Sunset palette – midsummer 2019

A band of cirrus and (alto)stratus (I think…) clouds stretched across the sky at sunset last night on a calm, still evening, giving an astonishing colour palette at sunset. Out of the (ahem) 43 pictures I took, a number somewhat driven by Saturday night mojitos but which can, mostly, be justified in the calm of Sunday morning, here’s a selection of eight. Hope you enjoy them!

First, taken just before 9pm, the clouds in question with the photo just catching the sun’s flare at the left hand edge. It had been a warm and mostly sunny day, giving the chance for an al fresco dinner (which usually implies Greek salad and an accompanying drop or two of ouzo):

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At about ten past ten, well into in the golden hour, but with the clouds at the top of the picture providing a slate grey contrast to the sun. The camera lens has bent these clouds slighly upwards left to right – the actual position was closer to the horizontal than these suggest:

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Next, zooming slightly in on golden seas and highlighting a few sunset worshippers among the local population of sheep:

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At sunset, with the the position of the sun at 325º on the compass, and the time on the clock: 2232:

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About ten minutes later and zooming in, a little slightly further westwards than the position of the sun at sunset, to enhance the intensity of the orange colours:

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At ten past eleven, with the sky darkening and the colours beginning to shift to blues and greys:

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Looking north-east, with the red light from the Dark Island turbine prominent, now just after midnight and with plenty of light still left in the sky, and with the soft greys of the clouds leaving plenty of gaps for midnight blues (not that one – Ed):

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And finally, a panorama of the bay from a little earlier in the evening (precisely at sunset), looking north to east (horizon line slightly bent at the north, left hand, edge) with pink reflections both in the clouds and in the water:Kilaulay sunset reflection 3

Truly lucky to live in such a beautiful place – and with evenings such as these providing ample compensation for the days (and nights) when it can get a bit rough out there.

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Searching for adventure…

The corncrakes have been a little late returning this year – late April in some parts of the island but only on 11 May did they make it as far as Aird A’Mhachair right up in the north-west corner. Lack of cover from the yellow flag iris and the nettles, which have only in the last week or so grown tall enough to offer one of the UK’s most elusive ‘native’ birds sufficient cover in which to skulk, is possibly one reason for why. ‘Ours’ – nesting on the croft for the last several years – made it back the following day and, spending a few hours in the garden on a few days of spring weather this week, I’ve heard three, possibly four, calling males in the area.

The one which inhabits our croft is, just possibly, Aird A’Mhachair’s least shy corncrake, and I’ve seen him twice this week. Not, like last year, staying on the outside of the fence. Oh, no. That’s no longer for him. I saw him firstly on the day after his arrival (you tend to hear rather than see corncrakes), loping purposefully, neck stretched, across the middle of the lawn (well: grass, really), cut this year shorter than a new squaddie’s haircut, making his way for the fence and the rather denser cover outside, and just the wrong side of the remains of a line of daffodils which sheltered him perfectly from view from the house.

And, then again this afternoon – I heard him from the drive at the front of the house, closer by than hitherto, and, wondering if he had taken up his old calling post on a stone on the outside corner of the fence, dashed through to take a look. No – sadly not there. But then, looking a little to the right, again, standing more or less in the open in the middle of the lawn (…) and still calling proudly. Grabbing the camera – kept close at hand for just such an eventuality – he made his way towards the fence, this time the right side of the daffodils, before taking up a perch apparently on a new calling stone, this time on the inside of the garden and just about 30′ from the window. He was perfectly happy for me to open the window and, not only that, but to pose and issue a few more calls – that strangely, unbird-like sound, a bit like scraping your fingernails quickly across the teeth of a plastic comb; a bit like a couple of sharp twists of a supermarket acrylic pepper grinder.

Here he is, in full calling flow:

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And then here, not looking in the least embarrassed at such a display of open, untypical extrovertness (and at quarter past three in the afternoon, too):

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He’s calling again now, as I write – partly it’s looking for a mate; partly, being possessively territorial birds, it’s advertising precisely which bit of the village is his.

Maybe he knows it’s late in the year and there’s not a lot of time left to raise one, and hopefully two, broods before setting off again for that long migration across the Sahara and back to the African savannahs. But, then again, maybe this particular one realises that searching for adventure is, indeed, the type of life to find….

