Weather: Sunny with virtually no wind, excellent visibility.
The morning was silent with the sunlight sparkling on the loch in front of our cottage. We watched as swans flew across our windows startlingly white in the blue sky. It was reassuring to see the seals pirouetting on the rocks on the small island on the journey to Fran’s house for lunch. Fran is an excellent cook and her tomato and orange soup is a delight if not a legend in these parts. Her house is at the end of a single-track road on the east of the island. It is situated in a copse of trees, patrolled by guinea fowl and has the most amazing panoramic views across the bay towards the Isle of Harris. Much of the art hanging in Fran’s house comprises original paintings celebrating the landscapes of these islands bringing the outside in and projecting the inside out. Compared to our own house the temperature in Fran’s house is tropical and for the first time in a month I and Nicola were down to one layer of clothing which was a pleasant change.
Once again our rudimentary knowledge of birds has been exposed and we hope we haven’t set too many hares running.. when we mentioned sighting a tawny owl. Keith, who is very knowledgeable in such matters, mentioned to us that this will have the local ornithological experts in a frenzy attempting to make such a rare sighting on the island. In fact, it was a short – eared owl. Lovely though, just the same. We had a quiet evening. There is no television or radio in the house and the only sounds are those of the fire and of the house breathing and creaking, there being no wind outside to rustle the grass or whistle past the eaves as on many recent occasions.
It is one month since we first started to write this series of notes. We have been able to meet many new people and to give some of our friends and colleagues an insight into ourselves and our day to day progress on this project. We had always intended that it would change after about this time and sometimes events conspire to make this happen. We will continue to post information but it will now be on a weekly basis. We have had a tremendous amount of feedback and support and even sympathy. We thank you all for this, it is much appreciated.
Angie, our white cat has embraced his new singleton status seemingly without a ripple.
Weather: Strong winds with hail showers, brighter later and cold
A morning spent at the weekly yoga session (not me, obviously). I wandered down to the Calmac terminal to make some enquiries about travel to the islands. It is very complicated without a car, which is a pity, as a number of people who wish to visit us will need public transport. At the same time, the Ferry, splendidly named the ‘Clansman’ and registered in Glasgow was approaching the pier in Lochmaddy. There is something special about the arrival and departure of ferries to the islands. Often when enquiring about the whereabouts of a newspaper I am told that ‘the ferry didn’t bring them’ There is a mystique that surrounds them. Not everybody shares my enthusiasm for such things, but the arrival of the ferry always suggests exciting possibilities to me, and I am always curious to see who disembarks. Much of the day is spent doing administrative jobs, making phone calls etc. using the old house before we move all of our affairs to the Cottage at Minish. We had a quiet evening at the house.
Both cats went out during the night at various stages. Although Ange has become more adventurous and it staying out for longer periods, Gaby is always the first to go out and the keenest to explore.
A Terrible Day
Weather: Very light winds, hazy sunshine
At 6am Gaby, our cat was outside. We called him, but he did not come. Nicola was worried about him as he always came when whistled or called. We both tried calling for him. At around 7am we decided to go and see if he was OK. We put on some warm clothing and wellington boots and went looking for him, calling as we went. We looked in different directions for maybe half an hour when I came upon him on the road. He had been hit by a car and killed instantly. I picked him up and screamed long and loud I was so upset, it was unbearable and I knew that when Nicola saw him she would be devastated. Judging by his injuries, he must have died instantly. I picked up his body to bring it back to the house. It was still warm and I laid it in the garden whilst Nicola and I collected our thoughts and shared our grief. Gaby has been with Nicola since he was a kitten. He jumped into her bag on the first occasion that they met and they had developed a special bond. She was distraught at the sight of him.
We both understand that many cats are killed in this way but had thought that Gaby would not stray so far as there is lots of ground surrounding the house. He has lived in far more dangerous environments and was aware of the danger of cars. It seems like an irony that here of all places, where cars are rare, and that there is so much space for them to explore, that he was hit by one. He loved this place and never seemed to tire of exploring it. He was beautiful, eager, affectionate and loving cat – his loss is incalculable.
