The Swim

Weather: Light winds and overcast, becoming misty and a little cooler than yesterday.

We have taken to buying eggs from a roadside stop-off near Sollas. The chickens are at the front of the house. The eggs that they produce are all different shapes and colours but all have a wonderful flavour, elevating this basic food to something special.

Baleshare beach had been recommended to us as a place with especially fine and hard sand. We wanted to get an idea of it as it is intended that Nicola will be working here with the Fine Art (Sculpture) students from the University of the Highlands and Islands Few students can have such unique resources at their disposal. The cries of the Oyster Catchers conjure an elemental quality to this environment and the stripped down remains of what is probably a Second World War landing craft adds mystery to this landscape.

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We later travelled up the coast to CLaddadh Kirkibost Centre. Where there is a pleasant café at the rear. We chose the ubiquitous soup and an excellent sandwich (hot smoked salmon and salad). Suitably (slightly over) fortified we travelled down to the South of Benbecula to fill the car with petrol, do some shopping and then proceeded to the Sports Centre at Lionacleit, which is situated within the school.

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I swim regularly at Jesmond pool in Newcastle and although Nicola is keen for us to swim in the sea I was much relieved to find this warmer less challenging alternative. We had a great swim. It was a special ending to the day. The only complication was finding the exit because the signage is (understandably) in Gaelic..

We had a remarkably peaceful night as the cats have settled into a routine for coming and going that enables us to have a decent night’s sleep.

The Bridge

Weather: Light winds and Sunshine, mild becoming still and clear

We have been driving to many places on the Islands but today was so still and warm, it seemed like a pity to use the car. There is a circular walk close to the house that leads to a pedestrian suspension bridge past a small harbour and the old seaweed factory and sheriff’s house. It was a pleasant enough walk, enhanced by a heron flying overhead, although it was cut short by the closure of the bridge. This is evidently suffering from neglect and in need of repair. As a short term-solution (?) the entrance has been boarded up. The bridge itself is quite elegant in design and it was a disappointment not to cross it onto one of the many islands in the sea loch. Our walk cut short, we retraced our steps to the Arts Centre where, once again, we had an excellent lunch before travelling the short distance up the coast to our soon-to-be accommodation at Minish.

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This house is a traditional croft is beautifully situated next to the sea loch and although basically sound, needs some tidying. It is however, quite charming and far closer to the kind of property that we had envisaged staying in. We were pleased to look around and to meet Andy our new neighbour from a short way along the road who owns, and farms much of the land hereabouts. Our intention is to start moving our stuff next week.

There has been some problem with the cats involving ticks. These are very unpleasant and although Nicola has become an expert in dispatching them, they are distressing for poor Gaby who returned last night with not only a tick but a cut tail. (He was obviously running away..)

 

 

 

On the Beaches

Weather: Light winds and Sunshine, mild but becoming misty later.

As the weather this morning was so beautiful, Nicola and I had hoped to get an early start to visit the island of Berneray. A large flock of Barnacle geese had assembled on the Machair next to the West Beach and we were keen to see them. Around 8 30 am there was a knock on the front door. I was in bed, drinking coffee and running through my email. The woman from B.T. had come to finally fix the internet connection. The work required to fix the internet was apparently quite complex and the technician had to renew the wire from the telegraph pole to the house, and then had to install a new socket in the living room. Whilst all this work was happening, she suggestion that we take time out. We decided to walk to the Arts Centre, Taigh Chearsabhagh and then spent an hour or so drinking coffee and talking. On our return, the BT technician was thoughtfully waiting for us in her van, guarding our house, despite the fact there is virtually no crime on the Island. How lovely is that?

Back on schedule and on route to see the geese, Nicola spotted what she thought was an eagle. She said “look Johnny, that bird has a massive wingspan” I swerved, then immediately stopped by the side of the road. What an amazing sight! We had paused by Seal Cove (how do the seals know that that it’s called this?) and looked at the seals at the same time as this huge bird drifted out of our view. By the time we arrived on the West Beach, the geese were resting on the Machair, although by this time the light, had deteriorated and it was becoming misty.

