Midsummer sun

I was hoping to see at least one end of the summer solstice in style. Not being by any means an early riser, this was always going to be this end of the day rather than the other. But, unfortunately, the damp mists of early evening around the bay have given way to a blanket of grey cloud without so much of a hint of a dying ray of light – though, conversely, this morning’s sunrise was, apparently, rather good.

So, here’s one from last night’s sunset, instead: the sun not quite sinking into the sea – a smudge of cloud on the horizon preventing that – and actually taken a good hour after sunset (timed at 22:31) – but with the Monach Islands showing rather well as a series of low-lying lumps on the horizon:

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So, at more or less midsummer, the sun was setting at round about 320 degrees – that’s past north-west and well on the road to north-west by north (no – not that one: Ed) on the 32-point compass. And quite a change from midwinter, when the compass point at sunset was more or less 230 degrees and getting on for south-west: almost exactly a quarter swing in the point of sunset by virtue of the angle of the earth’s tilt.

Not enough light to read a book outside at midsummer (and somewhat too cool, regardless of the heatwave which is gently cooking the southern half of England), but with plenty of light in the northern sky. Here’s the long view about an hour later – half past midnight (and towards the end of an hour-long power cut here on South Uist: somewhat frustrating for those of us on Economy 10 tariffs when the power comes back on just as the cheap hours disappear…). Here, we’re looking broadly north-east (NE is actually a bit to the right of centre) and from where, if my guesswork is right, the sun would have been rising a few minutes less than three hours later (at 04:31):

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Good luck and have a great gig to all those heading to Pilton this weekend – or, alternatively, to Eriskay On The Rocks!

Islands (Scotland) Bill published

Just catching up with the news that the Scottish Government published its Islands Bill last Friday. This was probably a good day to bury bad news, given that much of the political establishment was focused elsewhere at the time, although there is no suggestion that the Islands Bill is is bad news. But the timing of its publication was awful.

The Bill is expressly the governmental response to the Our Islands Our Future campaign launched by the island councils elected by Shetland, Orkneys and Western Isles voters to establish a clearer constitutional recognition of the needs and status of island areas. The Bill – which builds on top of a consultation exercise undertaken in the last quarter of 2015 – will need to be carefully scrutinised as regards the extent to which it matches up to the aims of Our Islands Our Future as well as in terms of what it envisages actually happening in practice. At the headline level, it seeks to do the following:

– a duty on Scottish Ministers to publish a ‘National Islands Plan’ with a view to improving outcomes for island communities, alongside an annually-published Progress Report

– a duty on Scottish Ministers expressly to have regard to island communities in exercising their functions, including via an island communities impact assessment as a means of ‘island-proofing’ initiatives such that islanders are not disadvantaged as a result of their location

– protection for the Na h-Eileanan an Iar Scottish parliamentary constitutency akin to that already provided to the Shetlands and Orkneys constituencies such that the boundaries cannot be changed without primary legislation

– greater flexibility around councillor representation within island communities

– provision for all island authorities to have more control in the development of the seas around their communities via a marine licensing scheme for development activities.

Island communities continue to face major problems as regards – among many others – de-population, and the associated, but qualitatively different, problem of dealing with the needs, not least health, of an ageing society; the provision of affordable and suitable housing; and digital connectivity. Some of these issues are being taken forward, at least to some degree, such as the Scottish Government’s Digital Scotland initative, although improvements can always be made to any governmental programme both as regards provision and as regards pace.

The Islands Bill is not inherently a development-based one, but a policy and access one. Consequently, the solution to many of the development problems facing the islands – of jobs, incomes and sustainability – need to be tackled in other forums and by other initiatives, although I would have liked to see express recognition of the need to engage and work with community landlords – such as Storas Uibhist on South Uist, Benbecula and Eriskay, which has just celebrated ten years of community ownership of these islands – included formally in the Bill. Whether the Islands Bill turns out to make a difference to islanders’ lives in practice of course remains to be seen, but a legislative start has been made on creating greater voice and access for the islands to policy, and in red-circling that for the future. To the extent that this represents at least a signal of a reversal of the recent policy trend towards greater centralisation in the Scottish Government, the Bill is welcome. Practice needs to follow.

