Show Your Stripes

News last week from my football club, to coincide with ‘Show Your Stripes’ Day, that it was launching a ‘progressive partnership’ with the University of Reading to improve its sustainability practices was welcome. What I didn’t know was that my hometown – in addition to giving football the greatest team the world has ever seen (well, the greatest team the Championship has ever seen, indisputably) – has also given the world climate stripes: the barcode-style heat map which demonstrates an easy-to-read visualisation of how the world, or your part of it, is getting hotter is an initiative of the University of Reading’s Ed Hawkins, a Professor in its well-established Meteorology Department. I was aware of climate stripes, of course, and there is a website which makes it relatively easy to show your stripes, but the hometown connection motivated me to dig a little bit deeper and see what I could do to show my own, very local, stripes (Ed – hoops, surely?)

The weather station for the Met Office – until 2003 also headquartered in the Royal(s) County – which is most local to me is South Uist Range. Located about 3km as the corncrake flies across open ground to the south-east of Ardivachar, what weather the Range station records is pretty much what we get. This station has, however, only been in use since July 1996, so its data – while building a dataset which will be comprehensive in the future – is of limited use in modelling the climate stripes for where I stay.

The other Met Office station for the Western Isles is Stornoway with a location which – at least in current terms – is adjacent to the airport. While the Met Office currently calls this location ‘Stornoway Airport’, I’ve no reason to assume it’s ever been located anywhere else than here at this point. Such a location is not untypical of many stations globally – they tend to be located on flat, open ground – and has led many climate change denialists to assume that recordings of termperature rises are associated with rapidly increased numbers of aircraft movements – that such locations thus give rise to false readings. We can, for evident reasons, probably discount such a theory at Stornoway Airport, though.

The station at Stornoway is one of the five oldest in use in the UK, dating back to 1873 and, indeed, the other four read as something like a tribute to the diversity of the UK, being Armagh and Oxford (both 1853), Southampton (1855) and Durham (1880). How such a spread came to be is rather heart-warming in its inclusiveness of the nations and regions of the UK. A graphic showing the climate stripes for these is readily available, with Sheffield substituting for Southampton, but the historic data for each of the Met Office’s ‘historic stations’ (37 in all) is easily found, so I thought I’d come up with my own, singular, version for Stornoway. Here, in a style which observes Hawkins’s commitment to ‘No words. No numbers. No graphs’, it is:

NB This is my own version, using a slightly different colour regime drawn from MS Excel, and is subject to data entry errors.

By way of explanation, the chart shows the mean annual temperature for Stornoway, from 1874 at the left-hand edge to 2021 at the right. Each column on the chart compares the mean temperature for that year with the mean for the twentieth century as a whole (1900-1999): annual temperatures significantly cooler than the C20 mean are shown in dark blue; those significantly warmer in dark red (with other shades indicating annual temperatures which are either cooler or warmer but with lesser significance). The annual means are an arithmetical average of the means for each month, themselves composed of the mean daily maximum temperatures in that month. There are other ways to approach the data – the station also records mean minimum temperatures and it would be possible to construct a figure for monthly mean temperature that way ((max+min)/2) but the outcome is, broadly, the same: Stornoway is clearly getting hotter.

We can see this from the red to the right of the chart; and we can also see it from the progression from the darker blues substantially to the left (the early part of the period), bearing in mind that we are comparing each annual mean to the mean for the C20 as a whole. Thus, the early years at the left (from 1874-1899) are largely cooler than the C20 mean while the later years to the right (2000-2021) are substantially warmer. Indeed, the mean maximum temperature for C20 is 11 degrees Centigrade; for the 26 years of the C19, the mean was 10.6 degrees; while for the 21 years of C21, the mean was 11.6. So, Stornoway has got hotter in the last 150 years by around 1 degree Centigrade – that’s pretty much in line with the average experience globally.

Obviously, annual temperatures fluctuate (as the following charts indicate, the year-to-year changes are volatile, which is why it is the trend that is most important, not what is happening in individual years (this cool summer included!). The pinker colours more or less in the centre of the climate stripes chart were in the later years of the Second World War and in the immediate period subsequently. We have indeed had temperatures that are ‘warmer’ in the past, too, but the years of the twenty-first century have been hotter for what is, in the context of this chart, an unprecedentedly sustained period. We might also record that the weather plunged into the cold in 1979.

