A tale of two birds

My favourite armchair is located adjacent to our east-facing lounge window, from where I can look out over the bay at Kilaulay just about thirty metres to my right and observe the coming and going of the tides, the constantly changing colours of the water and the sky, the view across the Eabhal on North Uist, up to the mountains of Harris (on a good day) and across to McLeod’s Tables and the Cuillins on Skye. As well as the ups and downs of the lives of the bird population – a variety of shore birds, largely, as well as a variety of farmland birds and our ever-present, and thriving, gang of starlings.

Treating myself to a morning on Twitter, as a result of an attack of the lurgy (a touch of Australian Flu, undoubtedly) getting on top of my other plans, I became aware at the edge of my vision of a large bird making steady, slightly laboured, progress southerly down the bay, level with my eyeline sitting down. Glancing up, and taking in the gull which was tracking it at a somewhat respectful distance, my first thought was ‘Oh, grey heron’, before I became aware of its reddish-brown colour… and then, as the chills ran down my spine and my eyes opened wider (probably my mouth also fell open, too, although I couldn’t comment), I became aware of the mightily powerful hooked beak at the front end, and then the white tail feathers at the back as it disappeared from my view, me looking backwards over my shoulder. Not a heron, then. We do get regular sightings both of buzzards and also hen harriers but this was clearly much, much bigger. White-tailed eagle, surely. Almost dropping the laptop as I leapt out of my seat, I dashed through the house to the bedroom, flinging open the window (and paying suitably scant attention to Aussie Flu) to get a better view… but nothing. It had gone. The rest of the local bird life continued without a great deal of bother – itself something of a marker since white-tails are largely, though not exclusively, birds of carrion rather than hunters of live prey. My look at it had probably totalled little more than a second, of which the first 0.25 was spent thinking it was a heron (and thus no time for photos, though my camera is usually on the ledge beside my binoculars, and my RSPB Handbook, specifically to help with bird ID).

Amateur birder that I am, I tried to recall exactly what I’d seen as well as the scene itself – recognising that sometimes my assessments and judgments are formed by what I have seen, and sometimes the reverse. But I’m fairly sure of what I saw: and, luckily for me, the Outer Hebrides birds website records an adult white-tail this morning at Baleshare, a little to the north of here as the eagle flies. So I’m taking that as confirmation.

It’s the first white-tail I’ve seen here in Ardivachar – though I know that there are white-tails and golden eagles further south on South Uist, with the hills and terrain being territorially more suited to both, although white-tails are also happy around farmland and, of course, the coast since fish is a major part of their diet. I’ve seen a white-tail before – both at a bird of prey demonstration (though static that day) and also from the little boat heading out of Portree harbour on Skye (though it was the ‘Lady B’ back in 2008), where the birds nest on the cliffs just to the south of the town. But that time – when a gull was also paying close attention – there was a very high chance of seeing one (and there was a bonus sighting not only of Sammy the Seal but harbour dolphins that day, too); this time, my sighting of this most majestic of birds – the UK’s largest bird of prey, with a massive 2m wing span – was in the absolute wild. Just for a second, or so.

A couple of hours later, I’m watching from the same spot (still hoping my white-tail would return) some oystercatchers and a few black-headed gulls, as well as starlings and redwings, poking about for worms on the grassy strip between the end of our garden and the shoreline, the tide being in retreat. It’s unusual to see shore birds do this except at this time of year and I don’t know whether it’s because food supplies are scarce at this time or whether they are looking for extra nutrients ahead of the breeding season. Probably the former. Noticing that one of our little population of redwings – a thrush-like migratory bird and winter visitor from northern Europe which is unusual in that it tends to move around rather than migrate to and from a particular spot – was scattering around the top of the picnic table, I popped out with a little extra help (some berry-flavoured suet) when I noticed one of its brothers lying on the thin strip of concrete path that runs around the house; quite dead, and recently so. Given its location, it must have fallen dead from a perch on the roof or chimney, perhaps succumbing to the winter cold (although it looked in good condition); or, alternatively, it might have been driven, sparked by fear and panic, into the window, a fate of many birds which break their necks on contact with the glass (although there was no tell-tale mark on the glass itself).

