Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Morning recording

Yesterday was somewhat disrupted. The electricity people shut off the power for several hours to attach bright red discs to the mains wires about six miles away, as swans and geese had a habit of flying into them. Annoying for us, as each bird being fried results in a short power blip. But worse for the birdie, suppose. So, like several other Berneray residents, we ended up in Lochmaddy for what turned out to be an excellent lunch (which unexpectedly included caviar).

This morning, possibly due to the extroadinary amount of caffeine consumed during yesterdays lunch, I was wide awake by 5am. Which was a good opportunity to try out the new camcorder; still haven't worked out most of the settings, options and buttons, but here's a wonky clip of the view from my office window earlier today:


Obviously, a tripod is required. Plus a good read of the operating manual.

After said lunch yesterday, we waddled home and set up the Nintendo Wii Fitness. Hint: when you've had a blow-out meal is not the time to configure your character. 

Need to send some work to ever-patient colleagues in Bath first, then collect thoughts on the device and game for a detailed review in about a week or so; there's rather a lot to it.


Game articles in the Guardian

Yay! I have lost my Guardian-published virginity at last. It's on the use of commercial video games in schools and education:

(Thinks) Does this - getting published in The Guardian - make me a lefty-liberal? Should I write an article for The Telegraph for left-right balance?

Also in the Guardian today, there's a better article by Richard Bartle, about how non-gamers are becoming a steadily smaller minority, both in terms of numbers and socio-political influence:

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Local moth love action

This is a bit of a weird picture. Taken by Scotproof a few hours ago on Borve Hill, Berneray. Three moths; the female one is being harrassed, or mated, with two male ones.


Those eye-like symbols on the wings are plain weird. As are the fern-like antenna and the furry, almost Highland Cow hairy-like main bodies.

More detail visible in the larger version of the picture

Not an early adopter

A year ago I set a fiscal limit. No electrical, or electronic goods, or household appliances e.g. fridges or washing machines, or anything like that for more than £200. Sceptics droned that this would be impossible, that my business wouldn’t survive, that I’d be forced to rely on almost caveman-like technology and living in the Outer Hebrides would be miserable.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

It's been remarkably easy. Surprisingly, living in the sea air, nothing major has gone wrong with appliances, which has helped. Though even if they had things like fridge-freezers can now be replaced for under £200. Existing PCs work fine; Windows XP has proved to be stable, and I'd like to keep these running for a few years yet. My ageing laserprinter is spluttering, but there's many options for a replacement for under £100, let alone £200. Video game stuff? I have the Wii and DS, both good value, and some game stuff I get for free from clients (which I guess is cheating a bit).

Televisions? Two that are seven years old. Music system? One that is (thinks hard) 11 years old. The washing machine (5 years old), fridge freezer (unknown; it came with the house before last). Non of these items were vastly expensive, but they all seem to have lasted. When they break, they'll go for recycling; when they need replacing, it'll be on ebay or in whatever charity shop will take them.

Having this limit has some side benefits. If disaster occurs, I haven’t lost a fortune, and neither is it worth claiming on my household insurance and suffering increased premiums. I can check on eBay in a years time and not find, unlike the digital camera I bought for £650 in 2000, that several hundred pounds have already been lost in depreciation. That was a bad day. As was April 15th for many people who had just bought an iphone. Once the early adopters dry up, the price heads for the cliff edge.

And so, the latest toy within the £200 limit arrived today; a Sony DCR-DVD110E handycam. I'd been waiting out for the prices of camcorders to come down for a while, and had shortlisted three. This was the first one to fall under £200, so it was duly purchased and arrived by courier today.

After being shocked at how small and light it was (it fits in my coat pocket), a few hours were spent grappling with some of the touch screen options. From my office, I was able to zoom in on someone wandering near the youth hostel, picking their nose (that one won’t be making it onto YouTube). On top of Borve Hill, I could pick out geese flying over the sea. I can burn movies onto mini-DVDs within the camera, or download to the PC and do all manner of magical things with them.

The total cost? Handycam and a box of mini-DVDs for under £200. Just a few weeks ago, this would have cost a lot more. A few years ago, and probably the same functionality would have cost a four digit amount, or not been commercially available. Even though I think of myself as a citizen of the 21st century (last century was just a mainly dull warm-up for the technological, information and communication possibilities of this one), I’m still amazed at what this bundle of tricks can do.