We buried his body in the garden, in view of the front window between two trees. When this tearful event was accomplished, and to break the sadness, we drove to the beach at Balashare, a very beautiful beach, where we chose a suitable stone for his grave. We returned to the cottage and put the marker with a lone daffodil bloom on Gaby’s grave. Ange, our white cat came to greet us. The rest of the day was spent in sadness.
Weather: Bright and breezy wind strengthening later, cold.
We spent the morning involved in various administrative tasks before driving to the Isle of Flodaigh in Benbecula. On the way we stopped to look at a newly-restored ‘blackhouse’ where there were some unusual looking sheep nearby. Like our other unusual sheep these too were rams.. The Isle of Flodaigh is a recommended wildlife walk where at lot of Atlantic grey seals can be spotted, at low tide, lying on the rocks close offshore and otters are said to be there – although we did not spot any. On the way down, Nicola remarked on the fact that the swans spent a lot of time with their heads underwater, perhaps it is just the freezing wind..
Walking along a wet path, through a tangle of seaweed and over the rocks, to the coast. On arriving at the bay a heron glided in to alight directly in front of us. Seeing us, it fly quickly away, a great sight. Climbing on the rocks Th icy wind whipped round us and when we tried to use the binoculars the turbulent air forced us to hunker down between the rocks for shelter.
We were excited to see two plump Atlantic Grey Seals displaying themselves on the small islands in the bay. Their whiskery cat-like faces were animated as they twisted to and fro to obtain the most comfortable situation in the sunshine.
I was keen to see a disused building (looked interesting) further around the bay, but by this time Nicola had been seized by ‘seal fever’ she became very animated and was already walking around the coast in the opposite direction where numerous Common Seals were expected to be colonizing one of the other islands in the bay. When we managed to get a glimpse of these seals on the different island, they turned out to be more of the same Atlantic Grey Seals that we had seen earlier.
The walk is a circular one so we were soon back at the car and on our way to what is becoming our regular weekly swim at the pool in Benbecula. A Tawny Owl was flying in circles close by the road, its flight affected by the wind. We stopped and for once, located the binoculars in time to see it clearly. These birds are a great sight and have beautiful, intense faces as they scan the land for food. The return drive along the main road to North Uist passes between numerous lochs and through exposed moorland. At this time of day this route back is a good opportunity to see the many deer that live there and makes the journey home extremely enjoyable. We saw perhaps a dozen or so stags emboldened by the dusk.
It is good to see the cats take so much interest in the great outdoors. Their confidence has increased and boss cat (Ange) is staying out longer and longer. When they came back into the house they attacked their food ravenously. God help any rats would get in the way of that.
Weather: Strong winds, bright and clear, slightly warmer.
The sight of a heron flying into the wind yesterday was an extraordinary one. No sooner had it cleared the loch-side rocks and risen above the shelter of the tree canopy it was being forced back. Bravely, it would regain its composure before attempting to make progress again. It was a marvelous sight. These birds are wonderful in flight and its difficulty in the strong winds gave us an extended opportunity to watch it. This morning after a trip in the car to visit to the itinerant fishmonger, on arriving back at the house, we watched as a pair of Barnacle Geese attempted something similar. The wind speed has reduced today but they still struggled to make headway. Glowing in the sunshine, they were a marvelous sight. They are quite large birds and although they are excellent fliers they too like ourselves, were finding the conditions extremely difficult.
The wind has kept us mostly indoors for the past couple of days. As it had dropped, we were keen to get out of the house (without the car) and so walked through the hills to Loch Portain, a peaty inland loch set amongst the hills and marshland of Minish. We noticed a disused cottage on the way back, sadly waterlogged and unloved. Our waste bins were strewn along the roadside and the lid from our mail box was half way across the field. We tidied these up ready to put them into proper use shortly.