Brexit faultlines still apparent in UK politics

Like many others, I pulled an all-nighter on Friday morning to watch the election results come in – the first I’ve done for a while, the most recent plebiscites having left me running screaming from the living room well before 1am. The exit poll was, this time, remarkably accurate – and there were a number of positives to take from the election itself, including a well-run, positive Labour campaign on the back of a good manifesto that didn’t quite get the result it deserved; as well as the fruits of a successful registration/get the vote out drive among young people that has, at least anecdotally, brought up the electoral participation of the young to the point where it was actually above the average. Long may that contine (and, indeed, be extended).

And, of course, the loss of a Conservative majority in the Commons is a bonus. Firstly, the Tories really ought to have remembered the old adage that the great British public tend not to like exercise of any type, including of their franchise, and that they therefore tend to punish the parties who do make them turn out; and secondly we should note that a minority government may well lose the benefits of the Salisbury Convention, under which the Lords is duty bound not to over-rule the manifesto commitment of a successful party.

The departure of Theresa May’s two senior advisers today, two bauernopfer [Edit: now on p. 4 of the link @ 14:28) taking the rap for their boss’s disastrous personal and campaigning style, simply papers over the cracks in what is clearly a lame duck government – and may also hasten the timing of May’s own, inevitable, departure. One can only hope, though she who we may well dub ‘Teflon Theresa’, with the arrogance to deliver the same speech yesterday from Downing Street as if she had not lost – in her own terms – the election that she surely intended to deliver had she won it, may well yet turn out to be a survivor.

Meanwhile, the joining of the DUP’s ten, er, ‘socially conservative’ MPs in the business of government has, rightfully, raised plenty of comment, not least in the context of the contribution of Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, to the number of MPs the Tories did win. Scotland now has 13 Tory MPs – something of a modern record, leaving the Tories up here as no longer the stuff of legend.

What the comment has missed so far – unless someone can point me differently* – is that the DUP is also famous for a bit more than just its hateful stance on gay rights (or its misconceived renewable heating incentive, its intransigence over which brought down Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive earlier this year). Not only does it have a strong stance in favour of Brexit, but that it allowed itself to be used – I’m paraphasing somewhat – to channel more money into the pro-Brexit campaign last year. The source of the DUP’s funding on this was eventually, through solid journalistic endeavour, revealed as the Constitutional Research Council, an organisation that is so secretive about its research that it has – still, as at today’s date – no website on which to publish the results of the research it supports.

Any agreement between the Tories and the DUP clearly needs, as a minimum, to be publicly available, and in full, in terms of exactly what the DUP will do – and for what – as a price for keeping the Tories in power, especially if Davidson is correct in her view that there is no suggestion ‘the Conservative government would be dependent on the support of the DUP‘, whatever the nature of the ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement which underpins and rationalises the deal.

In the meantime, however, we can no longer wonder whether the results of the election imply a softer approach to Brexit, or any voluntary granting of civil rights to EU citizens in UK limbo, or even a second referendum. There is no doubt that Brexit is not under any theat: Theresa May and her new-found BFFs in the DUP will go ahead with just as hard a Brexit as if the election had not happened. There will be no softening of approach not only from the perspective of negotiating stance but because those driving the government firmly believe in the rightness of what they are doing.

