Corncrakes ahoy

One of the rites of spring is the arrival home of corncrakes, a migratory bird which, despite not looking as though it has the strength to fly from one side of the road to the other, and which seems to prefer running around to flying, actually spends its winters 2,500 miles away on African savannahs.

They’ve been back on the islands for a while, but none had made it out as far west as here until last week when I managed to photograph one seeking a bit of cover among the daffodils – mostly the remains, although some were still not out last Friday. I say ‘back’, but the migration takes a huge toll with only one in five thought to complete the return journey so the ones now here are more than likely to be the offspring of last year’s broods, obeying the mystical call of nature to return ‘home’. I tweeted this out at the time, remarking that a period of ten minutes from first hearing him to seeing him is some sort of record, but, for those who didn’t see it, here he is:

I say ‘he’ though it’s a bit hard to tell. Only the males make the tell-tale rasping noise – like a couple of sharp twists of a nylon pepper grinder which gives the bird its Latin name (‘crex crex’) – although females in captivity have been reported to make a similar sound. The female is, it seems, a bit less grey than the male although when you tend only to see one bird at a time – and that’s if you’re lucky, as they are notoriously secretive – that’s quite a tough call to make.

With the winter being long, and quite harsh, the nettle beds and the marsh iris which give appropriate amounts of cover to a bird that much prefers to skulk around than to show off publicly are very late, although an amount of sunshine and rain in the past week, as May’s daylight hours begin to stretch out noticeably, has improved the picture somewhat. Faced with little cover, the birds have had little chance to do much else than disport themselves in a most uncorncrake-like manner and it was amusing to watch two chase each other around the garden, from daffodil clump to daffodil clump, soon after arriving – whether two males indulging in a bit of territorial debate or an elaborate courtship ritual I can’t say. A neighbour has a wonderful picture of one actually sat on a window ledge looking in, with all the appearance of a bird more than ready to audition for a remake of Chicken Run.

Late this morning, however, I did catch two making their way furtively along the fence line and, by the time I managed to grab the camera, they’d made it to the corner of our stone byre, heading for a gap underneath the fence. The pictures aren’t great – they’re taken through a window, for a start, but they do look like a pair to me either heading off to an assignation or, perhaps, otherwise to a nest site. If the male is ‘a bit more grey’, and indeed a bit larger, then that looks like the male to the left (see pic 1) the browner (and better exposed), and slightly smaller female leading the way (see pic 2). The relatively unhurried, even stately, progress tells me that it’s not two males not quite yet sure about the rules of territorial defence.

To see one is rare but two together is highly unusual – so, not for the first time, I count myself to be very lucky about where I live. That spring 2021, with lockdowns only now starting to be lifted, is – as a result of the absence of cover which nature is now very quickly correcting – among the better ones to be able to see corncrakes is a great shame for the tourists who aren’t (yet) here.

Fogbow at low tide

I proudly tweeted yesterday a picture of a fogbow and people were kind enough to like it, so I thought I’d re-post it here for the non-Twitterers who read my stuff.

Here it is, taken at ten to three and just less than half an hour ahead of low tide. I’ve condensed the picture slightly by removing some unnecessary foreground scrubland and compensated by removing some area above the fogbow – with the effect of emphasising it better (and also using the fence better as a pointer). Otherwise, no other editing!

This was the culmination of several days of foggy, misty weather held tight us over locally by the relative lack of wind – today the wind is a little stronger and has shifted everything out. Or, rather, up – it remains overcast, with occasional warm glimpses of shadow.

A fogbow is formed like a rainbow, with the sun interacting with water droplets in the air which, in fog, are much smaller than when falling as rain. This small size means that, when sunlight is defracted, the colours are leached out leaving only a reddish tinge to the outer edge of the ‘bow and a bluish tinge to the inner one. The Met Office website inevitably explains it a lot better than me.

Rainbows we see a lot out here, but fogbows are a little rarer – this was actually the first I’m conscious of seeing in the wild. When they do appear, there is quite a bit of interest in them – the Western Isles Weather website has a collection of brilliant photos. Note in particular the one by Mike at An Solas Oir, which is more or less the same one as mine but from the other side, looking towards the sun whereas the sun is directly behind me in this photo.

As with the Aurora, even cheap cameras like mine can improve the image significantly compared to what the human eye sees. In real life, this wasn’t as obvious as in the photo: my eye was caught by something at first glance and it was only when looking harder (and slightly away) did the shape come together out of the fog and take on a bit of solidity. A few minutes later and the sun had dispelled some of the fog, creating stronger sunlight, a hint of blue sky above and, thus, the opportunity for a photo. Even then, it was impossible to see an image on the camera’s LCD screen – it was somewhat ‘point and hope’, lining up just enough of the headland on the left to ensure some sort of ‘fit’. And – fingers crossed!

