Harris and Lewis, including on Sunday

Just back from a two-day break at the weekend in Harris and Lewis – first time for me for the latter; second time for the former (we toured around south Harris, from Leverburgh to Leverburgh via Rodel, Tarbet and the west side, on Easter Saturday). The weather was just gorgeous (sunny and with the beginnings of a real warmth to the sun), which helped, as did some excellent overnight accommodation on the west side of Lewis, at Barvas, just at the end of the road across the moors from Stornoway (and a place with as high a concentration of Gàidhlig speakers as South Uist).

Arriving off the ferry on Saturday late morning, and with a short delay caused by a non-working charger for the electric car in Lochmaddy (we needed to use the slow charger in Leverburgh to give us enough juice to get to Tarbert, where the rapid charger was thankfully working), there wasn’t time for a lot else on Saturday other than a visit to the excellently preserved and maintained blackhouses at Gearrannan.

It was also a good time to experience the ‘quiet Sunday’ still enjoyed by our northern cousins (and which I also recall of my own, very distant, hometown of my youth in the south of England).

Coming back south on the Sunday, we did a full run of the rest of the west-side tourist attractions – the Arnol Blackhouse, the spectacularly-sited broch at Dun Carloway and Callanish (I, II and III though there are several more). Being Sunday, nothing was actually open: the sites themselves are open access but Arnol was closed, as were the visitor centres at Callanish and at Dun Carloway. This was not unexpected – we knew beforehand that nothing was likely to be open – but I felt the loss of information that was the result more keenly since trips to Lewis are not that common. We don’t have many blackhouses (or whitehouses) left on Uist (an interesting thing by itself since, at least in this corner of Lewis, there are ruins (as well as restorations) a-plenty, and it would have been good to have explored that with knowledgeable staff); I know a little more about brochs having visited the sites at Mousa, on Shetland, and at Glenelg; but it would have been good to have found out a bit more about why Callanish III is billed as ‘one of the most interesting stone circles at Callanish’.

In the 20 minutes we were at Arnol, at least four other cars showed up: at £5/head that’s a sizable loss of revenue. I know it’s not about the money and you’ll find no argument from me about protecting workers’ rights or about the need for families to enjoy time together. It’s not uncommon in Europe for museums to be be closed one day a week – though Monday is often that day. And that is, obviously, a very different day to Sunday. But families are interested in trips out, too – and a custom which draws on the power of the church and which acts to inhibit people from finding out more about the way people lived their lives in the past because of the way (some) people choose to live their lives now never made much sense to me. That custom will change in time (indeed, it already is, bit by bit) and that has to be a good thing, although I can see increased traffic on a Sunday being a bit of an issue – many of these attractions are essentially at the linear end of someone’s street, or in the middle of their village. There’s always the internet, I guess – though finding out information on-screen, later, as opposed to asking an on-site expert is never a good substitute (and, nine times out of ten, will never actually be done).

Fortunately, on a Sunday there are natural wonders also to be enjoyed (although often these are also to be found only by travelling past the houses of people enjoying a ‘quiet Sunday’, as the picture below also relates): the legendary beaches on the west side of Harris never fail to disappoint on days like these. Here’s a view across turquoise waters to the smooth white sands, backed by marram grass dunes, of world-famous Luskentyre:

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This is not quite the ‘money shot’ of Luskentyre – this one’s taken from the main road above Seilebost and on the way to Horgabost – although you can easily see where the money shot is: to the right of the little estuary adjacent to the main beach and thereafter down along the dunes, with the smooth curves of the estuary itself as a prominent foreground feature. (And, just in case, there are of course no filters being used here.)

And, this last Sunday, you (probably) wouldn’t even have needed your coat.

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Where have all the eider gone?

Gone to eiderdowns, every one (it seems). (Apart from this one mature chap, obviously.)

IMG_0195aYet, despite looking so glitteringly handsome as he floated amidst the seaweed in the afternoon sun of Easter week (only the blush pink chest is not quite so evident in my picture here), he has no mate (or, at least, it’s not apparent that he does). And, actually, he’s the first eider I’ve seen in the bay all winter.

Last year’s breeding season wasn’t a great success: we had (at least) four pairs but only three chicks ever made it into the eider creche and at least one, and maybe more, of those didn’t survive: the rest of the eider, the males having already departed, were all gone early and none has returned all winter. In contrast, I can recall a couple of pairs lingering here for the whole of the previous winter before being joined by a couple of other couples. Although perhaps that, rather than this, was the exception.