The evening was spent at Taigh Chearsabhagh listening to presentations from 2 Hebridean Artists about recent residencies that they had undertaken. Ellis O’Conner had been to Svalbard in the Arctic region, Meg Rodger to Iceland. The presentations were divergent and interesting, and it was good to be part of the varied programme at the Arts Centre.
We left the Taigh Chearsabhagh prior to the commencement of the A.G.M. of the Uist Arts Association.
This morning Gaby, our black cat proudly presented us with another rat that he had whacked.
Weather: Bright with a fresh breeze, later becoming gale force with intermittent hail, sleet and rain showers.
Today the wind is blowing strongly from a south westerly direction. It is time to embrace it, and to consider its virtues, at least within the context of this residency.
Wind speeds are approaching 70 miles per hour and are likely to cause considerable damage. They are accompanied by the occasional hail storm, which stings the face if it is exposed to it. It is nominally around 6 degrees centigrade but feels more like minus 50.
It does however have some virtues:
If the washing can be persuaded to stay on the line, it dries very quickly.
What to wear is not much of a problem – how many clothes do you have? (Wear them all).
When it is not accompanied by more water, it dries out the rain that has recently fallen, this one is a a little behind schedule at present. It also melts the snow.
It shifts one’s perception of reality – standing still is like riding a motorcycle at the legal speed limit with only a woolly hat on and no leathers. Quite exciting really for an armchair racer.
It is great for generating electricity.
It saves on time spent on one’s hairstyle, i.e. you do not have a hairstyle, only a tightly-fitting hat.
Cleaning is irrelevant as the ashes from the stove are democratically blown over everything as soon as it is attempted. It saves on logs, as burning them makes no difference to the temperature.
It prevents one from giving anything up as it is so traumatising whilst maximum comfort is needed, which can be a relief.
It can affect the landscape in a dramatic way i.e. wind on water, trees moving, grasses and flowers dancing in the wind etc.
Looks great on video art works.
Henry David Thoreau said that “The virtues of a superior man are like the wind; the virtues of a common man are like the grass; the grass, when the wind passes over it, it bends”.
Well – that is a little unfair to the common man as flexibility is a great virtue. Edward Gibbon in ‘The history of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire has a much better attitude and has written;
“The winds and waves are always on the side of the ablest navigators”
Tir A’Mhurain is Gaelic for ‘The Land of Bent Grass’ and the title of Paul Strands book of Hebridean photographs.
It is also important to consider some problems:
Casting a fly is very difficult, and can be dangerous in a strong wind.
The ferries do not run.
The lights go out.
The internet goes off
The phones do not work.
Going outside is challenging .
It doesn’t last forever.. and I did see a rainbow.
Weather : Strong icy winds from the North, overcast with bright intervals.
Every so often I have to remind myself that above all, this is a long-term photography residency and project. Our journey thus far has been to this end, even though much of our time is taken up with settling in, domestic necessities and getting a sense of this place. As methodologies go it does seem sound, but one cannot help feel impatient sometimes and time moves slowly.
The previous night was remarkable in its clarity with the kind of breath-taking stellar display seldom seen in mainland U.K. Our particular ‘enterprise’ this morning was to continue our Hunter Gathering activities and visit MacLeans Heridean bakery in Benbecula where we purchased, amongst other things, a couple of scotch pies for a roadside picnic lunch. I was a little wary of these pies (Nicola loves them) as my memories of them (mostly accumulated during motorcycling trips to the Highlands) were mixed, but on this occasion these particular delicacies were consumed, suitably augmented with Dijon mustard, by the side of a loch where we were able to spot a curlew in the margins and two hen harriers whilst appreciating the solid comfort of a Scottish classic. Context is everything.
