Friday, 30 November 2007

Poems, letters and birds

I return from cyber silence with a burst of good news. First, what could be better than having a poem in the Scottish Poetry Library's choice of this year's twenty Best Scottish Poems? And then the post box delivered up three exciting brown envelopes: one containing the page proofs of my novel, The Last Bear, due out in March 08; one containing the signed contract for Paper Trails, my non-fiction book about the paper industry, due out in July 08; and one with a letter from the lawyer confirming that I am one step closer to registering legal title to the house site.

As if to warn me not to fly too blindly amid these thrills, when walking this morning I found a coal tit unconscious beside the road, still warm, presumably stunned by a collision with a vehicle. I carried it gently back to the croft and tried to keep it warm, but it has not come round.

Sunday, 14 October 2007

Long house

Having given up on buying the croft house, I am pleased to be able to report that there has recently been progress on the house site - the Crofters Commission has agreed to decroft the site and the land-owner's solicitor is drawing up the new title, so I will shortly be handing over the money and becoming the proud owner of a half hectare of paradise. The next step is to get a house design to put in for full planning permission. Every second day I find myself with a new sketch.

It must be small, very small. Partly because that's all I can afford, partly because the smaller it is the less energy it will consume but mostly because I love little spaces. Perhaps it's because as the youngest in the family I always had the smallest room. At college I had a succession of wee rooms and loved them all. I adore the intimacy of a tiny caravan. I am in ecstacy in the womb-like comfort of a tent. I wrote most of my first novel in a tiny bender I made myself, which I used to call my womb-room (sadly, it blew away in the 2005 hurricane). So I am set on what my architect friend calls a 'micro-house'.

But what shape should it be? For the past while I have been getting obsessed with the idea of making it a tiny version of a Viking long house, stove in the middle, throne bed at one end, perhaps five times as long as it is wide, but not much wider than a double bed. This is also the shape of one of my favourite buildings in the whole world, the Fasting Palace in Heaven Park in Beijing, which consists of five square rooms in a row: bedroom, study and three public rooms. The emperor would get up at one end of the building and work his way during the course of the day to the other end, then back again, spending some time in each room. He began and ended each day writing poems in his study. A lifestyle to aspire to, I feel. I fancy a miniature open-plan version of the same thing: bedroom, bathroom, kitchen, dining room, lounge, all arranged in one long thin space.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007


There are red stags roaring for sex out there. All pumped up with testosterone, trying to gather a harem of hinds and prepared to fight off the competition to get them. Most of the time the stags just stand on the horizon, posturing to each other, but if necessary they'll try to nut each other into submission, if they don't get tangled up in each others antlers first.

It's a queer noise they make, much more of a groan than a roar, not unlike a cow in calf. It's as if when roaring was handed out, dogs and bears got the consonants, so they go 'rr...rr...', and the stags got the vowels, so they can only muster 'oa... oa...' The result sounds more wretched than fierce, but presumably to a hind it's as sexy as Tom Jones.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Wee beasties

The midgie season is over and so those in the know have been visiting. There were 50 people on the croft on Sunday, all a bit of a shock. I'm not used to talking so much. They mostly seemed inspired by what one described as a 'subversive lifestyle', and another as 'proof of what's possible'. The big crowd was followed by a visit from my parents. Despite frantic cleaning of all the sheds, my mother still looks at me as if I'm defective. She wishes I would live a normal life, in a house, with a spare bedroom she could stay in. Shed-dom is just not good enough. It's abnormal. I can see it's embarrassing to her. What I see as freedom, she perceives as insecurity. I just don't know how to demonstrate to her that this 'extremely detached' 10 hectare house feels more like home than any other dwelling I've ever occupied.

Weather-wise all the visitors have had a treat - glorious sunny weather, calm and warm enough to stroll about in short sleeves, and then starry cold nights. The trees are getting a chance to blaze up - some of the rowans are going bright berry red and the aspens are goldening. Every time I step outside I'm brought up short by the colours. It never fails to make me smile. There is only one downside of this season: lots of little furry beasties are looking for somewhere warm, dry and snuggly to spend the winter. Sheds are just perfect. I came into the studio yesterday morning and someone, something, had scoffed all the winter salads growing in pots, chewed on my skype earphones, gnawed off the handle of my laptop bag and even, for goodness sake, excavated the lining of my furry slippers. A loathesome vole, a mischievous mouse or a maybe just a shivering shrew. But whoever the beastie is, it's not timorous enough by half.

