Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Russets of the Outer Hebrides

Something I didn't expect to see in a garden in the Outer Hebrides; russets happily growing:


I spent most summers up to age 19 selling "chips" (baskets of 5 or 6 pounds in fruit weight) of these off our farmshop in the Vale of Evesham. So was gobsmacked to see them growing here.

It turns out that Alastair in The Willows had picked up a few young trees in blossom on the mainland and planted them. The russets look right to me; hopefully the trees will make it through their first Hebridean winter.

Apple and other trees aren't unknown here (hint: look at the name of the house). There used to be one in the garden of the church, and (allegedly) a few over Borve way. One newspaper report from the early 20th century mentions an orchard in Harris, and there are various people in the archipelago giving fruit tree cultivation a go.  

So the next step - an orchard. And then ... Berneray cider! :-)

Friday, 26 September 2008

Berneray Industrial Zone

It's busy this morning in the Backhill settlement on Berneray. Our single-track road is filled with all manner of work vehicles; lorries, vans, trailers, BT engineers, and not one but two JCBs:


At one point, I counted 14 - fourteen! - vehicles either in motion, or waiting to move. At the same time. That's easily a record in the nearly four years have been living here. Not used to this level of traffic intensity and volume; maybe they've decided to build the 2012 Olympic stadium here instead?

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Berneray postcard from 1967

Alison, a regular visitors to Berneray, picked up this postcard from 1967 in an ebay auction:



Update: these are pretty much how they look now (picture by Gareth Harper):


They're houses, one of them lived in by a family.

Monday, 22 September 2008

Dead whale on the beach

As reported locally, a pilot whale washed up on the west beach a few days ago. Locals managed to get it back into the sea, but it was found the next day pretty much in the same place. Pictures by Scotproof.






Thursday, 18 September 2008

Oceans (real, not virtual)

A few hours in the afternoon today were taken up dropping buoys into precise locations in the sea. The art of this is quickly learnt. Wait until the shout of "NOW!" comes from the captain, throw the heavy bit out to sea, and step back quickly to avoid (a) the splash and (b) getting entangled in any ropes that are on their way out.

Then watch the cormorants, traffic on the coast road, the rudder ...


... and the nearby ferry take on passengers ...


... until the next buoy needs to go in. My other job was to act as ballast i.e. stand in various parts of the boat when we encountered really shallow water. Which was probably indicative of why I was asked to come along, and not someone lighter or thinner. Hmmm.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

One's office

In much the same way as the mortgage-ignoring song line "Wherever I lay my hat, that's my home" goes, so the modern work version is "Wherever my laptop has a wireless broadband connection, that's my office."

One's latest acquisition is the Asus EEE laptop. I've been sceptical of the emerging range of small, cheap, light laptops, on the grounds that they may not have the power to handle what I need to do for work. Plus, the keyboard may be too tiny for my big hands to use, and the battery may run out too quickly.

Turns out I was wrong. I'm loving this new laptop. The screen is bright and sharp, and the battery lasts for six hours. The time it takes from switch on to when I can do stuff is much quicker than on my 4 year old goliath Dell laptop (which cost several times as much and is several times heavier), and on the 28 month old Dell desktop (the key advantage of which is the large screen).

The quietness is noticeable. No hard drive, just a solid state memory. So most of the time it's totally silent. It's also powerful enough for work, being able to nimbly handle virtual worlds such as Second Life. The keyboard turned out to be fine, too.

So my "office" - the physical part - has now become this:


The laptop being light and cheap has two other advantages. It's easy to lug around, and if something disastrous happens to it e.g. at airport security, it isn't a huge financial loss. A by-product of this is that, for some people, laptops are now literally becoming a "disposable" item.

There's one item not pictured to add to the passport, memory stick (for backup and easier transfer of files), laptop and credit card, and that's a broadband dongle to give you extra options for getting online in the UK and Northern Europe.

Those five items together - which can fit inside a small shoulder bag - are pretty much the core office. Periphery items such as toothbrushes, clothes, pen and paper are temporary and incidental, and can just be bought and discarded anywhere. I noticed during a summer cleanout that, apart from my underwear (for some reason, cheaper in the UK than anywhere else), all my other clothes have been bought on trips abroad when needed and when the exchange rate has been attractive.

Anyway, back to playing/working with my new toy/mobile office, which goes by the name of "Samantha." This is in recognition of one of the earliest examples of the truly mobile laptop-based authors, who also wrote one of my favourite pieces of travel writing.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Items of interest

This I haven't seen or tasted for, not years, but decades:



This is how coal used to be delivered to Berneray, in huge lumps:


Time and wine and fireplace:



Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Informing the public of the pursuit of knowledge

IMPORTANT MESSAGE TO LUDDITES: If the post below is too long or hard for you to read, then simply visit this website instead:


Now, on with the post:

The Large Hadron Collider at CERN is switched on (officially; technically it's been in test mode for a while), and the news coverage is ... varied. To put it politely.

