Wednesday, 29 November 2006

Better buy a brolly, Molly

Sitting here with a blank mind, wondering if there is anything to blog about. Then, from the TV comes the news that Misbah Rana, otherwise known as Molly or Molly Campbell, has been ordered by a judge to be returned to her mother. She has to be handed over to the British Consulate in Pakistan within 7 days, so it looks like she'll be returning back to Lewis in time for Christmas and the New Year.

Living in the Outer Hebrides means you get to hear some of the inside track on the story. It isn't so much "close knit" here as "densely knit", in terms of people being related to people and people knowing people - the archipelago of the Outer Hebrides is nearly 150 miles from end to end but is habited by only 26,000 people. So it turned out that various people around here knew, or are related to, people who went to school with Misbah/Molly, and it's been an on-off conversation piece for the three months that she's been away. Like if you buy a new sofa, then someone at the other end of the archipelago will often know what colour it is before you've unwrapped it.

It therefore made for interesting comparisons between what was said locally, what is/was written in the blogosphere and what was in the national and international press - and often, there were wide differences between all of these. As per usual in the muckier parts of the media, there was the mixture of just under-the-surface racism and bile, as well as the usual populist press swings at the Outer Hebrides (backwards, barren, uncivilised yadda yadda yadda*). Plus a shedload of inaccuracies (e.g. they reside in Tong, *not* Stornoway - message to press, stop assuming everyone here lives in Stornoway. Thank you.).

There is one point on which Misbah is disadvantaged by returning now; the weather. In Lahore this week it is 16 degrees centigrade and Sun! Sun! Sun! Here, the Met Office forecast for local inshore waters over the next two days is:

24 hour forecast 
Wind: Southerly 7 or gale 8, occasionally severe gale 9.
Weather: Rain or squally showers.
Visibility: Moderate or good.
Sea State: Rough or very rough.

Outlook for the following 24 hours
Wind: Southerly severe gale 9 to storm force 10, perhaps violent storm 11 in exposed areas.
Weather: Squally showers.
Visibility: Good.
Sea State: Very rough to high.

(* the reality is almost zero crime, no pollution, unspoilt scenery, friendly people, and ace beaches. But that doesn't make for a very interesting story in some parts of the press.)

Sunday, 26 November 2006

Big waves on a bigger beach

This morning was warm, considering it is near the end of November. And yet again, the weather forecast was spectacularly wrong. Quite a while ago, I came to the conclusion that the weather forecasters (and the BBC is notorious for this) have a default "permanent rain and cloud" symbol for the Outer Hebrides, which is only very occasionally and reluctantly changed. Consequently, I regularly get emails from concerned mainlanders a la "You must have suffered in all those storms over the last few days", when my suffering has usually been restricted to sunburn (I burn very easily, and therefore rarely travel south of Cambuslang).

Anyway, this morning was taken up with a pleasant stroll across the machair to the west beach. The waves crashing on which I could hear from the housie, over a mile (and the other side of a hill) away.



Unfortunately my rubbish photography skills do not show up the size of the waves in these pictures. You'll have to take it from me, in non-fisherman "it were this huge" way, that they were, indeed, large. The surprising thing is that it was a perfectly still day. Not a breath of wind, and not a cloud in the sky. But, to quote George in the best comedy series ever made, "The sea was angry that day, my friends, like an old man trying to send back soup in a deli."



It's also rare to see surfers out here on Berneray, as they tend to prefer the wilder coasts of Lewis, or the flat shores of Tiree to the Uists and Berneray. The temperature of the water also varies substantially, from "Not tropical, but not bad" to "I've lost all sense of feeling in all my limbs".



Saturday, 25 November 2006

Island life: blogs and incomers

Disclaimer. I am a "serial incomer".

The BBC run a blogging service called Island Blogging. It's a little different from conventional blogs, in that the BBC website hosts the service, and they also administer it. So, they decide which postings and comments stay up, and which are removed. In many respects, it's more like a forum than a blog (or collection of blogs).

The topics in it range from the serious to the not serious, to the downright silly. One of the more serious posts is by a resident of Sanday; it's worth reading the thread and the comments (though will take a good 30 minutes):

Ah, deja vue. An incomer writes something, and someone - anonymously - flies in with comments about incomers taking over, making changes, making it more difficult for locals to stay as house prices go up. Other people retort, pointing out that without incomers the islands would die; the locals benefit from selling off houses at greater prices; the incomers are bringing in money to the local economy and doing stuff.

And here's the thing. I've heard it all before. These arguments aren't specific to Sanday. Nor the northern islands. Nor the Hebridean islands. Nor Berneray. Nor rural places on the mainland (I became bored by hearing these arguments in Lochwinnoch, where we lived before here). Nor even in the small rural farming village I grew up in nearly four decades ago.

