6876

Behold a rather splendid little film from friends Brian Sweeney and Kenneth Mackenzie of clothing label 6876 infamy after joining some Harris Tweed dots for the latter’s ongoing Black Project and collab with NYC’s C’H’C’M brand. Looking forward to much more hands-on stuff like this with strangely like-minded souls in 2015++

“As part of the Black project Arco jacket release with C’H’C’M & Harris Tweed we decided to shoot a film in Glasgow with Brian Sweeney who has worked with the brand for many years.

Brian was also instrumental in introducing Mike Donald from https://thecroft.wordpress.com/ and in turn Mark Hogarth from Harris Tweed to Six Eight Seven Six.

These connections were formative in our understanding that we as a label could work with such a traditional supplier and that we could create a unique garment that still felt like a 6876 item.

New York & Glasgow: Two cities built on a grid system,both with a stand alone uniqueness and to this day when i visit Glasgow it always strikes me as a city yearning to the west and beyond.”

http://www.sixeightsevensix.com/black-project-5-film/
http://www.chcmshop.com/
http://www.harristweedhebrides.com/

The Bigger Picture

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Stars over Eoropie © John Gray

Stars over Eoropie © John Gray

Winter here in the Isle of Lewis has few upsides. Everything is dead or dormant on the croft. The drain clearing work done over the summer has done little to stop the land turning to a morass of wet bog and big puddle and the track precariously tramped to the loom shed and back has turned to mud. The animals bleat and beat a path to the fence-side every time I make an appearance pleading for another serving of supplementary feed in lieu of the  poor, ungrowing grass left on the ground. The novelty of wild weather wears thin after a while and even though the loom shed has a nice new wood-burning stove on the go, life is lived under many layers of thermal cotton, wool and waterproofs. Few folk are on the go save to make the journey from from door to their car and visitors are seldom seen in comparison to the summer months. But one upside is literally looking up.

The dark nights bring with them an insight into the wider worlds around us, the great expanse of black sky that dominates our  long nights exposed in a way that it never is in the city. Streetlights blink off in our village around midnight, leaving us in darkness save for the odd house with an unnecessarily bright, but doubtless reassuring, outside security light and the distant blink of the lighthouse just over the hill.  On clear nights the celestial ceiling above is pin-pricked with stars innumerable and the aurora borealis, or in gaelic Fir Chlis, is common, its green ribbons of charged particles meandering high above us like sky-bound strands of seaweed in unfathomable atmospheric currents. I have a brilliant little iPad app that reveals the location of constellations and stars, handily pointing out the more uncommon mythological figures pre-fixed in pointillism and pinpointing planets depending on the direction I’m facing. Ursa Major and Minor, Cassiopeia, Polaris, Taurus, Orion (and with it Rigel and Betelgeuse), Pleiades and others all on show, the Milky Way too, lying almost perpendicular to the horizon.

It’s all very humbling. And the glories of that huge expanse above my head isn’t even a fraction of what is out there. Earlier this week NASA/ESA released an image which captured the largest and sharpest image ever taken of the Andromeda galaxy using the Hubble Space Telescope. It is the biggest Hubble image ever released and shows over 100 million stars and thousands of star clusters embedded in a section of the galaxy’s pancake-shaped disc stretching across over 40 000 light-years. It’s too big to share here but a Google search will help you out if you want to investigate further. Meantime, here’s a video which shows a trillion star flythrough of just part of the Andromeda galaxy captured by their work. I have nothing cod-philosophical to say about any of it (for a change) save for the fact that the universe is a big and baffling place and our misplanned place in it is beautifully beyond insignificant. Which is more than a most comforting thought to think…

The Beach I: Port

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The beach at Port of Ness is far from the finest beach on these islands. Which, given how fine it is, says quite a lot. The big scythe of sand half a mile away at Eoropie dwarfs it in size and stature and even nearby Stoth gives it a run in terms of beauty. But as it’s the nearest beach to the croft, it’s the beach the dog and I walk most, at least once daily. Visiting the same place every day for a year gives the flux we find ourselves in some nice perspective. Far from unchanging, treading the same path over and over only seeks to highlight just how much of the world around us constantly shifts. It can also be very focussing. With little to dwell on for the half hour or so it takes to walk from one end of the shallow bay to the other, thoughts can’t help to turn to the surroundings.

A relatively inquisitive mind or someone of an autodidactic bent can learn a lot from the banalities of the process. For instance, waves, those relentless, unending stalwarts of the sea, for the first month or so of dog walking at the beach I thought a lot about them, the multitude of differences in their size and noise and direction, variations in movement and action. Where they started to break and why they break from left to right or vice versa. Pondering the how, where and why of the four classifications of spilling, collapsing, plunging, and surging. Inevitably, old internal physics lessons were dragged up from the recesses of more educated days and words like amplitude, wavelength and refraction remembered and thought through. Old experiments explaining why the gull bobbing out at sea isn’t swept in with the onward, rolling water, why the waves are perpendicular to the shore and so on.

