Thursday, 28 June 2007

Guardian Online article about Berneray and Hebrides

It's accurate, as well! For a change, we don't have to read a slanted article that misrepresents the islands (which happens regularly). Instead, Dave Hill - who recently visited Berneray - has written a good piece in the Comment Is Free section of the Guardian, following his recent trip to Berneray.

Of somewhat lesser quality is a podcast by a travel writer called "Matt". You'll find it through the "listen to today's show" link on his blog posting (not a stable website). The file is a 29Mb MP4 file (I could run it on Quicktime). Of interest is the 7 minute piece, starting about 5m 30s in, where Matt reads out a detailed description of Berneray, adding his own (largely wrong) interpretation.


The podcast is a thing of wonder for how many place names and descriptions he can pronounce incorrectly - very incorrectly - in seven minutes. Some are, indeed, a bit tricky. But Berneray constantly pronounced "Bernay"? "Machair" as "Mark Hair"? And ceilidh as "collay"? Also "cattle herding" is not a tourist activity here.

Above is the twilight from Berneray, picture taken by Flickr user Saint.Tobias.

Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Only UK place with drought conditions?

It's with almost total disbelief that the news this morning shows much of the UK under water, countless houses flooded and even a dam on the verge of bursting. While here, we are pretty much in drought conditions.

Here's the rainfall chart for June so far:


In the first 25 days, the island clocked up a measly .24 inches or 6.1 millimetres of rain, most of that falling on June 2nd. As can be seen from the pictures of last week, and the BBC weather forecasts (which were correct) for earlier in June, it's been pretty much blue skies and sun all the way from June 3rd.

Seal view B&B have a weather station which pipes data through to the weather underground weather service. This means you can look at detailed data for the month to date; the one day with any significant rain was also the only day we've had any significant wind.

What does this mean? It means that not all of the country has experienced wet conditions. It also means that folk here are out watering their spuds in the evening, and looking a little worried at their various outdoor crops on the machair. As one crofter told me yesterday "You couldn't cross here over the winter without wearing flippers; now it's dust and sand."

Monday, 25 June 2007

Berneray sunsets by a cyclist

Alison is a cyclist who has been to Berneray several times now, the most recently during this month. She's got some excellent pictures of Berneray on her Flickr area (go look), including some of sunsets which have replicated here.

First, a sunset over the church constructed by Thomas Telford:


West beach, looking towards the Harris hills:


Another beach one, taken after 10pm:


Finally, a glowing descent over Pabbay as viewed, again, from the west beach of Berneray:


Some more pictures from Alison later in the week...

Thursday, 21 June 2007

A tale of two walks

I've been seeing the beaches of Berneray an awful lot these last few days.


On tuesday, Dave - the journalist, author and locator of phantom accommodation - accompanied me on my daily 6 mile trundle across the machair and down the west beach. It was hot and sunny, and the beach was - by Berneray standards - crowded. In the three miles of beach walking, we passed 10 people. I'm kinda not used anymore to that many people on the beach, and it just seems peculiar, having so many people within the same mile of sand as you. Odd.

Dave seemed to enjoy the Berneray experience. Back in the Lobster Pot tea room, over a bowl of Morag's excellent vegetable soup (all 5 daily fruit and veg portions and a lot more, in something you can stand your spoon up in), he frantically scribbled like a maniac into his notebooks. Looking forward to what appears on his blog, and in his article in the Guardian about Berneray.


Walk number two took place last night. Today is the shortest day; last night was the shortest night, with sunset here at 10:33pm and sunrise at 4:27. The weather forecasts had not been good, up to yesterday evening when they improved and blueness gradually filled the sky in the evening. A few phone calls later, and a semi-spontaneous group was formed with a rough objective; walk around the edge of Berneray, leaving at sunset, and doing a lap before sunrise, which would be watched over breakfast.

Several of us set off shortly after sunset. 5 did the whole distance, while 2 did a junior version. Identities of the successful people are under wraps - we decided halfway round to be known collectively as "The Magnificent Five", and we'll leave it at that.

My camera is rubbish for night shots and gloomy light. About halfway round I gave up trying to get any decent pictures; the few in any way discernible do not give a realistic idea of the light level,  This picture below gives a vague idea; this was midnight, at the north end of Berneray, with Pabbay in the distance:


Things we noticed:

  • Otter tracks; loads of them in some places. Best of all, an otter with a fish in it's mouth wandering across rocks close to the shore.

  • Mobile phone reception is best where there are no houses e.g. on the west beach and the northern part of Berneray. Ironically, where people live on Berneray the reception is not good.