Geese

We wondered where the geese might fly to, and drove down the coast to our next destination. The beaches here are exceptional and unique, comprising layer upon layer of sand dunes with sparkling white sand and aquamarine water. We walked on Clachan beach amongst the oyster catchers and gulls with the shells of the cockles and razor fish crunching underfoot. We looked out for the geese but they must have flown elsewhere. They depart this Island any time from now for cooler places. (are they mad?)

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The weather was such, that our cats were keen to indulge in their crepuscular activities. This ensured that Nicola and I had a restless night with the cats engaging in mind games with all the local cats, particularly with Mc. Top Cat – a ginger tom cat, who we had to throw a glass of cold over – to quench his authoritarian enthusiasm.

 

Big Nature

Weather: Strong winds and driving rain, later; breezy and sunny

Monday, the weather kept us indoors for much of the day, then suddenly shortly before 4 o’clock the wind dropped and the sun made an appearance. The day had changed completely. We were much relieved and used this as a window of opportunity to visit the Co-op for the one or two items – most importantly the (Sunday) newspapers – even if it was a day late. The Co-op, we discovered is also an important community meeting place. After the Co-op we travelled on to revisit the RSPB reserve at Balranald

On arrival, I picked up the leaflet from the visitor’s centre and we set off on the recommended trail that noted the best places from which to see raptors, otters, seals and numerous other exotic creatures. We saw none of these. Never-the-less it was a beautiful sensory experience with stunning views accompanied by intense smells, of seaweed and silage (this latter smell was fruity and pungent and not a little challenging)

In our excitement to get started on this walk we had overlooked to bring a torch, anything to drink or a mobile phone. There is a torch in the van but sadly it was in the van.

The pathway is well marked but it is stony, and the footing can be difficult. As the light decreased I became concerned that we might not be able to find our way back to the car.

“No problem” said Nicola, “chill…”

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I looked at my watch which read 6.30pm. I continued to ruminate internally but our eyes became used to the half-light and fortunately the weather remained fair and we had no difficulties getting back to the car.

Nicola drove us back along the narrow lanes leading to the reserve and our journey home was in the dark although we did see some red deer disappear from the road to merge into the night. By the time we arrived back at the house the winds had become wild once again.

Both cats have become very excited by the changeable strength of the winds.They spent much of the evening jumping in and out of the window in a state of high arousal.

 

Lunch

Weather: Breezy and bright with sunny periods, later rain

Keith kindly invited us for Sunday lunch. The drive his house is about 10 miles and as there is only the single main road around the island, we were confident of our timely arrival. However, on the route, we were confronted by a flock of sheep blocking the road. Being unused to such colourful diversions, we became distracted and managed to drive past his house and then had to phone for directions. Keith then met us at the gate.

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Keith lives in a house that he designed together with a local architect. His house has beautiful views through a panoramic window of the bay near to the village of Sollas. He lives alone with his two elderly dogs. Fran, whom we had met earlier in the week, at the Arts Centre, was also invited for lunch. The lunch was excellent, particularly Keith’s homemade ‘mackerel pate’. We talked about many things, most notably, the presence of rats on the islands. Keith described how on one memorable occasion, whilst he was looking out of his window, a large rat approached the bird table and climbed up on it to get to the bird food. Suddenly a buzzard swooped down at lightning speed and snatched it away. Such a great story. There are tales of cats being taken by eagles. One of our cats is massive, and I cannot imagine the size of bird that would be required to lift him off the ground, at least unaided. Fran described having lived in an extremely remote location for 40 years on the eastern side of the island with spectacular views across the Sound of Harris. She invited us to visit soon, which we look forward to.

Now that the ferocity of the wind has dropped the cats are going out again. There is still much mutual staring in and out of the windows though.

