The Workshop

Weather: Always unpredictable – definitely warmer, some hot days and humid nights, some heavy rain and strong winds.

I had hardly returned to the Island before I was whisked off to a camping trip to Balashare, one of the most beautiful beaches in the vicinity. We built a bonfire and a barbecue, had a picnic and swam in the sea until we were thoroughly exhausted. We had omitted to include a mattress, so sleep was challenging at times, although the sounds of the wind and rain beating on the sides of the tent was comforting and even romantic despite slight anxieties about our security. In fact, our tent (purchased especially for staying on the Hebrides) remained securely fixed to the ground – as did I the next morning whilst trying to sit up.

Later in the week I began to feel ill and so did not accomplish very much although there was much preparation work needed for our forthcoming workshop ‘Explorations in Landscape’. Many honey, lemon and ginger drinks later – my man-flu had passed and I was ready for the forthcoming weekend workshop event, that Nicola and I had planned. This photography workshop began with an evening talk about the historical associations of painting with photography. The weekend progressed with field trips to Scolpaig and the Island of Vallay, where our workshop participants were able to make some excellent pictures. This was followed by indoor sessions concentrated on Photoshop post-production processing of the images that we had collected, before printing our results. The weather was kind to us and everyone enjoyed themselves. We are hoping to run another workshop upon these lines and hopefully extend our scope into other areas of photographic practice…

The following week the weather gave up on us and it has been wet and dull, although the winds have been light. Nicola fell ill during the week having perhaps caught my cold, necessitating much rest and restitution. Naturally this was something that I could assist in.

There have been two fishing trips this week. The first in a small sea loch resulted in a good sized Pollack, caught using a small spinner, the other outing was on one of the beautiful inland freshwater lochs where Keith and I only managed a few small brown trout, although Nicola found a beautiful position on a rock outcrop to make some watercolour paintings. Later we attended a workshop outlining the assistance available to would-be entrepreneurs setting up businesses in the area. The University of the Highlands and Islands is central in facilitating this economic development and it is encouraging and appropriate that much of this is seen in the cultural and arts sectors.

The week ended as it had started, with a camping trip to Balashare beach. The day was sunny and warm and the westerly winds ensured that the surf was running. After a glorious hour or so in the sea with our body boards we lit a camp fire and lit the barbecue. We grilled the (salted) Pollack that I had caught earlier in the week with some nettle pesto and salad.

It was a memorable evening (and although we had forgotten to bring sufficient water) we had plenty of other drinks with which to pass the evening. The night was starry and quiet, with the orange lights from nearby Benbecula glowing intriguingly in the distance.

Our rather impromptu trip was truly memorable and I am hoping that next weekend we can repeat the performance. I had not envisioned the feeling of freedom and immersion of the senses possible through the simple expedient of wearing a wet suit and attempting to ride on the waves as they break onto the sand. Seldom have I laughed so much or had such a great time. Early the next morning we drove back to the house to feed the animals. They are always so pleased to see us.

Nicola and I have started to work on our portraits which are developing well. Working closely together on this project is proving to be an interesting and exciting creative adventure.

Angie (white cat) and Alice (kitten) are getting along much better. Alice follows Angie enthusiastically everywhere.  Mostly he is OK about this although sometimes he does not want to play with Alice because he is a bit of a grumpy old man (not like me..) or he is tired from rat whacking.

Please note our bird sightings are proving untrustworthy, never the less our twitching enthusiasm remains undiminished.

Two Views

Weather: Wet, cold interspersed with one or two hot sunny days with light winds.

Carpets of yellow Tormentil, yellow primroses and common Birdsfoot-trefoil with a sprinkling of pink and white daisies cover the pastures. The roadsides verges are littered with yellow Iris, Cat’s-ears and, this must be a lucky year, because also the biennial, purple/pink Fox-glove – are visible in a most complimentary way. The sea loch’s tidal islands, visible only at low tide, are blushed with Sea Thrift – gorgeous little pink flowers that can exist in and out of the sea-water. Bog cotton shimmers in the sunlight creating silver patches on the grass slopes. These are some of the things that make up for the ‘not so hot’ summer we are experiencing this year… so far.

Robin and Marjory Gillanders, whilst on their Hebridean travels – stopped by for a late Sunday lunch. Before they came Nicola and I had a stunning pre-lunch walk on Clachan Sands beach – we paddled bare foot in the sun warmed sea – wonderful!

The Gillanders’ arrived at about 4 pm and then duly (after Robin and I had tested the ground) – drove their camper van onto the front lawn. The van got stuck and became completely embedded in the mud. Many failed attempts were made to get the van back onto hard ground. In the process two tow ropes were broken using our own van. Finally, the ‘AA’ had to be summoned from Benbecula (via Birmingham) and kindly and quickly (it was Sunday) came by – his tow rope snapped too – eventually a chain had to be attached to Robin and Marjory’s camper in order to haul it out of the Hebridean peat – much relief all round!

Photo by Marjory Gillanders

The four of us were finally able to sit down to the ‘well’ deserved late lunch – traditional style – roast chicken vegetables, copious amounts of wine followed by a few wee drams generously provided by Robin… Caution needs to be made when partaking in these ‘wee drams’ which on occasion are not as ‘wee’ as they might sound. Robin and Marjory stayed in their camper van overnight in the garden – with, impressively, their cat Spike, who has lovely eyes and travels with them – we all had an absolute gas with an enthusiastic exchange of ideas and stories. We swapped publications. Nicola and I have been enjoying  reading Robin’s excellent ‘Highland Journey’ which is based on the earlier travels of Edwin Muir.

