And the Livin’ is Easy…

Weather: All round pretty good

We have both had our 2 COVID vaccinations – some reactions, both times, were experienced, although nothing terrible. Neither of us seem to have been genetically modified (that we are aware of) and we have not noticed any extra surveillance issues, oh – nor have we had COVID. More people that we know personally (not in Uist) do seem to be getting COVID, although no deaths, that we know of, have been reported thankfully. There is still a constant ongoing awareness and the usual tabloid reporting of all new COVID cases and deaths –there appears to be a little less panic about the situation, so perhaps more control and understanding of the disease is slowly developing.

June 6th – 11th

John:  After many delays apparently caused by the shortage of some components and import control problems courtesy of the U.K. leaving the E.U. and ‘taking back control’ the long-awaited new motorcycle was ready to collect from Gateshead. I have never owned a new motorcycle although there have been many used ones over the years. This particular machine is a Moto Guzzi V7 Centario in special 100th anniversary colours, mirroring the famous V8 racing Guzzis as ridden by the likes of world champion Bill Lomas. There the similarity ends, and the bike is a genteel touring machine, all be it one with a useful turn of speed. It is suitable for someone of my proclivities. Alan, Rebecca and Franco, all on Italian motorcycles rode with me as far as the café at Kielder. After some lunch, the others returned to Newcastle and I set off on the ride up through Glasgow to  Glencoe, Fort William and Mallaig. This was pleasant with the weather improving. The bike was running in and as I was in good time there was no hurry. With the new bike at the Croft the pressure was on to get the shed built to accommodate it. The bike is one that has no chrome parts to tarnish, but the Uist salt-air atmosphere is notorious for digesting metal parts. A wood shed is the answer. I ordered the shed, which was courteously delivered to the Croft by D.R. MACLEOD LTD .Keith Dawson and I levelled the ground and laid the base before scratching our heads as to how to assemble the flat –pack shed. Keith made the breakthrough with the suggestion that we had managed to get everything upside –down.

Na h-Eileanan Siar COVID tier – level 0 – This does not mean ‘no masks’, although there is a definite sign of a more relaxed atmosphere. People are able to meet each other and a better social life is now possible. Since the lockdowns ‘getting together’ in public spaces has become strange. The usual protocols that were used – handshakes, hugs, kiss on the cheek – are no longer used, now we all stand awkwardly, judging what might be a safe distance apart, trying to access the proper way to say hello. There are definitely a lot of confusions, surrounding all the COVID rules and restrictions.

June 14th  

The days are now fabulously light up until around 10pm and there have been many still, quite humid days – The down side of this are the midges. The midge is well known to be a highland bother. They congregate on mass, form black clouds that loom and circle overhead. Should you be caught under a midge cloud an attack will be imminent – this is debilitating – you are stung simultaneously and repeatedly by several hundred midges at once. It is quite an unpleasant experience. Your skin feels pricked all over, with a nasty irritant and you can feel the blood sucking mites crawling about and around your skin. You might find that you start to wave your hands and arms around, propeller like, to try and protect yourself, but this is to no avail –  they can even get inside your clothes. We did find some lemon scented joss sticks, that helped, but really the only thing that works is to retreat into the home, lock all windows and close all gaps (‘cos believe it or not, they will get in via any available vent) and stay indoors until the ‘wee b-rst-rds’ have flown off, or have been blown away! However, if the wind-speed is more than 5mph (8km/ph), the midge is too small and light, even if it beats it wings to maximum speed, it won’t be able to fly. The summer months, which are the midge months (May until September) are the time of year when a certain amount of wind is preferable. This year there has been a significant rise in the midge numbers all over Scotland, which has been good for the birds, bats and fish – not so good for the stay-cationer!  Other insects to be wary of are the horse fly – a nasty bite is given by these critters, and then of course there is the dreaded TIC!

June 17th

The relaxed COVID regulations have meant we can enjoy friends coming over for Barbeques and bonfires making full use of the warmer, longer evenings in our lovely outside spaces. We have had beautiful nights inside too, where we can view the evening seascape through our fantastic new window installation.

June 18th

The first swim at Balashare beach – the summer has begun! On some of the cooler bright, breezy days we have been, taking new mini hikes, embracing the elements – one of which was to the Fairy Knoll. Walking can be great here, on the right day, with glittering light, reflected and sparkling in the lochs, the air smells fresh and there is room to observe and take in all that nature has to offer – swans followed closely by their, now maturing, cygnets, paddling gently on the lochs– it can all become a kind of meditation; the colours, the sounds and the space create moments that are entwined, transient and special. This is our third year living in Uist, and we are starting to feel like we belong here. We love living and waking up in our beautiful Croft – with the morning light pouring in through the windows. The Croft house used to be considered a dark cottage, we have completely transformed it, it now has the most amazing light together with spectacular views.

June 25th

An early start today, to catch the ferry at Lochboisdale. We set of at 4.00am and arrived a little early. We have had trouble booking on our usual ferry – Lochmaddy to Uig, because of COVID and the boats not being able to take full capacity passengers – also due to the big influx of ‘stay-cationers’. The early morning drive through to Lochboisdale, was very pleasant with a lovely pink hue in the sky, we spotted an owl and several groups of deer – always a delight. For this early morning ferry trip, it is advisable to take a blanket, anyone who knew this did. The upstairs lounge area was filled with children and adults sleeping, with covers and inflatable cushions. We shared a fluffy sweatshirt, that just about protected our cold knees. The COVID mask restrictions were laidback, if people were seated they mainly lowered their mask, even if they were not drinking a coffee. Perhaps a slackened attitude to the mask wearing is required for the sake of every one’s sanity. We arrived at Mallaig at 9.50am. The traffic was BAD. Before we reached Fort-William there was a 45 min hold up due to an incensed male driver, not obeying the temporary traffic light signal – that was held up by road worker. The crazed driver drove up to the signal-man (jumping the queue by driving on the wrong side of the road) and then swerved around the signal-man almost knocking him over. People started getting out of their cars and wandering around, the police were called. Then the crazed man was seen to be coming back, he again swerved round the signal-man, driving the other way, back. He was grimly bent over his steering wheel. What had happened (evidently) is he got to the other end of the traffic works, and couldn’t get through. He was apprehended and his keys were confiscated, but he had a spare set that he used to turn around and go back! A case of COVID isolation fever perhaps?

The traffic was astounding – cars double and treble parked along the route to Glasgow. The effect of the COVID restrictions and cabin fever that everyone has been experiencing was clearly apparent. The surreal remoteness of before is no more – it felt like the whole of the UK had decided to travel to the Highlands of Scotland. We arrived in Sunderland at 21.15 – in pouring rain. COVID level 3 – (laxed)

June 26th

We slept like logs. 8.30am wake-up call. We are here to pack our things and needed to get to Newcastle. The weather was wet and miserable, which is not what we were expecting.

Oh no! the key to the lock up was accidentally left at the Travel Lodge (by John), so in the end, despite an early start, the day was slow and heavy. Our tension was definitely exacerbated by noise pollution, bad traffic and a general aggression/ road rage that seemed to float around in the atmosphere… still there are some good things about a city… SHOPPING. All of the shops were open (those that survived the COVID crisis), so after packing some things we hit Boots and other shops – Ker-Ching.

June 27th Sunday Foggy morning.

Sunday Lunch with Laura Kippin (John’s youngest daughter)The weather started to improve. After a lovely Sunday lunch in ‘The Badger’, we dropped Laura back home and went on our way. Heading back towards Sunderland we dropped off at Roker Beach, it was a good decision. The weather was ‘scorchio’- lots of people out and about. No obvious COVID precautions in place – oh well, we are all outside and there was plenty of distance between us and them. We spent several minutes downloading a ‘Neuron scooter’ app and then we were away, larking around by the beach. Taking photos, riding scooters and dipping our toes in the sea. It was a perfect afternoon.

June 28th

Weather took a turn for good – summer.

We finished the packing and drove to Glasgow to stop off at Abigale and Chris’s (Nicola’s daughter and her partner). They had a much anticipated, Indian take-away waiting for us – something that is unavailable in Uist. We had a welcoming and comfortable stop over. It is so nice having adult children.

June 29th 16.49 ferry from Malaig – Lochboisdale.

European Championships: England 2 – Germany 0

The game was on the television in the ‘coffee cabin’ to some interest. A great achievement after all the ensuing years. Shame that it is not a G.B. team, not just Enger-land..

It was good to be home, with more of our things, making it all a reality – we have moved to Uist!

We were helping to hang the Uist Artist Association (UAA) summer show, at Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum and Arts Centre . The following day, a small selected audience were allowed to attend the PrivateView of the UAA summer show. It was a very pleasant little event, some new faces all adjusting to socializing again. Everyone is very hopeful for a more integrated time ahead.