  • Berneray oozes history. Every rock, every outcrop, every plot of land, has some family connection, anecdote, story, legend or deed.

  • The natural light was surprisingly good the whole time. We never needed a torch, or came close to needing one, at any point. Dark it was not, and the strange twilight accenuated the moon skulking on the horizon, and Venus which we followed as we walked down the long west beach.

  • In the middle of the night, even one light seems like outrageous light pollution.

  • Even boggy machair, after several weeks with virtually no rain, dries out into something more crumbly. Not good for plants, but great for walkers.

  • Large flocks of sheep look sinister in the solstice twilight.

  • There is little better sociably than sitting on a magnificent Outer Hebrides beach at 1am, with a small group of equally appreciate people, watching the waves, and the light change over distant islands. Whisky and chocolate accenuate the experience.

  • Beaches never get boring. After walking the length of the east beach, west beach, and a large chunk of the cockle bay beach, we were still up for more beach walking if need be.

  • It's easier and dryer to walk on recently drained sand than trying to hop over machair streams ...


On long walks, choose wisely who you go with. Ours was a good crowd, helped perhaps by being quieter people who are still up for doing something spontaneous and less officially organised. There's a few other people who would have been good to come along but who couldn't make it, or who couldn't be contacted in time, once we knew that it was possible from a weather point of view. There will be other days - and nights - for other circular walks around Berneray...

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

When bloggers collide...


Meet Dave. Dave is a writer, journalist and father of many children. He is also a blogger, which is how we (virtually) met.

Around the time of the Scottish Parliamentary Election, I left a comment on one of Dave's blog entries. He followed it up, and we had a brief online chat.

Didn't arrange anything (busy times), but he seemed pleasant.

Last Sunday, Dave blogs about a trip he is making, starting that day, from London to Berneray, then around more of Scotland.

He blogged:

" begin to wend my deliberately complicated way to Berneray, home of Silversprite, in the Outer Hebrides."

I sent him an email, saying to drop in if he was in the area for coffee. Seems an interesting bloke. And I started to keep an eye out for him, reckoning he'd be here late monday or on tuesday.

As predicted, he turned up late monday in a local taxi. I put the kettle on, and go out to meet him.  

Him: "Hello!" (as he's finally here...)
Me: "Hello!" (as am expecting him)
Him: "I've got my bags."
Me: "Where are you staying?"
Him: "Erm, here, as we arranged?" (Looks a bit surprised at this question)
Me: "???" (Thinks, have I had a memory relapse and possibly agreed to something while I was drunk? Or is he being somewhat presumptuous?)

Dave looks a bit upset. In these situations, the solution is to sort out the accommodation first (before it all gets booked up), then chill. I dash inside and try and quickly try to find him local accomodation. First of all, I phone Sealview B&B. Catherine answers; "No, we have someone staying tonight." Damn.

I ring Gloria at Burnside Croft. She agrees to take him and says she'll pop round.

Dave is invited in to help us down a bottle of wine. We have a pleasant conversation, talk about loads of local issues, politics, and compare the house prices of Hackney and Berneray (as a rough guideline, the former is 4 times more expensive than the latter). Gloria pops in and meets Dave. We arrange for Dave to go down to their B&B later.

After most of the wine is consumed, Dave asks about my PR business.

I get kinda puzzled. Yes, my blog and website are popular, but I wouldn't call it a PR business.

Him: "Your PR business? As we discussed on the phone?"
Me: "We've never spoken on the phone." (Thinks, "That's it, I really have to cut down on my alcohol consumption").


Him: "Are you Andrew?"
Me: "No, I'm John."


Makes mental note to educate taxi driver about who is who on Berneray.

So, Dave is walked down to the true B&B, where he is further watered and also fed, and is currently looking out onto the seals in Bays Loch. Ironically, that B&B was the first one I rang. They did, as they said, have a guest that night. He was at that time sitting in my kitchen, thinking we were them.

All's well that end's well. And I don't have to get out the spare duvet, which smells overwhelmingly of cat urine (and it's best not to look at the stains), to accommodate a slightly bewildered author, traveller, journalist and blogger, for the night.

Monday, 11 June 2007

Relentless Outer Hebrides heatwave continues

Probably the most common misconception about the Outer Hebrides, from mainlanders who never visit here, is that it rains all the time.

Wrong. Very, very, wrong. 

Here's the forecast for this week:



... and a reminder of the forecast - which proved accurate - for last week:


At least it looks a little cooler for this week, which will come as a welcome relief to residents, cattle and cats on Berneray.

May's weather statistics for Berneray also make interesting reading, with rainfall down by 30% on the same month last year. Crofters report that Loch Bhrusda, where the drinking water comes from, is at a never before seen low; this means we might be forced to bathe in gin by the end of this week.

