Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Berneray in 2008: keeping the Post Office

A review of the year on Berneray. Thanks to eight other Berneray residents who have, through several evenings of blathering and alcohol, helped with this.

For Berneray, 2008 has finished in pretty much the same way that it started, demographically, with 125 residents. The number of births, deaths, and people moving away from/to Berneray has been surprisingly small in the last year. The average age of residents, as best as can be estimated, is around 58 (give or take 1.5 years either side to be sure); however, the age profile of the island is very uneven, with clumps of residents around the 45 to 55, and 75 to 85 age points.

The population has stayed remarkably stable over the last four years, being within the band of 121 to 131 between 2005 and 2008. That pretty much mirrors the Outer Hebrides, where very recent years have shown a levelling-out, and a slight rise, in the overall population. The statistics show that the myth of an ever-plummeting population figure is just that: a myth.

Will the population of Berneray change much over the next few years?

At least three houses will be renovated next year, and a new build completed. That should help increase the figures in some way, in addition to other developments which will occur. The Berneray school building, currently being turned into three flats and a three bedroom house by Hebridean Housing Partnership, will also affect the demographics. Like many other residents, I'm hoping that the general talk of sustainable communities e.g. enabling younger people to get their own place, privacy and independence, will be borne out by the first residents of the refurbished building. Otherwise, Archie our councillor who also sits on the board of HHP will have to contend with some unhappy residents :-)

School building

On the negative side, deaths and people moving away will pull the population figure down. What happens to these houses will, of course, affect the demographics. It is also possible, especially in the 2009 year of "homecoming", that overseas visitors may purchase property. Certainly, with the weakness of the pound against both the US dollar and the Euro, property in the Outer Hebrides is very attractively priced for Americans and Europeans alike.

There are many other factors and variables, but overall I feel it is much more likely that there will be an overall rise in the resident population than a fall between now and the end of 2010. In two years time, I would be surprised if the population was not somewhere in the 130’s. There are still many people who wish to move to Berneray, and places like Berneray; a constant flow of them contact me through my blog and the Berneray website with an extremely varied range of questions. If suitable property is available (and that’s the number one problem), then new residents will come.

What else happened on Berneray in 2008? Almost unnoticed, the fishing industry declined further. Just 3 or 4 residents now earn most or all of their income from fishing. Several of us worked out the figures last night; here is a ranking, by the number of residents in each 'trade' (not all trades lists), of how Berneray residents earn most or all of their income:

1. Teleworking (working from home online).

2=. Ferry crew.

2=. Education.

4. Crofting.

5. Fishing.

I thought teleworking being the “largest” industry would happen eventually, but am surprised it’s happened this quickly. (“Largest” is in quotes as we are still talking about a single digit number of people for each of those trades). That will probably surprise other people, especially as fishing and crofting are high visibility industries and working from home is practically invisible, but the math bears out. More of a surprise is how quickly the fishing industry has declined, which is really sad; the harbour, especially in summer, is now more of a pleasure boat arena.

Teleworking is crucial to Berneray and other islands for several reasons; one of which being the demographics. Remove the teleworkers and their families from the spreadsheet of Berneray data and (a) the average age of a Berneray resident becomes 61.5, while (b) several children are lost. Generally, teleworking is something done more by people of family age, so it's pretty obvious what needs to be focused on to make the Outer Hebrides an attractive (sustainable, realistic income) place to live for many families.

Speaking of teleworking, more people on Berneray had broadband installed. By the end of the year the majority of residents had broadband access at home (which is excellent and progressive), though some residents are still awaiting this upgrade. Out of the 125 residents, 64 have home-based broadband, with another 22 remaining on dialup. Even though you can now buy a good PC or laptop for less than the cost of a ton of coal for the fire, few of the remaining 39 will get Internet access, so the island will have an internet take-up rate of around 70%.

