Monday, 31 March 2008

Online shop review: WHSmith

Stationery is a much in-demand commodity here in the Outer Hebrides, as many people such as teleworkers, fishermen, crofters and other small businesses are self-employed. Last monday, the online shop of WHSmith was having a sale with 20% off stationary, so we took the opportunity to do our first e-shop with them. A large box turned up today, delivered by AJG:


Feeling surprisingly light, it was opened to reveal a heck of a lot of packaging:


After removal, the goodies became apparent. All packaged up, with bundles in either further packaging, or cardboard boxes:


After some time removing all the items, this is the haul for this shop:


Out of the seven items we ordered, one item was slightly different from what we were expecting, as the description on the online shop was a bit vague. Apart from that, everything was fine.

Some of the items had "half price" stickers on them, as well as badged shop prices. For example, the 6 packs of C5 envelopes (10 envelopes in each) were shop-badged at 99p per pack, but in the online shopping order all 6 cost only £3.59. So, buying the envelopes online in bulk was 40% cheaper (including the 20% sale reduction) than buying them in a branch of WHSmiths, which is a surprisingly large saving.

Delivery was free for orders over £25 - other online shops take note. Online tracking was useless; the order was despatched quickly, but there was no updates after that, so we couldn't follow its progress around the country. We didn't, on this occasion, do a massive order as it was the first one on this online shop.

Overall - superb value for money. And they've got another offer on the online shop, of £5 off if you spend £25 or more before the end of this week.


  • Value for money of order: 9.5

  • Web site and ordering process: 7.5 

  • Delivery and tracking: 7

  • Packaging: 8

  • Problem handling: no problems

  • Overall score: 81%

  • Would I use it again?: Yes


  • Free delivery to everywhere, including Scottish islands for orders over £25.

  • Really easy website to use; fast and quick to move around, and you don't need to squint to read anything.

  • Substantial reductions on shop prices.


  • Delivery took a week. Not disastrous, but not fantastic. 

  • Order tracking non-existant; where's my box?

  • A little more detail on some items in the online store would be good.

  • Some items can only be bought in bulk, not individually.

  • Mountain of packaging, though it'll burn well on the fire tonight.

Friday, 28 March 2008

Berneray connections

The last week, including the long Easter weekend, has been a very "local" one. I haven't got half as much work done as had originally set out to, instead having lots of often accidental conversations with various people, and looking up information. Both fun, and illuminating.

The main Berneray event over Easter was the Historical Society "drop in".  Visible is a steady growth in the amount of "stuff" collected by the Societies current initiative, and the type and nature of the "stuff" - not just pictures, but data and metadata about Berneray. For an island with currently 124 permanent residents, it's a huge back-history. I've previously worked on metadata and digitisation projects (ironically some also funded by the NOF), so how this one progresses is of particular interest. The issues concerning data and content capture, preservation, duplication, accuracy and checking, cross-referencing and metadata are made more difficult by the almost impossibly complex connections between residents past and present, and the fragmented sources of information.

Seeing some of the older information, especially the family names, has also reminded me to restart looking into my family past. It's tricky as most of my living relatives are scattered across Canada; I have relatives in all 10 provinces and three territories, especially clustered in British Columbia and Nova Scotia. Unfortunately, I'm not in contact with most of them. When I was younger, some of them sent magazines and parcels of chewy fruit stuff to my family, but despite going to the US several times I've never gone over the border to visit any. A trip is becoming overdue. Hmmm, sudden thought - next year is the "homecoming" year, and it would be good if any of them with a proven connection visited the Outer Hebrides.

The intriguing part is that a lot of these Canadian relatives are there because their ancestors emigrated from "rural" west Scotland in the 19th and early 20th century; mixed in with the names are MacKillops and MacLeods. One elderly relative in Canada speaks some Gaelic, has talked of Harris roots, and apparently has a large collection of Scottish material, which a second cousin of mine is looking into. I have no idea or evidence at the moment, but - who knows - I might be distantly related (it would be quite a few cousins away) from some of Bernerays current residents, which would be really bizarre.

