A wee bimble* up Beinn Mhor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunset, looking (mostly) anywhere but west

Last night saw the most stunning sunset skies – to start with, very little to the west as a result of a bank of cloud but, looking firstly north-eastwards, catching a reflection of the set sun in delicate, faint pink; with the colours then deepening and spreading back around the sky to the north and then to the north-west.

Here’s a panoramic view of three separate photos looking broadly north-east – a view I always enjoy as I can see four, if not five, separate islands at one time:

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Secondly, another three-photo panorama more or less starting at the left-hand edge of the above and, now looking north, showing the hills of Harris (Rodal on the right, and then the An Cliseam range), ending up with North Uist on the left-hand side (only three islands visible here, though):

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It’s worth pointing out, by the way, that, according to Doogal, An Cliseam is 46 miles (or 74 kilometres) from here, as the crow flies. Like being able to see Brighton from London. Today, being a different sort of day, I can barely see the other side of the bay – this being the strip of land underneath the lit turbine in photo 1.

Thirdly, another three-set panorama now with a bit of west added in. Again, it follows on from the left-hand edge of the above pic, showing a bit of Harris, Cleitreabhal (and others) on North Uist and then with a bit of local land focus (back again to four islands in one pic again), as the colours increasingly brightened as we move westwards:

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And then finally to just local Ardivachar colour: sky crimson with a bit of orange thrown in, pink and blue. After this, we had a bit more vermilion added in, too, just for good measure. No panorama here – just a single pic. And still not (quite) around to north-west on the compass: the farm gate stands at about 330º on the compass.

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All pics taken between 2200 and 2215, in order from top to bottom (sunset last night at 2157).

Brendan makes a repeat visit

Around 1,500 years after St. Brendan the Navigator made his visit to these islands, commemorated particularly on Barra with no less than a church and cemetery, a hospital and a care home, and even an MP, Met Éireann’s Storm Brendan – also coming from the south – brought this week a somewhat different sense of pastoral attention.

Here on South Uist yesterday the winds were officially higher than anywhere else in the country, while 87 mph was something of a record in our brief time here, being a little stronger than Storm Conor three years ago. Indeed, the Met Office’s station on South Uist – on the Range, adjacent to where we live, so a pretty good indicator of what we experienced locally – and from where this measure was taken, recorded gusts of over 80 mph for four hours in a row from noon yesterday, returning to that level on one more occasion during the evening. Unofficially, the winds a little further south both on South Uist and indeed also on Barra seem to have been higher, perhaps topping a ton in both places. It’s been a tough start to the year, with a succession of storms and rain and high winds characterising these first two weeks of 2020.

Not just high winds but a collapsing air pressure, on top of a spring tide, brings its own tragic recollections on Uist around January.

This time, that the winds came from the south kept the water off most of the local roads, although the coastal road on Benbecula was closed further up the coast and the causeway at the North Ford was shut for a while at high tide yesterday evening. At the house, our windproof netting is looking a little ragged, having been ripped at the bottom from the nails holding it to a whole line of fence posts, a few 4.8m lengths of 6″ x 1″ timber destined to constitute a new fence one day have been shifted around a bit, the house name sign was torn from the wall and dropped, insultingly face down, on to the ground and the meter cupboard lost its door (again), as did the wheelie bins lose their moorings (though that’s a pretty usual occurrence when the wind gets above 40mph). The storm has churned up the sea so much that the foreshore is a mass of brown algae, at least until calmer waters can gradually move it back out to sea (or, on the dryer and less rocky sands on the far side of the bay, until the crofters can gather it to spread as fertiliser). We also had the rare event (on these islands) of two shots of thunder and lightning, one of which appeared to be responsible for the last, and most significant (i.e. we had to get candles out), of the three power cuts during the day.

Today is relatively calmer, although winds gusting above 50 and into the 60s are the case pretty much until dawn on Thursday and ‘wintry showers’ are currently adding to the mix. Ferries out of Lochboisdale remain cancelled and the Eriskay causeway remains shut at the time of writing. At home, visibly moving window panes, creaking timbers and rattling roof tiles, as the house resettles after resisting yet another wind slam, will be the case for a while yet, alongside a few more nights of sleep that is too light and too short.

