Monday, 30 April 2007

20 observations of Finlandia

Finland was great; one of the best trips I'm had. I can totally understand what my fellow conference delegate means when he said "It was very difficult to leave Tampere. In fact, I wanted to stay there for another 4-5 months, to be honest." Me too.

But, mortgages must be paid, bread put on table, cats moulting brushed etc. So last wednesday was a day of four airports, and flights from Lapland to Glasgow via Holland. Since then, have been thinking hard about Finland, and having dreams of endless trees, snows and cooking reindeer steak with a nice bottle of red wine in the middle of a Lapland forest. So here's 20 observations about Finland and the Finns...

  1. The Finnish education system, and the way it is embedded within society, works. And works damned well - here's the proof. If you want to bring up a well-educated family, you do it in somewhere like Finland.  Why? From what I could see, and conversations about attitudes, it is a combination of:

    • the sensible and widespread use of technology across all areas of the education system. See the other country which scored very highly in the international test results - South Korea? One big similarity between Finland and South Korea: a massive hi-tec use of information and communication technology in many aspects of life and learning.

    • a personal and national desire or determination to better oneself

    • a superb and extensive and very well used public and academic library system

    • learning, and the pursuit of knowledge, being seen as a good, worthy and essential pursuit

    • one standard, well-structured curriculum for all

    • even when the country fell into recession in the 1990's, education and research were the areas that did not suffer funding cuts

    As a side-point, in those same tests where the Finns wiped the floor with the rest of the world, the UK wasn't counted as the data collection here failed even to meet the test quality standards. Depressing, or what?

  2. Finnish people are universally polite and considerate - except in queues, where some of the older residents have a tendency to make a rush for the front.  

  3. Finnish men must have small feet. It was maddening to try and purchase outdoor shoes in my size (UK 11 or Euro 46), as most lines only went up to Euro 42 or 44.

  4. The Finns take good care of themselves. Walking, hiking, skiing, running, doing odd jogging with poles, all ages and demographics are out there doing it. Wheras even in somewhere as pretty as the Outer Hebrides most people move from house to car to shop or office, then back again, rarely stepping outside, Finns seem to have dispensed with the car for all but long distance journeys...

  5. ...tied in with that: respect for pedestrians. Finns stop at the many pedestrian crossings and don't attempt to "beat the lights" or mow down anyone who dares cross.

  6. Like the other Nordic countries, the Finns are very good at joined-up thinking. In the same way that British politics is astonishingly bad at. Example. There are lots of long straight roads in rural Finland. There is a need for temporary or emergency airstrips. So, widen some of the roads in places, and you have roads that double as airstrips:


  7. Sauna is good - and that's from someone who usually detests heat, and is currently finding the Outer Hebrides unbearably hot. If I'm back in Finland in the winter, I might try the full sauna then rolling around in the snow thing. If you do try sauna, try and find one that involves water on hot rocks or coals, rather than the stifling electric ones.

  8. Guide books get increasingly inaccurate the further north you travel. Once past Oulu, mine was effectively useless. Lapland is a large region, needing a lot of time to get around, so 14 pages out of a guide book of 320 isn't really any good.

  9. The Finnish are very trendy and well-presented. As well as the many hairdressing boutiques that Alex spotted, there are many good clothes shops. The only scruffy looking people I saw were some people with bad haircuts in tracksuits (I was informed that these were Russian tourists) and probably me.

  10. Again, gotta agree with Alex; the Finns are indeed purposeful. They are always going somewhere, or doing something, never loitering. Maybe it is because in winter, loitering outside is not a good idea. Maybe it is a national sense of being goal-driven. Maybe it is a keenness to define the person, both individually and nationally, as someone distinct from the two larger and louder neighbours Sweden and Russia. Not sure. Also see point 15.

  11. The Finns are proud of winning the Eurovision Song Contest. This is partially as it helps show their tenacity, and partially as it gets one over on their neighbours the Swedes ("Do you like Abba?" was perhaps not a good question to ask in the bar). Lordi, the winners, even developed a successful restaurant (I had reindeer sausages, listed on the menu as "Rudolph's last journey") in their home city of Rovaniemi:


  12. The Finns have a great-looking country, with loads of gorgeous and ever-changing scenery. Rather than tarmac, or concrete, or cover the nicest parts with industrial windfarms or suburbs - like certain countries I could mention - they make a concerted effort to keep it looking good. This is evidenced in the micro level (no litter, no grafitti) and the macro level (a lack of wholesale destructive development under dubious reasons). It is also not the barren wilderness that some books give the impression it is. Urban areas too are quite green as many Finns - once they have graduated to a house with a garden - start planting, cutting and pruning with avengance.

  13. Lesson from Finland to the UK: Build a public transport infrastructure that is reliable, comfortable, convenient and reasonably priced, and people will largely use it.

  14. There is a large undercurrent of Finnish independence and national pride. This comes through in positive ways, little comments, smiles when Finland is complimented by a visitor.

  15. The concepts of sisu and knapsu are evident. There is a determination that once a job or task is decided on, then it is done. Evidence; fishing. Drill a hole in the ice. Sit there, being perfectly still (so the fish do not detect the ice vibrating), in minus-whatever temperatures, until a fish is caught. Do not complain about the cold. Point out that inferior people could not stand the cold, and would choose a knapsu approach such as buying it from a supermarket ("A man, shopping for his dinner. How low has he become?"). Catching the fish is everything:


  16. The effective use of technology is paramount. When Finland went through a bad recession in the 1990's, the government cut funding on most things except for technology and research. The net result is a society underpinned by technology. Broadband seems to be everywhere. I used countless public PCs over the 12 days I was there, but it  only cost me hmmm 6 euro's in total. Just bring a memory stick if you come here; computer not needed.

  17. Some of the cities are apartment-oriented. These are (from very limited observation) of decent appearance. Like Scandinavia in general, many of the detached houses are attractively constructed of wood and painted in bright colours. As with other trips to Scandinavia, I've stared out of the train window and muttered "Yes, I could live in that house ... or that one ... or that one ..." for hours on end:


  18. Finnish food and cooking is very good (apart from Snow Crow soup). Sorry Jackie, but you were very wrong, and can keep your pretentious French cooking - I prefer the variety and style of Finnish and Scandinavian cuisine. Lots of fresh meat, fresh fish, more breads than you can count, cheeses galore, interesting things done with berries and so on. Plus the buffet breakfast in Finnish hotels, as for Norwegian and Swedish hotels too, are light years ahead of the stale croissant and overboiled coffee I was given the last time I stayed in an overpriced French hotel.