Anything else? The shop and tearoom came under new ownership from people new to the island. The prospect of the Sound of Harris fixed link receded. Sue continued to diligently build an impressive database of Berneray ancestral data. It became possible to visit a Tesco (in Stornoway) without leaving the Outer Hebrides, and quite a few residents did so. Tourism was statistically and visually quieter on Berneray, as it was across the Uists and the Outer Hebrides. The weather was generally good, apart from some nasty autumn storms. Several residents watched Obama’s acceptance speech on TV or online; one resident was there (smug).

The normal cycle of events: first footing, Calluinn night, sheep being moved off the island, Berneray Week, annual ferry refit, sheep being moved onto the island, the Christmas meal, the market in Lochmaddy, continued. More people got into growing their own, and making their own foods. No new groups were formed, though most of the existing groups had changes of officers. In a partnership between Andy and Berneray Community Council, the island finished the year with an excellent Christmas tree, sleigh and Santa.

And, of course, everyone got a little greyer and/or older.

The most significant Berneray event for me personally (and it is loosely connected with the population figures) is something which didn't happen. And that is – Berneray did not lose the Post Office.

I heart Berneray Post Office.

Berneray Post Office: picture by Flickr user radarsmum67

List all the services, facilities and amenities on the island (there’s actually quite a few) and focus on each one. What would it be like if it was gone. With most of them, I wouldn’t be bothered if they were lost (apart from the excellent Grenitote Bus Service), but the thought of losing the post office panics me.

Lose the post office and it’s a ridiculous 20 mile round trip to buy stamps, or send a parcel, or post things overseas or that are not a regular size. And on buses, that’s a large chunk of the day gone.

And it’s not just stamps and parcels, as Berneray post office offers a very wide range of services; in fact, everything except drivers licences. You can even withdraw cash from your Bank of Scotland bank account free of charge. Do not be deceived by the small size of the post office; it’s very well equipped and is pretty much the hub of the island. Minutes of meetings are kept in a box by the window. Mary the Post Mistress is one of the friendliest and most helpful people you will ever meet. It’s open 9:30 till 1 on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

So it was with huge relief that Berneray Post Office avoided the last round of cuts. Especially looking at remote communities on the mainland. In my home county of Worcestershire, many rural post offices have been axed, some in villages much larger – and with much worse public transport – than Berneray.

Even if you are not visiting Berneray but are passing through e.g. to get the ferry to Harris, then the Post Office is useful. Waiting at Berneray ferry terminal? The Post Office is just over a mile, about 20-25 minutes walk, along a pleasant coast road. There aren’t many other places in Britain where, as you walk to the Post Office to buy stamps, you have a chance of seeing seals, otters and porpoise (all seen recently here). In fact, more often than not you’ll see seals from outside the post office.

I use Berneray Post Office generally in bouts of ebay sales, for stamps, for sending stuff overseas, and for paying some bills. If I got more organised, I’d use it more and that’s one of my resolutions for 2009. Some things are more important than others in a place like Berneray and, for me, keeping the local, friendly, useful and efficient Post Office is one of them.

Wishing all blog readers a healthy and prosperous 2009; John.

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

It was a rock, rock lobster...

A generous local gift of two lobsters came this way yesterday (thanks). Cue B-52's soundtrack and time spent dealing with the pair, which were named Douglas and Wendy (non-Brits: it's a political thing). And here they are, being prepared for lobster salad later:

Douglas on the chopping board

Wendy, close up

Thankfully, lobster tastes a good bit better than it looks. There's a couple of bottles of nice New Zealand white wine chilling in the fridge which will provide an excellent foil. Bon appetite!

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Christmas Day 2008

My fifth Christmas as a resident of the Outer Hebrides. The pictures on this entry are taken from a larger set.

