Bowglass to my house is always of interest as the hills recede, the moorland opens out and the colours of the land change rapidly from the moonscape grey of Harris to hundreds of shades of green and brown in the peatlands of central Lewis.

The realities of earning a crust though are that in ordinary circumstances, it's much quicker and time efficient for me to fly to Uist every fortnight for work, so I usually have to reserve the pleasures of the road and ferry journey for when I am in my own time and have friends staying to show the islands off to.

Regular readers will know that I'm obsessed with trying to see and photograph the Snowy Owl that turns up here every year and which has evaded me so far. Well, the beast is back and in spite of being the most recognisable bird on the planet, continues to hide from my binoculars and camera. It was spotted on St Kilda a couple of weeks ago and seems to fly in a circuit between there, Balranald on North Uist and Barvas on Lewis. Everytime I get wind that Hedwig is in town, I stop what I'm doing and invest huge amounts of energy and diesel in driving like a demented thing to the latest sighting spot, only to be told ' It's been here for days posing, but flew away fifteen minutes ago'. A second Snowy Owl has been spotted on the islands and there was some hope that the two of them would meet up, bill and coo and breed, but the experts now think both of them are males.

Following a long dark, quiet and largely solitary Winter, new activity is taking place all around the croft, village and island. A pretty Wheatear is sat on a rock outside of the kitchen window as I write this and a pair of Greenfinches are visiting the birdtable every day just now. Greedy and aggressive Gulls and Hooded Crows try to muscle their way in for the food I still put out for the Rock Doves and Starlings, but there seems to be plenty to go round. The tadpoles in the drains are developing and the sheep are grazing well and are more active and vocal now that the last of the snow has gone and the high winds are easing
Plenty of folk are out on the moor on the Pentland Road cutting peats for next Winter and the first wedding of the year took place in our Community Hall last Friday. We have at least four more weddings booked at the Hall throughout the summer, at which I hope to be offering my potwashing skills and one of the concerts during the Hebridean Celtic Music Festival in July will be held there. I'm pleased to announce that I've now got tickets booked for myself and visiting friends to see Runrig in the big blue tent on the Castle Green in Stornoway during the festival.

Monday, April 05, 2010



Corrugated iron was commonly used as a building material here until relatively recently for both domestic and commercial properties, because it was cheap and quick to erect. In recent years, many corrugated iron buildings have been demolished, blown down, or left to slowly rust and rot to the ground. They sit much better in this landscape than many modern kit built houses or churches and I like to photograph them as I wander around the islands, before they disappear completely. The buildings shown above have survived better than most.
I've been on holiday for the last two weeks, visiting friends and family in the South and had great difficulty getting back to Lewis. Is three days from Yorkshire to Stornoway a record?
Tuesday saw me driving North and I decided to stay overnight in Perth. Wednesday morning was bright and clear, but the weather lady on BBC Scotland said that the A9 to Inverness was badly affected by drifting snow. Our hero, a sceptical soul at the best of times, decided to try to get through just the same and surprise, surprise, ground to a halt at Blair Atholl. The very helpful police officer standing in the road and looking very cold told me that my chances of getting any further in the by now blizzard conditions were about the same as hell freezing over. Turning the car round, I made my way over to Crianlarich with the intention of taking the A82 to Fort William. This time, I listened diligently to the radio weather person, who said that the A82 was passable with care. Well, not by the time I got there it wasn't. Just North of Tyndrum, the road was covered in impacted snow and several vehicles had skidded off the carriageway into ditches and were clearly going nowhere further that day. Being the single minded sort of chap that I am, I persevered until, to my great surprise, I found myself in a stationary queue of about a hundred cars and lorries. Oh the companionship and the glorious opportunity to whinge about the weather with a fellow traveller. Unsurprisingly, another policeman arrived and he announced that he was only going to allow four wheel drive vehicles to proceed. I don't have one of those, so had no option but to go back again. At this point, it was early afternoon and I was desperate to get to Ullapool to catch the evening ferry to Lewis. Things did improve a bit then. I waved down a motorist going the other way, who told me that the West coast Connell to Fort William road was snow free and so it proved. Fort William to Inverness was a bit tricky, but not too much of a problem and I headed off to Ullapool in good time for the 17:35 ferry. Plain sailing? Oh dear me no. 3:30 in the afternoon and I get a text on my mobile phone from Calmac saying they had decided to cancel the Stornoway ferry because the wind was blowing in the wrong direction. The end of my problems for the day? Not really. Then had difficulty finding somewhere to stay for the night in Ullapool because lots of other people heading for the ferry were also stranded overnight. The ferry finally left an hour late on Thursday morning and the crossing was so lumpy that a number of children on the boat were suffering from severe sea sickness, the poor mites. I finally got back to my village later that afternoon and have never been so pleased to arrive home. Given the recent appalling weather, I expected my humble abode to have blown away or fallen down, but happily, all was well and within an hour, the stove was chugging away and the house became cosy and cheerful. I love a happy ending, don't you?
Sadly, there has been no happy ending for Highland Airways, which collapsed and went out of business whilst I was away. Loganair have temporarily taken over some of their contract work, including the subsidised daily Stornoway to Benbecula flight and the newspaper delivery from the mainland. At present, newspapers are arriving by ferry and sales have slumped by more than half because islanders are fed up of getting their papers late in the afternoon, or not at all if the ferry is cancelled, which is happening frequently in the current poor weather.
I'm off to work in Benbecula and Uist for the week from tomorrow morning and have yet to see if Loganair will honour my Highland Airways ticket. Life is so much more exciting and unpredictable here than it was in the South, which is generally to my liking.
As I write this, it's blowing a right Winter hooly and easy to forget that Spring is really here. There are some clues though. I've got sheep back on the croft, there are lambs everywhere and in spite of it pouring with rain today, I've just seen a man on the Pentland Road cutting his peats. That signals the arrival of Spring here just as powerfully as does the hearing and sighting of the first cuckoo down South.