  19. The mark of a civilised country is the state of its public libraries. The Finns and the Scandinavians have a respect for their library services, which are a central part of their open information society and culture. I visited 8 public libraries in Finland, and without exception they were all excellent. Cheap coffee in cafe's, free water, free Internet access with no pre-booking, a user clientele that crossed all demographics, different kinds of media for loan, no attempts to ban things such as mobile phone use (this partially helped by the considerate way which the Finns conduct themselves in public).
    My favourite library was the one in Oulu. Cheap coffee, water, unlimited net access, overseas newspapers, friendly and helpful staff, a reference section with some interesting stuff worthy of a weekend of browsing. And lots of good publications, the first of which I saw was, unbelievably, the latest issue of EDGE. EDGE is the leading serious video gaming monthly publication in Europe, and is disgracefully not available in most UK public libraries:


  20. The Finnish sense of humour is dry and ironic (at least when translated into English), but without ego or arrogance. It combines well with their language, and makes a persuasive case for exploring and learning a little more Finnish. And despite learning a few words, I didn't hear any examples of the wonderfully varied list of Finnish profanities and forgot to use any in my presentation.

In summary: I like Finland. And I'll be back, next time for a (lot) longer.

Isle of Skye is abolished this thursday


The other thing that's happening on thursday, apart from the elections, is that the Isle of Skye is no more. No, it isn't being towed away and sold off to some private company (but don't give anyone ideas). Instead, it's due for a name change, which hasn't been that well announced. Annoying if you run a business there and you've just forked out for a load of headed paper.

As of thursday, the blob of rocks on the horizon from here will be known as Eilean a' Cheò, which is Gaelic for "Island of Mist". I'm baffled by this. "Skye" sounds more romantic, distant, Scottish, Hebridean. "Mist" sounds like "come here, and there'll be fog so you won't see anything." Eh?

It's even more confusing for the significant proportion of tourists from Germany, as "mist" is German for "manure". Then again, that may not be a bad idea, as there are arguments and counter-arguments as to what extent a place should market itself for tourism.

My Gaelic is pretty ropey; apparently the new name is pronounced "ellan-uh-ch-yaw", rather than the more literal "aylee-achoo" - which I suspect a lot of non-native speakers will attempt to call it on the first go.

Sunday, 29 April 2007


With four days left before the Scottish Parliament election, my secretary has found a good page on Wikipedia that explains much of the detail. Here's my predictions (which will probably be completely wrong) for how the seats will be allocated afterwards:

  • SNP 43

  • Labour 39

  • Lib Dems 18

  • Tories 18

  • Greens 6

  • Solidarity 1

  • SSP 1

  • Jean T. 1

  • Margo 1

  • SSCUP 1

That's based on a combination of polls, hunches about specific races, effects of tactical voting, and the strange shifts in partisan voting that may take place. Plus, the ethos of "my enemies enemy is my friend" which will come into play in a lot of seats, especially here in the Western Isles.

65 seats forms a working majority. In the extremely unlikely circumstance that my predictions are right, then that leaves the current Labour - Lib Dem coalition short (and unable to carry the Greens with them, as the nuclear issue will get somewhat in the way). So the only two possible majority coalitions would be:

  • SNP - Lib Dem - Green (tricky, but possible if Alex and Nicol agree to disagree about Independence): 67 seats

  • Labour - Lib Dem - Tories (as likely as Celtic and Ranger merging, but would be very funny to see them try to make a pro-union "Anyone but the Nats" coalition like this work): 75 seats

Roll on thursday to see how wrong I am.

Not Rob McKenna

Rob McKenna is a character from The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy. He drives a lorry and keeps a diary of the ever-changing rain that permanently falls on him, 24 hours a day:
"And as he drove on, the rainclouds dragged down the sky after him, for, though he did not know it, Rob McKenna was a Rain God. All he knew was that his working days were miserable and he had a succession of lousy holidays. All the clouds knew was that they loved him and wanted to be near him, to cherish him, and to water him."

I suspect I am his evil (or better) twin brother. Wherever I go, the sun seems to permanently shine on me. Which, as I have three skins colours (white, freckle and sunburnt) is not always a good thing. I have now been sunburnt in 14 different countries, in as diverse places as Malibu in California, Finnish Lapland, Barbados (that was a bad one) and the Outer Hebrides.

Finland was sunny - Tampere almost unbearably so. "This is very unusual." said Olli, looking for a reason or excuse to eat another lemon. The capital Helsinki was sunny. "This is very unusual", said the stern woman who sold me a train ticket north when I enquired about the heatwave. And Rovaniemi was sunny, and even Lapland was sunny. "This is very unusual" said the bus driver when we were crossing the Arctic Circle.

I return to Berneray. Sunny. Blue skies. Two days since coming back to the Outer Hebrides and I've still to see my first cloud. And the weather forecast for the next five days indicates much of the same for here:


Sun, sun, sun, sun. Maybe Al Gore was right after all.

But if it continues like this, and England rapidly becomes sub-sahara desert and uninhabitable (remember it was +38C there last summer), will there be streams of people forced out of e.g. Guildford and Folkestone, heading north by any means possible? Will we need to set up refugee camps for them (complete with latte stands and wi-fi hotspots of course) on the machair? And will the Lobster Pot tea room cope with an influx of several thousand "climate migrants", all clamouring for a croissant and an expresso and somewhere they can get a mobile phone signal?

I think we need to find our Rob.

Saturday, 28 April 2007

Politicans have their uses...

When I was in Lapland, frequently lorries would roar past loaded with huge piles of timber. For what use does the world need this much paper? On returning to Berneray, the question was answered... 

We are currently in the final stages of a bitter and acrimonious election campaign in Scotland. The people go to the polls next thursday, and many of them will be glad when it is all over. Though I fear that, whatever the result, the acrimony will continue and get worse.

Subsequently, politicians are going all the way to get every vote possible. I was sharply reminded of this when returning from Finland to see how much election literature had been delivered while away. Here's what I've got through my door in the last two weeks:


If you are very curious, brave or mad, you can click here to see a larger version of this picture (big file size), then you can make out more of the detail. I must warn you before you click on the link though - Scotland isn't generally noted for the physical attractiveness of its politicans. It's saying something that the high point of political makeovers are Tommy Sheridan's sauna bed sessions...

Most people hate receiving junk mail, such as election leaflets. And it is bad on many different levels; it wastes time, destroys trees, is usually just marketing spin, and ends up filling landfill sites.

I, on the other hand, welcome it. In this case, it goes straight into a very large container, half-filled with water. Then, I disappear to Lapland or somewhere else for a few weeks, and on return have a large container filled with paper mache:


This gets decanted, bit by bit, into the brick maker. Fill, put the black bit on top, fold over the handles and squeeze to remove most of the excess water:


Out of this comes slightly damp paper "bricks". Leave to dry on a rack in the garage or the weaving shed for a few weeks, and I have some lovely fire bricks. You don't get much flame, but you do get a lot of heat, and each brick lasts for about an hour.

Plus, they are effectively free, and hardly any hassle to make, apart from a few squeezes and the occasional stir of the cauldron of paper mache. Here's the final product which, as I type this, are burning merrily away to heat my house and hot water:


It's also friendlier to the planet than chucking paper in the bin, or it ending up in a landfill site. So am doing a small bit for the environment (or, at least, slightly offsetting the thousands of air miles am racking up every year) by bricking my waste paper.

