In This Day and Age

In this Day and Age is a photographic project about people who have moved to the Western Isles from other places, both from within and from outside of the U.K. This work was conceived as, and will later become a book publication. An island is a singular place, with clearly defined boundaries. It is both a microcosm of the World and a philosophical idea. It is a place that invites departure and return and it is a place that continually inspires re-definition.

We are interested in the interconnections between people and places, and how this is changing and offering new perspectives. We are here to listen, to and to incorporate the reflections and experiences of the people in this place, whatever they may be. Important questions for us are, Why have people made the islands their home; What are the relationships forged between people and places; Who belongs where?

By working and photographing new settlers rather than indigenous people, we are exploring some of the common assumptions around identity, belonging, culture and citizenship, along with investigating the development of new identities as a result of global diaspora.

We are focussing on present-day elements and characteristics that are developing in communities due to increased social mobility, and are interested in how (and if) this has liberated and benefitted this place. From our base in North Uist, we are also making images of the surrounding places and landscapes. These are contextual, and are intended to create a narrative which we hope has the potential to tell numerous stories.

Through our blog, social media presence and community involvement we are interested in creating a more participatory and socially engaged practice.

Kippin and Neate   2020

The exhibition will be a virtual one initially until the gallery, at Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum & Arts Centre, in North Uist, can re-open to the public once again.

Imagining an Island

To coincide with our ‘work in progress’ exhibition at Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum and Art Gallery there will be a Symposium ‘Imagining an Island’, together with an opportunity for the wider public to become involved, through an open photographic exhibition.

For full details on the requirements for submissions please visit:
www.rosalindblake.com
or contact Rosie Blake: imagininganisland@gmail.com
Details of the wider project can be found at:
www.inthisdayandage.org

A Pie for Breakfast

Weather: Cold, misty and windy with some heavy rain.

After a beautiful April, the weather has deteriorated somewhat. There have been spells of hot sunshine in many parts of the UK that we can only dream of but the weather here has made it difficult to get out much. This has necessitated much inward activity, appropriate during lockdown, which persists at maximum strength on the islands. We have spent much of our time making a short video presentation for the North- East Photo Network (NEPN) searching through such video footage that we have made and constructing some kind of narrative about our project from it. There have also been lots of Zoom activities, one with Photography students from the Royal College of Art (RCA). another with the NEPN and the University of Sunderland, others have been with the students at the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI).

There have also been those with family and friends, and it is difficult not to feel the dreaded Zoom fatigue as the situation continues unchanged. We also attended the first virtual gallery opening at Taigh Chearsabhagh where lots of folk sat in splendid isolation sipping their glasses of wine to excellent exhibitions never to be seen in the flesh (so to speak) by the human eye. The life drawing has continued although some models are viewed by such wide-angle lenses that their limbs appear to be suffering from some terrible wasting disease. Clearly the difference between the single point wide angle perspective of a basic lens and the apprehension of the human eye(s) and the brain are in need of some examination and thought with regard to online classes. We are told that in the future this brave new world will dominate our learning and cultural experiences so there is nothing there to worry about.

We have managed to get out a little, once to Balashare beach, a beautiful, windswept, west facing beach with white sand and turquoise sea. The winter storms have damaged much of the hard standing and the gravel road to the beach, and a lone operative was patiently piling stones in the holes that had been subsequently created. We were also able to retrieve out Trail camera which had been fixed onto a post close to a watering hole for deer. We have had mixed fortunes with this device although there have been a couple of good images there have also been lots of uneventful images and moving images. Due to the wind we have not yet repositioned it but intend to persevere with it once the weather changes.

The local Co-op seems to be managing lockdown distancing rules better as people get used to the space restrictions. There is, of course, the usual dysfunctional ballet when shoppers pirouette around one another, occasionally holding their breath and rushing past each other when in a rush, or they have become pinioned into a corner when they hesitate and realise that they need to go back because they have forgotten something, or approaching a check out with a single item behind another shopper with a trolley full of shopping. Such anxiety as this is an everyday occurrence as we approach the Perspex shielded tills slotting our plastic money through the gaps in biological shielding. Any serious shortages appear to have rescinded, and we now have plenty of flour and toilet paper (so are able to make papier mache items to keep ourselves amused).