Elsewhere, there are signs of spring and of hope, not least with the timetable to Scotland, and these islands, emerging from lockdown becoming a little clearer; and, with no new cases anywhere now for ten days, and the vaccination programme extended now to those aged 40+ likely taking us, on the basis of average age, to a figure of over half the population having at least one jab, a collective sigh of relief, a release of long-held breath, is beginning to become evident. Nature, ever good at supplying symbols – or perhaps it’s just us who are ever good at re-interpreting them – supplied us with the first open daffodil today; the rest remain a breath of spring – but they’re coming. Prospective gale force winds or not.

Spring at low tide

Here we are already – the last day of February. It’s been a fairly tough month with consistent high winds, including a couple of storms that have seen winds of 80+mph here on the Range, with an impact including the destruction of the roof of a neighbour’s polytunnel (pic may be to follow) as well as large amounts of rainfall that have left the ground saturated and animals struggling – though the regular deliveries of hay to the neighbour’s sheep seem to have provided ample compensation for grass that is still brown and lacking in nutrition.

It can’t have been pleasant to be out in, though – and hats off to all the crofters in Iochdar that are out in all weathers, checking on and feeding animals. I don’t have animals (even if we do seem currently to be minding a couple of woolly escapees from a neighbour) so, with lockdown on top, I’ve anyway been staying in – although the lack of posts this month perhaps points to a volume of work (and I have indeed also been busy).

Yesterday and today, though, you could have been forgiven for thinking it was the first day of spring, with a warmth to the sun, the sky a healthy tint of blue and the wind dropping below 15mph. Yesterday lunchtime was a low tide – not quite at its lowest but pretty much so ahead of what will be spring tides tomorrow and Tuesday, and it gave us a good chance to get out and blow a few of winter’s cobwebs away. Here’s a selection of snaps taken just about half an hour to an hour after low tide and when we could walk out a long way before hitting the water, where the soft sands of Mol Mòr give way to a more clay-like texture and to limpet-covered rocks that probably don’t get their share of Vitamin D.

Paired-up Herring Gulls (still on the lookout, just in case)

Sanderling in flight

Hollows in the sand, sculpted by the waves

A natural reflecting pool

Surf crashing on the rocks off Rubha Hornais

And back home where Spring is, well, springing

Plenty of time for more bad weather yet – no chickens being counted here and, if it’s true that March comes in like a lamb but out like a lion, there’ll be plenty more to keep the crofters occupied and their minds on their animals.

Western Isles back in full lockdown

As of first thing yesterday morning, the whole of the Western Isles has been placed in Tier 4 – full lockdown – as a result of the rising number of cases not only on Barra and Vatersay, in the south, placed earlier into Tier 4, but further, isolated clusters arising in Stornoway centred on the hospital, in Benbecula and in South Uist.

All very necessary, of course, but it does mean the furthest I’m likely to be travelling for the next few months is the 5 miles to the Co-Op. And back. Travel will return, eventually, as a result of restrictions being eased in time but, for now, the longer lockdown goes on, the less likely I am to want to go anywhere at all. This is an interesting echo of the time before the military came here, when minor roads were tracks, before the causeways, before electricity and other utilities, when travel was much more difficult and, as a result, much less possible. Partly, this is in turn a reflection of the substantial distances involved: forget the number of people for a moment, the distances across the island chain are simply vast: to get from Barra and Vatersay, in the south, to Stornoway, the ‘capital’ up on Lewis, is – literally – a day-long journey: a road trip of 139 miles taking, according to a popular online distance service, no less than 5 hours and 57 minutes. And that’s provided you can time your trip with the two ferries you need to catch: more realistically, setting off just after breakfast on Monday (at 9.45 am), you would get to Stornoway at lunchtime. On Tuesday. And neither is it possible to fly from either end to the other, unless you take a substantial detour down to Glasgow.

It’s no wonder that there are rumblings of discontent about the extent to which a single Council area can effectively ensure the democratic representation of people on the southern Isles. Anecdotally, there is also evidence of a complete lack of information ‘up there’ about the institutions and services being provided to people ‘down here’; something which Covid-19 has done much to entrench in justification for councils’ desire to save money amidst reports pointing out the evident pressures. A single council covering such a distance, not least in these times, is evidently likely to suffer not only from issues of connectivity but also of understanding and awareness.

Issues such as these, marked and highlighted by Covid-19, are likely to continue long after the virus.