Here's pretty much the first attempt with the camcorder, of some seals on rocks close to Seal View bed and breakfast down the road. Quality mangled a bit by YouTube:


The downsides of the £200 limit. I don’t have the latest technologies. Um, that’s about it. Prices of electronic items fall so quickly now that, if you’re willing to wait six months to a year, then you’ve a fair chance of getting what you wanted. And certainly not everyone wants the “latest, now”; see for example the strong movement to hold on to Windows XP (which I like) over the newer Windows Vimto as long as possible. Okay, I’d like a Nikon D300, but I can make do with the “crappy” 6Mb camera I have at the moment. Which, three years ago, was wow-ing people.

The next items on the hit-list are a spare, light, laptop. Asus are starting to sell Linux-based ones at sub-£200. I have a multi-country trip later in the year, and don’t need a high-tec machine with me. Just something to check email, twitter, Facebook, keep in touch with the events I’m at, and upload pictures to Flickr will do, especially if delayed for several hours and when on a plane for several hours more (the boredom of the long-distance journey from Europe to California is stressful). So at under £200, if disaster strikes in some airport security clearance then it’s not a fiscal tragedy.

But it’s projectors that have got me intrigued of late. For years, the cost of projectors has remained stubbornly high, while those of other electronic items have fallen. But, no longer. Good quality home cinema projectors are coming in at less than £400 and falling rapidly in price. My TV viewing is minimal, with DVDs taking up the large bulk of screen time, so a home projector would provide a much bigger picture for the DVDs, as well as for the Wii and going online. Frans in Tampere manages this quite well, as does Doctor Kate the scrabulous fiend down South Uist way.

(Though if lots of people did this, where will the BBC get its licence fee income from a few years from now? Ditching the TV and the saving from the TV licence and subscriptions to Sky TV will quickly pay for a projector. The profit will cover extra DVDs. You've suddenly got a cinema screen instead of an inconvenient box that is the focal point of your living room. Nearly all of the content you'd miss out on is available online, on DVDs, or in the pub e.g. footie matches. Do the math. I wonder if BBC accountants have "done the math" and are having sleepless nights?)

But back to that £200 limit. Unfortunately it can’t be applied to all of life’s luxuries or necessities. The price of a tank of heating oil has risen by 50%, from £280 to £420, in three years. Airline tickets are expensive (please, any budget airline, start flying out of Benbecula). And every year or so I look at the cost of buying a car, keeping it on the road, and filling it with petrol, shake my head in bemusement at why the vast majority of my fellow Brits do this and stick with public transport. But for everything electronic or electrical, I’m sticking with my £200 limit for the next financial year. Hasta la cheapskate.

(Though having said all that, I'd be more than grateful for any benevolent reader buying me a present from my Amazon Wish List!)

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Traigh Gearadha, Isle of Lewis

Barbados? Naw, Outer Hebrides, man:


Picture by Flickr user Donald M.

Twitter: Brevity is the soul of wit

I'm into my second phase of Twitter use, and am finding it more enjoyable, and a little more useful, than the first time I tried it.

To backtrack; Twitter is "micro-blogging". It's most similar to the Facebook status function. Some people think it's SMS for the Web, but as people don't use txtspk but normal language instead, not sure that's a good comparison.

You type in a message of up to 140 characters. And that's it. You can "follow" other people's Twitters (I refuse to get drawn into semantic debates about whether these are Twits, or Tweets, or Twittees), and other people can follow yours. The messages are, by default, viewable in a Facebook status-like "Most recent at the top" listing to your followers. For stuff spread across several Twitter messages, read from the bottom up; for example:


That's pretty much all there is to it.

Though if you want more, here's a video on YouTube::


The first time I tried it last year was a bit rubbish. I entered stuff. Nothing much happened; I had little idea if stuff was being read, and it felt more like sending SMS messages to an answering machine. In retrospect, the lack of followers at the time meant the experiment was a bit pointless.

Recently I've tried it again, and it's a much more worthwhile experience.