Out on the water

The recent and ongoing good weather (does it ever rain in the Outer Hebrides?) has led to opportunities for doing things outdoors. The best of which was to have another go in the award-winning Mor Chaluim, which sails out of Berneray harbour.


So one calm evening, where yet again there isn't a cloud in the sky, we piled into the ex-peat carrying boat, armed with digital cameras, and set off across Bays Loch and out tae sea.


There is something very pleasing about being out on the open sea, with no motor running, and the boat is skimming along under the pull of the sail and wind only.

It didn't take long before the four of us (thankfully, two being experienced sailors) were a surprising way out to sea. There's nothing out here apart from views of islands, beaches and mountains, and a wide array of markers for the ferry and boats.


Operation of the sail looks complicated at first, but there's an almost mathematical process in how it is raised, lowered and moved about. When fully up, it presents a surprisingly large amount of surface area for the wind to catch. The sail, which has a touch of the Viking about it (not surprising given that the ancestry of the local islands are Norse), pushes the boat at a heck of a speed. Though this may just seem very fast when you are literally inches from the sea, and the boat was lightly laden, as opposed to carrying a huge stack of peats.


This is definitely one of the bonuses of living next to a fishing harbour. From my office, and most other rooms in the house, I watch the fishing boats, yachts and other sea-faring craft go in and out, and weave across Bays Loch to avoid scraping on the rocks. That's in addition to a large number of incredibly lazy seals (there are about 30 who wallow on nearby rocks) and frequent pairs of otters. Harbour life; definitely recommend it :-)

Thursday, 7 June 2007

Production increases...

A brief update. Production in the paper (brick) mill here has reached new levels of brickness. Here's the latest batch out of the mache machine (yes, I know, grey on grey is dificult to see but it's the best drying spot. And the camera isn't broke - that's the shadow of the washing line):



The source material is stuff such as this, and the end result is this.

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Mussel morning

It's not just scallops...

One of the very few local people who is of a similar age to me dropped in with a "small" amount of mussels. Which, to me, seemed to be enough to feed a medium-sized platoon.

Mussels are a bit more work than scallops. First, they invariably need a bit of cleaning to remove barnacles, bits of weed, and whatever else:


Right, that's good. After a bit of cleaning, the shells sparkle and reflect a bit:


Enough arty stuff. We're doing this to eat, so it's into a big pot for the lot of you:


Then onto the stove for a short time to boil. Remove, and discard those who haven't opened up. Those who do, remove the innards. And at this next picture, people with an aversion to shellfish, such as Katie in Glasgow, will probably feel a little ill:


They taste, thankfully, a lot better than they look. Fresh, local, shellfish, perfect with a bottle of chilled Italian white wine, some focaccia and a couple of milder French cheeses. Ironic: after moving to the Outer Hebrides I'm often eating better food than I ever ate in mainland cities.

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Relentless Outer Hebrides heatwaves

We seem to be doing quite well out of "global warming" here, at least in the spring and summer time. We're yet again in the grip of a heatwave, with no end in sight. Remember that election day here on Berneray was hot. And April had long periods of sun too. Maybe that's why local people comment so much about the rainy days, as increasingly they come as such a contrast to the increasingly prevailing sunshine.

Here's the BBC online weather forecast for Lochmaddy, 10 miles away, for the next five days:


In summary:

  • No wind.

  • Low pollution, except on friday when it will be "moderate". Eh? What pollution - there's, like, no pollution here. The island has only 127 people on it, and our air has been filtered by several thousand miles of Atlantic ocean.

  • Sun index varying. Today and Friday, it is rated 5. That puts us on the border of medium and high probability of "white skin burning easily", which is probably about right. I unfortunately have only three skin colours (white, burnt, or freckled).

  • Endless sun. At this time of year, that means 18 hours of sun a day. So over the next 5 days, 90 hours of unblemished, bright sun. Which means lots of Vitamin D.

  • 23C. Hot enough for me.

May's weather statistics for Berneray were significantly drier than May of last year (30 percent less rain). And this also isn't the start of the current bout of hot weather, which kicked in over Sunday. Here's the west beach of Berneray, during my daily walk, yesterday. That slight smudge over the top of the island of Pabbay was the only cloud in the sky:


Weather data from Berneray is available most of the time online, updated every few seconds from an online weather station at the Seal View bed and breakfast (and yes, you can see seals from there; lots of them, every day).