So, politicians - please keep sending me your election bumph. The more the merrier. Some nice thick manifestos would also be appreciated, as each one could probably make a whole brick. Keep me informed of your policies, and it helps keep my fuel bills down. Vote fire bricks!

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Sodankylä verses Stornoway

Now back in Helsinki, 10 days after starting the trip around Finland. Inevitably, as I have one last wander before taking multiple KLM flights, am in a reflective mode.

Earlier in the week I spent some time in Sodankylä. This is a kind of staging post town in Lapland. Not very remote Lapland, but certainly getting on for there. The town has a population of similar size to Stornoway, the largest town in the Outer Hebrides. Like Stornoway and Lewis, there is a strong focus on one animal (sheep for Stornoway, reindeer for Sodankylä). Also like Stornoway, it serves as a service hub for the large surrounding area (which has a similar population density to the Outer Hebrides).

So there are very well-stocked supermarkets there:


...where things such as good quality bananas are not in short supply:


So how do the two compare? Well, very differently. Though my visit to Sodankylä wasn't that long, it was sufficient to draw some comparitive observations.

Sodankylä is preferable because...

  • The local airport is efficient, and whether it is open or not doesn't depend on whether Donald has an upset tummy or whether he fancies a cup of tea.

  • Better supermarkets with a much wider selection of good fruits, vegetables, dairy products and breads

  • Stornoway has a reasonable public library, though with disappointing opening hours and a reference section that prioritises local history to the exclusion of most other things. The one in Sodankylä is superb, being very well stocked with all kinds of media.

  • There are options for things to do on a Sunday.

  • The weather is better. Less rain and wind than Stornoway; more sun and snow.

  • The northern lights.

  • Much better scenery (apart from the beaches). Reindeers, forests, literally billions of trees, endless snow. It's like classic Christmas card scenes, but with no exaggeration.

  • A wider range of shops and services.

  • Much better public transport links with the rest of the country; more reliable and of better quality. Public transport and road transport is not affected by the weather.

  • Better roads and more considerate drivers.

  • Like Finland in general, much better pavements and more pedestrian crossings that are respected by drivers. No road rage or car-is-king mentality.

  • A resident can get to any other part of the country on the same day for less than 100 pounds by public transport.

  • No threat of the entire local area being decimated by e.g. massive windfarm developments.

  • Universal fast and cheap broadband seemingly everywhere.

  • A better quality of housing e.g. triple glazing.

  • ...and some (but not all) of the housing is quite attractive.


Stornoway is preferable because...

  • The light in Sodankylä is extreme. Being above the Arctic Circle, in winter there is no daylight, and in Summer it's not a good place to be if you are an insomniac.

  • More DIY and builders merchants. Need any kind of screw, nail or hammer - Stornoway is your place.

  • You don't need to drill a hole in the ice in order to get seafood such as scallops.

  • Better places to eat out. Sodankylä is cheaper, but being a bit of a frontier town eating out is friendly but basic.

  • Some of the most spectacular beaches in the world are nearby.

  • It's easier to buy a house here than in Finland.

  • Finnish is hard (though you could easily get by with English and a little Swedish).

  • You don't have to ski to the shops in winter.

Sodankylä, like many Finnish towns, has a river winding through it. This leads to the peculiarity that in winter many residents apparently find it easier to e.g. go shopping, as they just drive across the frozen river:


I don't have a pithy conclusion to draw, so will stop there. Anyway, my trip finishes here, and I am very sad to leave Finland and Scandinavia. It's time to go home, wherever that is.

What does it mean?


"Beware of global warming"?

"Throw Excalibur in at this point"?

"The undead are returning in 500 metres." (Alex's suggestion)

Any more?

"And what is that? And that?"

Am typing this in some kind of village shop, somewhere north of Sodankylä. Outside there is one road, and nothing else except snow, trees, and fast flowing rivers for miles around. Things of note:

  • There is, of course, a PC with fast Internet. As is ubiqitous throughout Finland. Though there is no USB port, so tonight I cannot add to my Flickr photo set for this trip.

  • The coffee is plentiful, strong and only 1 Euro per cup. This is common for Finland, as is the availability of real milk (as opposed to gunk in tiny plastic tubs a la the UK).

  • There is free drinking water.

  • The shop is open in the early evening.

  • There is fruit here, and it is of good quality, and it is not expensive.

  • There are newspapers I can buy without having to pre-order several weeks in advance, plus video game magazines.

  • There is a digital poker machine. These seem to be everywhere in Finland, being in hotels, supermarkets, bus stations and all manner of other places.

  • There is another kind of gaming machine, but I can't work out what it is. Two old men are using it in a manner indicating they've been putting money into it for several hours, and will continue to do so for several hours yet.

  • The shop owner looks a bit like Tom Cruise. I wonder if there is a Finnish version of Mission Impossible. "Miten sanotaan Mission Impossible suomeksi?"

  • He speaks Finnish, Swedish, English and "a little Sami"(?). This is a common trait in Finland, where Finns are often tri- or quad-lingual. In the UK, you are generally considered to be cleverer than a brain surgeon if you can speak English and order a loaf of bread in French.

  • There are large doughnuts for sale (1 euro and 20 cents each) with a nuclear-glow pink icing topping that I keep seeing everywhere. I am beginning to suspect it is the national dish of Finland.

  • I order a doughnut using my basic Norwegian, which is kinda similar to Swedish. I am understood (or at least, I am given the correct doughnut at the first attempt), and suddenly feel European  and enpowered by my latent language skills.

  • A person who I assume is the wife of the owner, has appeared and starts to talk to me excitedly in I think Swedish. Unfortunately, she doesn't look anything like Katie Holmes, unless Katie goes blonde, gets a deep tan and grows ponytails.

  • I don't understand a word she is saying. A warning bell is going off in my head. I have a horrible feeling that I am being invited to a mixed sauna later on. This is a step too far for me. I forget which out of Kyllä and Ei means "yes" and which means "no".

  • Out of the corner of my eye, I am distracted by a spectacular selection of cheese.

There are 18 types of cheese for sale in this shop. There is low-fat cheese. There is cheese with holes in it. There is sliced cheese. There is cheese with bits in it (reindeer?). There is cheese which appears to have been cut into disks, baked, then vacuum sealed.

In an attempt to ensure the conversation is firmly off saunas, I take inspiration from Borat, point at the first cheese and ask the owner if it is cheese. I repeat with the next cheese. The wife of the owner decides probably that I am the most boring person in the northern hemisphere, and disappears.

18 types of cheese.

In a village shop.

In Lapland, way above the Arctic Circle, and some 13 hours by train and bus to Helsinki. 

I want to move here.