UPDATE 20 May: Not the best picture (he was a few feet further away than on Thursday), but here he is again calling out for all he’s worth. Mostly, the calling has been infrequent – this afternoon, a pattern of four ’rounds’ and then a small break. I’m guessing that the infrequency reflects that he has a mate already and is just reminding all and sundry that this is his part of the village; as opposed to the greater urgency surely demanded by the need to find a mate.

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Winter has come

After several days of persistently strong, and latterly northerly, winds which have seen birds flying backwards shortly after take-off, and havoc wrought amongst the early daffs, Ardivachar has a covering of snow this morning. Wet snow, and unlikely to hang around for too long even if the forecast is for more snow later, but enough to bank up on the windward side of rockery stones.

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Further afield, where they can be seen under the low cloud cover and poor (and again deteriorating) visibility, the hills are covered in the white stuff and, as a result, stand out a little more sharply against the greys and greens of the skies and the seas, the latter topped by white horses on top of waves still being driven into the bay despite a tide which is in retreat.

A day to hunker down around an early-lit stove, I think. Toasted crumpets. Hot chocolate. Gentle Cuban and west African sounds coming from Cerys’s Sunday morning radio show.

It’s took its time.

UPDATE 3pm: Better put, this is of course not the arrival of winter, but of that of summer ( (c) Daily Gael). Visibility continues to improve revealing Harris’s snow-covered hills, also aided by a cap of snow against grey skies. Here is a shot north-east from Ardivachar towards a snow-flecked Eabhal (347m) on North Uist, above and beyond Benbecula’s Dark Island turbine and Ruebhal (124m):

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And here, with a bit more landscape context, is Eabhal and the two Li hills which rise above Lochmaddy (Li A Deas – South Lee – at 281m slightly higher than Li A Tuath):

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Bliadhna Ùr Mhath (from up south…)

Weeks of bad weather, of ragin’ gales and rain falling either in torrents or else as mist, followed by 10 days of calm, unseasonable warmth (8C/46F, and currently 11C/52F), and even sunshine, has led to more than a few garden daffodils deciding that spring is on the way. Despite – or perhaps because of – a lack of snow anywhere in South Uist, including on the hills and certainly down here at sea level, winter is, however, a long way from over yet.

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But on this New Year’s Eve, with excitement already building of plans for the evening and for the future, and as darkness begins to fall, signs of hope, such as these, are more than welcome as symbols of the continuing cycle of the seasons – or,  in human terms, of what goes around, comes around.

So, Happy New Year to everyone (or Bliadhna Mhath Ùr, if you’re from down north); and may 2019 bring again a sense of peace, of tolerance and of a willingness to adjust to the lives, and the hopes and dreams, of other people. All of us are migrants, as we travel through this life; not always in the physical sense (though that’s true of more of us that some are prepared to acknowledge) but certainly in the spiritual and the emotional. And may the challenges of recognising the journeys of others become once again what defines us as individuals and as a people.

UPDATE 1/1/19: With the six-hour 86-song party playlist in full swing, and  – unusually, since I put a lot of work into constructing a coherent, flowing playlist – on shuffle, the New Year was brought in by Cathy Ann McPhee’s beautiful arrangement of Chi mi’n Geamhradh (I See Winter), followed immediately after by Mary Ann Kennedy (Mise Fhuair). Make of that what you will.

Two perspectives on Hebridean calm

We’re in the middle of a mini-spell of dry, sunny and calm weather – which makes a change from an autumn which has so far been marked by a surfeit of rain and persistent gales and otherwise high winds. This morning saw barely enough wind to make the grasses lean and a clear sky which, in combination, made the bay free even of ripples of movement and which lent the water a milky sheen, a suggestion of and almost an absence of colour. It was a return to the best days of high summer.

Here, looking north-east from the kitchen door steps, and echoing this site’s new header pic (although this was taken to catch the reflections of late afternoon sun) we have Eabhal and Ruebhal in the centre of the frame (and the Dark Island turbine) but what is taking centre stage is the sea, streaked blue and translucent in the shallows of a retreated, but just off a neap, tide (with water levels low but a high tide line) and with a texture starting to be shaped by a growing breath of wind. The turbine, pointing south, and a sole oystercatcher at the bottom of the photo provide the only movement.