Uses? So far, ten for me:

  1. Facebook status updates are, in my case anyway, of limited interest as my FB contacts are spread globally, through work, family, friends, colleagues and ex-colleagues. Maybe it's because of the follower concept, but Twitter seems to attract a more focused group of people, with more interesting and work-relevant status updates. I get more out of 5 Twitter message reads than 30 Facebook status reads.

  2. Conferences I'm not attending are, unexpectedly, fun to follow on Twitter. As has happened a few times, a speaker says something interesting or unexpected. Suddenly, there's several Twitter updates from followers at the event, with snappy (140 characters maximum) summaries of what's just happened. Quick to read, and you get an overall wisdom-of-crowds idea of what just happened. 

  3. It's easy to use for people with a wide range of disabilities, especially those who are deaf or hard of hearing. I didn't realise one of my previous Twitter "followers" was deaf for a long time. It's a level playing field for him, so he's very happy with Twitter.

  4. Stuck? Chuck a question out there in nice, concise 140 chars or less format and see what comes back. A quick (short) question may elicit a quick (short) response. There's little effort/time involved by both parties.

  5. "Which session are you in? Worthwhile sneaking in?" More than once I've been at a conference and chosen the wrong room at a parallel session. I'm then stuck with the dilemma of walking out, and the (grass is greener) concern that I'm missing a better, more useful, session elsewhere at the same time. Twitter has a use, and is quicker than email, in arriving at a quick "stay / leave / goto a different session that's happening now" choice.

  6. Physically distributed group activity. There's many applications of Twitter here. Marshalls at a marathon checkpoint can Twitter when runners appear, or if they are running out of water. People in a sports stadium or outdoor concert can hook up. A group of people outdoors doing just about anything (especially if in fog and out of visual contact) can maintain contact. A group of people looking for something or someone lost? Send updates to each other indicating areas covered, so the search layout can be rejigged.

  7. Quick reminder. "The symposium starts in SL in 5 mins". That was useful. Especially as I was the first presenter.

  8. Mixing it up. Twitters can be people, or news feeds, or organisation information push-outs, or just about anything that is in a digital 140 chars max format. 

  9. Time management training. People who can't express simple things without writing an essay will either (a) have to adapt if they use Twitter, or (b) avoid using Twitter. Either way, that's a good thing.

  10. Similarly, unlike the hell of multiple RSS feeds which quickly deliver a mountain of blog essays to my screen, Twitter keeps it short. It's the "Milky Way" of digital information; the chocolate bar (online service) you can eat (read) without losing your appetite (focus). It's easier to follow a large number of Twitters than a much smaller number of RSS feeds - though I do wonder if some people "collect" followers for similar reasons to collecting Facebook friends:


It's also a partial replacement for the WDE (Worst Device Ever), but more of that another time.

Other people, such as Andy Ramsden, Jonathan DaviesDon Steinberg and Geekpreneur have described uses of Twitter, while Christopher Sessums points to some more resources and educational uses. There's also a cluster of applications that incorporate Twitter in some way. A strangely hypnotic one is Twittervision - based on the photographic Flickrvision service - which shows where random Twitters are being typed in around the world.

The key to effective Twitter use seems to be matching the use to the followers. Twitter relies on both content and people, with the latter finding the former relevant. If your "crowd" are mainly fanatical football fans, then throwing them a Twitter question about Semantic Web research may result in a dissapointing reply. Or some abuse, and a sharp reduction in your number of followers.

So, this is an area where Twitter may need to introduce some (not so simple) partitioning; I'd like to separate my followers into categories, with some people in multiple categories. A bit like blog postings. Then I can Twitter library stuff with the library crowd,  video game stuff with the video game crowd, and so on for the cricket, Outer Hebrides, alumni and other crowds. Or is there already a Twitter-based application that does this?

As with other applications, it's not for everyone. Some don't like the apparent immediacy of Twitter:


...though, of course, you don't *have* to read, or reply, or Twitter. Some people won't like it because it will "corrode literacy standards" (yawn), or because they can't send essays through it (fine). Some won't like it because it's new, because it's technology, or because they can't immediately "see the point of it" (even more boring). Conveniently forgetting that most things they do in life have no obvious point, or no point at all. Some people will see it as a time-sink, which is the one thing Twitter is not, unless you are a painfully slow typist or reader. In which case the Internet isn't for you anyway. No, I'm warming to Twitter, and looking forward to trying it with a vengeance at a few (Real World) conferences later in the year. 

n.b. "Brevity is the soul of wit" is from Hamlet, and clocks in at 26 characters, leaving 114 spare. Billy Shakespeare would have loved Twitter, Facebook and blogging.