Monday, 24 September 2007

Hedgehog mushrooms

So-called because of their spines where most fungi have gills or sponge. White, firm, chewy flesh, and after a boil-up to remove initial bitterness, delicious.

It's calm today. The quiet of the woods is disarming after weeks of wind-rustling and storm-howling.

Saturday, 22 September 2007


There is a bit of kit called a regulator that sits between the wind generator/solar panel and the battery bank which is supposed to ensure that the batteries don't boil when the wind blows like crazy for days on end, like it has done this week. Ours has been bust for ages, which has meant that when it's blowing a gale you have to leave all the lights on all night, boil kettles of water, anything to try to use the electricity as fast as it is generating. This morning we took the wind generator down and fitted a new regulator, then put the generator back up. It has a smart little monitor that shows the battery voltage at all times. Nice and healthy at 12.6 volts just now. It will be good not to have to 'waste' electricity, even though it was excess to our needs.

Friday, 21 September 2007


Exactly a third of the hazel nuts I gathered yesterday sank like stones, so they're likely to grow (or be eaten). That's a much better ratio than some years. I'll sow most of them in a fish box made mouse-proof with the smallest wire mesh I can find over the top and rolled up plastic stuffed into the handle-holes. Some of them I shall distribute to bare land nearby, like The Man Who Planted Trees. This is my personal local action in support of today's International Day Against Monoculture Tree Plantations.

Happy Equinox.

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Hazel nuts

There have been steady, strong winds for the past few days and the hazel nuts are starting to be blown down from the trees. It's a race with the mice. I got a good haul this morning, from under the ancient lichen-garlanded hazel on the croft. Now they are in a bucket of water. The hazels here bear lots of nuts but a very low proportion have any flesh inside them. Whether they're for eating or sowing, it's best to sort out the viable nuts from the empty ones. Mice can presumably tell by picking them up - some must feel substantially heavier to a mouse. I'm too big and unsubtle to tell. But a bucket of water sorts them right out - the empty ones float, those with nuts inside the shell sink. Bingo. By tomorrow morning I'll know what proportion have a future.

Wednesday, 19 September 2007


Some people watch television. I watch the seals on the loch. Up to 18 common seals at a time rest up on the bows and skerries just off-shore and as the years have gone by and they have grown a bit more used to us, they even hang out on shore sometimes. They've been very active recently: charging across the loch, leaping out of the water like porpoises, splashing about and cavorting in pairs. This morning four of them were hunting near the mouth of the uidhe, surfacing with snorts and splashes, gazing at us as we walked along towards the bridge. Unlike the big grey seals, they don't keen and sing at low tide, but they do grunt, snuffle, cough, bark, gasp and sometimes sigh. Most of the time they lie out in what looks like perfect peace.

seals hunt and grunt
ignorant but blunt
no-one's instrument

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

The Perception of Poverty

This croft is the shape of a doughnut - it is about 10 hectares of land, but at its centre is a half hectare that has been decrofted. This is where the cottage sits which used to be the crofthouse, where the previous crofter used to live. But when he died and the croft tenancy was transfered, the house and its site was taken out of the crofting legal system and sold off into the free market, to be traded as a commodity. The current owners live in London, not content to own just one home and rich enough to indulge their fancy. They visit for a couple of weeks a year. Most of the time the house stands empty. I walk past it several times a day, and I have to confess when the wind is force 7 or more and the rain is pelting down, like it is today, I wish that the buildling and land could be reunited, and I could look out over the croft from the house that was built for just that purpose.