The event last weekend also helped to clarify Ruth's family connection with Berneray. Her Mothers cousin (a Mackay) was married to a local (a MacLeod yet again; that surname keeps popping up) who still possesses a croft on Berneray. It's strange, seeing him in a school photograph from around half a century ago, surrounded by people who still live on Berneray and who we know. We're starting to wonder if, subconsciously, distant mentions of Berneray, Harris or the Hebrides or other historical fragments may have influenced our decision to move to Berneray. 

Even stranger is that Ruth has quirky non-genealogical connections with both the next two couples who will become permanent residents of Berneray. Speaking of which, the issue of population statistics in the Outer Hebrides and Berneray is something I'll blog about soon.

Chariots of fire, Berneray style

Andrew Ross, who combines media services with running Seal View Bed and Breakfast on Berneray, has become a bit of an ardent runner of late. Representing Berneray, he managed a time of 45 minutes and 58 seconds for the recent 10 kilometre race in Benbecula.

Tomorrow he's off again, running in the 10k in Harris, a short ferry and bus ride away. The weather forecast looks breezy, but not too wet, so the undulating course should prove a bigger challenge than the flatness of Benbecula.

As many residents have observed, Andrew has been training a lot around the island of late:


He's not the only one; several other residents have been puffing their way around, to get in shape for the Berneray 10K race across machair and beach this summer. This takes place on Saturday 19th July, giving people thinking about it 16 weeks to get into shape.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Berneray and Uist residents: where's the window?

A local quiz for local people.

This window is in a building which has been visited by many residents of Berneray and the Uists. Some have spent some time looking out of this window. But where is it?


Question number two for local residents; and this one I don't know the answer to. Does anyone know for definite, e.g. not speculation woven into fact, who has bought the old hospital building in Lochmaddy?

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

More Berneray lambiekins

By Scotproof (Ruth), from our walk yesterday across machair and beach:




More pictures from around Berneray by Ruth can be found on Flickr.

Sunday, 23 March 2008

Online delivery charges: chimney cowl

The issue 

Online shopping is a core economic activity of most UK households now. From a report in The Register:
"The OFT [Office of Fair Trading] said last year that the UK online shopping market is worth £21.4bn a year and that 20 million people shopped online in 2006, a third of them spending over £1,000."

However, all is not rosy. The same report showed that nearly a third of retail websites surveyed are breaking laws designed to protect shoppers. In addition to these problems, there are legal and ethical grey areas - one of which, delivery charges, is a particular one for residents of the Outer Hebrides.

The issue of delivery charges for goods bought from the mainland comes up increasingly. The Comhairle (see point 23) and our MSP have been taking correspondance from constituents on this issue, and myself and others have blogged about it before. The wide variation in delivery charges was highlighted during the recent cowl purchasing saga, the (happy) end result of which I blogged and filmed previously. 

Basically, I required a new chimney cowl. The start was to consider purchasing it locally. I don't buy by telephone, as it usually takes an insane amount of time, you're relying getting someone at the right time on the other end, and you can't see the product. A trip to the nearest shops that may potentially sell cowls (in Benbecula) would take several hours there and back, with a significant risk of not getting the cowl I wanted; alas, these shops didn't have a website that I could find.

I then looked online for mainland shops that sell cowls, and found lots. However, I ended up looking at 38 different online shops before I found the right combination of cowl, acceptable price and - especially - acceptable delivery charge and conditions. It's these delivery aspects that are of interest.


A selection of online shops examined

Stoves Are Us. They had delivery information for their fireplaces (but not their cowls) which consists of:
"We normally charge a £95 contribution towards delivery costs of fireplaces and mantels to Scotland, but look out for Great Deals where fireplaces and mantels are delivered free to Scottish addresses. Delivery of online stove and fire orders over £100 and stove glass orders is free to UK mainland addresses."