Friday, 25 April 2008

What not to Rez

Last night I "attended" the JISC Emerge facilitated "What not to Rez" event, on Emerge island. The Emerge project is one of those worth keeping an eye on, as their online presence is a good source of emerging technologies news:
"The Emerge project is an innovative 28 month consortium-based project. Its primary aim is to support the creation of a sustainable community of practice (CoP) that will develop and exploit new emergent technologies (e.g. social software, pervasive computing) for use in educational settings."

Back to the event, which Steve describes thus:
"Its designed as fun event and a chance to shift focus of the nature of digital identities to our virtual creations. The running order for the event simple: gathering at the Emerge Island from 7pm UK time with our volunteer models walking the runway at around 7.30pm followed by a quick change of furniture and into dance mode until 9pm."


While waiting for the event to start, I had a wander around their island. It's pretty good; lots of walkway tubes connecting areas. Segways to get around on, though in SL as in RL my balance isn't good (this doesn't bode well for the Wii Fit board).

After this, it was down to the main area, which consists of a bar and catwalk. Is there anything more needed in life?


I recognised a few of the avatars from Snapshot work I've been doing with the Eduserv Foundation people. However, it turned out that a few people were there incognito. So, the morning after, and with the effects of both virtual and real alcohol wearing off, I'm not entirely sure who I insulted last night.

Some of the costumes were pretty impressive. One in particular, a transparent wedding dress (which annoyingly I forgot to photo), drew gasps and cries of "Marry me!" from the watching crowd. This big blue dress on another catwalker (sp?) was also pretty impressive:


And, there were a few things you wouldn't normally see at a fashion parade. More because of Health and Safety restrictions. One of the great things about SL is that you can do things in it that, in the real world, would involve a costly "risk assessment" followed by a refusal.

So, and this brings back slightly disturbing memories of working in the UKOLN teccie office, here's someone unicycling down the catwalk:


The event concluded with a dance type thing. Touching the orange ball on the ceiling raised a menu of dance options. My avatar was a bit clunky, but passable, doing a Saturday Night Fever about 30 feet in the air. After some of that - strangely exhausting even though it's just "virtual" - we went our seperate ways.

Environmental impact statement: my carbon footprint for attending this event was about the same as that of a mouse.

Monday, 21 April 2008

This'll be fun...

Two electronic items bought online over the weekend, which will shortly be used in combination.

Item number one was a digital video camera, for capturing footage for a research paper.

Here's the official trailer for item number two:


This will definitely be fun, and the trailer doesn't show most of the 45 games - of which the snowboarding one, where the device is used sideways a la board, looks the best at first glance.

To date, we've had 24 Berneray residents - note, mostly adults - who've stepped up to the plate and had a go on the Nintendo Wii, with varying results. With the Wii Fit, there'll be more possibilities of fun this coming year. Red wine and Nintendo; the perfect combination.

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Losing today's media battle

For fun, as a game I sometimes try and get either Berneray in as high profile a media as possible. This started three years ago when, to cut a long story short, listeners to the Today programme on Radio 4 were woken up to the (dubious) sound of me wittering and wandering around Berneray.

Todays attempt was successful, though also a relatively easy route I've had success with before. BBC radio cricket commentary on the Worcestershire vs Warwickshire game from Edgbaston. The commentators asked people to email in suggestions for Vikram Solanki's reluctance to declare, so I fired off an email:
"Listening to you online here on the Island of Berneray (population: 126) in the Outer Hebrides.

The tactic: maybe the pears are afraid that if someone, perhaps Trott or Poonia, can get a big score at a rapid rate (5+ per over) then Warwickshire may attempt to reach even a big target.

It's the wrong tactic. This early in the season, it is better to take risks. You get more points by winning 1 and losing 1, rather than drawing 2."

