Bat Shit Crazy 😜

Weather: this is improving, with milder and fewer windy days and there have also been breaks from the incessant rain.

We have now experienced two weeks of ‘lockdown’ and on the surface the alterations to daily life are not as obvious as they would be in a city or in a more populated place, but the quality of the days have changed. Somehow the knowledge that COVID-19 has resulted in a global lock-down permeates and threatens all places, even remote ones.

The days, however, continue to get longer and lighter, the wind still blows but the promise of Spring is in the air. The primroses have started to come up, we even spotted a couple of summer daisies and the roadsides are now lined with windswept, almost fading, daffodils.

Although there is not a massive shopping mall, to stroll around, the public social venues that are here: The Westford Inn, Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum and Arts Centre, Sgoil Lionacleit Sport Centre, the various little cafés, the travelling Screen machine Cinema, all the yoga classes – have all shut for an indefinite amount of time. This has impacted the community. Social distancing has also been firmly implemented in the super-markets, which all now have 2 metre distancing, warning tape stuck to the floor throughout. Logistically, maintaining a 2-metre gap between customers, at all times, can be difficult. The narrow aisles and small spaces are not designed for these extreme measures, and can make for some awkward encounters. Despite there being a small population here there was still a ‘distancing’ queue outside MacLennans Supermarket in Benbecula, although this appeared good natured and somewhat baffled.

The local, North Uist gin distillery ‘Downpour’ is now making hand sanitiser, the first batch of this they gave free to caress, nurses and essential staff – this is in  the true ‘Island’ spirit, which is much appreciated and community minded. This sanitiser is also, now available in all the local shops to ‘fill your own container’. Great initiative, lovely people, well done Jonny and Kate but don’t forget the gin!

Social media has come into its own, and the daily Facebook, Instagram and Twitter inserts express a variety of ways in which we are all dealing with our new isolated existence.

There are the songs, pictures of fun social events or holidays. Food and baking have been very popular (in fact flour has been, along with toilet roll and soap rather scarce). We have, ourselves, even put some themed dinners online, an amazing Indian curry and a tribute to the two beautiful freshly-caught loch trout. Hair cutting has also been a popular activity. Humour is still present in a lot of posts. There have also been some inspired online classes, which include yoga, drawing and a diversity of other pretty amazing initiatives. Hobbies are foregrounded, motorcycles polished to perfection and fabrics sewn and all are proudly ‘shared’ for the greater and wider community that exists in a slightly alarming virtual ‘big brother caring’ kind of way.

 At other times, it is possible to feel that we are trying to tell ourselves that we all have the inner resources to cope with loneliness and isolation, to work through difficult problems of noisy neighbours (something we don’t have here) and complex relationships issues that become highlighted and exacerbated due to too much proximity and time together.

Most of our normal indoor activities remain as ever, focussed on our artwork, but we have expanded our leisure time to include Backgammon and we have now purchased a draughts and chess set. Our new routine has been to open the day with a yoga session (each to their own level…) and weather permitting, to take a long walk. This helps with cabin fever and keeping fit and ensures that we continue to engage with the world. We feel blessed to have this much freedom of movement and cannot imagine how families are coping in high rise flats, or how a single person is coping with the solitude of their own company. Our evenings begin around 5- 6:30pm with a game of Backgammon, this has been enjoyable and we are even becoming reasonable players.

This pandemic, COVID-19, has developed so quickly and globally. Everything is set to change, many shops and major retail outlets will disappear, pubs will remain closed, much of education, finance and commerce will use the opportunity to develop their programmes online, jobs will become even more casualised.

The arts will take years to recover with increasing amounts of public money being used to support the major flagship organisations to the cost of all others. Cash transactions will most likely now will also soon be prohibited. No doubt we will all soon get use to this new regime, we are adaptable, if nothing else.

Let us hope that the heroes of this pandemic, the frontline workers, in particular the NHS teams will not be quietly forgotten, and put back in the shade, and let us hope that those of us in Education and the Arts will have the opportunity to ensure that the things we value the most will grow and be valued in the future. Let us also hope that the Arts are not further side-lined, as creativity in the Arts and Sciences will deliver the only hope that we have for all our futures.

There are no known cases of the virus so far on North Uist although it has been mentioned, through the grapevine (the post office) that there are couple of confirmed case on Lewis.

The virus has also reached Orkney and Shetland.

Alice cat and Ange (AKA the White Lion) are seemingly unperturbed by this crisis, even though cats can be infected by COVID-19!

The Siege

Weather: Rain, rain and more rain.

Reporting as John Kippin and Nicola Neate : We have been living on North Uist for just over a year. During that time we have moved house on three separate occasions; we have had a catastrophic general election resulting in a reactionary Conservative Government; much of the World has caught fire due to accelerated Climate Change; the U.K. has ‘left’ the E.U; has been one of the wettest winters for years; and if we were not isolated enough by virtue of living on the Western Isles, we are now obliged to further isolate ourselves due to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) sweeping across the World, although at the time of writing , there are no known cases in the Outer Hebrides.

A one year commitment to writing a diary/blog, to document our time and activities for the  project ‘In this Day and Age’ was our goal, however, we have reconsidered this decision…given  the extraordinary sequence, of almost apocalyptic events, it feels incumbent upon us to continue to relate our experiences of life, and work, on this island and to further reflect upon these times, whilst continuing to work on our photographic book publication ‘In this Day and Age’.

Everything is being cancelled. The University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI) closed it’s doors on Wednesday the 11th March. Online teaching and tutorials are being put in place. We cannot go to the pub. The swimming pool and gym are closed, even yoga classes have dematerialised. The Arts Centre events have dwindled to a standstill. Our planned Symposium ‘Imaging an Island’ has been postponed, at least. Various exhibitions have been postponed although our ‘in progress’ exhibition will take place at Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum and Arts Centre, this summer.

There has not yet been a recorded case of COVID-19, however, there is an ageing population and should an out-break occur, it could prove catastrophic, as there are minimal medical facilities for intensive care patients. Consequently, the isolation and separation that is applied is essential. Quarantine in a remote place is different and possibly freer than it is in an urban environment. There is still the space and freedom to go on beautiful walks (weather permitting) and there is less temptation to want to go shopping or visit cinemas and cafés, but the silence has intensified and become slightly ominous and we worry about our children (now all adults) and grandchildren. We have had to cancel a planned Easter trip and meet-up (with family) in Glasgow, this is difficult and makes us feel a bit cut-off. Other small things that we have noticed are that people are becoming more cautious with each other and if there is an impromptu meeting, with a fellow being, there is a visible concern and distance is silently being adopted and added to the normal greeting behaviour and mannerisms. A new way of thinking and acting has perhaps begun and will likely not be undone easily.

The Co-ops here have also been afflicted by the much talked about ‘toilet roll collecting’ disease. Kitchen roll is also popular, as are boxes of tissues. The reasonably priced bottles of quality wines are thinning quickly, as alcohol has an obviously beneficial effect on (the concept of) impending isolation, tinned scotch broth is in short supply.. dried lentils are still happily available (for now) although the tinned bean shelves are considerably depleted and there is absolutely no hand sanitizer or soap which is in short supply. In addition to this, the Sunday papers have not arrived on many occasions over the winter due to the high winds making ferry crossings impossible … so no relief there either!

The Co-op’s staff however are commendable, cheerful and stoic in this crisis. A special ‘THANK YOU’ goes out to all those working directly with the public –  in ‘frontline’ services.

The characteristic weather here has been predominantly wet – evidently wetter than is usual. Taigh Chearsabhagh basement conference room flooded with the high Spring tides on the 10th and 11th of March (not all together an unusual occurrence). There is at least some encouragement with these floods in that ‘SPRING’ is on its way. The daffodils have begun to bloom.

About 6:00 Dawn and 19:30 Dusk in North Uist and the clocks have not even changed yet! The world is always a little easier to handle when it is warmer and lighter.

We took Alice, our one –year old Siamese cat to the Vet to be ‘spayed’. This has been the cause of much discussion and soul-searching but we are resolved that it was necessary. She is eating well and is recovering well in front of the fire.. Although, scratching and licking her bandaged wound has become an intense occupation, which is challenging to deter. Our other cat Angie (AKA the White Lion) continues to decimate the local rat population and to proudly present their eviscerated and dismembered carcasses at our door. Bless. 

‘End of Days’

Weather: Wet, wet, wet with hail, wet with some sleety snow and lots of wild wind storms, although still relatively mild with some welcome brief bursts of sunshine.