I also had a look at the average ‘winter’ temperatures and the average ‘summer’ temperatures on the same basis (‘winter’ being defined as, within each calendar year, the six months from January-March and October-December inclusive while ‘summer’ is April-September inclusive. There are, of course, other ways to approach the data). While both summer and winter temperatures are rising, according to the annual means of the mean monthly maximum temperatures at Stornoway, it is the winter temperatures that are rising more quickly: the summers are getting comparatively warmer, but by less than the degree to which winters are becoming comparatively milder. The following charts compare the deviation for each season in each year from the C20 mean for that season (in Stornoway, 13.7C in ‘summer’; and 8.3C in ‘winter’); trendline added by Excel to demonstrate the comparative difference):

I suspected as much – rising annual rainfall (a measure of climate change also recorded by the Met Office stations), much of which falls in the winter months, speaks to rising winter temperatures. While there are still outliers – the 2010 winter was cooler than the C20 winter average by 0.76 degrees Centigrade – winter snows are, it seems, increasingly less and less likely; and, while the Caribbean may occasionally visit the Hebrides, this is going to be more evident from the photos than the reality for some time. Nevertheless, we are getting warmer.

As always, the essential question regards what is to be done. From an archaeological point of view, rising rainfall presents a particular problem both as regards ongoing digs and as regards the protection of particular established sites of interest. Temperatures becoming warmer also speaks to rises in sea levels which threatens coastal communities and sites of interest. There is only a limited range of effective measures which can be taken within such a field, however. The wider challenge to us all remains how we, as nations, address the rising temperatures that we all face. There are plenty of measures which can be taken about which much is already known, at societal level through decarbonisation, investment in renewable energy and building greater resilience in which biodiversity will flourish; through to individual decisions around transport and diet. Inevitably, there is a wide range of seriousness, a range of comparative priorities and plenty of lip service involved from those at governmental level charged with making policy which reflects these issues.

I’ll let this post bed in for a few days and then I’ll be changing the header picture to show my stripes, as above. It may not actually do anything in itself, but keeping the fundamental importance of the issue in mind, by quite literally nailing my colours to the mast, can never be a bad thing.

Ardivachar’s mystery mound

Our Understanding and Recording Coastal Archaeology sessions are now finished, but there was an optional assessment which students could submit; and, of course, I treated it as an integral part of participating. A full .pdf is elsewhere on the blog, but here is a short post both advertising that and providing a blog-length summary of the report (in terms of the word count, this is actually on target whereas the assignment turned out to be twice the required length – funny, that!).

My assignment seeks to bring together what we know about the mound situated at Ardivachar Point (Rubha Àird na Mhachrach) and also includes some basic recommendations about the management of the site in terms not only of the course themes but also with a view to a wider assessment of its value as a community and archaeological resource.

The mound

Nothing is known concretely about the mound: indeed, it has only been ‘known’, in an archaeological context, since 2005 when it was added to the record as a result of the Coastal Zone Assessment Survey carried out subsequent to the violent and tragic storm of that January.

The mound measures c. 9.1m x c. 3.6m and appears to have a rather definite heart, or diamond, shape in terms of how the grass falls at the edges and which may represent the limits of the displacement of ground when the mound was constructed.

Photo 1: the mound’s heart shape

The mound is located on the headland at Ardivachar and is around 11 metres from the edge of the rock platform facing a small reef a short way offshore. The site is not a physically obvious one to an untrained eye but there are a couple of interesting features around the site which add to its potential interest.

Firstly, there is a line of stones set into the grass some 15m to the north-east which may form part of a boundary wall (or which, alternatively, may be part of a structure which is nothing to do with the site – for example, boundary walls which pre-date the sub-division of the land into crofts).

Secondly, there are a number of grassy tussocks located c. 11m to the north-west, visible in Photo 1, which may indicate setting points for the sun around midsummer or which may act as some other orientation markers for the site (or which, alternatively, may be just tussocks of grass). Assuming that both of these are deliberate and part of the site increases its footprint quite sizably from the pure dimensions of the mound itself.

Thirdly, there is the issue of what the mound was used for or what it represents. Without more detailed archaeological examination, this is almost completely unclear although we can suppose that the thin topsoil does indicate that there is unlikely to be great depth to whatever may exist below the ground. However, there is an interesting story told locally about it which adds quite considerably to the tale that the site tells.

Erosion

Moore and Wilson’s assessment that the mound is not an eroding site – it is still graded yellow on SCAPE’s sites-at-risk register – remains a fair one: there is no evidence that the mound itself is under imminent threat from coastal erosion except in the very long-term. Nevertheless, this is not to say that the site is free from forces of erosion: in particular, there is the issue of excessive amounts of rainfall amidst the rising number of extreme weather events posing an increasing challenge to a site whose features are low in profile.

