Saturday, 31 December 2005

New Year - 2006

<![CDATA[ Happy New Year to all, bloggers and readers alike, in prosperity and good health. Best wishes from Arnish Lighthouse in Stornoway.


Glen Skeaudale

<![CDATA[ As regular readers of my blog will have gathered by now, I like to go to remote corners of the island. The place which I mention in the heading is not that remote, anybody travelling between Harris and Lewis passes it. But does anyone know it's there? This glen is located opposite the turn-off for Huisinish. Since the re-alignment of the road, some years back, it has become more difficult to gain access to the valley. But it's worth a visit. When I went there, in May, it was pouring with rain. Consequently, the pictures are a bit dreich. Nonetheless, it's a spectacular place, surrounded by mountains up to 1,700 feet high on both sides (Iosal being the highest), and a little pass high up at the eastern end, which leads to the valley of the Lacasdail Lochs. I found evidence of habitation there, although I have not been able to find out anything about this. Back in June, I spoke to the islands' archeologist, and she was unfamiliar with it. Mind you, it could just have been a sheepfold.
When you go in, gain some altitude and head up towards the head of the valley. Don't get entangled with the Skeaudale River. The return can be made on the northern slopes, but do not attempt to recross the main river. Admittedly, it was in spate when I was there, but it's a tricky one to cross. You have some work regaining the level of the A859.

Skeaudale River in spate
View from the valley
View from the top of the valley
General terrain underfoot
The Skeaudale River near the main road

Beyond the Skeaudale Glen lies the valley containing the Lacasdail Lochs. This has a walking route on it, that used to be the mail route from Tarbert to Stornoway. It regains the main road at Maraig (Maaruig), after a very steep climb. Another shortcut, leading past a relay station, brings the route round to Glen Scaladale, with great views of the Clisham Range. Unfortunately, I do not have pictures of that route available. ]]>

Friday, 30 December 2005

Weather, colours and sunsets

<![CDATA[ Just posting some pictures I took during the Christmas Bank Holiday.

a lot of iron.
Arnish Fabrication Yard
Stornoway at nightfall
Reflections in Dalbeg Loch
Sunset reflected in wet beach at Dalbeg
Dalbeg at sunset
Sunset at Carloway
The Harris hills from the Pentland Road
Cloudscape at Eoropie

I was amazed at the colours at sunset these past days. And at sunrise as well. Normally, I expect light to start to fail 25 minutes after sunset, but at this latitude this is extended to 40 minutes. I am not a native of the islands, but one of the reasons I have come here is the natural beauty. Whether it is in the images shown above, at a time of good weather - or in bad weather, as I showed in a much earlier posting about the November 11th hurricane.
Being caught up in a thunder, hail, snow, sleet (and kitchensink) shower back in January, whilst going down the Lochs Road at Leurbost, with the bus driver being forced to reduce speed to a crawl. No snow or ice at the next village, Keose.
The many rainbows in the spring.
The joy at seeing the first green shoots, in April.
Hearing the first bleating of lambs in a pasture at Breascleit late in March. Walking the island in the bitter winds of February, and seeing the sad remains of the sheep that did not make it through the winter. Or the sheep that was knocked down at the Marybank cattlegrid in April, and was slowly decomposing in peace in the ditch that it was dumped in over a period of 6 months.
Seeing the days lengthen to an incredible extent, sunset at 22.30, with the light lingering to the nadir of the night at 01.30, then returning fully at 03.30. But also shortening of the days, with the present daylight hours of 09.15 to 15.35.
The howling of the gales, 4 in one week in November. Clattering of hail and thumping of the wind against the window at night - waking up in the middle of the night because there is no noise.
Watching the breathtaking coastal scenery at Filiscleitir, or the stunning mountain scenery from Rapaire, Teileasbhal, Mullach an Langa. Or beautiful Glen Langadale, where I'm forever fording that river under frown of Stulabhal. The little mouse on the slopes of that mountain, the one that allowed me to stroke it. The yellow grasses on the moors of South Lochs, finding your way in amongst a myriad of lochs, streams and bogs. Loch nan Eilean, south of Garyvard.

Place seems to have gotten under my skin.

Monday, 26 December 2005


<![CDATA[ Beachlife, in the Outer Hebrides? Oh yes, most certainly. We have some of the most stupendous beaches in the United Kingdom, and really, I don't think that's an exaggeration. Some years ago, the world surfing championships came to Lewis. Although at the time I was not here, I am told that Stornoway twanged to the sound of Aussies. Fancy t-shirts and shorts filing through Somerfields with the summer temperatures we get here. Last summer's heatwave culminated in a roasting 22

Saturday, 24 December 2005


<![CDATA[ Horses at the Arnish Lighthouse.
Arnish is the area to the west of Stornoway Harbour. Virtually nobody lives there, apart from one person in the old lighthouse keeper's cottage, behind the lighthouse from which I've borrowed the name for this blog. It is an industrial area. For the last thirty years, it has been dominated by the huge sheds of the Arnish Fabrication Yard.
Arnish from Sandwick
At the time of the oilboom in the 1980s, it used to fabricate oilrigs. When that subsided, the site was taken over by a company who, by all accounts, engaged in a good old exercise in asset stripping and left it derilict. In recent years, there have been repeated attempts to reinvigorate the yard. I mentioned in a previous post that they were making wave generators for use in Portugal there this autumn. And latest news is that a contract has been won for parts of the windfarm on the Beatrice oil installation in the North Sea, east of Caithness. It's good news - any employment is welcome. The unfortunate thing is that the Portuguese contract had to be finished using Polish labour, as no local staff could be attracted. Of course the Arnish Yard has been earmarked for making the wind turbines for the Lewis windfarms, if they ever come to fruition. The same problem is likely to apply at that time - insufficient local interest for the jobs associated with the project. But that bridge will be crossed when we come to it.
There is a single-track road that leads to Arnish from the A859 Stornoway to Tarbert road, from just south of the quarry at Marybank. On foot, Arnish can be reached from Stornoway through the Castle Grounds. Before the Fabrication Yard was built, the site had to be cleared. Of a hill or two, and of a cottage. In 1975, the cottage was torched. Not that it didn't have historical interest, Bonny Prince Charlie is reputed to have stayed there during his post-Culloden 'pelerinage' (deliberately using the French here) of the Western Isles. A few hundred yards south of Arnish stands a monument on the top of a hill, which commemorates BPC's arrival at Arnish, in June 1746. He had spent the night at Eilean Iubhair, off Lemreway, and had ploughed his way across Lochs to stay at Arnish. It was made clear to Charlie that although he would not be betrayed to Cumberland's forces, it certainly wouldn't be a wise decision to stay at Stornoway. So off he went, to the next corner of Scotland. Personally, I haven't got a second of time for BPC. His exploits have been extensively romanticised. However he actually had only very little backing, as the clan chiefs knew a mile off what was going to happen with him in charge. It caused untold damage, and the repercussions still reverberate round Scotland to this day.
I'll get off my high horse and continue.
Beyond this monument, you can continue down the coast for a short distance, until you reach 'the Tob', more fully known as Tob Leireabhat [pronounce: Lairyavat]. It's a very pretty inlet, only marginally spoiled by a dam at the outflow of the river. You can cross the river there, or walk the hundred yards through the heather and cross at the dam which blocks the outflow from the loch. A little cabin stands by the bottom dam. From here, the river can be followed upstream for a long distance, as far as the Grimshader road in fact. It is the start of a moorland walk to Leurbost, 7 miles away.
Leireabhat River
The Leireabhat River walk (not signposted, marked or even visible) is quite pretty in summer, with flowers in the river and on its banks. It is advisable to stick to higher ground above the river.
If you stick to the coastal headlands, you'll come out of Grimshader village. I did that walk (in reverse) in March, when they were burning the heather. Unfortunately, the wind was southwest, so I had to divert right out to the coast to avoid being reduced to a crisp. Grimshader is a spectacular little place, set above its own loch, which looks for all intentions like a Norwegian fjord.

Thursday, 22 December 2005

Loch Langabhat

<![CDATA[ Loch Langabhat from Glen Langadale
During the first part of my stay here, I have covered a lot of mileage on foot in the island. That is actually how I built up my fairly large collection of pictures. My favourite area is broadly Loch Langabhat [Note: pronounce BH as V]. I first clapped eyes on it in December last year, when I walked up the 4

Wednesday, 21 December 2005

Of mice and men

<![CDATA[ I am based in the Isle of Lewis and am supposed to restrict myself to the Long Island. However, it has been observed that the Small Isles have as yet not got their act together. Inside information would suggest that they're establishing a committee on who is going to be blogger in chief, who is in charge of the rum, the eggs and the muck, and who canna do anything at all.
The Isle of Canna has been suffering from an infestation of rats. Nobody likes them, and apart from being an outright nuisance, they are a threat to ground nesting birds in the island. Unfortunately, the National Trust for Scotland, who are looking after Canna, could not just dose the island with warfarin (rat poison). Because Canna is home to a unique species of mouse, which is slightly larger than your average mouse. Last autumn, a team from Edinburgh University spent some time on the island setting traps to capture the mice live and take them to Edinburgh for safekeeping. Whilst the mice were away, it wasn't the cats that were dancing, and certainly not the rats. They were going to be treated to a dose of poison. So, the dapper ship MV Spanish John II was chartered to transport canisters of rat poison to Canna, one day in October this year. As she was chugging round the Isle of Rum, a call came on the VHF radio. An American warship, on manoeuvres in the area, was warning a vessel on its portside to move away, as it was in its safety zone. The skipper of the Spanish John didn't take notice, because he was on the starboard side of the American vessel. However, he was the only one there. The warnings were repeated six times, with increasing urgency. The master of the Spanish John now began to panic, and he tried shouting at the USS Klakring, to no avail. Another message came through on the VHF, ordering the black vessel with the white superstructure to pull away. The Spanish John hasn't got a white superstructure, but the white drums with poison could be misinterpreted as such. Then another four verbal warnings came to the Spanish John to pull away, or else the Klakring would open fire. The skipper did pull away, but not sufficiently. Four loud bangs, followed by four red glowing dots moving at speed from the Klakring would indicate that four rounds had been fired. The Spanish John was not hit, and a Navy spokesman insisted that the American vessel was not authorised to fire live weapons. The manoeuvres had been widely broadcast and advertised, but may not have got through to the crew of the Spanish John. The latter vessel continued on its innocent passage to Canna, where the rats are currently being exterminated.
As soon as they're all gone, the mice will be returned. Let's hope there are no more manoeuvres in the Sea of the Hebrides for a little while.

Further information on the vessels involved (thanks to Sunday Mail):
THE Spanish John II was built in 2003 by Nobles of Girvan.
The ship - powered by twin 230hp Daewoo engines - is 18metres long by 6.5metres wide and carries a deck cargo of 40 tons. Its main use is as a cargo vessel and it transports vehicles, plants and livestock which are essential supplies in the Inner Hebrides and Knoydart. Fuel cargo is a speciality of the boat, which can carry 26,000 litres of diesel in tanks below deck. One of the strangest tasks the crew has undertaken was transporting an alligator to the isle of Rhum

USS Klakring is a guided missile frigate which escorts and protects carrier battle groups, amphibious landing groups and convoys. The 4100-tonne ship was commissioned in August 20, 1983, and built in Maine. It is 138 metres long and can travel at up to 28 knots and is capable of carrying two Sea Hawk aircraft. It is also fitted with two triple mount torpedo tubes and a rapid firing gun. It would normally house a crew of around 215 men. It is named after war hero Admiral Thomas B Klakring, who sunk eight Japanese ships during the Pacific war. He was awarded the Navy Cross with two gold stars ]]>


Having read all the applications that Calumannabel has received for the position of head matchmaker, I'm a bit disappointed. Particularly as no Hearachs have replied. Calumannabel, I'm bound to say, sending all your pictures to Molinginish isn't going to help one bit. For goodness' sakes man, you'll be receiving a solicitor's letter for all your trouble. No, if you should have difficulty with Dell Fank, have you considered the Shiants? Anyone that can run up Eilean Garbh in 5 minutes will have first choice of the winning line-up, and will be entered into the rat race at the cottage on Eilean Tighe.


<![CDATA[ Rather than continue to boringly number my essays (or ramblings, whichever way you want), I think I'll just revert to names. At least you know what it's going to be about. In this case, the small village just outside Carloway on the West Side of Lewis.

Gearrannan Blackhouse Village from the south
Gearrannan Blackhouse Village
Blackhouse Museum
Box beds
Dressers in the living room
Living room
Hattersley Loom
Coastal scenery just east of Gearrannan, looking out towards Old Hill

First of all, it used to be in a different place - just to the south of the current black house village.
The blackhouses were inhabited until the mid 1970s, after which they fell into decay. The inhabitants moved into the modern council houses, just up the road. Blackhouses weren't all they are sometimes cranked up to be. I've already devoted an entry to conditions on St Kilda, and I'd think people were only too glad to move to more comfortable surroundings. The blackhouses you see in the picture were reconstructed in the 1990s, and apart from one, bear no resemblance internally to the original edifices. Several of them are actually holiday cottages with all mod cons; one is in use as a budget hostel under the auspices of the SYHA; one is a restaurant and the one at the entrance is the visitor centre. The museum is a blackhouse as it would have looked at the time of the calendar on the wall, 1955. The pictures in the gallery above show what the interior looks like. I would imagine readers like Calumannabel would be able to comment further. Another house has an exhibition about aspects of life in a blackhouse. It revolved around the cycle of the year, whether it be with crops, fishing or animal husbandry.
One of the pictures shows a slightly blurred image of a Hattersley Loom. This piece of machinery was in widespread use across the island until fairly recently. No longer so. There used to be nearly a dozen Harris Tweed mills [factories] in Lewis, mainly concentrated in the Newton area of Stornoway, but also at Sandwick, Shawbost and Carloway / Gearrannan. Information from within the industry has told me that a good exercise of squeezing out competition, bad banking and shortsightedness on the part of various authorities reduced the number of mills in Lewis to 4; the one at Carloway appears to be on the verge of going out of business. Net result is, that there is nowhere near the amount of work for the crofters to do on their looms. The majority of them have thrown them out (as I have noticed in Dalmore) and cursed their decision to invest in buildings and machinery. Or cursed those involved in the decline in the industry. It was the perfect industry for Lewis. Wool would be processed at the mills and yarn brought to the crofters to be woven into tweed. Once that was done, the lorry from the mill would pick up the raw tweed and take it back for processing into a final product. There is a standard for tweed to meet in order for it to be called Harris Tweed: it's the Orb.
copyright Harris Tweed Authority The Harris Tweed Authority () keeps a close eye on anything that is being marketed as Harris Tweed. As I stated above, the industry shrank about 10 years ago and nowhere near the volume of tweed is produced in Lewis as was before. Nowadays, the tweed produced is used by Nike to put into trainers and caps. Or purchased by private producers to make garments themselves. It's just as well I don't have the Gaelic, because I would have heard a few choice words in that loomshed last May, I'm sure.
From Gearrannan it is possible to walk round the coast to Carloway, via the lighthouse at Lamishader. Be careful around the cliffs, particularly near the lighthouse. In the other direction, you can walk all the way to Bragar, via Dalmore, Dalbeg, Shawbost and Labost. In 2005, it was impossible to proceed to Arnol along the coast, as the outflow of the Arnol River was too deep and fast to cross. It is actually a very scenic walk, but please, please take care along those cliffs, particularly in wet and/or windy conditions. Earlier this year, a Frenchman lost his life after losing his footing on the tops of the cliffs at Gearrannan, possibly at the location where I took the last picture in the gallery, at the start of this entry. ]]>

Tuesday, 20 December 2005

Geography and History - 5

<![CDATA[ The fifth instalment in this series will bring together elements from previous articles. I am going to focus on the below stretch of road

Pentland Road
Roadsign at junction
Peatbank near Breascleit

The Pentland Road is not very well known to non-islanders, and takes a bit of finding. Residents of Carloway and Breascleit use it as a shortcut into town; it's only 16 miles to Carloway along the Pentland Road, but as much as 26 along the main road through Leurbost and Callanish. Its origins go back to Lord Leverhulme's years of ownership of Lewis. As I mentioned in a previous article, he had contrived plans to industrialise the island, and one of the projects was to establish a fishery station at Carlabhagh / Carloway. Fishermen from the West Side would land their catches at the pier there, which would save them the trip round the Butt of Lewis to Stornoway. They would refuel at Carloway and set out again. Their catches would be transferred to Stornoway by railway.

To find the Pentland Road in Stornoway, you need to follow the signs for the Council Dump at Bennadrove. Just after the garage, a broad road branches off to the left with big signs for Carlabhagh and Breascleit. After about half a mile, it leaves the houses of Marybank behind and heads out into the open moor. I have walked the length of the Pentland Road, all the way into Carloway in 4

Monday, 19 December 2005

Geography and History - 4

<![CDATA[ As I promised in part 3 of this series, I'll now touch on the greatest controversy to hit Lewis in recent times. A few of these:

Over the past couple of years, plans started to appear out of the haze for a windfarm development in the Western Isles. Late in 2004, the planning application was lodged with Comhairle nan Eilean Siar for 233 windturbines, to be built across the Isle of Lewis. How many? Two hundred and thirty-three. [This is a separate project from the Eishken Windfarm]. Now, Lewis is not a small island, but 233? They are to be built across 50 miles of territory, stretching from Ness all the way down to Bragar, and across down to Stornoway. A simple exercise in arithmatic learns that if built in a straight line, it's one turbine for every 1/5 mile. Now, it's not just any old turbine. The machines that Lewis Windpower wishes to build reach 135 metres, 450 feet, in height.

When a planning application is launched, objections can be raised. Various organisations and individuals did lodge objections.

The RSPB objected on the grounds that it could adversely affect bird populations in the island. After all, Lewis is in the flightpath of migrating birds. This was actually cited as a reason for not granting planning permission for a windpark in Caithness. The RSPB has been attacked for its stance by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar. Why the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is attacked for standing up for birds is completely beyond me. One argument left me speechless. The windturbines would be beneficial to grouse on the moor. Why? Because their predators would suffer by the presence of the turbines. Groan.

Other objections were raised on the grounds that an important habitat would be destroyed; Lewis is covered in a layer of peat up to 6 m / 20 feet thick. It carries a unique tapistry of animal and plant life.

To be honest: there seems to be a certain element of literal NIMBY attitude about as well. But I wonder. Would anyone want a litany of towers in their backyard that stand up to 4 times as tall as the Butt of Lewis Lighthouse? Has anyone got any idea how HUGE these things are going to be? That they'll be visible from the Scottish mainland, as well as from a large part of the Western Isles island chain?

What has been a recurring theme appears to be councillors voting for the project, whilst their constituents are against. Fierce rows have raged in community council chambers, such as Ness, Airidhantuim, Laxdale and Kinloch. In the first two councils, half the council members have resigned in protest. The councillors on CnES appear not to be representing the views of the people of their wards.

The arguments in favour of the scheme revolve around money. I have seen a presentation in which the

Geography and History - 3

<![CDATA[ Moving back to the eastern side of Lewis, I'm going to focus on the district of Lochs. Apart from sea lochs there is a myriad of fresh-water lochs. Loch Grimshader could almost pass for a fjord, with its steep-sided entrance. The small inlet of Tob Leireabhat, just south of the Arnish Lighthouse, is similarly encased in a steep valley. Going further south, the villages of South Lochs, on the southern shore of Loch Erisort, used to be poorly served by roads. I read a book the other day deploring the advent of the South Lochs Highway (better known as the B8060). Until that road was improved, the mails were delivered from Crosbost to Cromor by boat. And in fact everything in the old days came in by boat. When the doctor had to come in an emergency, he came across the water. In a direct line, it's 12 miles from Stornoway to Cromor. Go by road, via Balallan, and you're looking at 30 miles. The people of South Lochs launched a buy-out of their estate a year ago. Their current landlord has not seen fit to lavish the district with his financial attentions, but is only too keen to cash in on the proposed windfarm development. The same applies to the owner of the adjacent Eishken Estate, to the south. Of both subjects: more later. The southernmost villages in South Lochs are Lemreway and Orinsay. There used to be a third village on the shores of Loch Sealg, Steimreway, but that was cleared in the 1920s. Not for the first time, and actually not for the last time either. The excellent Angus MacLeod archive in the Ravenspoint Centre in Kershader has published a booklet with the history of the village. These days, Steimreway is only a set of ruins in a delightful setting. Like the 30 villages in Eishken, Steimreway was cleared during the 19th century to make way for sheep. Steimreway can only be reached on foot across the open moor. I tried to reach it back in July, but atrocious weather conditions put paid to that enterprise. The village was located along a tidal inlet, the Loden, which linked to an inland water system of lochs. This makes it impossible to reach Steimreway from any other point but Orinsay. Except by boat of course. The village was repopulated between 1921 and 1945. The resettlement got off to a bad start, when a boat containing a flitting went down. And it foundered completely when the government was not interested in putting in a road or any other facilities. Familiar story?
Across Loch Sealg lie the deserted mountains of Eishken. As I stated above, until the 1820s, there used to be some 30 villages in that district. None now remain. It is a private estate, used for deerstalking. In 1887, a group of men, led by a Balallan schoolteacher, mounted a 'raid' on the estate. They shot a few deer and feasted on venison. They only wanted land. However, the estate owner would not hear of it, and engaged the sheriff to evict the intruders from her land. They were read the riot act at Kinloch Sealg, and the men departed. A monument to their endeavours stands at the junction of the Eishken road on the A859 Stornoway to Tarbert road. It is closely associated with the landraid at Aignish, Point, in 1888 where force had to be used to evict crofters. It is all about land, which is so important to the islanders. Because that's where you make your livelihood from.
Planned for the mountains of Eishken is a windfarm project. One hundred and thirty-three turbines are to be erected across the tops of the hills. Each turbine will measure 450 feet in height. This image will give some idea of scale.

Landowner Mr Oppenheimer, currently a multimillionaire, stands to become a multibillionaire if the plans come to fruition. Comhairle nan Eilean Siar nearly rejected the planning application back in June. In his generosity, the land owner has set up the Muaitheabhal Trust, named after one of the hills on which the windfarm is to be built. A year ago, letters were sent round the Kinloch district (which stretches from Lacasaidh to Airidh a'Bhruaich) and the hamlets on Loch Seaforth. The people were invited to join the MT, which would entitle them to a share in the profits. Not joining the MT would mean no share in the profit, although Mr Oppenheimer did say he wanted the community to share in the proceeds of the windfarm. The 50 people on Loch Seaforth, who live in settlements such as Ath Linne, Bogha Ghlas, Scaladal and Maraig, scorned the idea. If memory serves, about half the people in Kinloch were agreeable. Press reports at the time mentioned

Sunday, 18 December 2005

Geography and History - 1

<![CDATA[ Lewis / Harris is one of those curious places where the distances between two places are not what a cursory glance at the map might suggest they are.

If you want to go from Tolsta to Skigersta, the distance as the crow flies is about 8 miles. It's a very nice journey, along some pretty spectacular coastal scenery. Traigh Mor and Garry Beach at Tolsta, Dun Othail, Dibidil, the long valley at Maoim. The forlorn ruined chapel at Filiscleitir, with the demure shielings at Cuidhsiadar. And then the metalled road is reached at Skigersta.

Traigh Mhor
Bridge to Nowhere
Dun Othail
Chapel at Filiscleitir
Shielings at Cuidhsiadar

Yep. There is no metalled road from Tolsta to Skigersta. It's an 5 mile bogslog between the Bridge to Nowhere and Cuidhsiadar, with an additional 3 miles along a reasonable track.The Bridge to Nowhere is a relic from the era of Lord Leverhulme, who owned Lewis and Harris between 1918 and 1923. He was a visionary man, who wanted to bring progress to the Long Island. Unfortunately, he came in at the wrong time. In 1918, survivors returned from the carnage and atrocities at the Western Front, and the only thing they wanted was the land they were promised before they left for war. They weren't interested in Leverhulme's grand schemes, such as the whaling factory at Bun Abhainn Eadar (near Tarbert), or the road to be built between Tolsta and Ness. The road only got as far as the Bridge to Nowhere. The men who had returned from war went so far as to occupy land at Back; a monument for them has been erected at the Gress Bridge. It signifies Lord Leverhulme trying to stand in division between the crofters. I don't agree with that view of the Wee Soap Mannie. He was the right man - at the wrong time. People were not ready for his ideas, certainly not after more than 200 men were lost within sight of Stornoway Harbour on New Year's Day 1919.
The story of the Iolaire disaster is well known in the Western Isles, but not much beyond these islands. It was one of the greatest losses of life at sea in peacetime, after sinkings such as the Titanic in 1912 and the Norge in 1904. In brief, 280 survivors of the Great War were on their way back to Lewis from Kyle of Lochalsh. At about 1.55 a.m. on 1st January 1919, the Iolaire struck rocks at Holm, within sight of the lights of Stornoway. The seastate was quite rough, so although the ship was within yards of shore, anyone trying to swim to shore drowned. Some men managed to make it ashore, with a rope round themselves, and in this fashion 75 survived. Just over an hour after the grounding, the boilers of the ship exploded, which sent it to the bottom. 205 drowned. No village, no family in the island was left untouched by this tragedy. The bodies of the dead continued to wash up for several days. The celebratory beacons which had been piled up in anticipation of a new year of peace, and for the homecoming of the men, were never lit.
Calum Ferguson, in his excellent book Children of the Black House tells the story of the woman who had prepared food and a fire for the return of her husband. Her daughter fell asleep shortly after midnight, to awake six hours later. The fire was out, and the food was cold on the stove. The mother was in a great state of distress, and she said "I am a widow", although no one had as yet arrived to break the news. Church elders were seen in the village at daybreak, to bring just that tiding. ]]>

Geography and History - 2

<![CDATA[ Lewis / Harris is one of those curious places where the distances between two places are not what a cursory glance at the map might suggest they are. Did I mention yesterday that it's 40 miles by road from Tolsta to Skigersta?

I was reminded of another example two weeks ago when the Rocket Post movie was shown in An Lanntair, in Stornoway. This story is set in Scarp (although the movie was shot on Taransay), which lies just off the coast at Huisinis, in North Harris. If you want to go there, you'll have to go there by private transport. Nobody lives on Scarp these days. When I visited Huisinish, back in late April, it was alive to the sound of bleating sheep. The slipway is there for going to Scarp, but like Taransay, the island is deserted. At Huisinish, you can go for a lovely walk to Cravadale and even Kinloch Resort if you're feeling energetic. That is, if you're not suffering from vertigo. When looking north, you'll see Mealista Island, scene of the Great Sheep Robbery of 2003, when 60 of the resident flock of 117 were rustled off. Mealista itself, in Uig, is only 7 miles as the fish swims from Huisinish.

Huisinish Slipway, with Scarp to the left
The view north to Mealista Island (on horizon) and Uig
Cleft along the Cravadale Path. Not suffering from vertigo?

Driving from one to the other is a matter of a mere 70 miles. Yes, seventy. 14 to the junction at Bun Abhainn Eadar, then it's 27 to Leurbost, 8 to Garynahine and 26 to Mealista. That's the end of the road. Go any further and you either need that boat, or strong hiking boots to walk round the corner to Hamnaway. The district of Uig has been the scene of many clearances and removals. According to one local source, quite a few people were shunted across Loch Roag to the West Side, between Carloway and Shawbost. Going back to the road journey, take your time on the B887 from Bun Abhainn Eadar to Huisinish. It's only 14 miles, but should take at least 40 minutes, as it's rated as the worst road in Scotland. One person of my acquaintance nearly had a heart attack by the time he reached Amhuinnsuidhe Castle, 9 miles in. Blind corners, blind summits, grit on the road, not to mention other drivers...

A few lines ago, I did mention Taransay, scene of the infamous Castaway 2000 project. Someone asked me about it the other day, and referred to it as Outcast 2000. After stifling a huge guffaw, I patiently explained that yon project was actually a travesty of the Western Isles, and the only good it ever did was raising the profile from a tourist's point of view. The scenery from there is gorgeous, with the backdrop of the Harris mountains. Otherwise, it was an absolute non-community. What do you expect, people aren't prepared to put their backs into something that they know is going to end in 12 months' time. Last week, I went on the BBC's website and found a clip from that program, which contained a lot of screaming and shouting. All the pods, that the participants lived in, have been removed from Taransay. One is sitting along the road in Luskentyre, but when I was there in April, it looked uninhabited and rundown.

Saturday, 17 December 2005

Callanish - 2

<![CDATA[ Callanish is not just world famous for the Stone Circle, but also for its associated connotations. Every June, people flock to the Stones at the time of the Solstice, although I don't see the point. Archeologists have formulated the opinion that the Callanish Stones were linked to the moon, not the sun. Nonetheless, I won't begrudge anyone a good soaking at dawn, as happened this year on June 21st.
On one of the pictures, shown on the link on the first entry on Callanish, mention is made of Callanish Air. Although it shows the Callanish Stones, I have found evidence of airport runways already in place in the village. See the picture below. ]]>

Friday, 16 December 2005

NHS reforms in the Western Isles

The issue of service reforms in the NHS in the Western Isles has dominated the news over the past few weeks. Without boring readers to tears, there are a few issues that influence the NHS in the Western Isles. First of all, only 26,500 people live between Ness and Mingulay. There has to be a fully equipped health service on the islands, in order to cope with any immediate emergency. We have a largish hospital in Stornoway, a medium sized one on Benbecula and a small unit in Barra.
It is common practice for complicated cases to be flown out to major centres like Inverness and Glasgow. Health professionals, such as doctors, have to maintain and expand their skills, and to that end usually rotate through different hospitals over a period of years. Because complicated cases are not normally treated at Stornoway (or Benbecula or Barra), there is little professional incentive for doctors to come here. In other words, it is desperately difficult to attract professional staff. The same applies to other health professionals, like nurses.

The Health Board has therefore been forced to get the necessary staff in as locums. These can cost as much as £70 an hour, and if they are on call (i.e. available to work, but not necessarily on the job), that can mount up.
At the moment, there is a vacancy for a psychiatrist after the previous consultant retired on December 6th. He announced his retirement in July, but the Board never took action until much later than that. The result is that no-one has as yet been found to replace the consultant in question, and another locum is probably going to be employed. At a considerable cost.

So, the NHS Board in the Western Isles decided on service reform to address this problem. In consultation with staff, the Board reached the conclusion that closing a ward, to release nurses for duties elsewhere in the NHS (not necessarily in hospital), would be a good idea. And that skills and responsibilities would be shared out to lower grades of professional staff than before. Training would be provided where necessary. An example: a general surgeon can be expected to perform a caesarian section. Psychiatric emergencies are expected to be dealt with (out of hours) by a community psychiatric nurse and a GP. Still with me?

Second problem is a serious breakdown in communication between management and staff. Allegations of bullying and harassment have been flying around, and are currently being investigated. People felt so intimidated and brow-beaten that they did not feel able to speak to their manager about any concerns or misgivings regarding the current round of reorganisations. They felt able to speak to anyone, apart from the management of NHS Western Isles. As a result, local councillors organised a meeting on November 30 for staff to air their grievances. And air they did. It was a damning indictment of the Health Board, which has been widely reported in the press. The Health Board itself put its case to the public the next day. When the opportunity arose for questions, several people voiced their concerns over service cuts and the problem of staff morale. The Chief Executive himself did not acknowledge or respond to the criticism - he mutely passed it on to one of his medical directors to answer. It was this same Medical Director who has gone on record today (16th December) as saying that any more criticism of the health board may well lead to its abolition. In other words, criticism is not allowed. That is also bullying. The Scottish Health Minister, Andy Kerr, has said that he is not interested in the bullying allegations. Whilst these in themselves may justly be seen as a purely internal matter, they very seriously undermine the credibility of the health board when it states that the proposed service changes were made in proper consultation with staff. It is speaking volumes that grievances can only be aired in public meetings, at the instigation of local councillors. Under normal circumstances, this should be thrashed out internally without the need to hang out all the dirty washing.

The third problem that surfaced were the facilities offered to Health Board managers not to have to live in the islands, but being able to commute from and to the mainland at the tax payers' expense. They were held not to contribute to the island's economy in a direct sense. Unfortunately, it would appear that (unlike e.g. elected representatives, such as councillors) Health Board managers are appointed, and are not accountable to the public they serve.

The hospital in Stornoway has always been 'of the people', built with the money of the people of Lewis and Harris. People are very proud of their hospital, and feel strongly about cutbacks in services.

To me, as onlooker, this smacks of an old attitude that used to be around in these islands. It reminds me of "A Shilling for your Scowl" i.e. do not criticise the man in the Big House - Laird knows best. It is an attitude I've never understood, yet it does keep rearing its ugly head.

I thought we had gone into the 21st century, not still stuck in the 19th.