The puddles on the drive way/ car track, to the house, have become enlarged and a great plume of water envelops our vehicle when going to and from the homestead. The water sometimes makes one of the engine warning lights come on and reduces the efficiency of the brakes for a while, but we are still able to drive through without drowning. The storms, of which there have been three (Brendan Ciara and Dennis) have caused some coastal erosion and loss of land – this was highly evident on Balashare Beach. This beach is a special haunt for many of the North Uist residents, and Nicola and I spent much of our summer camping and swimming there. Not only was the coast line altered, a Minke whale and a baby seal got washed up alongside an enormous amount of plastic waste. This whale was then cut into pieces by a scientific team, to ascertain its stomach contents. Many pieces of the whale sadly remained on the beach looking like massive steaks.

The storms have of course, affected the whole country, and in many ways, this area has had some of the least damage. Possibly this is partly because houses on Uist are built with storms and flooding in mind. The landscape is already more water than land and seems to soak up additional water with only small visual adjustments apparent.

Some other, more humorous effects of the storms are: opening the car door can take up to 5 minutes. A handy tip: only open one door of your car (or house) at a time – if you want the contents to remain inside. Swans and other large birds can sometimes be seen suspended in mid-air – flapping their majestic wings – but not moving.

The waste and re-cycling wheelie bins are best left lying on the ground with their lids secured tightly with bungees, otherwise these will be found scattered, often with contents, along the roadside. Our post-box is weighted down with a heavy stone and this is sometimes challenging to lift in a stiff wind. There is always the abandoned microwave oven which is used as a backup for small items.

There has been a lot of hail with ice pellets that fire at your face, making trips to and from the house to the car, the car to the Co-op and back like crossing a mini firing range. The electricity has been temperamental, which has caused disruption – Internet blips; UHI College closed for a day; the local Co-op had to shut for a few hours on a couple of days; there have been no Sunday newspapers for 3 weeks! due to stormy seas; and the swimming pool closed early, which I found out, only after driving 25 miles… However, we are still here, and have been for one year as of the 15th February, which is both astonishing and unexpected and has been life changing for both of us. It has been over this year the Nicola and I have decided to permanently move to the Island. This adds a new dimension to our work here, which has become more open ended and is an ongoing venture that will in time unfold to a different plan.

We are a year into our project ‘In this Day and Age’ – it has been an epic undertaking. Making portraits of people and representing a community as diverse as this takes time. We are committed to an interactive kind of portraiture where all parties concerned can make an input to the final result, both in terms of their visual representation but also with some additional written inputs as appropriate. Nicola and I are steadily collecting a range of portraits and landscape pictures which we take, make and craft together. We enjoy the process of engagement with people and the extensive research and exploration that this involves. Some of this in progress work will be exhibited at Taigh Chearsabhagh in June. There will also be a two – day Symposium to discuss some of the issues that our work has precipitated, these are exiting times for us.

Our first portrait of the new year was of our next-door neighbour Andy. Andy is married to Effie who comes from North Uist. Effie makes fantastic cakes which we spent a half-hour or so eating, whilst drinking tea and having a catch-up blether, before the photo shoot. Andy has a beautiful 1950’s tractor which we managed to photograph him on, in between the rain and hail storms.

Trail camera

We have also visited J.P. who is the manager of the seaweed extraction plant on the island. J.P. generously gave us ‘the grand tour’ of the plant, introducing us to the people who work there, also showing us some video clips of the seaweed gathering processes that have been developed to efficiently collect this complex and valuable plant. Seaweed is being used as a bio- catalyst fertiliser and is relatively sustainable given sensible harvesting practices.

During the absence of our close neighbours, Nicola has been feeding the sheep on the croft that surrounds the house where we are staying. They are a mixture of black face and cheviots. She shouts out ‘trot, trot’ to them at feeding time, and they obediently trot to her, which is touching to see. It is said that sheep are rather stupid, but it seems that they just know what they want to know…

The weather has also brought about some magnificent sights, with pitch black skies lit up with spectacular fluorescent rainbows. We have had lovely romantic, cosy fireside dinners with euphoric ASMR rain sounds and sleeping in a storm can be quite exhilarating. The landscape has become a pale, damp yellow although there are signs of shoots emerging.

Winter is long and dark, but the geese are gathering, for their spring migration, and the daffodils are now in bud.

Alice has not ventured outside this winter, she prefers the safe warm haven of the house the fire and her lovely warm basket. She is also very fond of her toy mouse which she adores and wants to tirelessly play with. Ange will rush out the house, reluctantly (often with his ears back) for his toilet and the odd rat, but he too, seldom stays out for long before rushing back to the comfort of his basket.

We will be moving from this house shortly, as it has been sold. It is a special place, beautiful, elemental and challenging and we are both grateful to have stayed here. Our project is developing successfully and we look forward to the future. This blog has been an essential part of our work to date, and we will continue to discuss important developments regarding this project in due course.

Sheep Whisperer

Weather: Some wet days, mostly dry and bright, the 25th of December was particularly glorious. 28th December onwards – windy, stormy, very wet and overcast.

So much has happened in such a short time. The General Election unfolded pretty much as expected. Mr. Corbyn gifted the government of the UK to Boris Johnson by allowing  this election with its inappropriate timing to be all about Brexit – we now have five -long years to wait for an opportunity to vote-in a government with an agenda which is meaningfully socially progressive. Boris must have thought that Christmas had come early (for him)! Certainly there is no surprise in Scotland, what with virtually only representation from the S.N.P. – the cries for independence have understandably become ever more demanding, other agendas and policy discussions are inevitably taking a back seat. The call for ‘Indyref 2’ (ugh) becomes the only show in town..

Ordinary life, nevertheless, prevails – schools closed and the festive preparations began. The blissful lack of advertising on the island made the rampant Christmas consumerism less obvious and even gave me and Nicola space to appreciate the ‘gaudy’ Xmas jumpers worn by the co-op staff – although I have recently been informed that “Christmas jumpers add to the plastic pollution crisis”. ‘We humans’ have become an environmental disappointment!

Trail camera
Trail camera

The Hebridean Smokehouse is situated in Clachan on North Uist. The Smokehouse is a notable place to shop, whatever the season, and over the festive period (I am told) this becomes an extremely popular place to shop in and online. Their products are being sent to UK and non-UK addresses as well as to select Super Markets. Food Hampers are such a great gifts and Scottish Salmon, such as that produced at the Hebridean Smokehouse is a commodity that is scarcer than might be imagined. Most the Salmon farmed in Scotland is from Norwegian stock rather than from local strains as they are larger, and wild salmon are becoming a scarce commodity. Many people from this island work or have worked at this institution, and when in Newcastle recently, shopping at Waitrose, it was hard not to feel a certain pride in the elegant packing and presentation of their prime peat-smoked salmon and to wonder who had packed it… 

Nicola and I planned to spend Christmas in Glasgow with Abigale, Nicola’s youngest daughter, and to this end, set off in our van complete with Alice (our siamese cat) in her portable transporter, Needless to say she complained so loudly that by the time we had reached Portree on Skye, she was sitting on Nicola’s lap in the front passenger seat. This pattern continued for most of the day, with Alice being intermittently returned to her travel basket when she became too difficult. She did settle down though and the journey, although long and mostly in the dark with pouring rain, was tolerable. Angelo (the other cat was left in Uist, in charge of rat control, and was checked on by our friends and neighbours Keith and Fran).

Christmas eve – shopping in some of Glasgow’s more fashionable independent shops together with a visit to the local Morrison’s before taking off in a taxi to the Arlington Baths Club, where Abi is a member and Nicola and I could attend as guests. As before, it was ladies’ day in the wonderful Turkish Suite and Nicola and Abi could make the most of this. We also attempted swinging on the loops above the pool (with limited success) and Nicola shamed us both into jumping off the diving board. The rest of the Christmas period was spent quietly in the usual way, with periods of mild indulgence and relaxation, interspersed with a sharp winter walk in nearby Queens Park.

Boxing day found me on the Megabus to Newcastle to complete the Christmas agenda of visits including an excellent Sunday lunch at the Tanners Arms on Stepney Bank before returning to the Western Isles via train and bus the following week end. Nicola stayed on with her daughter and returned to Uist on the 28th December.

December the 30th, I arrived in Uig at 2 pm and the ferry was due at 6pm. This was my only booking option, as I had not pre-booked and the other connections were full. There is a lesson in there somewhere?

In Uig the Café’s and pubs were closed. I spent 5 hours in Calmac Ferry’s Terminal waiting room, reading a crap novel that I had hastily acquired together with some nuts and a flapjack during the 15 minute lunch stop, at Fort William. During my time in the Ferry Terminal I noticed the changes to the Ferry Port Terminals planned for 2021, to accommodate the new ferries being constructed for this route. It looks as if the Lochmaddy service will run from Ullapool for a few months..

Nicola met me off the boat at 8.30pm, after a relatively calm crossing – a mere 12-and-a-half-hour journey from Newcastle.

30th Dec. Back on the island and the winds have started to blow. The sheep are once again on the croft surrounding the house and there is a hiatus as the old year ends and we celebrate its passing in the usual fashion. The new year promises much.