July 1st

The yellow flag, yellow iris, water flag (or iris pseudacorus) is out in full bloom. The display of buttercups, such as the common meadow buttercup and creeping buttercup covers the fields in a golden glow. The yellow flowers have arrived – the gorse bush, which does flower all year, at this time, it has a more intense bloom, as if to celebrate the radiant abundant yellow flurry. Everything has flowered a little late this year, due to the late summer – but it is now starting with a vibrant burst. This is also the machair season, the glorious, lush and oh so pretty, wild flowers that cover the fields fronted by sand dunes. The machair grassland flowers from June to early September, beginning with a beautiful carpeting of yellow primroses. Next to blossom, are the purple florae –wild cornflowers, an assortment of different thistles, foxgloves, purple orchids and the start of the heather – and this is just a few of the spectacular varieties that can be found and seen in the Uist landscape.

July 2nd

The swimming continues, this time at  Balashare beach,

July 4th

Nicola – early morning swim in a loch with the ‘selkies’ swimming group (no wet suit, super fun).

We have even been doing some evening dips. It is lovely to swim in the wild, very different to the swimming pool, which can be good too but is still tangled in COVID restrictions. The loch water is clean and fresh, a rich, dark peaty colour, illuminating your immersed skin with a full-on orange spray-tan effect. The sea is uplifting and immense, with rhythmic waves that pulsate to a different beat every day. Uist still has an uncontrolled and unsupervised landscape to explore and play in. This does also have its draw backs – no coast guards and no health and safety warnings – personal safety precautions are required.

July 5th

It is early July and the weather has been amazingly dry recently, so when the rain came, it was a relief.

July 10th

Finally, we managed to photograph another portrait. As always, these are fun to do and can sometimes lead to a nice bit of social time (either before or after the photoshoot) with the sitters, and it did on this occasion.

Taking these ‘Uist portraits’ have been slow in the making. People are a little reticent and we do not want to force anyone, but at the same time it would be good to complete this project and get a range of people who represent the community that have moved to the island from choice. A slow steady perseverance…

July 16th

The weather started to become a little overcast, still warm but slightly breezy.

We continue to grow into our Croft, moving into and occupying more of the spaces. The sheds now have doors and shelves, our boxes are slowly being unpacked, this process is going to take a while.

July 23rd

The weather continues to be mainly good, we celebrated with a private picnic by the sea and a swim at one of our favorite spots near Scolpaig.

July 25th

John: Woke at 3.30am to catch the Lochboisdale – Malhaig ferry. It was as if as soon as the bike had arrived on the island it required to be returned to the dealer in Thirsk for a first service. Normally this is something I would do myself as it is relatively straightforward with an oil and filter change and the tappets re-setting. On this occasion, as the bike is a new one it is important that the warranty is maintained and the bike has to be serviced by the main agent. The weather was beautiful as I rode down to stay with Alan in Gateshead. The following day we set off down the A1 and I dropped the bike off at Teasdale Motors. They loaned me a KTM Duke 890 until the Guzzi was ready to be picked up the following day. Apart from looking like a crashed preying Mantis this was a great bike – light and fast. I do understand that not everyone can like the same thing but most new bikes appear over-designed to me and this one was ugly! It was a great ride though. We (Alan, Rebecca and I) picked up the Guzzi the next day stopping for lunch in Leyburn before riding on our usual route to Middleton in Teesdale and across Stanhope Moor to Edmunbyers and back to Tyneside. Wonderful.

Nicola: I woke with John and had an early coffee, I quite like the very early mornings, they have a special sound, although as soon as John had left I snuggled down with the Alice cat and went straight back to sleep, waking, at the more civilized time of 7am, to a white misty morning. In the day, I went for a swim in the loch near our Croft, In the evening, I went to a barbeque. It is lovely to hang out with people again, new energy, discussions – these things are so valuable and necessary for creative thinking or even any kind of thought. When driving back from the barbeque at 11pm, I came across a big owl sitting in the middle of the road, I had to swerve to miss hitting this beautiful spiritual creature.

July 29th

John: Alan and I rode back to Uist. As we loaded the bikes (one 1974 Moto Guzzi V7 Sport and one 2021 V7 850 the rain started. By the time we were in Jedburgh we were soaked, and by the time we had reached a Shell service station near Edinburgh we were more soaked and frozen. We stopped for fuel and coffee. There were latex gloves to go under our soaked through leather ones, and soft (Shell) plastic bags to go under our socks. We padded out our jackets with newspapers (This is the one thing that the Daily Mail is useful for). As luck would have it, by the time we approached Glasgow the rain had stopped and the sun came out. It is sometimes difficult to imagine the nature of these weather contrasts. From Glasgow we had a great run through Glencoe and on to Mallaig.

Alan, Neighbour Andy and John – finished putting the cladding up on gable roof of the Croft, and constructed the new wooded shed that will house the bike. There was some discussion about necessary weights and ties that will be need on the shed for the coming winter winds.

The weather has become humid, the sky has fallen on our heads – the air is full of water, the dreich has arrived – not too cold.

August 1st

Dinner at our neighbors, Effie and Andy. All three of us (John, Alan and Nicola) had been invited to dine at the home of Effie and Andy. It cannot be said enough times really, how wonderful it is to be invited out, to mingle and relax with other people.Effie and Andy put on a splendid supper, drinks and snacks to start followed by a traditional venison feast, finishing up with apple pie and ice-cream. We had a deeply pleasant evening and walked back to our home, satiated.

August 3rd

After being in Uist for a week, Alan departed on the early morning  ferry (4am start) from Lochboisdale, Hannah (Nicola’s oldest daughter and her family), Nico and the three ‘bairns’ (11 Mikel, 5 Pav and nearly 3 year old Malena) were due to arrive later the same day. Louise Taylor from ‘Wideyed’ Photography Collective, also paid us a delightful flying visit – she was holidaying in the Hebrides.

Back at the ‘Croft’ we had prepared the caravan and put up the tent in preparation to accommodate our five family guests. ‘Lively’ is held back, as a description of this gang. On arrival, the three ‘little piggies’ (Mikel, Pav and Malena), burst into our house and literally touched everything; the pepper pot even lost its screw, the spiral staircase became the climbing frame and our upstairs ‘chill out zone’ became the ‘Frozen 2’ cinema, experience, hub. Tools were needed for building guns and other weapons of mass-destruction – out of wood, nails and anything else at hand. Swimming and walking were done everyday (rain or shine), by 10.30pm every night we literally crawled to bed shattered. Hannah, Nico and the two boys (Mikeland Pav) even took part in the Beinn Lee Hill Race – a Uist tradition – they all received a medal for completing the race. Pav even proudly wore his medal on his journey home to London. They all had a brilliant experience.

August 10th

Our family guests left early (4am) to catch the morning ferry from Lochboisdale to Mallaig.  We had tea with them and then went back to sleep – we woke at 8.30am – silence and calm restored. What a fantastic visit, the caravan and tent worked brilliantly. It was lovely to have the space to house this little rabble. It was a delightful week, we all made up for some of lost time, that has been due to the COVID curfews.

We look forward to more on their next visit…

Alice the cat managed all the visitors very well and even enjoyed the extra attention, hugs and cuddles. The children were exceptionally gentle and kind to her.

There is much concentration on the situation in Afghanistan. Our Sunday papers (which we get on a Monday) show a horrifying reality. How the situation can have been so badly handled by so many in positions of Government is unsurprising, but shameful and depressing. As expected, it is the civilians and those found assisting the Allied occupation of Afghanistan who will suffer the most. On a more local level, it is to be welcomed that the Scottish government have entered a coalition with the Green Party. Perhaps this will mean that there is some serious internal opposition to the Space Ports planned for North Uist and elsewhere in Northern Scotland. The pollution alone makes these industries untenable for the places earmarked for them. Perhaps the Scottish Greens will make their objections to these unsuitable and environmentally challenged projects loud and clear – and underline the fact that they are not just there for the S.N.P. to ‘take back control’.

Extinction Rebellion (XR) is back on the streets protesting and marching for the planet – shouting out for us all to live in harmony with nature and other living beings.

The WINDOW on the LOCH

Weather: There’s no disputing it has been cold and wet, so we were grateful and lucky to have had a small let up in the weather for this week. On Saturday May 29th we did get the Dreich!

May 16th The week before our friends arrive. In order to install the windows in the gable end of the Croft house, we busied ourselves in some intense, behind the scenes, preparation for this BIG event. We needed to make provision for 3 extra beds, organising some necessary catering facilities[1] and making sure there were building materials and tools for the jobs at hand.

Meanwhile Andrew Kemp[2] (Author and Publisher) rode up on his Suzuki from London to Newcastle to meet with Alan and son. Alan Wilson (Publisher, designer and all round creative force) and his son Joseph (software system updater/regulator) were set to drive up to us on Sunday May 23rd.

May 23rd

The party of 3 drove up to us, in a borrowed VW Golf from Newcastle. Alans’s van had (two days before their departure) developed an electrical problem so Derek the painter (and decorator) had saved the day and loaned the Golf as well as some power tools, for the adventure. Thank you, Derek. The journey to the Uist’s is always a major undertaking and often a kind of personal pilgrimage.