After we had filled the car with fuel I couldn’t help but notice that the attendant had a Bournemouth AFC shirt on. He would have been pleased because on the day that Newcastle beat Everton 3-2; Bournemouth beat Huddersfield. After our shopping trip, we drove to the Airport to enquire about flights to and from the Western Isles. The Airport is a small one situated in the north of the island located next to a military base. Loganair fly to Glasgow and Inverness from here. The windswept runway is next to the main road and is located next to a spectacular bay where the ‘white horses’ on the sea were clearly visible. Today the water on the lochs looked like mercury in the sunshine, that appeared fleetingly. Flying today in this liquid landscape would have been lively, and I had no cause to envy any of the small group of passengers waiting in the departure lounge.
Returning to the house we noticed a buzzard flying quite low by the roadside, possibly with evil designs on the many ducks swimming nearby.
We cleaned and prepared the downstairs spare room and made it suitable for use as a temporary studio. It is very cold however and I would describe the heating in the house as rudimentary. Best to keep moving.
The cats were a little frantic by the time that we had returned to the house as we had run out of their regular bait. They had turned their nose’s up at the finest sardines in olive oil and sullenly contemplated a beaten (locally obtained, free range) egg. When the Whiskas was unpacked their whiskery joy was unbounded and they became very excited. Suitably fortified by the return of the status quo, at the first opportunity they both rushed into the garden to confront the local rodents.
Weather: Gale force winds from the North, very cold with heavy driving sleet then snow; later winds dropping and veering west, less cold.
Sunday morning we awoke to a wild blizzard. We had planned to go on a substantial walk today but clearly this was out of the question. It was freezing. We were frantically piling the peat (thank you Keith Dawson) on the stove to warm the house up but the wind was so strong it still found its way inside the cottage through the tiniest cracks. Looking outside at the rear, the landscape reminds me of distant images of the Falkland Islands, Looking out of the front of the house a snow covered mountain dominates the vista, like mount Fuji (film..) All that is missing are the penguins.
On such a day in Newcastle it would be possible to spend the day exploring indoor options such as the cinema or even (horror) the Metro Centre. No such choice exists here. At one stage, we were uncertain that we would be able to leave the house at all. We spent some time together writing and drawing before deciding to risk the trip in the car to the swimming pool.
The road south to Benbecula was drivable but very snowy with deep channels necessitating considerable caution. The landscape had transformed into a lunar snow-scape, unique and very beautiful. It was well worth the effort. As previously, our session at the pool provided a wonderful contrast to the cabin fever we were beginning to experience back in the cottage.
On our way back once again the weather had changed. The wind had dropped and moved to the west and the snow was rapidly disappearing with the sun making an occasional appearance. Another day in a day.
Sightings along the way: A hen harrier resting on the electricity pylons; a transit van that had slid off the road (no casualties) and was being expertly towed out of the ditch; an unusual sheep; a farmer feeding his flock of brightly adorned sheep.
Our cats hate the rain and snow, also they are not partial to the wind. Not fussy really.
Weather: Heavy rain, cold becoming dry later and windy.
Inevitably the storm calmed down but the day started wet and grey. There was a message from Sheenagh that the weekly yoga class was due to start this morning at 10 30. This took us somewhat by surprise but Nicola had been meaning to go and so we drove down to the Carinish Hall. Having dropped her off I went back to the House at Lochmaddy to make some calls and to pick up the table that we were using to put the computer on and one or two other items. The yoga class was a great success Nicola felt appropriately relaxed due to the restorative stretches. She also most importantly, met lots of new interesting people. We then went back to the cottage at Minish to set up our office and computer workstation.
As we had just closed the second of the 2 gates that contain the property, we heard an alarm sounding in the kitchen. This turned out to be some smoke from the stove finding its way into the kitchen and activating the alarm. Apart from deeply alarming the cats whilst in their daily relaxation sessions, we were relieved to find that there was no real problem. Having set up the office and made the house a little more comfortable, we put on our wellington boots and took a soggy stroll around the perimeter of the land surrounding the house. It was very windy and bitterly cold.
