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:

IMG_3076 (Custom)

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.

Advertisements

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.

IMG_10240 (Custom)

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.

IMG_10247 (Custom)

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.

IMG_9527 (Custom)

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.

IMG_9241 (Custom)

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!):

IMG_7702

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.

Every Day Is (Not) Like Sunday

I was interested to see that the trial Sunday opening of An Lanntair, the arts centre in Stornoway, has made at least the local pages of the BBC website. The question of Sunday opening is a major trial for our northern cousins up on Lewis and Harris and the issue has been extensively chewed over recently on the blog of Hebrides Writer (a post on which I also commented directly last week). (Interestingly, Katie’s post on the An Lanntair trial got a lot more reaction than her excellent post a year ago on the LGBT History month exhibition at the same venue.)

Katie’s views on the issue were set out at length and she makes a number of points, among them that the consultation has been poorly handled, not least with regard to the concerns of staff working at the centre; and on the potential damage to the link between art and faith.

As a committed trade unionist, you’ll find no argument from me on the need for consultation on issues affecting staff to be handled properly – and I too remember Usdaw’s involvement in the ‘Keep Sunday Special‘ campaign in England and Wales (Scotland has no such laws on Sunday trading) in the 1980s. Usdaw’s involvement was founded on the specific concern that Sunday opening was a threat to workers’ rights not least in terms of undermining Sunday working premia – an issue on which, I suspect, it will have been proved substantially right, at least outside Usdaw-recognised workplaces.

On the issue of the link between arts and faith, I’m not so sure. Artists surely want to get their work out and, in the example to which Katie points, potentially refusing to collaborate with an arts organisation looks a spectacular example of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face, aside of the issue that a publicly-funded organisation ought to be there for all the community, including those of different faiths and, of course, none at all. But, more than that, we see things a little differently down here at the southern end of the Hebrides. A predominantly Catholic island, South Uist has no problems with the Co-op being open on a Sunday (right up until 10pm), and we have a swimming pool and a gym (on Benbecula – an island where religious affiliations are mixed) that are open, too (and, judging by the noise coming from the pool today, people were having a whale of a time). But no-one is going to tell me either that my hard-working crofting neighbours who take the time away from their sheep and cattle to pack out the local church on a Sunday are not properly Christian; or that South Uist doesn’t produce music worth listening to, as evidenced by Ceòlas Uibhist’s plans to build on these traditions with a new venue celebrating Gàidhlig music, dance and cultural heritage. I doubt – although I don’t precisely know – that the issue of Sunday opening of Cnoc Soilleir has been much debated within Ceòlas as it finalises its plans (and I fully expect it to be open). And neither is it about Gàidhlig itself, South Uist having a slightly higher percentage of Gàidhlig speakers than everywhere on Lewis other than Barvas – itself an important point in terms of the challengers to customs and traditions.

So the link between art and faith is not as simple as all that, and, while we should always be sensitive around issues of cultural heritage, the issue up at An Lanntair is really about a rather narrow version of interpretations of the Christian faith. I don’t think I’m missing the point here – the culture is (very) different on these two islands but Gàidhlig psalm singers sing from the heart and from an expression of their personal faith in their God: and I don’t believe that, were the arts centre, or the swimming pool, or the shops, to be open on a Sunday up on Lewis and Harris, that this will make that singing or that faith burn any less brighter.

The picture of today’s An Lanntair pickets on the BBC website story is illustrated with a biblical quote (from the Book of Exodus) about keeping the Sabbath Day holy, written in the pre-Christian era and for people for whom the Sabbath would have been (and still is, of course) Saturday, not Sunday. There’s an irony there which is not lost in the shift to Sunday as the holy day for Christians. Despite being a non-churchgoer myself, Sunday still seems to me to have a different character, and to be a day of rest, regardless of whether the shops and the swimming pool are open or not, and that’s been true regardless of when I lived right in the centre of Perth or here in a remote South Uist community. Sunday opening doesn’t define faith – your God does. And there is surely time and room for both, even on a Sunday. Or, indeed, a Saturday.

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.

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:

IMG_7481 (Custom)

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:

January sunset 1

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.