May 23rd

Back on the Croft, we had managed the final preparations in organising the Croft house, making it comfortable and welcoming for our guests. We even set a beautiful candle arrangement upstairs, in the newly decorated attic room. We waited eagerly for the arrival of the men.

The gang arrived at the Croft at 9pm – everyone was pleased, tired and excited to arrive. Alan, who has been main man on our Croft project, immediately inspected our building work– which was very lucky as our atmospheric candle installation, in the attic room, had caught fire and if it had not been for Alan looking upstairs, we would have had a devastating fire on our hands!

Alan, who is a positive force, thought this was actually a lucky omen and exclaimed in his fine Geordie accent

 – “Howay man! now that has gan wrong the window installation will be a belta.”

Somehow this was reassuring, as the task ahead was daunting and is a noteworthy achievement.

After extinguishing the fire, we eventually managed to sit down to wine, homemade nettle soup and lentil and roast carrot salad. The much anticipated, week’s building programme was now officially underway.

On the Monday (May 24th) 8am[3] – We were joined by Andy and Effie[4] our brilliant next door neighbours. Effie came with a box of Scottish pancakes and was set to help (Nicola), for the week with the food and catering preparations – an essential and well received service.

Andy Rodgers – Crofter and retired Police Officer, had come to join the team of workers. The core crew was now complete!

CREW MEMBERS:

ON SET

Gaffer: Alan Wilson

1st Assistant Gaffer: Andrew Kemp

The Set, PA: John Kippin

The Operator (hammer): Andy Rodgers

 1st Runner: Joseph Wilson

KITCHEN and WARDROBE DEPARMENT

Nicola Neate and Effie Rodgers

VISITING ASSISTANCE TEAM

Keith Dawson and Fran Cook

PARTY GUESTS

Rosie Blake

Raphael Rychetsky

Bess the dog

As mentioned in a previous blog entry (The Croft), we had managed to source some large pieces of architectural strength glass, which had been rejected from a building project elsewhere (Thank you Anna and Frank). Alan our foreman and project Gaffer elect, had devised a plan to fit 3 of the larger pieces of glass[5] windows to the end gable wall of our Croft house – which overlooks Loch Blashaval. Alan developed an ingenious design and system to install the glass windows, using framing and cladding.

Between us, throughout the week we all worked on various aspects of the project which included all building works, heavy lifting, banging and knocking down and rebuilding walls, preparing accommodation, meals, bonfires and daily trips to the Co-Op for provisions and lubrication.

The first task was to take the gable-end wall down. Alan outlined the back of the house wall (to be removed) and then with a stihl saw[6], cut through the inner and outer walls of the house. The work was dirty and hard – cutting through cement blocks and render on the gable-end was difficult. Andy Rodgers brought his 16lb Mell Hammer and whacked and whacked. It took 2 days to demolish the majority of the gable end, much of it due to Andy’s massive ‘taps and adjustments’… 50 -70 is now the new 30! 

Wooden frames for the windows and their surrounds needed to be made. Andrew Kemp has precision joinery skills and these were put to use here. Andrew made strong wooden frames for the windows to fit snugly, his work was excellent. All the windows fitted perfectly.

Day 3 and 4 (Wednesday and Thursday) -The two side windows were fitted into the gable-end … without too much problem.

Wednesday May 26th,

On a trip to the CO-OP with Joseph, two Golden Eagles flew right in front of the car, what a treat! The weather was (luckily) becoming more promising and we were able to have a wee barbecue and bonfire in the garden that evening.

Thursday May 27th

This afternoon was the day of the large glass installation. Keith[7] joined the group for the (most non-Duchampian) experience. In some miraculous way – using ropes, positive vibes, a complete belief (which was difficult to summon up!) that this was doable – the massive, incredibly heavy architectural glass window (4 x 110 x 265cm) was moved from round the side of the Croft house, to the gable end, and then positioned it into place in the wall of the building.

Looking out, every day at our beautiful view, we still wonder at how we all managed this fete, what and amazing and unforgettable event. We are so grateful to all our many helpers!

Friday May 28th

A celebration evening, another bonfire, this time with fish and chips from Hamersay House – which were delicious and crispy. We were joined, for this gathering by Keith and Fran and Rosie and Raphael. Effie made her amazing cheesecake – which is always a treat. Everyone was very relieved and pleased at what had been accomplished.

It was a great week with much amazing food and lots to drink (not all of it alcoholic).

Between us we managed to put the windows in and complete 90% of the external cladding (we ran short of some materials, and will be finishing the job ASAP).

Sunday May 30th our visitors were due and ready to depart. Everybody concerned was exhausted. The next visit we hope will be to stay and spend a more relaxing time going for some beach walks. For ourselves, it took a week or so to recover and regain some sort of order within our daily routines, with the added benefit now of the most spectacular view over Loch Blashaval.

When making coffee in the morning we can see herons flying by and 3 families of geese with their goslings have taken up residence on the water’s edge. At all times now the outside has become part of our inside experience. Our vision for the Croft house has finally started to become an actuality. The COVID restrictions and isolation we believe, have benefitted our motivation – to push on with, what seemed like endless days of wall papering, sawdust and demolition work. The building work is not finished, but we are now able to live in comfort (hot water and heating included), with a view to boot!

Throughout the week of window installation, Alice cat stayed in the bedroom caravan with us. We lent the house out to the crew for building and socialising purposes. All together this was a fun, hard and successful undertaking. We feel blessed.


[1] We set up a narrow corridor kitchen and hoped there would be enough space to make food and tea/coffee.

[2]John: Andrew Kemp also played bass in our band from the 70’s ‘The Shad Thames Showband’ (There is no band like the Shad Thames Showband!)

[3] Alan and Andrew began every day at 7am, rain or shine and regardless of exhaustion or any possible hangovers.

[4] Nicola: Effie and I had discussed the catering arrangements the week before, both of us had prepared several dishes that we put in the freezer. The kitchen area was going to be restricted during the building work.

[5] Glass measurements:  2 (side panels) windows – 110 x 130cm, 1 (centrepiece) window – 110 x 265cm

[6] A stihl saw is a heavy saw for cutting through bricks

[7] Keith Dawson, always so lovely and happy to lend a hand, came along to help with our window installation – a brave man indeed!

“When the tic is on the ground, the sun will come around…”

Weather: A cold, wet Spring, with mainly Northerly winds – leading into a cold, wet summer, with mainly Northerly winds (so far)

After, what has now become one year, of subjective, steady acceptance, that the coronavirus pandemic is real, we are now aware that we are also experiencing a unique time in human history, the world has changed and seemingly overnight. The past twelve months have certainly been hard for us all, the lockdown restrictions have dragged on and on, in an endless layer of tiers –which seem to have infinite lists of incomprehensible ‘dos and don’ts’.

It is fair to say that the we are all growing weary of quarantine controls, zoom meetings and masked encounters -the impact this is having on our basic human rights and mental health is becoming detrimental and perhaps irreversible. In particular, how has the pandemic affected marginalized groups and individuals who are vulnerable? Are the lockdowns having serious adverse effects on mental health issues, abuse concerns, and how much psychological distress are they causing? Have the forced school closures and interrupted teaching, further emphasised learning inequalities–creating even bigger ‘learning gaps’ for young people, from different social backgrounds? Are the restrictions starting to cause more problems than they are solving? Such a big topic, so many questions…

During the Outer Hebrides COVID-19, Tier level – 4, February 22nd–26th, we embarked on some (essential) travel to Inverness. (A hospital appointment, a routine check-up). It seems crazy, but this was one of the longest times we have been away together, for over two years. (we left the cats in the good care of our friends-Rosie and Raphael and Fran and Keith). The ferry had restricted access, the top lounge area was closed and there were arrow directed, walkways. The kitchen had a meat only restricted menu –bacon rolls. The crossing was a little rough. This was however, a useful trip as well as it being exciting to go away.

‘En route’ there were almost no other vehicles, certainly there was no holiday traffic –making our road trip easy and relatively stress free, whilst also providing a slightly filmic, surreal and apocalyptic backdrop. We were held up only by a herd of rather beautiful (very smelly) wild goats (imagine the worst goats cheese smell, gone rancid). We decided that their smell probably helped to ensure their safety -no other creature could possibly bear to be near them. There started to be some evidence, admittedly mainly on Face-Book posts, from London and the South of Britain, that Spring might be beginning to bud. This virtual evidence did provide us with some uplifting travel discussions and allowed for more optimistic thoughts about the forthcoming warmer months -which after the harsh, solitary confinement of the winter, was a positive thought.

Inverness, in lockdown was scrubby. There was the odd person wrapped in hat, gloves and mask. There was a very drunk person too, a well turned out middle aged woman, weaving, unsteadily down the street (she was definitely drunk). There were some other more stereotypical drunk people, sitting on a bench; there was the occasional beggar, who must be struggling, not only from the lack of passers-byes, but also now, no one carries change or actual money around with them anymore.  There was also the inevitable jogger, dashing by, with headphones, smart phone armband and considerable determination. We spent a blustery, damp afternoon, wandering around Inverness high street –using up our allocated exercise time, constructively – food shopping and updating our mobile phones. The food shops were some of the only shops open. We went to Tesco – what a treat. Inverness also has a fabulous health food shop ‘The Health Shop’ and a M&S. We stocked up and really enjoyed the choice and variety of produce available on the mainland.