We were soon back indoors settling in for a relaxed weekend ‘à la maison’.
There is an old shed on the foreshore of the loch that houses disused fishing equipment, assorted obsolete farm machinery and building waste. This is Angie’s favourite hang out, as rats live here. He is a large rather beautiful cat and is a great sight with his white fur blowing in the wind as he strides out to give those rodents a hard time.. not that he actually catches any.
Weather: Strong winds and driving rain, later becoming sunny with light winds.
Truly this is an Island of contrasts. The changes in the weather are so sudden. Just when you think that to venture outside would be foolish, the sun appears and the wind changes direction. Today we started slowly, the wind was noisy and from the North. It was cold and we had trouble getting out of bed. Deciding to seize the day (old Sunderland motto) and catch up on some menial chores, we washed some clothes. By the time these were ready, it had stopped raining although the wind was blowing hard. Nicola attempted to hang out the washing in the garden using the special reinforced Uist proof pegs. She fought the wind and the wind won. The clothing was flapping so wildly it was threatening to damage itself or Nicola and had it escaped the line, would have been well on its way to St. Kilda by lunchtime. As it was we gave up for then. (a day later the washing is still in a damp heap..)
Meanwhile the ongoing struggle with the heating system in the cottage continues and we are frantically feeding it wood, coke, coal and peat to make the living room, at least bearable.
We have had some further suggestions as to what needs to be done so are working through them one by one. Burning ten pound notes doesn’t seem to work but leggings worn under trousers are good.. We decided to venture forth eventually having had a fortifying lunch. This decision was happily co-incidental with the sun making an appearance, so we went to Langass (English spelling) Woods to see the famous sculpture of Hercules the Bear. This bear is much esteemed in these parts having escaped when on the island filming a commercial (what will they think of next?). Hercules was buried here next to a large wooden sculpture celebrating his likeness. For the full story see Hercules –The Bear We had a pleasant and interesting walk around the mostly Sitka Spruce plantation, which reminded me of The Forest Kielder Northumberland .
By this time, fluffy cumulus clouds had appeared and we took the opportunity to take some photographs of the peat cuttings and the public sculpture (by Liz Crichton) that we had seen yesterday. Before driving down to Benbecula for a swim in the public pool we stopped off to view another public sculpture entitled Reflections by Colin McKenzie. We found this artwork complete with a sign informing us that it was indeed a ‘Sculpture’ in case of any doubts as to its provenance.
As previously, our swim and sauna were excellent. Returning to the cottage in the semi darkness we encountered numerous deer on the road back to the House. They raise their heads at our approach cautiously sniffing the air. Their colouring is close to that of the dry heather that surrounds them and it is difficult to make them out from a distance. If the car slows or attempts to stop, they disappear into the background like ghosts. As it became darker a small herd of deer crossed the road directly in front of us. They are other-worldly and a majestic sight, a privilege to behold. Their whereabouts during the daytime is a mystery.
Ange and Gabe love this place, and now that the wind has dropped are deliriously happy in the garden and on the surrounding land. Newly chemically protected from fleas and ticks they are free to roam as far as they wish. When they want to come in Angie sits at the window certain in the knowledge that we will understand their every need. Such a life…
Weather: Strong winds, overcast and cold with intermittent showers.
The wind is never far away from one’s thoughts in the Outer Hebrides. Often, as the saying goes – one only notices it when it is not there. Last night, the stillness hung like a curtain, a reprieve before the next movement. This morning it was 50 miles an hour, swinging around and is blowing hard from the North East. The difference in the days are astonishing, and not altogether welcomed especially for one who feels the cold in October and never really warms up until the following May (Nicola is much the same) It is very difficult to be motivated to venture outside.