I have a complicated relationship with cheese. I love the stuff, but it is bad - very bad - for me, and is probably the main contributer to my additional girth. I cannot resist cheese, even though I know when I am consuming rolled slices that each one is probably taking several hours off my life. I rarely last a week - nay, a day - on a cheese-free diet. It was the first word I learnt (ost) in Norwegian.

And the supermarkets in Finland sell umpteen varieties of cheese, which is also available in vast quantities at hotel buffets. I noticed that Alex's last act on Finnish soil was to stuff multiple slices of cheese in his mouth.

When I go home (with increasing resentment), I will visit my village shop. It will not have 18 varieties of cheese. The shop owner will not look like Tom Cruise. His doughnuts will not be pink. And I mean that in a non-innuendo sense.

Enough about cheese. Tomorrow I will write about Bananas. Not to be confused with ananas.

Monday, 23 April 2007

A journey to the University of Lapland

Today I decided to visit the University of Lapland.

Well, why not?

Every journey should begin and end with a sauna, I was told. Probably by Olli, font of much knowledge (though not including where the best coffee in Tampere is). So the crack of mid-morning found me in the communal mens sauna in the hotel, armed with nothing but the regulation tissue to sit on. This time, the sauna was crowded, but I'm getting used to the whole nude-strangers-sweating-on-either-side-of-me thing. The only downside is that either the heat, humidity or sweat (hopefully just mine) makes my nipple piercing sting like hell, which hasn't happened in years. Apart from that, it's a pleasant experience.

Leaving the hotel, there was one vitally important place to visit first, as recommended by Professor Badger after the excellent gamers in society seminar. Here in Rovaniemi, they renamed the square in honour of the locals who brought back the Eurovision Song Contest prize. So, here's the obligatory picture of handprints:


Not far from here is the Arktikim, a museum dedicated to Lapland and Arctic culture and environmental matters.  The main building itself is eye-catching, formidable, but still seems to fit in with its natural surroundings, in the way that only the best museum buildings (thinking especially of the Getty above Los Angeles) do. A narrow, tall, glass tube extends directly northwards, pointing away from the city and towards the pole:


In the end, most of the day was spent in here. I'm not usually a museum and gallery person; one day in Madrid, when in yet another endless exhibition of highly religious paintings from the 16th century I decided "enough!" and have rarely set foot in such buildings again. But, the Arktikum had a lot going for it, including:

  • the shop, which instead of selling the usual tacky souveniers had an impressive selection of mind-blowing pictures of the Northern Lights.

  • a well thought-out and explained display about climate change, which was more convincing than the somewhat disappointing Inconvenient Truth film. (On a side-point, and this has been bugging me for months, in Al Gore's film, why is the bit with the polar bears dying done as a cartoon, but in Planet Earth it was shown as real footage?)

  • an exhibition on Sami life and culture, which made for some stark contrasts with Hebridean and Gaelic culture. More on that another day...

  • stuffed animals in various scary poses. Dig that bear! Roar! And each had a button which, when pressed, turned on a sound recording of the animal. Not a wimpy little recording, but a full surround-sound speaker system worth that could be heard in Oulu. Probably.

  • a short film in their college-style auditorium with some pretty good photography of remote countryside scenes.

  • a simple but pleasing lunch, at around 10 UK pounds, of as much coffee as could be drunk, plus hot bread, some kind of weird butter (probably containing the animal it came from) and a large dish of simple pasta in a blue cheese and reindeer meat sauce:


Yum.   But the highlight of the museum trip was a small circular area, separated from one of the exhibitions by black netting. You were invited to lie on the foam mats on the floor and relax. Hmmm, another clothes-off sauna-type Finnish experience? No; a vertical floor-based projector shone an increasingly surreal film onto the ceiling, showing the northern lights turning into imaginary animals such as foxes that proceeded to run around the ceiling and stare at you. This was totally awesome, and it occured to me that it would be even better had I been a little drunk, Luckily I remembered the quantity of vodka I've been carrying around since Tampere. Some light refreshment, then happily lurching back inside, I resumed the horizontal on the floor and watched the film again. Eight more times. Each, better than the last.

Then someone from the museum came in and said, very politely, that they were waiting to close:


... so it was time to leave.

Feeling in need of air, especially now I was full of pasta, reindeer and vodka and after lying down for quite a while, I resumed the trek to the University of Lapland. The walk took me along the banks of several rivers and, due to leaving my map in the museum, unnecessarily across four bridges. This is an easy city - and country - to walk around. Wide open paths everywhere. Lots of pedestrian crossings. Cars that stop at said crossings. Signpostings. No chavs or neds shooting at passing walkers with air rifles (ah, how I miss the joys of riverside walking in Glasgow and Sheffield).

And people use these paths to full avail. I tried counting the number of serious walkers i.e. those going at speed, or with walking poles, or several dogs, and lost count somewhere after 300. That's not counting the many, many cyclists and joggers; which also possibly explains why there's been no sight of a fat or unhealthy-looking person in this city.

On the way, I passed various people fishing on the frozen river. An understable activity, especially after seeing that the TV here is the generic euro-crap of the type we get in the UK. Finnish Strictly Come Dancing. Finnish Fort Boyard. Finnish phone-ins at several Euro's a go where, in three hours, somehow no-one guesses the missing letter in FINL_ND. But that's nothing compared to the disappointment of turning up at the cinema in Rovaniemi, hoping to find some excellent Finnish, Swedish or Norwegian film (there are many), only to find out that the main film showing, here in a cinema on the Arctic Circle, is Mr Bean's Holiday :-(

Back to the walk. Some of the rivers were partially or fully frozen over. On some, people could be seen wandering around, or sitting there looking like they were possibly fishing, or camping, or doing some other kind of sedentary activity:


After passing several of these fishing (or maybe not-fishing) folk, one pair were waving at me. In the interests of international relationships, I decided to wander over and say hello.

I haven't walked across a frozen river or lake before, and it wasn't the most comfortable of experiences. In the mind, things get exaggerated; "Was that a cracking sound?" "How heavy was the reindeer pasta?". But eventually I reached the fishing-or-maybe-not couple, who seemed to be oddly guilty. Maybe they were fishing without a permit, or up to some other highly visible but dubious activity? Or worried that they were waving over someone heavy enough to crash through the ice. Their English wasn't too good (though a lot better than my Finnish), but they did offer me coffee, and cheered up immensely when I emptied the last of the vodka between the three cups.

After a while of broken conversation, it was established that all three of us were Nintendo Wii owners and players, with them both preferring Sports Tennis over other games. [Thought: no matter where you go in the world, even if it's on a frozen river on the Arctic Circle, you'll meet video game players.] They gave me directions to the University of Lapland, so the journey continued. Finally, after wandering around an estate of smart apartment blocks, I came across the main campus:


But it was closed.

Anyway, no more blogging for a few days as I wander northwards a bit. No doubt on wednesday, driven mad by the boredom of multiple airports, I'll be blogging like a loony. Näkemiin.