Most TV reporting has skipped all but the (very) basic, and reduced that to such generalisation that the whole point of the LHC is missed. After a few seconds of science, possibly in fear that people will find this dull and change channel, the reporting flips to the exciting and world-ending dangers that the LHC may generate.

Are the public really that stupid? ITN news (Motto: "All technology is bad and the Internet will kill you. Have a nice cup of tea and watch Emmerdale Farm at 7pm; it's safer.") patronised to its substantial audience of, by now terrified, 50 year old and upwards UK citizens about the dangers of the collider. Without explaining in any detail what it was or how it worked. A nation of middle-brow newspaper readers retreat to their caves and cover themselves in woad, in preparation for the end of the world.

As ever, the "black hats, white hats" style of reporting prevails. It's impossible to find a totally positive story about anything, without some "balance" being injected with some negative points. Everything has to have an opposing view. Everything good is actually crap. No negative points? Invent some then, and so news reports tiresomely focus on the "possibility" of the machine creating a black hole that will swallow the Earth.

So the news focuses at great length on this:


Of which the probability is approximately zero. But don't let the facts get in the way of a good news story. Especially as, oh, we're still here so it didn't happen (Shouldn't we now see a "We apologise for a lack of the end of the world, as predicted in breakfast TV this morning" on certain news channels?).

This kind of "Must be balanced, must be black to go with the white" reporting benefits only the fringe of crank and failed "scientists" who suddenly get their five minutes of fame, as they are interviewed as to why experiment X or discovery Y is a "bad thing". Tell you what, media; if you want true balance of scientific opinion, then do it based on peer-review journal citations. If you interview one person in favour of X or Y, then the opposing person must match his citation count, or some other citation analysis measure.

(Suddenly remembered certain washing powder adverts from not that long ago. Cue man in white coat with clipboard, introduced as "John Smith, BSc", to reassure the consumer that the washing powder he has conducted experiments on washes all clothes in the known universe whiter than white.) 

In addition, sticking misleading (and unscientific) labels on something science-based is another way some elements of the media try and make science reporting more palatable. Suddenly, at CERN, the scientists are apparently looking for the "God particle".  Eh? What?

The relentless anti-science reporting, and nasty undercurrent of anti-education, anti-science feeling that runs through some strands of society bears fruit. Some of the comments on the BBC news website "Have Your Say" are profoundly depressing, with a cohort of wannabee cave dwellers trotting out the "Waste of money, spend it on something else" line.

It's not just there; every news forum has a significant number of neo-luddites spewing out the same backward guff. "There are so many poor people; the money is better spent on them" - but the poor are, indeed, always with us. Always have been, always will be. And without the benefits of scientific research, you wouldn't know about the poor anyway as either:

  • There'd be no mass communication, so your world view is restricted to 20 or so miles; and/or...

  • There'd be no medical advances or technology, so you'd be dead much younger anyway.

And there'd be no BBC news website, or "Have Your Say" forum. What if Watson's reply to Alexander Graham Bell had been "This telephone thing is a waste of time and money"? Or if John Logie Baird had been persuaded that his invention was "rubbish; the picture is blurred and it's not even in colour"?

The biggest irony of all is that CERN was also the place where TBL invented the world wide web, giving luddites, extremists, fanatics and the generally stupid the opportunity to rail against any kind of scientific progress. I wonder if, when they need surgery, or a scan, or any other kind of medical treatment, they'd refuse it on the same grounds? "Surgeon, I'm afraid to say that anaesthetic was developed through 19th century scientific advances, so give me a stick to bite on when you cut me open before I pass out because of the pain."

One comment on the Sky news forum puts it eloquently:

"Words cannot begin to fully express my fury and contempt for the petty, small-mindedness, the lack of imagination and desire for answers expressed by a depressingly large proportion of the people who've posted their ill-considered and pathetic (in the truest sense) views on here. The notion that we'd all be better off if we stopped striving to make new discoveries and push the boundaries of our understanding of existing ideas is frankly just jaw-droppingly frightening. Mankind would still be shivering in its own filth in some cave somewhere in the Middle East if it was down to you mental-pygmies. "Fire? Oooh, sounds risky, we'll stick with the raw meat and bits of twig I think." And the irony of posting on the internet to decry advances in science is too achingly acute for words."