What to do? It had no BTO ring, so there was nothing formal to report, leaving the two choices of scooping it up and putting it in the dustbin; or returning it to the ground, perhaps a little softer than the unforgiving concrete on which I had found it. Of course, I chose the latter, placing it on the croft land outside the house where the energies that had given it such vitality in life could, in death, give nourishment to something else in the complex food chain. Nature is self-sustaining (when not interfered with by humans, that is) and a noble death for any animal is perhaps that it may then subsequently play it role and take its place in nourishing what comes after it. Including humans too, I might venture.

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Two photos to bookend the day

Firstly, this morning’s sunrise (yes, dear reader: I do occasionally manage to catch one) was spectacular: this was taken at 08:34 when the orange colours were at their most intense, contrasting with the silhouetted infrastructure and the foothills of Thacla, looking south-east from our lounge window:

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Sunrise was at 09:07 for us, although the sun didn’t poke its head above Thacla for another 25 minutes or so after that (just before it did, there was the most gorgeous light blues and silvers and mid greys of the sky and clouds, with the oranges having faded to the most gentle of lemons – given my title here, that one will have to wait a bit longer to see the light of day…). And the silence being broken by the whistled song of a single blackbird (to confirm the impression I had of a few posts ago, I have seen a couple of blackbirds skittering around our land, one – a young male, brown at the front end and black at the back – taking a lengthy rest on the bottom bar of our fence just yesterday).

After all this natural drama, an exciting day of pensions followed, competing towards the end with my view from the west-facing office window, looking out over the croft buildings and houses of our neighbours, this one (actually a composite of two snaps) looking south-west and west taken at 16:22 and with the buildings deliberately under-exposed to highlight the colours in the sky:

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As early in January as this, it’s good to see light in the western sky stretching out well after five o’clock, too. The year is on the move and seeing (and hearing) simple evidence of that is both heartening and refreshing to the soul.

Learning Gàidhlig: a small PS

While I was drafting my post yesterday, a lengthy defence of the use of Gàidhlig was simultaneously being prepared by Pavel Iosad, a linguistics lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, and in response to a piece by Magnus Linklater in Monday’s Times. If I had been aware of it a few hours earlier, I would have linked to it – but the beauty of Twitter is that I came across it at all.

Iosad has already done an extensive job deconstructing Linklater’s arguments and I’m not going to have another bash at it other than to observe that, from Iosad’s quotes, the sophistication of Linklater’s arguments seemed to run no higher than the 18C establishment belief that people speaking minority languages are likely to be serial plotters. (Besides, Linklater’s contribution is behind the Times‘s firewall and The Digger and his cronies get neither my money nor my data.)

From the perspective of his New Town residence, I suspect Linklater has (notwithstanding his Orcadian roots) essentially little desire to understand why people persist with minority languages. Yet it is another apparently metropolitan journalist, Madeleine Bunting, who has the soundest arguments I’ve ever read about the importance of Gàidhlig: pp. 220-227 of Love of Country offer a clear defence of the importance of language not just in preserving another way of seeing the world but in linking people directly with their places of habitation: words coming from the skills required to survive and thrive in harsh circumstances; a range of colour descriptors which fine-tune what is found in a particular locality; and concepts which are not fully translateable into other languages but by which people understand and emphasise their relationships: a view of the land as community-owned rather than subject to an alien system of individual property rights.

There may (or actually there may not) be fifty words for snow but, however many there are, while many of them may make little sense to townies, such a range exists to give meaning to those living in a place and who need to understand the nuances. We’re all the richer for that diversity – as long as we choose to engage with it, that is. Bunting has spent time out here on the Western Isles specifically to understand the significance of the use of Gàidhlig; and that is the crucial difference. And, conversely, we’re all the poorer when opinion-formers make ill-informed, judgmental attempts to put minority languages back in the box; and, indeed, speakers of minority languages may regard that as oppressive. When even the World Economic Forum is hosting a debate on the importance of learning ‘dialect’ (ouch) rather than a ‘global language’, the need for sound policies to ensure that minority languages may flourish and that people do not feel uncomfortable for speaking their language has never been clearer.