Our cats are pleased that normal service has resumed.

Symposium and Pecha Kucha

Weather: Relatively warm, with some light winds.

Saturday 23rd November, the Symposium, ‘Drawing from Life’, comprised a day of discussion and reflection on the theme of the ‘Artist, Educator’ it was mostly put together and chaired by Prof. Keith McIntyre (of the University of the Highlands and Islands), and used the occasion of an exhibition in the Taigh Chearsabhagh galleries by the Island Painter Donald Smith, a Scottish painter of rural communities based in Lewis. The Symposium addressed the many symbiotic relationships between arts practice and various practices in education. There were contributions from (in running order) Jonathan Smith, Prof. Murdo MacDonald, Fiona MacIsaac, Prof. John Kippin, Nicola Neate, Jean Newman, Dr. Neil Davidson, Rosie Blake, Ian Stephen, Christine Morrison, Fiona Pearson, Anne Reid, Prof. Keith McIntyre.

As is inevitable with a relatively short programme and much to discuss, many of the questions that the seminar had hoped to address remained at least partially unanswered. These remain for another day. What was a great success, however was the overall range and quality of the presentations on the day which bear favourable comparison with many high level academic seminars and conference presentations that I have attended. The University of the Highlands and Islands is an important presence on this island and contributes much to the development of its cultural and intellectual life of which we are all grateful participants in.

Trail camera

The weather in November has surpassed all expectations with still days where the lochs reflect the sky and the surface of the silent water creates the effect being surrounded by light. More recently the winds have returned, firstly a cold wind from the east bringing frost, then a milder swirling westerly wind bringing rain. During the colder months, we have found that the best way to keep warm is to keep the fire going all day and night as much as is possible, this is expensive as we use mostly smokeless fuel. It also produces quite a lot of hot ash and emptying the ash can is a particularly hazardous occupation when the wind is unpredictable. On more than one occasion, either Nicola or myself have been covered in ash when confronted with the wind whipping around the house.  We are now eagerly awaiting delivery of a wind resistant ash collecting tray from Amazon, the handmaiden ( I know)  of consumption on the island.

The ongoing story of the rockets of Scolpaig in the North of the Island has quietened down for now, although it has been confirmed that an updated and improved proposal for a Spaceport in the far north of the Scottish mainland will be submitted early in the new year. It will have all of the necessary Political support, and seems likely to succeed. Given the history of the site, the proposed site near Tongue in Sutherland would seem to be more appropriate than that of Scolpaig on North Uist, although that does not necessarily make it a good idea. Hopefully they will leave North Uist alone.

Other local developments concern the Ferry Terminal in Lochmaddy. The small, and rather elegant building that used to be the tourist office in Lochmaddy and currently most usefully houses Uist Film, an offshoot of Taigh Chearshabagh (the Arts Centre) is due to be demolished to make way for the island’s first roundabout, together with a car park – so what passes for progress seems to have reached North Uist after all… There will be a small wake to mark its closure.

Nicola and I were invited by artist and lecturer Rosie Blake, at the University of the Highlands and Islands at Taigh Chearsabhagh, to take part in the second planned Pecha Kucha evening, to be held at Taigh Chearsabhagh on the 5th of December2019. Pecha Kucha (Japanese: chit-chat), is a storytelling format where a presenter shows 20 slides for 20 seconds of commentary each (6 minutes and 40 seconds total). This has become a popular method of presenting ideas briefly and succinctly.

My Pecha Kucha was entitled ‘Some Places of Interest’ and Nicola’s was called ‘My Cabinet of Curiosities’ other contributions were from Fiona MacIsaac, Raphael Rychetsky, Rosie Blake and Andy Mackinnon. These presentations offer an interesting, albeit brief, insight into the individuals concerns and the evening was an entertaining one. There will be future sessions at the centre in the new year.

Now the trout fishing season is over my friend and fishing companion, Keith Dawson and I, plan to spend time tying up some flies. We had a morning session scheduled and despite being somewhat rusty, we managed to tie a dozen or so useful deer-hair patterns with the assistance of some you – tube videos of an irritatingly competent instructor. Next season will see us putting these to the test, convinced that the trout will not necessarily notice the difference, and favour a brilliantly tied fly over our more utilitarian constructions. I have always felt that competition between participants in such activities as fishing was unseemly, but these flies just have a look about them..

The fine still weather that we have enjoyed recently has moved on to be replaced by yet more snarly winds, firstly from the North then the South-West. Today the ferries are not running and indoor activities are sensible. Nicola has been away teaching and I (adagio) have been able to catch up on the recent run of excellent football results by looking at the highlights of the recent games in which the mighty Magpies have crested 10th position in the Premier league. This is not what I had predicted, but then I still have hopes that we may get a Labour Government later this week..  Like the Atlantic Salmon, wild Tories are scarce in these parts but at least nobody is farming them and Scotland will be foremost in leading the resistance against the most extraordinary ship of fools ever experienced anywhere near government, at least in my lifetime.

Our cats always know about the weather. If both cats stay on the bed, then we’re in for a period of wet weather. When Angie (the white lion) relaxed on the bed and looks as if he has stopped breathing, it is going to be raining hard accompanied by strong winds. As soon as they stand up and stretch themselves, then the rain is about to stop. When either, or both, (depending on the degree) sits too close to the fire means that the wind is in the North, and when Alice our young Siamese cat stands on the windowsill and gazes out of the upstairs windows is a sure sign that it will be sunny. So reliable are these indications that I have ceased to use the BBC and Met Office weather apps..

Glasgow

John

Weather: Some still days with good sunrises and sunsets. Glasgow: wet

The Tuesday 19th of November morning ferry was a little slow to depart. It was a dark morning, with a stiff breeze blowing. Nicola dropped me off at the terminal and I carried my usual luggage plus a camera bag complete with film, camera and flash onto the boat. The usual camera that I carry with me is a small digital model but unfortunately it is currently away being repaired, the lens having become loose. I felt I should take some kind of camera with me and so I was left with an elderly medium format rangefinder camera and some 120 film. I had forgotten how heavy and inconvenient it was. I mostly used my iphone camera and made some contributions to my  Instagram account.

As I was having a Cal-Mac breakfast of smoked salmon and scrambled eggs the dawn was breaking red and gold over the west coast of the Scottish mainland. The boat arrived at 9. 30 which was 15 minutes behind schedule. My bus was due to leave from Uig at 9.30, which indeed it did – much to my consternation and that of two other potential passengers, that I watched helplessly from the quayside. The usual practice is for the bus to wait for the connecting ferry but the services are not well joined up. (Previously I had asked for the connecting bus timetable at the ferry terminal to be told “we don’t know about the buses”) Makes perfect sense…. The ‘courtesy bus’ to ferry passengers from the Pier Head to the Ferry Terminal was waiting on the quayside and the driver kindly offered to drive us to Portree where we could catch up with the 915 City bus, which would be waiting there. This bus driver mentioned that the 915 City bus driver was a newly recruited young man who “was not quite sure how things are done around here.”

The two other passengers and I were duly delivered to Portree in time to connect with the 915 Glasgow service. Thank you Mr. Bus Driver!

Having caught up with the 915 City bus we had our tickets checked. When one of the other passengers (an American woman) quietly and politely remonstrated with the driver that he must have known that we were due on the bus in Uig, as we had previously booked and he had a list of the passengers, he must have known we were coming.  She was clearly told “If it’s a bother you can find yourself another service” We all quickly settled down for the remainder of the journey, feeling uncomfortably fortunate to be on this bus at all.

After a change of driver in Fort William and many stops later, the bus arrived, in good time in Glasgow. The intensity of the traffic always comes as a shock after a period living on the island. I made for the Horseshoe Bar in Drury Street in central Glasgow. This had been highly recommended to me by Prof. McIntyre of Bernerey. I went to meet my younger son, newly en-nobled Dr. Sean Kippin. This is a lively pub – full of great fixtures and fittings, and as Scotland were due to play Kosovo that evening colourful traditionally dressed football fans were warming up and gently self-medicating in time for the match – well worth a visit. Later we visited The Pot Still in Hope Street another excellent old fashioned pub with good beer and a wicked, but for me possibly indigestible, line in Mutton pies and baked beans. We finished the evening, unsurprisingly, with a spanking hot curry.

Spending a day in central Glasgow is always a pleasure and I managed to fit in the Modern Institute, The Print Workshop, Street Level, the Centre for Contemporary Arts and the Museum of Modern Art. All in all, a mixed bag of works but all offering a high level of engagement with a range of contemporary arts practice. I also called in on one of the independent guitar shops where I wanted to try one of the locally hand-made classical instruments that I had seen on a previous visit, together with a visit to a wonderful used clothes emporium, both sites overlooked by a huge wall painting of Billy Connelly, why not..