In the meantime, here at the end of January, the only journey I’m likely to be following is that of the sun as it ‘travels’ back across the sky – one of the points of inspiration for the timing of Shetland’s Up Helly Aa fire festival, the bill for which was still posted this week in Lerwick’s Market Place, commemorating this year’s (long-cancelled) festival.

With this in mind, here’s yesterday’s post-sunset view (taken out of the office window at 5.15), with the setting sun having ‘travelled’ across the road to set behind the lowest of the farm outbuildings on the extreme left:

And, in contrast, here’s the picture on 21 December, with the sun’s trajectory causing it to disappear to the left of the roof of our neighbour’s house, the view above extending just off the right hand side of the image below:

While we can’t journey ourselves, such obvious signs of progress, and the promise of warmth and positivity and better times to come, with the sun now between one-fifth and one-quarter of its way back from the depths of mid-winter, are a very welcome natural sign that these days too shall end.

A wee bimble* up Beinn Mhor

* Not really. For a fuller explanation, see also the opening chapter of Simon Ingram’s Between the Sunset and the Sea.

Beinn Mhor (= ‘Big Mountain’) is the highest of the three major peaks on South Uist (and correctly called Gèideabhal) – it’s on the right-hand side of this picture I took looking south-east across the machair almost exactly a year ago last August:

South Uist Hills 2

While generally enjoying a bit of hill-walking, the stars are rarely aligned sufficiently to do very much of it; and so, when such an opportunity presented itself last Sunday ahead of a week-long trip down to Perth (where the schedule has been a little hectic), we jumped at the chance. Now, Walk Highlands describes the walk linking all three peaks as a ‘rough, tough but magnificent hillwalk… Beinn Mhor has a spectacular summit ridge…’; while Mike Townsend’s Walking on Uist and Barra describes the ascent of Beinn Mhor itself as requiring ‘the calorific output of many Munros’ (he has also described the journey from left to right, via the south-western slopes of Beinn Mhor, i.e. to Taobh a Tuath Loch Aineort, as ‘not one to replicate in reverse‘ although I think he was thinking more of ensuring that transport was available there rather than having to repeat the journey to the starting point.)

The route that most people take up Beinn Mhor is via Sniseabhal starting from the A865 main road, which essentially follows the broad shoulder seen below the summit in my first photo and then on up the ridge to the top. The view from Loch Aineort, which is the other side, shows it as a sizable wall of some impressive bulk (Loch nam Faoileann – Loch of the Seagulls – in the foreground):


Note the three landslips on the centre right, to the right of the main summit and the amount of scree and loose rock below the outcrops of the summit ridge. (Pic reproduced by kind permission!)

Beinn Mhor is only 620m above sea level (2,034′ in old money) – a bimble, in ordinary terms – but, secondly only in the Outer Hebrides in height to An Cliseam (799m) and dwarfing Eabhal on North Uist (347m) – which dominates the header pic at the top of this page – this is clearly not a walk to take lightly. Thus advised, we set off, assured by some decent equipment, including map and compass, proper provisions and warm clothing, as well as by a mutual pact of quitting without question should one of us no longer fancy it. Following a short section through a lovely, largely natural woodland out on to the open moor, our route, broadly, was to follow the obvious burn dominating the lower slopes (Allt Bholagair) and then strike a traverse right across the rocky section, hoping to find a grass path, towards the large outcrop on the centre left.

The lower sections are, even after warm, dry-ish weather, slightly marshy in places and, despite a few squishy bits, largely safe to cross. The absence of any sort of path, exacerbated by the lack of (m)any walkers over the five months of lockdown, made it difficult to pick a route and our initial approach to the lower slopes, characterised by knee-deep, tussocky grass, largely ungrazed by sheep, (dryish) peat bog and detours around streams and negotiating deer fences, was long and slow, and which actually meant we didn’t get close to the burn until much higher up. Hearing the call of eagles even in the woodland, no fewer than three appeared, circling above us as we took short breaks (and clearly eying up potential carrion).

But the really difficult bit was the final traverse – rocky, and so precipitously steep that hands and feet were both required to make any progress. While looking to exploit what we hoped were grassy paths, it quickly became clear that going up a grass slope is more difficult than a rocky incline, so we tended to rest on the grass sections, on our backs, rucksacks wedged into rock holds, trying not to contemplate either the drop visible below our feet, given the angle, or that we didn’t know what the top actually had in store for us, before crossing over to the rocky section for the next bit. Not for the faint-hearted, this was a climb – not a hillwalk – in which the higher we went, actually the more impossible it became to keep our promise to call it off if necessary, not because we were nearing the summit but because getting back down again the same way was even more potentially tricky than getting further up.