These small inconveniences apart, Brendan has let us off lightly; and we have been lucky.

Firefox, when I opened up this morning to write these words, quoted me rather appositely John Steinbeck from his Travels with Charley: In Search of America road trip:

What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness.

This seems to be clearly true, but I can’t help commenting that, if it is indeed so, then so must be the reverse.

In the meantime, and if it’s not too late, Bliadhn’ Ur Mhath.

From the croft: Easter Sunday 2019

From aquamarine to turquoise to deep sea blue, here’s Good Friday’s sparkling colours of the sea looking north at low tide:

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Today, however, the mist has descended and we’re back to a uniform overcast dullness of greys.

In other wildlife news this Easter Sunday:

* our gang of starlings continue nest building and repairing in earnest, though the pair in the prime starling estate in the chimney pots of the adjacent (and empty) cottage has certainly been harrassed, if not predated, by the ravens

* a pair of pied wagtails continue scouting for a nest site in the stonework of the old byre and other ruins

* we have had a male blackcap visitor (which I’ve tried to encourage, with some success, by rolling an apple under the central ring of daffodils)

* five black-tailed godwits (2M, 3F) were on the shore yesterday, presumably on a pitstop before continuing off to their breeding territories on Iceland and the Faeroes

* formerly part of a pair, but now alone, a single brent goose has been making a daily appearance around teatime at high tide, having presumably got detached from the migrating family group

* last year’s Easter bunny made a brief re-appearance on the immediately neighbouring croft on Thursday (OK, it may not be the same one)

* both the female but also the male hen harriers continue to drive the waders into a panic, despite rarely being that interested in them, with, on one occasion this week, a small wader in hot pursuit, successfully driving the female up and over the nest sites

* the shelducks have paired up, with the male getting a bit feisty with the mallards, while groups of eider are also starting to form

* the neighbours’ sheep have started to give birth, the first few in the good weather of the last week with most, it seems, typically hanging on for the poorer weather to come in the next

* a large, presumably dog, otter crossed the road in front of us at Baile Garbhaidh on our road back from Barra yesterday, from the seaside of Loch Bi to the loch itself, briefly visible on the surface of the water before disappearing in search of a late supper, leaving only a trace of bubbles.

Meanwhile, both daylight and the grass grow longer, the yellow flag iris is getting taller and the nettles are starting to grow – perfect cover for the corncrakes on their ungainly, ever-unlikely return from Africa. They’ll be back, soon enough.

In the meantime, Happy Easter one and all.

Good news from HIE youth survey

Welcome news this morning from Enabling Our Next Generation, Highlands and Islands Enterprise’s survey of people aged 15-30, that a higher proportion of young people are committed to staying on the islands than when the survey was done three years ago; and indeed also to see their futures here. Migration of young people away from the area is indeed a problem – here on Uist and Benecula, we are an ageing society and the loss of young people represents a major concern as regards both the sustainability and the vitality of these islands.

This is a clear tribute to the hard work being done by many organisations – HIE among them – to provide greater opportunities for young people such that they are able to see a future for themselves in the region. And that means a future not just in 30-40 years time when they are considering retiring ‘home’ again but an immediate future of opportunities while – to put it frankly – people are at their most economically productive.

At 90 pages, I haven’t yet read the full report, which is detailed, in-depth and closely-argued and self-evidently a serious contribution to our thinking on economic development. It is also accompanied by sub-area reports focusing on the findings for each of HIE’s eight offices although these do not yet appear to be publicly-available. I hope that HIE and the report authors choose to put these into the public domain in due course as these will contain important research material.

I do note, however, that the survey is much older than it was three years ago – the proportion of young people aged 15-18 was 29% in this new survey, but 51% three years ago. The 2018 survey might well be more representative in this sense as a result, but consequently, any headline that focuses on a greater willingness to stay compared to 2015 needs to take this changing demographic into account – those aged 25-30 (34% of this year’s survey compared to 21% three years ago) are likely already to have made their plans and their choices based on the opportunities available to them. The key group remains those who are 15-18 and who may or may not see such opportunities as being open to them; and it would be interesting to see the views of how this specific group have changed.