I even managed to use my ancient film camera to make one or two pictures, although the light was very poor (the dreich). One quickly forgets some of the limitations of such equipment, not to mention the weight.. given the capability of some digital cameras to operate under such low light conditions.

The evening was spent at the cinema watching ‘The Irishman’ a film to challenge the stoutest bladder in one sitting and is a worthy successor to Martin Scorsese’s earlier ‘wiseguy’ films. I had read that the unique costume designer Sandy Powell had made over 100 suits for Robert De Niro and I am looking forward to seeing it again on Netflix, with Nicola, and will maybe think about counting them.

Thursday 21st November: I had long wanted to visit the famous Arlington Baths for a much-needed swim. Nicola had booked for me to be shown around the facilities which include saunas and Turkish baths and a health club full of astonishing gymnasium devices. It was women’s day in the Turkish bath so I was unable to visit this but it does look amazing in the photographs, so next time perhaps. I moved rather sheepishly through the gym section, thinking that it looked a bit too much like a torture chamber, and why would I pay for that? The changing rooms and the swimming pool (there were hand painted notices on the ancient door announcing ‘The Pond’ ) were a different matter however, and there is a lounge where after an intense workout one could meet other members of the (health) club and use the bar..

I swum for an hour or so in one of the lanes marked on the bottom of the pool. The form is to wait until another member has vacated the lane before using it, which I did. After using the pool-side sauna (such luxury) I was standing by the edge of the pool wondering where the shower was when the attendant said to me “Do you mind having a shower if you intend to get back in the pool?’ A reasonable request. I said “its OK, I’m like Prince Andrew, I don’t sweat” He looked at me with astonishment for no more than one second, before a smile creased his face and he said ‘the shower is through that door”. If I were to live in Glasgow, membership of the Arlington Health Club would become a priority and a much better investment than a season ticket at St. James Park.

Lunchtime was spent at the Civic Street Canteen in the delightful company of Abigale Neate-Wilson the events director and Nicola’s youngest daughter. No 26, Civic Street is an arts venue based in a converted print works and is close to the better known ‘Glue Factory’ artist’s centre on the North side of the City.  The upstairs space is generous and well-appointed and the canteen serves excellent vegetarian food. Lucky Glasgow. It still manages to have a lively and progressive arts scene that is not ruined by developers.

Friday the 22nd November: I was on time to catch the 10 am bus from Buchanan Street back to Skye via Fort William and despite my concerns, given that the bus arrives in Uig only 10 minutes before the ferry departs, the journey went smoothly. We even had the same driver, who seemed in a much better mood..  Nicola met me at Lochmaddy ferry and drove us back to Minish. Nicola and I talked about the following day’s Symposium (which we were both contributing to) at the North Uist Arts Centre, Taigh Chearshabagh –  ‘Drawing from Life, the Artist Educator’.

Angelo and Alice were pleased to see me – at least I like to think were.

Onn (gold)

Nicola

Tuesday the 19th of November, I drove John to the ferry around 7am – it was dark, windy and raining so I did not hang around. I quickly drove back to the cottage in Minish to light a nice fire and do some drawings and photo-retouching work.

Wednesday the 20th of November, I attended the writing workshop with poet  Mandy Haggith. This was a first for me and an inspiring afternoon. There were about 10 attendees, as with a lot of these events, only one man. I sometimes wonder what men do for extra interests, other than fishing of course, this is a very popular man hobby especially in the Hebrides. Perhaps bird watching is also a popular extra curricular man ‘ting’… Anyway, going off topic.

The writing/poetry workshop was very challenging and informative, there are a lot of very good writers and poets here. Pauline Prior Pitt runs a poetry club, which is thriving and even has a waiting list.

The writing/poetry workshop was based around a piece of yellow gorse (Onn in Gaelic) also sometimes called furze or whin. The group, under the guidance of Mandy Haggith, discussed this strangely mythological flowering bush.

  • It is believed to extend protective powers over herds
  • It smells like coconut combined with marzipan and tastes like almonds
  • It flowers can and are used to to colour and flavour whisky
  • It can be made into Yellow Gorse Wine.

The gorse bush is a prolific plant in the Outer Hebrides with sun-kissed apricot yellow flowers and although it has seasons where it flowers more than others, it does in fact never stop flowering all the year around. Which is fortunate as there is a saying that goes:

“When gorse is out of bloom, kissing is out of season”

Gorse also has some pagan witchy associations too; it is linked to love and fertility – but beware if you bring it in the house it is extremely unlucky.

By the end of the workshop I was much informed and impressed by this thorny ‘wee’ Hebridean beauty – but I warn you, mind their needle like thorns!

The last hour of the workshop was set aside for writing and there were some lovely descriptions and prose written by the members of this group – I managed just one feeble line. I feel more sessions are needed if I were to show anything, it was hard enough just reading my line out to the group. They were all very encouraging of course.

Thursday 21st Nov. after some teaching on the UHI art course, I met Fiona Pearson for lunch in the Taigh Chearsabhagh cafeteria. We had a lovely soup and coffee and a very good chat about art and life and grandchildren.

John and I arrived in Uist in February this year, so this is our first Autumn here and it has been amazing for me to see the landscape changing over the seasons. In the cottage that I am staying in, the bedroom windows overlook a sea loch and I have the pleasure of watching the morning light, as I drink my tea. The distant hills go through an array of colours, as the sunlight moves over them. Orange, to gold, to yellow, then blue, grey, slate to purple. Always shifting – each colour shaping and set against another, placed to enhance, placed in contrast and never the same. Sometimes a bird gets caught in a gust of wind (often a seagull) and glides by. Netflix just doesn’t compete!

Friday 22nd November, I pick John up from the ferry in Lochmaddy at about 7.45pm – just in time to talk about the following day’s Symposium (which we were both contributing to) at the North Uist Arts Centre, Taigh Chearshabagh –  ‘Drawing from Life, the Artist Educator’.

The cats are such great company when I am on my own. Alice is so affectionate and follows me around the house. Angelo still holds the title of mighty rat catcher of Minish!

Season of Mists and Mellow Fruitfulness

Weather: Temperate, especially when compared to the weather conditions in the North East of England and Glasgow. No flooding.

Since the clocks have gone back the nature of the days have changed. The arguments given to ensuring lighter mornings makes more sense in this latitude, although the afternoons still become evenings quickly enough – dusk starts at 4pm (Creating a minor confusion around wine o’ clock).  The lack of street lights in the Hebrides, means that the nights are an intense velvet black that is only broken on clear nights by a back drop of stars stretching into infinity and from the light of the moon, this can be very bright and intense when it is full. The winter nights are a shock when they come and are in such contrast with the almost 24 hour light that is experienced throughout the summer months.

There have been some spectacular Autumn days with beautiful light and only some strong winds mostly coming from the North East. There have also been several wind free days and these days have a profound clear silence. Nicola and I have been very grateful to have escaped the deluge experienced by much of the North of England. (The one referred to by our visionary Prime Minister as ‘not a national emergency’).

The oncoming autumn has once again changed the colour of this fascinating and remarkable landscape, the rusty brown/gold palette has now become desaturated making pale yellows and lime green moors to be framed against the fading distant purples and blues of the hills. It sometimes feels like the landscape is drawing breath before embarking properly with the winter. Sadly though, on the 6th November a high wind meant the bonfire celebration in Lochmaddy had to be cancelled.

The Autumn has also brought a new emphasis with the local bird life. Because of the lack of blossoming vegetation, it has been easier to see the redwings and thrushes pulling out worms and the tiny wrens going about their urgent business. The snipe and curlews are in evidence and the starlings and lapwings are gathering in flocks. There are lots of swans and geese – the returning birds, and a variety of ducks and gulls. I took a cross country walk to Lochmaddy from Minish (approximately 2 miles) and it was good to see a lone seal fishing in the loch immediately next to the Arts Centre at Taigh Chearsabhagh. This was accompanied by a kestrel, hovering above the ground below. These are truly the sights to lift the spirit.

As a mark, of what Nicola and I feel is ‘community acceptance’, our neighbour now shares the odd local folk tale:

 “A man called Angus (what else) left the kitchen to collect a pail of water from the small shallow freshwater loch in front of the house. When he never returned, he was searched for high and low by his family and then by members of the local community. The ensuing rumours described every possible and impossible reason for his sudden disappearance including (reasonably) drowning together with (unreasonably) the sighting of bright lights and consequent possible abduction by aliens. He was never seen again on the islands, although one farmer mentioned seeing someone whom he thought might be him on the boat from Lochboisdale on his way to Mallaig. Possibly in search of a Sainsburys.. so if you are ever referred to as doing an ‘Angus’ – this is what is meant!”