While a walk might open up memories of school lessons it often opened up new areas of learning. The great striated sheets and curls of long cooled, pyroclastic past events led to research on local geology upon returning home and new-found knowledge (for me anyway) on Lewisian Gneiss, some of the oldest rock in the world. The less steadfast cliffsides surrounding the beach show a more sedimentary side, slipping and sliding downwards with each passing storm, changing the contours of the coastline, contorting old fences into ever new directions, the adjacent croftland itself always shifting, quite literally under sheeps’ feet. The seaweed that litters the place to varying degrees demands identification of taxonomy and research into how best to use this free source of fertiliser after filling bags with the good for growing green stuff. Shells get collected as does interesting flotsam and jetsam, plastic toy soldiers, bowling ball-sized fishing net bhoys, yards of beautiful old coir rope.

The sand itself is different every day. Tides determine the area of beach exposed twice a day, the pull of the moon subtly revealing just that little bit more or less depending on time of year and nearness to ebb or neap. Sometimes there is a vast expanse to walk, islands of often unseen rocks laden with jade ribbons of bladderwrack are suddenly exposed, secret paths to further afield parts of the beach opening up for just a few hours a week. Other times there is but a sliver to step upon as the water rushes towards the land leaving just a few meters to trek across tentatively, always looking back to make sure one does not get left cut off. Depending on the time of day and year there can be a thousand footprints from man, woman and beast or, best of all, none at all. I like the fact that, whatever the previous day’s activities, each new morning begins pristine, the sands shaken smooth again like a giant Etch-a-Sketch, a fresh start, a bank canvas on which to write anew.

The beach is full of nature, alive and often less so. A small colony of Northern Fulmars nestle in snug roosts for the latter part of the year, usually as pairs and confused threesomes.  The males dive-bomb passers-by half-heartedly, more for show than grievance, returning again and again to chatter to their irate partner until danger is long gone. Out on the sea, but never close to shore, oblivious black cormorants bob along and above them the darts of diving terns pierce and plunge into passing shoals of silvery darlings deep below the surface. In winter months storms bring bedraggled guillemots and razorbills ashore, usually dead but sometimes found flapping wearily in the surf. In summer too, trouble far out at sea can wash up schools of multi-coloured jellyfish, netloads of small, sparkling fish and the odd young grey seal, common porpoise or even, once, a minke whale, brave failures in the rigours of ocean life. Year round, oystercatchers and peewits paddle at low tide or perch on rocks paying their small part in this abounding wee part of the world.

Once again weather is always being watched, where the sun is in relation to the horizon as the seasons move onward inexorably. After heavy rain two streams cascade off nearby croftland in dark waterfalls, making their own mark on the beach as this freshest of water makes its way to back to its saltier cousin for recycling, eventually, back to cloud. Rinse and repeat. And as the dog and I walk in driving rain and full waterproof gear, it’s easy to reflect on being here on past days with bare feet and shorts on, it feels like a lost lifetime ago but thankfully it will come around again. With the dark sky which looms not long past 4pm starting to give way, we look forward to being able to tread the same path in a few months time, with light long into evenings, bringing a mutual sense of return through the turning of time.

All in all, it’s the deep feeling of change that makes this simple routine meaningful. Life and death, ebb and flow, everything in motion and nothing staying the same, regardless of the timescales involved. I see my dog Mara growing up too, how she’s grown physically, how her behaviour has changed, I think about how many more years we’ll make this stretch of sand our daily routine, will we still be doing this when she’s too old to chase a ball, when will our last walk here together be? I think a lot about how life has changed for me also, the people who have come and gone, the problems that have been resolved and the issues that need to be faced still. Regardless of control or outcome, one things remains true, this is all just a fleeting moment of little importance, with no purpose other than to take from it the deepest of meaning one can, in the briefness we are allowed to glimpse it, through this great churn of energy and atom.

Beaufort’s Blasts

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Rubha Robhanais / Butt of Lewis lighthouse © Mike Donald

Of all the meteorological phenomena that assail this island, wind has to be the most defining. The long island string of the Westerns Isles often buttresses the Scottish mainland from Atlantic blasts, taking the full force of whatever gales are blowing Britain’s north west way.

If there’s a high pressure system over Scandinavia it will be cold, dry and easterly but mostly it’s a year-round mobile south-westerly to westerly airstream that’s driven on a succession of warmish and wet Atlantic frontal systems. But come this time of year these gusts swing more often to north-westerly or north bringing a wintery cold.