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Some three and a half hours later than the noon at which this photo was taken, and a short bike ride mostly finished, I stopped at Loch Bi just at the Aird A’Mhachair side of the Ard na Monadh road, with the sun due to set less than 40 minutes later and offering photographers full golden hour mode. A little cloud cover offered both a way of catching the sun’s rays as well as a means of allowing me to point the camera at the sun, with a stronger wind providing ripples across the water of the loch – mostly freshwater but with a component of salt water provided by very narrow channels funnelling through from Loch Sgioport – and lending it the creased look of silver cigarette packet paper.

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After so much rain and wind, days like these – and there a couple more yet to come – provide essential points of recharge, both for nature and for ourselves, anchoring us into a sustaining reassurance of calm amidst the headlong tilt at the senses presented by the hammeringly persistent rain and wind.

Solidarity forever

We’re just back from spending a week in Gdańsk, having travelled to attend a friend’s wedding. With an unexpected spare day to myself as wedding preparations continued, I had a daunder up Góra Gradowa, the low hill overlooking Gdańsk’s main train and bus stations. This houses Napoleonic era fortifications, in the brick-built, grass-topped bunker style that you can also see elsewhere in modern-day Poland for example at Modlin and in Giżycko (Polish required); as well as a science museum devoted to the Polish-born astronomer Jan Heweliusz. Once you get above the tree line, as I knew, Gradowa affords a fine view over Gdańsk’s (inevitably rebuilt) old town to the south-east – but with my eye drawn, as it always is, to the north-east, to the cranes of Gdansk’s extensive shipyard Formerly Known As The Lenin Shipyard.

With the day fair, I left Gradowa in the direction of the shipyard, walking past the shipyard train station and the bits of the yard that are still working (with the approval of the EU’s state aid authorities, I might note), past the slightly edgy clubs set up amidst the abandoned bits and in old shipping containers (for those that like their dance culture to be intermingled with the smell of industrial paints) and back towards the town via the famous Gate No. 2. It was here that the 21 demands of the August 1980 inter-enterprise strike committee, written out on boards of plywood, were attached to the Gate (the boards once again present in situ – though surely a facsimile – which wasn’t the case on my first visit here back in 2012).

These days, the Gate (still emblazoned with Solidarność favours) is emblematic rather than functional and the immediate contextual setting for the European Solidarity Centre aiming to provide a museum for the role played by the wider Solidarity movement (and of which NSZZ Solidarność, the trade union, is listed as a founder). I wandered in, and then back out again, slightly deterred by the (albeit very modest) admittance fee (20zl; £4) but attracted back more by the Memorial to the Fallen Shipyard Workers which stands adjacent to the Gate.

The establishment of such a Memorial was one of the demands of the 1980 shipyard strikers. It doesn’t feature as one of the inter-enterprise strike committee’s 21 demands, which, drawing on strikes elsewhere in Poland, had moved on substantially from the bread and butter trade union issues which had sparked the strike in Gdańsk towards mounting a political challenge. The demands in Gdańsk included the re-instatement of Anna Walentynowicz, the crane driver and independent union activist whose dismissal five months before retirement had sparked the strike there (and in tribute to whom there is currently a series of information boards around the Memorial), as well as that of Lech Wałęsa (sacked from the shipyard in 1976) himself (and with whom Walentynowicz clearly had major disagreements). These were issues that had been settled within Gdańsk itself, with the Memorial arising out of the subsequent Gdańsk Agreement (interestingly, not only are the originals of the Agreement missing; no links are immediately available online either).

Regardless, the Memorial (unveiled within just a few months of the Agreement being signed) is dedicated to those killed in the 1970 riots across northern Poland over price rises and whose three crosses, topped with ship anchors, were inspired by the first three workers from the shipyard to have been killed. What I hadn’t noticed previously about this substantial memorial, at 42m standing almost as high as Gradowa, was that the ship anchors are ‘crucified’ with metal nails and ropes to the tops of the crosses – thus underlining in one stroke the commemoration of the fallen workers as martyrs and the significant role the Church played in the activities of August 1980. The tribute slabs at the front carry – in Polish, German, English, French and Russian – the message:

A token of everlasting remembrance of the slaughter victims.

A warning to rulers that no social conflict in our country can be resolved by force.

A sign of hope for fellow-citizens that evil need not prevail.

Other critical messages are included in the design of the Memorial itself and, along with Wałęsa’s own comment about this being a harpoon in the body of the whale, it is impossible to see the authorities within Gdańsk as having failed to recognise the significance of that to which they had agreed in establishing the Memorial.