So, for some orders Berwick residents get free delivery but Gretna ones don't? I couldn't get delivery charges on their cowls, as they wanted me to register and enter lots of personal information before providing this. No thanks.

Chimney Products Direct charge a tenner delivery for orders under £150 - but to the UK mainland only. There is a fill-in form to contact them "for a quote if delivery or shipping beyond mainland UK". It broke when I tried it. Several other online shops also requested getting in touch for delivery quotes beyond mainland UK. Some took several days to respond; others still haven't responded.

Loftshop were another. They had a good range of cowls, and said "FREE next day delivery in Mainland UK!", but you had to contact them if they were not "able to answer all of your questions". I can't really be doing with this; an online shop should just take one session, not several sessions spread out over a week with lots of email writing and waiting.

Flue Factory. Hmmm. These people really take the biscuit regarding customers who live this side of Fort William. Their definition of "Mainland UK" seems to really mean "The main island of the UK, but in the middle of the night someone floated off the Scottish Highlands in one direction and Grampian in another":


So essentially it's free from their depot to Fort William, but then up to 5p short of 50 pounds for the last stretch after that. Aye, right.

Hotline chimneys have a complicated set of instructions on their page "Delivery explained", to which residents of Northern Scotland (where does that start?) and Islands are directed:

"All Orders of more than £200 Excluding VAT include UK mainland delivery, under this amount + £8.00 ex vat.

Important Note. Unfortunately we are unable to ship chimney liners, flue systems or vermiculite offshore at the prices below, the charge for these items to the bottom 5 locations below is £45 + vat (any value order), just choose Bulk items offshore at checkout. All orders above £600 net to the destinations below are shipped free (Except for those mentioned above).

...Scottish Islands: £20 (Charge exc VAT up to £200 net) £36 (Charge exc VAT up to £600 net)" have a blanket charge of £49.95 for Scottish Offshore, whereas they charge £19.95 delivery for orders under £150 to the UK mainland, and free delivery for mainland orders over £150. In their favour, this website has a simple to use delivery charge calculator, where you put in your postcode and it comes up with the price. have a banner claiming they are the "UK's Leading Online Supplier" of Stove and Chimney Products. As they are "leading", and technically I live in the UK, I had hopes of reasonable charges and delivery mechanisms. No such luck; I had to get quite far into the process of online shopping to find out the cost of delivery:


32 pounds + VAT = £37.60 for delivery. Basically, the delivery costs nearly twice as much as the product! The only delivery option offered is via TNT Express. From the many experiences of myself and other residents (a) TNT express takes longer than is usually stated, as other carriers are involved in a delivery chain, and (b) an item put in the post or sent by ParcelForce will take less time to be delivered. Upshot - with the only option offered by this company, you pay more to wait longer for it to be delivered.

The chosen cowl

In the end I purchased the Junior Aluminium Cowl (bolt version) from the online shop of Chimney Cowl Products. Their website seemed to imply a standard delivery rate for everywhere, but wasn't clear on delivery to the Outer Hebrides, saying:
"We ship both UK Mainland and International Orders, within 2 to 3 Working Days from receipt of payment being approved, based upon the Carriage terms agreed to at the time of Order placement."

So I emailed them, and was surprised to get a quick reply - and on a Sunday:
"Hi John; we have a standard delivery charge of £11.68 and free on sales order over £200."

Aha! A fair postage cost, and a quick reply. So, I placed the order online, which was a smooth and quick process. Here's the bill at the online checkout part:


(Note that the total cost was cheaper than several other companies charged for delivery alone.)

Less than two days later, the cowl turns up in the post. The box has an additional label on it ("APC overnight: a perfect choice"), so it seems that part of the journey was done by courier, with the remainder via the royal mail.


All parts intact, well packaged, and shiny and new.