 

Fish and Chips

Weather: Strong winds and intermittent rain

Today we were paid a visit by Keith and Shenagh McKintyre, our old friends from Newcastle and now living mostly on Bernerey. We were able to catch up and make some plans for later on. Much of the day was taken up with studying maps and outstanding academic paperwork together with preparation for Nicola’s teaching sessions at the University of the Highlands and Islands. Today was also the day that my new association with the LA NOBLE Gallery was announced to the World, which is terrific. In the evening, it being a Friday night we visited the Lochmaddy Hotel where after much hesitation we both had Haddock and chips with (non mushy) peas. After a glass of the house wine, it became obvious that the excellent selection of whiskies was maybe there for a reason and the ‘wee dram’ that we imbibed was the local one which is Talisker from Skye. This is an excellent, but intoxicating beverage.

Newcastle 2   Huddersfield 0

Weather: Strong winds and overcast, quite mild becoming very wet indeed.

Much of today was taken up with waiting for our internet connection to be fixed. Our technician was a little wary of scaling the telegraph pole as it was very windy. I completely understood this but couldn’t help thinking that my Dad would be contemptuous of such reticence.. I remember him on our roof at 80. Our man did manage to effect a temporary repair however (having ascended the telegraph pole!) and this meant that we were able to venture out to the R.S.P.B. reserve at Balranald on the west side of the island.

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Suitably equipped with binoculars we walked across the beach but made no remarkable avian sightings. The one thing we did however notice, was a very large black cloud approaching from the west towards us at speed. Minutes later we were soaked and running for the car. We drove home with the rain swilling across our windscreen making it difficult to see anything. The day had completely changed, and by the time we were back at the house it was wine o’clock- and time to get on with the ever increasingly demands of the social media dialogue. Did I say dialogue ? Later in the evening the wind finally dropped off and in the relative calm the birds were singing heartily and our cats felt up to patrolling outside. I nearly forgot to mention that Newcastle beat Huddersfield  2 – 0 and looked pretty good.

The Walk

Weather: Strong winds and intermittent rain.

This morning I spent some time looking at the Ordnance Survey map looking for a suitable beach to take a walk on. Nicola meanwhile was discussing a teaching module in sculpture with Rosie Blake that she is planning and will deliver on the Fine Art programme for the University of the Highlands and Islands. Later in the afternoon we travelled to the beach near Sollas, in the North of the Island.

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We walked across the dunes and as we reached the highest point, in front of us was the most amazing beach, breathtakingly beautiful with wonderful white sand and clear water, jade coloured sea and sky rolling and breaking endlessly. Behind the dunes it is sheltered, and given the relatively mild temperatures, it would be possible to picnic (how I love picnics) at the foot of the dunes. Such a place of extremes.

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We walked back along this wind-whipped beach and crossed the sand dunes where the bones of sheep that had died show through the white sand together with the discarded skeletons of redundant farm machinery, exposed by the constant scouring of the wind.

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On the journey back to the house, the car crested a rise and by the side of the road there were two deer, each with a full set of antlers. Nicola stopped the car as gingerly as possible. It was as if they had stepped off a shortbread tin just to stare at us.  Nicola said “quick, take a photo” –  I immediately picked up my camera, which acted as a signal for them to run off into the gloaming. Such a memorable experience – far beyond anything that any photograph could convey.

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The cats sadly felt unable to venture outside today as the wind was too strong – they are poor little townies and will no doubt get used to it.

Day 3

Weather: Strong winds and intermittent rain

This involved visiting the Taigh Chearsabhagh Museum and Arts Centre , we saw the two current exhibitions and introduced ourselves .  We stayed for lunch which comprised the house speciality, some excellent bean soup accompanied by cheese scones. We then walked the headland visiting part of the North Uist Sculpture Trail and then on to the ferry terminal, a place that holds a strong fascination (for me at least..)

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In the afternoon we visited Namara sea foods in Grimsay. Not only was the food fantastic but its production had resulted in a singular landscape.

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Last night Nicola and I watched ‘Shetland’ on the television for a while just to put things into some sort of perspective..  and I had thought that ‘Midsomer’ had a problem.