Monday, 4 June 2007

The psychology of Facebook

Another follow-up, this time on Facebook. This has been getting a lot of UK press of late, from consideration of how much it is worth, to privacy issues, universities getting annoyed at students using it to criticise staff, being censored by organisations frightened of it, and the musings of BBC journalists about whether people are too "old" to Facebook

The joy of Facebook

What makes Facebook such an attraction? Some theories... 

1: Collecting: It's like Top Trumps and Pokemon and stamp collecting, in that it taps into the basic psyche of collecting things. As the collection of "Friends" grows, so it is like having a larger stamp collection, with an increasing feeling of achievement. "My stamp collection contains 10 stamps" is nothing. "My stamp collection contains 2,000 stamps" perhaps gives a feeling of achievement, a tangiable result and evidence of work and persistence.

To give your collection a bit more personalisation, you can optionally agree with your friends how you met:


...and add on other bits of information, write on their profile wall, and so on. So you aren't just remembering and "collecting" friends, but collecting relationships between people. (That sounds a bit wooly - just play with Facebook and it'll make more sense).

2: Not invited to the party: Facebook also digs away at the insecurities in people. "I have one friend" probably makes some people feel a bit insecure and Billy no-mates. In the deeply insecure, this may be amplified by the lie-awake-at-night worry that your peers can see your profile on Facebook, and while they may have 50, 100, 200 friends they will mockingly see that you have a pathetically small number, confirming your worst fears about the low opinion they have probably held of you over all those years etc.

Yes, Facebook could cause a lot of angst to the paranoid amongst us :-)

3: Twitching curtains: "Curiosity", and it's cousin "nosiness", are basic cognitive attributes. Anyone who says they are never nosey or never curious as to what their neighbours or work colleagues are up to is probably fibbing. Having lived in several small communities, where gossip is an alternative currency, the general rule seems to be "most residents discuss most other residents". Though, in many ways, this is preferable to the anonymity of the city, where people often live next door to dead people for weeks or months at a time without realising.

Facebook is up-front about letting you keep an eye on what your friends are up to. There's a status box. You type in - if you want - what you are doing. There's another page where the most recent updated status of your friends are listed; here's a screenshot of a good example. Currently, of my peers, Dan is off to Paris, Tom has just completed a half-marathon in 2 hours 10 minutes, David in Lewis is bottling his home-made wine, and Jenny has finally bought a house. Utterly meaningless to you (unless you are my evil twin or stalker), but of interest to me. The same way that your friends are of no interest to me but of much interest to you.

4: People like us: It's a social network for what my cousin calls "the deadwood" - basically, everyone over 30. The demographics for new users registering show an accelerating rise in people from 35 onwards signing up (this slide from an interesting bundle of Facebook stats slides):


I'm 38. When I use Facebook I don't occasionally look at a person's profile and think, with total dismay, "I'm old enough to be your father." That's happened to me in MySpace. And that's partially why I've given up on Bebo, as it's not far off the point of thinking "I'm old enough to be your grandfather." How depressing would that be?

No, there is a generational thing there, and I'm more comfortable with peers who are very roughly within my age range. The birthday/age feature on Facebook tells me the youngest friend I have is 25 (four of them) and the oldest is 74. If you are too young to remember life under Thatcher - and worryingly, this year's University intake will contain that generation -  then we probably aren't going to be discussing politics anyway. And I'm not going to turn into one of the dull people who turn up at every village meeting and start their sentences with "In my day...". No, 25 to 74 is fine.

5: Auto-biography: Once you've linked up with a few people, then Facebook creates a "Social Timeline". This shows when and who and why you ended up meeting with Facebook people. As an aide memoire, this has been unexpectedly interesting, showing that I did a heck of a lot of networking (that led to people I'm still in touch with) at certain jobs, but not at others. It also shows that for the couple of years after I went self-employed, I did hardly any networking as I was busy being a part-time tourist. (That's what happens when you live between two airports which host several budget airlines, and you don't have to book time off work). 

6: Expansion is quick, easy and free: I like Wordpress, as a blogging and website development tool, as plug-ins are being created all the time to add functionality. A bit of FTPing, and a variable amount of fiddling, and often - though not always - another dimension has been added to a website or blog.

However, Facebook is simpler. 


Adding new functionality is done within Facebook - no FTPing, or messing about with files or directories. It takes literally seconds, which means that an application of interest can be very quickly experimented with. Several times I've installed, played with, and uninstalled applications in under 2 minutes. Therefore, it appeals to people who like to tinker and experiment, but don't have the time, inclination, knowledge, attention span or geekiness to mess about with anything technical.