Competition for scarce food sources is, as always, the most likely explanation for wildlife moving on in this way: this winter, the high tide, especially when driven in by a north wind, has brought a feeding frenzy of herring, common and black-headed gulls stabbing at the morsels drifting in on the tide and it’s likely that they’re snaffling much of what the sea has to offer. Here’s a small section of the water in the bay at high tide, taken on Friday evening last week, to show what I mean:

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Spot also the pair of oystercatchers watching on from the shore with a look of stoical bemusement. They tend to feed on buried shellfish patiently winkled out from the sand once the tide has started to retreat or on the early incoming tide, although oystercatchers usually feed a little lower than the high tide line and they can dig for worms on the machair – something denied to the eider whose diet is entirely sea-based. Similarly, eider – sea-going ducks – tend to dive for their food, which gulls tend not to do. Left entirely to its own devices, nature tends to look after itself, as we know from sparrowhawks and songbirds; and, more recently, from the tentative relationship between pine martens and red and grey squirrels.

So, it may not be just the scarcity of food which is keeping the eider away, although it may surely be one factor. And, after this all-too-brief show, this one eider’s away too. Perhaps they’re just hiding somewhere around the bay.

Apart from the colours of the male (and the variety: last year’s numbers included an eclipse version), eider make the most fantastic calls calling to mind a deeper, perhaps tenor, version of Kenneth Williams in full surprised mode. Colour and good humour all wrapped up in one package means that the prospect of not having them around the bay this spring, and replaced in the latter case by the manic, panicked screaming and mocking of gulls, would definitely be a loss.

UPDATE 15/4/18: Up a little earlier than usual this Sunday morning and my reward was the arrival, with no little ceremony, of a small armada of eider flying in close formation as they do, bulk notwithstanding, and landing in the bay. Closer inspection revealed five males and five females, with at least two pairs seeming to take a close interest in settling round-here-abouts.

UPDATE 19/4/18: A group of 7 males and six females cruised in on this morning’s receding tide to preen and sunbathe following the very rough southerly winds we’ve had these past few days, plus I spotted another pair drifting a little further away. So – record numbers. After all. 🙂

Here’s a group of 6 plus 6 😉 with the seventh somewhat stand-offish male omitted to focus a little better on the main group:

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Stick a brew on, Calvin (3)

It’s bottling day.

This was due originally to take place early last week but, with a small, unscheduled time lag arising from a delayed start to fermentation (note to self: do not shock the yeast when pitching; aerate the wort well; and the advised ‘cool, dark’ temperatures of 15-22 Celsius, well, it really needs to be a bit warmer than that in the cool of a Hebrides house to encourage the yeast to come out to play), and with fermentation likely to have finished a couple of days ago (at least as far as the visible evidence is concerned), I left my brew for a few more days happily lying on.

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The observant will note that, with 4ltrs of beer in the demijohn, these five bottles must be a somewhat odd size; or otherwise that something else may have happened. They are indeed 660ml bottles (ex-Innis and Gunn Original, actually) but that ought to have made six bottles, not five… Disaster struck as a result of an over-enthusiastic application of the bottle capper, post filling, which left the neck of the fifth bottle in shards across the kitchen table and a good chance of a few more in the bottle itself. As well as a rather tense capping of the sixth bottle. It’s really not worth the risk of drinking the contents, strongly tempted though I am, so I’m just back from pouring 1/6 of my hard work straight down the sink. Grrr.

I did get an early taste of the beer when bottling – flat, at this stage (carbonation happens as a result of secondary fermentation in the bottles) and certainly cloudy (it’s the colour and consistency of hefeweizen, quite naturally since I’m not using a secondary fermentor or finings), but certainly tasting of beer, being both dry, hoppy, bitter and citrusy (as expected). And alcoholic, too; although I’m not going to be measuring its actual gravity (my kit suggests it ought to turn out, eventually, around 6.3%). And how did I come to know this at this early stage? Well, after going to the trouble of sterilising the bottles, the caps, the siphon and the racking cane, the siphon has to be started somehow… which seems to defeat the object of sterilisation somewhat. Still.