Said email was read out almost immediately. The commentators then had a discussion about Berneray and the Outer Hebrides, what it was like here, whether it was sunny or warm, and why someone there would be listening - I'm a lifelong Worcestershire CCC supporter:


Two more emails were sent back to them, both of which were read out shortly afterwards.

The fun part was watching the traffic on my website during and after this email-radio exchange. A sudden flurry and acceleration of visitors, in most cases through a Google search on Berneray or Outer Hebrides, indicates radio listeners who are online (either at work or home) hearing the place names and doing a quick search.

Good fun, all in all. But today I was utterly beaten in the media game by Scotproof. A few evenings ago, she took a picture of our neighbour jumping on top of Borve Hill, Berneray:


Scotproof submitted this to the "Your Pictures of Scotland" feature on the BBC news website. And was astonished to check the BBC news website this afternoon, only to see the picture on the home page! There, it appears in rotation. In the gallery, it's picture number 6.

National media and International news website beats BBC radio commentary. I lose this round. Hrmph.

Next tuesday, when Pennsylvania holds its US election primary, I have a plan to get Berneray mentioned on CNN (it'll be interesting to see how Wolf Blitzer pronounces it). Top that, Scotproof...

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Dawn this morning from here

Though I was woken up more in agony unfortunately than this pretty sunrise. As viewed from the house at some unspeakably early hour:


Picture by Scotproof.


Close to home, a few days ago:


Picture by Scotproof.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

The 4 dollar gallon of petrol (we wish!)

For my US chums.

Recently watched a (CNN?) report on the rising cost of petrol in the US, and how it was significantly affecting people and businesses. One interviewee predicted that the four dollar gallon of petrol would cause the economy and society in general to collapse.

Here in the UK, petrol is more expensive. And more locally in the Outer Hebrides ... well, here's a picture taken by Leanish on the Isle of Barra of his local petrol and diesel station:


That works out in US currency, for diesel, (remembering that a US gallon is different in volume to a UK one) at...

9 dollars and 25 cents per gallon.

And stop press - since that picture was taken 2 weeks ago, the price has jumped up again, by the equivalent of 15 US cents per gallon.  Ouch, and I don't even drive.

Soon, we'll have the 10 US dollar gallon of petrol. Maybe CNN et al should do a report from here?

[Stop press number 2] Price jumped up yet again on April 11th. It's now £1.31 a litre for diesel on Barra, or not far off the 10 US dollars per gallon mark.

Friday, 11 April 2008

South Uist: fishing country

Fishing's a big thing out here; when you fly in and out of the Uists, it's obvious why. As more than one person's observed, from the sky the Uists are a collection of puddles divided by rock, peat and machair.

South Uist, in particular, is a magnet for individuals and parties out for a good fish. While I'm in no way an expert, I've seen pretty impressive salmon and trout hauled out of the waters. And rather good tasting, too (barbecued fish on a beach is one of life's pleasures). So there's now a website - - which pulls together information, and a few pictures, about fishing in that part of the Outer Hebrides:


Enjoy your catch...

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Bays Loch, Berneray, April 10th 2008

View from the office window this morning:


Video on Flickr. Hmmm.

I should be enthused...

Flickr is pretty much the full package when it comes to Web 2.0 services. Looks clean and professional but also friendly; has decent search options; has lots of good content; people often tend to upload good stuff to it; users are relatively articulate - compare the comments on, say, this Flickr picture with those on this YouTube video; the groups and social networking side are nicely developed; it's an easy way of making new contacts and finding geographically close people doing similar things.

And with video, hopefully, there'll be lots of good stuff. Like this cat video (there's always a cat video...). 

But ...

Dunno ... but the new video upload service doesn't feel right.

Is it because the core of Flickr - a photo album that you build and other people add bits onto in the form of notes and comments - is becoming a little fuzzier?

Is it because the owners of Flickr have fudged this a bit, by referring to videos as "long pictures" (perhaps their admittance of the previous point)?

Is it mainly financially driven (only people who have paid accounts can upload videos)?

Is it because the search options are now a little clunkier?

And is it because different media will upset the recall/precision balance, which Flickr searches often get right?

Is it because it would be better for Flickr to concentrate on developing more, and deeper, services focusing on the photograph as the central object, rather than going sideways on other media? I fear it'll be short music clips next.