  1. Some delivery companies in the Highlands and Islands charge reasonable rates. For example, Woodys Express charge from £7.50 to take items up to 25kg on their daily runs between Inverness and Stornoway. DR Macleod is another with reasonable rates. This is why an increasing number of Outer Hebrides residents buy goods online, but have them delivered to the depot of one of these companies in Inverness or Glasgow, for onward delivery to their home, as it works out cheaper overall. So companies that claim it costs a small fortune to have one of their items delivered to the Outer Hebrides either have got an unusually bad delivery contract, or are not being strictly truthful. 

  2. Why don't more online shops use the postal delivery service? As shown in the order placed, it can be done successfully, quickly and cheaply. From a wider socio-economic perspective, it also has the side benefit of making the postal network delivery system more profitable and sustainable.

  3. If a company is so lazy or sloppy at geography that they can't get basic concepts such as "UK mainland" correct, it doesn't instil confidence that they can manage the processing of an order and delivery correctly.

  4. Are excessive delivery charges illegal? If a company charges a large premium for delivery to somewhere north of Wigan, but some of that is being pocketed by them as extra profit as opposed to extra delivery costs, then does that fall foul of either the Trade Descriptions Act 1968, the Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations 2000, or some other legislation?

  5. Absurdly complicated instructions and clauses about delivery charges on a business website are off-putting. Online shopping is supposed to be quick and easy. show the best solution to finding out the delivery charge, with a little box in which you put in your postcode and up pops up the cost.

  6. ...though the ultimate best solution is a "one fixed price for the UK" charge. Companies such as Boots do it - their policy, which covers "the UK (including the Isle of Man and The Scottish Islands) and Northern Ireland." is:

  7. "Free deliveries are currently available if you spend over £40 in a single transaction and you request a standard delivery. However, if your order includes a heavy, bulky or over-sized item(s) (which will be indicated in the shop and checkout), the free delivery service is not available and all items included in that order will incur a £4.95 delivery charge."

    So if Boots can do it - as well as chimney cowl products - why can't other online shops that sell chimney cowls...?

Saturday, 22 March 2008

"Sunny with wintry showers"

Yes, that's pretty much this Easter on the Outer Hebrides. Personified by this picture by Donald M of the west side of Lewis:


Friday, 21 March 2008

Otter and seagull squabble

The same incident I've seen twice in the last week on the west beach of Berneray. An otter (probably the same one), complete with fish catch, is being bothered by a small group of seagulls intent on stealing said luncheon.

The picture is poor quality, as I had to zoom in to maximum on a camera not up to this kind of thing. You should be able to make out the more braver seagull hopping about in front of the otter.


A few seconds later the otter saw me, decided he'd had enough of his breakfast being interrupted, and swam off.

Ah for a camera with a proper zoom lens so I can get decent quality shots of this kind of shenanigans.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Berneray Tortilla

A "Berneray Tortilla" is a variation on the classic Spanish Omelette, but made specifically with Berneray goose eggs.

Here it is:


There's peppers, onions, ham and other stuff in there. Very nice it was, but a bit more heavier and filling than a normal (hens egg-based) omelette. Served best with sliced and friend potatoes, and a light but very chilled white wine for balance.

Populating the Second Life world

One of the common criticisms hurled at Second Life is that it often appears to be deserted. "Ah, look", cries the sceptic or luddite as they see a screenshot or fly into an island. "No other people, so hardly anyone uses Second Life." The reality is, however, quite different. One of the features of Second Life is that you can zip up, and back down, to quite extreme levels of granularity using the map function. The screenshots on this page show what happens when you do.

Compression, to fit the screenshots on this blog entry, has reduced the quality a lot. Click on a screenshot to see a larger, fuller sized version.

First, the map view of Eduserv Island, the island my avatar (ringed) is currently on. You can make out the structures and buildings on it, as well as the location of my avatar (yellow ring). The green dot indicates the presence of another avatar on the island:


A few of the islands not far from Eduserv Island. The green dots indicate there aren't that many avatars around. As this area has a lot of UK-centric islands, and the expected audience are largely having their "real world" dinner at this time, not that surprising.