Eventually, more exhausted and relieved than exhilarated, we reached a grassy plateau just below the main summit, where the main views are pretty spectacular:

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Looking north and a bit west to Beinn Corradail (right of centre) and Thacla (left of centre)

IMG_5807 (2)South over Loch Aineort to Beinn Ruigh Choinnich (though a bit murky) and then down to Barra

Our route down again was intended to take us south along that summit ridge (which apparently presents ‘no difficulties’ according to Walk Highlands) before turning west back to the starting point but, to be honest, we were a little tired and, despite the fine, sunny weather, didn’t really like the look of it, especially the sharp drop to the east (to the left of the ridge):

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Perhaps it would have been different had we not had such a tough scramble over difficult terrain to get up this far. So, proper ‘top’ omitted, we still had the challenge of getting off the mountain safely, which we achieved by heading north-west towards the Sniseabhal route and then walking in a long arc curving south again to omit the worst of the top part of the climb before determinedly following Allt Bholagair’s delightful course (including waterfalls) as far as we could back to base. From a more comfortable vantage point for photographs, here’s the view north over Loch Bi and the machair up to Ardivachar:

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And south to the fish farm (‘caught in the cold waters around Scotland’) – noting the angle of the hill in the foreground, the angle reflecting the one we climbed:

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Ahead of us lay the remaining lengthy yomp downwards over peat bog, uneven ground where a twisted ankle in hollows made invisible by the long grass was a frequent threat (though not as much of a menace as the midges out celebrating a calm evening and, worse, ravenously hungry flies which, evidently, hadn’t had a thing to eat for weeks), before arriving back to the woodland and to the calmness of Loch Aineort (better view of Beinn Ruigh Choinnich in the background):

IMG_5860 (2)Overall, a grand day out – but a long and tiring one (from parking the car at 11.45 until returning to it at 8.15 – much longer than the 5-6 hours expected: it took us five hours to get up!) and one in which disaster could have happened at several points. No phone signal was one thing (though people knew where we were), but the other was that we saw absolutely no-one, and no signs of anyone, all day: eagles, sheep and – I think – a young dotterel were the only living things of note (no deer! no rabbits!).

From the perspective of these enthusiastic, but cautious, amateurs, general advice would be to stick to the Sniseabhal route – less direct it might be, but somewhat less challenging in terms of the final approach to the summit. Do go and visit the woodland, though – it’s ace and offers stunning views over the sea entrance to Loch Aineort from the woodland paths up the lower slopes of Beinn Bheag Dheas.

Just add time

This is probably the last of this sort of post for a while, not because I’m stopping brewing – far from it – but, well, there’s probably more interest in the taste of the beer than in the actual brewdays; and, shortly, I’ll be able to brew much bigger batches of beer (up to 30 litres at a time, rather than the 4.5 litres I’m currently used to) so the brewing posts will anyway be less frequent, and more selective as regards what I’m brewing, while I work my way through each batch that I make. But it’s still quite magical to turn such few, standard, even humdrum ingredients into something that tastes wonderful, and using just a few pots and pans, too.

For those interested in what my beer tastes like, I’ve added a separate page via the links on the left giving some tasting notes (or, otherwise, via this link).

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So, this one was supposed to be the first one of me making small quantities of my own beer, rather than from pre-supplied specific kits, mixing up a bit of this and a bit of that as regards the malt with some of these hops and fermenting it with a drop of that yeast. Beers that will have their own names, and labels, and legends…

Intending to brew a few darker beers, I ordered from my usual supplier some speciality grains (amber malt and chocolate malt; and some crystal malt – all in roughly equal quantities), as well as some flaked oats, on top of a base load of pale malt (the lot totalling about 9kg); but, unfortunately, I ordered through a a ‘recipe builder’ under which my supplier simply assumed that I was making one large batch of beer and mixed all the grains together in one bag. My problem, of course – not theirs; I just didn’t understand how the thing worked. I can work with this mix, alright – but it will make some very dark beers and my idea of drawing on appropriate quantities of different barleys to make a stout, a porter and an oatmeal stout, for comparative purposes, is now out of the window: they will all be oatmeal ‘dark beers’ of one description or another, and no further customisation will be possible, not as regards the grain bill, anyway.