We, like many others, have been busy baking and have been making Sourdough focaccia, lemon polenta cake, and brownies. These have been sent out as food parcels to places as far away as Glasgow and London, thus ensuring that the pleasurable aspects of life in lockdown experiences can be shared. We have also been nettle picking and the peat-land nettle pesto experience is not to be underestimated. The other development regarding food consumption is that we have taken to the occasional indulgence of Mrs Tilley’s sea salt fudge which is spectacular, recommended, and not for the faint hearted, oh – and we have learned that there is such a thing as a breakfast pie..

We are now 65 days into lockdown, COVID-19 has well and truly set in, of which we are constantly reminded, on every news and media channel. An apocalyptic unfolding of events envelopes the weeks, which seem to drift into each other. The recent weather on the Island, of persistent and engulfing mists, supported by a humid thick air makes it feel like we have been held hostage inside a cloud. The days are not all like this but the the cloud covering has created an hypnotic atmosphere, we imagine that this must be what it feels like to be stranded on an Island…

We have had several sightings of Herons over the sea loch – they are nesting in a near by forest plantation. A beautiful short eared owl has also taken up residence around the croft, and can be seen, particularly at crepuscular times, gliding and swooping across the boggy moorland. The lambs are bigger and fatter and are no longer threatened by the sea eagles.

The glorious flowers of the machair have started to appear: bog cotton, sea thrift daisies and many more that we are yet to learn the names of.

Why the Machair is special

We try to maintain some semblance of a routine, regular yoga, walks and a strict control on our alcohol consumption, which could easily have become excessive, and for some (looking at the emerging statistics) has. We, like everyone else, look forward to being able to meet and greet people/friends, without being chaperoned by Zoom, Skype (or any of the other platforms), that seem to have miraculously appeared, in order to minister to our needs during lockdown.

Our cats, Alice and Ange, continue to exist, confident that this is their undeniable right and that it is our duty to feed them. They are always alert and aware of each other – prepared and ready to defend their absurd territories – usually their own special basket or cat litter domains.

SLEEPWALKING

Weather: Cool at times with the winds slowly dropping and shifting from the North around to the more usual South Westerly direction. Sunny and bright. Small rain showers, mainly in the night.

The Spring tides have been exceptionally high as is usual, for time of year. The full (pink) moon on the 7th of April, was largely obscured by cloud. What could be seen did not appear pink sadly. There have however been some glorious sunrises – the colours of a peach, which have reflected gold into the surrounding lochs and there have been some beautiful sunny days with a fresh cool breeze. We have managed to have a couple of picnics in the garden, and even put the tent up for a couple of days (also in the garden) – although this was a little optimistic.

This is day 44 of Lockdown, May 5th 2020, it feels as if we are sleepwalking. To date there are no cases of COVID-19 on the island, so just in case.. all of the necessary precautions are being taken, and all of the distancing recommendations are being followed.

The Co-op shop, once a pleasant and social event, has now become a little stressful. The tills are surrounded with glass barriers, like they have in banks, and the floors are marked with angry fluoride tape pointing one-way directions, for customers to shuffle through, 2 metres behind someone else. Toilet rolls are scarce and flour and liquid antiseptic soap is still absent from the shelves. Other shops have workers wearing what look like clear welding masks, these mist up with their breath, and are open at the bottom. It is safe to say it has become unpleasant to go shopping, and a process of grabbing the required items hastily has become our norm, we no longer stop to chat. Nevertheless, under the circumstances the local shops are all doing sterling work, and we applaud them.

We have heard that the Post Office is going into overdrive, busier even, than at Christmas. Certainly, we have both contributed to this, sending parcels to our lockdown kin, parcels that would not have been sent, except for the unusual circumstances.

The local lochs are also amazingly untroubled by anglers, the fish at least will be celebrating our COVID-19 plague, and the traffic, even in this remote part of the world, has been reduced. There have been no tourists and no caravans or motorhomes.

April 13th, we were exercising by a nearby loch. The air was cold and sharp but the day was sunny and still. We, stood, watching some seals lolling about on the rocks – a stunning sight, and to have it at the bottom of the garden (better and more magical, even, than fairies).