However, erosion is threatening the additional features mentioned above: the potential boundary wall; and the potential orientation markers. Were either indeed to be part of the story told at the site, their loss is much more imminent and likely to lead to a loss in its archaeological value. These issues are explored in the series of photographs below.

Boundary wall

The following two photographs look at the potential boundary wall which, if true, might have protected the mound and also served the function of setting it apart in some way. Photo 2 shows the length of the visible stones in a line which runs north-east from this angle – about 6.5m in length; Photo 3 shows the scale of erosion (note the fallen stones as well as the slippage of grass). There is, however, no evidence of a similar wall to the west.

Orientation markers

The largest of these is centre-left in Photo 4, with three others stretching beyond it in a small arc extending towards the deeper area of erosion further back in the photo. It may be that it is the wind that has sculpted these markers to look as they do and that there is no actual function. The mound itself is to the centre right of the picture and can be found between the second and the fourth fence posts leading to the right from the strainer. Arrows point, to the left, to the orientation marker; and, upwards right, to the mound.

Photo 3: proximity of markers and mound to eroding coastal edge

In addition to the erosion around the markers, note also the rough drainage run-off and its close proximity to the site. That drainage channel runs broadly north-south and connects with others in the area, suggesting that drainage may have been put in place deliberately to skirt the mound. This, in turn, would indicate a community awareness that there is something of value here which ought not to be damaged.

Towards a meaning

If the grassy tussocks are indeed markers for orientation purposes, the most obvious explanation is that these mark the setting of the sun around midsummer, which unofficial guesstimates suggest is certainly a feasible one.

However, more likely is a story about the mound related to me locally by a crofter who, as a small boy (around seventy years ago), was told that it was a memorial to a woman drowned offshore when looking for shellfish while her husband, posted as lookout on account of riptides, deliberately looked the other way as he had fallen in love with another. He further said that the story had been commemorated in song. The South Uist version of the song A Bhean Eudach (The Jealous Woman) is set in Ardivachar and commemorates the drowning of a woman at sea off the Point while collecting dulse. This appears to be the song being referred to – and, in the Gàidhlig, pretty haunting it is, too. Here, the story departs a little from the tale as related to me in that the woman had been drowned by the actions of a servant girl who had fallen in love with her husband.

Folklore is thus making an interesting contribution here towards interpreting and understanding the site. Perhaps it was folklore that informed, with suitable embellishments, a technicolour warning to a small boy not to go into the sea there; or perhaps folklore, in having the song set at Ardivachar, was borrowing from an existing story inspired either by the mound and/or by a real-life tragedy.

Either way, what looks like the heart shape to the mound provides a thoughtful comment on its inspiration.

Conclusions

It is impossible to be definite about the conclusions since we do not know what the mound is, what it was for or anything about its chronology. This can only be known by some sort of further assessment and the use of low-cost, low-intrusive assessment techniques such as laser scanning, photogrammetry and auguring.

Knowing a little more about the site would spark a consideration of the possibility of a range of well-designed remedial actions which should aim to incorporate the community at the heart of the response.

1. the site needs to be better protected against livestock (the well-observed may have spotted that that is indeed a cowpat in Photo 1!) – though animal grazing is also responsible for keeping the grass low and the shape identifiable.

2. existing drainage systems need to be monitored to ensure that water run-off does not damage the site, or that the ground does not become waterlogged as it is around the area of the rough drainage channel.

3. about the potential orientation markers and boundary wall, they are clearly subject to erosion, chiefly from wind and rain washing out the undersoil on the exposed face, although in stormy weather the sea is also likely to present a direct threat. It would appear that little can be done about either of these other than, in the short-terrm, continued monitoring and recording.

Finally, better publicity of the existence of the mound may bring forward more stories and more accounts as to its origins. Working with Uist Community Archaeology Group would seem to be important first steps. Further research also needs to be done not least to assess the alignment of the site. It is also worth making the point that the loss of a mound which has a strong link to a well-known Gàidhlig folk song would represent real loss and that action, at some level, is both warranted and required.

The Loch of Intermittent Appearance

As Storm Eunice rages across Wales and south and south-west England, people have been checking on us, which is very kind – but, up and out here, we’re absolutely fine: it’s us that should be checking on friends and family in the south. Winds are currently gusting to the high 10s (that’s well below normal!); and, while Sunday doesn’t look too grand for a day out, with winds gusting to the high 50s, that’s not even the highest winds this month – the Range got a gust of 70 on 10 February.