As you can see, I have some hops both from the UK (Target and Challenger) and from the US (Columbus and Mosaic) – some 50g of each; and a few different packets of dried yeast, both new and also with some left over from previous brews, carefully stored in the fridge. And I can attempt other customisations, with the following top of the list. I have enough malt to make probably five 4.5 litre batches, depending on how strong I brew:

1. a basic ‘black beer’, probably with an advanced hop profile, so in line with a black IPA

2. a raspberry oatmeal stout, with the raspberries added as an aroma steep after the boil

3. a porter-style beer with the addition of some chocolate and some coffee, along the lines of Harviestoun’s Old Engine Oil, which is one of my favourite beers (Target hops should add the liquorice notes, too)

4. a vanilla and bourbon stout, with the late addition to the fermenter of some vanilla pods steeped in bourbon

5. a low-alcohol stout (2% ABV or lower) – something I’ve been researching for some time. Should be possible to lower the amount of malt, while still retaining flavour with the darker malts and judicious use of hops both in the flavour and the aroma.

But – these are just some early ideas: do point me the way of something else you think I should be crafting in this sort of style via the comments!

That 30 litre capacity, by the way, will be via one of these Danish-origin shiny all-in-one systems, selected after some fairly exhaustive research and not least on the back of this Pub Sheds Review. This is now working its way to me – at least, once the supplier gets some more in stock; Covid-19 lockdown having wiped most such systems from the marketplace as a result of the increase of interest in home brewing. You don’t need one of these things to brew beer, essentially – but it does make brewing slightly larger quantities much easier in terms of the handling of the grains and the boil.

But, until that comes, I’ve got a few stovetop brews still left – and probably starting this weekend, after another busy week of editing coming up. Furthermore, I’ll probably still continue to do things that way when I want to try out something new (rather than risk being left with a full quantity of beer that, for one reason or another, doesn’t really work). Just now need to pick some of the beers that I’ve enjoyed the most, and start to dream of a production line in full swing…

Brewday: Hefeweizen

‘Finally!’ say my German readers as I got around over the weekend to brewing the hefeweizen I’ve had in my cupboard (and my plans) for the last two months.

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Hefeweizen is a cloudy beer originating in Bavaria brewed with a fair proportion of wheat (up to fifty per cent) –  although I don’t know the exact proportion between wheat and barley here as I’m using a pre-prepared kit – and with a type of yeast that tends to remain in suspension when it’s done its job rather than fall to the bottom of the fermenter. This gives the beer, once bottled, a fair amount of yeast sediment, as well as a style and ritual of its own when being poured. Legally, apparently, a weizen has to be brewed with a top-fermenting yeast, making it clearly an ale rather than a lager. It’s a light (‘white’) beer which, sat in my fermenter, has a light caramel colour reminiscent of the banana flavours which the yeast will impart – being less keen on these, I’ve under-pitched my yeast since the-bible-according-to-James tells me that this will give me a clove-heavy beer, in terms of aroma, while nevertheless leaving ‘some banana at the back end’. As you can see from the size of the hops sachet – again endearingly packaged in a white pick’n’mix paper bag before being vacuum sealed – there’s not a lot of hop flavour on offer and, for the style, that’s exactly how it ought to be.

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Hefeweizen in the fermenter two days after brewing, with the extent of the krausen much in evidence (especially yesterday evening when the beer got a little warm), although now subsided following intervention. Note my particularly high-tech stopper solution. It’s now back under the office desk and underneath a towel for good measure, alongside my ‘session’ pale ale (which may after all turn out to be a bit less sessionable), which is due for bottling this weekend.

This is the third and final recipe in this current batch from Edinburgh’s Brewstore, and following a bit of e-mail to and fro in relation to the previous kit beer I brewed from there, I’ve learned to treat their recipes as a starting point, as the basis from which to brew, rather than setting out measurements which are particularly precise. (In short: they stand by the hops in their recipe – which gives me an interesting decision to make about dry hopping my pale ale, which stage is due today or tomorrow – while I know that it’s wrong.) But then, a lot of brewing is like that – if you get five brewers in a room you’ll get at least six different ways of brewing the same beer – and part of the enjoyment is the research and the consultation with others who’ve been there before. And, it also matters quite a lot how good is your process and set-up. Furthermore, it absolutely won’t stop me ordering from there again: what matters to the quality of a beer is, apart from your own process management and decision-making skills, fresh ingredients and I’ve been impressed with the quality of the malt and the hops on offer; and the staff also include a fair proportion of brewers too.

So, the beer shelf in the store cupboard is now bare (though there’s a mini collection of opened packets of dried yeast sealed up and happily chilling in the fridge). Next step from here is the capacity to brew larger amounts of beer than 4.5L in one go and, given the practical difficulty of boiling more than about 10L of liquid on a stovetop, that means a bit of investment in a system of one type or other. Final research is still being done on that, while Covid-19 is evidently causing a few complications to manufacture and delivery there, too. So, watch this space.