Things really kick off the evening before, when many people open presents from each other. Last minute baking et al is also done, so here's what the kitchen has been looking like for the last few days:

kitchen factory

Christmas day itself started with the usual; the last of the present opening, and the remainder of the cards. There's definitely an American-theme with my presents this year, and the opening took place next to the Credit Crunch Christmas Tree (compare to last years):

Credit crunch tree

Of the dozen or so trees I've seen in Berneray houses this Christmas, the best one is probably that belonging to Donald, Nico and Cassandera. Here's a picture of it I took this Christmas Day afternoon:

Tree of Donald

Then it was time to prepare and despatch Palin the Goose to the oven, then off for a Christmas Day walk. I dropped in at the houses of two residents who otherwise would be unlikely to see anyone today. The walk took me past the "Santa in the sleigh", parked next to the tree at the Nurses Cottage:

Santa at the Nurses Clinic

Being increasingly Pagan in nature, I did the usual Christmas Day thing of visiting a stone circle, this one being on Sunhill. From here, I can look across to the house:

Pagan stone circle and Backhill

... returning to which, it was time to extract Palin from the oven, and have a most excellent (best of the five) Christmas day dinner of goose, all the trimmings, and a splash of vino.

Christmas day dinner

Afterwards? I'll skip the Queen's speech as she is stuck doing it using banal last century technology. When she does it properly e.g. Twittering under the @liz2nd moniker, then I'll take it seriously. Instead I did what an increasing number of (sensible) Brits do, and hunt for bargains in the Christmas online sales:

Online shopping

I hope your Christmas day is as equally satisfying and relaxing.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

People I hope will *NOT* have a happy Christmas

These customers and these and these. I sincerely hope your houses get burgled and your presents stolen on Christmas Eve. Karma. 


Unfortunately this doesn't appear to be an isolated incident. A friend from schooldays who works in Woolworths (though obviously not for much longer) informs that his branch has extra security in. This is to protect the staff from customers angry that the stock isn't cheaper. He's carrying one minor injury through having a pram thrown at him, but only has a few days left so he's going to face it out. Ah, what a country.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Berneray sleigh and tree

Berneray Community Council has funded a brightly lit Christmas tree for the island, as the Comhairle are too stingy / bankrupt / focused on Lewis to the detriment of all the other islands, to fund Christmas decorations.

Andy Carr did a superb job on making the sleigh and getting it and the tree sorted out. Thanks also for Jim in his garage / shed, which provided the electricity for the tree when it was parked next to the Nurs'es Cottage. The tree is currently travelling around Berneray, and will appear in various locations over the next few weeks.

Here's a not very good picture of it:


And here's a short and also not very good video of it, twinkling away a few nights ago next to the Nurses Cottage.

A peaceful Christmas, and a healthy and prosperous 2009, to readers of this blog.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Public Wifi in North Uist (2/2)

After checking out the Lochmaddy hotel on the east side of North Uist, it was time to check out the Claddach Kirkebost Centre, run by Urachadh Uibhist, on the west side of the island in terms of their Internet access.

So last thursday four of us from Berneray went there for a "works" Christmas meal. This was for some of the self-employed people who work online on and from the island, a sector that is gradually increasing here as fishing and crofting gradually decline. The Christmas lunch itself was okay; the Christmas pudding component was enjoyable.

The centre is quite impressive, being a conversion and extension of an old school. It's a combination of many things. For a start, there is the cafe, with possibly the best views of any cafe in the Uists, being a panoramic scene of sea and islands. Associated with this is the Hebridean Kitchen shop (things like fudge and jam made on the premises), a creche and Gaelic school for really small kids, a business centre and various other facilities. The Wifi? That was free, unencrypted and worked without a problem on Samantha.

The centre also has a PC lab with a number of terminals. Here, Ada Campbell is helping an elderly member of the community undertake some online genealogy research:


The PC lab and Wifi access are becoming increasingly useful for training, and for helping crofters and the like fill in online forms. You should note that, unlike the Lochmaddy Hotel, the centre keeps more to office and school hours. So where is the centre? Head on the circular road that goes around North Uist, and it's at about 9 or 10 o'clock as viewed on the map. From the junction at Clachan Stores head north; the road sign says a mile but it's a good bit further. The centre doesn't have a website yet, though it was established last year that they need one. They can, however, be contacted on email at:

Winter Solstice at 12:04pm today

The point of Winter Solstice passed about an hour and a half ago. After a rainy start here on Berneray in the Outer Hebrides, the weather improved to reveal a near-clear sky, with some cloud to the south.