There has been much travelling to and from the garage in Benbecula (Creagorry Motors) as both of our banger fleet have been due for MOT Testing. On a previous visit I went to pay the bill for a recent service and as I forgot to retain the invoice I apologised for my dis-organisation, and asked if it was a problem finding the paperwork, I was told ‘only if your name is MacDonald..’ One of our vehicles has so far passed and we are waiting for our second one to be repaired. It is a pity that there is no discount loyalty scheme. We would prosper. On the cultural front, this week the mighty Newcastle United completed their second ‘back to back’ win. Thank you V.A.R. (How does Steve Bruce do it?)

It has been necessary to perfect the art of circular fire-making. We use household coal with kindling to initiate the process, followed by smokeless fuel. If this is topped up first thing in the morning it keeps the house reasonably warm depending on the strength and direction of the wind. Much of our work is done in the house, and keeping warm has become a preoccupation. It is expensive though. One early November afternoon, escaping the house, we drove to Scolpaig (a favorite coastal walk) to ramble along the coast where the surf was huge, foaming and crashing into the bay there. It wasn’t particularly windy when we arrived although the waves were steadily building, threatening a stormy evening ahead.

With the possible and imminent Brexit looming over us all and whilst doing the ‘weekly’ in the local Co-op I made a note of where the items in our basket were sourced from. In no special order, these included: Pears (Netherlands); Tomatoes (Spain); Apples (Belgium); Lemons (Spain); Garlic (Italy); Oranges (Spain); Walnuts (Muldova?); Olive Oil (Italy); Cheese (France); Halloumi (Greece); Olives (Spain); Wine (Italy and France). Roll on Brexit.. To be fair the shopping basket also contained some Venezuelan (Chocolate) ice cream and some Bolivian quinoa so ever conscious of Brexit, we’re not worrying.

The General Election seems a long way away – even more to do with the tight- knit London media scene than previously and ever more a cause for dismay. Bring back Screaming Lord Such and the Monster Raving Loony party. At least he knows he’s bonkers. The Scottish Nationalists will almost certainly represent these Islands after the forthcoming General Elections, which is sensible, given that Labour are unlikely to attain their pre-eminence and only the SNP will unify the Scottish vote against the Tories.

Too much reliance on social media is quickly depressing, we seem to be continually either burning or drowning and everyone else it seems is to be on the trip of a lifetime..  Perhaps it is just too much information about too many different things. It is sometimes difficult to keep up.

It has been necessary to keep Alice, our still young cat, indoors today as a vast White Tailed Sea Eagle flapped across the loch at the rear of our house. Our other cat, despite his visibility is safe from aerial attack due to his great size. How the local rats do not see him coming remains a mystery to me but the half-rats complete with highly visible internal organs continue to be deposited at the doorstep (as a love token) with impressive regularity.

Three Eagles

Weather: Sunshine and showers with some very still days. Relatively warm. We seemed to have missed the heavy rain of most of the rest of the UK.

Much of the week’s activities have been planned around a major programme of retouching work that Nicola has been working on behalf of Newcastle photographer John Faulkner. This is relatively straightforward work for a commercial client. It is however, painstaking and time-consuming requiring a high level of patience and skill. It has also been a time to catch up on some academic written work and blog writing. My own photoshop skills are relatively basic so I have found it compelling to see the amazing difference to the image after it has been skillfully retouched. This process is effectively a re-visioning of the original image extending the authorship of the photograph.

The weekly yoga session is held at Carinish hall. I am usually the only male present and am useless. Nevertheless, apart from swimming, yoga, as taught by the excellent Sheila Park, is an hour of relaxation combined with exercises at a level set by the individual themselves. After the session Nicola and I went back to Sheila’s house where we made a couple of portraits of her, one in the garden of her house accompanied by her enthusiastic Black Labrador (difficult tonal range) and one of her in her yurt which she had left up for another day specially to accommodate us.

We planned a dinner date in celebration for 2 visiting artists. Rosie Roberts is a video artist from Glasgow and Maija Annikki Savolainen is from Helsinki. All seven guests brought food and drink and we managed to fit everyone in our modest sized living room. We had a brilliant evening with lots of singing and story-telling. Alice, our kitten, bouncing around the room creating mayhem wherever she alighted. Maija perhaps thought that we are always like this, and at least we gave them both a good send off. Most of the next day was spent recovering, one way or another.

After the debacle of last week, witnessing my car/van parking itself in an astonished stranger’s front garden, it was time to take it in to have the handbrake examined and treat it to a service. I left the car/van overnight at Creagorry Motors in Benbecula, with the key in it to be looked at the following morning. Nobody really bothers to lock their cars, and I have often witnessed cars with their engine’s running where their drivers have gone off to do a spot of shopping.. Naturally for several reasons this is perhaps not a good idea, but I think you could leave an unlocked bicycle by the roadside here and it would rust away before anybody stole it. When this was tested on Tyneside, it was less than an hour before the bicycle disappeared – in London it takes even less time!

The car/van needed a new caliper which would be fitted when the parts order arrives in a few days. I felt at least partially vindicated as the previous incident had not been completely due to my own incompetence. We also had a few issues with Nicola’s car involving a flat battery due to an interior light staying on overnight (which I might have helped happen). The mechanics at Creagorry Motors were more than happy to test the battery at a moment’s notice. It was fine, thank you guys.

Later in the week we photographed our friend Keith Dawson. This was a good session and the beautiful sunny day meant that we could work both inside and outside. Nicola and I have found that it is helpful to have more than one option though, and this approach has become more useful as the project has developed. Although usually we try to work using available light, on this occasion we needed to add a little light to the overall levels in Keith’s house mostly to lift the shadows a little.

 12th October Saturday evening we visited one of our immediate neighbour’s houses Ron and Amanda. Both are a mine of information about all local matters relating to North Uist and thereabouts. Ron (who is from Newcastle!) has been a crofter for 40 or so years and cuts his peat in the traditional way using the peat spade. The most common method these days is to hire the use of a mechanical peat-cutter. This saves the initial work although the peat still needs to be stacked, dried and bagged. It is never easy work. We had a pleasant evening and later we walked back home guided by the light from the (nearly) full moon.

As the next morning was sunshine and showers and a rainbow had formed across the distant hills. We walked in the garden to look at the rainbow. There was a deep whump, whump sound and a squadron of swans flew over to the house and out towards the sea. The Whooper swans are returning to the Uists for the winter, and they are a welcome sight. These swans flew in a tight arrow formation with military precision and are a glorious sight. The Red Arrows have much to catch up on..

The coming of Autumn has meant the purple heather has gone and the moorlands are now covered with russet gold bracken fern. There have been several spectacular days, beautiful creamy pink and purple sunrises and sunsets and some days have even been without any wind. On these still days the lochs are a silver mirror to the sky and the world around then seems strangely to be turned upside down.

Later in the day we drove down Committee Road where we watched 3 golden eagles flying high above the highest point of the island. It was the best view of Eagles in the wild I have experienced and they were around for long enough for us both to get a really good look. They are a spectacular sight, their command of the skies is total. At this crepuscular time of the day, a deer stood close by our car and watched us whilst we listened to the incredible roaring sound of the deer rutting in the nearby woods. On arriving home I watched a clip of Mattie Longstaff finishing off Manchester United. Bliss.

The fishing has been disappointing this year although that maybe due to a relative lack of experience in fishing here. This time Keith and I walked up to one of the hill lochs still fishable at this time of the year as it contains sea trout (allegedly). The recent rain had made for a very muddy track and we both had wet feet on arrival despite wearing wellingtons. The fishing was slow with only a few brown trout caught but the loch is beautifully situated in the hills and the surface was as still as oil. A sea eagle flew the length of the loch with its massive wings and seemingly languid flight. Shortly after, a stag appeared at the head of the loch bellowing for a mate. By the time we had walked back to Keith’s land Rover we were exhausted.

Scolpaig tower is the central icon around which our concerns about the proposed development of a Spaceport on the Island is focused. We wanted to make some early evening photographs and construct some artworks that could be used in various campaigns of resistance to these plans. This is not a place that is likely to attract the attention of large numbers of protestors or the mainstream media, but it is important for us to contribute to resisting these proposals in any way that we can. We had left it a little late, and had no red gels to use with our lights. In true Chris Wainwright style however, we were able to press a Maltesers packet into service to obtain the necessary red filter on our torch.

On other outings with Chris we had used the red plastic packaging from Mr Kiplings’ cake products. I was dismayed to see that they were now using clear colourless plastic, of no use to photographers (or the environment) in fact, completely useless. At least I can find a use for the Maltesers.. Nicola and I managed to make some images, learning a lot on the job, including that wading across to the tower wearing normal thigh-length waders in the near dark was unwise, and that long exposures using digital cameras is pushing them to the limits of what they can do. Come suitable weather we will return to Scolpaig and continue to develop our work-in –progress. Just a short distance from here we had watched as the Eagles owned the skies without the fear of the lunacy of rockets destroying their habitat and driving them into extinction.

