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.