Well, blow me down, if the owners haven't decided that they've had enough of it and have put it up for sale. Fantastic, I hear you shout. Slow down. It's a holiday home, one of many in these parts that are bought and sold by people who live, and earn, in the London economy. They are asking for offers over £180,000. There is no way I, or anyone else living on Highlands wage scales, could afford it. I've got some savings, and if I get my parents to advance me my inheritance, I could maybe pull together £60,000. Let's assume the sellers were to accept £180,000 (unlikely as houses here, which are increasing in value at about 20% per year, always go for way over the asking price). I'd need to raise a loan of £120,000. On my earnings - an average of about £15,000 a year - I could barely raise a residential mortgage of half that. To service a buy-to-let mortgage (in which case I couldn't live in it, so what's the point?), would cost about £1000 per month, and it isn't worth that in rental. The only business model that makes sense would be to run it as a commercial holiday rental property. With great marketing it might possibly be feasible to make enough income to cover the loan payments - £14,000 a year. That's a lot of holiday lets, though I could at least stay in it the weeks that it wasn't rented out. But with my low turnover and no track record, no bank will even look at lending to me on that basis .

I don't feel poor, normally. Quite the opposite. I have a daily wealth of sights, sounds and smells. I am priviledged to live in such a wild, beautiful place. I am healthy, fit and enriched by my environment. I am self-sufficient in chanterelles, mint sauce and onions. I make willow baskets from withies I grow myself. I drink water off the hill and get power from the wind and sun. But after a day being interrogated by a stream of financial advisors and mortgage consultants and being repeatedly rejected as having too low an income to be of interest, I begin to guess what it might feel like to be poor. I remember a friend in Nepal, Krishna, asking 'how much your boots cost?' I'd tell him, he'd shake his head. 'How much your bag?' Not much less. He'd shake his head again. 'How much the computer cost?' My laptop, that little slip of a machine, worth more than his three buffalo. More than a whole year's living. Now, walking past the house in the middle of the croft, I too shake my head. It costs more than I can hope to earn. It's the same all over the Highlands and Islands -wee cottages built by the previous generation of crofters, priced out of the reach of the current generation of caravan and council house dwellers.

Fortunately the rowan jelly set perfectly.

Monday, 17 September 2007


The geese going over has made me realise the birds will soon arrive from Scandinavia, and they will strip the trees. So between showers yesterday I gathered rowan berries, and inevitably got caught in a couple of heavy downpours. Still, I got a good bucketful of berries and then there was the long, meditative job of stripping them off their stalks before stewing them up with cooking apples - no hassle there, skins, cores and all. The bright red berries go pale peach and the apple fluffs to a paste. Overnight the fruit has been hanging in a straining bag in the tool shed, dripping slowly into a bowl. I like the fact that it makes you wait, takes its time. There's no rushing the rowan. When I've finished my cyberwork I'll go and boil it up with sugar and soak up the bitter-sweet flavour, watching it transform from opaque to clear as the colour blooms, blushing from pale pink to ruby. If I make enough I'll trying selling it through the Food Link. But I'll need enough to last the year. Traditionally you eat it with venison. It's great on toast and even better with cheese. But to really get the most out of it, have it with turnip or swede.

Sunday, 16 September 2007


It's been a bright, blustery day with pelting showers. The sky is a pageant of clouds and when they part enough for the sun it sets the bracken to bronze. The birches are slowly giving up their leaves, one by one. With winds like this, as each leaf ripens to gold it is blown off, so the trees remain green overhead, thinning, with only the floor of the woods taking on autumn colour.

This morning the wind seemed light enough to row from the caravan at the shore to the bridge, which is its nearest road access. It's not far, maybe 300 metres. Two dead batteries needed shifting, and it was time to tackle that job. They're heavy. These two batteries were from the original set when the wind generator was installed 8 years ago. After they weakened about 3 years ago they were relegated to the caravan, where they have been fed by a solar panel and used to power the music and lights down there. They have finally given up the ghost. Battery technology is rubbish - they are the weak link in the off-grid system, predicted to fail in as few as 3 years and when they do they are full of toxic non-renewable chemicals so they are a pain to dispose of. We should be pretty pleased to get 8 years out of them. Compare the solar panel, which is guaranteed for 25 years, and the wind generator itself, which should last for decades, with the odd replacement bearing. We won't solve the planet's energy problems until we sort battery technology. Who's on that case?

The really smart solution is a battery system that uses the wind power to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, and then a fuel cell to generate electricity from the hydrogen when you need it. That's what the PURE project does. Unfortunately it's still way out of our price range and not at our kind of scale. At least lead acid batteries are relatively cheap, though that's all they have going for them.