Now we zoom out to see some more of the islands in the neighbourhood:


The cluster of islands in the previous picture is in the top right hand corner. Eduserv Island, where my avatar still is, is highlighted. Each of the many green dots indicates an avatar; at this height, Second Life doesn't draw in new islands and focuses on the avatars:


Some way south of Eduserv Island can be seen regions of the world that are especially busy, with dense areas of avatars. The completely blue region in the bottom right is virgin "sea", as yet untouched by any island developments:


It's at the stage where we can see many thousands of avatars. The PC is finding it difficult, if not impossible, to keep the avatar map up to date and is making a high-pitched noise. And, not to forget, this is just a fraction of the overall Second Life world:


And finally, coming back down to an area of land not bounded by sea. This consists of more commercially oriented developments, and a wander through brings contact with a fair number of US people's avatars. Not surprising, as it's mid-afternoon on the east coast and lunchtime on the west:


So there you have it. Some areas with not many avatars at the time in them, and others jam-packed. But even those seemingly deserted islands and plots of lands have had "people" on them at some point to build the various structures.

Saying Second Life is unused because you're in a quiet bit is like going for a walk in Central Park, and extrapolating that New York is mostly deserted because all you see is the odd jogger. Or that because Arizona is mostly empty, so the USA must have a negligible population. Second Life is a vast, and constantly growing online world, with an uneven spread of developments and - especially - people. If you haven't come across many yet, then you haven't really explored it well.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

The Outer Hebrides in Milouvision

There are a lot of photographers who specialise, partially or fully, in the Outer Hebrides. Some are better than others, and (as this is a subjective thing) one of my favourites is Milou.

Here's his shot of Luskentyre beach:


His online gallery of Outer Hebrides pictures is well worth a look at. Unlike many other online galleries, the pictures are ver high quality, large and not obscured by copyright and ownership notices. The "cow nose" one is a particular favourite.

Monday, 17 March 2008

Berneray and Dewsbury: different worlds

One of the effects of living here is that, increasingly, TV news brings location coverage from places that seem - well, alien. Maybe it's because I read a lot of non-UK media that describes more familiar places, but it's really difficult to believe that Dewsbury and similar places (of which there are many) are in the same country as Berneray. That's not saying one is better than the other; just that they seem so extremely different, culturally and socio-economically.

A blog posting by Iain Dale, and some of the comments within it, give pause for thought:

In 1998-1999 I lived in a similar socio-economic area to Dewsbury, in the west part of Nottingham. Recent TV coverage of the Shannon Matthews case reminded me a bit of that; the people and how they integrated with each other, the housing (especially), the odd fact that the outside coverage was of an all-white mono-culture but many of the interviewed residents were from ethnic minorities. My main memories of living there was of a large gang of pushchair-wielding parents attacking the house of the drug dealer who lived across the road one day, frequent car chases past my house that involved the police, and the police helicopter circling overhead nearly every saturday night.

The plus sides were that rent was very cheap, and there was (still) the best curry takeaway place I've ever eaten from at the end of the road.

It is odd, watching the coverage from the Shannon Matthews case. Berneray seems so very different, in so many cultural and socio-economic ways. The Outer Hebrides seems far more similar to rural Montana, or the Lofoten Islands, or some of the Texan communities in No Country for Old Men, than it is to places like Dewsbury.  It's difficult to believe it's the same country.

Springtime, for lambiekins, on Berneray

It's Spring. The days are getting longer, it's only a few weeks till the clocks go forward, and we've just received our annual council tax bill.

Spring also brings with it the popping out of lambs on the machair. A few pictures of the earlier arrivals this month so far on Berneray:




I think that last one was just a few hours old. Everyone go "aaaahh!"

