Some reflections on Barbara

Storm Barbara (and then, in turn, Storm Conor) brought some strong winds over Christmas and, aside of a few days – particularly the last three – strong winds have continued ever since. But, in these few days of calm, normal life seems to have reverted itself (the bins have now gone back to their usual position by the front gate, for example; and a mist has enveloped the bay for much of the last three days, currently providing a salty wash to our windows), and we have probably reached the point where we can think that they are indeed in the past and provide a few post-event thoughts on what the storms brought. Calm weather is playing havoc with our stove (but that’s a different story!). (9pm edit: and has indeed already ended, with winds twice the speed they were earlier this afternoon, with a forecast of virtually three times tomorrow. But at least the stove is responding a little more enthusiastically!)

Firstly, everything about the structure of the house is intact – in particular: the roof tiles are all still in place; the patch on the chimney breast where we have a small leak seems to be holding, and the roof insulation is nicely drying out; and the wooden garden shed is still there, on the same site, with no leaks or holes, and with a felt roof whose nails have securely held the laps. And the satellite dish (which has to be located on the most exposed, south-facing wall) is still up and operating. That’s all a bit of a relief, but it’s also a tribute to the work and the abilities of the people who remodelled our house, and built and sited the shed (on a concrete base, dug into the ground a little, and with concreted-in fence posts). Furthermore, our power lines held up, as did our communications systems although the mobile phone mast did seem to be knocked out for a while. That’s a tribute to the resilience of the infrastructure and to the skilled work of those responsible for predicting the weather and for planning emergency responses and to those workers located on the ground where they can respond, if required, to emergency situations.

Secondly, the people who originally built our house did so not only with style but with real sensitivity to the conditions and the approach of the local weather. We are some 12-15′ or so up from the shore to the east, so we don’t need to worry so much about getting flooded out; but in a little dip as the land curves down to the sea. The result is that prevailing (south-)westerly winds are forced up by the land off the sea to the west (our house is sited on a headland), and are then up at roof level when they hit us. Consequently, the main structure and foundations of the house don’t get the shaking that they otherwise might on slightly higher ground.

Thirdly, Storm Conor brought winds gusting up to 83 mph early on Boxing Day morning (around 6-7 am). This was the worst on South Uist (although Scalpay, off Harris, had stronger winds). This is not the worst storm we could experience – but Storm Angus, in the third week of November (and the first of the named storms this winter), brought comparable strength winds to the south coast of England. This is a useful reminder that bad weather can occur anywhere and including in well-populated areas on the mainland (not just the mountain tops).

I can well understand the marketing-based attractions of depicting life in the Outer Hebrides as in some way ‘on the edge‘ – there’s a romanticism in that, as well as the appeal of the opportunity to experience weather apparently more remote from the ordinary lives of UK urbanites. The weather here can be tough – the winds that go unreported on the TV news can make even a January walk along the shore something of a physical challenge – but there are dangers in attributing such characteristics to these islands. They can make them appear more remote, or cut-off, from the weather that all of us can experience, from time to time. Worse, however, is that they risk marginalising (and somewhat patronising) the people who live here (and here I don’t mean me, a junior of just six months standing, but my friends and neighbours who were born here and who have chosen to live their whole lives here), highlighting that they are, perhaps, in some way clinging on to life, forever threatened by the elements and whose lives are thereby dominated by them. To the people who live here, the Uists and Benbecula, and the rest of the Hebrides, are not in any way ‘on the edge’ but central: a fact of their life and to which they are as well-adjusted as the circumstances surrounding those of us who live in other places elsewhere. To a fisher, or a farmer or a crofter, the weather is what it is and that’s as true for a Devon farmer threatened by floods as it is for a Uist one. In portraying the Hebrides as ‘on the edge’ we undermine that everyone on all these islands, right across the length and breadth of the UK and Ireland, are one people, different in chacteristics but united in hopes and dreams, and in our abilities to be resilient and to rise to the challenges which life presents us.

A happy, and safe, 2017 to all readers.

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