That evening, we ordered an Indian take-away –the much anticipated  (although rather disappointing) dinner –which we ate in the isolation of our hotel room. Our room at the Best Western Inverness Palace Hotel & Spa (naturally the Spa was closed) was comfortable, spacious, and because of the COVID, also affordable. As with all journeys, we did encounter a few problems. Our very useful red van got a puncture –a big bolt became lodged in the passenger side wheel –it was, fortunately, a slow puncture. A trip to Kwik-Fit was required – some waiting around kicking our heels ensued and then – Ker-ching! another £130 was spent. Travelling around is an expensive business.

February 27th, safely back on the island. The first warm day of the new year, fresh air, going outside without a mask, or encountering another human was very refreshing after the claustrophobic city experience. Inverness, seemed a good place to visit, but in lockdown with everything shut it became, impenetrable and unwelcoming.

John: plumbed in the kitchen sink and made a (rustic) table from the reclaimed wooden Croft rafters –that were taken down, to expose the roof structure. Nicola: laid and set the decorative tiles around the fireplace, in the front room.

March 1st– Beautiful sunshine and a stunning sunset. Willy, the roofer installed the Velux window in the attic room.

March 2nd – Ian, our new neighbour (also known as Blashie), announced that he had just delivered his first lamb of the season. This is the earliest that he can remember. His previous record having been March the 12th. Andy and Effie, our Crofting friends, have returned from their house in Stirling! Our sheep feeding duties have come to an end. This is the start of the lambing.

The tics are back. At 6.30am Ange, our white cat, sauntered in from his night-time prowl, covered in 10 tics. A record number for him.

Croft: The front room is complete, painted and decorated with multi-fuel stove up and running. We have cleaned it up and put a bed in the room.

March 6th Our big move began. We stayed (with our two cats) the night in the house (not the caravan) for the first time, a special occasion.

March 8th Meghan & Harry’s interview with Oprah Winfrey. Contemporaneously, Private Eye Magazine naturally reminded us of the royal faux pas on 13 Jan 2005 where  Harry-boy was pictured, at a fancy-dress party, in a Nazi uniform. mm…

March 12th Lochmaddy sighting –a big stag standing majestically on the nearby moors –always uplifting and the daffodils have made an appearance. The cats have been coming more regularly to the Croft, adjusting to and enjoying the place. Alice dropped into a pot of white paint (fortunately water based and non-toxic), leaving white paw prints all around the Croft and on the bedspread.

March 16th  We have now spent three nights in the Croft.

March 18th  We have permanently moved the cats into the Croft.

There were 4 days of the boiler working perfectly –hot water and heating, blissful. Then it suddenly it packed up for no apparent reason. We were also booked to go on some more essential travel (to Inverness). Rosie was due to stay at the Croft -to look after our cats Angelo and Alice – and now there was no heating or hot water. The multi-fuel stove was however working, and Rosie was still happy to cat sit. PHEW!

Off to Inverness, again, this time for a rushed 2 day burst of essential travel. We had hoped to squeeze in buying a bath as there is no bath tub at the Croft. Buying a bath during lockdown is challenging. We visited a number of stores – but no viewing is allowed (shopping for a bath is not considered ‘essential’ ) Eventually we were handed a catalogue and told that we could ring at a later date and order it to be delivered by local carrier D.R. Macleod ltd to ourselves in North Uist . D.R. Macleod, provides a lifeline service for the islands, especially since Brexit has ensured that deliveries to the islands has become ever more complex.

On this occasion we again stayed at the Best Western Inverness Palace Hotel & Spa (the Spa remained resolutely closed) –We have made a note to return when the Spa is open. Having learned from the previous visit we brought a picnic dinner from M&S to eat in the privacy and sanctuary of our hotel room. The meal was M&S standard (which is good) although there is a large amount of plastic waste generated by their products.

 March 21st  We now sleep full-time, with the cats, in the Croft house. We are waiting for the bath tub to arrive (only six weeks to wait). We have consequently become adept at full-body sink washes, with kettle heated water (we are waiting for Angus to have a look at the boiler). On a plus side, the bath has been ordered, the Croft house is spacious and the multi-fuel stove is outstanding and very efficient. We have both had our first COVID ‘jags’– we both had a reaction: aching muscles, temperature, headaches lasting approximately three days, although nothing terrible, and we are pleased to have had them done.

John: Has had the second COVID ‘jag’ with not much of a reaction. One day of feeling tired.

Nicola: Is waiting for the next COVID ‘jag’.

March 22nd  As we were passing Andy and Effie’s place on the way back from Lochmaddy, we noticed the barn door was open, so we pulled over to say ‘hello’. Andy was in the barn, as were all the expectant ewes. He was doing one of his regular checks on the penned flock as lambing season had now begun. We were shortly joined by Effie and were all having a general catch-up, talking sheep and lambs, when suddenly one of the sheep started going into labour. Effie and Andy quickly began to prepare for the birth and their grandson, Calum was also called on to standby. Effie put on some arm length transparent red, disposable, plastic gloves. The ewe settled in the left-hand corner of the ‘birthing’ pen and the other sheep huddled into the opposite side. Effie described her procedures to us, and as a retired midwife, she was familiar with such procedures. The ewe started to struggle, Andy and Effie went into the pen to help her. Andy held down the distressed pregnant ewe whilst Effie put a gloved arm into the womb of the sheep. Slightly distressed Effie exclaimed “there are no legs, I can’t find the legs”.

Don Norman – the sheep super hero, amongst Crofters, was called for support and advice. Effie continued with the birthing of the lamb pushing the wee lamb’s head back into the womb, managed to locate one leg, then two legs, and then pulled the lamb out – alive and kicking HURRAY!  Just as she managed to do this, Don Norman arrived and was called upon to get the other twin out. He did not have gloves, he just rolled up his sleeves and expertly delivered the second lamb. The baby came out all floppy at first, Don Norman gave it a shake which startled it into life, standing unsteadily and bleating for its mother. The mother sheep locates her young and begins the cleaning process. What an interesting evening.

March 23rd  Nicola: painting the bathroom-in anticipation and preparation for the new bath.

March 24th  First anniversaryof the lockdown regime, what a difference a ‘year’makes.

April 4th  Easter day, COVID-19 Tier level – 3. Finally (because of Pandemic restrictions) we get to pick-up of our spiral staircase and a shipment of other building materials. These had been at Alan’s house on Tyneside .We arranged to meet our dear friend Alan Wilson and son (Joseph) at Broadford on Skye. The problem regarding this meeting was to find a location that we could drive to and get back to the Croft (ferry crossings included) on the same day. (Alan and family-many thanks to you all for storing and keeping these things safe for us)

The Wilson’s had been lumbered with our stuff over lockdown – a cargo of insulation and cladding materials, sourced in Gateshead together with a spiral staircase from Italy. Alan and Joseph, drove from Newcastle, in a packed van to meet us. Broadford is the only place that we could have feasibly met in order to get back, in time to take the ferry home. Oh! the never ending complications of COVID… It was a beautiful crisp clear, bright day, the drive for both parties was enjoyable. We all met, in the public car park, transferred the items from Alan’s van into our, very useful red van and then had a delightful picnic, celebrated with ‘Nonsecco’ and smoked salmon with cream cheese bagels. This was a very successful and well planned excursion. Thank you Alan and Joseph.

April 5th, the beginning of the new financial year and it was snowing. We are still having boiler concerns. We have hot water but no heating. We do however have the multi-fuel stove –this has been extremely efficient and effective.

April 6th, John and Keith Dawson (to whom we are eternally grateful)  assembled the spiral staircase (despite the Italian instructions), tightened it into position – then, turned it to face in the other direction… we will call it a learning curve, and for next time the experience will be invaluable. We now have access to the attic bedroom and chill-out area.

There has been an update regarding the proposed Rocket Launch site at Scolpaig.

There was some interesting reading in a document issued entitled the ‘Islands Growth Deal’ This has been developed as an action plan by the Western Isles Council in partnership with Orkney and Shetland Councils together with the Scottish and UK Governments.

In its rhetorical flourish, it makes much of the drive and commitment towards zero carbon targets whilst at the same time, acknowledging the unique environmental and wildlife environments that the islands have to offer. There is much to commend in the document but incredibly there it is ..Spaceport1!  Flying in the face of all of the pretend commitment to a zero-carbon economy not to mention common sense, is a £1 Million commitment of public money to developing a Vertical Launch Spaceport on North Uist. Unbelievable…

April 9th  Prince Philip died, two months before his 100th birthday.

April 11th  For the past week, it has been snowing every night, we awake to a winter wonderland. By mid-morning the snow has either been blown away or has melted. The persistent cold, wet days are causing problems for the Crofters. This is lambing season and the tiny lambs are most vulnerable in their first two weeks of life. Being wet in the first few days can be detrimental to the lambs. They can survive the cold but not the damp, because they have insufficient lanolin in their wool to make it waterproof.