Friday, 14 March 2008

New chimney cowl

Finally, the rattling is at an end. Chimney cowls are an important item of domestic engineering here. They keep birdies out of your home heating systems (or are supposed to), stop downdraughts from pushing fire smoke into your living room, and stop rain from getting into the system.

Unfortunately, in a place that is relatively windy, no ordinary cowl will do. The previous owners of this house went through a few, and, after increasing rattling caused by the wearing of bolts, it was time we did too. So our neighbour Andy was up on the roof just now, removing what was left of the old one:


... and here's a movie clip of him attaching the new one:


Nice shiny (it won't last) cowl. Though the bolts, supplied with the cowl, that stick out may become somewhat unwanted bird perches. We'll see.

The process of purchasing the cowl turned into another exercise in online shopping microeconomics; more on this soon.

Cheaper Second Life hosting for UK academics

One of the "older" (in relative terms!) areas in Second Life is the Education UK Island. What's it for? " Their website says:

"Education UK island is a not for profit educational island constructed in Second Life to provide a ‘safe’ location for U.K. virtual education."

...and who are they? Their website continues:

"We are purely a group of UK educationalists who have worked in UK education at practioner, manager and policy levels for a substantial number of years, who have come together and bought an island and the accompanying resources out of our own money. We are not in receipt of any funding for this."


And they host an impressive list of of colleges, universities, and other outfits who have developed stuff. These include:

  • School of Health and Social Care, University of Bournemouth

  • JISC Regional Support Centres

  • Derby University

  • South West Grid for Learning

  • Staffordshire University

  • City College Norwich

  • JISCMail

  • Association for Physical Education

  • Scottish Further Education Unit

  • Mid Cheshire College

  • King George V 6th Form College

  • Plymouth University

  • Hull University

  • University of the West of England

  • Literature Alive

  • Teachers TV

  • Myerscough College

  • Barking College

  • Manchester Metropolitan University

  • Leeds University


That's quite a lot to be getting on with, so it's worth spending a good few hours there. The afternoon and mid-evenings seem to be best, as that's when there's often various developers busy building stuff, or people holding meetings. If the flying or walking around is too much effort, there's a railway so you can sit on the train as it chugs around the island :-)

Education UK isn't the only place that provides third-party accommodation in Second Life for academics. For example, the Eduserv Foundation, who fund this research, host several on their pseudo-exotic Eduserv Island, such as the Centre for Information Literacy Research from Sheffield University. However, Education UK who are doing this pretty solely as a lo-cost route for academics, have by far the largest concentration of UK universities and colleges on one plot.


As well as their website, there's also a central office and further information about them within the island itself. 

To fly into, for example, the Plymouth University area on Education Island, go to (you'll need the SL viewer installed on your PC first):
...and from there fly up and have a spin around.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Ceapabhal, Harris

I'm not sure this really constitutes a beach, as there's more grass than sand. But, there is sand here, and many sandy beaches nearby, so it'll do:



The picture is by Flickr user the44mantis. According to his profile, one of his claims to fame is that he's cut peat in Lewis and Shetland.

Go to work on a (goose) egg

Our local supplier of hens eggs has a few goose eggs, so we're trying those this week. I haven't had goose eggs for, reckon,  23 years and I'd forgotten how big they were. It's not surprising that geese are so loud and angry; so would you be if you were a bird and had to pass these (hens eggs on the right for scale):


Donald informs me that in past times goose eggs used to be hard-boiled and taken away for lunch. Which makes sense, as it's basically then a meal in its own package, a bit like how the Cornish pasties used to be to the tin miners of that county. Anyway, here it's time perhaps for scrambled goose egg, fricassee of girolles à la Provençal. Bon appetit!

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

The original purpose of the Web

All these Web 2.0 applications, such as Flickr and Facebook, are both useful and fun to experiment with. And the Web is useful for obtaining all kinds of information, for education and for trading.