So, that's why I was rowing two big batteries up the loch this morning. The wind was surprisingly strong and kept blowing the boat sideways. At the uidhe - the 'throat' in Gaelic - where the loch narrows enough to bridge it, I was blown aground. Fortunately the tide was coming out so that acted as a counter-current to the wind and I managed eventually to get the boat up to the landing point and the batteries are now poised for recycling. On the way back to the caravan I was rowing against the wind. It felt like a lot further than 300 metres. Good exercise.

Saturday, 15 September 2007


Yesterday evening the first geese flew over, heading south from their summer homes in search of wintering areas. Two skeins at first: one with about 10 birds in a tight V formation, the other nearer 30 geese in a loose scrawl, its pattern changing as the lead birds fell back and were replaced with others - their U-shape turned into a W then A then N and they cackled and chattered, writing their mysterious script on the sky.

Later, as night fell, another big group flew by heading southeast. Their strange songs make me feel I too should be making a move in recognition of the changing season. It's haunting to think that the first frosts will have come already, up north there in the geese's arctic feeding areas, setting them to wing. I imagine the adults chivvying the new generation along, and wonder how it must feel for a goose to make its first long flight. The winter will follow them south to here eventually, but for now it is time to revel in the fruiting season - caravan crumble for pudding again!

Sunday, 9 September 2007

Wet knees

I spent the morning in bed writing a poem that was commissioned ages ago, has been stewing for months and is due this week. I have finally emerged to type it in, though it is one of those days when bed is really the best place to be. The wind is hard in from the west, the generator's hissing in spin and the lights are on full blast to stop the batteries boiling. And it's wet. There is wetness here that is deep and serious, the result of gale-blown drizzle that has persisted for 12 hours or more, when cloud has been at sea level for so long that land, sea and sky all merge into one great salty soak. For some reason I chose today to forget to carry my waterproof trousers. It is only a few hundred metres from the caravan to the studio, but the path is dense with heather, birch trees, bracken, willow and grass, uniformly drenched. Walking up it is like being slapped about by big wet paintbrushes all aiming for that patch between the bottom of the jacket and the top of the wellies.

At least it isn't cold. As the old crofter who lived here before would have said, if it weren't for the wind and the rain it would be a good day.

Saturday, 8 September 2007


It's awkward, being off grid sometimes. I've just got a new laptop (to replace the one nicked at Faslane, same day as the welly went over the fence) and it does not have what is perversely called a 'car adapter', which I need to plug into our 12 volt DC system powered by the wind power generator and solar panel. It's ironic that to be fossil fuel free you need a 'car' adapter. The workaround is an inverter, which jacks up to 240 volts AC, and then the computer cable's smartbox shoves it back down to 12 volts DC, which is all very pointless but while I hunt the internet for an adapter it will make do. Unfortunately, I already have a stack of electrical devices (the printer and scanner) which need the inverter too, so it's a bit like musical chairs - I can only print when the computer is fully charged and so on. Plus the inverter makes the phone buzz so mystified callers hear me saying things like 'sorry, I can't hear you, I'll have to turn the unplug the printer'.

To make things just a bit more complex the laptop is not compatible with the old broadband connection, which meant that I spent much of the week disconnected from the internet. No bad thing perhaps. The solution has been to set up a wireless network. This puts even more pressure on the poor old inverter, but there is something delightful in having all singing all dancing wireless broadband - I am typing this surrounded by the scent of heather, and it is winging its way to you thanks to sunshine and a light westerly wind.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Weasel and worm

This morning a weasel scampered right up to the caravan and sat on the decking looking in. How do I know it's a weasel? Because it's weasily distinguished from a stoat, which is stoatally different of course. For once, I could clearly see its tail, which was relatively short, with no black at the tip. Weasels specialise in eating voles, so it would be very welcome in my garden, where the loathesome voles eat every bean or pea I put in the ground. Apparantly weasels make great pets. I'm wondering how I can befriend it.

Lots of harvesting of herbs today, and a big haul of blackberries and late chanterelles. A slow worm spent much of the day keeping warm on top of the compost heap, making me unsure what to do with the weeds. I put them aside until it had gone, not wanting to disturb such a placid and beautiful creature, lying there like a gold necklace.