So what of rival services? Will Facebook knock 'em out of the market place? One in particular is possibly doomed in the long-term:

Friends Reunited: Web 1.1 (and that's generous) 

The main competitor to Facebook in the UK is Friends Reunited (FR). This was sold by the couple who set it up from scratch less than 18 months ago (great move and perfect timing), to ITV for a minimum of £120 million (seriously bad purchase). I wonder when the people who run ITV had a good look at Facebook - guess that was a really bad day in the office.

FR does has the advantage of being UK-oriented; the terminology and instruction on the website are geared towards UK schools and academia. You can do searches for people just in the UK and Ireland. There are already a fair few people signed up to it (39 out of the 103 students in my school year) and paying their annual fee. It's also branched out into associated ancestry services (Genes Reunited). And, unlike services such as Facebook, FR doesn't suffer the bane of garish ads:


However, there are serious problems with Friends Reunited. I've just gone back to it for the first time in a while and have literally gasped at the awfulness of it. I'd be almost embarassed if someone saw me using this website. Here's five of the problems FR has:

  1. Many of the accounts on FR are years old and dead. There's no way of telling which are dead and which are still being used and feeding through to a working email account.

  2. Get this - you have to sign up and pay money just to make contact with someone. On Facebook you can link up and send messages to other people. On FR, it's a £7.50 subscription. I can't imagine many - possibly any - people signing up to FR without having a good go on the (free) Facebook service first.

  3. FR looks AWFUL. Not in a vile MySpace way, but in a "My first attempt at HTML" way. Facebook is slick and so 2007. Friends Reunited is clunky and basic, so 1997. There is no way any self-respecting net user is going to evangelise about FR. "Come join me on this noddy, clunky, basic website."

  4. FR doesn't allow you to add applications and extra functionality, wheras Facebook does. With FR, you can add pictures, basic notes, messages such as you've past your driving test and, erm, um, little else.

  5. FR is grindingly slow. What is it running on, a ZX81?

The only real advantage that FR has over Facebook is the UK-oriented methods of searching and listing people and places. But that's it. If the search functionality improved in Facebook, then I can't see a reason to use Friends Reunited. It would be interesting to follow the graphs of how many (UK) users they had signed up over the next few months and years.

Back to Grimsay

As a follow-up to the recent posting about the Boat Day at Grimsay, here's a couple of other pictures from the harbour.

First, a picture from Gill Thompson of a few of the boats. Incidentally, Gill has a lot of other great Outer Hebrides pictures in her Flickr picture area.


The other one is from Flickr user Scotex, showing how crowded the fishing harbour is. Currently, it is often possible to walk from one side of the harbour to the other just on the boats alone. Thankfully, the Comhairle have plans to expand and extend it. It's good to see one part of the fishing industry that's thriving:



Sunday, 3 June 2007

Online footprint, and paper to digital

While waiting for the rain to clear, I started to doodle which websites and net-based services I used the most. 

This turned into a nice little chart that I'll keep for posterity. It only includes services and websites which I still regularly use, so things such as YouTube (which increasingly are a disappointment due to the variable content quality) are not included. It'll also be something to compare with, say, two years from now to see how things have moved on.

Despite the fact that it may encourage stalkers (though here in the Outer Hebrides I should be safe), and for work reasons people should be careful with their online footprint, I've decided to stick it online. I doubt it is, nowadays, wildly different to quite a few million other people.

Here it is:


... and if that isn't readable enough, its available in different sizes.

And yes, I do recognise the irony in using pen and paper to plot the various digital services I use the most.

The five services in the centre are the ones that occupy the bulk of online time. Second Life (partially for work), this blog/website, Facebook for keeping in touch, for bookmarking, and Flickr for pictures. What's more interesting is that a fair amount of content shuffles between these five; for example, my Flickr pictures appear on my blog and in my Facebook profile.

Around the five are other net-based services that don't get such a look-in. For example, social network directs are accounts on other blogging or social networking sites that just point to my active blog and/or Facebook service. There's utterly no way I've got the time (or inclination) to build up profiles and stuff on MySpace, Bebo and whatever else as well as on Facebook. And with the duplication in services and functionality, little point. 

Other sites I add content to seem, on reflection, to have a strong travel/geographic bias. I trade on eBay, Amazon and CafePress. And my news comes mainly from the BBC news website, the websites of 2 newspapers (Stornoway Gazette and Glasgow Herald), and an awesome service which gives the front cover of many newspapers around the world.

That last one, the Newseum service, is a bit of an oddity when you think about it. It takes a traditional form of media (newspapers) and makes them available, digitally, to anyone online - but keeping the original newspaper front cover format. I love it, and it's good to see the slant newspapers elsewhere put on Scottish and UK events. Sometimes, paper (though digitised and stuck online) is easiest to work with after all :-)