All being well, the (rest of the) beer should be ready in 2-3 weeks; pending which all remaining five bottles are back in the same place in the kitchen where the demijohn stood, and underneath a towel (which has the dual purpose of keeping light out and adding some form of protection against an over-active conditioning process).

As for me, I’ll get on with the cleaning up before getting on with brewing the next batch

An Easter Bunny says hello…

… snapped through our lounge window, sunning him/herself in this morning’s sunshine while contentedly chewing on yesterday’s tender morsels.

IMG_0212a (Custom)It’s the third time I’ve seen him/her this week too, but the first time I’ve done so with a camera close at hand: the first time hopping around underneath the nest box/bird table made with love, and with pride, down at Restore, on which I think s/he was feasting on some spilled berry suet otherwise ignored by our thriving (and clearly well-fed) gang of starlings; the second time when s/he scuttled off to a hidey-hole after seeing me head for the shed for more briquettes for the fire, probably to a ‘burrow’ made by me among the somewhat haphazardly ‘stacked’ and now a little overgrown concrete blocks in the background of the photo, discarded in the renovations of our home nearly two years ago. (And which also forms cover and potential nest sites for other birds, including wrens, by the way – reason enough not to tidy it up!)

All this and plenty of grass: it seems that Bunny is living the life of Riley – at least until that white-tailed eagle comes a-calling again…

In the meantime, a Happy Easter to one and all!

Stick a brew on, Calvin (2)

Coincident both with the last ever London Drinker and with the opening of a new Brewdog in my hometown, I managed to choose today finally (FINALLY!) to get around to brewing one of the beers I blogged about obtaining some months back. Well, it is just about the first time since then I’ve had a guaranteed time at home to keep an eye on things as they ferment and then undergo a secondary fermentation once bottled. Despite my original purchase being the product of a Twitter advertising campaign (one reason for me never ‘liking’ things on Twitter…), Brew Craft Beer has never once contacted me subsequently by e-mail or even by post; a level of marketing tardiness in this day and age which ought, in principle, really to be a prompt for another purchase.

Anyway, of the two kits I bought last summer I went for the IPA. Aside of a couple of small holes in the brewing instructions (resolved with the aid of a few scribbled notes for next time), this was a pretty smooth, if very long, process: three solid hours, plus equipment preparation (sterilisation) and then decanting into a demi-john, and then the washing up, is a fairly solid investment of time into something whose results are far from certain and certainly not guaranteed. Truth to tell, I suspect that the yeast might have been a little close to the end of its life (expiry this month), and I managed to overheat the water at the start of the mash (the difficulties of working with an electric hob, not gas!). Concentration, and speed of reaction, here is really important. The most significant problem, however, was at the sparging process, during which you really need an industrial-size sieve: I used the biggest one available in our kitchen but it was big enough to handle little more than one-third of the wort at one time. I think I remember my Dad using an old pair of Mum’s nylons at this point but, it seems, these days, equipment needs not only to have been thoroughly washed out, as in the past, but fully sterilised, too.

Time will tell as regards the taste of my IPA – eleven days in the demi-john and then a further two/three weeks of conditioning in the bottle – but this has so far been a rewarding process and one definitely worth repeating (and a good job too: the yeast in the Dilly-Dally is also up this month). Brewing in small batches is a pricey business, though: £12 for 4ltrs of beer, for just the raw ingredients alone (as I moaned about previously), makes this an expensive hobby in comparison to popping down to the Co-Op and picking up a few bottles of fully-formed and matured Innis and Gunn, currently at £2.89/660ml). But then, price has never been much of a prompt in comparison to experience gained and knowledge won.

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Time starting to do its telling (demi-john not here in its final position, obviously).

Now, I just need to find a local crofter who could do something with the draff. And, also, I need to start to think about a recipe for making Marmite, just in case that Unileaver loses attention on the UK as a result of its HQ move yesterday 😉 Though making Marmite is, it seems, quite another business entirely from that of making beer. (And, by the way, hats off and absolute respect for a live and active blog post that is just about celebrating its seventh birthday.)

And, as a reward for making it this far through a post about beer (and Marmite), here’s something for that handful of individuals for whom these things are not so important: the view from my kitchen window as I was watching my pots (or, indeed, not). Specifically, somewhat to the left of the position of the demi-john, looking East North-East and taken just before 2pm on an incoming tide.

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Watching the tide roll away

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A small part of a flock of greenshank on Ardivachar beach, taken at quarter past six last night and just after sunset against a tide now well on the retreat.

