Stick a brew on, Calvin

Aha – the postie just brought some great news: Bottoms Up IPA, along with a side order of Dilly Dally English Pale Ale, courtesy of the good folks from Kirkcaldy at Brew Craft Beer and a product of a Twitter advertising campaign from the company which cropped up on my feed earlier this year (these things do work: and it’s a bit scary that it does!).

IMG_6442 (Custom)It’s a kit, of course, and a real one involving proper malt, yeat and hops – no chemical flavourings – as well as a need to understand the intricacies of the wash, sparge and boil stages of making good beer. Bottoms Up IPA promises me ‘floral and tropical aromas … bursts of fruity, citrus hoppiness with grapefruit and orange bitterness … and a sweet biscuity maltiness’ while Dilly-Dally is a ‘bright, coppery English Pale Ale, [with] a maltier base [than its American cousin], with a touch of caramel, as well as a gentle woody, floral aroma.

The kits don’t come cheap – at £12 for enough ingredients to make 4 litres of beer, that works out at about £1.70/pint. Plus delivery plus equipment plus time (and plenty of the latter, by the looks of it). Nevertheless, any attempt to become my generation’s Logan Plant has to start somewhere.

I will be blogging some more about this once I get up and running with it. Or, if it doesn’t quite work out, look out for a few tweets instead.

Just need the time to get the kettle on, now. In the meantime, I have instructions to study… and, I suspect, to learn by heart if I’m not to be juggling saucepans, thermometers, very hot water and pieces of paper with writing on it.

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.

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.

Amazing what can crop up in your photos…

Thursday last week was a beautiful day on the islands: calm, with winds dropping to the single digits mph from the 40/50+ they’d been for much of the previous seven days and with cloudless, spring-like blue skies.

In short, a good day for travelling – and good timing, too; as we’d long planned a trip off-island via the Lochmaddy-Uig ferry.

Seeing the colour of the skies – and the Cuillin ridge on Sky, visible from our house for the first time in weeks of mist and low cloud cover – I made sure my camera (a simple Canon compact) was with me in the front of the car and, coming off the ferry (a first time for me on the MV Hebridean Isles, I started snapping away through the windscreen as we came down through Skye and especially as the Cuillin Ridge came into view. On my second effort, I was aware of two lapwings that rose from the left, startled, across the road and my field of view just as I pressed the shutter release (I know: they probably don’t still call them that). I thought little of it – lapwings are easily disturbed – and, on checking that my view of the total width of the Black Cuillins had indeed been photobombed by a lapwing, nearly deleted it immediately. It’s not, in any case, a great photo (enhancing (as I have done below) via software easily available over the internet improves somewhat the original over-exposure of the ridge and restores a little of the blue sky, although I’ve lost quite a bit in straightening the horizon line). Further down the road, once I’d got my focusing sorted out, I have much better snaps – although that is all they are, given the circumstances – albeit of the Red Cuillins, not the Black ones.

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And yet, and yet. Look a bit closer. What’s the bird in the middle of the photo? One of the disturbed lapwings is clear enough, in the foreground, but that bird top centre, a little further distant. Is that ‘fingers’ visible on the end of its brown, and very broad, right wing, or a simple blur of movement as the bird changes direction? Is that an interesting-looking tail arrangement, or a mistake in the colours given the limits of the photograph being taken? Something in any way potentially predatory, looking to cut off the lapwing’s exit right? Zooming close in on the bird in question, gives me this, inevitably poor quality, blurred shot:

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Clearly it is a raptor which has raised the lapwings – and a major one, judging by what seems to be a fearsome hooter. Look at the power in those shoulders. My first thought was a white-tailed eagle (which I have seen, memorably, on Skye before, in a boat trip out of Portree harbour a little way south into the Sound of Raasay). The wings are not big or broad enough for a white-tailed, however – but it is most certainly a golden eagle: most specifically, a juvenile one: the white tail tipped with black feathers gives it away. My first, confirmed, sighting of a goldie, too: and in what dramatic circumstances – the bird seems to be clearly arching in towards the second, slower of the two lapwing(s) although whether they or something else is the target of the hunt is uncertain. I (and the passengers in the other drivers in the convoy of cars coming down Skye from Uig) seem to have been an unwitting, uninvited witness to a strike by one of the UK nature’s finest, and perhaps most feared, killing machines.