Sunday, 22 April 2007

Lordi, Rudolph is served in a sauce...

As Alex works his way south, drinking the best wines southern Finland has to offer and eating raw lamb, so I work my way north. Finns and ardent followers of the Eurovision Song Contest will know which city I'm in from that title. As the saying goes, "When in Rome...", so it's time to sample some of the local wildlife. On a plate.

Two minutes walk from my hotel (good sauna, cold but deserted swimming pool) there is a restaurant specialising in all kinds of Finnish and Lapland cuisine. The place is a vegetarian's nightmare (thankfully I am not one); if, at some point an animal had a pulse, it's probably on the menu.

The meal started badly, with a complimentary small wooden pot of something innocent looking. Aha, aperitif. I had a sip - and nearly passed out. This was the single most disgusting thing I've ever tasted (and considering I ate many kebabs from a dodgy van run by a now-convicted felon when a student, that's saying a lot). It turned out to be Snow Crow (as in a small bird) soup.

Quickly I ordered something strong - maybe that was the ploy - to get rid of the taste, and quickly chewed away at the flat Lappish bread that was also handed out liberally.

For starter, Piene Taimensalaatti, which is smoked wild trout on a warm beetroot salad. Excellent, and a good portion for a starter. Then, the main dish:


Paroa kaksi tapaa. That's two pieces of reindeer (saddle and silverside) in a thick reindeer stock, with Lappish baked cheese potato and carrots on the side. Excellent dish; the meat was well done but not charcoaled, tender, dark, and with a surprising but pleasant fruity taste (possibly Rudolph had been eating a lot of berries?).

(btw that small pot in the top of the picture is the foul Snow Crow soup).

Onto dessert. Leipäjuusto: baked Lappish cheese, covered in a white chocolate sauce, with some cloudberries on the side. A strange texture to the cheese, being so elastic (but still perfectly edible) that it audibly squeaked in a rubbery way when bitten into and chewed:


To end, a coffee with Jaloviina (Finnish brandy), cloudberry liqueur and cream. Slightly disappointing, being little different from a touristy fancy coffee served by some UK restaurants.

As I waddled out of the restaurant, I considered it a sumptuous meal (apart from that soup) and also not expensive by UK standards. Apart from booze, most things in Finland - especially food and public transport - seem cheaper than in the UK. Though that's of little consolation to Rudolph (no presents for me next Christmas).

Now off to Lordi Square, then a bit of a pub crawl. Damn, this country is good.

Saturday, 21 April 2007

Hot and sweaty, cool and relaxed

Finally, at the second attempt, I have enjoyed a sauna: Finnish-style. My original concern, that the conference would feature a mandatory sauna session and we'd all end up like this, proved to be unfounded. It looked like it was down to me alone whether to undertake the sauna experience.

While in Tampere, I had a good long chat with Olli. Olli is cool. He gave up coffee and cigarettes, but during the evening took pleasure in munching on slices of lemon. He has an apartment or flat that contains its own sauna, with room for 3.5 people. Olli patiently described the Finnish mentality with regard to sauna, which seemed to be largely about ritual.

His favourite method of sauna was to go to somewhere cold, have sauna, then jump through a hole in the ice covering a nearby lake and swim around briefly before the cold sets in. Hmmm. This appears to be a common and recognised practice in Finland (picture by Flickr user effyourself):


My earlier sauna experience in the airport hotel last saturday night, shortly after flying in wasn't really pleasant; the heat came from an electric fire and felt dry and unpleasant. I didn't so much get sweaty, as feel like there were lots of invisible needles being stuck into me. Plus, a group of, I assume, businessmen came in and started having a loud and animated meeting.

Being British, with typical British reserve, being in close proximity to lots of naked strangers basically letting it all hang out and generally swing, with a significant risk of skin-to-skin (or worse) contact is not my thing. Well, I guess I'd make an exception if it was Katie Holmes (without Thomas in tow), but otherwise no. So sitting in a very small room with four naked Finnish men, gesticulating and waving around bits of paper (is sauna a good place for documents?) wasn't that great an experience (constant thought: "Please don't make contact ... please no contact ... please no contact ...") and I left shortly afterwards. 

But, after Olli's description, I thought I'd give it another go. Either the entire country of Finland is mad, or I'm missing out on something.

Last night I arrived in Oulu and checked in to a hotel. Being Finland, it has of course a sauna (in this case, several). What the heck; I tried it - second time lucky, perhaps?

And it was great. Here's the sauna just before I stepped into it:


This was very different from the previous experience, being some coals or hot rocks or something in a metal bin type thing that you chuck water onto to increase the steam. The throwing on of the water and the pleasant sizzling effect was, in itself, strangely satisfying. My stay involved no pain or discomfort, just a gentle, almost unnoticeable sweating, with no effort involved.

I stayed in the 115 degree heat for a surprisingly long amount of time (for me, who detests hot weather), then went for a dip in the very cold hotel swimming pool. And came out very much woke up, but strangely relaxed. I can understand why Olli no longer needs coffee or cigarettes.

Sauna has therefore clicked for me. Sauna is good. I wonder, on my return, if I can persuade Berneray Community Council to pay for the building of a communal sauna on the shore of Loch Bhrusda? And I wonder if anyone else would use it?

+ + + + +

My other great Finnish experience of yesterday was the delights of train travel.

Two decades ago I loved UK train travel. Then some complete [explicit insult removed] in the government thought it would be a really good idea to break up the rail network, privatise it and open it up to market forces. Remember Railtrack? Remember before then, when InterCity train travel was actually enjoyable.

Now, I detest it. It's unreliable, slow, overcrowded, dirty, smelly (why does every Virgin long distance train stink of overflowing septic tanks?), miserable, cramped, badly designed (either no luggage spaces or full racks), noisy, full of chavs, drunks and neds, and unless you plan your journey with military precision and buy the tickets months in advance, is horrendously expensive. Any wonder that everyone wherever possible flies within the UK?

In Finland, I went from Tampere to Oulu. That's a fair distance, being 5 hours on a fast Intercity train.


Less than 40 quid in UK money. Big seats. A buffet car with tables and chairs, and a restaurant car with tablecloths. Airline-style personal radio channel selection in your seat. Booths for people to have private mobile phone conversations in without disturbing anyone. Loads of seating. Upstairs decks with big views. Sensible luggage racks. No crowds. Reliability to the minute. Clean. A choice of booths, communal, and couple seating. Compartments.

And unlike on UK trains, you don't have some eejit blast out on the tannoy every 2 minutes that the buffet car will shortly open / shortly close / does not exist / will be replaced by a trolley service containing only overpriced Jaffa Cakes for the next 300 miles.

The Finns kept their train company in state control and didn't mess with it. There's a very simple lesson here about privatisation, shareholder profits and market forces not always being the best path. Hot and sweaty is for sauna - cool and relaxed is for train travel.