As ever, the search for the quintessential ‘Scottish Identity’ proves elusive, but as I identify as a Geordie and Nicola is from Niarobi, this is something we may be able to offer a clearer view of, at a later stage as our project develops. Robin also left a copy of ‘Studies in Photography’ which he is editorially involved with. This is a scholarly and serious publication and is highly recommended. Alongside ‘Photographies’ this is a real contribution to the printed material available to contemporary photographic culture.

This was a very busy social week.

Monday: Fishing with Keith Dawson – I was late due to a slow start (guests, hangover etc.) – Keith had booked a boat on Loch Fada. Keith rowed us across the loch. It was blowing hard and started to rain. The rain increased to such intensity that my special Harris-tweed fishing hat became so water logged it drooped like a wet fish over my head and face –  fishing was abandoned.

Tuesday: dinner at Minish with Rosie, Raphael and Neil – a combined contribution – the food was exceptionally tasty. Vegan chili, quinoa, and celery salad followed by a gorgeous chocolate vegan cheese cake and berries in cream. Wine, prosecco and lemon water.

A lovely evening and great company.

Nicola: Friday 21st June 7am – I drove John to the ferry. He was off to the mainland for a motorcycling trip with his biker mates. It was very early, so rather than stay to watch the boat depart (which I know John would have done) I headed quickly back to my bed for an extra hour sleep – I had some exciting events planned for this Friday and I needed to prepare.

The second start to my day began with domestics – cleaning, shopping and packing for the Midsummer night camping adventure. Preparations are everything – Tent, found and packed; a cool-bag of goodies including prosecco an avocado and a bottle of water with lemon slice, a sharp knife and some salt; two duvets, my toothbrush and camera.

This Midsummer evening began with a PV at Taigh Chearsabhagh Arts Centre  – a very interesting sound and video installation by Canadian artist Joshua Bonnetta calledCaolas na Hearadh | The Sound of Harris. This event was wellreceived andattended – by community contributors and local artists – the night was going well and it looked like the weather was going to hold out for the Midsummer night’s camping trip.

9pm – it was time to set off to Hosta beach – the chosen location because of the sun-setting to the left of the beach and rising to the right. A small group of us went in convoy, Rosie Blake and Raphael Rychetsky in one car and me in another – following Andy Mackinnon , the organizer. We were joined by Neil Morrison, Catriona MacInnes and Joshua Bonnetta. What a Gorgeous night -Rosie and I managed a dip in the sea – but that tired us out and I unfortunately did not manage to see the sunrise – I had to crash (in my very comfortable tent with the two duvets) at about 3am. This was a fabulous evening – wild camping, the bonfire and being present for the event. Raphael was the ‘man’ – he managed to get the event sunrise ‘Photograph’!

June 22 – waking up on the beach – lovely fresh air and warm, the weather was the best it had been for weeks and I was informed that it had been a spectacular sunrise. I had a quick coffee with the remaining ‘midsummer gang’ and then headed back to Minish to feed the cats. This day just got better and better – gloriously hot – like summer. In Uist if the weather is ‘this’ good you do not hesitate – all plans change – I needed to be outside! I sorted the cats, grabbed a snack – then quickly packed my wet-suit, body board, lemon water, some drawing materials and my camera – this was a Baleshare Beach day.

I swam for two hours, playing with my body board and the waves and then enjoyed the early evening sitting on the rocks doing a little watercolor sketch. On the drive back to Minish – now 6.30pm I took some photos. This was the hottest, most beautiful day yet, the light, the colours, the flowers, the thrill of being here – I felt truly blessed. A passing thought – ‘I sure am glad I don’t have to put on a bunch of leathers and crash helmet today’ (although I did wear my wetsuit)

My week was full: Yoga, beach, drawing, preparing etching plates and making photographs.

John: Friday 21st June 7amLeaving Lochmaddy. I boarded the ferry to make my annual motorcycling trip with long standing fellow motorcyclists. On departure, a rainbow illuminated the sky across the bay. It was a beautiful morning and I enjoyed the crossing. Arriving at Uig, I located the bus stop for the journey to Glasgow. On all previous occasions, I have made the journey to Newcastle by car, but on this occasion (as I was due to return with Nicola’s car) I travelled by bus and train. The bus journey is around 7 hours through exceptional scenery. There was an hour for lunch at Fort William then onto Loch Lomond before the inevitable traffic congestion around Glasgow. Nonetheless, I enjoyed not driving, thinking that the life of the coach driver must put my occasional experiences in perspective. I took the train from Glasgow to Edinburgh (Who could have thought there could be so many stops?) before joining the connection to Newcastle where on arrival, I was fortunate to quickly find a local bus home.  

I deeply regretted that my annual motorcycling event was co-incidental with the summer solstice. I hadn’t noticed this when I confirmed the dates. Nevertheless the weather in North Yorkshire was as agreeable as it had been on North Uist and our little motorcycling party – Alan (Aerial), Andrew (Suzuki), David (Moto Guzzi) , John (Morini), Jonny (M.Z), Pat (Ducati) and Rebecca (Ducati) – covered many miles in beautiful weather. My bike had been smoking a little but was running well. The journey is the destination when riding an old bike (my BMW is the same age as me) and so, nowhere fast was easily achieved. The days were beautiful and easy with great scenery, wildlife and buildings including some wonderful pubs. In Swaledale, I even saw a red kite make off with a large rat. We stayed in Leyburn in a friendly pub with tolerant management.