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Whatever the subsequent failures of the Solidarity movement in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, the trade union-driven aspects of the inter-enterprise committee’s 21 demands, including the right to establish independent trade unions, with acceptance of the right to strike and with protection for strikers, continue to have resonance, as the TUC debated earlier this month. So indeed does the demand for (effectively) shorter working time and for improved workplace rights for parents. Getting all these back on the agenda, in the era of applications of artificial intelligence and post-Brexit, continues to be a challenge for real trade unions whether in Poland or in the UK; as much as in today’s ‘gig economy’ as in 1980s shipyards.

It’s also a useful reminder that much trade union activity, and regardless of its industrial origin or context, has a profoundly political character. Introducing change in the workplace, and change within the societies within which workplaces function, continues to be a political act.

Primaries, Uist-style

Some bold primary colors from Friday last week here on Uist, with the red of the dinghy and the blues of the sky, the sea and the prawn boat complemented by the green kite of the kite surfer, brilliantly catching the late afternoon sun.

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Truth to tell, we’ve not had a lot of days like this recently – May and June were lovely on Uist but July and August – in contrast to the heatwave across most of the rest of the country – has been cool and damp. Today, we’re back to grey clouds and rain, and, with the schools also going back tomorrow, and us also lighting the first fire of autumn, there is an end-of-summer feel about the place and this sort of picture is likely to become increasingly a rarity. For this year, anyway.

We also don’t get a lot of kite surfers off Mol Mor (the beach at Kilaulay, on the opposite shore of this photo). The spring tides we’ve had in the past week not only strand the prawn boats when moored and not in use at low tide,  but also expose the rocky reefs that radiate out from the beach like the bony spines of long-buried dinosaurs. These are hazardous to boats and to kite surfers alike, unless they really know what they’re doing and, with our winds, there’s always the danger of a mis-calculation or a mis-step which might well bring disaster or, at least, a nasty gash on the leg. However, the tide is pretty full here, submerging the reefs under a cover of water that might, to some degree, act to cushion a fall, so this one seems to be aware of the potential threat.

More days and scenes, including kite surfers with colourful kites, like these would certainly be very welcome; although I know how envious just about everyone else is of temperatures as cool as 16C (61F) and an afternoon of steady, and refreshing, drizzle!

A complex and difficult word, Sasainn

We recently returned from a weekend trip to Stornoway and, staying in Sandwick, one of our priority ports of call was the memorial to the men lost on HMY Iolaire, which went down nearby on 1 January 1919 in the process of bringing home some of those from Lewis who had survived the First World War.

It is almost impossible to imagine the scale of the loss involved. This remains one of Britain’s worst maritime disasters: in peacetime for the rest of the UK; while war memorials on Lewis and Harris are the only ones to list the dates of the First World War as between 1914 and 1919 so as to encompass the loss of HMY Iolaire. Nearly 200 islanders perished on it, on top of the 1,000 men who had died (out of 6,000 called up: one in two Lewis men, of whom one in six never made it home) during the War itself. Yet, few outside the islands know of the tragedy. We might surmise some of the reasons for that, but these would include a shameful desire to hush things up in the interests of morale among the wider public, not least amidst the substantially reticent results of the Naval Court of Inquiry run by the Admiralty in private and which were not released into the public domain until 1970 (there was also a public inquiry, whose outcomes did have greater impact, held in Stornoway). Despite the tragedy taking place just yards from the shore, the bodies of some 64 of those who died – nearly one in three – were never found: heavy naval uniforms and a surging swell, and a lack of life-saving equipment due to the boat being vastly overcrowded, being among the factors of blame. It is also impossible not to be both touched by the scale of the tragedy and angry about these things as well as that the loss of the Iolaire is not more widely known.

Erected in 1960, and in spite of some local opposition, the memorial overlooking the site of the wreck is a fairly simple granite affair, added to which there is a stone cairn; the impact of both being undermined – of course temporarily – on our visit by the construction of a new DDA-compliant access path and, more long-term, by a line of small-scale wind turbines located perhaps rather too close at hand. And, indeed, by those who, on the day, had somewhat thoughtlessly chosen that spot from which to attempt to fish (the campaign to have the site of the wreck of HMY Iolaire designated as a war grave seems long overdue).