It has been very wet, though. The Range was the wettest place in the UK last Friday (although not particularly excessive) and high, prolonged and quite intense rains continued in the days that followed, leading to the re-emergence for a few days this week of what I’ve dubbed the Loch of Intermittent Appearance. This is a low-lying area of ground adjacent to a drainage channel which has an exit under the road and out to the sea. When that fills, either because the exit has been blocked by seaweed or else because of the simple volume of rain on the land, the area floods. There was no seaweed at the exit when I checked, but this was the photo at the peak on Wednesday (at least, in daylight hours), taken from our decking:

You can see the water running across the road and draining across the grass, bypassing the exit under the road – the sea is just off-left. The road was, as they say, passable with care. And the farm gate doesn’t currently seem to be generally usable – at least, not without the use of your wellies. The drainage channel is between the gate and the fence line running down from the top right – here it is in close up last Sunday morning, taken from just left of the gate in the above picture:

The water has now gone – the land is, normally, quite well-draining – though it does remain a little swampy.

But, inspired also by my archaeology course – for which my assignment was handed in (finally!) yesterday (and will be posted here in due course) – prompted me to check the flood maps. After all, if the road is going to get cut-off, it might be a good idea to get that boat patched up and recommissioned.

Dynamic Coast produces a range of maps on the issue of coastal erosion (and as such has been invaluable during the course). For the whole of the Scottish coast it has produced detailed mapping of the impact of rising sea levels under a high and a low emissions future, demonstrating where the high water line is expected to be under both scenarios at the turn of each new decade up until 2021. We’re fine up here on the headland – we’re surrounded by a rocky platform built from Lewisian gneiss, which is both dense and heavy and less permeable to erosion – but the softer, sandier areas either side of the headland are much more vulnerable. The bad news is that the road is indeed going to get cut-off – even under a low emissions future, in which sea levels off the headland rise by 0.37m by 2100 – though not at the Loch of Intermittent Appearance, but where it comes close to the shore of Mol Mòr at Kilaulay (Cill Amhlaidh). Under a high emissions future, with sea levels rising by 1.03m by 210, not only the road is under threat but the seafront properties of our neighbours across the bay are also gone:

Loch of Intermittent Appearance marked on the high emissions map in black, with the drainage channel just to the left.

Some of the impact of this on people’s lives, homes and livelihoods might be addressed by some sort of remedial action, though of course the better thing to do is to address rising emissions properly and cohesively not only to ensure but to deliver a low emissions future.

However, climate change isn’t just manifesting itself in rising sea levels but also in higher amounts of rainfall and in more extreme weather events. The Historic Environment Scotland Action Plan for 2020-2025 speaks, in somewhat coded fashion, of:

Total rainfall recorded on extremely wet days has increased by c.17% in 2008–17 in comparison to 1961–90. In the west of Scotland, this figure is 36%. (p. 15)

There’s a bit to unpack there, so I went on to the website of the learned folks at the Royal Meteorological Society to dig out their State of the UK Climate 2020 document for a bit of backup. There’s a lot of data in there and quite a lot of it technical in one way or another – but it does have data on rainfall going back to 1862 and for each of the nations of the UK. 2020 was a poor year – especially for our cousins up on North Uist (see Figure 22; p. 21) – but of course it is not one isolated year which is the issue but the overall trend. Looking at the rainfall in each year expressed as a percentage of the 1981-2010 average clearly shows a rising trend. Scotland is the wettest place in the UK (natch) and where the amount of rainfall is rising quickest – 2011-2020 was 11% higher than the 1961-1990 average – but each of the nations are getting wetter:

Figure 25, State of the UK Climate 2020 (p. 26 of the .pdf version)

Furthermore, six of the ten wettest years in the UK series from 1862 have occurred since 1998 (2000, 2020, 2012, 1998, 2008 and 2014, with particular implications for winters with 2014, 2016 and 2020 all in the top five wettest winters (p. 26). Amidst the rain, winter storms and extreme events attracting red alert warnings – like Storm Eunice – are likely to become a lot more frequent.

Archaeology is concerned about rainfall (hence HES’s Action Plan): access paths, sites and buildings are all adversely affected when exposed to all that water and many properties will need specific action to preserve what we know and love. Let alone what we don’t yet know we love.

If all this rainfall keeps up, it looks as though the Loch of Intermittent Appearance will be making more appearances than usual. And might thus need to be renamed. With rising sea levels going on at the same time, that’s quite a pincer action on Ardivachar, and with major infrastructural repercussions, too. It’s not only the archaeological environment but a question of the state of what we’re also handing down to our successors as reminders and nudges about the way we lived our lives. And if we keep going on the way we are, there’ll not be a lot of keepsakes worthy of the name.