Keith Dawson arrived mid-morning in his Land Rover to deliver the peat for our stove. He carefully explained the differences between the different kind of bags (age and stage of drying) and how we should best proceed. At the time of writing, I am sitting close to the fire which is happily burning this peat. The peat flares willingly and produces good heat, but sadly the stove is not as efficient as it might be. It does smell nice however. When travelling across the island it is interesting to see the many peat cuttings and the landscape that they produce. Previously my main encounter with peat was in deciding how much I wanted it to feature in my Whisky (east or west coast).
When we did eventually venture forth it was on an essential mission to the Veterinary clinic on Benbecula, about a 20 mile drive away. We needed to collect some anti-tick and flea medicine for the boys (they do sleep on the bed..) It was a fascinating visit and I was much distracted by the colourful tins of paint for marking sheep (orange especially good) chemicals for mitigating bovine, canine or feline smells, and the large pots of intriguing udder cream. We also picked up some worming tablets which will, no doubt come in useful. The receptionist at the Vet’s was extremely pleasant and helpful.
On the way back to the house via the inevitable Co-op shop, we detoured to view a piece of public sculpture located in the hills in the centre of the island. It was gusty and squally but we enjoyed it and appreciated it within its unique situation. It had been made by one of the students, Liz Crichton from the Fine Art course here on the Island. As ever, on arrival back at the cottage, there were things to unload that we had picked up from the other house, and the fire to build up. The smell of curry lends the house a touch of the exotic and provides a source of inner heat with which to counteract the North wind outside.
The wind is too strong for the cats to venture outside. Gabe and is the bravest, and gave it a try, but could only stay out a very short time before scratching on the front window to come in. Nicola had to go out and rescue him. Two heroes.
Weather: Light winds and sunny periods becoming still, relatively warm, clear skies.
This morning we awoke to a different kind of reality. Back in Newcastle the view from the bedroom window is mostly of other people’s houses and of the cars parked in the street, or of neighbours and other people going about their business. Here, there a sea loch fills the view from both bedroom windows at the rear of the house and the light sparkles on the surface of the water with the gulls crying whilst soaring overhead. The wind has died down and the air is still. It almost feels warm.. It was a wonderful moment, and made perfect by the arrival of a cup of Yorkshire’s finest brew (that is non-alcoholic). I counted 8 seals basking on the rocks in the loch (why they are always described as ‘basking’ I am unsure, they sit uneasily and carelessly on the rocks as if they cannot be bothered to arrange themselves more decorously)
I navigated the rutted driveway to the house in the van and dropped Nicola off at the Arts Centre, where she had a meeting relating to her forthcoming teaching. This accomplished I went to the house in Lochmaddy to make some phone calls. Before returning to the Art Centre I collected some fuel for the wood burning stove in the new house. There are few trees left on the Outer Hebrides so most of the fuel available in the local shop is coal or smokeless coke. These are relatively expensive and burn quickly. Our friend Keith Dawson understands this perfectly and has offered to give us some of his own peat supply which he is delivering tomorrow. This will make a real difference and we are delighted with his kindness.
After our lunch we visited Hosta beach. This is a small beach enclosed by sand dunes. The light was beautiful and caught the jade coloured sea and surf, which is prominent and celebrated here. Later we visited a Bronze Age chambered cairn (sadly the entrance had collapsed so entry was impossible) and walked up to a small stone circle on the hillside overlooking Loch Langais. There are amazing views in all directions from here. Heather covers much of the foreground and the lochs are like holes in a sponge, disappearing into the distance and glittering like mirrors in the still air and the evening sunshine. By the time we were back at the cottage and in the kitchen preparing dinner, the sky and loch surface were shot through with subtle pinks and purples as the dark encroached and the endless stars became visible.
Ange and Gabe have truly arrived! I have never seen them so excited and animated. Having been moved around numerous, mostly urban locations, the land around this cottage is truly full of exciting sounds and smells. No sooner does the security blanket of the house envelop them they want to be off exploring again. Gabe cornered a field mouse yesterday but despite his murderous intent it managed to slip awaythis time, into the undergrowth to live another day.