Or is it because it may start to attract the (yeah, call me a snob) downmarket elements of the YouTube crowd to Flickr? ("Us nice middle class kids were enjoying playing ball in the park; uh-oh - looks like those chavs from the estate want to join in. Damn.")


I hope not. Even though only "safe" videos can go up, am hoping that it won't end up with just the same videos that exist on YouTube (on which there's far too much repetition anyway) appearing on Flickr.

Maybe it'll work out. Maybe there'll be lots of genuinely funny, interesting and thoughtful videos. With Hebridean content, it'll be interesting to see if it ends up being more YouTube-lite, or, in nature. 

Sunday, 6 April 2008

Happy new tax year

Wishing all Outer Hebrides residents, and blog readers, a fiscally prosperous tax year 2008-2009.


Saturday, 5 April 2008

The myth of the Outer Hebrides population "crash"

"The Outer Hebrides population is crashing. People are leaving in boat loads for the mainland. Schools are rapidly closing. We'll soon be like St Kilda." 

"is". Current tense. Means "now". Not "in the future".

Frequently heard and read stuff. But is it accurate?

Since moving here, I've had elected politicians from both Labour and the SNP in my kitchen (SNP politicians prefer chocolate, Labour politicians cake btw), who have both said (or admitted) that the Outer Hebrides population is rising. As there's more chance of hell freezing over than getting those two to agree on something - anything :-) - there's possibly something in that. Labour themselves used upturn in population in recent election materials. 

Where is the evidence for this crash? I can't see it, but there's plenty of evidence that the population has stabilised and may even be increasing:

  1. The Comhairle's own website has data that show a levelling out of the population and gradual rise; for example:

  2. The prices that houses are getting on the open market are constantly going up, due to the supply/demand balance. And compare the wildly different prices for plots of land for building houses on them a decade ago, to now, especially in areas such as the west coast of Harris. Tied in with that, compare pictures of some parts of the Outer Hebrides from just a decade ago with now and you'll see a lot of new houses.

  3. Flick through the local planning application system and note the frequent applications going in to build new houses, or redevelop old ones. From the Comhairle's socio-economic updates (a good read for residents, and would-be residents doing their research, alike):

  4. Media_httpfarm4static_pgjje


  5. At the micro level, there's numerous evidence, both factual and anecdotal, of an upwards pressure. I mentioned recently about the number of people wanting to move here. In addition, the recent "North Uist baby boom" means that the newly opened CK centre on the west side of North Uist, amongst other places, is going to be doing an increasingly busy trade in providing education and other services for younger kids and the under 5's. 

  6. More hard statistics. The General Register Office of Scotland show that the population of the Outer Hebrides declined in the five years between mid-2001 and mid-2006 by ... 100.

Immigration is exceeding emigration. And that's why there's a balance; the number of deaths is significantly exceeding the number of births, as it's done for many decades. However, the number of incomers, erm, incoming(!), even taking into account the number of residents leaving, is plugging the gap.

So, why do many people insist that the Outer Hebrides population is in, and has been, rapid decline?

  • Because it used to be true, until recent years. The "constantly falling population" was a fact of life until recently. If you trawl through the archives of the Stornoway Gazette in the library, you'll see the population crisis discussed in letters pages frequently over previous decades.

  • Some people hear it so often from other residents and the local media and take it as fact. 

  • Some people mean native population i.e. people born here, when they say population. 

  • Drive around out of the big city (Stornoway) and mile after mile of derelict and un-lived in housing gives the impression of a population always dying or leaving, and not being replaced.

  • The "Everything is broken" syndrome inherent from watching e.g. ITN News regularly. Something for another post, but increasingly the relentlessly bad / negative / crash / fall / doom torrent of news pushed out by much mainstream UK media correlates to why many people take to the ran dan, happy pills, et al. As David Mamet puts it, the "Everything is always wrong" world view. It's part of the British disease that everyone likes a good moan. Optimistics in the UK are increasingly seen as eccentrics, realists increasingly the same. But, that's something for another post.

  • Selective statistics. The phrase:
     "Islands such as ... Berneray have seen a particularly marked decline in population in the last 50 years."