In the meantime, stay safe down there.

Sites of interest – a closer look

Saturday turned out to be a good opportunity to get in some Christmas shopping in Balivanich (bright lights, big city) – all still in the bags, BTW – but Sunday saw one of those days in which the sun shone all day alongside a remarkable absence of wind. It was also a day with a low tide – the lowest of the month, in fact – and in the middle of the day, too. So, too good an opportunity to miss to do two things – firstly, try and spot the remains of the submerged forest which, at least one source has it, can also be found at the headland; as well as test out the sites local to me on Rubha Aird na Mhachrach (Ardivachar Point).

About the submerged forest – well, nada. I did find a lot of heavily stressed rock usually buried by the tide and, of course, a fair bit of kelp, though. Local experts tell me that they’ve found nothing any time they’ve been here and it may be that sea action, and winds, have covered things up since 1985 (to when the source dates). But, also, the neapest of neap tides does go out a bit further than this, and so a future occasion might prove more rewarding.

I found both of the sites up on the Point pretty easily as a result of the accuracy of the SCAPE app when it comes to the sites’ GPS bearings. The first of these is a midden alongside some apparently structural stonework; and, secondly, there is a mound which ‘may be of archaeological potential’. As before, my comments below about this do need to be treated as those of an enthusiastic amateur and they may well be subject to a lesser or greater degree of revisionism at some future point.

When it comes to the first, I was looking only for a midden, having forgotten about the stonework (although the photos below – two different sides of the same thing – seem to capture (quite by mistake!) some of the latter). There is no evidence of shellfish or animal bones in the midden; but some interesting colours reflecting a solid bank of peat ash (the light brown colour at the bottom in the RHS photo) and what looks like some charcoal (in both) underneath the top soil (visible more again in the RHS photo).

Moving on further round the Point to the mound, this took me a little time to find because it is both quite small in terms of size as well as low to the ground. More of a molehill than a mound, really. Indeed, the GPS told me I was more or less on top of it (I wasn’t, quite) before I actually spotted anything. That doesn’t mean there isn’t an interesting story to be told here, though, and the more you look at the site, the more the details of the story that it is telling become apparent. As far as I was concerned, I found five interesting things about it:

1. the footprint of the site is larger than it first appears and by a simple assessment of its known dimensions. Partly, this is a reflection of…

2. … its shape, which is not round as might be suggested by the word ‘mound’, but elongated and which appears to have a ‘funnel’ at one end (see the next picture down). Think of a question mark with a mirror placed adjacent to the left hand edge. The elongated end might suggest the presence of some sort of entrance chamber. There is also a clear ‘ditch’ around the central heap. This gives the best clue to the overall shape as well as the potential presence of the ‘entrance chamber’ – and might also indicate walls, corbelling being a usual feature so as to minimise the need for roofing materials, structural timber being in short supply around at least the current coastline.

3. standing at the ‘entrance’ end, I spent some time debating the mound’s alignment on a compass. According to the app on my phone, it appears to lie on a bearing of 100-280 degrees (east-west being 90-270 degrees), so there is no clear compass-based alignment (it’s sort of north-east/south-west). My, very rough, assessment from a few years ago (which needs to be checked) is that the sun at the summer solstice sets at a bearing of about 320 degrees so there doesn’t appear to be any solstice-based clues as to the orientation.

However, looking from there directly along the mound, I then spotted what looked to me like some sort of marker, in the form of a grassy tussock now close to the cliff edge. The tussock was soft and yielding and it’s not obviously rocky but it did stand out. Sometimes a grassy tussock is just a grassy tussock, of course. Nevertheless, at one point in the year, I think the sun would set directly behind this marker and, perhaps, that was good enough for those who decided to located the mound at this point here.

It is, of course, at the ‘wrong’ end of the site, however – if sunset was the key then, from Maeshowe up on Orkney, where the sun shines through the entrance chamber to illuminate the back wall three weeks either side of the winter solstice, we would expect the mound to be the other way around. Thus, it is more likely that sunrise, not sunset, gives the key to the orientation; and also, given the earth’s tilt, a point towards the summer, rather than the midwinter, solstice. Checking that out of course means an early start. Hmmmm.

Is that some sort of marker I see before me? Note the low-lying nature of the mound.