Tuesday the 15th October the Island was visited by the ‘Gallery in a Bus’ a travelling exhibition space which was showing an exhibition by Alec Finlay. Neither Nicola or I had previously encountered this gallery which was parked outside Taigh Chearsabhagh for the day. They had travelled from Stornoway to Lochmaddy and were due in Skye the next day. Jo Arksey gave us a tour of the exhibition and told us something of the history of this project which goes back 40 years. The exhibition is excellent and well worth a visit and you will be welcomed, should it be passing a venue near you…  http://www.travellinggallery.com/

Friday the 18th October we walked to Lochmaddy, as it was such a beautiful afternoon picking mushrooms along the way. The air has a distinctly autumnal feel and the dampness is condusive to the growing of all kinds of fungi. The mushrooms we encountered were mostly different varieties of Waxcap, all of which are safe to eat, although some taste better than others. Stopping at the Lochmaddy Hotel offered a welcome rest and given that it was nearly dark we decided to eat at the nearby Hamersay House Restaurant. After an excellent supper an Aldas taxi was called on our behalf to take us home. Our driver told us he was 85 years old. He drove us back to Minish at a stately 15mph. He also said he had been working on North Uist since he was 14 years old. On sunny days, in Lochmaddy, he exhibits his vintage motorcars, parking them in the main road for all to see. One of these cars is a metallic green 1955 Vauxhall Cresta that has travelled only 7000 miles from new. He did not want a tip for his services which were most reasonably priced.

The sea loch close to the house has a number of big fish in it, usually Coalfish (coley) or Pollack. These have the local names Saithe and Laithe respectively. There may be some sea trout as well, but I have never seen evidence of this. The loch is fairly shallow and weedy

And I have fished it with both flies and lures. On this visit the weed was particularly difficult  and there was a snarly wind. I hunkered down trying to keep as low a profile as possible and tried a floating pike plug and bang! Two beautiful fish. It has been a very variable season but the sea fish have provided some memorable moments and some welcome fresh food.

Another drive to Lochboisdale, this time to pick up Nicola’s daughter Abi and her partner Chris, who are staying for a week to look after our cats. Nicola and I have a week on the mainland…

Since Angie has had his teeth fixed (scale and polish) his temper has improved. He was always on the moody side in an impressive, brooding kind of way. Even with Alice flying in his face he remains sanguine. His rat count is steady with around 2 a day being average (one is usually headless) all beautifully presented at the doorstep. Alice, meanwhile is becoming keen to be outside, even though when she does manage to get out, she rushes back in like a startled rabbit. We think that she is showing signs of being on heat. Oh joy. 

BRIGHTON

Weather: Mostly good with lots of sunshine, quite windy.

I met Alan and Mick at the ferry terminal and they followed me on their bikes to our house.

Having parked the bikes, they were pleased to have completed the ride. Having ridden similar distances previously I can well understand that they did not want to get back on the bikes until the time to leave. The four of us had a brilliant weekend, the weather was excellent and we visited some of the local places of interest, we had quite long walks, visited cafes including the excellent Seafood café at Kallin where bacon and scallop rolls are available. On the table next to where we were sitting, a man returned the salad that accompanied his main course on the grounds that he hadn’t asked for it…) We visited the excellent Westford Inn for Sunday lunch and generally caught up with one another. We had a wonderful evening of projected music videos, taking it in turns to afflict one another with our own particular musical proclivities. The weather was good as they left early on the Tuesday morning. Alan and Mick were excited on seeing a large number of dolphins on the ferry back to Skye. Their ride back to Newcastle was damp in places but unproblematic. It was a great trip for all involved.

We have had a week of administration and catching up with necessary paperwork. I have been re-reading a thesis for examination and have been sorting out such tedious necessities as preparing the accounts. Nicola has been scanning and preparing images for various purposes and has been preparing her teaching presentations for next week, when the University new term begins.

We have managed to make two portraits this week and to discuss the planning of another. This work is slow but is always enjoyable, we work with individuals (and some couples) to plan how we will approach this work. It is a creative and collaborative act and we are making steady progress. We have agreed to exhibit a ‘work in progress’ exhibition at Taigh Chearsabhag next summer.

Looking out of the upstairs bedroom window one morning I noticed what I thought was a dead sheep on the foreshore of the loch behind our house. On closer inspection, it turned out to be lying on its back, but was still breathing although looking somewhat alarmed. Nicola and I are insufficiently experienced with sheep to know if its condition was serious, or what to do in this situation, so I walked to see Andy our next door neighbour who works the croft next to the house. He came down and promptly pulled it up on its hind legs. It then trotted off up the hill, mud spattered and happy apparently none the worse for its experience. Apparently sheep ca die if they are upended in this way and not found.Next time, we will all know what to do.

The following week Nicola started the new teaching term at the University, and I was once again, en route to Newcastle and on the boat to Uig. After my long drive, the next morning was spent in Alan’s shed at his house in Gateshead machining valve guides and grinding in the valves to fit the cylinder heads of my R50/2 BMW. Later, Alan rode over to Kenton on his 30’s Ariel and we spent the rest of the afternoon fitting them back on the bike. Such fun. This accomplished , the bike was put in the shed, probably until next year.

Home Alone

Nicola

Weather: Changeable. Strong winds with showers and some bright spells.

Monday 8th September morning, John headed off to the main-land for an extensive (10 day) road trip to Brighton and some financial meetings in Newcastle.

This is also marked the beginning of term and my 1st Tutorial introduction to students at Taigh Chearsabhagh Centre for the University of the Islands and Highlands (UHI). A great BA Art course with some very talented students, I look forward to supporting them this academic year.

Tuesday September 10th – a significant plummet into autumnal weather, which in Uist means the winds develop a ferocious energy. My trip to the local Solas Co-op became more of an expedition. With my wind proof coat firmly fastened and Co-op bags in tow I left the house and as I turned to head towards the front garden and driveway I am hit by the hurtling whirling wind, ‘Splat’ – like a slap in my face. My Carrier bags flapped beside like parachute balloons causing me to moon-walk down the drive to the gates, that need opening before I get into the car. There is also rain, that has been given a wind-force factor making the rain drops fire like little pins into my face. The car it’s self requires a Houdini manoeuvre to get in – I have to hold on to the doors tightly (so they don’t fly off the car) and then wedge myself into the driver’s seat. Every movement I make is obstructed and exaggerated, the phrase ‘battling the elements’ feels the proper way to describe walking to and getting into the car. When secured inside the haven of my vehicle, I am almost exhausted, but also strangely ecstatic and windblown.

Much of my time, when John is away, is spent catching up on scanning and other essential time consuming digital work – I spent Wednesday and Thursday, some of Friday and Saturday doing my media ‘catch-up’ which as every ‘anorak’ will tell you can take up many hours in the day, and to anyone else this can be uneventful and obssesive. I enjoy the intensity of this kind of work, but am aware that there is not much to discuss that might be of interest to most people.

I will move straight to Friday evening – and the more important Hebrides International Film Festival 2019 . At 5.30pm a viewing of the very appropriate ‘Rockets Galore’ (A must see for all North Uist residents!) directed by Michael Relph and based on the novel by Compton Mackenzie. The story line in this movie is almost identical to the ‘real’ proposal for the  Space-port on the site of Scolpaig in North Uist. (There is only one questionable moment in the movie and that was when the local priest patted a small boys bottom (this is of course a sign of the times) – a distinct intake of breath was heard from the (now) more aware audience. Still a highly amusing film, with amazing back projections and very fitting – a prediction of events to come… ‘Rockets Galore II’ is in the making and to be set in North Uist!

The weather this week has had an overall wet and blustery presence, although Sunday let up enough to tempt me into a fabulous walk along the beach. I set off to Clachan Sands Beach, the nearest beach to Minish. I feel blessed to be living in a place where I can drive for just ten minutes and then arrive at the most beautiful white sands beach with turquoise water, a max of 5 other people and array of Oyster catchers, Lap wings, Sanderlings a variety of gulls – and other birds that I am not yet able to confidently identify.

John arrived safely back on the Wednesday – I was impressed with the amount of driving he did. I am always pleased when we are back together.

Angelo maintains his title as ‘King Ratter’ whilst Alice has developed an unhealthy taste for flies – this causes havoc with her stomach and the catching of them causes havoc with anything that might be in the way of her and the targeted fly.

John

I was driving down to Ashby de la Zouch in Leicestershire to meet up with Dave Cubby who was over from Australia amongst other things, to meet up with some folks in Brighton. I parked the van outside his sister Janet’s house and was drinking a cup of tea when Janet’s partner, Ian asked me why I had parked my car in the neighbour’s drive. Oh no, said I – looking beyond the hall out towards the road, it’s on the street outside…

Janet and Ian live on a private cul-de-sac in Ashby in a detached bungalow, you get the idea.