The problems with the internet continued making the development of the blog and group Facebook pages difficult. I couldn’t help but wonder what use Paul and Hazel Strand might have made use of social media had it been available in 1954 when they were staying in South Uist and making photographs for ‘Tir A Mhurain’. The speed of the technology is amazing once the information is released and begins to circulate and there are lots of interested people and comments and we are most grateful, but the connection continues to be troublesome and we will need to contact B.T. once again.

The cats were meanwhile confined to quarters as the strong wind made it difficult for them to patrol. The house is situated high up in the village and the wind whips around the building, moaning as it does so. This is very atmospheric in a slightly gothic manner, but takes some getting used to.

Hunter Gathering

 

This involved driving to the nearest Co-operative store and spending a considerable amount on groceries (not including drinks obviously). Our next quest was to find a suitable table to use as a work station for Nicola’s computer. We were advised of suitable suppliers by the extremely helpful woman in the Co-op who also remarked “ If  your’e thinking of moving here, take a winter..”  Following her helpful instructions we set off in search of the perfect table. This took a little time and involved visiting a decorator’s supplier, where a de-luxe paste table was available. This would have done the job but we thought we might do better (i.e. get something cheaper). Having visited a hardware shop further along the road, then a supplier of camping equipment – both of which offered some kind of alternatives. We then visited a modern place that recycled used furniture. Amongst the impressive dressing tables and ample sofas was a modest drop-leaf table, available and re-cycled for £35.

On occasion I have seen more attractive designs. This ‘perfect table’ reminded me of the one that didn’t quite make sixties display in Newcastle’s Discovery Museum. Nevertheless, after a short period of negotiation between Nicola and the young woman in the shop we were able to put the table in the van and drive it away, a snip at £30. This is now installed in the house, the centrepiece of the computer workstation and the hub of our project.  The (considerably) used table was clearly an excellent idea, but we needed an awful lot of petrol to find it..

The cats, Ange and Gabe have been adjusting to their new surroundings and were feeling confident enough to venture outdoors. They were patrolling the surrounding area between the house and its perimeter fence. Unfortunately the local cats, and in particular a big ginger tom cat, have been alerted to their presence and have begun a stare-off using the many windows in the house to glare at us.

 

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In This Day and Age

Journey to Base Camp..

19th Feb 2019

 

We left Newcastle at 5am. The van was packed to capacity with clothing, bedding and photographic equipment, and in addition to Nicola and myself we were accompanied by our two reluctant cats, Gabriel and Angelo, protesting at the not inconsiderable inconvenience that we had caused them by loading them into a travel cage. A supply of Valium (obtained from the vet and most definitely only intended for the feline brothers) was procured to ensure a stress-free journey and it worked (eventually). On departure, the weather in Newcastle was clear and cool, and by the time we had driven through Northumberland and the Borders, the sky was red and the weather seemed fair. As we travelled further North, the more the weather deteriorated (red sky in the morning etc..) and by the time we crossed the bridge onto Skye the van was being buffeted by gale force winds and what seemed like a year’s rainfall had descended on us. A brief stop at a local Spar for some oatcakes resulted in a vicious soaking and we drove on to Portree and then Uig – only sometimes being able to see the road ahead.

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The ferry crossing from Uig to Lochmaddy was best described as ‘lively’ and as a less than rugged sailor I mostly confined myself to sitting in the observation lounge staring bleakly at the horizon hoping not to externalise. Nicola meanwhile, disdainful of my incapacity, and herself totally impervious to motion sickness, spent the journey drinking tea, eating biscuits, exploring the ship in detail and thoroughly enjoying the crossing. The arrival at Lochmaddy on North Uist came as a considerable relief and we made our way to Mairie’s house in Lochmaddy, a substantial and well-appointed house where we will be staying for the next month. We were met by Fiona who kindly explained the workings of the house to us before returning to her house, a short way along the road in the Village. After locating and operating the heating, we unloaded the van in a squally westerly force 9, released the cats into the house, where their drug taking had resulted in a severe case of the munchies causing them to fall upon their food as if starved, and Nicola and I settled in with a Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon. Perfidious felines aside, this was a good ending to the start of the beginning of our trip.

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