Friday, 20 April 2007

Off to meet the "evil Santa"...

The Gamers in Society conference in Tampere is over. And pretty good it was too. I got to present at the end, which was lucky as I managed to ignore my notes and go off in all sorts of tangents, horribly over-running my allocated time. But some of the audience seemed to find it interesting (well, no-one booed and the "good cop / bad cop" commentary team of T.L. and Daniel in the front row didn't rip my work apart, so I guess it wasn't too bad).

I've come away with much to think about. As at the best conferences and events, the stuff that gets discussed around, before and after the event is often the most useful. So I have a pile of notes, especially relating to some work possibilities.

There's also the contention that games research and library/information studies are so similar as to be in many ways the same discipline. There are weirdly similar things going on in both sectors. After this event, talks, and seeing how the Game Research Lab view themselves, there's something in that; to be blogged about soon. 

Of the event itself: one of the main parallels between the digital game and digital library academic sectors is how cool many of the people are. They dress cool, go to cool places, are generally cool, and write cool blogs. Check out this blog entry from Huevos (a picture of him in a bit), the first person I met at this conference, as well as blog entries from this attendee, and him, and this speaker, and Frans. And it's also noticeable that some of the coolest people, such as Frans and T.L., have dreadlocks, something not usually found in academic subject disciplines (certainly not in the UK).

In terms of cool, remember this event is run by a research group who party in style. Here's some of the attendees and speakers at the Tampere conference (picture by Frans):


See how cool they are, in between presentations? Here's some of them in a bar in Tampere after event:



Here's Annakaisa and Olli (complete with "rabbit ears") - both extremely cool dudes from the Game Research Lab:



...and here's Huevos - just beyond cool, and subverts the stereotypical worker media image from his company. As linked to above, he's also a damned good blogger who knows about wine. Katie Holmes will be ditching Thomas (why does no-one call him that or Tommy?) and hopping on the next plane to Seattle if she reads his blog:



I'm not cool at all, but I hope that hanging out with people such as this means some of their coolness will rub off on me.  This would be useful as I might end up working with some of them; earlier today, I beat Professor Badger at Nintendo Wii bowling in the Game Research Lab with my vastly superior sisu. Him losing means that under EU regulations he is now obliged to give me a research post in his team. I have a horrible feeling though that there is a mandatory "cool" exam in Finland, which I may struggle to pass before they let me in the country again :-(

So the conference is over. What now? I have nearly a week to spare before I get on a flight back from Helsinki, and the time to chill out, clear the head ("My brain is full; can I be dismissed?"), get through that pile of notes and do some planning will be most welcome. After leaving it to the last minute, I decided to head north to the city of Oulu, where I'm currently typing this on the free broadband-connected PCs that nearly every Finnish hotel seems to have (UK hotel industry: please take note).

Tomorrow is a day for further planning, but possibilities for the next week include eating a pizza with a topping of bear, and meeting the "evil Santa", who is apparently not the same as the real one. I have these recommendations on very good authority. Watch this space. But tomorrow on this blog - the joy of Finnish trains, and finally enjoying a Finnish sauna...

Monday, 16 April 2007

Does the sun always shine in Tampere?

A bright monday morning here in Tampere. Come to think of it, every day has been bright so far - I appear to have come to Finland whilst they are in the middle of a mini-heatwave.

Today I wake up with:

  • a bit of a hangover

  • a cold

  • toothache

  • slight sunburn from yesterday in Helsinki. Do I have to move to somewhere like Tromso in order to escape the effects of the sun? today will be a recovery day to complete clothes shopping (hoping that Tampere has a good range of clothes for overweight 38 year old men), rehydrate and fill up on caffeine. 

The hangover? Last night I made the startling discovery that the Finns are great drinkers of ... cider(!). On a bit of a bar crawl, found myself in one place that sold Black Rat (amongst other ciders) which caused me to do a double-take. "The Rat" is a particular kind of cider that isn't available in Scotland. Most ciders aren't available, as they are widely deemed as "wussy"* and excessive consumption doesn't make you either a) want to fight someone or b) miserable, but that's something for another day.

So in a bar in a side-street of Tampere I worked my way through a selection of their cider list, making a mental note to return to go through their rather excellent selection of Belgian beers. I could very much be at home here. 

It's also refreshing to be away from the nastiness of the Scottish parliament election campaigns, which seems to be more about who can throw the most mud at their opponents. Policies and the future of Scotland seem to have got lost a long while back.

Anyway, tonight is the pre-conference get together with Professor Badger and his team. I look forward to trying the local delicacy, which appears to be a variation of black pudding, but made with cow's blood. Ah, sounds like a typical Lewis dining experience.

Today's Finnish word. Auringossa palanut is Finnish for sunburnt

[* = Observation stolen from another blog comment: The late Hamish Imlach once commented - accurately - that in the West of Scotland any man who would rather make love to a woman than drink a pint was clearly a homosexual.]

Tuesday, 10 April 2007

Come fly with me...


My last blog posting for a while, as am off to Finland in a while to present at the Games in Society conference in Tampere. While I am away am going to experiment with Twitter (which appears to be a kind of microblog-within-a-blog) on this website. Occasionally things will change - maybe - in the blue box at the bottom of the right hand column. Not sure about the social use of it.

It's also a good time to get away as there's an election on. And it's got about as nasty, revenge-oriented, and spin-filled as is possible. The local forums and some of the blogs are choked up with people going at it hammer and tongs. Decent and reasonable debate got lost sometime ago. So thankfully I'll miss most of the remainder of the campaign. 

This trip will mean my first bit of air travel in a while. Speaking of which, here's a picture of Berneray and the Sound of Harris, taken from a high altitude plane.

It's the first time I've seen a picture containing both my home island and the curvature of the earth [though see the first comment on this blog entry]. It is easy to see the causeway which connects the island to North Uist, as well as the west beach curving around the left of the island. Picture by Flickr user focalplane who has a pretty amazing set of high altitude pictures.

Many people think Berneray is shaped like a bear, but after looking at various pictures for a while, it looks to me more like a trainer (as in the shoe) left upright on its heel (the west beach being the sole).


Whatever it resembles, from that altitude it looks, well, fragile. It's difficult to believe that this is the permanent home of 130 people. 


Saturday, 7 April 2007

Long gone but not forgotten

It's getting on for several years since I last visited Barra and Vatersay. In fact, that was the trip where we unexpectedly got the news that our bid on the house in Berneray was successful (there'a an epic blog posting in there, but still exhausting to think about it). So I haven't see the sands of Vatersay for a good while:


That was the second Outer Hebrides beach I visited (the first being one on the west coast of Barra the evening before). And it was fantastic - totally deserted, hot sun (resulting in a bit of burn), no industrial sound, and great scenery in every direction.

Late summer, when I get back from time out in Chicago, am hoping to trundle down to Barra and Vatersay for another few days of beach wandering. The excellent picture above is by Flickr user Loch Eynort.

