img_4149-customPicture taken looking west towards Ardivachar (and a bit north), Mol Mor beach at Kilaulay, at 1617 on 5 December 2016.

Well, a bit of afterglow, really rather than sunset (which was at 1548 today) since the band of clouds on the horizon obscured the actual setting of the sun. Nevertheless, the quality of the light continued to be extremely high giving, at this stage of the day, soft reflections and a beautiful apricot sky.

In between the above and the below, we had this:

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Pictures (a composite – there were actually only two gulls drifting lazily on the sea….) taken at 1421, looking north-east across Bagh A Tuath (= North bay) from Rubha Aird na Machrach.

The weather is due to break tomorrow, with rain forecast and a stronger wind. Today, however, another day of eerily, portentously calm weather: of warm sunshine and blue, and almost milky white, stilled seas that gently shimmer under barely a breath of wind, as the picture above (taken on a receding tide) seeks to show. This is not just unseasonal, but unreal. There will be worse (much worse) weather to come – which makes the anticipation of just how hard it is going to be that bit tougher. There will, most probably, be a price to pay for all this via a storm whose ferocity reflects, in the opposite direction, the calmness of these early winter days. Aside of some gales around the autumn equinox and a cold snap (lasting no more than a couple of days) in the middle of November, the south of England seems to have had worse weather thus far.

In the meantime, I could (and if I could abstract the beauty of moments like this) get very used to island days like these.

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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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Fishing boats, Lochmaddy harbour. Picture taken 23 November, 11:41

I spent three days last week in Lochmaddy, courtesy of taking advantage of some training in museum documentation (incorporating the Adlib categorisation package) on behalf of the North Uist Historical Society. Lochmaddy is the largest settlement on North Uist (thus two (actually three, including Grimsay) islands hence from South Uist). More people actually live on the west side of the Uists, with land on the east side substantially broken up by sea lochs and enclosed freshwater lochs, and substantial hills) but Lochmaddy’s proximity to Skye, and thus its port facilities for the ferry (a key one among Calmac routes), as well as a long-established, but now largely disappeared fishing industry, makes it the only settlement on North Uist with a clutch of co-located services.

Getting there, however, presents something of a challenge, especially from the south. It’s a trip of just over 26 miles from our house which, even in a car, takes around 45 minutes. For me, bearing in mind my status as a confirmed non-driver, it takes a wee bit longer. For this trip, getting to Lochmaddy in the middle of the day entails a three-mile walk to the main road to pick up the bus which runs up and down the spine of the islands and then a change of bus in Balivanich, the islands’ only town, on the central island of Benbecula.

None of this is a problem, I should add: I’m perfectly happy both in walking and using public transport (interestingly, the number of the bus: W17 (from South Uist to Benbecula; W16 from Benbecula to North Uist) is the same as the service both in Reading from my childhood home into town; and also from a home I shared in a small village outside Perth into Perth itself). And I have absolutely no complaints either about the companies or any of their excellent staff either in the offices or driving the buses themselves.

But, door-to-door, the journey is 2 hours and 4 minutes (including a brief stopover in Balivanich and allowing for the detour to Balivanich adding four miles to what is otherwise almost exactly a standard marathon route): at least eight separate Kenyans and Ethiopians would be likely to arrive at Taigh Chearsabhagh before me were they to set off from my house at the same time as me. Taking the high road, indeed.

As I changed buses, the driver reminded me to show my ticket to the driver on the W16 (it is possible to buy a through ticket) and then, in cheery farewell, said ‘You’re the first I’ve had for months!’ Not many people, it seems, want to travel beyond Balivanich (at least, not by public transport, not in the middle of the day, and when there’s no ferry due). And I suspect that’s almost as true from north to south as it is from south to north.

There could be any number of reasons for that, of course: Balivanich is the central town, and has both the airport and more shops and services than anywhere else north or south (a situation which, it seems, is likely only to become more pronounced); and the length of the journey by bus, the relative infrequency of services and the inconvenience of having to change buses in mid-trip means that a car journey is simply more practical for that journey (to say nothing of the three-mile hike at the start!). It might also be a little to do with the history: that people from the south have little reason to go that far north, and vice versa, stemming partly from the different socio-religious characteristics of north and south but also (and more likely) as a result of the simple practicalities: that journeys, in typically poorer societies, were rare except in cases of necessity and/or God, or animal heath and welfare; were undertaken otherwise only to visit friends and family who, typically, would be nearby anyway; and that travelling around the Uists, being a series of separate islands, would in the past be seen as risky (and still can be, by the way, in bad weather even though the islands in the Uists are all connected by causeways). All of this does add to the very different characteristics, and atmosphere, that constitute the different islands in the chain. Moving south, as we did on finding this house, did raise a few eyebrows from some of our friends in the north, even in 2015.

But back to my journey: 30 miles, via Balivanich, and I passed fewer than 2,000 people in making it: marathon runners would pass fewer than 1,000. A friend of mine recently remarked on how different life must be from London (and even from Perth!) and there is no clearer example of the starkness of the difference. Goodness knows how the Hebridean Pizza people find it: from working in media jobs in bustling Soho to bringing pizzas to the Uists (even to the bright lights of Balivanich!), and beyond, is about as dramatic a lifestyle change as you’ll find. Whatever it is they’re in search of, I hope they find it.