Within 1 hour or returning home, Alan Wilson and I had my bike in bits and we found that worn valve guides were accounting for the (slightly excessive) smoke. This was a relief as worn pistons or bores would have been expensive. Unfashionably, we love the (elderly) internal combustion engine! Alan has also stripped down his 1930’s Aerial in order to fit a higher compression piston. Exciting times lie ahead..

In Newcastle I visited Jon Bewley and Jonty Tarbuck they were preparing to move the Locus+ archive to custody of the University of Newcastle and are considering the next move for this organization. This major collection of significant works from many of the exceptional artists that Locus+ have worked will be safeguarded for the future – thanks to the foresight of the University and the commitment of Locus+. I also had a meeting with Dr. Rupert Ashmore, from the Department of Arts from Northumbria University. We discussed a research paper he is writing for the Arts Journal using ‘In this Day and Age’ as a case study. We shared ideas regarding borders and islands and reflected upon the construction of identities, both within a personal and political context. Rupert has a keen interest in the particular characteristics of the Scottish Islands. As ever, it was a pleasure to see him and we had an enjoyable interview and discussion and I am looking forward to seeing the outcomes of his research.

It was my youngest daughter’s birthday and we visited Chinatown to celebrate although the bean sprouts were a little too plentiful for her taste. I also managed a coffee with Author and Photographer Mike Golding and beer (on this occasion the ‘Rivet Catcher’ was not at its best) and curry with one of my motorcycling friends John Park, who had found in me a new home for an old Zeiss Ikonta roll film camera and a folding 35mm Dolina snapshot camera. My journey back to the ferry terminal at Uig took most of Friday. I was bringing Nicola’s car to the Island and allowed plenty of time for the journey which was uneventful. The car was piled up with a lot of the equipment needed for our forthcoming workshop activities. I had time to catch the end of the Uist Arts Association Summer Open Exhibition at Taigh Chearsabagh since then I have been ill with a cold. Ugh..

Birds spotted over the two weeks include:

  • Short ear owls.
  • Redwings
  • Hooded crows
  • Jackdaws
  • Arctic tern
  • Artic skua
  • Swans in flight
  • Grey lag geese and their goslings
  • Plovers
  • Redshanks
  • Curlews
  • Hen harriers
  • Kestrel
  • Merlin
  • Buzzard picking up a rat
  • Golden eagle circling in flight
  • Several Herons
  • 3 black swans in flight

Angelo and new kitten ‘Alice’ are becoming acquainted. Alice loves Angelo – Angelo is tolerant but has upped his rat surveillance duties. We have set times for ‘on your own naps’ – Angelo appreciates this space. Alice is in training and is very good at catching her toy mouse, at playing hide and seek and toe catching. We are both covered in affectionate scratches..

The Visit

Weather: A Promising start to very changeable conditions overall.

Nicola and I made a visit to the mainland and on my return the ferry was, as ever, a welcome sight and apart from an excellent supper of smoked salmon and cream cheese bagels our crossing was otherwise uneventful. It was good to be back on the island, and we had a day or so to turn around, and prepare for the arrival of Abigale and Hannah, Nicola’s daughters, with Hannah’s three children- Malena age 8 months, Pavlin age 3 years and Mikel age 9 years respectively. Their journey from Glasgow had been diverted via Oban and the ferry arrived on a beautiful still evening on a glass-like sea in Lochboisdale on South Uist. There was much excitement all round and they were thrilled to have seen dolphins accompanying the boat during their 5, hour crossing.

The drive back to the house takes around 1 hour and 20 minutes and (as promised to the kids) we saw numerous deer along the way, close by the road in the gloaming. The following morning, with five extra people and a new kitten – a sort of joyful chaos – Nicola cooked a traditional breakfast and simultaneously prepared a picnic for our (whatever the weather attitude) trip to the beach for body surfing and swimming. The weather was a little challenging, and it took two attempts to find a place that had sufficient shelter for us to settle. Four of us did manage to swim (me, Nicola, Mikel and Hannah) but only brave Hannah (armed with only a swim suit and wetsuit gloves and shoes) could bear to venture into the water free-style. Pavlin (in a newly purchased Kinross Service Station wetsuit) made lots of noise and fuss about swimming before not really going in.. 

The week was a great success (despite the unusual cold snap) and we all attended several local events. The annual Tractor Rally event in Sollas, the inaugural Fine Art Degree at Taigh Cheasarbhagh and further swimming at Liniclate Sports Centre.

During this week, I also managed to deliver my (somewhat delayed) talk about my work at Taigh Cheasarbhagh. Andy McKinnon mentioned that had the talk occurred in Glasgow an equivalent attendance (when considering the respective populations) would have been around 10, 000. Hello North Uist! I was able, in addition to talking about previous work to introduce and to further describe the project that Nicola and I are developing on the Island.

The following Saturday there were 2 special occasions to celebrate. Firstly, there was the famous Tractor Rally which attracted many spectators and 52 tractors with their drivers. There were 8 varieties of soup being served in the agricultural centre hall and the kids could climb on the tractors, many of which were old classic David Browns, Fergusons and Fordsons. I had often mused at the quantity of literature devoted to old tractors and now have met some of the people who must read it. Rosie Blake (aka the ‘Human Scale’ because she had worked in a fruit and veg shop) estimated the weight of a large clootie dumpling and we duly added our estimates based on her’s.