4. Looking from that same position at the ‘entrance chamber’ end but in the other direction, i.e away from the site, there seemed to me to be a clear path (on what is now croft land), approaching the site at an angle of about 90 degrees (i.e. from the north-east; and, probably, in the direction the midsummer sun rises here). Interestingly, the ‘path’ appears to take a small turn more directly towards the ‘entrance chamber’.

Of course, the ‘path’ is at ground level now, whereas the site is clearly subterranean. It’s not so evident from the picture below, but it is also waterlogged – and it might thus be a sign of a drainage channel dug far more recently. However, water tends to lie in areas for a reason (of which drainage is only one); one of which might be the presence of a well-trodden path in times gone by or, indeed, a line of stones laid down to constitute some sort of approach ‘road’. Paths, once established, tend to persevere (‘reference required’). What may also be of interest is that the boggy area informed by the ‘path’ then turns along the line of the existing croft fence (upper centre right) before crossing the area occupied by the site of the mound to its west (to the right of the picture) – i.e. it skirts the actual site). We might also usefully wonder what would be the actual function of a more recent drainage channel laid at that angle, and at that point on the land.

And is that a path I see before me? The (rather strangely shaped) shadow cast by your photographer lies – deliberately – across what is more or less the centre of the mound)

5. To the north a few steps away lies a series of stones, stretching more than 1m in length, set at what is now ground level and ending at what is now eroded coastline. So, it’s reasonably significant in terms of size and might well be evidence of some sort of boundary wall, built either to emphasise the importance of the site in some way or, perhaps, to keep out animals. There is no such evidence of a wall on the other side of the site, however. It is all kinds of interesting that, if indeed this is a boundary wall in times gone by, it is mirrored by the presence of an existing, contemporary fence alongside; whereas there is neither wall nor fence on the other side.

On the whole, I think this is a more important site than is superficially evident from its size alone. Some parts of the above – quite a bit of it, in fact – are the product of imagination; and that has its place, too, in archaeology which, substantially, looks at the evidence available and seeks to use that to tell a story. Looking at the hard facts: the site remains fenced off to the most direct route of public access, so is not particularly accessible; the site appears not to be currently maintained as croft land (whereas access to the shoreline – for seaweed, salvage and fishing – would be an important part of crofting rights); and drainage seems to flow around the site, not through it: which might either be by accident or design but which, in either case, might also be the product of continued maintenance down the centuries.

There are also, I think, some features which make the site worthy of some note. Given that it is quite difficult to spot (other than to a trained eye), and given the nature of the development of SCAPE’s ‘sites of interest’ (which is of community origin rather than the product of miles upon miles of serendipitous tramping up and down the coasts of these islands), it’s selection as one such site is likely to reflect a level of community awareness of it as the location of something in some way sacred. That might be drawn from some kind of folk memory or it might be the product of actual routines and customs handed down from generation to generation. And about which, at this point in the life of Ardivachar, a decision might need to be taken in respect of future generations. When the current outbreak of Covid-19 permits, it would be well worth me catching up with my long-established neighbours in the township!

News flash: calm weather in Uist

Uist fishing boats in rare dialogue about the wind direction

We don’t usually have to wonder too much about the wind direction – the Dark Island turbine and the fishing boats, when in the bay, give us all that without us even having to step outside. Consequently it’s a rare day when the wind is so still that the boats point in different directions (even if the above photo, taken yesterday afternoon, was taken just about an hour after low tide with the boats being still somewhat stuck in the sand). Today, again, there’s barely a breath of wind.

To tell the truth, the weather has been extremely poor in June, with cold grey skies, plenty of rain and strong winds for much of the month until its last few days: a clutch of tourists arrived at our door on Wednesday last week, in search of a neighbour’s B&B, clad in shorts and light summer jackets; a few hours later they were spotted on the way back from the beach in heavier coats, long trousers and holding to each other for warmth. Our fisher folk have indeed rarely ventured out – not so much the weather in June itself as the lingering effects of our long, cold winter on the size of the shellfish, typically lobsters, that they usually catch: shellfish are simply too small to warrant the effort, and the dangers, of going out and bringing them ashore.