Or is it my sighting? Yes, it is absolutely a golden eagle (unless anyone with better knowledge can correct me!). But does a picture of one – a moment in and out of time – really count as a sighting? Especially one in which the bird in question features as a mistake, and from the safe, sealed environment of the inside of a car? What makes my picture of the young goldie any different from one I’ve seen in a book or on the RSPB website? Yes, I took the picture – but I didn’t mean actually to take a picture of a golden eagle. And – to confess the key point in my philosophical ramble – I can’t recall whether I actually saw it live: I’ve only seen it on my photo. Yes, dear reader, I took a picture of a golden eagle without actually seeing one. What happened after its swoop – the key part in its hunger chase – I didn’t catch: my attention was all on the lapwing(s) with the cheek to photobomb my shot of the Cuillin Ridge, which quickly went out of sight on the moorland to the right and behind as the car continued to roll forwards. Does an image of a bird, unseen in the original, really count as a sighting in these circumstances? The lapwing is a striking and exotic enough bird but not only is it a bit commonplace (red listed it may be but, in the Hebrides, they’re really two-a-penny), in these particular circumstances, sighting a lapwing is the very definition of anti-climax.

I think my quest for a confirmed golden eagle sighting might well have to continue – even if I could scarcely have got closer this time. But it does demonstrate the importance of paying attention; seeing the full picture and not losing focus in the frustrations of a moment apparently lost but which, when afforded the opportunity of such hindsight, had the makings of something much, much better.

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.

Anticipating Barbara

The second storm of winter 2016/17 to be serious enough to be named by our excellent Met Office – Barbara – is firmly on her way. Indeed, her horsemen are already here, with winds over the last 24 hours gusting up to the mid-50s, in mph, according to the precise forecast for our very local area. But they are very much the warm-up act: Barbara herself, when she arrives into town sometime around high noon tomorrow, will bring us winds gusting into the low 70s and an average of an apparently meaningless 1 mph below 50. And then she stays around [Edit: apparently she then changes her name to Conor], with threateningly high winds extending, after a small respite in the afternoon and evening of Christmas Eve, most of the way through until Boxing Day. Thanks, and Happy Christmas.

This is the first real storm I’ve been through since moving here and I’ve been anticipating its arrival for some time, through the weeks and the months of calm weather we’ve had up to now. You haven’t lived in the Hebrides until you’ve been through a proper storm, and I’ve been awaiting it with all the pre-flight nerves of an anxious teenager anticipating a first sexual encounter. Barbara, we were made for each other, you and I. Let’s get it on.

Meanwhile, Calmac ferries are hugely disrupted: 26 of, er, 26 routes are currently already either cancelled, disrupted or have ‘be aware’ tags on them; and Flybe/Loganair flights, while normal today, have significant changes to them tomorrow as the brief weather windows are sought out which can be exploited so that people at least have a chance of getting to their Christmas destinations. The Western Isles Council (the Comhairle) has also put out its advice. Here, I’ve spent a few minutes outside this morning shifting our recycling bins into the byre where they will be a little more sheltered, so that they don’t cowp over and spill their contents all down the road and into the sea; moving picnic and garden benches to the eastern-facing side of the house (Barbara approaches from the south and then, kindly, shifts her angle of attack to the west) – after all, we don’t want a repeat of September’s gales (below), or worse; and shifting miscellaneous loose left-over bits of timber, plant pots and other garden detritus into the shed.

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As I write from our west-facing office, I watch, alarmed, as the glass in the double-glazing bulges inwards as an intense gust of wind pokes a testing, probing finger into it, before re-shaping itself back to normal, unbreached, as the finger retreats, flexing itself for another assault. Sitting quietly, I feel the structure of our house tense as it solidly resists, standing firm against the desire of the wind to shift it out of its path. Intermittent, but furious, showers of small hailstones beat short-term, but insistent, rounds of applause against the window panes. Outside: a loose strip of something-or-other underneath the eaves oscillates violently in the wind, making a buzzing sound like a low-pitched kazoo as the wind is forced to turn, against its will, by the house’s refusal to budge. The sky and the land are dark and the headlights of approaching cars coming down our road shine brightly in the gloom from a couple of miles away.

The gulls are quietened and the waders have, mostly, departed for wherever it is that waders go at these sorts of times, although a couple do emerge whenever the wind drops a little to allow them enough respite to seek out a sustaining snack or two from the incoming tide, nearly now at its height; very few of our gang of starlings remain scratchily at work in the field and on the shore; but the lapwings, however, continue to fly around, anxiously, piteously, calling out as they twist in the wind, testing and, so far, managing its strength. They know what’s coming. Likewise, the sheep in the field adjacent to our front door are hunkered down against the (wire) fence, back ends to the wind and, it seems, shaped for resistance to nature; at the other end, little appears to interfere with their stoical chewing. They, at least, are experienced at and with this; nay, they are used to it.