Saturday evening was the opening of the University of the Highlands and Islands Inaugural Fine Art Degree show. This was extremely well attended (Glasgow equivalents would run to millions). This was the first cohort of students who had completed their 4-year degree course at Taigh Chearsabhagh. As ever, the catering was excellent and was complimented by the provision of an extremely welcome Gin and Tonic, made from the local ‘Downpour’ Gin (highly recommended) served by its makers, a nice touch, thank you. The exhibition was extremely impressive and a great occasion both for the students and the University. It made Taigh Cheasarbhagh come alive and is an exceptional example of cultural and economic development and collaboration. Congratulations are due to all of those involved in this unique venture.

Sunday 2nd July at 5am we made the early morning drive, the length of the Islands to Lochboisdale Ferry terminal – Nicola’s family were heading back to the mainland. It was blowing and raining hard and we waved our visitors off into the mist. The contrast with the serenity of their arrival was total and the ferry quickly became shrouded in hazy drizzle before disappearing towards the horizon. We left the terminal to catch up on some sleep and felt justified in treating ourselves to a very fine lunch at the Westford Inn (good beer too..)

‘Old carrot nose’ is an eponymous Oyster Catcher that sits on its nest not far from the cottage. It is obvious to all, and looks faintly ridiculous trying to maintain a low – profile whilst incubating its eggs. We were disappointed to see that one of its eggs had been broken and the other moved away from the nest, presumably by the rats that abound in these parts. As the egg was still warm I very carefully put it back in the nest hoping that ‘Carrot nose’ would return. Indeed, I am more than pleased to add that at the time of writing she is sitting proudly in place. The nest is situated in rather an obvious place so we will see if she manages to hatch and raise her remaining chick successfully. As the nesting season is in full swing, birds are continually trying to ensure that any likely predators (gulls, rats and even dear Angie – our angelic looking white cat) is distracted from finding their nests, all of which are on the ground. We have had lots of sightings of wildlife including seals, curlews, herons, oyster catchers, greylag geese, deer, hen harriers and redshanks and a beautiful small eared owl that flew close to the kitchen window – where we were able to get a good close-up look of this stunning bird.

Alice our new kitten, has spent the week bouncing around the house, being chased by Pavlin and pestering poor Angie, who is the soul of restraint considering that he bites the heads off rats and leaves them by the back door as a devotional offering.

The Birds and the Bees

The weather has come from the north and the east this week, making for some very cool days. It has also been windy, and given the chill factor, it has felt like a return to winter.

Looking out of the kitchen window there is a smorgasbord of wildlife. There were 3 families of Greylag Geese. They swim effortlessly and serenely across the sea loch, the adults fore and aft with the goslings swimming in between. One family had 6, one 5 and the other 3 chicks respectively. Perfect families. We have spotted a Sea eagle on three occasions flying across the loch. Their size never fails to amaze and they have a languid way of flying close to the water’s surface creating consternation in the nearby animal and bird populations. On a good sunny day at low tide there are a harem of seals that pivot on the rocks – a canny sight indeed. Curlews and oystercatchers are also a common site – as are the many different species of ducks and sea gulls.

On our wonderings, we have noticed an abundance of hairy caterpillars which we have learned, are the Cuckoos favourite food. These birds have a bad reputation because of their questionable parenting skills – nature is enigmatic as always.

The light here is omnipresent – 16.31 hours of daylight that begins at around 5am. Nicola and I have on occasions woken to watch the panoramic chocolate box, pink and gold coloured display – it is at moments like this that hymns sung in school assembly resonate through the years. At other times, I have needed to wear an eye mask in order to stay asleep until 7am.

There are fields of daisies, yellow primroses and on the rocks, sea pinks. New varieties of wild flowers appear daily. There are little baby lambs prancing around with their mothers – like something from a Holman-Hunt painting. We have been foraging for nettles and have made nettle soup and pesto. The peat grown nettles have proven to be exceptionally tasty.

Thursday night we made our way to the Community Centre where the Screen Machine (an award-winning community enterprise showing contemporary films) was parked outside. It comprises a large articulated truck that converts Tardis-like into an excellent small cinema. We watched ‘The White Crow’ a pleasant enough film, dancing the night away and ensuring that the evening was an excellent experience. Everybody knows everybody here making for a convivial event.

Sunday, we planned to picnic on the beach. We had decided that whatever the weather we would go. As it happened, the wind shifted from the east to the south and dropped. The sun shone and it was a beautiful day. We met up with friends and drove off with them to Clachan beach. This is a wonderful beach with white sand that stretches into the distance with the hills of Harris in the background. We picked a great spot down in a natural amphitheatre by the rocks and we spread out the rugs in anticipation. Everyone made a great effort. We had masses of food including roast chicken, salmon, we even lit a barbecue and had scallops wrapped in bacon and sausages. After eating and to the amusement of everyone Nicola and I donned our wet suits. This sounds easy but it is not. We then had something of a swim. This was a lovely afternoon and the pink Cava helped make it a dreamy memorable one.

Nicola successfully finished her teaching at the University this week. I dutifully made a half-hearted attempt to fish – hopefully the increasing fly life over the next few weeks will stir the fish into surfacing for food …

Angelo, our white cat, is as excellent as ever at catching the rats (4 this week). He presents them proudly at the back door, and soaks up the admiration offered to him. This week he discovered valerian tea and this is one substance he longs to abuse. He is also very keen on catnip and even ‘deep heat’ so feline mysteries ever abound…

New Sunday

It may seem trivial but I had never really given much thought to clothes pegs other than when using them to hang up newly processed films or to dry back to back photographic prints. These simple devices have developed a new importance in my thinking over the last few months. When hanging the washing out, due to the strong winds earlier this week, it has been necessary to use lots of pegs to prevent the washing from disappearing over the loch, never to be seen again. Many of them crack and break due to the wind pressure and we tried to source some in the local shops as we were down to a few survivors. Clothes pegs? “Sorry” came the reply, “can’t help.”

