Tuesday, September 25, 2012


Following years of slow decay, work has now started on Lews Castle to turn it from a crumbling unloved wreck into an upmarket hotel and spanking new state of the art museum for the islands. Several million pounds has been allocated to stabilise and do basic repairs to the building and the remaining work will be completed within two years, assuming funding is obtained. The total cost of the project, amounting to some £13 million, is being bankrolled by the Western Isles Council, Heritage Lottery Fund and an anticipated grant from the European Union.
If all goes to plan, the hotel and museum will be completed in August 2014 and both are expected to become major tourist attractions, drawing in an anticipated 50,000 visitors a year between them and providing new employment opportunities. In the meantime, the existing museum on Francis Street is closing at the beginning of October and the staff will spend the next two years preparing for the opening of the new museum. 

I love the feeling of change in Autumn, when the temperature drops, the fires are lit and the days become significantly shorter. With almost no deciduous trees on the island, there is no dramatic change from green to brown, or leaf drop, to herald the advent of Winter. The obvious signs of colder days to come are the browning of the moors all around us and the disappearance of most flowers.
I was out taking a walk this morning though and was pleased to see the variety of flowers that are still in bloom. The purple heather is dying back now, but the vivid orange Montbretia (Crocosmia), which grows wild, as well as in gardens, is to be found on many roadside verges just now. It provides a welcome cheerful burst of late colour, as does the lovely Devil's Bit Scabious, with it's pale blue pompoms flowering wherever it is wet and boggy. The flower heads of Bog Asphodel are long gone, but the remaining burnt orange stems are attractive and to be found in all the wet parts of the croft. The gorgeous little yellow Tormentil is still in flower and I even found a late flowering patch of Mimulus, the monkey flower, in a nearby ditch.

The Harris Tweed industry here on Lewis and Harris was on its knees a few years ago and in danger of disappearing, but has recently undergone a Phoenix like resurgence.
After a long period of poor marketing and leadership and reducing sales, huge efforts have been made to revitalise Harris Tweed making and boom times seem to be here again. New weavers have been trained at local colleges and the industry is now said to be worth £4 million a year and currently supporting more than 400 jobs in the Outer Hebrides.
This renewed interest has created its own problems. No looms have been manufactured for years and all the available second hand looms have been put back into productive use, but no one is making or supplying spare parts, which is causing difficulties when looms break down.
In an initiative to deal with this, the Harris Tweed Weavers Association is developing a 'loom spares and maintenance' service to obtain and keep stocks of replacement loom parts in reserve on the island. A European Union grant will pay for an administrator and a stock of replacement spare parts, although I have no idea where they will be sourced from.
Individual weavers will pay £3 for each tweed they make, to support the new scheme, which will hopefully keep the looms rolling. 

It is no secret that alcohol abuse has long been a problem here on the islands, but I was a bit taken aback recently to read that a new report is claiming that the misuse of alcohol is costing the Outer Hebrides in the region of £26 million pounds every year.
Alcohol Focus Scotland says its study arrives at this figure by adding together the cost of hospital admissions and treatment for alcohol related medical problems, crime, Social Work interventions and the cost of care home places for people with alcohol addictions. It details a whole host of other negative effects of abusive drinking including domestic violence, absences from and unfitness to work and premature deaths. 
Apart from the sum of money said to be involved, little of this information is a surprise, except that the report states that the majority of alcohol is now purchased at supermarkets and drunk at home and not bought in pubs and other licenced premises, as was once the case. 
Alcohol Focus Scotland say they hope their report will assist licensing boards to regulate alcohol licensing with the aim of reducing harm and the cost to the public purse of alcohol misuse.  

Finally, it looks like the poor Grey Lag Goose is a victim of its own success here on the Islands and is about to pay the price. 
These handsome birds were once only visitors, on migration,  but many are now resident throughout the year and have been so successful in breeding that their numbers have exploded recently. I can now look out of my windows most days and see small flocks of Grey Lags grazing on the croft, which was a rare sight a few years ago.
There are estimated to be over 6000 geese living here and causing huge amounts of damage through eating crops and grass and fouling grasslands with their droppings, especially in Benbecula and Uist. 
Non lethal methods of controlling their numbers - such as gas scarers, scarecrows and imitation birds of prey - have failed and Scottish Natural Heritage have now agreed to issue licences to shoot some of the the resident geese out of season in an attempt to control their numbers, before the migratory geese arrive to start feasting on our lovely winter grass.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012



