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.