It’s also interesting to note that the proportion of people from the Western Isles has also risen from 2015, to 8% (and actually three points higher than the percentage of people in the HIE area who are in the age group and living here). On this basis, the wider survey might be a fraction less representative, therefore – but the needs of people living in the islands are different to those elsewhere in the HIE area (which is huge, encompassing a vast swathe of land from the Western Isles down to Argyll and then up through Lochaber, Ross and Moray, Caithness and Sutherland to the Orkneys and Shetland). Frequently, those needs are quite specific based on the culture and geography of the islands on which they live. A close look at the response of specifically islands young people would also cast an interesting perspective on the extent to which the initiatives being undertaken are successful in making the decision to stay a meaningful one. And, in turn, what else needs to be done to make that decision one that subsequently rewards those making it.

Here on the islands – as anywhere else, really – the keys remain education opportunities, housing, and good quality and skilled jobs. And clearly, the key target group is not as broad as 15-30, it’s really 15-18 because, at 18, life choices are being made and, if not yet set in stone, will become much more so once young people have left full-time schooling. It remains the case that a decision at 18 to stay on the islands is both courageous and challenging (and one that is frequently subject to negative assessments from peers who regard it as unambitious, which is a different challenge for policy-makers entirely).

Greater opportunities for further and higher education courses via UHI – based up in Stornoway but with satellite centres on Barra, Benbecula and North Uist – and indeed for musicians via Ceòlas’ Cnoc Soilleir project, will help in making a desire to stay and study a more realistic one.

The new housing being constructed in Balivanich will add to the quality of the housing stock, as will – more importantly – the regular housing land audits identifying potential house-building sites which is encompassed as part of the Council’s five-year housing strategy. There remains, nevertheless, a substantial part of the housing stock right across the islands which is left empty and slowly rotting, creating eysores rather than opportunities. Action needs to be taken here as a means of improving the situation for people looking for housing locally.

Nevertheless, with regularly-revived concerns over the long-term future of the MoD range and the in-principle decision to proceed with centralising air traffic control services at Inverness, and operating Benbecula remotely, the threat to substantial parts of these islands’ employment and skills base is significant. Some people do take the decision to return to the islands when they have children – support from grandparents remains an important component of such decisions – but they need good quality jobs and, without those, opportunities for return become objectively much more difficult to make.

The business park based on small-scale units being built up at the airport will help with those looking to pursue entrepreneurial opportunities (as, indeed, would a site for homeworkers to be able to come together). Welcome as these are, however, they will replace neither the skills base lost through the departure of high-tech employers nor the spending power of those employed by them. And neither, despite the same broad welcome, will jobs working in retail, tourism and hospitality, and the care industry. We might well, even within the same set of islands, take the view that centralising services leads, and on the same basis, to a loss of opportunities for people living more remotely.

Such concerns are clearly broader than the remit of today’s survey report but, in adding to the policy debate around the hard-edged economic decisions influencing island peoples’ choices to stay, it provides welcome evidence giving impetus to the policy tools that we have and to those on which we still need to work.

Two perspectives on Hebridean calm

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

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

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

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

Runrig: A Sasannach* appreciation

I missed out on Runrig in my earlier days, so they have indeed been something of a foreign territory. Coming first to national prominence in the late 70s, but on radio shows and TV that, living in England, I wouldn’t have seen, I was certainly aware of them from 1987, with the release of The Cutter and The Clan, their breakthrough, fifth, LP. By then, though, the only guitars I really wanted to hear were African, and specifically Congolese (out of Paris), while I really wanted to hear west African koras and, as for accordions – well, they were fine as long as they were in the vallenato style or otherwise played by Flaco Jimenez; and, if Andy Kershaw or, to a lesser extent, John Peel never played it, I never heard it. And I certainly missed their, surely unlikely, appearance in the 1990s on Top of the Pops, singing An Ubhal As Airde, their rather lovely song in memory of Calum and Rory’s father, and introduced by a young woman presenter who’d clearly been taken lessons from one of the band on how to say Gàidhlig properly (and very nearly making it, too).