Nevertheless on the way back to the house we noticed that our neighbour’s washing was tenaciously clinging to the line, horizontal and straining in the wind… There is a very interesting market shop at the North end of South Uist where it is possible to buy anything within reason. I even bought some dried sprats (as a doggie treat) there once. The very thoughtful woman in the shop understood our problem and mentioned that her own (extra heavy duty) clothes pegs came from a friend in New Zealand. I wondered if there were mini mole grips available, but we eventually settled on a mixture of plastic (ulp!) and wood (good) pegs, hoping that if we used enough of them and the attrition rate was reasonable that they might do the job.

The wind dropped midweek and we travelled over to the wonderful beach at Balashare. The sea was aquamarine and there were good strong waves coming onto the beach. In order not to alarm the children we had recently bought two tent –type beach towels for changing into our wet suits underneath. These brought a new dimension to changing, and after painfully hopping around on the rocks and a fit of hysterics we emerged neoprene clad with our gloves and hats on clutching our newly acquired body boards. Mine, typically, had a weather map on it whereas Nicola’s was covered in pink flamingos. Determined to be at one with the environment we purposely strode into the sea. The effect was breath-taking. It was a fantastic adventure and it was amazing to swim and to ride on the incoming surf. Somehow in all of the excitement I managed to bend my body board with the force of the water but this seemed a small problem compared to removing the wetsuits..

I have been fishing three times this week. On one occasion I caught 2 brown trout, on another occasion with my friend Keith caught nothing (he caught 2 brown trout). On the final occasion I caught 2 brown trout, which could have been the same fish as on the first occasion but we had already eaten them.. The lochs are a bit dour at present with no fish visibly moving and they are still deeper in the rather cold water. Hopefully May will see more action.

Food is never far away from one’s consciousness and we were thinking about what to give our visitors when they visited us at the weekend. One of Nicola’s specialities is Nettle soup. This is accompanied with nettle pesto, and with an aim to making the latter, we picked the nettles in the field next to the house. Our crofting neighbour Andy, came to talk to us whilst riding across his land on one of those quite interesting-looking quad bikes. His new sheep, recently purchased at the Auction Mart in Lochmaddy, have settled down and are happily doing whatever it is sheep do. They are beginning to recognise us and do not run away quite as quickly as before.

n.b. Nettles grown in peat have an exceptional flavour.

Later that evening we noticed that the sheep had moved towards the foreshore and were grazing behind our house. We counted them and it seemed as if there were only 5 as opposed to previously when we thought that there were 6. This naturally, caused us much concern and we were worried that one had become stranded or injured. After walking around the croft and not finding the lost sheep, we decided to walk up to the farmer’s house and let him know that there were only 5 sheep grazing behind the house. He said “that’s right there are 5 sheep”…

Both Nicola and I have been teaching this week on the Fine Art Programme at the University of the Highlands and Islands. This has been an ongoing arrangement in Nicola’s case but for myself it was the first time meeting with and working with the the 4th year students, which was a great pleasure and an interesting experience, hopefully for everyone involved. Much of the next day was spent in preparation for our visitors at the weekend in honour of our guests we sourced a bottle of the Island’s new drink. Surprisingly not whisky but Gin. Named after the ever-changing weather, the new Gin is called ‘Downpour’. If Gin is your drink, you will love this.

At dawn, on saturday morning the rear window to the bedroom was open. The air was still, and silent, the sky in the distance showing an orange streak across the horizon. “Cuckoo” then “Cuc” then “Cuckoo” then again CUCKOO!. This went on for a long time, making sleep impossible and we left the bed and watched the Cuckoo sitting on a telegraph pole, very close nearby, before it had made its point and flew off along the loch-side to spread its message of summer. It was an exceptional start to the day. Our visitors spent much of Sunday with us and it was a great pleasure to see them. The food was excellent and everybody brought something along to share. Angelo, our white cat distinguished himself by making an appearance in the living room and accepting gratefully the attention that was bestowed upon him.

Monday morning is pay-back time and we spent much of it recovering from the excitement and slight excesses of the weekend. The Sunday papers, which due to the religious observation on North Uist, are unavailable until Monday – this has extended the weekend to 3 days, and Monday has become the new Sunday.. No complaints.

The Easter Lamb

Baleshare is a white-sand beach on the west side of North Uist. It was here that a number of Surfing enthusiasts (Surfers Against Sewage) arranged a beach clean-up and we were encouraged to take part. To the casual eye the beach is pristine and stretches out for miles. It is a favourite place for surfing and swimming. There are some rocks on the upper part of the foreshore but this is quickly displaced by white sand, home to oyster catchers and gulls and stretching into the aquamarine water. There was a fresh breeze as we moved along the beach putting small pieces of plastic in our Co-op bag-for-life. At first, it seemed that there was just the occasional length of plastic string, probably from a lobster pot or net somewhere.