In the meantime, all my beers up to now have been straightforward ones. They’ve placed different technical and processual demands at different points, but there have as yet been no customisations. So, while I’m finishing off my research and waiting for delivery, I’m quite tempted to grab a load of dark malts to brew a few short-run (4.5L) stout/porter specials and (fans of the Reinheitsgebot look away now) use some fruit, chocolate, coffee, etc. to extend my skills there, too. Food for thought, anyway.

Brewing up a storm…

I chose yesterday as a brew day (though actually, on looking at the calendar, as well as at the weather forecast, I ought to have used a rare day off work to have been bottling my Belgian blonde, instead).

This was the second of my three 4.5 litre kits from Edinburgh’s Brewstore – the third may follow next week (oh, the joys of having two fermenting vehicles!) – and which bills itself as a ‘session pale ale’: a beer which, with the ABV being a tad lower, you can drink by the bucketload. This one’s in the American style and so packed with ‘zesty, floral American hops’ – almost certainly Amarillo and, I think, also Chinook (there’s two varieties in the pack).

As before, the packaging is admirably no-frill (especially around the milled barley), although this also extended this time around to the recipe instructions, whose glorious incorrectness required a fair bit of on-the-spot thinking as well as reference to the bible according to James Morton in order to magic these base ingredients into something wonderful.

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Specifically, the recipe called for a pre-boil volume of 8 litres, whereas 7 was expected; and with a hop addition schedule which identified usage of about one-third of the quantity supplied and which looked, to my semi-experienced eye, seriously underweight for a beer of the style. Now, it’s not unusual to get a degree of over-supply – but usually with the yeast (a 10g packet is about twice the volume required, providing (among other things) that you’ve kept it properly and you’ve not put off your brewday too far beyond the delivery). Over-supply of hops is a different matter though – and, indeed, I will be using them all, simply scaling up the amount specified in the recipe (both in the boil and, ten days or so down the line, for dry hopping) to the quantities actually supplied.

Expecting to get 4.5 litres into my fermenter, I was, some 45 minutes into a 60 minute boil, faced still with c.7 litres of wort in my boil pot and a further 2.5 litres wasn’t going to boil off any time soon, so I decided to extend the boil for a further 30 minutes. A 90-minute boil isn’t a bad idea with paler malts, not least since it facilitates greater caramelisation and therefore produces a maltier flavour – but it does concentrate the wort a little more: at the end, I still had 5L to squeeze into the fermenter, and that’s even after allowing for the extraction of a testing sample whose gravity was, as a result of the concentration arising from the extended boil time, way over target. So much for this turning out to be a ‘session’ beer, then: provided the yeast is allowed to do its job as expected, this is likely to pack a punch more higher than the expected 4.3%.

The background to my decision to extend the boil time was growing thunder and lightning arriving, as expected, but a little earlier than scheduled and with voltage dips already briefly dimming the lights on several occasions. Thunderstorms are not so usual here on the islands although power cuts are; and putting 2 and 2 together made the decision a somewhat fraught one. Indeed, no more than five minutes later, a brighter flash outside was accompanied by lights going off inside – although, as it turned out, the power was only off for a minute or so. If it had been for longer, I was faced with the difficult decision of tipping a lot of wort down the sink, eventually proceeding to feed the nettles.

As it turns out, the power going off almost exactly coincided with the time this picture was taken, from just north of the Creagorry Co-op, on Benbecula, the South Uist hills a faint outline and only a few miles from our house/brewery:


Photo credit: @RossMcClenaghan

It was indeed quite a storm which lingered until bedtime but whose crescendo was very much earlier in the day, as Western Isles Weather also faithfully reported, and coincident with my brewing. Full credit to all the workers at SSE who kept us going through the strength of all that.

But, no harm done – and, indeed, from tasting the wort in my sample jar, I have again high hopes for this one: very bitter but already (ahead of dry hopping) with a powerful, piney-yet-zesty hop aroma and citrusy flavour. Just need the yeast to do its work now: and, as I type, there’s a steady rhythmic thud from the airlock, which is a good sign that it’s happily munching its way through the sugars, turning my wort into beer.

And, after those little successes in working over somewhat-faulty instructions, time to think afresh about a little investment in some bigger kit (and more beer) 🙂

Western Isles: peeking out from behind the curtains

At this stage in the pandemic, the islands continue to be quiet. There remains a surprising amount of traffic on our road – four miles from the main road and virtually the end of the spur which takes us to our north-west tip of South Uist – but these are largely our crofter neighbours going about their business on the land or the seas; tourists, in their camper vans and following sat navs across the dirt tracks of the range and via connecting roads that suddenly run out of tarmac before the end, are absent. Unlike on Skye, our bigger and busier neighbour, key workers are a little less likely here on Uist to be mistaken as a tourist for taking a photo, and consequently given abuse.