Some observations and thoughts:

  1. People use the word "community" too much. "The community need this", or "the community thinks that". Sometimes, what they mean is "This would be good, and I'm right so the community does need it". Bottom line is that a community is a bunch of individual people living in roughly the same place. They cannot or do not all hold identical views.

  2. There will always be critical people. And the most critical and vocal ones I've found, time and time again, are the ones who do bugger all for their "community". The one's who are actually doing the stuff (whatever it is) are usually the quiet ones who prefer getting on with stuff, rather than boring everyone else to death with self-important opinions.

  3. Some of the quiet ones are a bit too quiet. For example, there are many good people in Berneray who do stuff, but hold their opinions, for a variety of reasons. It's a pity; there possibly needs to be ways (democratic ballots? better use of the net?) for the majority of residents, who are sensible and thoughtful, to confidently express their opinions and have their - equal - say.

  4. On a related point, I've got zero patience for people who try and "control" the media by shouting the most. No one individual speaks for me, for Berneray, or for any island. I have no time for people who say things such as "I speak for Berneray when...", nor for people (basically "book-burning fascists") who want reasonable stuff censored or removed from publications (print or online) because it doesn't fit with their point of view. Diddums.

  5. It doesn't matter what you do - or don't do - someone will criticise. Example: here in Berneray, there are tentative council plans for a major development. Support it, and you could be accused of "moving here and changing things". Oppose it, and you could be accused of being a "Nimby". Have no opinion, and you could be accused of "not participating in the community". But here's the thing - in these three cases, it'll probably be the same person who does the accusing. So you might as well ignore him/her/it and just do your thing.

People who have lived somewhere for 20 minutes or 20 generations are in many many ways the same. They all pay council tax (or should do) and thus all subsidise, and use, local services. They all (okay, nearly all) have two arms, legs, a head, and are complex-based life forms. They all breathe oxygen, eat, poo and will one day die. They all get an electric bill on the same day; you could hear the identical sharp intakes of both "incomer" and "local" breath as bills were opened in various households earlier this week...

In every rural or isolated community I've lived in, the same pattern presents itself. Some "locals" are positive and helpful, protecting things that need to be and improving things that need to be. Some "incomers" are also positive and helpful, protecting things that need to be and improving things that need to be. Some "locals" are negative, quick to criticise others (both "locals" and "incomers") but slow to help or "do", as opposed to "talk". And some "incomers" are negative, quick to criticise others (both "locals" and "incomers") but slow to help or "do", as opposed to "talk".

Thankfully, not all of the threads on Island Blogging get as personal and negative as the Sanday one. One of the things that shines through is the Hebridean humour, which is an interesting blend of dryness, self-mockery and in-jokes.

End of.

Wednesday, 22 November 2006

Ben Fogle, pods and castaways

This'll trigger off a few distant memories. One of the most ambitious "reality tv" programmes was Castaway 2000. Stick several dozen people (singles, couples, families, religiously devout, gays, alcoholics) onto a Hebridean island for a year; provide them with accommodation - specially designed wooden "pods" that would withstand the weather - and some food; see how they got on.


The programme ended up on the BBC. The production company picked Taransay, an island just off Harris. The filming and PR was slightly misleading, in that it was made out to be a very remote place. Erm, not quite; a very short boat ride takes you to harris, where you can get a bus to Stornoway, then a one hour flight to Glasgow or Edinburgh.


Castaway was widely mocked by the usual sneering reviewers, and various people (local and incomers) here. However, it wasn't as bad as is widely made out to be. The filming was for a reality TV show, so it was spiced up and edited in a way that the participants weren't too chuffed about. And most of those critics would be too terrified at the thought of leaving their cars, comfy houses and central heating behind for more than five minutes. Oddly, despite being a year long and in some of the best scenery of Europe, there were very few programmes shown; several months would go by without sight of it on TV, which was odd considering it was possibly the most expensive reality TV programme ever made.


After the programme, several of the participants went for a change of lifestyle. Some moved to other Scottish Islands. Others became well-known presenters. The island is now more well-used, having a couple of self-catering houses and providing a base for an annual fiddle event.

What of the pods? One of them ended up just a few miles away, on Harris. In fact, from its new home Taransay could be seen. I had a look around it (but not in it) during my last birthday, as I was in Luskentyre then. Alas, as you can see from the pictures on this blog posting, the place is gradually falling to bits as attempts at maintenance and making it habitable have stopped; shame.