Mostly green or orange coloured, this tough string was entangled in the rocks, and pulling on it might reveal a considerable length of it, possibly entwined with other rope or trailing off under the rocks where it could not be retrieved. The scale of the problem became clear and we quickly filled our bag with not only string, but used shotgun cartridges and plastic bottles. It was a saddening and shocking experience. The waste was put in a large container to be taken away, hopefully to be recycled. I could not help but reflect upon the fact that on this remote and seemingly untouched beach, there was what seemed like an endless amount of plastic waste. To contemplate the quantities that must exist, even within the U.K. is to know that our attitude to the seas must change, and to understand that however useful small-scale activities such as we had participated in are, it is up to Government to become seriously engaged in leading the clean-up of our environment.

What used to be the tourist office in Lochmaddy is now home to Uist Film. It is a comparatively small space but was given over to a performance ‘Shadowplay’ by U.H.I. student Chris Spears. He used back –lit projections and oiled paper cut out stencils. There were three or four showings at half-hour intervals. These were enthusiastically received by as many people who could be seated and who were able to squeeze into the showing space. It was an excellent piece, in some ways reminiscent of the theatrical films of William Kentridge, it was a real pleasure that so many people attended and enjoyed themselves. Congratulations to everybody involved.

Midweek seemed the perfect time for a walk to the old harbour at Lochmaddy. It is a pleasant enough walk past some small freshwater lochs out to the Hut of Shadows. The day was sunny but very windy and we hunkered down as best we could out of the wind behind the ‘Hut of The Shadows’. This was a moment for our special picnic food – coleslaw and walnut and celery salad accompanied by local free range eggs and home-made oatcakes. The wind whipped around the hut making it difficult to keep the various picnic containers upright and we had to chase some of the lids across the foreshore. We arrived back at the cottage exhausted by the wind but stimulated by our immersive picnic. 

N.B. Boiled Eggs need an extra minute (6 min instead of 5) for picnic use as soft-boiled yolks in the wind can decorate clothing in an unwanted fashion.

My fishing trips have evolved although I must confess that fish has not become a significant part of our diet. I’m certain that this must change shortly as the weather improves and the fish begin to move. They are quite deep at present and although I have finally located where they are, even managing to hook one on a (dubious) nymph imitation, before losing attempting to bring it in. I would like to say that it was huge but it wasn’t. Frequently the wind plays a large part in where it is possible to fish from. The towering clouds roll in and the wind swirls unpredictably across the water’s surface making it difficult to cast. The overall experience is truly sublime (in the landscape sense) and catching fish (I tell myself) is not the main point of the exercise. I am not over-enamoured with fishing from boats, particularly when the surface of the loch looks like the Dogger Bank and so will continue to explore the margins of what is becoming my favourite loch.

The view from the back of our cottage is exceptionally beautiful, and it is rare not to see many kinds of birds and, depending on the state of the tides, numbers of grey seals heaving themselves onto the small islands that pepper the sea loch. The spring tides have been exceptionally high this week and the seals have moved inland to search for food. On one particularly sunny morning, I noticed a sea eagle flying close to the loch shore before settling down near to and old black-house on the edge of the loch. I remarked this to Nicola and passed the binoculars to her. She looked towards where I had seen the eagle near to a small island where there was a small colony of seals, when she noticed what looked to be a lamb in distress on the foreshore. It had fallen onto from the grassy bank above, where its mother was grazing.

This is lambing season and a lot of lambs have already been born, this one looked like it was in trouble. We set off swiftly – across the field and across the seaweed covered rocks to find that the lamb had fallen between the rocks on the foreshore whilst the mother was delivering it. There were still signs of the after-birth about its head. In these situations, it is difficult to know what to do for the best, as sheep can reject the lamb if it is unable to recognise its scent. Nicola picked up the lamb, as lightly as possible and set it on the bank next to its concerned and bleating mother. We had hoped that this was the right thing to do and gingerly moved away. As we were concerned we informed our neighbour who informed the owner of the sheep before kindly giving us some home-made pancakes. I met the Crofter (Ron) later and he explained that the lamb was fine and that no bones were broken as they are quite flexible soon after birth but that it was fortunate not to have been taken by the sea eagle. These are magnificent creatures with a six-foot plus wingspan that look like a flying barn door.

Angelo (white cat) has taken the the ‘Mars bar’ slogan on to a whole new level… ‘a rat a day – helps you work rest and play’.

A Perfect Day

Weather: Windy and chilly for many days, followed by a week of sunshine and slight easterly winds.

Tuesday the 2nd of April a glorious evening sunset, the sun shone with deep crimson highlights that seemed to shift through a spectrum of orange, red and yellow, although it was still quite windy and cool, a quiet descended at the close of the day. We watched from the rear of the house as the mist began to appear above the surface of the loch.

Wednesday the 3rd of April we woke and the day was unusually silent – the wind had gone. The loch was a mirror to the hills and the sky and wraiths of mist hung in the air. Although it was well past dawn, the air was full of birdsong, perhaps it was the lack of wind but somehow the wildlife seemed to harmonise with this sublime weather to create the maximum effect. During breakfast preparations I was provided with a backdrop of animation from the sea loch view. There were seals and eider ducks enjoying the sunshine, oyster catchers, geese, and herons flying across the surface of the water and what I took to be a solitary otter swimming to the nearby shore, its characteristic v- shaped wake behind it.

A perfect day – we walked across the fields, past the freshwater lochs to the outlet of the sea loch at Sponish. Close to the small harbour, where there is a fishing boat together with piles of lobster pots, we encountered a number of cows with their calves. We climbed a nearby hill and made a detour until they reluctantly moved away and we could pass.