Our own bay has seen a lot of greenshank this winter, and far more than I can remember last – mostly, these are likely to be Scandinavian birds coming here for their winter holidays, although there is an increasing resident population overwintering here too rather than heading off to south-western Ireland and the Med. As I write this morning, yesterday’s (and this early morning’s) blue swamped by a uniform, and increasingly chilly, grey, there is a large three-figure flock, recently swelled from the thirty or so birds we had a few months at the dark end of 2017, towards the far side of the bay busying themselves on the edge of an incoming tide.

Yesterday, with our bay also sparkling in the welcome sunshine that covered most of the UK, the flock was engaged in a kind of brief murmuration of some 200+ birds, twisting and turning in the sun, rising higher in a figure of eight pattern and taking their cues from a continually changing succession of invisible leaders, white bellies flashing in the sunshine against a sky the softest of blues as they did so, before settling again to feed and preen at the edge of the tide, all spread out and each settling back down into their own spot with the rarest of squabbles among them. There was no raptor obviously present among them, but greenshank, as easily disturbed as their smaller red cousins, often do this although rarely flying up more than a few feet above the water: food is still scarce and conserving energy remains a vital element of individual survival.

Talking of mumurations, this is a good excuse to link to this picture and report from earlier this year, but which crossed my Twitter feed for the first time also at the weekend. It’s somewhat anthropomorphic to see birds forming the shape of an even bigger bird to see off a predator, and thus we should resist the temptation to see anything in Daniel Biber’s terrific picture other than a great shot of a moment in, and apparently out of, time as well as a tribute to the lengths and the sheer hard work that photographers put in to capture meaning in a shot – although the collectivist in me so wants to see resistance to anthropomorphism, on this occasion, crumble!

A little mood indigo at the Solstice

Winter Solstice indigo

And the close of daylight on the shortest day; the sun having set behind the main roof of the house on the right and calmly reflecting gentle pink skies a little further south; and a first quarter moon rising bright in the clear sky.

We’ve not had a lot of days like this these last few months, and sunrise this morning saw a familiar pattern: grey skies and little warmth in the sky – albeit with no wind and, therefore, no cold. But the weather slowly improved as the day passed and the clouds lifted, before clearing to the south and west, giving a fireglow sunset of colour and gentle drama.

This is my view from the office – here, south and west with the sun on this day setting several points to the south of west. And, recently, it’s a view that I have been taking in a lot – though I’m not absolutely complaining 🙂 – except with a little less to detain my interest than here, on the day with the longest night.

PS 22 December: As if to emphasise the message that this is the turning of the seasons, I heard a songbird this morning, just after sunrise. Not one of our usual gang of starlings chattering away as they do at sunrise and sunset, but a single bird calling, a little like the song of a blackbird, although that would be unlikely since we don’t see too many of them; or perhaps a redwing – we have plenty of them although its song is rare, so that’s unlikely too. But, whatever it was, its song was pretty, and very welcome at this darkest time of the year. Not quite Hardy’s Darkling Thrush but somewhat in the same vein, at least.

By the way, on blackbirds, see here for evidence that blackbirds, in contrast to the prevailing view that they’re happy to be more or less home birds, do indeed get about enough to need a CalMac island-hopping ticket (without tender, of course).

Things I’ll miss about Perth…

The sun having not quite yet set sees me still in Perth, continuing to pack boxes with useful stuff and filling PKC’s recycling dumpsters with my rather less useful stuff. Following my previous post about missing bits of Perth, here’s a slightly indulgent post listing a small selection of things in this same direction (and avoiding the rather more obvious touristy stuff you can get up to in Perth’s fair city):

1. The Kirkside. Perth’s not blessed with really great pubs but this is a gem. Now with beers from Perth’s Inveralmond Brewery, including occasionally Thrappledouser, which featured in a BBC quiz on ‘delicious but faintly ridiculous beer names‘, there’s good beer and good company – and Tina and the current owners, and Geoff and Michael before them, alongside the staff and the regulars, have always offered friendship as well as being really good neighbours.

2. Marek and Magda and staff at Cafe Tabou for top quality food and drink and customer service, and for delightful anticipation every time I step in. And for Innis and Gunn on draught.