Friday, 17 November 2006

Trees and surfing

Apart from round the sheltered bits of Stornoway, trees are rare in the Outer Hebrides, though there is much planting afoot which will change this over the coming decades. When wandering around, you'll occasionally see a Rowan tree. For centuries this was believed to protect the household, cattle and croft from witches and fairies and is present to this day on many crofts near the house. There was great fear about cutting down a Rowan: this belief can be traced back from the Celts to the druids.

Below is another cracking picture from Bluewave; this one of the tree at Ach Mor on Lewis.


This tree, which sits on its own, apparently has a number of stories surrounding it. It probably has several names in Gaelic, one of which I've been told by a local translates roughly as "The tree of knowledge" - why, I don't know but it's a safe bet there's a story or legend behind it. The slant of the tree is testament to the gales and occasional hurricane that blow through.

Judging from the number of comments, the picture is a popular one on Flickr; the original large size makes for an excellent screen background.

Here's one from Niall Corbet of someone windsurfing, or powergliding, or whatever this variation is called, off a beach of Barra:


Thursday, 16 November 2006

Two from each end

Trawling Flickr, looking for pictures of the Outer Hebrides, is a particularly pleasant activity. Do it for an hour or so and there's an irresistable urge to get on the next passing bus and go to a few of these places. I must get better organised this coming year. Here's two pictures each of Barra in the south, and Lewis in the north.

Here's Halaman Bay in Barra, picture by Paddimir:


Also in Barra, here's Stoung Mor. This picture is by Viche (a librarian, which is cool), who noted that here she "watched dolphins jump and play in the water":


Now zipping up to Lewis (possible on the same day if you time the two ferry connections right), we have a picture of the Callanish Stones by Schemie Radge:


And finally, a "light sabre" picture from the excellent Bluewave (every picture of his is superb) of a crofter and his sheep:


By the way, feel free to pass on the webbie address of this blog ( to anyone you think may be interested in pictures of the Outer Hebrides.

Wednesday, 15 November 2006

Dal Beg beach

Dal Beg beach on Lewis, taken towards the end of September 2006. Picture by Flickr user AndyShader:


Monday, 13 November 2006

Peas means whatever

A picture of some of this years crop of peas from the garden veggie patches:


There's something indefinably satisfying about growing your own food. It's perhaps because I'm from a family of market gardeners (though there's little chance of me replicating the orchards of my youth here on windy island). Or perhaps it's good to put something small in the ground, forget about it for a while, then come back to find its (a) got bigger and (b) is now edible. Or some kind of DNA "hunter gatherer" gene kicking in. "Me gardener." 

Sunday, 12 November 2006

Berneray in the papers

Blimey, we got a mention in the Guardian yesterday (overseas people: the Guardian is a left-leaning broadsheet UK-wide newspaper). And not just any old article, but in the daily editorial/leader column.

Under the title "In praise of ... Scottish islands", it's a short but positive piece about the benefits of this part of the world. It concludes with:

...No island can be singled out as the best: but Berneray, near North Uist, with its white-sand beach and simple thatched hostel by the sea, surely cannot be beaten as a place to sample island life.

So there. The article is online.

Thursday, 9 November 2006

Night and Day and Sea

Three pictures from the superb Flickr Outer Hebrides group pool. First, a sheiling in the evening light by Wiesmier. These buildings are often surprisingly comfortable inside, though it can be noisy when hard rain falls on a metal roof:


Next, a picture of the Callanish stones by Levelfather. These are a decent bus ride away on Lewis, but are worth the trip. If you go, don't restrict yourself to the main circle; there are several others within a mile. Oh, and the better tearoom is not the official one, but the one on the other side of the main circle (decent cake, too):


And finally a picture of a beach on the west coast of Harris (more because I haven't put many Outer Hebrides beach pictures up of late). This one from Shooderz:


Friday, 3 November 2006

How cool is this?

Video games.

If anyone, ever again, says any of these:

  • games are played just by teenage boys

  • games aren't designed for families or adults

  • games are sedentary; you just sit there and press buttons

  • games are isolating; no-one talks or communicates during gameplay

  • games don't elicit emotion

  • all games are violent

...then tell them to go away, watch the videos of people playing games on the Nintendo Wii here:

...then rethink what they've just said.

Now - how do we get every library to install one of these...

Thursday, 2 November 2006

The beach at Cnip

Here's one on Flickr from Stevie the B of the beach at Cnip on Lewis:


Cnip is one of the many communities in the Outer Hebrides which contain graves of vikings. If you do a Google search, you'll get various reports and news stories of digs and findings.

Norse/Viking and other historical happenings of that period don't get much of a look-in out here; there was a letter in the Gazette a few weeks ago from a Norwegian puzzling over the lack of local official interest in Viking heritage. He had a point; it may be because of the funding set-up here, where Viking history is well down any notional list of priorities.