I alluded to this below in the late return of the corncrakes, given the lack of cover provided by the nettles and yellow flag iris – one male was still calling yesterday afternoon, somewhat forlornly, although most females will be on a second brood by now so there’s little for the males to make much of a song about. There is now, at least, plenty of cover for them on the land: June’s rains have seen the nettles and the iris spring to life and it’s likely that their nests – the second ones – will have remained well hidden. Worse effects seem to be on the birds which can be predated upon and whose nests are more in the open: there is so little seafood to go around that the gulls – not so much the ravens this year, which are remarkable absent from our headland – have turned to the bird populations instead, and with catastrophic effects: a pair of shelduck popped up one day last week with a brood of 8-10 ducklings but I caught sight of a pair, probably the parents, on Saturday evening, just drifting on the tide, distanced but sorrowfully together, and entirely duckling-less, before taking off together toward the setting sun. There is no eider nursery that I’ve seen: parent birds, now moulting and looking in pretty poor condition, but entirely duckling-free. And a lapwing nest on a neighbouring croft was taken by gulls over two days last week: on the first day the parents were mostly successful in driving the gulls off but a determined one returned to polish off what was likely to be a solitary remaining chick the following day. Again, the parents – after making a quick, but vain, attempt at defence, swooping fast from the air at the gull(s) on the ground – flew high up, parted and then away separately into the skies.

The fishing season will pick up, even if the autumn gales ensure that it finishes more or less at the same time as usual, leaving (probably) a much truncated season behind; but it is too late for those breeding birds whose clutches are solitary and whose breeding window, in many cases, is brief enough. Despite the effects of our own activity, nature is largely balanced and self-regulating: a poor season one year is still likely to be followed by a good one the next. In the long-term, however, a repetition of long cold winters as a result of climate change will spell trouble: as resistant to long-term change as we humans can be, we tend nevertheless to greater adaptability in the short-term in the face of the havoc we are causing. There will be other jobs on the crofts, with crofters tending each to have three or four jobs anyway. But, while the survival urge will prompt its own changes in response among wildlife populations, unless they are also able to do so in the same short time frame, devastation will be the result. This tension between long-term and short-term adaptability, between humans and wildlife, lies at the crux of the problems being wrought by climate change.

A few thoughts on optimism

Much excitement locally last night and this morning as broods of twitchers arrive, binoculars and tripods much in evidence, following sightings not of our corncrake but of what Outer Hebrides Birds tell me is a (red-spotted) bluethroat – a bird scarcer round these parts than even the mighty ‘crake though nothing like as rare, globally.

Causing quite a bit of traffic chaos, too, as you can see, despite there still not being a lot of tourists around. A bluethroat is a migratory bird which spends its winters in north Africa and its breeding summers in Scandinavia. In the UK, it’s a passage bird – i.e. not a resident – and seen only around the eastern and southern coasts and on the northern islands of Orkney and Shetland during migration. So, right over here on the west, not only is it a bit late right here at the back end of May, it’s quite a way off-track. The lateness might well be explained by the northerlies we’ve been having recently, which are likely to have held it up; while the easterlies which we had earlier in the month might help account for why it’s been blown a bit off course. It needs to find its north-east bearings pretty quick, however: unless it’s heading for the Faeroes – and the lack of sightings here otherwise suggests that that’s not a common route – its prospects are pretty bleak: if its course has been generally northerly, there’s not a lot left after the Faeroes.

Today’s OHB update tells me that it was still around this morning, even after an early morning tide that was the highest of the month, so the twitchers’ chances were not zero. Nevertheless, you have to admire the dedication and the optimism which leads them to turn out here in numbers, to the precise spot where the bird was last seen, to try and catch a glimpse of a small bird that’s on its way from north Africa to Scandinavia. And which, by the way, ought to be seizing its chances, late as it is, as today’s wind has switched to the south and even, for the rest of the time before lunch, slightly to the south-west.

Me – I’ve only seen starlings, sparrows and wheatears this morning. Those, and one of our increasingly resident colony of young rabbits. Though let’s not go there…

There’s a twitcher present in a lot of us, too. I don’t mean the birding aspects, so much, but the optimism. It is this same eternal optimism which accounts for people driving miles in the hope of catching sight, and a photo, of a small bird that is also driving the ‘opinion poll bounce’ which is currently benefiting the party in government. It is because people are, substantially, optimists that, in the immediate wake of the pandemic – and case numbers are rising again, let’s not forget – a government whose approach has not only been hopelessly inadequate but also substantially corrupt is still ‘popular’. A government which ought to be dead in the water after the last fifteen months still commands strong, even rising, support in the opinion polls and Johnson commands significant personal support not because people like him so much as that they want, and need, him and his government to do well given the lack of any practical alternative. Thus, in these extraordinary times, people are prepared to overlook, it seems, pretty much anything, at least until all this is over. Our own essential optimism, in combination with the success of the NHS’s vaccination programme, is easily transferred to a belief in and support for the government of the day at a time when death is an ever-present fear.