April 22nd, a momentous occasion, the first BATH taken at the Croft, in the new tub! Fantastic, and worth waiting for, OMG we forgot what it was like to soak in a tub of hot water. It is the best.

The weather is starting to improve – it has got marginally warmer. At 9pm it is still light outside.

April 23rd, lockdown tier set to be relaxed to level 2, by Monday April 26th(Scotland)

Nicola: Set off in the very useful red van, to pick up stored belongings, from Norfolk. A beautiful day in Uist, people waving, everyone looked happy. Met daughter Abigale in Glasgow, stayed with her and then drove together, with Abigale to Norfolk. Met up with friend, Karen and Godson Leo. Oh, how bliss to see some loved ones, absence from these human gatherings has been un-natural. Another successful trip, lots of driving, weather was good and pick-up of stuff was achieved. Arrived home.

Nicola: I have been dreaming of large blue herons, in flight and snow in the summer time.

We plaster-boarded the attic room. We heard some distant meowing and discovered that Alice had someone managed to get inside the wall cavity, un-noticed. We opened the wall up and out jumped a surprised, nutty cat.

Thursday May 13th, COVID-19 Tier level –2.

Everyone still wears masks in shops and other public spaces, but things do seem to be more relaxed. We even have the occasional visitor.

Unexpectedly we noticed that our beautiful big white cat appeared to be having breathing difficulties. We rang the vet a couple of times, and reported that he was still eating a little although he seemed poorly. It was agreed that we bring him in to the vets in the morning. Previous to this problem, he had been a bit subdued, but nothing out of the ordinary.

Nicola: I was vaguely keeping an eye on him.

Friday May 14th, Ange was still struggling to breathe in the morning. We got him to the vets as quickly as we could – 9am. He was x-rayed and checked over. His lungs were drained. The diagnosis of his problem was unclear, some blood was taken, to be tested. We drove him back home and he was still unwell. We called the vet again and then drove back – his left lung was drained again. Straw coloured transparent liquid filled yet another metal kidney bowl. He had an antibiotic injection, just to make sure, and was given a jab, in order to help stop the liquid building up in his lungs again. We were sent home with some pills and felt hopeful.

Saturday May 15th, Ange had deteriorated further throughout the night and the next day and continued to weaken.

Sunday May 16th 10am, we were really, worried and unsure what to do, Angelo could hardly stand and was slinking off to hide in a corner. We phoned the vet again, Angelo was seriously ill. David, the vet, told us to come back in, he would be there to see him. We drove back to the vet again. Angelo had both his lungs drained again. He had another X-Ray and this time he was tested for leukemia–this was negative. David said to make him comfortable. We drove home, with a little less hope this time. We were quite in the car. Arriving home Angelo gave us a lovely seemingly grateful purr.

Monday May 17th, Angelo’s condition just kept regressing, he appeared to lose weight overnight and was still very unsteady on his feet, falling over as he tried to walk. We knew this was not good, Angelo was not going to make it. With much sadness, we called the vet again and then took our little furry friend to the vets one last time. He was euthanized.

Nicola: I held his small, fragile cat’s head, in my hands and cried as he died.

The vet (this time Peter, David’s son) wrapped Angelo’s body in a towel. We drove back to the Croft, both tearful and shocked. This was so unexpected and very sudden. We buried him in what had been his favourite spot in the Croft garden. We learned that his tests revealed that he had a serious heart condition. We went on a subdued walk, on the Rocket Range in Benbecula. We managed to take some photographs. We will miss our White Lion, beautiful and brave to the end.


LOCH DOWN

The weather has been extreme, sometimes wet, sometimes dry. There have been cold and icy spells, strong winds and gales, bright and sunny.

December 2020

Our neighbours, Andy and Effie, have been stranded in Stirling, during lockdown, since November. We have been taking care of their 12 sheep and 8, 1 year old lambs.  The daily feeding ritual of nuts is required together with an overall check/count of our temporary lockdown flock. We would hate anything to happen to these creatures on our watch.

As surrogate Shepherds, we have dealt with a couple of mishaps that have included sheep bullying issues and a problem with ear tag rips. For the bullying problem, we had to herd the sheep into a smaller pen, and isolate the victim. The sheep were then handed over to an experienced Crofter – Don Norman. One of the lambs managed to rip out its earring identity tag – this looked worse than it was (lots of blood running down her neck). The lamb recovered quickly and thankfully no intervention was needed. 

Andy reassured us:

“When Effie’s father was alive he didn’t use tags. He would take out a knife and cut off the tip of the right ear and then punch a hole in it. He would then cut two V’s out of the other ear. That was the norm then and that was his registered mark.
He said, “don’t worry Andy, they don’t feel it”.
I said WHO TOLD YOU ? he couldn’t answer.
When he passed away we started using tags.

The Crofters were very skilled at the ear cuts, and the pain caused by them was probably short lived, there was also no danger of them pulling the tags out later, as this lamb did. It is a learning curve to oversee these lambs and sheep, who respond well, and are trusting and grateful for their supply of nuts. It is also useful preparation for when we have our own sheep, which we will get most likely in the summer.

2020 AKA the  year of the COVID Christmas restrictions. 

It is a difficult time for many, particularly those who might have been completely alone. Let us hope this is the only one like this. Christmas can be a strange time anyway. This year  we were unable to spend Christmas seeing our children and grandchildren. However, in Uist (in Tier three lockdown) we were fortunate enough to be able to spend our Christmas with the lovely Rosie and Raphael. We all contributed to the Vegan Xmas meal, that we had in our caravan – this was suitably decorated to resemble a festive ´Grotto`, we heated up the pre-cooked Christmas dinner on Instant Grill Disposable BBQ containers (unused, from the lockdown summer), and a microwave oven, that we had recently installed in the caravan. The food was brilliant, one of the tastiest Christmas meals ever, and despite, or perhaps because of,  our various age differences, we all laughed till tears were rolling down our faces. 

The weather over the Christmas period was wet and windy, but on the 27th (we were still in Christmas mode, and still staying in the caravans) a slight scattering of snow appeared.  We do have some heating organised in our domestic camp site, but it has walls as thin as a tin can, necessitating multiple layers of clothes. Nightcaps have taken on a new meaning!  

30th of December, back in Lochmaddy, we were woken at 6am by a kerfuffle of cat activity. Outside, in the front entranceway, pathway, three stags foraged about in the snow. One stag had huge antlers with 16 points – this is known as a “Monarch”. It was a Beautiful, intimate sighting – worth waking up for. They are always intensely aware of human presence only approaching silently and with great caution. Between Christmas and New Year. we continued work on the renovation of the Croft.

Back in Westminister Village Brexit – The ‘deal’ marked the end (and possibly the lowest point) of a challenging year. Local fishermen are not happy..

2021

We spent new year’s eve together, in the caravan, with Alice and Angie (cats) with a lovely meal. A quiet and pleasant  time. The new year started with the most beautiful day, with bright blue skies, no wind, and sunshine. The air was cold but blissfully fresh, we rode our newly acquired bikes (thank you Frank and Anna) to Lochmaddy and back. This was exhilarating, and a good way to shift the festive food! 

It is always interesting to contemplate world events from the comparative isolation of The Western Isles, even in non-pandemic conditions. The storming of the US Capitol, clearly directed by the outgoing President and resulting in 5 deaths, marked an extraordinarily low point in world events  His subsequent impeachment and social media ban is ‘made for TV’. What could possibly happen next? Then we had – Brilliant Brexit! It is so reassuring to know that we have taken back control.. Having items delivered to the Island is suddenly very difficult. Certain things are not available as often in the CO-OP. Everything has become more expensive and complicated. On a personal level, the smallest photographic transaction with our nearest neighbour in France has created a new Kafka-esque reality. Our Prime Minister has referred to these, and other issues as ‘teething troubles’ – that is what he does. 

The weather has been wet and windy, but not so cold (yet) around 4 -9°C

We spend most weekends at the caravan on the Croft, which is fun. When the door is flung open in the morning the smell of the sea is in the air. On still days you can hear for miles, the island sometimes works like a whispering gallery and sounds and conversations can be picked up and clearly heard – from a mile or so away. On other days only the wind can be heard, whistling and  wailing – creating an unrest and a frenzy in the atmosphere. The cats get very excitable in the wind and I am sure it affects our energy and moods too.

20th Jan woke up and the world was frozen, even the sheep were frozen – beautiful clear still day, wet and windy and cold at night. The next few days were spent floor sanding, removing a monumental chimney stack from inside the kitchen, putting lights up in the attic. The multi-fuel burner arrived!

24th January snow and walk with Raphael and Rosie, across the beach at low tide to Vallay. We had all prepared a packed lunch to eat when we got there. We had prepared cold toasted bagels with smoked salmon and cream cheese – simply delicious! . The walk back was timely as the tide was coming in and we had to make our way gingerly through some knee- deep sea pools.