A guest house owner running a bed & breakfast a few miles from here has commenced court proceedings against the internet giant Tripadvisor, who, he says, have refused to remove 'false and malicious' claims about his business.
He is arguing that the website is careless by failing to delete inaccurate or false guest reviews of his establishment and he is particularly exercised by 'an untrue'  review which criticised the size of the portions and quality of the food he serves.  He is reported as saying that he doesn't mind comments which truthfully criticise his eccentric attitude or his decor, but draws the line at people falsely slating his wife's cooking.
This man has launched a small claims action at Stornoway Sheriff Court maintaining that the Tripadvisor website has lost him valuable bookings by refusing to take down the offending review.
By suing Tripadvisor in the Small Claims Court, the guest house owner will only have to pay a maximum of £75 in legal expenses should he lose his case.
So far, so good.
Tripadvisor initially responded by challenging the jurisdiction of the Scottish court system to hear this case, but are now attempting to have the legal action transferred to a higher court in Scotland, where legal expenses are unlimited and could run into many thousands of pounds.  Their legal team in Massachusetts in the United States have instructed a Stornoway lawyer to apply to move the legal action into the more expensive procedure. He made a verbal application to have the case transferred at Stornoway Court last week, but his request was rejected by the Sheriff, who has now given Tripadvisor four weeks to submit a proper written notice of its motion.
Outside of the court, the man making the claim hit out at Tripadvisor's tactics and said:
' My case is well within the remit of the small claims court. Tripadvisor are a $4billion rated company taking on one of the most remote B&B's in Britain and they are trying to frighten us with expenses and delay. They are threatening us with the cost. People can't get any justice from Tripadvisor.'
It is difficult not to be sympathetic to a David and Goliath battle like this one and I wish the guest house owner well.
Updates to follow as they occur.

We are not a part of the world where you would usually expect to come across Tuna fish swimming in the sea, but several vessels have reported seeing shoals of Tuna during the last couple of weeks. A pair of sea anglers fishing off the Butt of Lewis said that they saw a large shoal of Tuna, possibly Bonitos, and a wildlife charter vessel has given a credible and detailed description of several sightings of Bluefin Tuna whilst they were taking day trippers to St Kilda recently. 
The charter boat skipper said  'It was amazing to see the characteristic, upright, thin forked tails of Tuna darting through the water. Some were coming to within ten metres of us and you could see they were six or seven feet long, maybe more'
The Western Isles spokesman for Scottish Natural Heritage has stated that both sightings have been corroborated and speculated that the arrival of the Tuna is the result of warmer seas and climate change. He said 'Tuna don't usually come this far. A general change is being observed in the marine environment with fish turning up in areas they don't normally'.

Whilst we're on flora and fauna, the annual Ness Guga hunt to Sula Sgeir has just taken place and the hunters have now returned to Lewis with their allowed harvest of birds.
Guga are young gannets, which the men of Ness in the far North of Lewis have harvested yearly on Sula Sgeir since the 16th Century or before. The birds are considered a delicacy here and people will often queue up at the quayside to buy them straight off the boat, when the men return.
Every August, a group of men take a small boat out to Sula Sgeir, a little island about 40 miles North of Ness, where they spend two weeks catching, killing, salting and preserving the birds, which they then take back with them to Lewis. There is a long traditon of both catching and eating young Gannets here on Lewis and the salted birds are distributed among the families of the men who catch them and the surplus are sold locally to meet a high demand.
Although Gannets are protected under EU law, the Guga hunters have a special licence to collect a maximum of 2000 birds each year and it is hoped that this tradition will continue in future. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds does not object to the annual hunt and have stated that Gannet numbers on Sula Sgeir are stable and possibly increasing and that the yearly cull seems to help in the long term conservation of the birds. 
There are periodic protests from conservationists against the Guga hunt, but little support for the protestors  from local residents, the Scottish Government, or official conservation bodies.

St Kilda is a World Heritage site, a jewel in the Hebridean crown and is a magical place to visit. The islands of St Kilda lie about 40 miles West of here and have become easier to get to in recent years, since it has become possible to make day trips to them on fast boats operating from both Lewis and Harris.
There are plans to create a St Kilda centre here in the Outer Hebrides and there is an ongoing battle between Lewis, Harris and North Uist to be the venue for the centre.
The opportunity to exploit St Kilda as a lucrative money making enterprise is the cause of a dispute currently going on between the National Trust for Scotland, who own St Kilda, and the Western Isles Council.  The Council wishes  to 'commercially promote the St Kilda brand and capitalise on the huge global interest in the islands' and is now locked in combat with the NTS over a claim of ownership to the European and UK right to trademark the St Kilda name. The National Trust for Scotland claim they are the best owner of the trademark because of their long term ownership of the St Kilda group of islands, while the Council want to 'use the trademark  responsibly for the economic benefit of the Hebrides'.
The spat continues.

All is well here at the ranch. I am still trying to get estimates for the replacement of the croft fencing, but one fencer has now been to measure up and I hope to get his quote shortly. A second fencer has made an appointment to come tomorrow and assuming he turns up, I might be able to get the work done before the Winter, although I doubt if it will happen that quickly.

My Archaeology course officially started this week, but I have had no lectures yet because of technical difficulties with the video conferencing equipment, which beams in live lectures from tutors based in Elgin, Orkney and Shetland. Hopefully, this is a temporary glitch which will be sorted rapidly. We'll see.