Sunday, 7 September 2008

From venison to snake

The Very Good Taste Blog have a recent "100" listing.

What you do is:

1)  Copy the list into your blog or journal, including these instructions.
2)  Bold all the items you’ve eaten.
3)  Cross out any items that you would never consider eating.

Some interesting and tempting stuff on there, though the very inaccurately named sweetbreads (you don't want to follow that link if you're a hardcore veggie) is borderline. My score is a not very adventurous 56 out of 100 tasted. 

A few of these I'll probably try on my next US trip, such as crocodile, horse, snake and PB&J sandwich. The Michelin one will have to wait until someone else pays. Fugu sounds really interesting, and with the increasingly exotic range of fish being caught in the creels of Outer Hebrides fishermen as sea temperatures rise, who knows when...

The list:

1. Venison
2. Nettle tea
3. Huevos rancheros
4. Steak tartare
5. Crocodile
6. Black pudding
7. Cheese fondue
8. Carp

9. Borscht
10. Baba ghanoush
11. Calamari
12. Pho
13. PB&J sandwich
14. Aloo gobi
15. Hot dog from a street cart
16. Epoisses
17. Black truffle
18. Fruit wine made from something other than grapes
19. Steamed pork buns
20. Pistachio ice cream
Heirloom tomatoes
22. Fresh wild berries
23. Foie gras
24. Rice and beans
25. Brawn, or head cheese
26. Raw Scotch Bonnet pepper
27. Dulce de leche
28. Oysters
29. Baklava
30. Bagna cauda
31. Wasabi peas
32. Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl
33. Salted lassi
34. Sauerkraut
35. Root beer float
36. Cognac with a fat cigar
37. Clotted cream tea
38. Vodka jelly/Jell-O
39. Gumbo
40. Oxtail
41. Curried goat
42. Whole insects
43. Phaal
44. Goat’s milk
45. Malt whisky from a bottle worth £60/$120 or more
46. Fugu
47. Chicken tikka masala
48. Eel
49. Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut

50. Sea urchin
51. Prickly pear
52. Umeboshi
53. Abalone
54. Paneer
55. McDonald’s Big Mac Meal
56. Spaetzle
57. Dirty gin martini
58. Beer above 8% ABV
59. Poutine
60. Carob chips
61. S’mores
62. Sweetbreads
63. Kaolin
64. Currywurst
65. Durian
66. Frogs’ legs
67. Beignets,
churros, elephant ears or funnel cake
68. Haggis
69. Fried plantain
70. Chitterlings, or andouillette
71. Gazpacho
72. Caviar and blini
73. Louche absinthe
74. Gjetost, or brunost
75. Roadkill
76. Baijiu
77. Hostess Fruit Pie
78. Snail
79. Lapsang souchong
80. Bellini
81. Tom yum
82. Eggs Benedict
83. Pocky
84. Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant.
85. Kobe beef
86. Hare
87. Goulash
88. Flowers
89. Horse
90. Criollo chocolate
91. Spam
92. Soft shell crab
93. Rose harissa
94. Catfish
95. Mole poblano
96. Bagel and lox
97. Lobster Thermidor
98. Polenta
99. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee
100. Snake

Hmmm; it would be interesting to know how many of those 100 could be (a) bought online and (b) delivered to the island of Berneray? Suddenly, a few ideas for an interesting food party one evening come to mind...

Afternoon sun

A sheep on the side of Borve Hill, Berneray, just staring towards North Uist, motionless for several minutes:


Friday, 5 September 2008

Is it time for Saor-stàit neo-eisimeil Uibhist?

That's Gaelic for "Uist Independent Free State".

And, perhaps, that time has come.

The Stornoway Gazette has just reported on today's meeting of the Policy and Resources Committee of the Comhairle (the local council) in Stornoway. The decision of the meeting, by 8 votes to 3, was that sports centres in Lewis and Harris should stay closed on a Sunday. And, look, it's the Lewis block vote in action again; there's more background on it here. When it went to full council vote, Sunday closures were retained by 18 votes to 11.

This is different to the situation on this side of the Sound of Harris, where sports facilities such as those at Liniclate on Benbecula, are open on a Sunday.

It's not just sports facilities; supermarkets on the Uists and Barra open on a Sunday. Ferries happily ply their trade between the Uists and the mainland on a Sunday too.

Not Harris and Lewis though. And judging from some of the comments coming out of the meeting today e.g.
"Chief Executive Malcolm Burr said that the issue should come up only once in the council term, which would mean it would not be debated again until after the next election."

...this situation isn't going to change for some years.