Thursday, 30 August 2007

Save paper

Kimberley Clark's American website claims that people use more than three and a half metres of toilet paper per 'event' (an average of 143 inches of toilet paper). It follows this staggering claim with the gleeful cry, 'That's equal to nearly 35 squares!' Get a grip, people. That's almost enough to wall-paper the cubicle.

What better proof that we need the guerrila stickers from These Come From Trees to post on napkin dispensers, toilet roll holders, printers, whatever you see causing paper gluttony. I just wish there was a metric version.

Wednesday, 29 August 2007


It was full moon last night and one of those skies packed with clouds, so the moon had to jostle and elbow her way out between them. Whenever she did, she left the clouds around her the colour of bruises. Each time, they soon ganged up on her again and shut out the light. Today, they have taken their revenge and it has rained all day.

Big moon means big tides and with low pressure they are even bigger. Yesterday evening I watched the tide come in, up, up, up over the top of the seaweed, up over the rock where we light bonfires, up almost onto the grass.

The water level began to fall again as night fell, as if the tide was taking the light away as well as the sea. Night ebbed in. Why do we say night falls? Darkness rises. Shadows deepen at low levels first, under trees. The earth breathes blackness out and up into the sky, which is the last place to go dark.

As the water dropped, the bows and skerries re-emerged and the seals wriggled onto them to snooze. Low tide was sometime in the middle of the night. I slept long and woke to it right back in, almost lapping at the feet of the caravan. Tonight it will be even higher. I've never understood why the highest tide should be two days after the full and new moons, rather than on the same night. Why the time-lag?

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Autumn smells

This year I've dried enough mint to keep the whole parish in hot drinks for the forseeable future. The clothes pulley above the bath is hung with big bunches of lemon balm, for more tea, and tansy, which I hope will, once dry, help to deter the moths, mice and other vermin that seem intent on devouring our clothes. Cleaning the lounge involved shifting the onion, garlic and chanterelle harvest to the studio, so I am writing this accompanied by a somewhat pungent odour of future stews drying out under the window ready for the winter. On my desk there's a bowl of dried rose petals and a jam jar of sweet peas and honeysuckle. The place smells of romantic seventeenth century poetry.

Open the studio door and the fragrance takes a sharp lift. The heather and ling are at their peak. Pure purple perfume. And in the woods the autumn collapse has begun: bracken is bronzing, grass slumps, leaves drop and the great end of year rot is underway. The earth breathes out summer and smells magnificent. Autumn, the olfactory climax of the season. I love it.

Time for a walk, to follow my nose, aromatherapy for free.

Monday, 27 August 2007

Brambles/Caravan Crumble

It's bramble time. Yee-hah. The best bit is this early season because the first blackberries to ripen are the ones at the tip of the spikes and they're the biggest, juiciest and most delicious. I made the mistake of going picking without a jacket and got well and truly tangled - long hair, woolly jumpers and bramble thorns are a dangerous combination. But it was worth it for those black glossy clusters of sunshine. Now for the best bit of the day - Caravan Crumble. You think you can't make crumble without an oven? Wrong. It's the best pudding I know. The recipe's a secret.

Oh all right then. Remove spiders and other wildlife from brambles. Tip them into a saucepan with a peeled, chopped cooking apple and a spoonful of sugar. Put a lid on and stew gently until it looks juicy and the apple has collapsed into squidge. Get one shallow pudding bowl each and share out the brambles. Crumble two digestive biscuits onto each bowl (it's an art worth learning). Grill until the biscuit starts to toast. Top with crumbled chocolate and yoghurt or cream. Yummy.

Sunday, 26 August 2007

The bath

I washed the bath this morning. Perhaps not worthy of a blog post, but it looked like it had been smoking 60 a day for the past few years. Now it at least looks like it's thinking about giving up. It will never be spotless, largely due to the fact that it spent an indeterminate number of years in a field as a cattle trough before being rescued, painted green and installed in a shed with a hot water supply. Quite what its earlier history was is lost in the distant mists.