What I didn’t do was make the connections between traditional music from elsewhere and that coming from ‘home’: the one should have led me back to the other.

So, for ages just about the only Runrig song I actually knew was An Toll Dubh, and that on a compilation CD which had been lent to me (thanks JB!). And, even then, I wasn’t quite sure how much was Runrig and how much was Paul Mounsey (the producer/re-arranger). Until this summer, that is, when my regular stint volunteering up at the museum in North Uist brought me into regular contact since, in advance of The Last Dance, and given that the museum holds the Runrig archive, part of the display was a Gold Disc (for Searchlight) and a series of well-chosen TV and other video clips from throughout the band’s history (including the aforementioned TOTP appearance) showing on a continual loop. Slowly, gently over the weeks, the songs got into my head, so I went out and bought 50 Great Songs, a 3-CD compilation (two in English and one in Gàidhlig) as well as a DVD. The CDs feature a number of studio and live recordings, mostly from the Bruce Guthro era, plus unusually, but typically generously, an allocation of space to a handful of other musicians singing Runrig songs (and including the stand-out track in this collection). One of these is Dick Gaughan, last heard by me in a session for Kershaw singing – among others – Amandla! a ahout-out for Umkhonto we Sizwe in the last days of apartheid which continues to be both chilling and inspiring.

You don’t have to live on Uist to appreciate Runrig’s worth: apart from elsewhere on these islands, and on the mainland, the band is also highly successful in Germany and in Scandinavia and, famously but tragically, in North America, too. But it does help, I think – and I don’t mean the obvious appeal of references to the Uists and in lyrics such as that in The Message:

Gonna take the last flight home to Balivanich/In the month of June/Go racing up the South Ford…’

[in a car, obviously: no-one goes racing up South Ford on a bike].

What Runrig does very well is to capture the spirit of Uist in a way that not only pulls on the heartstrings of emigrés but also pays tribute to the courage of those who took the decision to stay – the product of a lack of opportunity in some cases, sure, but in many others one of a conscious desire to build on traditions, to pay tribute to the efforts of those who went before and to sustain communities – choices which, once made, frequently carry a heavy toll on those who make them. Runrig does this both in the lyrics (although the lyrics tend more towards moments in and out of consciousness, lines of inspired poetry, and emotional references and pulls, in songs that may not necessarily otherwise tell a linear story) but perhaps more particularly, as I’ve hinted already, in the music – but, in truth, the magic lies in the combination of both. Other than in echoing the luadh (waulking), as famously in An Toll Dubh but also in other songs in the collection, the melody lines are strong and with solid hooks, and the band well know the little tricks of making keyboards and guitars sound like falling rain, bass lines that pulse like gusts of mighty gales, rolling drums that echo the pounding ocean, and the whole coming together in a sound that forms a subliminal, aural recognition of the wild-at-heart soundscape underneath the big, wide-open skies of the Uists.

Of course, the short answer is that, wherever they’re actually from, like all live bands who’ve spent a lifetime gigging and spending a life on the road, the secret to Runrig is that the band are really good at giving a live audience what they want: passion, intensity, rousing choruses and the chance to jump up and down a bit. In that, they’re not so different to any other band, including that E Street one (with which there are some melodic similarities here): it’s all rock’n’roll, whether its inspiration is rooted in Celtic mysticism, American blues and gospel or British beat.

For an introduction into the sound of Runrig (at least, in its post-1997 second coming), this isn’t a bad place to start. That and Flowers of the West, which tells the story behind some of the songs and including some marvellous anecdotes and tall stories, including one of the TOTP appearances and a certain Diana Ross (sadly out of print, it seems, but perhaps available at a library, or indeed museum, near you).

That stand-out song? The version of Chi Mi ‘n Geamhradh (deliberately loose translation: Winter is Coming) by Catherine-Ann McPhee, a woman from Barra now living in Canada (a path familiar to many emigrés from the Western Isles) – and a reversal of the one undertaken by Guthro. Accompanied by the clarsach, and then by the violin, this is a vocal of extraordinary, spine-tingling power – confident, assertive and self-determining – set in the most lovely of arrangements. It is a thing of rare and lovely beauty: do check it out.