Learning the Gàidhlig

Saturday saw me and around a dozen others embark on the first of five Saturday morning lessons in Gàidhlig, run by the estimable Ceòlas organisation. This is not, I’m afraid to report, my first attempt to learn some Gàidhlig, having attended courses last year in which, despite the best attempts of a notable and patient teacher, aided by a few catch-up viewings of BBC Alba’s 1990s Speaking Our Language, I must confess that little sank in long-term (practise does make perfect and, of course, the reverse is also true). Indeed, for most of us present, this was at least a second go.

The Western Isles generally is a stronghold of the language, and we learned that Uist is currently regarded as holding the gold standard for how to speak it properly (like anywhere else, Gàidhlig has dialects and different accents). With some 52% of the population of the islands still using it as a native language, you can hear Gàidhlig spoken just about everywhere other, of course, than where you are yourself: islanders use it with each other but tend to switch to English if they don’t know who you are (there is little that is sinister about this; it comes more from a desire not to cause embarrassment). So, chances to practise can be fairly rare unless you are assertive; and, like learning any other language, while knowing what to ask is one thing, understanding the reply that you get is another thing entirely. Our teacher this week, Liam, a young US-Canadian probably in his late 20s, arrived in Scotland in 2008, finding his way to the islands sometime later, learned Gàidhlig by immersion and is profoundly knowledgeable about the language and about its scholarship. I can see the attraction: with immersion, you don’t get to rely on your English or have others rely on it for you – and sink or swim is always a good way of learning how to do more than just keep your head above the water.

The difficulties of learning any language vary from one to another. The Gàidhlig alphabet has only 18 letters (no ‘j’, no ‘k’, no ‘q’ and nothing beyond a ‘u’), leading to a variety of interesting ways to combine different consonants; and, although it uses the Latin alphabet, it seems best not to rely on familiarities for how they should sound but to see them in their own context. Gàidhlig has a verb-subject-object word order, in contrast to the English (and French) subject-verb-object; and, while it shares with a lot of European languages both cases and nouns being either masculine or feminine, this is not predictable (‘morning’ (madainn) and ‘night’ (oidhche) are feminine whereas ‘afternoon’/’evening’ (feasgar) is masculine; whereas in French ‘matin’, ‘jour’ and ‘soir’ are all masculine while ‘nuit’ is feminine). Beware of false friends. Indeed, my strategy this time around is to try and learn how phrases sound and learn them by rote, not to try and learn them by reading them out. And don’t get me started on the complexities of lenition.

After five weeks I’ll be hoping that a few more words and phrases stick than asking people what their names are and how they are; and ‘Turned out windy again’. Indeed, they already have, with two more ways to ask ‘how are you’ than the standard, one of which translates as ‘how’s your trim?’ a phrase originating in seafaring which ought (and may well do) have some localised English equivalents (English does of course have an expression about dis/liking the cut of someone’s jib). Perhaps there is indeed more in common than divides us.

Repairing to the Polochar Inn afterwards for a spot of lunch, the young woman who served us was (of course) bilingual and happy to reward our attempts to use our Gàidhlig. She grew up largely speaking English to her mum (who was from Edinburgh) and largely Gàidhlig to her father (an islander); and was learning French and hoping to study Italian. Much depends on the individual, of course – but what a start in learning, and in understanding others, comes when you grow up in the home with two ways of asking others what they know, and of intrepreting their answers.

Book Review: Love of Country

Read while contemplating, and then completing, my final move to South Uist, I enjoyed this quite wonderful book immensely. Madeleine Bunting has used her journalistic skills of enquiry to weave together threads of geography, history, philosophy, literature and politics, and other familiar themes of spirituality, identity and migration from her years on The Guardian, into a sharply-focused, cohesive analysis of place and home.