Berneray is, by history, a Pagan and Norse island. Sadly, that part of the island's culture and heritage has been lost over time (though is evidenced by numerous stone circles and other archaelogical finds), so the Solstice is not celebrated here.

The view from here, pretty much to the second of the Winter Solstice:


Meanwhile, down in the much-hyped Stonehenge (which is somewhat inferior to nearby Avebury, but never mind), the usual Solstice celebrations and crowds occured this morning. A brace of pictures from people who were there for dawn this morning:

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="500" caption="Winter Solstice at Stonehenge"]



[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="353" caption="Winter Solstice at Stonehenge"]



And so, from here on, daylight hours lengthen. Though in just 26 weeks and 1 day, the nights will start to draw in again...

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Public Wifi in North Uist (1/2)

With the recent demise of both Tigh Dearg (North Uist) and Nunton Steadings (Benbecula), we've lost two of the very small number of places in the Uists where you can go along with your laptop and get online.

Thankfully, and for a change locally, some good news. The new owners of the Lochmaddy Hotel in North Uist have installed broadband, and stuck in a Wifi system, for the use of their customers. By customer, that can be people staying there, or customers at the bar or restaurant.

This hotel is in a good spot - it's like 1 minute walk to the North Uist ferry terminal from where you get the Calmac to Skye. And you can watch various boats, and if using public transport keep an eye on the movements of the buses from there.

So today I did lunch in the hotel (a quite decent Haddock and chips with side salad), and myself and the increasingly famous Samantha (pictured) tested it.

Currently, not all of the hotel is covered by Wifi - you need to go to the reception area (where you can get the password anyway) and find a nearby room. Thankfully there is a very quiet and pleasant lounge room with nice sea views next to reception - and a big table to put your laptop on. Signal strength: high. Along from this is the Anglers lounge, where you can get a signal in some parts of the room. Signal strength: okay.

Actually I'd prefer to go online where I was instead of in the bar area, as it is quieter and more private. I had a pleasant few hours doing online things, testing skype and getting through the mammoth inbox from hell. No problems.

It's a shame that more places in the Uists don't have Wifi but, frankly and literally, that is their loss. I'm directing people (tourists, visitors, business people) to the Lochmaddy hotel from now on, on principle. It's nearly 2009; in a lot of places in the USA, and some (though not enough) in mainland UK, the number of eating places with Wifi exceeds those without. There's a simple reason for that ...

On thursday I'm eating out at another North Uist location. This may have Wifi - it it does, it'll be blogged.

Monday, 15 December 2008

A cautionary presentation for JISC IE and eResearch Call bidders

Quick link: Download the powerpoint presentation from here and look at slides 5 to 21.

While tracking the live blog (nice work, Andy Powell), it is noticeable how many of the concepts and phrases are still as relevant now as they were in the eLib programme of the mid and late 1990s. I'm probably not the only person who twitches when the phrase "Cultural Change" appears. And I suddenly remembered Project Lanes. I had an odd role in eLib in that I was the web editor of Ariadne for the first 10 issues (which often meant hassling other projects for content and updates), as well as being the UKOLN end of the eLib dissemination chain. Consequently I had some kind of contact with many, if not all, of the eLib projects for a while, and in the space of 2 years attended over a hundred events in various roles.

This gave me ample opportunity to track and observe how projects were doing. As in most programmes, many eLib projects met or fulfilled their criteria. Overall, it is easy to see the effects of the eLib programme still today. It didn't solve every problem and issue - electronic publishers, for example, still largely have UK academic libraries over a fiscal barrel. But it massively raised the profile of things digital in UK academia, did (I personally feel) change the culture in several ways, and trained a generation of people who are influential in UK academia and libraries to this day. Not bad for 15 million pounds of funding.