But let's not forget that the original purpose of the World Wide Web - the reason why it was developed - was so people could, finally, easily put pictures of their cats online for the world to see. So, here's my cat, Jura:


At my first interview for a job in academia, 13 years ago, the issue of whether university staff should put pictures of their cats on their web pages turned into the main discussion point. The example used by the interviewing panel was the then-head of a university department who had done this; I notice, 13 years on, that he still has those pictures of his cats on his web page. Wonder if this is an Internet record?

More UK university developments in Second Life

At Heriot-Watt University, undergraduate and MSc students have been busy developing all manner of things. Their tutor Judy Robertson opened the island to the public yesterday, and gave out "oscars" to some of the students. It's a busy island with a lot to look at and play with, so is worth a visit.


University of East London are currently putting a toe in the water and doing some designing in-world:


Meanwhile, a PhD student and graduate teacher at Brunel University has developed a replica of his institution in Second Life, right down to the branch of Costcutters:


I'm wading through a backlog of emails and leads regarding this survey at the moment, so if I haven't responded to yours yet, I will do so soon.

Monday, 10 March 2008

Next Berneray 10K race: 19th July 2008

There's probably few 10 kilometre races in the world where participants have a good chance of not passing a pedestrian, or encountering a car. Berneray has one such race, which is becoming one of the featured events of the annual Berneray week.

Here's a few pictures (by Cassandra MacLean and Andrew Ross) of last years 10k, which was part of the 25th Berneray week.

First, the start:


...then two people finishing and collecting their mars bar:


...and Ian, the winner:


It's not a totally competitive event. While some race, or go for a personal best time, others have a pleasant jog around and look at the scenery - of which there is lots for the whole route.

Part of the course involves crossing the cockle bay at the south end of Berneray:


Plus, there's a fair bit on Berneray machair itself:


So if you want to do a 10 kilometre race this summer, but fancy a crowd-free, traffic free course with plenty of scenery, then here's the details:

Race logistics for 2008

Date: Saturday 19 July 2008
Start time: 2pm start
Start and Finish Point: Berneray Community Hall
Registration: 1pm to 1.45pm
Contact: Andrew Ross

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Barra bare bums blogged

(Trying saying that three times when drunk; tricky).

As a follow-up to the incident involving the movie-making on Barra, some still pictures have appeared online that show some of what was going on. You can find the pictures on this blog - be warned, contains several images of rear male nudity. The last picture had me worried; not a good idea to get any closer to that airplane propellor, mate.

There's an ironic twist to this, in that the blog on which the pictures appear is hosted by - VisitScotland. Who commissioned the original film, which was subsequently and hysterically "destroyed". It's quite a good team blog, written by a group of people including one of the Hebrideans involved in Canoe Hebrides; worth checking out.

In the meantime, here's a (different) excellent picture from Flickr user Lochfada, showing said plane landing on the beach. No nudists in sight on this occasion:


...and here's a plane taking off on YouTube. I like the fact that, on approaching the airport, the pilot was told that landing conditions were "Firm but moist":



Another excellent picture by Leanish from Barra. This one of one of the beaches of Vatersay, the island connected by causeway to Barra. This is where I spent my first full day of holiday to the Outer Hebrides, many years ago now. And where I discovered that, even in the Outer Hebrides, it is quite possible to get sunburnt.


For the occasional sceptic who reckons pictures like these are either not of the Outer Hebrides, or are heavily doctored; wrong. Go and view Leanish's other work. Talented Barra resident + stunningly brilliant scenery = great pictures.

Friday, 7 March 2008

Capturing the history of Berneray

A long time ago I wrote about the importance of family, relations and ancestry to residents of the Outer Hebrides, elements of which are embedded in a persons name.

Berneray Historical Society have a long-term project underway to capture and catalogue the history of Berneray. Central to this is collecting geneology information about current, and previous, residents of the island.