We can usually point to several instances in public life that, had x not happened, y would be impossible. But it is clearly true that, had the Scottish Tories not won these 13 seats, the DUP’s ten MPs would make little difference to the Tories’ parliamentary maths. I’m not a nationalist voter, for reasons not least that the SNP in practice is not as progressive as it makes out in its literature, but it does strike (even) me that the loss of 13 SNP MPs to the Tories is a retrograde step, not a positive one. And I’m not just referring to the loss of good parliamentarians like Angus Robertson and, indeed, Alex Salmond. We will need to wait for psephologists and researchers of other types to tell us how quite so many people who voted SNP just two years ago are now prepared to vote Tory – aside of cheap ‘Tartan Tory’-type comments. It’s likely that quite a few will be independence supporters who also want to be out of the EU and who now see support for the Tories as the more worthwhile means of ensuring Brexit in the current context. Clearly, the sorts of people who swallowed Theresa May’s line about the need to strengthen her hand in the negotiations. I don’t necessarily agree that the election has killed indyref2 – but we might, however, legitimately wonder about the type of independent Scotland such voters would want to see delivered in an iScotland.

The 2017 election will no doubt turn out to have more twists before its history can be written – but the faultlines in our domestic politics that Brexit has written continue to have deep resonances. And, by the way, it’s well worth keeping in mind here that the chair of the Constitutional Research Council is a former vice-chair of the Scottish Conservative Party. I wonder if we’ll ever find out if the CRC commissioned any research prior to this election into the electoral success of the Tories in Scotland, and the DUP in Northern Ireland…

* A kind reader points out that a journalist in the Indy, and others, are researching the issue, post-election. There’s not a lot new in the report in the Indy – and I’m guessing that the Saudi trail is a red herring – but I’m glad to note that someone is on the case.

NNW twilight

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The sky to the north, last night, just after 23:20 (so just beyond the golden hour, the sun having set at 20:16 and almost exactly at the formal ‘end of twilight‘ on our part of South Uist last night).

I tweeted recently a picture of the sun sinking into the sea as it set, as viewed for the first time this summer from our lounge window – and, of course, this picture is taken from the same place (though it’s a composite) and parts of it are also aimed a little further north, the slightly blurry rock in the centre foreground being located pretty much NNW from where I took the picture. Indeed, we can now track the earth as it spins around the sun, and as the continuing levels of light in the sky shift gradually from twilight in the (north-)western sky to pre-dawn in the (north-)east. As I went to bed at 1am, the sun still not due to rise formally for another couple of hours, similar smudged greys and midnight blues and soft apricots, as well as bold, striking cloud formations, had shifted into the north-east sky.

It does get dark here; even at the peak of midsummer there is about 3:40 of ‘night time’ in the hours between twilight formally ending and beginning again – but, for this month or so, you can still see some light in some part of the sky right throughout the night hours.

As a celebration of one year of living in our new place – we moved in, into a few rooms while the remainder of the renovations were still being finalised, precisely a year ago last Friday – the reminder of things coming full circle, with a new journey now getting underway, seems very well-timed.

She’s gone electric

Just returned from a few days well-timed break on the mainland, firstly for a lovely week’s holiday and secondly to bring home our new car: a brand new, fresh out of the box, Storm White pearlescent Nissan Leaf. If you don’t already know, this is a fully electric car: no diesel/petrol engine; no exhaust/emissions; no oil. Just a battery (and automatic transmission). Oh, and, pleasingly, a ‘start’ button just as it appears on your computer. As far as I know, we are the proud owners of only the second fully-electric car on the Uists (though there are also a few hybrids running around – cars with both a battery and a ‘normal’ petrol engine). Here it is, sat tonight on its new driveway:

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(It seems I have become an early adopter, after all, albeit by default, when for the majority of my life I have most definitely been a laggard.) And, when researchers were talking only last week of petrol cars being obsolescent (in the US) in eight years, this was also a very timely purchase.

We’ve been researching this for some time, having been alerted to the idea by a hybrid-driving colleague some months ago – as a committed non-driver I’ve recently spent more time in car showrooms and talking to car salespeople than I really would ever want to imagine. Or indeed repeat. (Though I should also say that my recent experience of the latter is that the car salesperson is, in comparison to the legend, an unfairly maligned figure.)