However, some projects fell short or went wrong. This wasn't a great issue overall (as Chris said, "Let a hundred flowers bloom", or something like that, and the community should learn from things that went wrong).

On the orders of Chris, the brilliant, no-nonsense but fair director of eLib, I created a presentation about "Project Lanes". This was a distillation of things that went wrong in various projects and consortium, and I spent some afterwards taking questions a la "Were you referring to us on this slide?" Two people still won't speak to me as they think I didn't disguise their project failings (in reality, their own failings) enough. (Shrug).

Project Lanes has re-emerged on the JISC website, embedded in a presentation by Greg Newton-Ingham, another ex-eLibber who is self-employed - Greg is now doing interesting things in data mining. The re-emergence of Project Lanes is bad as I get no attribution (not a problem, seriously), but good as it means Greg can take any awkward questions :-) It is downloadable from here, and the Project Lanes part is from slides 5 to 21. Gosh, that was a memory trip. The rest of the slides, by Greg, are also well worth a read. "Not part of the coffee room set." - yes, that will bring back a few "Them and us" memories to eLib project staff working in universities.

Why am I blogging this? Because many of the things that went wrong are still possible in projects, especially consortium-based projects. Not all of them, as JISC have been very astute over the last decade in learning, and upgrading their proposal and funding requirements. It is much more difficult for projects to fail in the same way(s) that Project Lanes "failed". However, it is still a cautionary tale, and some things in there are as relevant now as they were then. If you are putting a proposal together for a digital library, repository or some other IE or eResearch bid, it may be worth a quick read.

[Update] To answer email just had, yes everything in Project Lanes happened to projects. Names have been changed for obvious reasons.

Friday, 12 December 2008


From my office window, over Bays Loch (which is open sea). Beyond, the old school building, currently being turned into flats. In the distance, the hills of south Harris, topped with snow.


Have suddenly realised, looking at this again, that there is a very shortcut way to solving this years Christmas Tree dilemma.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

'Book' means 'cool'

From an article on slang terms entering the English language:
And the very act of text messaging can throw up new terms: predictive text tends to choose "book" when users type the letters for "cool". Solution? Book now means cool.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Dear President-elect Barack Obama

Good luck, mate. Because if this is what teachers have to resort to in US schools, then you have one heck of a massive problem to fix.


I wonder what Prez in The Wire would have done?

After-thought. Test scores won't depend solely on knowledge. They'll depend at least partially on the ability of the child to ignore non-test distractions on the exam paper. Fail, and ironically you could end up working in a McJob for one of those companies...

Monday, 1 December 2008

Solas Co-operative

After nearly two months since my last shop in there, I have returned to the Co-operative on North Uist, about 10 miles away. The next nearest supermarket is about 38 miles away, and an hour plus on several buses.

The Co-operative has changed. Significantly. (n.b. Only mainlanders say 'Co-op'. It's 'Co-operative' here.)

For a start, the shop now has a window. This has met with much approval (though I did hear one person bemoan it as "posh"), and has been the talk of the islands for a while:


It's really good, as it means the shop is lighter, and one can look out and see what direction the horizontal rain is coming from.

The till area is better. I've always found the staff in there very helpful, and the one in this picture actually comes from Wasilla, Alaska. Yes, there. And knows Sarah Palin's family well (she was taught at school by Sarah's father). She has a rather different perspective on Ms Palin than that which comes across the media. Small world.


There are signs et al up to promote Christmas-based food products, though a few of the signs are leading to some raised eyebrows and general 'tutting' locally about mainland ways of advertising things:


The shop is better stocked than it was before. The three aisles are now a bit wider so it is now possible for people to pass without the danger of anything indecent accidentally occuring. It sells essentials:


... and additionally fruit and vegetables:


And here's what I came away with in this, the highlight of most of my weeks:


The full set of pictures from today's shopping experience is on Flickr.