Rasputin’s testimony yesterday, as extraordinary as it was, will change little of this in the short-term although, of course, ‘when all this is over’ is very much the operative phrase: yesterday had us watching – again – the Tory Party engage once again in internecine warfare, Cummings being allied with Michael Gove and thus with much to gain whenever the Tory Party, or its backers in the media or elsewhere, decide they have had enough of Johnson. The Tories’ post-Brexit truce with themselves seems to be coming to an end. Publicly sticking the knife in Johnson, with a media which is in absolute thrall to the whole circus, is simply preparing the way for Gove to become prime minister once that ‘opinion poll bounce’ is over – and when the optimists among us are likely, on the strength of the evidence of the last fifteen months, to think that ‘the new guy’ deserves a chance, too.

Tough times for all of us who are sick of all this. The answer of course is to do what we’ve always done – agitate, educate and organise. These times will end but making sure we’re in a good position to take advantage of them when they do means continuing to hoe those hard rows in the meantime.

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.

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 birthday poem (not by me)

Boxing Day saw the birthday of my good friend, Peter, an anniversary I invariably fail to remember until several days later (typically, in fact, round about now). This year, completely in tune with these times, Peter hosted a Skype call for friends and cleverly secured my timely recall of his anniversary by asking me to recite a poem.

After a bit of deliberation and a bit more research, this is what I came up with – it’s a poem written by Angus Dunn, which I found on the Poetry Map of Scotland, which I think captures well the elemental nature of living on these islands (not least just ahead of Storm Bella now, thankfully, blown out here (and which crossed also into Germany) although, this time, we were far from the worst-hit place in the UK). It’s not particularly celebratory for a birthday anniversary, and the ending is bleak, but Mr. Dunn captures some strong reference points to nature and, particularly, to history within his lines:

Uist

There is nothing here,
in all the wide ocean
to stop the wind
that frays the edge of the land.
On the foredune,
dry from the long sunlight and the sea breeze,
sand slips.
In the slack behind the dunes,
the brown bird lies low
in her nest among the grasses:
even here, sand moves, held in nets of buttercup roots.
When the storm comes,
sand flows like water, stings like hail –
air eating the earth –
small white houses
grip the soil of the machair,
one window gleaming all night long
to light the way home –
though some will not return.
Up on the hillside,
thin sheep graze on rocks,
and there the Lady stands
looking past the ocean
out to the furthest West
from where no one of us returns.

No poem is complete without a few footnotes, so here’s a few of my own.

The reference in line 9 to the ‘brown bird’ could be many things but most likely speaks to the corncrake, a migratory bird now few in number and on the UK’s Red List but which migrates to breed here in these islands from its winter home on the Africa savannahs. Here’s one (of the up to four males which can be heard in Aird A’Mhachair across the summer) in calling mode, captured in April 2019 amidst the wind-torn rags of daffodil leaves:

On line 16, the machair is the Gàidhlig word for the fertile, but fragile and shallow, coastal strip on which the wind and seaweed farming practices have, over centuries, dumped fragments of shell on the land, enriching it and making it cultivable. Machair is common to both these islands and the west coast of Ireland – another facet of the shared history between these two places – and is a riot of changing colour in the summer months owing to the profusion of wild flowers (buttercups among them) in uncrofted areas and in gardens.

The references in line 19 and at the conclusion to people not returning home is most likely to the people brutally forced from the land and their homes on these islands (though not without many protest actions taking place) as a part of the socio-economic tragedy of the clearances of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Many of them went west, with the largest numbers settling in Canada in the area around Cape Breton: hence why ‘the Lady’ looks west. Modern research has identified that the source of the wealth of many of the landowners involved was slave-derived – echoing the conditions of travel in which many Highlanders were forced across the Atlantic, with many dying en route and, of those that did make it, arriving destitute. Today, many islanders fear fresh de-population as a result not least of the lack of opportunity stemming from job and skills loss – including among air traffic controllers – and as a result of a distorted housing market forcing out young people. Both – to say nothing of the potential impact of Brexit on the crofting character of the islands – will have a deleterious impact on our communities.

The Lady‘ (on line 22) is a statute set up in the 1950s and paid for by public subscription at the initiative of ‘Father Rocket’ who realised that the coming of the military (these islands occuyping a place of strategic potential during the Cold War) would fundamentally change the lives of islanders. Canon John Morrison’s collection of artefacts, originally housed near to us in Iochdar, is now the basis of the collection of Taigh Tasgaidh Chill Donnain, the Kildonan Museum. Here is ‘Our Lady’, captured in 2017 looking west across the machair out to the Atlantic, and beyond:

Happy Birthday, Peter!