    ...from the Comhairle's website is technically correct. However, pretty much all of that decline happened in the first ten years of those fifty, and there hasn't been a decline in the most recent fourty. But the headine "particularly marked decline in population" phrase is the one that people will remember.

  • A predominantly elderly population, with a remarkably - possibly for the UK uniquely - inter-connected social and family network, results in a large number of very well attende, visible, funerals. The community stops. When I lived in Nottingham a decade ago, I attended the funeral of my neighbour, being 1 of 7 people there (and that included the vicar, who read out a template impersonal service probably due to the lack of personal information). Most of her relatives didn't show, for whatever reason. Here, on islands with only a tiny, tiny fraction of the population of Nottingham, the smallest funeral service I've attended had over 80 people. The passing away of a generation is both a personal, but at the same time very visible and connected aspect of island life; whereas back in Nottingham, my other next door neighbour only knew of the death two doors along when the "for sale" sign went up outside the now-empty house. Here, many residents attend funerals of people in their greatly extended social and family networks frequently, and it's an inescapable reminder of a declining demographic.

  • A fundamentally mistaken perception that the falling rolls of some schools is directly correlated to an overall currently falling population. These are not the same thing.

  • Big grant or development money. "Population is falling, we'll soon be like St Kilda, we need to fund project X to revitalise, keep people here, attract more people." It's a powerful emotional reason to lay on funders; fund our project and you save a community - don't fund it and, as you are - were - the last hope, the community dies.

In a nutshell - there isn't a population crash now, and there hasn't been one in recent years. The crash is a myth.


Lurking in the data are demographic changes and other population shifts which will have a great influence on the Outer Hebrides. Plus other external factors, many highly unpredictable, all of which makes any kind of prediction of population trends both messy and very risky. That's something for another post.

Friday, 4 April 2008

Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Berneray population

As a previous statistician (my first degree and summer work), and being admittedly geeky, I'm obsessed about subjects such as the demographics and populations.

When I moved here near the end of 2004, the permanent resident population (PRP) of Berneray was 119 (including us). In the 1,242 days between then and today, there has been a net gain of 7, making a PRP of 126. This net gain comprises:

  • 6 bereavements.

  • 3 births.

  • A few people moving away.

  • Obviously more people moving to Berneray permanently.

One family moving on or off the island can make a big difference. When one particular family moved back to Berneray, that added 4 to the PRP. In other words, if that one family hadn't have moved back, then the net population gain in over 3 years would have been less than half of what it is (assuming the house remained empty in their absence). That's how much one household can alter the figures.

As to the future figures; this is an ongoing topic, probably since the first people inhabited Berneray several thousand years ago. Views are split. There is the largely negative collection of views:

  • The number of local facilities has fallen, and the last three years has seen the closure of the last school, one of the two shops, and the fire station.

  • Most of the children are in the age range 13 to 16, and only a small number are younger than 10. This doesn't bode well for a sustainable cohort of primary school children.

  • The average age of a Berneray resident is 56; most are therefore elderly.

  • Television, globalisation, the Internet, [insert phenomena of modern life here] and/or the causeway have adversely affected Berneray.

  • There are only a small number of women resident on the island of child-bearing age.

  • Through lack of numbers, the potential partners in the area for young men are limited. Late teen and twenty-something men are tempted to move to mainland cities such as Glasgow to get some, erm, "action" (as one of them put it).

  • Most of the people moving here are older.

  • The overall population of the Outer Hebrides is perceived as relentlessly spiralling downwards (I'll come back to this intensely annoying point in another posting).

  • Career prospects for girls/women are not good, being mostly in the lower-paid areas of the seasonal tourist industry. So they won't stay, and don't move, here. 

  • Outer Hebrides islands are full of houses not lived in, as they are second homes, holiday homes, self-catering units, or have been left to deteriorate. 

...and there's the largely positive collection of views:

  • The amount of local facilities has only fallen if you take a very selective, slanted, view. Taking the last few decades, the fishing harbour, causeway to the Uists, improved ferry service and the partial implementation of broadband have made it "easier" to live and work here. Some services, such as the Post Office, continue while in other more "fragile" communities they close.

  • The fishing industry continues, as more Berneray people move into it. The harbour is increasingly busy every summer with this industry as well as tourists and other boatie people.