29th January A big freeze had settled everywhere. Birds swimming in circles in  diminishing  pools enclosed by ice. There has not been much rain, not since Christmas.

January 30th The whole of the Western Isles was moved up to level four lockdown restrictions, due to some outbreaks linked to the Western Isles Hospital in Stornoway.

February 2021

The wind has started!

The Croft work continues – we discovered  a wood panelled wall under some tacky tiles and plasterboard, that was covering the walls in the bathroom. This was a happy find and has established a connection to the original cottage. The wood panel, suitably painted, will now stay. The boiler needs some work, so we are still without hot water at the Croft, not a good thing in February.

Early february it is still windy and cold. Stepping outside you hit a wind wall, an almost impenetrable invisible force, WHAM!. When you open the car/van door it needs to be pushed hard and then secured with your foot, to prevent it from slamming on your leg. The winds built, coming from the north east, bitterly cold , and very persistent. Full gear is needed- gloves, hat, scarf, coat and boots – to put the bins out. You know it’s cold when you come in to warm your hands under the tap in hot water.

February 6th – (John) received the first COVID vaccine (thank you Keith)  – with a reaction of two days feeling weird with a temperature and headache – but it was worth it. Newcastle beat Southampton 3 -2 (the world is merciful). Meanwhile, most of the UK was being blanketed by snow. 

February 10th – Wildfire on Benbecula.The weather here has been dry and very cold, the ice has dehydrated the vegetation, and it has made the landscape vulnerable. This hit the national headlines and as we were driving back to Lochmaddy, from Blashaval it was on the main radio 4 news. Such a fragile environment, I do hope the message has been noted.

Storm Caroline

February 13th – 14th  winds up to 75mph

February 14th Valentines’ – the weather has got warmer and the days are noticeably longer.

We had a lovely romantic caravan weekend. Delicious food, cooking in the caravan has become very creative recently, and we have both become adept at microwave cooking – From scrambled egg (with smoked salmon) to cauliflower cheese. We also recently put a toaster in the caravan. There is not so much you can’t do with a microwave and a toaster. 

In the Croft we have managed to assemble and get the multi-fuel stove up and running – a milestone in the house restoration process. We have also bought a small stove for the caravan, and are determined to be more organised, settled and a bit warmer next year.

Watching the trees thrashing in the gales whilst sitting in a caravan that feels as if it is on the high seas is a sobering experience. We managed to pile some cement blocks from the recently-dismantled chimney onto the roots of our trees to weigh down the roots. With luck these will ensure their survival. 

By moving here we have managed to escape many things throughout the past year- The worst effects of Covid, the lockdown, extinction rebellion and Black Lives Matter protests , the heavy snow and floods. Throughout these we have continued to focus on refurbishing the house, learning many new skills along the way. Our photography has necessarily stalled, although we are hoping that the new year will develop positively and allow a new engagement with the world. 

That Donald Trump survived the impeachment process, presumably to resurface at the next opportunity, and that Oprah is interviewing Meghan and Harry gives us all scope for further incredulity, offering some kind of grim entertainment – bizarrely interweaving fact with fiction, makes us all value the things truly of importance to us.  

The cats, Angelo and Alice, have become used to being carted around between Lochmaddy and the Croft. They enjoy the caravans as much as we do. Angelo has become the king of Loch Blashaval , he knocks on the caravan windows when  he needs some shelter. Alice tucks herself in the caravan bed, and sleeps in our arms. Ahh..

February 19th, we have been living in North Uist for two years – Wow! time flies.

The STORM

Weather : wet and windy (not as cold as Newcastle) – the odd still day, with glorious sunshine. Rainbows almost everyday.

October, Saturday the 25th, we stayed overnight at the Croft for the first time. This involved taking bedding, utensils, food and our cats to our two slightly dilapidated caravans, which are situated on the land around the house. The house itself will not be habitable for some time as there is much work to be done. It is a formidable project – but we have now made a substantial start, and even feel a little inspired by our progress.

Tip: youtube videos are a Godsend for the amateur builder.

The weather report forecast a furious storm – for this day (October, Saturday the 25th) with winds around 69 to 71 mph. It was quite windy, although not as bad as it can be. We were very pleased of the time we spent the previous day ‘battening down the hatches’ – which included dragging building material into the house, fastening the glass for the new windows to the trees (which are already a little unsteady) and basically securing anything and everything to the ground – hoping it would hold. The caravans were also strapped down against the wind and propped up with rocks from the foreshore – our ‘bedroom caravan’ still swayed and rocked about during the night. The surrounding sea loch was whipped into a fury of whitecaps and the few trees on the croft thrashed in the wind. We had to add concrete slabs and wooden planks to the tree roots to prevent them being torn away. Fortunately, the wind shifted direction in the evening relieving its assault on some of the few trees on the Croft. It was exhilarating but exhausting and a bit scary at times.

The COVID-19 lockdown procedures have been devastating for everybody and pretty much everything. It has been difficult and slow working on our project with access to places and individuals – we have managed to take a few more portraits but our ability to reach out into the wider community has been made more complex.

Any initiative such as ‘In this Day and Age’ has the potential for many stories and a broad range of interpretations and uses. Beaudrillard’s ‘unseizable enigma’ suggests that the ambiguity of photographic indexicality is central to the integrity of photography, and he pursued this idea both through his writings and through the aesthetics of the photography that he produced and widely exhibited. We have always believed that the photograph, above all other media, has the potential to generate engagement and discourse and that it best functions within a critical context that is open to engagement and participation by a wide public. Meanings are never simply fixed, but are contextual, complex and fluid, and it is in this positive spirit that we continue to develop our project and we always welcome any thoughtful comments or critical discussion.

We are hoping that many of the issues discussed at the recent Imagining an Island Symposium, with regard to our work, will be pursued and developed through a proposed Routledge Academic publication led by Professors Ysanne Holt (University of Northumbria) and Liz Wells (University of Plymouth). The recent ‘Work in Progress’ exhibition at Taigh Chearsabhagh in Lochmaddy was a useful point from which to review any progress and development that we have made, and we are grateful to all for the feedback that we have received as this will help us to further shape our work in the future.

Teaching has resumed at the University of the Highlands and Islands although as in many places the most one sees is a computer screen with the accompanying sub-sync sound. It is a desperate time for students, especially the younger ones. Their educational experiences have been much compromised, and the excitement and educational and social value of travelling to another place to study has been ruined. The University campus in North Uist relies on its ‘special place’ status, as elsewhere one office interior looks much like another.

Meanwhile buckets of old tiles together with wallpaper, various bits of wood, wire and plasterboards are being removed from the Croft house and drainage ditches have been cleared and opened out to cope with the excess water that runs of the nearby mountain (it’s a small one). The soil is dark, dense and peaty and saturates with water quickly with black slurry running off into the loch. The fishing season ended with a vengeance given the strength of the gales, hopefully leaving more fish to return for next year. The house is slowly taking shape and we try to visit daily and move things on. There have been frequent trips to the dump to remove the endless rubbish from the house, and the builder’s merchants have become our (somewhat unwilling ) friends. Lockdown (mostly elsewhere) has ensured that we have remained on the island, although we managed a couple of days in Stornoway where we were able to source some building materials (expensive!) and have an excellent meal during our stay at the Royal Hotel on the harbour side. We even bought an original artwork from the Royal Hotel’s nautically themed restaurant. To be able to dine out was a great pleasure after so long.

The nights are becoming longer and Angie, our crepuscular white cat has taken to the croft and comes and goes freely from the caravans and the house. Despite his lack of natural camouflage he is the main man in this territory, stalking the foreshore. He is happy in a way that he has not been since we were living at Minish. Alice becomes very excited with his comings and goings rushing around between our legs, but she seldom, yet ventures outside.

December, Friday 18th, the U.K. has now been subjected to a second lockdown and over the Christmas weekend the country is held in various Tier categories. There will not be many family gatherings allowed this year.

December, Monday 21st we have heard that a person in Lochmaddy has COVID-19, this new strain is virulent.

To everyone who reads and follows our blog may we wish you a Happy Solstice – stay safe!

The CROFT

Weather:  The autumn weather has been good, with many sunny days, some without wind. Autumn can be a beautiful time of year here, with no midges and beautiful yellow gold sunsets.

Friday 25th and Saturday 26th September – we were eventually able to stage our Symposium entitled ‘Imagining an Island’. This was a collaborative online event, held at Taigh Chearsabhagh (TC), organised by Andy Mackinnon, Keith McIntyre, Rosie Blake, and ourselves. Considering the nature of such events, the proceedings went extremely well and this ambitious and rather intense two-day programme, which was supported by distinguished and acclaimed contributors, was excellent, and provided the kind of intellectual challenge and debate that we had hoped it would. Photographer Robin Gillanders (one of the contributors) and his wife Marjory and, even their cat Spike, could make this event in person. They have a camper van and were able to stay COVID-safe in this. We did all manage to congregate for drinks and snacks in the outdoors, which provided some consolation in this time of segregation. The proceedings of this event were recorded and will be available via the TC website. Hopefully we will build on the success of this event, to further reflect upon the ontology of island-ness. 