Thursday, 5 April 2007

Tesco comes to the Outer Hebrides

I mentioned previously that it is possible to do a Tesco online grocery shop and have it delivered to your door, here in Berneray. Yes - though it is a local delivery company that brings it most of the way.

In itself, this is an interesting case of how even the Outer Hebrides is increasingly meshed into the globalisation ethos. Unlike much of the rest of the Outer Hebrides, the Uists doesn't have any food shop or supermarket who run deliveries; thus, online shopping through Tesco and other stores is increasingly filling a market gap/vacuum. I've been floating this topic for a while to gauge the reaction of people who live here (in other words, the people who live and shop here). The response is roughly:

  • 25% think it may damage local shops.

  • 75% think it may be a good thing for communities, as it will encourage the local shop to raise its game.

This last point is an interesting one. It's widely held that the most urgent issue here is the population (personally think that coastal erosion is no.1 - no land, no people - but I digress). There's lot's of speculation about why people leave for the mainland, not to return. A lack of quality research, and a usually complex mixture of reasons for each individual, doesn't provide a clear answer.

However, one influencing point that often comes up in conversation is the very variable experience of shopping here. In some places in the Outer Hebrides the situation is great, with a good selection of fresh local and more worldly food and drink products. Eriskay, with a thriving local shop, is a good example as is Uig on Lewis with its expanding delivery service and good range. At the other extreme, in certain other parts of the islands, local food shopping options are, to be blunt, dire.

Though it is doubtful anyone will get malnutrition, having a relentlessly poor and narrow selection of low quality foods must surely burrow into the mind, especially as people are aware of how different the situation is in much of the rest of the western world.  This would push some people nearer to the tipping point of deciding to moving to the mainland. There's the population figure going down again.

As was argued by a resident and native of a nearby town with a negligible food option: "Just because I live in the Western Isles, why should I have to merely survive like it's still the 1950's?". Quite.

Back to that Tesco online shopping. The process is a little bit fiddly, but here's how you do it:


  1. Set up your Tesco account. Put in your normal home address, BUT put in the DR MacLeod depot in Inverness as the alternative address for Tesco to deliver to. Enter the DR Macleod address manually; it is:
    D R Macleod
    7a Henderson Road
    IV1 1SN

  2. Shop online as you would if a resident of Inverness. You will get a fiver off your first order if you remember to type in the code (effectively meaning that the Tesco component of the delivery charge is free). Also, you can still collect clubcard points!

  3. Time your order for delivery from Tesco to the DR Macleod depot in Inverness on a Tuesday or Thursday before 6pm (for Wednesday/Friday morning ferries).

  4. Ring DR Macleod (01463 715217) after placing order to tell them to expect a delivery from Tesco and where to deliver it.

  5. The DR Macleod component of the deliver cost is £2.50 per crate plus VAT. It apparently comes down to £2.00 per crate if you have 10 or more crates. Minimum DR Macleod delivery charge is £10 plus VAT. A crate is v roughly 2.5 foot by 1 foot and 1 foot deep; hand these back to the delivery driver. The delivery cost means this is not suitable for small orders. Basically, the larger the order the proportionally less you will pay in delivery.

  6. DR Macleod are okay with delivering fruits, veg, meat, dairy. No frozen foods though. Ours arrived fine. No items damaged, only one item out of stock (we selected "no substitutions"). It meant I could have my favourites - Pizza Express Pizza's are sold through Tesco - finally.

Any concerns, speak to your local DR Macleod delivery person next time you see him.


Will this form of shopping mean the end of shops in the Outer Hebrides, if it really takes off? No. There are three big disadvantages:

  1. You need a computer and broadband. Many of the elder generation don't have this combination, and I can't see many of them getting it.

  2. The delivery costs. Not cheap (though, not exhorbitant). As well as the five pounds Tesco delivery, there is the DR Macleod delivery charge. So the minimum overall delivery charge, including VAT and not including the initial Tesco five pounds off, is £16.75.

  3. No frozen foods. The stuff comes over at least part the way apparently in a "cool" lorry, so things such as meat and vegetables are okay. However, frozen items cannot be handled as it isn't a frozen goods lorry. So, no ice cream, or frozen peas, or a whole load of stuff. "Mum's been to Iceland"; well, she'll have to keep going there.

On that second point; when working out the true cost of delivery against the true cost of going to a shop, you should take other things into account:

  • The time spent doing the online shop, and needing to be in for the delivery.

  • The time spent going to a (real) shop, shopping, and returning.

  • The true cost of going there and back, either in bus fare or full car cost (petrol, wear, depreciation) which for an average car was apparently 55p per mile.


Suppose Tesco online shopping really took off in the Uists ... who would win and who would lose? Well, the effects won't be as "devastating" as at least one doom-monger has predicted - because lots of residents have been shopping at Tesco for years.

When your typical resident drives back from Inverness, there's often a bootful of goodies from one of the three Tesco supermarkets. One local resident told me about his recent return trip to Inverness where he spent 200 quid in that store, filled the car up to a crammed-full level, came back and filled up the freezer. As he pointed out, when you are paying a not inconsiderable fortune to take your car on the ferry across to Skye, you're best off getting the most out of the trip.


  • Residents, especially the housebound, people who don't have cars, and people who work from home, and people who have awkward shift times (there's an ambulance driver I met who had big problems with doing shopping). It's another option, and when you live in a place that is relatively remote and services are affected by the weather, having options for your essential supplies is sensible.

  • Residents who want a wider choice of food than the often samey stuff in the supermarkets here (by the way, if you are literally hungry for something different you should also check out the Uist Wholefoods range).

  • DR Macleod delivery company - and any other that offers the same or similar services.

  • Local population figures. If/when it becomes widely known that you can get just about anything that you can if living on the mainland, this would be a more attractive place to move to for some people. Still, in 2007, there are people with weird and utterly wrong misconceptions about the remoteness of the Outer Hebrides. It is nice when I get sent food parcels in winter though as elderly relatives worry I may otherwise starve...

  • Tesco, of course:


Mainly unaffected

  • Good shops that provide a high level of service and convenience, especially those that will deliver good stock. The shops in Uig and Eriskay have heard many good things about, such as their quality, convenience and customer service, and think they would be unaffected. I ran our family farmshop for several years and we successfully competed against a large Tesco 3 miles away, on quality and choice of our small but very popular range of products. For example, pickled onions so hard they hurt your teeth when you crunched them, as opposed to the softer, more disappointing effort Tesco sold.

  • Local bus companies. There will still be a lot of old people without computers, and people who want fresh stuff and frozen stuff, to fill the buses going to the Co-op stores.

  • Uist Wholefoods. We've compared their catalogue to Tesco, and there is so much weird, wonderful and wacky stuff in there that Tesco don't do, and would never do, that they won't be affected.