  • That demographic of Berneray children in the age range 13 to 16 will be having families et al within the next decade.

  • In the rare occasions when property comes onto the open market, even property not in walk-in condition, it is usually snapped up quickly.

  • Berneray holds it's own. As the census figures show, the PRP of the island hasn't changed significantly in nearly 40 years. 1971:131. 1981:134. 1991:140. 2001:136.

  • In fact, there is an upwards pressure on the population, by the number of people who would like to move to Berneray and live here but cannot due to a lack of property.

  • Unemployment or lack of work are practically zero here; the fishing industry stays sustained, and there's more than enough opportunities for school-leavers.

  • The core set of Berneray traditions - the Christmas meal, Calluinn and Berneray week - continue.

  • An increasing number of tourists year-on-year will result in an increasing number who want to move here.

As ever, there are more complex factors behind many of these issues. For example, one of the residents had an interesting letter in the Gazette a few years ago about Berneray school closing, pointing out that it wasn't a classic case of being "closed against the wishes of parents". Indeed, in Scotland, there are schools remaining open with even smaller roles.

Overall, I'm in the "largely positive" camp . I have a bet with another resident (who is in the "largely negative" camp) that the PRP of Berneray will be 140+ in three years time, by Easter 2011. Why positive? Because:

  • The positive reasons above outweigh the negative ones.

  • The "flight from the mainland cities" appears to be gathering pace. And when you read stuff like this ("In one particular area of Manchester - Mosside - the life expectancy of youngsters is below the age of 30."), who can blame any parent for wanting to a completely different environment?

  • Several properties have recently been sold. The school is being converted into flats. More property transactions will take place this year. One house is being built from scratch, several more refurbished, and more houses (plural) will be built on Berneray over the next few years.

  • Economically, it can be cheaper to live here than on the mainland, especially if you have a mortgage. Though fuel is more expensive, and delivery charges are a constant thorn, overall costs pale compared to mainland costs. As an example, one of my ex-work colleagues and his partner have a one bedroom flat in London (no sea views, no beaches), for which they pay over £1,300 a month in mortgage alone. Plus exhorbitant travel costs (a single ticket on the Underground is four quid, for which price I could travel most of the length of the Uists).

  • The majority of the male schoolkids and those who've recently left school are heading for boat-related careers that they can pursue while remaining residents of Berneray.

  • I've got a gradually increasing list of e-mail addresses of househunters interested in knowing when a Berneray house comes on the market. Though house sale prices in the Outer Hebrides continue to rise, at a guess most of those on the list will be selling for more than they're buying.

It's not all utopia and guaranteed population increases. There's counter arguments against population increases (e.g. effects on the Earths resources, "quality" is better than "quantity"), and also socio-economic issues that hinder population rises. More on these another time, but in the next posting I'll cover the annoying myth of the Outer Hebrides population "crash".

Machair at Tobha Mor

The Machair at Tobha Mor:


Picture by Flickr user Shuggy Spicer.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Outer Hebrides recreated in Second Life. Sort of.

For a while I've been thinking of re-creating the Island of Berneray in Second Life. Hills, terrain, key buildings, a few croft houses, beaches, that sort of thing. It would be interesting to see if the causeway could be re-created in SL as well.

So it was while searching through Second Life a few days ago, I came across a group with a name that made me double-take: Residents of the Hebrides. The group had 173 members:


Blimey - are these real Outer Hebrides residents in Second Life? Alas, no; the group charter states that it is a "Private group for those special people invited to live on the Island of Harris".

Referring to a created and terraformed island in Second Life. Here it is on the map in relation to some other islands:


...and here is an overhead map view. I emailed the island co-owner and developer to see if I could join the group and visit the island. Alas again; the response was:
"Patience Boucher: Hi nice to hear from a real resident of the Hebrides. I am sorry but although I do allow some people to live on Harris they are all friends of mine I have got to know over the year I have been in SL."

So I can't bring you screenshots of what the Island of Harris looks like, or the 173 people who can visit it. The map view, which doesn't give much detail, indicates some developments:


Anyway, food for thought. I may still develop the Island of Berneray within Second Life, just for the heck of it.