There were two reasons for our purchase: clearly environmental considerations, especially in the context of the previous car having been a diesel although BMW was far from the worse performer in the emissions scandal; but also, secondly, simple economics: electric cars are far cheaper to maintain in terms both of getting them on the road (zero emissions mean there is no vehicle tax) and then keeping them there (in terms both of the ‘juice’ required to run the things and also in there being less mechanically to go wrong. With a purely electric car consuming no traditional fuels in its operation, it is as green as the electricity which is used to charge it (which may be darker or lighter green, depending on your supplier). And, of course, to manufacture and maintain it.

Early experience (a return trip from Perth to Glasgow airport – c. 71 miles in each direction – followed by a one-way trip from Perth to Mallaig yesterday for the island ferry, of about 142 miles) has been pretty favourable (we did, of course, take a similar model for an extensive test drive prior to purchasing). I don’t drive so performance questions are better directed elsewhere although it seemed to me that acceleration (from a standing or rolling start) was as you would expect from any ‘normal’ car and certainly there were no problems in building the speed required for overtaking. For someone whose earlier awareness of battery-powered cars had been with what the Highway Code used to call ‘invalid carriages’ (and now calls ‘powered wheelchairs‘: the law still calls them carriages), this was particularly notable as I did have a few doubts beforehand.

If you have any questions about electric cars, let me know below and I’ll do my best to answer them.

Going electric is not entirely a worry-free experience since the range of the Leaf on a full charge is about 120 miles (although, interestingly, Nissan’s claims are for 150+). This is absolutely fine for running around the Uists but, for longer distance trips, especially those involving ferry connections, a degree of planning around the location of charging points on your journey, and a degree of finger-crossing that no-one is already there when you get there, is required. Yesterday, our return home entailed two stops (at Crianlarich and Fort William), and the adoption of a different (and longer) route in order to take advantage of more charging opportunities, when we have frequently done it otherwise in a single hop.

Here’s a few observations on our experience with charging the car so far:

1. in the course of the last two days, we actually visited seven charging stations (there is quite a lot of them around: here in Scotland, for example). For much of the time, it was raining (Scotland – and indeed the rest of the UK – does get quite a lot of rain). I have spent some time on petrol station forecourts and I have rarely got wet since they have usually managed to put some sort of canopy over them. In contrast, six of the seven charging stations we used were in the complete open air. When you also have to stop and download an app, as we did on one occasion, this is potentially a miserable experience which clearly needs sorting out (we did see one station which was encaged in a glass box: well done theĀ  The Green Welly Stop).

2. The seventh station was in a multi-storey council-run car park in Perth so was indeed under cover. However, we did note that the charging points here were in the paid area of the car park, which did raise question marks that blue badge holders would, exceptionally, have to pay to park to use the machines since the blue badge parking bays were located on a different floor outwith the paid parking bit.

3. Longer distance journeys are going to require the installation of more rapid charging opportunities if electric cars are going to take off in the way the US researchers suggest. A typical charging station is composed of one or more petrol pump-style installations having a number of different connectors also with a resemblance to petrol pumps (some electric cars use AC, some DC – and, of course, different manufacturers are using different connectors: the joys of the riotous nature of innovation under capitalism). One of these will be a ‘rapid’ charger which is capable of charging the Leaf’s battery to about 80% of capacity in about 30 minutes. But you wouldn’t want to wait around for someone else’s charge to finish, still less be in a queue to do so. And neither would you essentially want to double the length of your journey time every time to allow for planned, and potentially extended, charging stops (we did allow 7 1/2 hours yesterday – for a journey of 140 miles, that is a little excessive). That by itself is likely to limit the extent to which ‘normal’ cars do become obsolete in the medium-term. (However, I can easily foresee a situation in which people have electric cars for everyday use and the ordinary commute, and then simply hire a ‘normal’ car when required for a longer trip.)