  • Van delivery services. Well, the ones that do good quality products, anyway. They hold the trump card over Tesco and other mainland stores in that they can undercut delivery charges. I think I'll always be getting my fish from Dolly's Fish Van rather than Tesco, on the grounds of quality, cost and convenience.

  • The planet. Food miles and all that; most of the goods from local shops have come from the mainland anyway. On the downside, this may mean less local produce being bought. On the upside, one lorry doing home deliveries may replace 20 cars doing return journeys to the same shop (less carbon footprint). 


  • Shops that don't, or won't, deliver, or have restricted or inconvenient opening hours. It also doesn't look good for the often loyal staff of those shops.

  • The Co-op and other supermarkets who don't add interesting new products. Don't like it (and that goes for a lot of others). Yes, their stock is okay, but after more than 2 years it can be grindingly boring. Plus, in a maddening example of bad timetabling, the bus leaves just before the fresh bread and milk comes in. In Norway, where things connect sensibly, that kind of thing wouldn't happen.

  • The "Utopians"; a minority of tourists and incomers, who have an extreme mindset that the Outer Hebrides is a complete utopia, and should be preserved in some kind of bubble in isolation from the rest of the world. Typified by having a romantic and unrealistic stuck-in-1950's view of how people should and do live here, they are often horrified at things such as the Internet, air travel to the mainland, bagels and other modern things that they think should be mutually exclusive to the Outer Hebrides. Often crushed when they see the extent of globalisation, and especially how locals en-masse partake - and take advantage - of these things. I'll blog about these, with some examples, soon.

There is also the ethical question of shopping at Tesco:


Tesco aren't popular for a whole number of reasons in the UK. Some of it is the usual mistrust and outrage against a company for just being big. Some of it surrounds concerns such as their effect on smaller businesses, the unhealthiness of having a mono-supermarket culture, their aggressive approach to product acquisition and how they treat farmers. It's a complex case, with both good points and bad points and not sure if good or bad points.  

So there you go. "What next?!" you say. Well, there's interesting ways of obtaining food and meals popping up all the time online. One example of many is "Just Add Heat" - you select your meals online, they provide the kitchen, utensils and ingredients, you go in and cook, take home, then stick in your freezer. Canadian only at the moment, but it's possible to copy and scale this model for any centre of population. Get innovative, work out what's convenient for people, fulfill people's foodie needs...

...and some here people are - for example, on the island of Grimsay there is now a sandwich company who will make up filled sandwiches, baguettes, whatever and send them to your desk if you work in Benbecula. Good luck to them! Perhaps sooner rather than later, if it's mid-morning and you are beavering away at work in the Comhairle or some other business in Stornoway, you could pull up a local "deli delivers" website, order online whatever takes your fancy, and it'll be delivered to your desk that lunchtime.

Perhaps we are getting to the point where, to live well in the Outer Hebrides, and have nearly the same choice and convenience as living on the mainland, you only need three things:

  1. a PC and broadband connection

  2. a generator for when the electricity packs up

  3. a credit card

Monday, 2 April 2007

Where our food and drink comes from...

Here's where this household has obtained food and drink from so far this year:

  • Milk, bread, papers, some groceries: local shop

  • Other grocery shopping: local Coop, local shops in Lochmaddy and Balivanich, Tesco online grocery deliveries

  • Spuds: Berneray grown

  • Some other vegetables: grown myself

  • Fresh fish: Dolly's fish van (every tuesday lunchtime, at my door)

  • Eggs: local

  • Wholefoods: Uist Wholefoods

  • Cake and sandwiches: the very good cafe in Taigh Chearsabhagh  

  • Other cake: local fanatical bakers

  • Scallops: out of the sea!

  • Seriously good homemade Lemon curd: Nunton Steadings (also has interesting looking frozen local meat selection I must investigate more)

  • Wine: Virgin Wines, Oddbins, Majestic Wines online deliveries (no am not alcoholic)

  • Other: items brought back on return trips to the mainland

That list doesn't include places I've forgotten about, or meals out in several local places. Expanding the list to include non-consumables adds a lot of online shops we've used this year, including Marks and Spencer, Topshop, Next, John Lewis, BootsPet Planet (cat food and litter), Amazon, Game, Ebay, Toolstation, and several others. This list will inevitably widen over time.

For example, Ikea are gradually increasing the areas they deliver online orders to. This does not - yet - cover Glasgow. When it does, it should be possible to get Ikea to send furniture round to, say, the Hebrides Haulage depot in Glasgow. As with other bulky goods that they zoom up the Outer Hebrides, they will then deliver it to our door.

Each online shop has pluses and minuses. For example, Boots deliver for free when the order is over 40 pounds, and taking advantage of the various 3-for-2 offers (and getting the clubcard points) means that orders can be very good value for money. But the downside is that Boots orders often take between 1 and 2 weeks to arrive, so it's best not to wait until the last tube of toothpaste is nearly empty.

This spread of shopping sources seems to be more the rule than the exception. Many local people use an ever-shifting combination of local shops and online shops for their goods. For example, one resident of Berneray gets much of his fish and meat from several online shops including Manx Kippers, Donald Russell and Loch Fyne.

If there's an online shop that sells good value stuff and delivers here, someone will find it and word will get round. If one particular supplier messes up, word also gets around. Residents compare online shopping experiences; a small group of Berneray residents have worked out, in some detail, the best value places to buy cat litter and food online.

What does this mean? Five things:

  1. People here are astonishingly good at researching various options for acquiring goods, especially online. Never, ever, underestimate a Hebridean resident's abilities in finding a bargain.

  2. People here communicate voraciously; social networks (both in the real world sense and the Web 2.0 sense) are constantly active. Much is recommended and decided via "word of mouth" or email.

  3. We've got access to very nearly all the goods that people who live on the mainland have.

  4. "Local" is not enough for most residents. The four factors of quality, choice, convenience of shop, and overall price also matter.

  5. Without the Internet and deliveries, shopping would be a lot more restrictive in choice. Without the net, the Outer Hebrides would be for many people (incomers and people born here) a very unattractive place to live compared with, well, everywhere else. And would be rapidly heading to the same social status as St Kilda.

And yes, I did say Tesco online shopping for grocery deliveries. This came up at a community council meeting; some enquiries revealed that several residents of the Uists and Benbecula had been doing this for a while.

So I tried it, and a few nights ago was tucking into my favourite pizza, Sloppy Guiseppe, one of the Pizza Express range. Tesco sell them, so it was part of my online order which soon appeared at my door. Yum! (just wish they were a little bigger).

There's a widely-circulated myth that there are four areas of the UK not touched by Tesco, namely Harrogate, Orkney Islands, Shetland Islands and the Outer Hebrides. This is rubbish, as there isn't one in the Scilly Islands but there is a Tesco Express in Harrogate. Also, the myth is deflated by the growing number of Outer Hebrides residents doing their Tesco grocery shop online and, in a neat way, having it delivered to their door. That, and the implications of it, are in the second part of this posting.