We feel blessed to be here and fortunate that we chose to be here, at this time in our lives and ‘In This Day and Age’.

Our crofting neighbours Andy and Effie, have put four of their ewe’s together with their eight, now sturdy lambs, into the fields around Minish house. Their bleating and dancing presence is a reminder, should we need one, that spring is a special and optimistic time of year. Two of the ewes had twins, one had triplets and one had single lamb. Apparently, many of the sheep across the islands have had twins this year – this is a great fortune for the Crofters, doubling and in some cases further extending their existing flock.

Luckily for us and the people who live here, there has been more local fish produce available to buy, because of lockdown. We celebrated this and had a wonderful seafood weekend with langoustines, crab and lobster (a delicious cholesterol fest) with a loaf of Raphael’s wonderful sourdough bread. He and Rosie also gave us some starter dough to make our own bread. We, like the rest of the Nation, are all baking away! 

The internet has been a lifeline for us and for everyone else, it has come into its own. We have conducted online tutorials, conference calls. Schools are providing Zoom classes – a new era has undoubtedly begun.

We have had some excellent family, social-media events courtesy of Skype, Zoom and Facetime, including inter-generational Easter egg painting, life drawing and some essential social catch ups.

Online classes have enabled situations such as:  The Thursday life drawing class, that we have been doing, which is hosted in Glasgow with the model in Brussels and the contributing artists from throughout the U.K. and one from Australia. It is, of course different to drawing from life in a room, as it uses the eye of the camera to define the model rather than the eye of the artist – this could be a useful tool and way of working, in the future, for people living in remote places. There is, even, the talk of smartphone monitoring apps to test for the ‘virus’ the new world will be accountable, trackable and privacy will be carefully controlled.

However, lockdown and seeing only each other for days and days on end can be challenging, even in paradise. At this point we both consider and talk about some of the difficulties that some people and families are going through this time. Families without gardens, with dependency issues, with financial concerns and there must be people (even) without the internet.  We are delighted to have been asked to donate one of our works to Trace, an online art fair offering affordable work by international photographers in aid of the two charities charities Crisis and Refuge.

Our daily online Yoga sessions have taken on a new importance, enveloping the house in incense and transporting us to a retreat in India as time appears to have slowed to accommodate this practice.  Alice, cat enjoys these languid, soothing sessions and participates freely, but not in any helpful way.

Trail camera

There have been lots of movement from the abundant bird life in the area. We have seen many owls, thrushes, geese, swans, many varieties of duck and gull, cormorants, shag, redwings, skylarks, oyster catchers, curlews, sandpipers, herons and redshanks and most recently, a cuckoo ‘the sound of summer’. There is much nesting and mating activity. The grey seals are plentiful and sunbathe on the nearby islands, silver in the sunshine and occasionally making strange impatient sounding barking sounds. On a recent walk, close to Lochmaddy a pair of Golden Eagles passed close by over our heads. It was the closest sighting yet. For once the binoculars were at hand, and we were amazed at these incredible birds as they flew over the high ground before spiralling high into the distant blue sky. It was a breath-taking experience. We frequently see both Golden Eagles and Sea Eagles close to the house but it is very unusual to see these amazing, almost prehistoric, creatures at such close quarters.

Trail camera

Whilst walking on the moorland nearby we watched as the herons make their noisy way to their nesting sites in the nearby woods. There is a beautiful site on top of a rocky outcrop to stop and have lunch by the burn. we rested here, whilst fixing a wildlife ‘trail’ camera to a nearby bridge. When previously using this camera closer to home we made some relatively unimpressive images of sheep but we are hoping for something more exciting at this new site.

Boris Johnson has returned to work. What it is to have a hero at our time of need.

Ange (AKA the white lion) has been enjoying the warm, light nights and rewards us with an array of dead, headless rodents. The ticks are back and we now need to check his dense white fur for the nasty black ‘crawlies’. Alice cat is sweet and loving, she chases flies, whilst subtly conducting psychological turf wars with Ange.

We watched ‘Contagion’ on Netflix, it is difficult to say why, but at least we now know that it was Gwyneth Paltrow that started it…

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!