As for a soundtrack to the storm, opening my iTunes pre-sorted by album brings me, at the top of the pile, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, from 2004’s Abbatoir Blues. Not so much linguistically but certainly sonically, the sound and the fury of Cave’s delivery, and the intensity of the Bad Seeds’s playing and singing, call to mind the fear of what’s to come and the changes that Barbara’s arrival may bring.

I’m trying not to think too much about Cave’s title, though.

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Fishing boats, Lochmaddy harbour. Picture taken 23 November, 11:41

I spent three days last week in Lochmaddy, courtesy of taking advantage of some training in museum documentation (incorporating the Adlib categorisation package) on behalf of the North Uist Historical Society. Lochmaddy is the largest settlement on North Uist (thus two (actually three, including Grimsay) islands hence from South Uist). More people actually live on the west side of the Uists, with land on the east side substantially broken up by sea lochs and enclosed freshwater lochs, and substantial hills) but Lochmaddy’s proximity to Skye, and thus its port facilities for the ferry (a key one among Calmac routes), as well as a long-established, but now largely disappeared fishing industry, makes it the only settlement on North Uist with a clutch of co-located services.

Getting there, however, presents something of a challenge, especially from the south. It’s a trip of just over 26 miles from our house which, even in a car, takes around 45 minutes. For me, bearing in mind my status as a confirmed non-driver, it takes a wee bit longer. For this trip, getting to Lochmaddy in the middle of the day entails a three-mile walk to the main road to pick up the bus which runs up and down the spine of the islands and then a change of bus in Balivanich, the islands’ only town, on the central island of Benbecula.

None of this is a problem, I should add: I’m perfectly happy both in walking and using public transport (interestingly, the number of the bus: W17 (from South Uist to Benbecula; W16 from Benbecula to North Uist) is the same as the service both in Reading from my childhood home into town; and also from a home I shared in a small village outside Perth into Perth itself). And I have absolutely no complaints either about the companies or any of their excellent staff either in the offices or driving the buses themselves.

But, door-to-door, the journey is 2 hours and 4 minutes (including a brief stopover in Balivanich and allowing for the detour to Balivanich adding four miles to what is otherwise almost exactly a standard marathon route): at least eight separate Kenyans and Ethiopians would be likely to arrive at Taigh Chearsabhagh before me were they to set off from my house at the same time as me. Taking the high road, indeed.

As I changed buses, the driver reminded me to show my ticket to the driver on the W16 (it is possible to buy a through ticket) and then, in cheery farewell, said ‘You’re the first I’ve had for months!’ Not many people, it seems, want to travel beyond Balivanich (at least, not by public transport, not in the middle of the day, and when there’s no ferry due). And I suspect that’s almost as true from north to south as it is from south to north.

There could be any number of reasons for that, of course: Balivanich is the central town, and has both the airport and more shops and services than anywhere else north or south (a situation which, it seems, is likely only to become more pronounced); and the length of the journey by bus, the relative infrequency of services and the inconvenience of having to change buses in mid-trip means that a car journey is simply more practical for that journey (to say nothing of the three-mile hike at the start!). It might also be a little to do with the history: that people from the south have little reason to go that far north, and vice versa, stemming partly from the different socio-religious characteristics of north and south but also (and more likely) as a result of the simple practicalities: that journeys, in typically poorer societies, were rare except in cases of necessity and/or God, or animal heath and welfare; were undertaken otherwise only to visit friends and family who, typically, would be nearby anyway; and that travelling around the Uists, being a series of separate islands, would in the past be seen as risky (and still can be, by the way, in bad weather even though the islands in the Uists are all connected by causeways). All of this does add to the very different characteristics, and atmosphere, that constitute the different islands in the chain. Moving south, as we did on finding this house, did raise a few eyebrows from some of our friends in the north, even in 2015.

But back to my journey: 30 miles, via Balivanich, and I passed fewer than 2,000 people in making it: marathon runners would pass fewer than 1,000. A friend of mine recently remarked on how different life must be from London (and even from Perth!) and there is no clearer example of the starkness of the difference. Goodness knows how the Hebridean Pizza people find it: from working in media jobs in bustling Soho to bringing pizzas to the Uists (even to the bright lights of Balivanich!), and beyond, is about as dramatic a lifestyle change as you’ll find. Whatever it is they’re in search of, I hope they find it.