We are now Post-Symposium, post the In this Day and Age exhibition at TC and into the second wave of COVID-19 restrictions. The new world has begun…

Since the beginning of this year we have been in the process of buying a CROFT. Croft buying is a lengthy process, with several hurdles that need to be overcome, to qualify as an acceptable candidate. We have fortunately – after a lot of form filling and hiring of the appropriate croft solicitor – met with all the necessary criteria and are now proud owners of a wee dilapidated croft!

NOT OUR CROFT!

The new house with its smallholding, is in a beautiful setting – surrounded by water, both fresh and salt, and when standing in the garden, looking out to the sea loch, there is a real connection and immersion with the landscape, a feeling of living inside the environment as opposed to simply looking at it. The little house on the croft, is in a fairly run down condition, to be honest it needs a lot of TLC, but we are very excited and look forward to this new project – it is going to be quite the adventure!

Dwellings that have not been lived in quickly deteriorate in the Western Isles, due to the high salt content of the atmosphere together with the lively wind and water from the Atlantic Ocean.

Our recent COVID-19 isolation time has been taken up with clearing out rubbish, fiberglass insulation and knocking down ceilings and walls from our newly acquired Croft in Blashaval. Other people’s rubbish never ceases to amaze; there were box upon box of rubbish including framed mouldy pictures of Highland Glens (bad ones); Jim Reeves albums, there are collections of sewing encyclopaedias to faded Masonic regalia, from broken alarm clocks, two pussy – cat china souvenirs from Marbella. There was even a novelty salt cellar shaped like a corn-cob pipe. (This was quite tempting, but sadly it was chipped, and in and age of surface sensitivity, seemed unhygienic, despite the salt). Add to this a multitude of domestic ephemera e.g. the attic required clearing of old insulation material, crumbling building materials, corroded pipes, most of it filthy, all of it useless. It was a welcome relief when Keith and Fran joined us and started a bonfire, mostly burning the wood that they had previously cut from the dead trees near the house. All four of us, in our bubble, ended the day by sitting around the bonfire eating fish and chips, overlooking the loch – a perfect social distancing event.

Our refurbishment plans for the house have been inspired and imagined by the purchase of some wrongly measured architectural windows, from another build. We are fortunate to have got these windows, and are very excited about re-purposing them. A BIG thank you to Anna and Frank, who even helped have them delivered to our croft (via a crane). They will look amazing when assembled on our gable end. We just need to get the people power and equipment to fit them now.

At this point we just need to thank all our friends who have been helping us with The Croft project. Keith and Fran, Alan and Bernie, Anna and Frank, Effie and Andy – we love you! Bonfires and dinners forever.

BERNIE and ALAN WILSON

The weather this autumn has been a blessing, with some exceptional still days, with pearly grey clouds reflected in the waters of the loch. On one such day (with still much sustainable rubbish to burn) we had another social distancing picnic, bonfire – this time with Rosie and Raphael. The fire burned into the night, occasionally casting a light onto the foreshore, revealing some sheep trying to sneak past us – a humorous sight.

End of September to early November is Deer Rutting season. The rutting is most intense soon after dawn and dusk and usually begins vocally with bellowing roars. These loud guttural cries are strange and eerie and echo across the moorlands. A spectacular sound. We spotted a majestic stag with a herd of six hinds, strolling about with pride – obviously successful in his mating battle.

We have managed to fit some more portrait shoots in (although we have had one postponement due to COVID-19 restrictions). In This Day and Age is probably halfway through completion, the pandemic has caused some delay, but realistically 3 years for an in-depth project like this is not unreasonable.

Some sad news this week is that Photographer Chris Killip has died. He will be greatly missed, and one can only hope that his memory and his work will create the legacy that it deserves, and that he would have wished for.

The local cat bruiser, Pish Wish (a rather gorgeous marmalade cat), has been on the prowl and has caused Angelo (aka the white lion) to fall into a depression. Angelo sits on the sofa, no longer motivated to go on his ritual rat hunts. Alice (the alley cat), who is primarily a house cat, gets very excited by any kind of cat or bird activity, that she can view from the windows. She runs from one window to the other throughout the day, checking for possible sightings of these events. We feel sure that Angelo will enjoy living at The Croft, as will Alice, there are no neighbouring cats and there is a good rat population that needs to be culled.

27th October 2020, reported COVID-19 cases in Na h-Eileanan Siar (Inner Hebrides and Outer Hebrides) = 68 total

The Great Escape

JOHN

June 2020

I had been looking forward to visiting the Mainland on the first reasonable opportunity. The timing of the ferries is such that one is crossing around lunchtime. The bagel with cream cheese, smoked salmon and capers is a particular Calmac favourite of mine, but due to you-know-what, there was no catering available on the crossing. Very disappointing. The wearing of masks made the journey a rather hot and uncomfortable affair, everyone is on their guard and the journey seemed longer than usual.

That weekend was spent in Glasgow with my youngest son Sean. I wandered around the city, visiting all of the usual places gradually steaming up behind my newly acquired face mask. This was made of a black, synthetic substance, when I noticed my reflection in a shop window, it reminded me of motorcycling without a crash helmet (something I remember well at Art School). Cities without Art Galleries and Museums, cafes and swimming pools suddenly seem pointless and dull. My only cultural experience was to visit the large Waterstones where I could browse, looking for the books that I had earmarked to buy when given an opportunity to visit.  I realised that out of maybe 10 books, I could only find 5 and that if it were just the acquisition of books that I was looking for, I would be better-off shopping online… but thank you Waterstones.

After an excellent take-away curry from ‘Mother India’ Sean and I drove to Newcastle to meet various members of our family and to stay with friends. We linked up again to see my youngest daughter Laura in Newcastle, then eldest son Henry and Gemma together with my 2 grandchildren Toby and George in Hexham. We ate our fish and chips in the park whilst the little ones had a kick about (sometimes of each other) Great.

My friend Alan (Wilson) and I went to Eyemouth to check on my motorcycles that had been standing idle since the beginning of lockdown. We cleaned out their carburettors, charged the batteries, and added some fresh fuel before starting them up and generally seeing that they were in good fettle. It was good to be re-acquainted with them. It was also Alan’s birthday which we duly celebrated in traditional Tyneside fashion. After driving back to Glasgow. Sean and I went to the old national football stadium, a half-used space where the old terraces are covered in grass and wildflowers together with the usual discarded beer cans and Lambrini bottles..

We also visited the spectacular Whitelee Windfarm Country Park, which is south of Glasgow, and is apparently, the largest windfarm in Europe. We were accompanied by an engineer who informed us that the turbines were ‘squirrel cage inverters’ Interesting. The following morning found me on the long road North, Although leaving plenty of time for my journey, there was a serious accident on the way necessitating calling the air ambulance. The road was blocked both ways for nearly 2 hours. I only made the ferry because it was an hour late, thankfully so on this occasion. It was good to be back on the island.

ISLE D´ AMOUR

Weather: the summer has been patchy. There have been days that have been cold and wet, with sharp winds sweeping rain across the land and lochs, however when the sun does come out, it is a bit special.

The summer sunshine, is worth waiting for, creating Lochs, that sparkle light reflected diamonds, the crystal-clear water both mesmerises and entices. On these days, we try and go swimming, walking, picnicking and, of course photographing.

The characteristic moorlands and peat-bogs have, this year, become new places for us to explore. On these ramblings, we have had several sightings of Red Deer, circling Golden Eagles and Herons. The purple heather is now in full bloom and appears more glorious than last year. The heather is beautifully complimented by clumps of yellow ragwort and gorse. Ragwort is however poisonous to animals.

Island life continues, seemingly oblivious to the disasters happening elsewhere, but we are all connected and people here are not complacent.

The global human pandemic, has resulted in a general overall compliance with the new protocols. The ease with which these new social practises have been accepted and put in place are a tribute to the efficiency of various online networks, constant media announcements and our fear of exposure to this infectious disease – we now need to address our cyber security a little more carefully. The world (like in the novel WE by Russian (honorary Geordie) writer Yevgeny Zamyatin) is developing a transparent partition, separating Us from Them.

Friday May 29 2020 – since this day of Lockdown relaxation, the island has had an influx of visitors. The ferries are frequently filled to the max. The visitors appear, and even if you have been living here for a short period (like ourselves) you know who they are. There is the Motorhomer – rattling along the single-track roads, frequently confused by the protocols for passing other traffic; the Cycle Enthusiast, they are fabulous, displaying real determination as they pedal stoically into the oncoming winds and rain storms. The Cycle Enthusiast can be a tad touchy and ample distance should always be given to this person; the Car Crawler, a much appreciated (unless you are driving behind them and happen to be in a hurry) hesitant holidayer- they brake at every bend in the road (regardless of how tight it is), and will swerve dramatically into all the designated passing places (even when there is no oncoming traffic). The most revered visitor to the island however, is the Stopper Car – now they are something special. The Stopper Car will do just that, STOP! without warning, and often in the middle of the road – they have seen a bird, a beautiful sunset and sometimes for no apparent reason – sweet really.