In a fit of domestication I also swept the shed where the bath lives, known as 'the lounge', because as well as the bath it contains a sofa bed, so you can lounge wet or dry, and a sound system. OK, it's an old car radio. The spider population in the lounge gets a bit out of hand at this time of year. I think I managed to get about half the cobwebs. Another few bursts of sweeping, dusting, mopping etc will be needed before it counts as clean. Fortunately my mother's not due to visit for another couple of months.

Thursday, 16 August 2007


Today 'the man from the department', as he is known, came to the croft for a site visit. The owner of the original crofthouse was invited too, but he lives in London and I wouldn't recognise him if I passed him on the street. Not surprisingly, he didn't turn up. His father-in-law came, and that is all I will say on the matter, at least for today.

The topic of the site visit was our application to 'decroft' a wee patch of land, on which I want, one day, to build a house. Just a little house. Caravans and sheds are wonderful, but sometimes, when I've onned and offed waterproofs and wellies enough for one day, I think it might be nice to have a single roof under which bath, bed and biscuits can all be housed. As with most crofts, we don't own the land, but have a tenancy that is protected by a bulwark of law worthy of a Dickensian novel: a croft, so the saying goes, is a little patch of land surrounded by a large amount of legislation. Unfortunately such legal foundations do not impress capitalist institutions like banks, and so in order to even apply for a mortgage to pay to build a house, the land on which the house will sit must be taken out of crofting and bought from the landowner. (Fortunately one of those bits of law establishes the absolute right to buy the croft, at 15 times the annual rent, which in our case is less than £20 - it's an absolute bargain at least until the lawyers add their fee.)

So, about two and half months ago, we applied to decroft a house site. Since then we have exchanged formal, nit-picking letters with the Crofters Commission five times and at last, today, ' the man from the department' came to see the site. He was a cheerful character, and he had sensibly brought his wellies and waterproofs. Given the weather forecast, all four of us were dressed in full body armour, but we were lucky and the rain held off until the very end, which eased the detailed scrutiny of feu papers and maps needed to establish quite what exactly would cease to be croftland, should our application succeed. The department in question is what used to be called SEERAD, the Scottish Executive Environment and Rural Affairs Department, but what it is these days since we got the new government I am not sure. Anyway, the task for today was to assess whether there will be a loss to agriculture as a result of the land ceasing to be part of the croft. Since the land in question consists of bare rock, peatbog and a few scrubby birch trees, our man saw no problem, and promised to say so in his report to the Commission. Quite how long it will take them to make their decision is anyone's guess. I'm not holding my breath.

Tuesday, 14 August 2007


An early rise is rewarded by an otter sighting. He is big, probably male, coursing his smooth gliding trail along the shore of the loch, heading out to sea, off to fish for breakfast. Whatever paddling must be going on is invisible beneath the water. There's just this brown cat's head intent on a certain direction. Today he is close enough to see his whiskers, but even at a distance you know it isn't a seal because of the pace and that dead straight certainty. If any doubt remains, it vanishes at the same time the otter does - first the face submerges, the head follows and there's a curve of fluid spine in perfect smooth rotation, and then the giveaway - the sleek rope-tail hooping after the body, one stroke behind the game.

The water smooths its brow. You have just seen an otter and now it's gone, hidden. The guileless surface parrots sky. Then, a little further along the shore, up comes that head again, zipping along, pulling the loch's jacket open behind it, laying everything bare.

Saturday, 11 August 2007

Wedding day


clouds in full breeding plumage

good day for a wedding

Thursday, 9 August 2007

Painting the wee shed

A sunny breezy day. The warmth has brought all kinds of wildlife out. A slow-worm basks on the path. Big bees bumble inside and batter themselves against the windows trying to get out. The ant colony under the heap of old corrugated iron roofing that blew off the ruin years back is swarming - winged ants are just everywhere. The spiders are having a field day.