The ‘Hut of Shadows’ is located on the foreshore at the entrance to Loch Houram. It is a small stone hut, built in the style of many old blackhouses in this area. Inside, there is a small viewing area that enables one to view a camera obscura image of the exterior landscape. The hut was made by Chris Drury, and provides an excellent focal point for this walk across the footbridge from Lochmaddy. On the path back to the village there is a smallish loch. This Loch looks to be landlocked, but it is tidal and water runs out into the open sea through a rocky inlet. Somehow there were half a dozen or so large Laithe (Pollock) swimming close to the surface, seemingly enjoying the sunshine. It is difficult to understand how they arrived there.

Leaving them to their display, I felt inspired to see if I could move a trout or two up on nearby Loch Fada. Nicola dropped me off at the loch and disappeared up the road to the Co-Op at Sollas to purchase a celebratory bottle of Malbec. True to form this year, I came away empty handed but did manage to raise a couple of fish on my team of flies (not premier league, obviously). This is a good sign, as it is still a little early for the trout. Nevertheless, Spring has arrived!  Life has improved, and the wildlife on the Island has come to express its collective voice and, in line with ourselves, to celebrate this perfect day.

The weather has continued fair this week and we visited the wonderful beach of Clachan where we donned our wet suits and swam in the sea! Unbelievable, the first time that I have ever attempted such a thing and it was an amazing and exhilarating experience.

Due to the often lack of bread choice on the Island we are now experimenting with traditional baking.

Cheese Scone tip – you can use lemon juice in place of cream tartar

Oat Cake  tip – press oat dough till compact in the baking tray

Angie has stepped up to his role of rat patroller and regularly leaves his night catch of rats on the kitchen doorstep. One could ask no more of a cat than they keep the rats away. He comes bounding in, frequently with ticks showing on his white fur. We have learned how to deal with these wee beasties, and squashed between two thumbnails they splat into oblivion. Well, its them or us.. Two buzzards were circling the still air above our cottage. It was difficult to think that they did not have thoughts about the white cat patrolling the ground far below. Perhaps if one were to lift one end, and one the other..

Foraging, Fishing and Feeding

Weather: This has been wildly variable from storm-force winds and heavy rain, ensuring that the ferries are unable to operate to beautiful, still days with wonderful clouds and light.

Even though the weather has been turbulent at times, and yesterday managed to blow over a friend of mine, this is the season for foraging and fishing to begin.

Firstly ‘Mytilus edulis’ is to be our quarry.

Collecting mussels requires:

1 Rubber Gloves

2 Bags for collecting them in

3 Wellington Boots

4 Over-trousers

5 Suitable outer wear

6 A pen knife

Finding a spot: Low tide where there are rocks in silty ground covered in bladder-wrack- found clinging to the rocks and a place covered in suspect broken and bird-opened old mussel shells. In order to obtain the mussels you need to get ‘down and dirty’ amongst the seaweed and rocks. This is very muddy work and good clothes are not recommended (too late!). We gathered enough for two carrier bags in less than an hour.

JK Mussels

Cleaning: Put in a colander and run under cold-water (do not store in fresh water – this will kill them). Whist running mussels under tap water, scrub them with a stiff brush. Remove their beards and scrape off the barnacles. Discard any open ones. They are now ready for the pot. Mussels can be stored in the fridge in a bowl with a damp cloth over them, they must be consumed in 24 hours.

Recipe: Prepare and chop 2 onions and two globes of fennel. Gently fry in olive oil in a large pan until soft – do not burn. Add ¾ of a bottle of white wine – bring to the boil. And the mussels and put a lid on the pan. Poach and steam for 3 -4 minutes, check the mussels have now opened and Voila! serve with hot salted fried potato chips and mayonnaise. Followed by frozen summer berries and white chocolate sauce.

Flushed with the success of this enterprise, we decided to collect some cockles (Cerastoderma edule) whilst on a walk to the Island, Vallay (Bhalaigh as it is called in Gaelic). This legendary Island is accessible only at low tide and the cockles can be found on the surface of the sand or visible slightly under it. A rake (I have been informed) is useful for those sub-surface cockles. Cockles are relatively easy to collect but to prepare for the pot – they require ‘purging’ in cold salted water for several hours. We left them to purge for two hours.

Cleaning: Scrub with a stiff brush and purge…

After preparing them in a similar way to the mussels, involving lemon juice, garlic, fennel and chillies, we served them with wholemeal pasta.

Alas – they were completely inedible, as they were still full of sand. Possibly they need to purge for rather longer… perhaps overnight and the next day.

Previously the majority of my photography has used sheet and roll film. Courtesy of FujiFilm I am now able to experiment with a medium format digital camera. The walk to Vallay provided an excellent opportunity to start this photographic journey.

It is a little early in the year for fishing and although I have been out a couple of times for a several hours fly fishing for trout and spinning for Pollack, nothing has been forthcoming.

Obtaining live bait to fish in the sea is not straightforward. the usual suspect (Mackerel) has not arrived in the seas around the Hebrides and there are none for sale in the shops. For several weeks I have been eying up the substantial worm casts on the low tide beaches, but when I attempted to dig for the lugworms, the worms were unfortunately very deep and of poor quality. I have abandoned this for now and am considering using some of the collected mussels instead. I have also bought some Spam which might be worth a try. Meanwhile I will await the appropriate tides and weather to experiment…

Angelo, our white cat has a special property, his fur, usually a problem, is so thick and heavy, ticks do not penetrate it. Instead they hang on his fur so whenever he returns from his wanderings and rat patrol, we need to do a necessary tick check to remove them and stop them from entering our domain.

Foraging, Fishing and Feeding 

Weather: This has been wildly variable from storm-force winds and heavy rain, ensuring that the ferries are unable to operate to beautiful, still days with wonderful clouds and light.