My car had managed to slip its handbrake, trundle off down the street, mount the kerb, enter the neighbour’s drive (which was 50 yards opposite and further along the slight downward slope of the street). It managed all of this on its own, and on somehow turning into the neighbour’s drive, it destroyed the recycling bin (a very good thing, recycling) before stopping 3 inches away from a brand new, white BMW.

The owner of the car opened the front door in her dressing gown, no doubt curious as to what must have made the noise. She was very understanding. No harm seems to have been done and Ian (bless Ian!) was able to replace the recycling bin with one he had spare. Miracles do happen. Minutes later, the man of the house returned. He was very big, and had fitted CCTV for security purposes only recently. This incident provided, of course, the perfect opportunity to see what had actually happened. A small crowd developed around his smart phone and were treated to an action replay. Meanwhile I had been keepin a low profile having re-parked my car in Janet’ s driveway after taking the precaution of leaving it in gear in addition to very nearly pulling the handbrake lever off.

When the fuss had subsided Dave drove to Brighton in a newly rented Nissan. He had learned to drive in Australia in a car with an automatic gearbox. This car had six forward gears, any one of which Dave was likely to engage without warning..

We parked in the Travelodge car park before unpacking and walking along to the local Indian Restaurant. Some day.

The next morning Dave and I were due to meet up with Mick Duckworth and Charlie Hooker. We had all been a part of creating ‘Experimental Studies’ in the early 70’s.

The afore-mentioned course pathway had ‘evolved’ from the Fine Art Painting and Sculpture at the University, before becoming ‘Critical Fine Art Practice. Experimental Studies developed an alternative Fine Art culture that was seen as Socially based and outwith the gallery system. Its media were performance, artist’s film (later video) photography, writing, audio, in fact pretty much anything apart from painting and sculpture, which we considered insufficiently conceptual and belonging to an earlier sensibility.

As we arrived at the University we were welcomed by a John Hilliard dual screen film piece playing in the foyer. It featured a 19 year old version of myself pointing a 16mm film camera at Tony Finch (whatever happened to Tony Finch?) who was pointing a 16mm film camera at me. Sue Breakell is in charge of the archiving of materials relating to the University and Naomi Saloman is currently responsible for the Critical Art Practice programme. We were made welcome and we were there in order to flesh out some of the missing details from the earliest years of the programme. Jenny Lund, the curator of the Brighton Art Galley was also present and she had previously interviewed John Hilliard, our main tutor at the time and the central focus around which Experimental Studies had developed. Without John, who encountered stiff resistance at the time, it would not have happened. Apart from his continuing brilliant career as an artist, John became the Professor at the Slade School, continuing his commitment to educating artists. Charlie was to join us later although as the Professor of Sculpture (ironically) he had previously made his contributions to the archive. Amongst other things the six of us talked about was ‘the Fabulous Shitts’ a proto punk, anarchistic rock and roll band including all of us in various capacities.

After the meeting, we met up with Charlie and Gordon Grant for an extended lunch, drifting into the evening in the Basketmakers Arms, a Brighton landmark where most of the drinkers were in the street outside the pub in the evening sunshine. The next day we spent wandering the around the entertaining Brighton shops buying hats and Cigars (!) before were back on the M25 on the way to Ashby de la Zouch, from where I picked up my errant car and drove back to Newcastle. Sunday was time to recuperate in the Tanner’s Arms for Lunch with my daughter Laura. The next couple of days were spent attending to the domestic and financial,  before finding myself back on the boat from Uig to Lochmaddy, an evening sailing after a day’s driving in the rain.

THUNDERBIRDS are GO !

Weather: Mostly fine and sunny with relatively light winds.

The big news around here is the proposed development of a Rocket Range on north Uist.

This perhaps needs to be restated. In the age of Environmental Extinction Rebellion, increasing climate change awareness and the ever-increasing levels of CO2, not to mention the awareness raising pleadings of Greta Thunberg and others. The Council think that it is a good idea to completely transform the unspoilt nature of this place and create a SPACEPORT! – ostensibly so that it can provide a few new jobs for the island, all without even the advice of a proper environmental impact study! Nicola and I attended several of the ‘consultation’ meetings that have been taking place where these proposals have tried to rail-road this through by the Council, who have purchased the land in order to make this planning application. So no conflict of interest there then.. 

There have, of course, been many objections, but the Council attempts to marginalize a large number of these with the insinuation that as many of the objectors are not ‘indigenous’ folk they somehow are not valid. The logic of this argument is  extremely unpleasant and finds its echo in Populist Politics around the World. Like the Amazonian forest and the Polar Ice Cap the environment is of concern to us all, and cannot be the subject of the whims of speculators and careless guardians such as the Island Council. Their tactics are to keep this a local issue. In a small place, such as this, everybody knows somebody or is related to somebody, who works with somebody..   – voices are seldom raised however keenly the issues are felt…The site at Scolpaig is an exceptionally beautiful one. It is teeming with rare wildlife and plants, overflown by eagles, has special archaeological  interest, and is loved by everyone who has ever visited it. It will be ruined, never to be replaced and we and all of the world will all be the poorer for it.

Still with the febrile environment of the ‘consultation‘ meeting foremost in our minds, we returned to the Community Centre in Carinish for our weekly yoga session. This is something in which Nicola is consummate but I am as flexible as Nigel Farage..

It was a beautiful late summer’s day, so after the yoga session, we decided to take our snorkeling equipment and spend some time on the beach at Clachan where we swum in the clear water as the tide gradually uncovered the white sands. During our Hans and Lottie impersonations I was pluckily attacked by a crab – no doubt I was viewed as an alien invader by the creature which had dug into the sand with only its claws protruding and defending its territory from a monster 1000 times its own size. Later, over the weekend we photographed Rosie and Raphael before walking along the Machair foraging for mushrooms and other fungi. Raphael spotted the biggest field mushroom that I have ever seen.

We had a week of writing reports, feedback to students, cutting the grass (this takes at least 3 hours) the odd unsuccessful fishing trip, visiting the vets, the usual shopping trips, walks along our foreshore and preparation for our forthcoming trip to Harris and Lewis at the weekend. We have booked an Airbnb in Harris and are looking forward to the weekend. It is ostensibly to celebrate my 40th birthday but is really to have a much-needed break. Keith has agreed to feed Angelo our big white cat and Rosie and Raphael have agreed to look after Alice our kitten. The evening before catching the ferry from Bernerey to Leverburgh we dropped Alice, our kitten off with Rosie and Rafa and stood with them as we watched an otter swimming in the bay close to their house in the western part of the island.

It was sunny and warm the next morning as we took the ferry on the way to Harris. There were porpoises in the bay close to the island and we had an excellent journey keenly anticipating the week ahead. We stopped at a very charming round café at Greabhal on the way to our accommodation at Asaig. It was most welcome, and in addition to excellent coffee and cakes they had the most beautiful ‘Sussex Rose’ handwash in the lavatory, available to purchase in the café at only £20.. Because it was nearly my birthday we shared a piece home-made caramel shortbread-truly special!

Our accommodation was in a rather charmless caravan, flesh pink on the inside with that gilded chintzy finish to the fixtures and fixings beloved by caravan designers. It was however, clean and warm with all of the necessary accessories, such as a charming table lamp decorated with attractive fungi. We noticed that a short way along the road there was a cattle grid. This meant that every time a vehicle crossed the grid there was a whomp! The noise varied according to the weight and type of vehicle. I imagine that one would be able to guess the type of vehicle grossing the grid, but luckily we were only to be there for two nights..

We visited the capital of the Islands, Stornoway stopping off at a couple of charity shops on the way to the centre. It is a pleasant enough town and is a considerable contrast in scale to the other settlements on the islands. After some essential purchases including lipstick and fishing line we had an excellent lunch at the Harbour Café, a pleasant sea food brasserie in the modern style. Having lunched, we visited An Lanntair, the Arts Centre situated opposite the ferry landing station. This was busy with people in the large café area and generally milling around the ground floor galleries where there was an exhibition of a catholic selection of work by Tom Hickman.

 We had coffee in the café (mostly milk) before driving down to Callanish, the site of the Bronze Age circle comparable to the Ring of Brodgar on Orkney or Stonehenge in England. During a previous visit to Callanish, there were people everywhere on the site. This included a woman in what was intended as a red druid’s outfit miming to a ‘celtic’ soft rock song whilst being filmed. Every so often 6 other, similarly clad young women would drift into the picture wafting in the ethereal breeze of the ages in time to the music. I don’t know how successful the song was but at the time, it certainly made the visit a memorable one. On this occasion we mostly had the place to ourselves, the atmosphere being slightly compromised by one of the nearby residents drilling something.. The site is a spectacular one with amazing views across the hills and the sea loch and we were pleased to have experienced it on a fine day.