In the centre of Stornoway itself, there is also a recently-constructed tribute designed by students of the Nicolson Institute whose touching idea it was to collect stones from each of the home villages of those who were lost – and including, therefore, some from typical port and naval towns both in mainland Scotland and from England since the crew of the yacht, which had been commandeered into naval service during the war, were substantially English (but also included some men from Cardiff). The last three stones were collected by Angus MacNeil MP from the Thames, representing men from London (and nearby) who were lost and are among the 18 on the south face of the cairn (adjacent to the left on this view) listed as from ‘Sasainn’.

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I should be absolutely clear at this point that ‘Sasainn’ is simply the word which is commonly used today in Gàidhlig (and, indeed, similarly in Irish) for ‘England’. There is no attempt to denigrate – this is, not least, a memorial; and high school students have been closely involved.

Yet the word itself is complex, and difficult: most people will know of the term ‘Sassenach’ (used pejoratively to denote the English); while the derivation of the term itself is originally a very broad way of denoting anyone who came from outside Gàidhlig-speaking areas (and thus includes lowland Scots) and where, in some respects, it might be seen as the counterpart of the similarly pejorative ‘teuchter’, the lowland word for those from such areas (= ‘bumpkin’ or ‘yokel’). ‘Sasainn’ itself originally referred to ‘Saxon’. Perhaps oddly, ‘Sasainn’ also bears absolutely no relation to the Gàidhlig for the English language (= ‘Beurla’).

There is thus something of the concept of ‘outsider’ contained in the continued use of ‘Sasainn’ to mean ‘England’, which is problematic both in itself as well as in the context of the islands (and the language) opening up to outside influence. This is not at all a criticism of islanders themselves (at least, the large majority of them who are outside the influence of the shockingly rabid right-wing irrelevancies of the type set out here by the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing)) – and, indeed, I did visit the still pristinely-painted mosque in the centre of Stornoway. The islanders I’ve met have been without exception warm, open and hugely welcoming – and which in itself says quite a bit about the ways in which language can change meaning over time and used as it evolves without regard to the historical precedents. And, perhaps, it ultimately says more about my perceptions of myself as an English-origin outsider than about others’ perceptions of me.

But I do wonder whether Gàidhlig needs another word for ‘England’ which conveys, at least to this outsider, a rather less apparently loaded set of meanings.

On a June midnight

The heatwave currently gripping all of the country has also held sway in the Hebrides, with the last few days being sunny, and hot (21C yesterday), and the Met Office forecast for the next week for the Range here on South Uist being sunshine all the way with daytime temperatures varying from 18C to 21C (again above 20C!). Consequently – other than tonight, when a dreadfully thick haar has rolled in off the sea – the days are also very long: an official sunset time of 2231 and a sunshine-related golden hour to follow means that there is plenty of light in the sky and no need for electric lights until after 11pm.

I blogged last midsummer about how much difference there is between the apparent compass point at which the sun sets at high summer compared to the depths of winter – at just beyond midsummer, the sun sets well past north-west. The counterpoint to observing this high angle of sunset is that you can also track the movement of the earth around the sun as the days move from one sunset above north-west towards the sunrise of a new day before north-east. Being at a lower level of latitude than the Shetlands, where I have also spent midsummer and where the ‘simmer dim‘ means that the hours of darkness with the sun below the horizon are really only twilight hours, it does get dark here although it’s a soft, shadowy darkness rather than hard nightfall. You couldn’t, famously, read a book outside. And yet, looking to the north, the sky (on a good day!) has plenty of colour, with the fading, but still present, orange tones of sunset shifting across the sky from where the sun sets towards where it will rise and, above that, blue fading to black overhead. Once your eyes have adjusted, it’s apparent that there is still plenty of light and, for the birds outside, there’s therefore also plenty of reason for activity, usually based on something or other winding up the redshank, whose piercing, piping calls as nests, and territories, are defended against any and allcomers are the soundtrack to this picture:

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(Taken last night looking due north at about ten minutes past midnight.)

With the weather being so good, most of Uist seems to be engaged on the jobs for which you need a guarantee of sunshine (and no rain) – like painting the shed (its third coat in two years, despite us using, er, Ronseal ‘One Coat’ – maybe it’s the way I’m using it but my shed appears to be something of an example of a product not exactly doing what it says on the tin), and the perimeter fence (a job which is long overdue and which is a substantial enough task not to be wanting to add further coats every single year).

So, rare days indeed – and, after a day soaking up the ozone and breathing in the aroma of paint, what better than to settle back with a sizable bottle of your own, and really rather good, homebrew as day turns into this sort of midnight blue?