4. People are likely to want to have something to do, or to eat or drink, when charging. This is likely to indicate some opportunities for retail sellers to engage in providing charging facilities alongside their existing outlets, and make a little extra money when doing so. From my limited experience so far, a lot of charging stations are council provided and that is of course absolutely fine – but they do tend to be located around council buildings or sites, including recycling areas, park and ride schemes and other public car parks, as a simple public amenity and it seems not so much thought has yet – at that level – gone into providing attractive additional facilities.

5. Meanwhile, on our journey we were waved at a few times by other electric car drivers; and one other driver – not noticeably having gone electric – gave us a double thumbs-up. That’s unexpected.

Il faut cultiver notre jardin

A proper May Day Bank Holiday but, with no demos or rallies to join here on the islands – remember folks: the struggles of the labour movement brought you bank holidays and weekends, and we’d like to give you more, too – choice of BH activity was a little closer to home.

After the hiatus of a few days away in Brussels, the first part of 2017’s biannual battle against the invasion of the dandelions needed to be re-engaged with some alacrity, while plants bought fairly recently in Perth were starting to show some signs of needing planting out. I managed to get underway with our plans for our east-facing garden in Uist – essentially re-instating a rockery garden forming a middle way between a grassy strip at the top and a ‘wild’ area at the bottom – a couple of weeks back by stripping out moss and grass overgrowing the rockery’s retaining stone wall. This bank holiday’s project has been to start digging out the grass (and dandelions) from the old rockery, lifting and relocating daffodils as required, and planting out some new spring (and autumn) colour via heathers, sedums and other ground cover plants such as spreading conifers and junipers. Here we are with some progress:

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Retaining wall with overgrowing greenery removed. The rockery will be the sloping section upwards as far as the flatter grassy area at the top – a quite substantial area given that it extends more than the full length of the house, other than a small apron connecting strip off pic to the left, and is about 8′ in width.

IMG_5387 (Custom)Some grass dug out, and a few plants put in. More will be added.

The garden fence (which admittedly does need a lick of paint) is looking otherwise resplendent in the late afternoon sunshine – and it was indeed a gorgeous day today here on Uist: a high of 18.1C at 5pm puts it quite comfortably the hottest day of the year so far and, with little or no breeze in the late afternoon, it was also just a touch too early in the year for the midges to be thinking of doing any damage. ‘Make hay while the sun shines’ goes the phrase – to which, we might add, especially when it shines on a bank holiday; so, I did, accompanied by bubbling lapwings sky-diving, the call of larks ascending and the gentle braying of eiders in the bay (think of a slightly excited Frankie Howerd), as well as bees intoxicated to have found some new heather to buzz through. (By the way, here is the unparalleled Met Office forecast for the Range for the week ahead, featuring a sunshine graphic all the way. I have literally never seen that before.) And accompanied also by the stillest, most perfectly milky blue sea, seen at low tide’s distance. We are keenly awaiting the arrival of our corn crakes when, to some degree alas, idyllic peace will be once again deferred (the male’s ‘crek crek‘ call – akin to the teeth of a plastic comb being scraped across the edge of a matchbox – can feature up to 20,000 times a night, over some six hours. And especially between midnight and 3am). Reports are here of corncrakes already in Askernish, to the south of us; and we had two, sometimes three, around the house, including one spotted running (actually, to be fair, probably more high stepping) through our ‘wild’ grass, last summer.

Furthermore, there was 15 1/2 hours of daylight today and sunset – at 9.14pm tonight – will, in about ten days or so, be visible from our lounge window looking north as it sinks into the sea.

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Ardivachar beach, picture taken 21:07.

After a damp and cloudy spring, and some cold northerly winds last week which sent the wind chill factor to below freezing, it seems like summer may have arrived.