On a regular basis, residents, politicians and business people in the Uists are annoyed at the control exerted on these islands from Stornoway. Fishermen still fume that, when the Berneray causeway was built, no bridge was put in for them, the funding being diverted to a Lewis project instead. The block vote of Lewis/Stornoway councillors acts againsts the Uists. And, recently, one - Lewis - councillor in the secondary school closure debate suggested shutting the schools in (no surprise) Uist in order to keep those in (no surprise) Lewis open.

A reminder that it wasn't that long ago since the Outer Hebrides was split between two different local authorities. And that apparently worked okay.

So, could Uist (by which I mean Berneray to Barra) go it alone as a new, independent, nation governing its own affairs?


  1. It is notable that deliveries of goods from the UK mainland almost always come from Inverness via Ullapool-Stornoway, or Uig-Lochmaddy. There's very little movement of such goods across the Sound of Harris.

  2. Lewis has an airport (Stornoway), Uist has two (Benbecula and Barra). So no need for any new airports to be built.

  3. There are substantial council offices in Balivanich, to which executive control of Uist could operate from. But, with checks and balances in place so islands at the extremes of the new nation - Berneray and Vatersay - do not suffer the same block voting and discrimination that they currently do under Lewis occupation.

  4. We already have a national newspaper in Am Paipear.

  5. A Uist currency and a flag wouldn't take long to sort out (Barra already has a flag). Uist stamps would also raise income.

  6. The ferry terminals at Berneray, Lochmaddy, Castlebay and Lochboisdale could be easily converted into passport and immigration control centres.

  7. Visa entrance fees from e.g. people entering from Lewis (especially Councillors who have previously voted against Uist interests) would help generate more income.

  8. Use of private referendum amongst residents, rather than a block of councillors, would settle issues such as education, sports, opening hours.

  9. A tunnel to the UK mainland from Lochmaddy - which Norwegians have confirmed is technically feasible - would provide a 24/7 fixed link - no matter what the weather is - while Lewis people are stuck with their six day a week (and only when the weather is good) ferry link.

  10. Funding allocation disputes between Lewis/Harris and Uists would end. 

It makes sense the more you think about it. The cultures of Lewis and Uist are incomparable. The national dish of Uist, for example, is multi award-winning smoked salmon. What's the national dish of Lewis? A dead cormorant pickled in a vat of red diesel for a month. "Taste the Difference", as supermarket advertisments say...

...speaking of which, why is it that only residents of Stornoway have a local supermarket where they can buy four cans of "value lager" for 25p? Why are we discriminated against, us Uist residents who wish to get a copy of the Gazette and a carry-out on a Thursday night and still have change from a pound? No - independence would mean a Tesco (and hopefully an Ikea too) (Marks and Spencer would be a bonus) for Uist.

The border? Easy. The Sound of Harris provides a natural barrier, and could be operated in a similar way to the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea; here's a picture:


Heck, even if/when Uist goes it alone, it wouldn't be the smallest country in the world, there being eight with even fewer inhabitants. Uist would have a reasonable case for becoming the 193rd member state of the United Nations, alphabetically between Uganda and Ukraine.

We'll also take St Kilda as part of Uist as well (we bags it first), and that becomes our western territorial marker. (Uist) Councillor Archie Campbell has already declared the building of a lighthouse on it, which can double as a watchtower for keeping an eye on pesky invaders from the north i.e. Leverburgh and beyond.

Finally, our emergence as a new nation would be cemented with being awarded the Olympic games. Barcelona 1992 ... Beijing 2008 ... Balivanich 2016. Clearly a natural choice, and after one Uist village submitted an unsuccesful bid to host the 1996 Olympics, we are morally due the games. Athletes would be able to run, swimmers swim, and cyclists ride - seven days a week.

Unlike on Lewis.

And on that jumping issue, the December picture of the 2009 Isle of Berneray calendar shows one resident already in training for 2016, symbolically jumping "over" Harris and Lewis. 

One Uist. One Nation. Under One Flag.

It's Time.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

White fluffy clouds over Tiree

Scotproof took the Glasgow to Barra plane back to the Outer Hebrides last monday. This is a tiny plane which bobs and weaves its way westward, never going really high. For most of the journey, it's easy to spot individual sheep and people down below, as well as islands, rocks and isolated beaches. 

Two shots of Tiree:



The flight finishes off with a landing on the beach at Barra:


Monday, 1 September 2008

The summer gone

Even the BBC weatherman (who appears to be about 12) is saying this morning that we are now in autumn.

This picture by Donald M (follow that link to his other pictures - it's worth it) is a good summary of the summer gone here on the Uists. Still, little wind, clouds and blue skies, and visiting boats.