Bunting’s journey across the Hebrides was inspired by family holidays as a child in the north of Scotland, and then as an adult with her own family in the north-west with a perspective on the Hebrides. Never having lived here, but always having felt the pull of the north-west (I can describe a similar experience standing in Falkirk one October/November Sunday morning, weekend school delegates hard at work in groups, staring at the heather to the north in full blaze in the morning sun, and wondering just how much further north there actually was), this is, nevertheless, no superficial, dry, desk-based analysis. On her journey, with separate chapters on various stopping-off points on her trip north-west, Bunting is prepared to get her hands fully dirty: camping; staying in hostels; visiting Corryvreckan (the ferocious whirlpool off Jura in which Orwell capsized); yomping across seven miles of moorland to camp at Barnhill, where Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four; and taking spray-soaked, physically uncomfortable trips on small boats to St. Kilda and the Flannan Isles. This hands-on, elemental approach has allowed Bunting to write a warm, introspective, intimate and accurate portrait of the Hebrides in which her own spirit of inquiry and empathy allows her to get into the soul of the place and feel it as home.

There are a few quibbles: the use of ‘Gaelic’, when ‘Gàidhlig’ is surely to be preferred, seems a rather odd choice in a discussion on place, especially when Bunting takes such effort to get other place names, and descriptors, right (for example using Leòdhasaich, for the inhabitants of Lewis) and when she clearly understands the vital importance of the language to convey concepts when English, as rich as it is, is simply insufficient to describing the crucial attachment between people and land. South Uist, my own home, appears rather fleetingly (though not ungenerously) which, given it is the largest community buy-out thus far, seems something of a lacuna in a book with takes a strong look at issues of land ownership. The final chapter, at journey’s end, drifts somewhat unsatisfyingly, repeating some of the themes of the journey thus far but without really drawing them home, like a boat holed up temporarily at a cliff face, the swell echoing and playing with the boat until its engines kick in and drive it on again (perhaps this was inevitable given the circumstances). Oh, and it’s definitely just Buzzcocks (without the definite article). But these are minor issues in a book whose sweep and whose themes and treatment are as important as this.

Part travelogue, part memoir and part historical narrative, this is an indispensable guide for anyone wanting to visit the Hebrides or understand the complexities of life lived here which no amount of ‘life on the edge’ toe-dipping could ever convey (or where camera crews go away and construct their own narrative!). Coming out here from 2013, on regular trips that coincided with the timetable for Bunting’s own research visits, this is the book I had started to dream of writing myself. I’m going to have to find another one, now; dammit.

Toradh / Harvest

My inbox brings me news of An Toradh / The Harvest – a weekend festival of food (and drink!) and writing in Uist taking place towards the end of August. Seeing as this brings together several of my favourite things, I was keenly awaiting the full programme; I knew of some parts of it, but this is the first time I have seen the full shebang.

And what a programme it is! I was knocked out by the breadth of issues being covered during the event – which seeks to celebrate the food we make, eat and sell on the Uists – and by the range of speakers engaged for the festival. Launched under the auspices of Ceolas Uibhist, the Gaidhlig language culture, heritage and arts organistion, the festival might be only in its first year but it offers some forty or so events and already offers the look and feel of an established event (which indeed I hope it becomes). Among the events many will pick different highlights but I’m particularly looking forward to the Uist Noir writers’ workshop on the Friday evening, featuring three local women writers and including the terrific Libby Patterson, as well as a couple of foraging workshops on both land and sea. Oh, and the Westford is also offering a beer festival.

The establishment of the festival identifies two things for me: the range of very highly-talented folk who live on the Uists, with many of the speakers and the events being led by people from the islands; as well as the dynamism of the existing arts and culture organisations on the Uists without whose efforts and drive the festival would not exist. Together, both of these highlight the Uists as a thriving, dynamic place in which to live and work, and, in helping to provide the southern islands with a voice, will also contribute greatly to the level of presence required to keep the islands on the map as a continuing force. On top of a highly successful second year of Eilean Dorcha, the Uists really are establishing themselves as a place to be at the minute.

EDIT: 2 September. I was still in Perth last weekend packing up, and so am truly sorry to have missed this event. But I should point out for the record that Toradh was organised by a range of Uist community organisations and businesses in partnership.