* Check the earlier discussion here.

100 posts and a beer

No, not a reward for finally finishing painting the fence (that’s a little way off, yet, though progress is indeed a little in evidence in the photo below) but in honour of this, my 100th post since establishing The Back Room. I started this particular blog in October 2016 and so, 92 weeks later, I’ve managed to produce at the rate of about 1 post per week which, given that early days were spent writing quite a lot of material to allow it to hit the ground running, as opposed to embodying a forlorn and somewhat empty-looking single post or two, is not exactly Stakhanovite. A little more needs to be done there, I think.

Many of my more astute readers will have picked up that a lot of my post titles have a (quite deliberately, and stretched in only a few cases) musical connection so, in celebration, I added up how many. (Some sort of answer below.)

In the meantime, and also in honour of the recently passed second anniversary of my coming to live on these islands, I thought I’d toast the last 100 posts and look forward to the next one with a bottle of homebrew: actually, the last remaining bottle of the first batch (of five surviving) I made. This was really quite a good beer – dry, citrusy and hoppy, gently carbonated, a rich golden colour and with a decent and lingering head, and finish: or, at least, the top half was, the bottom half being sediment-heavy and, once added to the glass, making the whole closer in style and appearance to a German hefeweizen than a true IPA. I do need to do something about the sediment next time as it changes the character and taste of the beer completely and I’m not entirely sure I’m such a fan of murk. Not yet, anyway. (Though I’d also be happy to go the whole hog and start brewing hefeweizen, too.) In taste, the closest match I can recall from my efforts is to a Brewdog Dead Pony Club – although that ought not to be the case since this is an American Pale Ale and, being more of a session ale, a little lower in alcohol content than my fairly heady brew. Knowing neither the hop content nor the malt mix involved in my brew, the reasons why will have to remain a mystery for now until I gain a bit more confidence with the basics and start developing my own sources of malt and hops.

But, all in all, a decent start. So, here’s to the next batch – both of beers and, of course, of posts, too.

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It’s 15. (Judge’s decision is final.)

Orchids eh

One of the pleasures of living on the Western Isles is watching the predominant colours change as early spring evolves into late, and late spring into summer.

The yellows of the early wildflowers on the machair – the unique and highly fertile land environment specific to the Hebrides consisting of an alkali top dressing, drawn naturally from seashell fragments blown ashore by the winds as well as from crofters’ use of seaweed as a fertiliser, on top of an acid base founded on peat – give way firstly to whites and then to reds, blues and purples. Yellow flag iris, birds foot trefoil and buttercups – yes, and dandelions (grr); daisies, eyebright, bog cotton, water lilies, clover, yarrow and cow parsley; red clover, thrift, ragged robin, knapweed, cranesbills and harebell. The blurred boundaries between the arrivals and departures of the various colours lead to breathtaking displays of nature at its fertile, naturally cohesive best. As well as a real reward for not cutting the grass.

And they also lead, in summer, to orchids.

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The spotted leaves give this away as a heath spotted-orchid (thanks to Rebecca Cotton for the ID!) though orchids are notorious hybridisers and there could, as a result, be all kinds of things in this one’s particular DNA. In warm conditions, heath spotted-orchids can be up to 40 cms (16″) high and feature a cone, or pyramid, of up to 50 flowers, though orchids also come in dwarf varieties – as apparently this one seems to be: just two flowers and little more than a handful of centimetres high, as the daisy (placed here for comparative flower size, not height purposes – the orchid is shorter) highlights. And no more than a pair of those spotted leaves.

They’re also pretty hardy – this one was found right underneath a washing line in regular use, and on a patch of our own machair which is mown quite regularly; either or both of which might well account for this one’s cropped top. A similar specimen subsequently discovered a few feet away (and with a total of a massive four flowers) was right underneath one of the washing line posts and existing on a few centrimetres of soil cast cosmetically on top of the several inches of concrete in which the post is embedded and which has been recolonised by nature. Mind you, if it’s warm conditions that lead to taller and more plentiful flower spikes, the general weather conditions on South Uist might well indicate a more natural than human explanation for this one’s more stunted, but nevertheless determined growth.