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From a late Sunday afternoon stroll along the machair, adjacent to Ardivachar beach, sun already below the horizon. This piece of reflection was somewhat opportunistic, since the water here is a result of a steady build up of rain water on the machair over the last few weeks; it’s not a regular lochan (though it did act to put a bit of distance between us and a small herd of fairly inquisitive heifers). To some degree you could repeat the scene regularly, and from a little closer to, from Loch Druidibeg further south, but from this angle we get a much better idea of the length of the chain.

Thacla, the mountain on the left (well, hill, I suppose – it is a sub-2000′, after all), crests the local scene quite magnificently and, in close up, there is something rather Swiss-like in the rising grandeur of its peak and flanks, particularly on the left side. Beinn Mhor, on the right, is probably more often climbed since it is higher (and, indeed, the Uists’ only Graham – sorry, Graham…) although there is a clear, and day-long walk encompassing all three and a total 1200m of ascent, but there’s only a few metres in it, height-wise. Were I to have to choose, Thacla would win for me on the grounds of its more impressive bulk and the superior way it lords it over the much smaller rise directly beneath, but both have their appeal and contribute to the very different character of South Uist compared to its neighbours to the north.

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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!

Yesterday saw a calmness descend on South Uist: a light, more or less southerly wind with which the grass stalks in the garden were barely moving. There was a sense of everything taking the chance of the change in wind direction to be a bit lazy, to draw some breath. Sunday’s bright, northerly coldness (which first lent a sharpness to the stars in the sky; and then put snow on the peaks of the Cuillins) had disappeared, leaving the air a little warmer. We were, however, under a fair amount of cloud which lent a very soft focus to objects both in the foreground as well as in the distance.

That apart, the possibility for reflections meant it was a good day for photographs and I had the opportunity to take a bit longer on my walk to the main road to catch the late afternoon bus to catch some reflections in the waters of Loch Bi and, in particular, the lochans and water courses very close to the main road.

Here is a very peaceful scene of one of the small bays on Loch Bi’s outstretched (or outstretching…) arm by Lionacuidhe, albeit a little more soft focus than I’d like, partly as a result of the late afternoon light (actually about 75 minutes before sunset):

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This is one of my favourite spots on South Uist – calm, peaceful and reflective – which I’ll be exploring in a little more detail given decent weather and with a following wind.

And here’s a couple of houses more or less adjacent to Iochdar School, reflected in Loch an Os, taken about half an hour later:

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And finally a bonus sunset picture, snapped out of the window of the bus as it crossed the causeway to Benbecula (hence the blurred foreground wall), at very low tide with the remaining waters describing river-like water courses over the mudflats:

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Silver birch, off A830 ‘Road to the Isles’, a little west of Glenfinnan.

So that’s what autumn looks like. Now I remember!

One of the interesting things about island life is that there few trees make it to anything like maturity here. High winds are one evident reason – but sheep are, more prosaically, the more substantial other; new and fragile shoots tending to dislike the tender ministries of either.

Consequently, the usual seasonal markers – leaves turning red, yellow, gold and brown in autumn; and spring green in, well, spring – are absent. (Hallowe’eners, too, probably, although that’s a different story of which depopulation is one aspect; as indeed, and most sadly for me, is likely to be Bonfire Night: fireworks and the prevalence of strong winds doth not a good mix make.) Crofters clearly have plenty of seasonal work which occupies them at different times of the year, and they clearly know when it is spring and when it is autumn. But for us townies, with temperatures running if certainly not at a constant level but otherwise within a fairly small range, it can be a little disorienting – darker in winter, for sure; and definitely lighter, for much longer, in summer; and respectively somewhat colder, and then somewhat warmer (while, moving away from temperatures, the more keen-eyed of us can note changes in the constitution of the bird population) – but otherwise time passes with nature giving the casual observer few of the usual visual cues as to the point each year has reached.

Returning to the mainland for a couple of days at the weekend, I was struck by the autumn colours of Perthshire (and, here, Inverness-shire). (And, by the way, this does look to have been a spectacularly good autumn.) Within the good City of Perth, the North Inch (Why is Perth the smallest city? Because it lies between two Inches.) looked lovely, as indeed did the roads between Perth and Mallaig, from where we caught CalMac’s MV Lord of the Isles yesterday afternoon for a happy, if slightly choppy, return home. And to pretty much the same greens and slightly mucky yellows that we had left behind and which will, presumably, be the same colours for quite a bit longer. They’re welcome too – though I do miss the drama and the beauty of autumn: normally my favourite time of year as nature gets ready for the glories of spring’s new growth by claiming, in an all-consuming bonfire, what has already had its day.

img_3827-customLooking, well, towards the sun; at 0816 (actual sunrise, just about centre of the pic (‘x’ doesn’t quite mark the spot), was only a couple of minutes later). The Cuillin Ridge on Skye is just off-frame to the left but also very visible this morning (as indeed is the Monach Isles lighthouse, roughly north-west; and Rum’s mini-Cuillin to the south-east).

The apparent fireball with the child-drawn face (with a hand held up to whisper ‘hush?’) – yes, it really was there. (What is seen can never be unseen.) No wonder our ancestors felt their lives to be controlled in some way from beyond the skies!

Sunsets are usually more my thing (sunrises tending to occur at an hour that is simply too early); but a run of really fine (dry, calm) weather, with officially ‘very good’ visibility, combined with this being the last week before the clocks go back and a desire to try at most costs not to let our wood-burning stove go out, means that sunrise pictures are just about doable. And we’ve had some crackers recently. In a few days, all being well, the earth’s tilt and rotation (yes, I’m more of an artist than a scientist) means that sunrise will be fully behind the wind turbines. Now, that would make quite a statement!