As I’ve written before, we continue to suffer the same lockdown as everyone else – and, indeed, in many ways worse than that since The Minch means we remain essentially cut-off: the airports have been closed and ferries remain open only for essential travel – and that’s, essentially, to allow food and key workers in (and the same out again). Some of our neighbours, with addresses on the mainland or elsewhere, haven’t been back here for months; while life for our neighbours with camp sites, caravans and B&Bs remains, just ahead of the longest day, an out of season quiet, empty limbo.

Nevertheless, the Scottish government has now started to ease the restrictions (here, by the way, is your regular reminder that Scotland is already an independent country), although people still need to remain around five miles from home for leisure or relaxation and, while shops have an end-of-June perspective on re-opening, this does not include ‘non-essential office, call-centre, culture, leisure and hospitality premises.’ Meanwhile, transport companies are starting to consider what opening up looks like: Loganair (‘we’re ready when you’re ready’) has started to offer some flights; the bus companies have a route map to move back to a regular timetable from being a virtually telephone booking service; and options are being considered for CalMac ferries.

While the message still quite clearly remains stay home, the tourist industry now has a perspective on re-opening, on 15 July, subject to a confirmation planned for 9 July (and is itself a reason for the travel planning now being done). This of course remains a thorny, potentially divisive subject. The tourist industry would like some level of re-opening before the season, and therefore 2020 as a whole, is lost completely; meanwhile, here on Uist and Benbecula (and Barra), we have still – as far as we know – had no cases of the virus: and long may it stay that way. It’s a quandary to which there is no compromise solution: tourism is clearly of major significance to the current shape of our local economy: across the highlands and islands, nearly one in three workers are currently furloughed – more than any other region in Scotland – and, while primary industry and the public sector accounts for much more employment in the western isles, tourism here has been heavily, if unfortunately edgily, promoted in recent years.

As an island (within an island group), we have several natural advantages which allow us to keep the virus at bay (if only that larger group had responded appropriately, and in an appropriately timely, less lazy, fashion, we might have been having this conversation months ago); and, at this point, the only ones bringing this thing in are, aside of the rumours surrounding the recent seventh case up on Lewis, likely to be tourists (here, this week’s New Zealand experience is salutary). While the rest of the Scotland and indeed the UK is contemplating a period of respite before a likely second wave that this respite itself is probably going to cause, we don’t want to be deploring the arrival of an initial wave. I don’t have a tourist business to run and I’m very sympathetic to those who do, but the potential costs (heavy here, for reasons explained before) surely outweigh the benefits, while an island group where there is a relatively high number of cases (it will travel rapidly here, should it arrive) may well quickly kill off next year’s business as well.

What’s also of some importance, to someone like me engaged with the idea of ‘to travel hopefully…‘ – that getting there is a fundamental, integral part of then being there – is the quality of the journey. Mandatory face masks on public transport, only passengers being  allowed in airport terminal buildings, ferries running at less than twenty per cent of capacity and airlines also with numbers restrictions, and both offering an experience of rows and series of taped-off seats and benches to ensure social distancing, amidst other invonveniences – clearly none of this offers an attractive travel opportunity. Travel has, in the past few years, and for a variety of reasons, represented an increasingly dispiriting, soulless experience and local transportation – getting to and from the western isles, and then around it in the leisurely way that is required – seems set to join the club. All necessary, of course – and I feel very much for the workers involved in that every day they go to work, who also need the confidence about exposure to the virus – but it offers an unattractive prospect.

As it is for B&B owners here too, one of whom told me only recently that her guests are regulars, having been coming for years, and who are always greeted with a hug. Not being able to do that under distancing rules leaves arrival and departure an awkward, unfriendly and unpleasant experience. Meanwhile, none of them either want to be the owner of a B&B whose guests were the ones bringing the virus in. On top of that, with ‘non-essential’ places – like museums, pubs and catering establishments – still shut, there’s little left for people coming here other than the outdoors. Nature is wonderful, and especially so here, but meeting people and enjoying their hospitality, and learning from them, is an essential part of the holiday experience and, if this is currently unavailable, the experience will be a partial, and incomplete, one and I wonder whether this, alongside the difficulties, increasing inconveniences and the cost of getting here, renders it also unworthwhile.

It might not be the end of travel, exactly; but travel is, it seems, likely to become for essential journeys only for the foreseeable future if for no other reason than the degraded quality of the experience. In that sense, the West Highland Free, in its editorial today (linked above), is right to wonder whether some ‘fresh thinking’ is required (and in the fairly short-term) about whether the region ‘should look beyond tourism and harness greater opportunities from the likes of agriculture, aquaculture, information technology and energy production’.