In contrast to the rather fragile exotic orchids beloved of flower shops and home design specialists, that these orchids have to struggle to survive in tough conditions (aside of the comforting soil of the machair) makes them a more than suitable metaphor for the Western Isles themselves. On top of this, their diversity and ability to develop hybrid versions of themselves provide an inspiring route map for essential survival and regeneration. Together, all this leads to orchids fast becoming my favourite wildflower – hence my delight at finding versions right on our own patch!

The Aurora – probably an unpopular view…

Most readers will probably know that the aurora was very visible over Scotland last night, including over Uist. This was the second time I have seen it, the first being a dozen years ago in Perth, when I got a glimpse of the typical ‘curtain being waved’ manifestation. Last night, I was alerted by Andy Stables’s Twitter, posting of an ‘extreme’ substorm underway, and dashed outside to catch a view of ‘STEVE’, the oddly-named aurora-like effect showing to the west as a ghostly, pale white, shape-shifting pillar, standing at 60 degrees to the horizon and looking something like an inverted horse’s tail, and well captured by Bob Moss from his garden on Skye.

Repeated trips outside later in the evening revealed a more traditional green aurora, showing as a thin arc low in the northern sky and, from our house, clearly spanning its full width from north-west to north-east; with occasional flares and pillars. This was of such a brightness that it was even visible from inside the house (with all the lights out!) – though clearly better outside, in context and with some association with the elements.

It wasn’t as visible as this lovely example (from further north) of the aurora set against the stones at Calanais on Lewis, or this, from Barra (from further south) but the cameras here are – quite correctly – letting a lot more light into the exposure, brightening the image and, therefore, also brightening the aurora. Here, in stark comparison, is my best effort, taken at 0107 on my handheld pocket camera, with the ISO cranked up as far as it will go (3200 – oooh!):

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Hmm. (For the full experience, you might need to be in a darkened room, too.) That’s the bright lights of Balivanich to the right and the bright star in the top left corner is – I think – Capella in the Auriga constellation.

Clearly, the picture is not as ‘good’ as others; but, arguably, it is ‘fairer’ in that the relatively low ISO captures a better representation of the reality, of what the naked eye could actually see of the aurora at that point. It is – and here’s the probably unpopular bit of my view – somewhat uninteresting since it is not as good in real life as you can see on the internet. Clearly, photographs don’t lie – they can’t capture what is not there – but, equally clearly, they can misrepresent when they let so much light into the camera to capture an image which the human eye, because of its own limitations, struggles to see in as much detail. I can’t imagine a better night to see the aurora – an ‘extreme’ sub-storm, no clouds and a cold, late winter night offering apparently clear light (though today, which offers dreamily cloudless skies and a beautiful view for those on the morning flight, which has just gone over my head on its way into Balivanich, is a little hazy to the north and it may well have been the same last night). And, of course, there is no structure in my image from which to capture some foreground interest.

Yet, if this is as good as it gets, then people may well be better off viewing pictures of the aurora than chasing it. Still beautiful, and offering a perfect arc across the sky, but not as powerfully majestic as you might think and, therefore, somewhat underwhelming. A natural wonder that can’t fail to stir the emotions, but, perhaps, only more memorable in the human eye than a rainbow as a result of its rarity. That’s obviously not a view that will go down well with Visit Scotland, but better to be prepared for the reality, I think, than to be disappointed. Naturally, further into the Arctic Circle, where the storm’s strength will be better felt, the aurora will be stronger too and better viewable than the rather faint, but nevertheless obvious, green smudge on the sky that I saw last night. I could of course be entirely wrong – and that, for whatever reason, this was not as good as it gets.

Other than the aurora, it was, however, a wonderful night to be outside: the complete absence of cloud, coupled with the night being clear, and cold, as well as the lack of light pollution on Uist, meant that so many stars were visible that it was difficult to pick out even some of the major constellations; the plethora of stars putting on a uni-colour show that was, otherwise, as good and as absorbing of self as any firework display. I also saw two shooting stars (though I didn’t wish on them, obviously). If the lack of cloud cover continues, I’ll be out again tonight to take in all that breathtaking beauty, aurora or not.

‘STEVE’ was something else, though.