3. Terrific curries – especially the Murgh Handi – and top traditional service (including lemon towels – much appreciated!) from Ifty and Imran, the extremely friendly front of house people, of Nawaab (a fine family restaurant located in a beautiful building, too). Food served with a flourish and a sense of occasion. Good luck, guys.

4. Pizzas from Duo‘s wood-fired oven (and Old Engine Oil, too, with an ITK recommendation from The Bluffer’s Guide to Beer).

(Perth, being a member of the Cittaslow / slow food movement, does have really good restaurants!)

5. Perth’s wonderful floral displays, especially at the top of the wonderfully-named Needless Road just outside the city, and all around the city centre. Even in late summer, the old, and loved, City Hall is still beautifully adorned:

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6. The view as the evening sun shines on the red sandstone of the building which now houses Katy’s Company bridal shop (and formerly Kippen Campbell, solicitors) and which is properly known as the Kirk Session House of St. Johns, built in 1910 (the Session House would be the place where the church elders gathered to govern the affairs of the Church and, perhaps, to collect funds for the poor. The reference in this link to the Session House being used to keep a watch over the graveyard is also interesting although, in Perth’s history, the graveyard had long gone by 1910. It may of course have been part of the function of any previous Session House located on the same spot, or otherwise nearby.)

7. The rather lovely tune that the Carillon at the historic St. John’s Kirk plays every day at 3pm (I’ll be missing the 8am alarm call followed by a bottom-heavy and somewhat ponderous Greensleeves rather less, though).

Speaking of which, here are just a couple of other things I’ll not miss:

1. Trudging across town, overloaded plastic carrier bags in hands struggling to contain various items of glass, plastic and paper, past some no doubt bemused shoppers and tourists, to do my recycling. It’s not a long walk – probably about half a mile distance from my flat – but PKC really do need to get recycling initiatives properly sorted out for us town centre residents, in the absence of which it’s certainly not easy being green.

2. The sights and sounds of plastic rubbish bags, guts spilling out after well-targeted attacks by assorted gulls and crows, when walking through the city streets early on residual rubbish collection days (Tuesdays and Fridays). PKC absolutely need to get that sorted, too.

Perth’s been good to me. I’ll be back – not least for one more trip in the middle of next month – but, after that, more likely only as a visitor rather than a resident. Exit (pursued by a double-headed eagle).

Sunset on Perth

IMG_20170818_204322Sunset on Friday night, taken with my low-pixel smartphone (hence the grainy, somewhat impressionistic approach) just before quarter to nine, looking west along South Street, Perth (South Street runs east-west; neither is it the most southerly road in Perth’s grid system; and it leads to the middle of Perth’s three bridges over the Tay. There must be a reason for this name, although I’ve never yet been able to establish it…).

I am currently in Perth and will be here for the immediate future as I have just managed to sell my flat, courtesy of the hard-working folks at Next Home, and there’s a lot of stuff (an awful lot, given that administration of my paperwork has never been my strong point) to pack up and shift out (I’m expecting record tonnes of paper recycling being achieved by Perth in this quarter!). On top of quite a bit of incoming editing workload, in addition to two major ongoing projects, I’m going to have my work cut out over the next couple of weeks. I bought the flat at the tail end of 2008 and, in terms of central Perth prices for flats, as well as in terms of economics, it’s been pretty much a lost decade (even if not one of lost equity) – although my story might well have been a little different had PKC got on with redeveloping City Hall (which my flat overlooks, and which was key to the original decision to purchase it) rather than wasting much of the intervening period fighting Historic Scotland over its demolition. Now those plans are – at long last – starting to crystallise, with the decision as to which architect to go with being announced last Wednesday, I wish the new owners better luck with their investment!

Since the sale, I’ve had many people question whether I’ll miss the place – and I will, I guess, although I’m not sure it’s possible to miss a building, only the people and memories that have populated it and given it life. By my reckoning, my flat in Perth is the tenth place I’ve lived in and built memories in during my life (of 53 years, and counting) and, being well underway with the eleventh, I do wonder how many more there’ll be. Certainly I’ll be missing Perth (and city centre living), and Southern Fried, but I’ve been living away from here now for a year, and people change, and move on; and it’s the right time to finish off this particular chapter and continue actively writing the new one – in which direction, of course, the sale proceeds will (hopefully quite soon) come in very handy.

In the meantime, if anyone does have a use for Red Dwarf VHS tapes, do give me a shout…