I painted the smallest of the sheds this morning, the one sometimes known as 'the wine cellar', presumably because it stores a fair number of wine bottles, full and empty, and demijohns containing liquids of dubious quality. It also contains lots of tools, so sometimes it's called 'the tool shed', though as a rule we try to stick to more grandiose names for the rooms in this ten hectare house. There's a lean-to off the back with the compost toilet, willow for basket making and plantpots. The shed also houses a filing cabinet full of hats, gloves, scarves and various useful camping bits (filing cabinets are mouse-proof; we have several). The back wall acts as a kind of wardrobe for coats, fleeces, bags and so on. Not forgetting all the other things that don't have another home, like paint, stuff to go for recycling, Scottish Green Party banners and a big wicker trunk full of things I've long forgotten about. A visitor took one look and said, 'ah, the porch'. But that name didn't stick either. Most often it's just 'the wee shed'. Today it looks brand new.

Wednesday, 8 August 2007

Boats again

It's impossible to believe it is the same month as yesterday. Cerulean blue with a bright breeze. Paradise returned.

Unfortunately this means that the speed boats are back out on the loch, roaring and storming around, scaring the seals off the skerries and bows, towing dry-suited water-skiers around like buzzing bluebottles. I try not to complain - they're on holiday - but it is hard to stifle the loathing these folk arouse. Do they not get enough noise in the city where they spend the other 50 weeks of the year? What exactly is the attraction of being tugged about in the fuming wake of an outboard motor?

As for boats, it's the official retirement of the fishing boat; her licence to catch tonnes of white fish that aren't there anyway has been sold to a Cornish fisher. She's an old, old boat, originally built to service the lighthouses back in the 1930s. She'll putter about for a few years yet, taking us out to dive, to watch the birds and spy for whales and dolphins. If the wind drops a bit, we may get out there later. Here's hoping.

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

Glad to have a boat

Inches of torrential rain over the past couple of days, driven in on a cold north-westerly. The loch is a blizzard of cloud and spray.

My wellies are leaking. This is life-threatening, plodging about the croft, the paths turning to streams and the stream a roaring torrent. I'm reduced to my spare wellies, because I took my good ones with me when I went with our local peace group to Faslane military base to protest against Trident. In the fun and games, one of them inadvertently ended up on the other side of the fence. As they do. So I'm reduced to the wellies I got for Christmas, the ones with pink flowers on. They are very pretty but not built to withstand the rigours of croft life.

The library van came this morning. It's one of those odd rituals of life here: a precious dose of literature. I have still not perfected the skill of speed browsing, sore needed to make the most of the 10 minutes we get when the big buttercup van halts at the top of the brae. Each time I'm the last one on the bus and the driver/librarian tries not to be too obvious about me keeping him hanging on, as I scour the shelves greedily for that book I just might be missing, the one that certainly won't be there in three weeks time. It's now or never. Sometimes I spot it. Today it's The Cloudspotter's Guide by Gavin Prettor-Pinney, a meteorologically-fitting find. Last time it was Jay Griffith's Wild. Often the van splashes off down the road to Stoer with its hidden gem still secreted over the back wheel somewhere. The service, which used to be fortnightly, has been cut to once every three weeks, despite this being Highland Year of Culture. Much beating of chests and wailing of sorrow. Fortunately, there is the Scottish Poetry Library, which sends me treasure by post for a modest annual fee. Bless.

The post arrived at the same time as the library, and the wee strawberry red postie van squeezed with a smiling wave past the big library van. Our little blue boat bobbed on the loch. It's just like a kids' cartoon, only wetter. Much wetter. I wish someone would draw in the sun. Maybe the Cloudspotter's Guide will give a hint as to how long the rain will go on.

Sunday, 5 August 2007

Sunday without the papers

Traditionally, or at least since Christians held sway in these parts, not much is allowed to be done here on Sunday. No meetings are held except those run by one of the several Churches, political activity is frowned upon and few of the shops are open, though you can express obeisance to the press by cashing out for a truck-load of mashed trees in the form of a Sunday newspaper. I don't do that anymore.

I'm on a mission to use less paper and giving up the Sunday rag has been one of the simplest and most satisfying steps I have taken. I abandoned the daily paper years back; there is simply not enough time in the day to read it. But for a while I indulged in the Saturday Guardian (I love the Review, that's my excuse), or the Sunday Herald, both of which would take me all week to wade through. Even before I read it, I found myself calling the newspaper 'the rubbish'.