It is. Islanders tend to have several jobs, and for most – though far from all – tourism is not the only source of income, while tourism has come relatively late, but it is a healthy reminder that a diverse economy is a stronger one and that over-exposure to one or other sector will always leave people in a vulnerable position.

So, time to call sunset on this season, I think.

Talking of which, here’s one for you from last night, taken just before 11:

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And, as a bonus, here’s Ian’s fishing boat at twenty past ten last Friday night, resting up under a glorious pink-washed sky after a day’s hard work relieving the pressure on food deliveries in these times by bringing quality shellfish from the sea straight to our pots. Not only great work, but an important pointer to how things – the new normal – ought to be in the future.

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EDIT: 22 June – yesterday carried an article voicing similar themes and reporting also that ‘quiet voices’ among islanders were coming to the conclusion that the islands should ‘stay closed ’til 2021′. This blog adds one more such voice.

Brew Day: Belgian Blonde

Friday might well be the brewday of choice for the discerning home brewer – but Wednesday is perfectly possible, too. And, with a small gap on the work front, ahead of a busy couple of days coming up, today was the turn of a Belgian Blonde kit.

This is the first of three different kits secured a couple of weeks ago from Brewstore, an Edinburgh-based supplier of all things home brew since 1979. Currently closed to personal customers, as is the way of things during the current Troubles, the website offers a window, at changing times of the day and evening, during which people can place orders, and this came with pretty prompt service after one evening when I found myself, fortuitously, in the middle of one of those windows.

Continuing the minimalist theme of the Brewdog Elvis Juice kit I made a week or so ago – and which is still sat in my main fermenter, fermentation having (I hope) finished, and now absorbing the flavours of the dry hops I put in on Monday – this kit also provides only the basic ingredients and leaves you to get on with the job:

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Steriliser – nah: supply your own; kit instructions – check the website; flavour notes and tips – well, everyone knows a Belgian Blonde, don’t they: in this case, ‘classic Belgian fruitiness, lightly spicy and hints of clove’. Hoppier than I remember, and a little deeper amber in colour, too, if the contents of my gravity sample jar are anything to go by. Perhaps it’s just too long since I was last in Brussels. The handwritten labels, so I don’t mix hops or malt up with the other two packs I ordered, is a nice touch. And yes, the (vacuum-packed) hop (pellets) are in a little paper bag, of precisely the sort that your tuppenny mix (insert your own currency here) used to come in. The malt is not vacuum-packed – it’s in a poly bag with a hand-tied knot – but I know it’s freshly milled. And here, the yeast is at least a 10g pack: more than enough to give me another go at some future point. (At around a tenner, I should also say that it’s pretty well priced.)

And, actually, that is the point – Brewstore also offer a ‘recipe builder’ service so, in the future, I can order the hops and the malt that I need to make a particular beer, and in the quantities I want. That’s definitely one step closer to ‘proper’ brewing, once I’ve finished ironing out the process and getting my mistakes learning points out of the way.

With just the one set of hops, and all introduced at the start of the boil (or before, if you’re first wort hopping, like me), this was a fairly straightforward process (and I even managed to do a bit of cleaning up rather than needing to keep a close eye on my timings, otherwise pacing up and down, while the wort was on the boil). The tricky bit about a Belgian Blonde, so James Morton tells me, is in the fermentation, which has to be kept cool in the first 48 hours before letting the yeast rip. Keeping things cool in the Hebrides is not usually much of a problem – though, even so, while I managed to cool my wort down lower than I ever have done before, pitching the yeast at 18C, my demijohn is now sat in a bath of cold water at a steady 18C. Conversely, ‘letting it rip’: well, let’s just say I’m a bit less confident about that. At least the weather forecast is for sunshine over the weekend so, once it’s out of this initial lag, let’s see how the yeast gets on in the warmth of a Hebridean summer. (And another good reason for timing a Wednesday brewday.)

No brewday is ever quite complete without a panic or two – here, the major one was actually last night when I found out that the new silicon bungs I bought when the previous airlock got stuck in one (and snapped) wouldn’t fit my demijohn, no matter how much hot water, squeezing and swearing I tried. A quick online consultation with the very helpful and reliable home brewers over at the HomeBrew Forum confirmed for me within minutes that a freezer bag held on with a rubber band (if I wanted to have confirmation that fermentation was underway); or a bit of cling film (sanitised) and secured in place similarly (if I don’t), were more than acceptable substitutes. In brewing, there is no problem that no-one has yet come across – or found an answer to.

Life is probably a bit like that too, once we remember how to ask.