N.B. We welcome visitors , and it is good to see the economic life of the island returning.

With the relaxation of lock down our exhibition at Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum and Art Centre, This Day and Age (work in progress), is now open to the public. It has also been good to continue with our photographic project. We have managed to fit in and shoot some more portraits, we have also met with our steering group, for the forthcoming Symposium (Simon Hart, Andy MacKinnon, Keith MacIntyre and Rosie Blake) to discuss the final details of Imaging and Island (iAi) on 25 -26th September. We are very pleased with the progress of this event, which will be accessible as an online conference and promises to have a full range of both academics and artists/musicians to present papers. We are very excited by the distinguished line-up.

Our darling cats, Angie (AKA the White Lion) and Alice (the Ali cat), are finally acclimatising to their new, temporary, Lochmaddy home.

Friday 28 August 2020, reported COVID-19 infections on North Uist = 0

Virtual Symposium : Imagining an Island


Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum and Art centre

Date Friday 25th – Saturday 26th September 2020

Venue Galleries 1 and 2

Event Types: Arts, Environment, Film, Heritage, Visual Arts

A two-day Symposium, in collaboration with University of the Highlands & Islands, Centre for Rural Creativity and the Art School at UHI, North Uist, in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, foregrounding Contemporary Landscape Practices in Photography and Film.

An island is a singular place, its boundaries are clearly defined. It is both a microcosm of the World and a philosophical idea. It is a place that invites departure and return and it is a place that engages our imagination whilst continually inspiring re-definition. How have artists responded to these concepts, and how can we further engage with, and develop our understanding of these ideas through Arts Practice?

Using a range of approaches with Contemporary Artists working in Photography and Film, this event will explore the inter-connectedness between people and places, and ask how this is changing and offering new perspectives, due to newly developed technologies and the availability of virtual communication. The Symposium will address our assumptions around identity, belonging, culture and citizenship along with questioning the development of new identities as a result of global diaspora.

Untitled©Kippin&Neate
Untitled©Kippin&Neate

We will be exploring Contemporary Rural Life, moving away from the prevalent idealised and nostalgic representations, questioning who is defining and shaping the culture and landscape today, and assessing how artists responses to these new practices sit within more conventional and historic frameworks.

Proposed CONTRIBUTORS to include (subject to confirmation)
Amund Bentsen and Benjamin Skop : Professor John Kippin and Nicola Neate : Rosie Blake : Robin Gillanders: Professor Keith McIntyre : Professor Ysanne Holt : Joshua Bonnetta : Andy Mackinnon : Maya Darrell-Hewins : Dr. Roxane Permar.

Exhibitions by John Kippin and Nicola Neate; Amund Bentsen and Benjamin Skop together with an open call photographic exhibition curated by Rosie Blake will be open during the Symposium. There will be film screenings curated by Andy Mackinnon included in the programme.

Some contributors will be presenting live from Taigh Chearsabhagh. Other contributors and audience will access remotely online. Registration details tbc.

Undulation©Skop&Bentsen
Undulation©Skop&Bentsen

Paradise Misplaced

Weather: There have been a couple of sunny days, but for the most part of it, the weather has been overcast, damp and decidedly wintery.

There have been some calm, still wet days, that the famous Scottish midges love. For these occasions we have been given (courtesy of Dr. Sean Kippin) and are field testing  Cubby’s Midge Salve, ‘made with love in Glasgow’ . It smells very nice and we live in hope.

When London and the rest of the UK was having a heat wave, we were wearing two jumpers and needed hats to go outside. The summer solstice on June 21st was cloud covered this year – which for novice skywatchers appears unremarkable. Still what ever the weather in Uist one can always say it is ‘BIG’!

As we move into the next phase of lock-down, small changes start to become noticeable, most recently it is the wearing of masks in the shops and in all unbubbled encounters – this  was implemented on the 10th July. The experience of the mask is unpleasant. Anyone who wears glasses, which we both do – firstly you need to smear soap on your lenses – this stops them from fogging up, although we have been further informed (by key workers) that this only works for short periods. All day mask wearers, with glasses, are going to be struggling. Breathing in a mask is also claustrophobic and meeting fellow ‘masketeers’ is an almost ridiculous encounter. The fact that this very surreal happening has descended upon the world, and such extreme measures are being put in place is scary, and also, at  times unbelievable. Being here, in Uist, it has been extra difficult to comprehend, as there have been no reported cases (yet), although we are all living under the constant impending fear that we will all be subjected to COVID-19 … soon.

 “We’re doomed!”

On a very much more somber note – we have been hearing from people and friends about peculiar illnesses and there have even been some unexpected and sudden deaths, which we are sad and devastated about. This really is a very frightening and hyper-realistic time, that as regular people, we could not have predicted and certainly can not imagined. What will the new normal be like?

Our stay at Minish has been spectacular and we feel blessed to have stayed in such a beautiful location. In the past few weeks, at Minish, a splendid short-eared owl, with a face like a wizard, visits regularly, gliding low, swooping circles, mapping the terrain for mice and rats. The cuckoo, which last year was loud and clear all summer long, has not been as vocal this year. Perhaps it has a new patch, or maybe the weather was not been quite right? The seals, are definitely fair-weather creatures, they only sunbathe on the rocks when the wind is warm and calm, and most luxuriously when it is sunny. This year the Herons have used the Minish flight path, to the sea loch, to collect food for their nesting chicks. Herons in flight are a joy to see, graceful strong wing movements, streamlined, from long beak to long feet. The surrounding sheep have also got to know and trust us, the lambs are now fat and independent…

As we drove away from Minish, to the house in Lochmaddy, a Golden Eagle soared  overhead, circling witnessing our departure. According to Pure Spirit Eagle Symbolism

“When an eagle appears, you are on notice to be courageous and stretch your limits. Do not accept the status quo, but rather reach higher and become more than you believe you are capable of. Look at things from a new, higher perspective. Be patient with the present; know that the future holds possibilities that you may not yet be able to see. You are about to take flight.”

We feel forever hopeful…

We have now moved into the Big City of Uist – Lochmaddy. It is a cute cottage, with lovely neighbours. There is a garden that ends at the moorland, which stretches out to the horizon, with some good looking fishing lochs. We have already spotted red deer stags at the end of the garden, so close that the velvet covering on their antlers was easily visible. The deer are not always revered here, they have a reputation of increasing the tic population and destroying gardens, but we love them, and sat watching them, whilst they also watched us looking at them, until they silently danced away, disappearing into the camouflage of the heather and bracken.

Our time here, so far, has in some ways been idyllic (even with COVID-19) and much of what we describe is the beauty of this place, but we are not naïve in our expectations and our decision to take up residence here has been very considered. Remote places can be challenging environments to interact with and the communities can, at times be inscrutable –  this period of lockdown has proven intensified and tested the best of us.

Andy MacKinnon, the curator at Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum and Arts centre has done an exemplary job, embracing Virtual Reality software to develop and create online exhibitions and events.

The virtual opening of our exhibition ‘In this Day and Age’ (work in progress) was on 3rd of July and this was shown as part of an event that included The Living Wall, Uist Arts Association – Summer Open Exhibition, and Ecognosis by Benjamin Skop and Amund Bentsen

Our Exhibition will run, in a virtual and eventually, (hopefully) actually until 24th September and it will coincide with the Symposium and the Open call, projected and virtual Photographic exhibition. We are thinking, perhaps, a closing event might be permitted by this time?

This has been a very busy period for us, despite the fact that there have been no actual physical social events or distractions.

We have moved house, selected and hung our photographic images for the work in progress exhibition, we have taken part in a zoom conversation for NEPN and the zoom seminar for Shetland College UHI, Centre for Rural Creativity –  A3 Session – ‘Imagining An Island’. We have also been preparing for the forthcoming Symposium ‘Imagining and Island’ and are part of the selecting panel, along with Rosalind Blake for the open call exhibition, which is now confirmed to all take place in September

Meanwhile, there have been numerous and significant Black Lives Matter protests in other parts of the U.K. Statues have been tumbling and H.M.G. is busy confusing everyone about what they may or may not do, (even senior government advisors).. The football season has restarted. After a promising re-start, Newcastle United have been knocked out of the cup (surprise!) and the Scottish easing of lockdown is slowly unfolding. We are expecting to see summer visitors to the island with the ferries fully operating again around the 15th July or so. 

Our cats have had a wonderful time in the fields surrounding the Minish house. Angelo is the boss cat who comes and goes as he pleases. Alice, our young, slightly clumsy Siamese cat, was so excited one sunny morning, whilst chasing a fly in the bedroom, that she shot out of the roof window and fell 20 feet onto the ground below – Completely, unhurt and unflustered. Her beautifully bred characteristics make her a liability in the natural environment and we are concerned about her new love of the outdoors because of the risk that an Eagle might take her. We will ensure this does not happen to her!

We would sincerely like to thank all those individuals who have contributed to the work in progress, In This Day and Age. THANK YOU!