These days the caravan is no longer awash with unread paper and I have far fewer fights with the recycling bin, with its jaws of steel. Instead I rely on the radio, email bulletins and the web for news - there is plenty of the stuff out there - and I find myself with time for reading books.

Better stop, just in case the wee frees find out I'm blogging on a Sunday.

Saturday, 4 August 2007


Wild, windy and sunny. White tops on the waves on the loch, trees bucking and rearing. It's a fairground.

Far too nice to be indoors, though I am supposed to be writing a land management plan for the community woods. Instead I've spent the morning feeding the garden with comfrey soup, weeding, picking herbs, sowing leaf beat, cutting bracken, pondering whether to cut down all the virus-infected raspberries or leave some to fruit next year while I establish a new patch somewhere else. There are no right answers to such questions, just as there's no right answer to the question of what should happen in the community woods. It is enough to decide what general direction we're trying to head in (strategic plan) and what immediate actions this coming year will move us on most helpfully (action plan). Or almost enough. The trick, and the bit we so often miss out, is to stop, look at what we have achieved (monitor) and think about it (reflect) before plunging into the next round of activity. Without monitoring and reflection, there is no opportunity to learn. Too often management cycles are dominated by planning and action, with monitoring and reflection given short shrift. I wonder why that is.

Friday, 3 August 2007

Going to town

I started the day, as I generally do, with poetry and tea. I tend to read until a poem tempts me to read it out loud, or makes me read it again and again. Once fortified by a good one I can get out of bed. There is no better way to wake up. At the moment I am besotted by Mary Oliver, and this morning found her poem 'Going to Walden', which is actually about not going to Walden, Henry Thoreau's retreat, because what the place signifies is 'the slow and difficult trick of living, and finding it where you are'.

This afternoon I went to town. An eighty mile round trip and all afternoon to buy one ball of green wool and a stripey jumper from the charity shop, which I will unravel for my latest creative project (code-name 'Dreamcoat'). Before the bus home I had time to squeeze in a quick visit to the outlying branch of the Scottish Poetry Library. No Mary Oliver, but Wang Wei and Sorley Maclean will keep me going for the next few mornings.

Back in my own Walden, armed with wool and words, I am determined not to go anywhere for at least a week. I'll cook home-grown beans for supper tonight and fall asleep to the sounds of the loch and the rain. Thoreau was right. Mary Oliver even more so.

Thursday, 2 August 2007

Blue flowers and midgies

The devil's bit scabious is out, and so is the knapweed. The paths are full of red clover, self-heal and thyme. The croft is awash with purple pompoms.

It should also be, if things were normal, awash with midgies. Our standard pattern of behaviour in summer is to cook in the caravan in the woods, steam it up and and attract all the midgies there, and then after dinner make a run for it down to the caravan at the shore, which is cool and midge free. But this year there is no need. There aren't enough midgies to justify the shift. I don't understand why this is not headline news.

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

Goodbye terns, hello wind

The first of August and it feels like autumn has come already. The terns are up and away, winging from here in northwest Scotland all the way to the Antarctic. Every year their departure seems a profound signal of the change of season. After squealing and wheeling around the skerries since April, they leave a sudden hush on the loch. It makes space for other, quieter birds to pass through: black-throated divers, herons, curlews and sandpipers all fill the void. But nothing can really replace the wild white cluster of terns, tossed up from the island like crumbs shaken from a tea cloth, swirling and shoaling, then sprinting up to the dogleg at the mouth of the loch, cornering en masse like cyclists on a race-track and dashing the straight back to the skerry.

As if to mark the terns' leaving, a strong westerly wind has got up. It has been a summer of calms, light northerly breezes and dry easterlies. While the rest of the UK was engulfed in flooding, up here it has been unnaturally arid, so much so the wee stream on the croft, known inappropriately as 'the river', dried up. I have been hauling watering cans to my garden. This is not normal. Now it seems to be getting back to something more familiar: wet bracken and a fresh breeze from the west. It makes me smile. I love the soft ions the wind brings in from the sea and it's the croft's main source of power. I sit here in the studio, and I can hear the generator shush-shush-shushing as it blurs, spinning electricity into the battery bank. A miracle. But not so much of a miracle as the terns, finding their way from here to Antarctica and back every year. That's magic.