Even though the weather has been turbulent at times, and yesterday managed to blow over a friend of mine, this is the season for foraging and fishing to begin.

Firstly ‘Mytilus edulis’ is to be our quarry.

Collecting mussels requires:

1 Rubber Gloves

2 Bags for collecting them in

3 Wellington Boots

4 Over-trousers

5 Suitable outer wear

6 A pen knife

Finding a spot: Low tide where there are rocks in silty ground covered in bladder-wrack- found clinging to the rocks and a place covered in suspect broken and bird-opened old mussel shells. In order to obtain the mussels you need to get ‘down and dirty’ amongst the seaweed and rocks. This is very muddy work and good clothes are not recommended (too late!). We gathered enough for two carrier bags in less than an hour.

JK Mussels

Cleaning: Put in a colander and run under cold-water (do not store in fresh water – this will kill them). Whist running mussels under tap water, scrub them with a stiff brush. Remove their beards and scrape off the barnacles. Discard any open ones. They are now ready for the pot. Mussels can be stored in the fridge in a bowl with a damp cloth over them, they must be consumed in 24 hours.

Recipe: Prepare and chop 2 onions and two globes of fennel. Gently fry in olive oil in a large pan until soft – do not burn. Add ¾ of a bottle of white wine – bring to the boil. And the mussels and put a lid on the pan. Poach and steam for 3 -4 minutes, check the mussels have now opened and Voila! serve with hot salted fried potato chips and mayonnaise. Followed by frozen summer berries and white chocolate sauce.

Flushed with the success of this enterprise, we decided to collect some cockles (Cerastoderma edule) whilst on a walk to the Island, Vallay (Bhalaigh as it is called in Gaelic). This legendary Island is accessible only at low tide and the cockles can be found on the surface of the sand or visible slightly under it. A rake (I have been informed) is useful for those sub-surface cockles. Cockles are relatively easy to collect but to prepare for the pot – they require ‘purging’ in cold salted water for several hours. We left them to purge for two hours.

Cleaning: Scrub with a stiff brush and purge…

After preparing them in a similar way to the mussels, involving lemon juice, garlic, fennel and chillies, we served them with wholemeal pasta.

Alas – they were completely inedible, as they were still full of sand. Possibly they need to purge for rather longer… perhaps overnight and the next day.

Previously the majority of my photography has used sheet and roll film. Courtesy of FujiFilm I am now able to experiment with a medium format digital camera. The walk to Vallay provided an excellent opportunity to start this photographic journey.

Island 28

It is a little early in the year for fishing and although I have been out a couple of times for a several hours fly fishing for trout and spinning for Pollack, nothing has been forthcoming.

Obtaining live bait to fish in the sea is not straightforward. the usual suspect (Mackerel) has not arrived in the seas around the Hebrides and there are none for sale in the shops. For several weeks I have been eying up the substantial worm casts on the low tide beaches, but when I attempted to dig for the lugworms, the worms were unfortunately very deep and of poor quality. I have abandoned this for now and am considering using some of the collected mussels instead. I have also bought some Spam which might be worth a try. Meanwhile I will await the appropriate tides and weather to experiment…

Angelo, our white cat has a special property, his fur, usually a problem, is so thick and heavy, ticks do not penetrate it. Instead they hang on his fur so whenever he returns from his wanderings and rat patrol, we need to do a necessary tick check to remove them and stop them from entering our domain.

 

A Week of Consolidation

Weather: Wet, Windy, Sunny, Cloudy, day Sleet, Gales – daily

Screenshot 2019-03-24 at 14.11.39

I have been fishing twice this week. First was a trip to a local Loch with Keith D. We had a beautiful day with light winds and fished conscientiously for several hours, but never managed to rise a fish. Too cold…too early..etc..etc.. Later in the week I wandered down to the old harbour at Lochmaddy where the water is quite deep off the rocks. I thought I would try for Pollack using a spinner. Again, to no avail. The tide was dropping which gives me an additional excuse to the two that I mentioned earlier.

Midweek Nicola and I attended a Gaelic/ English speaking event and film showing accompanied by live music hosted at TC  (organised by UAA). The music was a celebration of traditional Hebridean folk music and was well played to accompany a nostalgic film about the story of Padruig Morrison and his Hebridean heritage. There was also a solo performance by fiddle player Duncan Chisholm which was by way of a lament and in keeping with this traditional music scene. All together a welcomed social evening, with pleasant chats, and delicious oatcakes and salmon snacks (I had two helpings!).

27a

Nicola meanwhile has been teaching on the Fine Art Course at the University of the Highlands and Islands. She has been enjoying this and the students are good to work with.

The Island’s changeable weather with extreme winds make this place an interesting and unique environment within which to teach and make art. There has been much excitement both here and on the internet – about a recent commissioned interactive installation artwork ‘Lines (57° 59′ N, 7° 16’W)’  The effect of which has bought film crews to fly to Uist in order to document the work and interview the art students.

I have been busy exploring the beautiful terrain, making notes and taking some sketch photographs.

27c

I was due to return to Newcastle on Friday but gale force winds have caused the cancellation of the ferry to Uig which has been re-scheduled for Saturday. As I am writing this, the wind is swirling around the house making groaning noises although it is forecast to fall away this evening.

27b

Angelo (white cat) is on solo rat patrol. He is not a ‘catcher’ – his strategy is to lord his omnipotent ‘gleaming’ presence and this appears to work as a deterrent.