“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.

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