This is, well, a massive project. Berneray has currently 124 permanent residents. But about two-thirds of those are connected through ancestry or marriage or some other complex genetic way. And once you start looking back to previous generations, it then gets really complicated. The project worker, Sue:


...has over the last few months built up a database of around 3,500 people [or, an average of 30 for every current living resident of Berneray], but that's just scratching the surface. The project is currently funded for two years, but thinking about sources such as:

  • the vast quantities of newspaper and media materials

  • information in people's heads and their attics

  • ephemera in various museums and other places on the mainland

  • other geneology work carried out by people with Berneray connections

  • the information held by the diaspora, especially in Canada, Australia and New Zealand

...the project will take many years to do completely - if it's possible to complete at all!

Some of the data is going into the Hebridean Connections database, which gradually links up all the inter-community information. The Berneray page in Hebridean Connections has some pictures on it taken by moi :-)

There's further information about this project online. If you have information of use, or have some kind of connection to Berneray past or present - especially if you are elsewhere in the world - then contact Sue.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Eoligarry, Barra, Outer Hebrides

A picture by Leanish, resident and photographer from Barra, of one of the beaches there. Eoligarry is one of my favourite places in the Outer Hebrides, especially the nearby hill which has spectacular views of the beaches and airport. A good place to picnic and watch the planes land.


More UK Second Life academic developments

Following on from the description and call for information, more examples and detail are coming in.

Liz Falconer from the University of the West of England left a comment about their development on the Flickr picture. She also details:
We are a bit different (unconventional!) as we've tried to think outside the box in SL - play to SL's strengths and physical laws rather than duplicate RL. The SL structure's most important reason for being is not as a containing structure like buildings in RL, but as a metaphor for some of the activities that students undertake when carrying out research for dissertations and theses.  In fact, one of our main research interests is in metaphor in online learning design (as you can see in the RO website at and also how students with differing cognitive abilities and learning preferences (e.g. highly systemising or autistic tendencies) cope with metaphor, both on Web sites for learning and in immersive environments like SL. Also, we were keen to involve students in the design right from the beginning, and our architecture students came up with some great ideas (see our blog at

Some of the new locations I've been a-visiting. A Warwick University island where maths students are taught:


The Centre for European Studies at the University of Exeter:


...and a collaborative development between computing students and urban design students at the University of Greenwich:


Playing, digitally, with real-world physics

Asks another blogger: Is this the end of "stuff"?

While hunting for examples of Second Life in UK universities, I keep coming across discussion and resources surrounding the modelling of physics in SL. This brings back some bad memories...

I was useless at physics in school. My rubbishness was partly out of disinterest, partially due to the dull and anti-motivated way in which the subject was taught, and partially due to hostility to the teacher. Classmates who should have done better also got low grades.

So perhaps something a bit more motivational, and a bit easier to visualise the various things that go on in mechanics would have helped. Something like the game Crayon Physics Deluxe:


And then there's Phun, a "2D Physics sandbox", which is just awesome. There's the bit, 55 seconds into the next video, where a solid is changed into a liquid, with resulting effects; cool! And see the bit where - and learning is often best by building - a piston-motor is built and operated.

And, it's all perfectly safe, spill-free and un-litigious: that'll be an attractive option for schools.


Even better, Phun is a bit of free software that you can download and play with. Go on - you know you want to...

And what did we have that was the "cutting edge" equivalent of this in the 80's? Etch-a-bloody-sketch :-(

Still, at least if I ever have kids, digital technology like this will save me a fortune as I won't need to buy plasticine, toys, building blocks and all that now. Put a flatscreen monitor at the end of the cot, load up Phun or CPD, and let them get on with it. Sorted.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008


Ah well. There goes another New Years Resolution up in smoke (or rather, down in one). The friendly DR MacLeod man, who is a sort-of all-year-round Santa, brings nice presents in his blue van which nestle on my kitchen table:


Well, one needs a large glass of red in the hand to inspire one in one's work. That's my excuse and I'm sticking to it. Von wine racks are refilled: