Tuesday, 28 February 2006

Shiant Isles

The Shiants is that funny group of islands just southeast of Lewis, 8 miles south of Lemreway, 17 east of Harris and 12 miles north of Skye. The owner of the archipelago, Adam Nicholson, has written an excellent book on the isles, and also keeps a very nice website - I have little to add to either of them. It is just one of those places, not unlike St Kilda (still awaiting my footfall) where each island hopper really should have been.

My visit was part of the Islands Book Trust program last June. After Adam Nicholson's talk, which I missed because of the unsurpassed bustimetable for South Lochs, four boats were going to ferry the 110 people (give or take a few) from Lemreway to the Shiants. This started at 11.30 a.m.. Unfortunately, two boats could not be there, due to mechanical problems. So we were left with a 12 man RIB and the Eishken estate boat. Needless to say, it took a while for everybody to be ferried across. A return trip took about 40 minutes. By the time my turn came along, it was 4pm, rain had started and the fog had come down. On the way across, the fog was as dense as peasoup. Something tells me, judging by some pretty large bowwaves that rippled the otherwise glassy sea that we were crossing the path of the QM2, which was heading south as well. Half an hour after leaving Lemreway, the strange shapes of the Shiants loomed up out of the mist. Our group of 11 were put ashore on the narrow isthmus between Eilean Tighe and Eilean Garbh. You can't miss Eilean Garbh: it rises a stupendous 500 feet out of the sea, at an angle of 45 degrees. Earlier arrivals had actually climbed to the summit of the island. I had to contend with scrambling off the little beach onto Eilean Tighe, and making my way to the wee cottage. This was doubling as a hostel for a party of Czech archeologists, commissioned to carry out a dig on the island. The cottage is notorious for its rats, and for having the worst expiry-dates in the Western Isles. Coffee with a best before date of 2001? Hmpf. I made my way to the extreme south of Eilean Tighe, through the fog. Slight problem: the island is surrounded by cliffs, which plummet 250 to 400 feet straight down into the sea, and I was a little disconcerted to find myself at the top of them. On return from the far south, the fog was lifting and the views cleared. The Galtenach, a string of rocky islets to the west of Eilean Garbh, loomed up under the blanket of cloud. When I got back to the cottage, the outlines of the lochs in the Eishken area were visible under the cloud, as was Scalpay (off Harris). It was such a shame that I only had about 2 hours there. But, I still managed to shoot this little collection of pics. For those of you who may never have the chance to go there.

Arrival at the Shiants
Eilean Garbh (to the right)
Eilean Garbh from Eilean Tighe
The Cottage and the Galtenach in the background
Cottage and Eilean Garbh
Cliffs on the southern end of Eilean Tighe
The southern end of Eilean Tighe
A larger view of Eilean Garbh
Eilean Mhuire overlooking the embarkation point
The embarkation, overlooked by Eilean Garbh (left)
Eilean Garbh, from the north


Monday, 27 February 2006


<![CDATA[ Last week I posted my third entry on the subject of the Lewis Sunday. It appears to be an emotive issue, on which people hold very strong views. That's putting it mildly, by all accounts. The invitation for me and my "heathen friends" to man the ferries, buses and shops on a Sunday was benign, in comparison to the vitriol I have seen strewn about on another messageboard, on precisely this subject. It got so nasty that the administrator of the relevant board deleted the thread concerned after repeated complaints of personal abuse.

Just want to reiterate that I respect local traditions, and (as I wrote earlier) find the quiet on a Sunday one of the pleasant features of life in the island. In my capacity as an observer, I have highlighted various points of view on this issue, for and against. My slant is probably biased in favour of establishing services. The reason is that there are glaring inconsistencies in Comhairle nan Eilean Siar policy on this issue. If someone were so inclined, they could use the European Court of Human Rights to FORCE ferries, buses and shops to operate 7 days a week. I have therefore argued for a consensus on the issue, but I am saddened to note that the probability of this would seem low. ]]>

Thursday, 23 February 2006

Iolaire disaster

<![CDATA[ I have recently written about the Iolaire disaster. An updated list of names of all those on board HMY Iolaire is now available on the website, link to the right of this entry. I am particularly endebted to Malcolm MacDonald of the Stornoway Historical Society. I can only echo his dismay that such a list was never published in the 87 years since the disaster took place. It would have been so much easier when the survivors were still alive, as well as the families of those grieving for loved ones. The last survivor died in 1992. Some of the stories have been handed down through the years. Even when the final version of the name list comes on-line, in the next week or so, it can never be a definite list. The bodies of many of those who drowned were never found. ]]>

Cockle Ebb

<![CDATA[ Yesterday was such a gorgeous day that I decided to head out for a walk, about 5 miles, along the Cockle Ebb to Steinish and across to Sandwick. I have mentioned the Cockle Ebb before. It is the estuary of the River Laxdale and the Blackwater River. A tidal basin, which turns into mudflats at low tide. A haven for wildlife, but very dangerous for crossing on foot. I was told that many years ago, a lady from Back would walk to Stornoway across the Ebb, crossing from Aird Tong to Culregrein and into town. There are warning signs on the access roads, that you can easily become cut off by a high tide, that there are quicksands and other hidden dangers. Nonetheless, I have once crossed the Cockle Ebb barefoot (saves taking boots off and putting them on again every 2 minutes) from Culregrein to Tong. Nice walk, about 1

Wednesday, 22 February 2006

Sunday - 3

<![CDATA[ The debate about Sunday sailings across the Sound of Harris has hotted up considerably in recent weeks. In my role as observer, I am writing this with a slightly lopsided smile on my face. Because it's a debate on a background of double standards.

Let's list the facts.

Sunday, the Sabbath, should be kept as a day of rest. As a day of religious observance. In accordance with the Scriptures, according to some sectors of society. Others, not so deeply religious, just want a day which does NOT involve fuming at the rush-hour queues on the Manor roundabout, at the check-out queues in Somerfields or the Coop. No rushing kids round to and from school, or extraneous activities. No work. Just blissful idleness.
There are no ferries to or from Lewis. No buses run on Sunday either.


As things stand, late February 2006, the following things already happen in the islands, which have been going on for quite a while.

Planes fly in and out of Stornoway airport.
Ferries ply between Uig (Skye) and Lochmaddy (North Uist).
Isn't it crass that there can't be a ferry between the same island of North Uist and Harris? The argument that Uisteach cannot visit relatives in hospital in Stornoway over the weekend does carry some weight, I believe. And why can't there be if only ONE ferry between Stornoway and Ullapool on Sunday?

The filling station on Sandwick Road in Stornoway is open on Sundays, and it does a roaring trade by all accounts. It's the only place open between Port Nis and Leverburgh. Eighty miles apart.

Buses do run on Sundays, to ferry people to and from church. Why not put on a busservice in Summer, to take the tourists round the West Side? At the moment, if you haven't got a car with you (as a tourist) you're stuck on Sundays. Not very convenient, really.

Further south, I'm told that the spinal route from North to South Uist is very busy with people from the North going South to visit a pub. The Coop in Castlebay is open for a few hours on Sunday.

To summarize:
Across the area of the Western Isles, there are glaring inconsistencies in service provision, which, if challenged in court, would not stand up for one minute. Again, I respect local custom. But it should not go to the extent that people are inconvenienced.
I suggest that everybody abandons their entrenched positions and work together to find a solution. Is that too much to ask? ]]>

Monday, 20 February 2006

Maritime disasters

<![CDATA[ In remembrance of those lost on the Norge, 28 June 1904.

The sinking of the Titanic in 1912 was one of the worst peacetime maritime disasters of the 20th century. Others have happened before and since, some of which have faded from memory. I have highlighted one other before, the sinking of the Iolaire on the Beasts of Holm, on 1st January 1919.

The story and images below are partly taken from www.norwayheritage.com.
SS Norge
In 1904, the emigrant vessel Norge sank off Rockall, 200 miles west of here in the Atlantic. Rockall is a rock which juts out of the oceanfloor, and sticks some 70 feet above the waves. A nearby reef is partially submerged, Hazelwood Rock, and both constitute a danger to shipping.
On 28th June 1904, the SS Norge was heading from Norway to America, when she struck Rockall. Her bow became embedded in the rocks. Lifeboats were readied, but the captain ordered the engines in reverse to extricate his ship. Unfortunately, there was severe damage below the waterline, and the Norge sank, taking 700 emigrants with her to the bottom. A number of them were picked up by a British merchantman, the Cerwona. Some lifeboats made it to the Outer Hebrides, and were cared for in Stornoway. Nine of them succumbed to the effects of their ordeal and are buried in Sandwick Cemetery, near Stornoway.

This link leads to transcripts of newspaper articles about the disaster, as they were printed in 1904. A book has been written about the sinking of this ship, but otherwise the event seems to have faded from memory. ]]>



Greenfinch on feeder (look closely)
Pigeon dove
Bathing starling
Starling on birdfeeder
Big fisher - little fisher
Red robin

I am not an expert on birds by any stretch of the imagination - I think it is already no mean feat that I am able to distinguish a blackbird from a song thrush. Nonetheless, there are a few birds that I've caught on camera and others that I have encountered on my numerous bogslogs which were too quick for me to snap.

In the moors, the shrike does just that - it takes off out of its hiding place with a heart stopping shriek. The grouse does pretty much the same when you come too close, whirring off with a inane cackling. One grouse near Airidh a'Bhruaich (Lochs) was injured and could not fly or run away. I could have a close look at it, 14 months ago, but didn't have a camera with me at the time. Higher up in the hills, you may encounter the golden eagle. One whooshed overhead, not 10 feet above me, one day whilst exploring the southwest of the Isle of Eigg. I have seen them from a greater distance whilst waiting for a bus at Balallan here in Lewis.

I know a little about seabirds. For years, I used to visit one of the largest wetlands in Europe, the Wadden Sea basin, which stretches from northern Holland as far as Esbjerg in Denmark. It is there that I learned about many different birds. Some of them I have encountered in the islands of Scotland. I have seen eider ducks, much maligned by mussel.farmers, at Gress. They probably migrate out of the Wadden Sea to the Hebrides, but ornithologists should have a more definite opinion on that. Sea gulls, in all sorts, shapes and sizes, not to forgot the bonxie. The great skua, the proper name for the bonxie, is a predator, a large, brown gull-like bird, which is an expert flyer. It can take a tern or a kittywake in mid-flight, and rip it apart. The only thing a tern has in common with a skua is its behaviour when humans approach its nesting site too closely. It will swoop down and attack your head. It's not just humans that suffer this treatment, I have seen a flock of sheep being hounded out of a ternery on Eigg once.

There is a reasonable variety of garden birds in Lewis. Here in Stornoway, I have seen blackbirds, thrushes, robins, starlings, doves, greenfinches, bullfinches, chafffinches. Hang a few birdfeeders out, and there is no end of variety. Provided those starlings don't take over by the dozen.

Out in the Newton Basin, there tend to be golden eye ducks in winter, and the colder / and or windier the better for them. Cormorants occasionally come to fish. I spent a few hours on a Saturday afternoon, watching a cormorant trying to swallow a fish that was a few sizes too large for it. At low tide herons will be fishing as well. ]]>

Saturday, 18 February 2006


<![CDATA[ As I was going for a walk in the Castle Grounds here in Stornoway at any rate, I thought I'd take the camera along. Theme of the week appears to be SPRING, although the forecast is actually for a return to winter. Better make the most of it, and hope the frosts this week won't be too harsh. It would a shame to lose all these pretty flowers, green shoots and budding leaves, wouldn't it.

Included in this photo gallery are two bird pictures, which I couldn't resist. Today (Saturday 18th) was so spectacular...

Crocus outside Somerfields
Gorse bush
Blue tit near the Woodlands Centre
Flowering Butterbur
If anybody knows what this is, please leave a comment
Budding horse chestnut
Budding ferns
Snowdrops near Lews Castle College
Heron fishing in the Inner Harbour


Friday, 17 February 2006


Transport arrangements

<![CDATA[ Now that we're in the last six weeks running up to the Dating Festival at the Fank, I would feel it incumbent upon myself to offer a few words of advice regarding secondary arrangements.

First of all, I wish to point out that the docking arrangements at Achmore Pier are primeval. I mean, if both the Isle of Lewis as well as the Muirneag are going to dock there, I am seriously concerned. Many years ago already, an appeal was issued to have this seen to. The stanchions under the pier are seriously corroded, and any vessel trying to dock there is in danger of bringing the entire structure down. Advice is sought from the committee looking after the Pharos at Alexandria, Egypt, how to preserve this, the Seventh Blunder of the world. Secondly, last week I received a Pan Pan message from the lighthouse keepers at Achmore that they had not been relieved for months, due to inclement weather in Loch Ganvich. They were apparently reduced to scraping limpets off the rocks to keep them alive.

I recently had occasion to browse through the brochure of Lews Castle College, and all sorts of useful, noble and local courses were lined up there. I would like to suggest that Caithris na h-Oidche be included in the curriculum. It is still alive by all accounts, but the finer points seem to be lost on the current generations. Whether it be going by tractor from Shawbost to Lionel, or on foot within the village - the old custom is to be preserved. Particularly if, heaven forbid, anybody is not successful at the Fank. ]]>

Wednesday, 15 February 2006

Island hopper

<![CDATA[ Noticed Stephen's blog in the Argyll & Clyde section about which islands he has visited. Calling yourself an island nerd is too negative, I think. Island hopper is much more acceptable. Anyway, here is my little list. The total is roughly 35.

Inner Hebrides
Isle of Seil

Outer Hebrides
Lewis / Harris
North Uist
Great Bernera
South Uist

Orkney Mainland
South Ronaldsay
Brough of Birsay (tidal)
Papa Westray
North Ronaldsay

Shetland Mainland
Bressay ]]>

Tuesday, 14 February 2006


<![CDATA[ The weather continues to be interesting this week, after two weeks of flat boredom. The barometer was rusted shut on the 1030 mbar position, although the weather did give rise to some beautiful sunsets, as pictured on several blogs. But today, we're back to Hebridean changeable weather. Heavy showers, bright intervals. The strong winds are expected tonight. After giving the eastern seaboard of the USA a good helping of snow, we can now expect the relevant weather system to give us a good helping of rain and wind. Barometers will be shedding their cobwebs - later in the week, Hebridean instruments will be tipping to the 965 mbar mark.
With a bit of luck, and providing my reading of the weather charts is correct. I think it's a timely reminder that we are actually nothing against the forces of Mother Nature. People in these islands are only too aware of that, but those cocooned away in airconditioned and heated offices tend to overlook that fact. Until they venture out of doors and get blown off their feet, slide around hopelessly on iced up surfaces and can't see the bonnet of their car for the fog.

I love weather.

Dusk 06-02-2006 ]]>

Monday, 13 February 2006

NHS Western Isles

<![CDATA[ This saga continues to rumble on and on. The

An Lanntair

<![CDATA[ Today, the new Stornoway arts centre An Lanntair was officially opened by Scottish First Minister, Jack McConnell. As per normal on these occasions, the centre was closed for opening. At 12.30, proceedings were opened by Cllr Angus McCormack, with speeches by the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar convener Alex MacDonald, Jim Tough from the Scottish Arts Council and the First Minister, Jack MacConnell.

South Beach, Stornoway - An Lanntair far right
The auditorium of An Lanntair
Angus McCormack, Jack McConnell on the rostrum, Jim Tough and Alex MacDonald

Today as well, the Gaelic Language Act was put on the statute book, which gives the language a formal place in Scottish life. After centuries of active neglect, Gaelic has now come into its own. What that place precisely is, is still the subject of debate. There is a fierce discussion going on in Sleat (South Skye) and Mallaig and Morar, across the water from Skye in Lochaber. This entails the provision of Gaelic-medium and English-medium primary school education. Whether it is the Morar or the Mallaig primary school that will go comprehensively Gaelic, and similarly across in Skye. The debate is fuelled by those residents who are not interested in giving their children a Gaelic medium education, and wish to have the option of an English language education.
I am casting my mind back to a speech by Inverness MSP John Farquhar Munro at the time of the first opening of An Lanntair, on October 1st, 2005. Having a new arts centre in the heart of Gaelic speaking Scotland is a very important stepping stone in the reinvigoration of the Gaelic language. I will add that this carries the greatest promise of fruit if all residents of the Highlands and Islands can be taken on board.

Saturday, 11 February 2006


<![CDATA[ Well, it was too good to last, wasn't it. A fortnight without any significant wind or rain. And those gorgeous sunsets of the past few days should have been a warning. So, last night the wind grumbled in the chimney and the rain clattered against the window. Fortunately, it was all in the hours of darkness. By daybreak, things had dried up. The wind is still going at a good old 27 knots sustained windspeeds (10 a.m.), with gusts up to 37 knots, which is a gale. This is very photogenic weather, particularly because visibility is excellent. The lifeboat went out as I was having breakfast, at 10.15 (it's a Saturday, okay?!), and it battled against huge seas by the Arnish Lighthouse. Even the gastanker, which went out an hour later, was pitching and heaving in the seas. It is quite busy this morning with shipping, with a French fishingboat from Lorient coming in. I'm not sure, but it might be for a crew change. Two other Frenchmen came into the port this week for the same purpose. If they manage to do that within 24 hours, they get a 25% reduction in harbour dues. The reason Stornoway is so convenient, is that the airport is only 4 miles down the road. So, the fishing company charters a plane which takes the fresh crew up to SY. As soon as the old crew comes off the boat, they are immediately flown back to France. The boat stays in the area, doesn't have to travel thousands of miles and it saves a lot of money. On the subject of the gastanker, she came in yesterday with a pilot on board, and went out with one today. Don't see the pilot boat out that often, the previous time was with the Celtic Spirit, the timberboat that developed a list off the north coast of Scotland back in November.

Lifeboat going out; tugboat heading in same direction
Lifeboat encountering heavy seas at the Arnish Point bar
Jack Abri (Lorient) entering Stornoway Harbour; Arnish Yard in background
Sigas Champion coming into port (yesterday, 10 Feb)
Spray jumping up to the right of the lighthouse


Friday, 10 February 2006

Small Isles

<![CDATA[ I take the liberty of excusing the good folk in the Small Isles for not blogging as vociferously as some of us do. The other day, their broadband was turned off because the company had gone into receivership. And they are busy flattening plastic with the tractor (Isle of Muck), watching bottle-nosed whales off Laig Bay (Eigg), staving off urges of cannibalism (Canna), and building piers (Knoydart). Mostly, they're just having a whale of a time down there. Read more in West Word, link to the right of this blog.

I've recently put in pictures of our ferries here in Stornoway, I'm actually very worried about the Small Isles boat - look at this

On board the Small Isles ferry, October 2004
Small Isles ferry at the bottom of the Mallaig linkspan, October 2004



<![CDATA[ As my colleague Rywyn, up the road in Point, already pointed out, the skies have been positively stunning recently, and not just at sunset. Although I quite agree, yesterday was absolute tops. I'll just put in a gallery of pics I've taken in recent days, and let them do the talking, rather than me.

sunset (16.40)
sun breaking through thin medium level clouds (13.37)
MV Clansman coming into Stornoway in very hazy conditions (13.23)
sunset (16.31)
Shower moving south towards Arnish (12.18)
15 minutes later - shower moving away south (12.33)
Shafts of sunlight breaking through a gap in the clouds (10.36)
Sunset colours looking southwest (16.39)
Cloudscapes reflected in Newton Basin (16.39)
clouds lit up from below by setting sun (16.57)
sunset (17.06)