The following day saw us walking towards the Eagle hide in the Mountains of Harris. As we approached the small car park we saw a pair of Golden Eagles being harassed by another bird, probably a raven. These are spectacular birds in a wonderful landscape and we were looking forwards to viewing them from the privileged situation of the hide. As we walked up the valley the weather deteriorated and the rain started. When it rains it rains hard. We were quickly soaked through, and it was a great relief to eventually struggle on to the hide where we could shelter from the rain. Needless to say, we saw no more eagles that day. By this time, the visibility was poor and we were grateful to return to the car. Apart from a further stop off at the rotund café at Greabhal on our way back to Leverburgh, that was our (birthday) weekend. Two hours later we were picking up Alice, our kitten from where she had been thoroughly indulged for the weekend by Rosie and Rafael.

In cat-world – Angie has had his teeth examined, as his gums are causing him some discomfort. He has been booked in for a scale and polish in a couple of weeks time..

He whacked 5 Rats in one day! His record to date. Alice managed to bring in a caterpillar as she is only a trainee. She has eventually found her purr again as her nose was somewhat out of joint after her weekend trip away from home. She has a tummy upset which caused not a little embarrassment whilst she was away, and we will have to keep an eye on her.

The Mushrooms

Weather: Very showery and mostly quite windy. Warm at nights when the wind is quiet and some midge filled intervals in the early mornings.

Following my late-night arrival back in Minish, it seems like there was scarcely a moment before being due at Lochmaddy Hall for the R.N.L.I. (Lifeboats) fundraising event. To this end Nicola and I duly appeared with our Photo – Booth setup, although our positioning in the hall was not ideal. The day contained all of the usual events and sideshows and passed successfully with a significant sum being raised for the Association. We had agreed to photograph the procession of the inevitable pipe band marching from the pier to the hall, but the inclement weather made this impossible. Instead the band played in the hall. Bagpipes of the Scottish variety (as opposed to the Northumbrian or Galician pipe) are designed to stir the blood on the field of battle and when played indoors are, unsurprisingly, extremely loud..

Nicola and I had a very pleasant evening and dinner with artist Fiona Pearson and her family. A well spiced curry made by Fiona and Nicola’s homemade chocolate mouse.

Much of the week there-after was spent in indifferent weather, catching up with the various writing and reading tasks, together with producing materials for on-line and other publications. There was time for a visit to the swimming pool and to see the photographic exhibition about Vatersay by Paul Glazier on in the museum in Lionaclete.

Nicola agreed to look after our neighbour’s dog, cat and fish – for three days whilst they were away- this meant dog walks twice daily, a cat count (the cat lived outside) and a sprinkling of fish food in the fish tank. The black and white collie – called Geordie  was a delight to walk, but a dog is definitely more demanding as a pet than a couple of cats.

The area around our neighbours house is quite boggy, it has been used for peat cutting and provides rough grazing for sheep. This boggy land has many interesting plants – such as the carnivorous sundew and increasingly, as the seasons are shifting towards Autumn – some very interesting and quite rare fungi. Nicola spotted and picked some puff balls that we later had with our lunch – a delicious mushroom tasting of omelettes.

Since being on the Island, Nicola has persuaded me to attend a yoga class with her and I would like to say that I really enjoy this gentle and restorative yoga class despite being flexibly challenged and the only man who attends.

The rain, meanwhile does not seem to have abated for days, although the forecast suggests that there will be a sunny warm period at the weekend.

The Saturday, was better than forecast – it was an excellent day, warm and sunny with light winds. As the weather was so good, we decided to take a walk at Scolpaig (as I have previously mentioned, proposals are in place to convert this special place into a rocket launch centre, so it was with a hint of sadness that we walked around the loch onto the grassland fringing the rocky shoreline here.) We encountered a number of Geologists and Entomologists with nets – they were collecting various types of algae from the fresh water loch around the tower and studying the different bee species. We were shown a nest of the Great Yellow Bumble Bee. It was lovely and informed walk – you just never know who you will meet out here. A hot haze filled the air this day and going indoors didn’t seem a like a good option on what could be the last of this summer’s days.

We chose to spend the evening at Balashare beach, our favourite camping and swimming spot. We got back to the house and packed the car with a substantial quantity of the household bedding and cooking equipment. We took our newly acquired snorkeling gear, together with usual body boards and inevitable wet suits and set off to Balashare. On arrival at the beach, the weather made a dramatic change (dark clouds suddenly started to ominously roll in) but we were committed. We pitched the tent (our special anti-wind South-Uist model) and settled in against the prevailing wind (a lively westerly). When our camp was secure, we went through the ritual of changing into our wet suit gear, now with the addition of fluorescent blue (for me) and fluorescent pink (for Nicola) flippers. Much hilarity was had. The surf was quite lively, and it was quite an experience trying to walk into the sea with full snorkelling equipment fitted. What became increasingly obvious, was that this was not the right place for this activity – it was impossible to see much of anything in the sandy turbulence of the water. I ended up being up-ended, and quickly went back to using the more familiar body board. We had a most joyful frolic, jumping on and surfing the waves.

After an hour or so, wet and windblown, we headed back to camp and prepared our portable barbecue, surrounding it with wind-breaking stones. We had an excellent supper (in the rustic style). We spent a comfortable(ish) night in our tent despite the noisy lashing of the wind, threatening to blow us away. Early the next morning, we hastily packed up (before the inevitable rain) and returned to the house. We had our morning coffee and an extra nap. The wind in the tent had kept us awake. This camping trip seemed to mark the inescapable change in the seasons, it has been a good summer but the weather has not been consistent and the change has been quite sudden.

Some good news at last from ‘the team’! After a poor start to the season (as usual) they beat Spurs at White Hart Lane giving all Magpies a sigh of relief and Steve Bruce cause to relax for a moment… My apologies to my dear friend and Spurs supporter D.C. but it’s about time…

Now that the weather has an autumnal feel, we have been ‘mushroom hunting’. Being amateurs of course, there has been much recourse to on-line checking of which fungal varieties are suitable for eating. To date we have found Field Mushrooms, Wood Mushrooms, Puffballs, Scarlet Wax-caps and Crimson Wax-caps together with several smaller, non-descript varieties that we are still trying to identify.

A single fishing trip to a hill loch has again produced zero fish for myself, although Keith kindly let me have one of the small brown trout that gave themselves up to him. This little fish would feed the cats well!  

The seals have deserted the rocky outcrops in the bay overlooked by the house at Minish. This morning, five sheep unexpectedly wandered into the garden and enjoyed eating the long, fresh grass before running off to their more familiar pastures. They are such strange creatures. Apparently, a ram has been introduced to the field which explains their new-found friskiness.

Nicola met with the course team at the University of the Highlands and Islands to agree the forthcoming term teaching arrangements on the fine art course. We met with Andy McKinnon from Taigh Chearsabagh (TC)  to discuss our ‘work in progress’ exhibition in the downstairs gallery at the centre. We have agreed that this work would be shown next June/July/August 2020. Meanwhile Norman (the Manager from T.C.) handed me a substantial electrical transformer from the darkroom in the hope that I might be able to fix it and make the darkroom useable. We’ll see…

In true Hebridean style, the weather has had a momentary change, enabling another trip to the loch where the wind had dropped, and the sky becoming crimson as the evening progressed . I managed to connect with a good fish but sadly we parted company, the fish jumping and twisting, flashing gold in the evening sunshine never to be seen again. By this time, I was resigned to coming away fishless again… until spotting a rise as I was preparing to pack up. I cast to the rise and eventually landed my first sea trout this year. Nicola and I ate this beautiful tasty delight with relish and gratitude – almost biblical, a special moment was had. (“May the Lord open”)

Our next day was spent in preparation for the visit of two of my oldest friends, both of whom were on the Fine Art course at Brighton with me back in the temporal mists. They are due to arrive on their motorcycles on the evening boat from Uig and will be in need of refreshment. Alan is riding his Moto Guzzi V7 Sport (an original, elegant lime green one from the early seventies) whilst Mick (who is a motorcycle journalist) is on a 390 KTM, one of the better-looking single cylinder bikes from this Austrian manufacturer. I cannot help thinking that the majority of these bikes look as if they have already crashed, such are the vicissitudes of contemporary design fashion. Possibly this is just my prejudice, but modern motorcycles do seem to me to be aesthetically challenged.

Angelo and Alice have been content in their feline routines. Alice is a dear sweet soul and deeply affectionate, she loves to sit by the back door and survey the world, whilst keeping a wary eye on the sheep. Angelo continues to drop headless rats on our doorstep, tokens of esteem – for which we are most grateful.