Islands (Scotland) Bill published

Just catching up with the news that the Scottish Government published its Islands Bill last Friday. This was probably a good day to bury bad news, given that much of the political establishment was focused elsewhere at the time, although there is no suggestion that the Islands Bill is is bad news. But the timing of its publication was awful.

The Bill is expressly the governmental response to the Our Islands Our Future campaign launched by the island councils elected by Shetland, Orkneys and Western Isles voters to establish a clearer constitutional recognition of the needs and status of island areas. The Bill – which builds on top of a consultation exercise undertaken in the last quarter of 2015 – will need to be carefully scrutinised as regards the extent to which it matches up to the aims of Our Islands Our Future as well as in terms of what it envisages actually happening in practice. At the headline level, it seeks to do the following:

– a duty on Scottish Ministers to publish a ‘National Islands Plan’ with a view to improving outcomes for island communities, alongside an annually-published Progress Report

– a duty on Scottish Ministers expressly to have regard to island communities in exercising their functions, including via an island communities impact assessment as a means of ‘island-proofing’ initiatives such that islanders are not disadvantaged as a result of their location

– protection for the Na h-Eileanan an Iar Scottish parliamentary constitutency akin to that already provided to the Shetlands and Orkneys constituencies such that the boundaries cannot be changed without primary legislation

– greater flexibility around councillor representation within island communities

– provision for all island authorities to have more control in the development of the seas around their communities via a marine licensing scheme for development activities.

Island communities continue to face major problems as regards – among many others – de-population, and the associated, but qualitatively different, problem of dealing with the needs, not least health, of an ageing society; the provision of affordable and suitable housing; and digital connectivity. Some of these issues are being taken forward, at least to some degree, such as the Scottish Government’s Digital Scotland initative, although improvements can always be made to any governmental programme both as regards provision and as regards pace.

The Islands Bill is not inherently a development-based one, but a policy and access one. Consequently, the solution to many of the development problems facing the islands – of jobs, incomes and sustainability – need to be tackled in other forums and by other initiatives, although I would have liked to see express recognition of the need to engage and work with community landlords – such as Storas Uibhist on South Uist, Benbecula and Eriskay, which has just celebrated ten years of community ownership of these islands – included formally in the Bill. Whether the Islands Bill turns out to make a difference to islanders’ lives in practice of course remains to be seen, but a legislative start has been made on creating greater voice and access for the islands to policy, and in red-circling that for the future. To the extent that this represents at least a signal of a reversal of the recent policy trend towards greater centralisation in the Scottish Government, the Bill is welcome. Practice needs to follow.

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Before sun-up, 5 December. View looking south-east from Ardivachar, taken 0837. Sunrise time for our postcode: 0853 (though the actual appearance of the sun is about half an hour later at this time of year since its actual rise is obscured by Thacla, on the right of this photo).

Great views all round this morning, aided by starry skies overnight and an absence of cloud cover, a complete absence of wind and thus a sharp frost which left the grass crunchy underfoot and the light clear and the visibility well-defined. There were very strong views to the hills of Harris to the north, about 65 kms distant; to the Monach Isles to the north-west; east to MacLeod’s Tables and the Cuillins (red and black) on Skye; and, here, south-east to Thacla’s foothills and, in the far distance, the 70kms down to Rum. That’s also a thin sliver of Loch Bi following the photo’s lower third. And soft colours everywhere: gentle pinks and blues and greys reflecting the early sun to the north and west; stronger, but still very soft focus, oranges and blues to the east and south.

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Composite picture, taken 0853 looking south and a bit east. From left to right, Thacla, Beinn Corradail (the lowest, at 527m) and Beinn Mhor (the highest, at 572m). (The need to keep exposure values the same in a composite picture means that the sky has whitened out: it was much brighter over Beinn Mhor as we’re not far off sunrise.) Very calm (almost no wind), very cold.

The Met Office looks to have got this one absolutely right: (‘… 1-3 cm of snow may accumulate on hills above around 200m and more than 5 cm above 400m…’). Cold northerly weather which yesterday brought hail and which stayed cold over night, to bring this scene on wakening with, by the look of the skies to the north, a bit more to come. Time to stop posting and get that stove stoked up, I think!