So basically it’s very windy a lot of the time, the absence of any long-established trees testimony to the toughness of taking root here with few serious hills to provide significant shelter. Here on the croft there are a few attempts at woody growth, stunted willows that look like diminutive versions of their more statuesque cousins in kinder climes. Bigger than bonsai but only just, clinging on like limpets in an otherwise barren landscape.

Unlike the old blackhouses which were built with their slipstreamed ends to the prevailing, hunkered in lees and shallows, the cubic house here is orientated onto a south west / north east axis, perched on the prow of an elevated spot. The remains of the original stone and thatch dwelling lie closer to the road in a more sheltered, wiser position but now no more than an overgrown outline in among the reeds and creeping grasses.

The upshot is that when the wind blows the house gets battered. Add rain and hail to the mix and it makes for a noisy existence, especially at night-time when the bedroom window gets a non-stop, snare-drum percussive solo, as if the local fire brigade is hosing down the double-glazing for a bit of midnight mirth. The chimney of the open fire roars unlit, pressure changes producing a sub-bass rumble and the doors and windows flexing as they’re tested by the ‘hoolie’ outside. But it’s a very solid house, build in the 1950’s with a spartan enough architecture on the exterior to withstand everything thrown at it decade after decade.

Working in this weather can be both exhilarating and draining. Trying to maintain balance in 80mph gusts with feed bags over the shoulder and mud underfoot can be fun. There’s a certain satisfaction in meeting the elements with the right clothing. Stepping out of the back door in full waterproofs, an unflappable hat and good gloves to do a job that can’t wait can feel a bit like a moon walk, except gravity feels twice what it should be and is pulling unusually horizontal.

Most of us here are wise to the wind’s predilections at this time of year when the gales are at their peak. Weather forecasts are scrutinised and discussed in every conversation and casual discourse. There is little sympathy for the superfluous, woe-betide the garden trampoline that hasn’t been packed away or piece of garden furniture that isn’t stashed somewhere safe. Wheelie bins tend to be tied up and down or weighted with heavy breezeblocks to prevent them turning into autonomous lifeforms and rattling off through the village like drunken daleks. Then hen house here is weighed down by hefty rocks to prevent a repeat of last year’s incident when the roof became a wooden sail and set the coop off on a seaward journey across the croft overnight.

With all that said, there are still slip-ups. I can see feed two buckets blown to the far end of the field and the big, heavy Adirondack chair I stashed to the side of the barn has been flipped over into the potato patch. The tarps that cover the rubble remnants from the barn renovation have been torn to shreds over the course of the season leaving things rather unsightly. But that can wait until things quieten down. The animals are hunkered down in the reed beds, although the hardier of the Heb sheep are still grazing undaunted. The chickens look unimpressed however and won’t budge from their spots for fear of looking like rum coves staggering down the Stornoway Narrows on a Saturday night. There are few things funnier than watching hens in high winds.

The storm forcer today feels different for some reason, somehow rougher, punchier, more pummelling than normal. The house feels assailed from a few sides rather than the constancy of one. While it’s cool watching the clouds zip along overhead, like ships at full steam, and a drive to the lighthouse or harbour nearby provides some pretty awe-inspiring seascapes as the crowds of crazier camera wielders attest, it can also be dangerous. As passengers on this morning’s flight off the island found out the hard way. Hopefully they’re all ok, and thankfully, as with everything in life, it will all blow over soon…

Crashed Stornoway flight this morning.

Crashed Stornoway flight this morning.

Things That Matter

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Beach at Port of Ness, © Brian Sweeney

Beach at Port of Ness, © Brian Sweeney

Many years ago, my first lambing season provided a pivotal moment. Suddenly, far from the noise and workplace politics of my previous employment I found myself profoundly happy. The sun was shining, a fresh breeze swept off the moor and I was doing nothing more meaningful than shovelling sheep shit. It was mid-morning and after a busy nightshift in the lambing shed there was no work to do but clean the nursing pens and wait for the next arrivals. And there it was, a brief epiphany, a perfect little glimpse of something simple and sublime, an unwarranted lifting of the soul apropos of nothing of any great shakes. Whatever it was, it was enough to make me rethink my life and its current, at the time, trajectory. I decided I wanted more of whatever that feeling was and, what’s more, to explore the WHY of it too.

In the intervening years it has been come clear that simplicity holds the key…

 I do believe in simplicity. It is astonishing as well as sad, how many trivial affairs even the wisest thinks he must attend to in a day; how singular an affair he thinks he must omit. When the mathematician would solve a difficult problem, he first frees the equation of all incumbrances, and reduces it to its simplest terms. So simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real. Probe the earth to see where your main roots run. – Henry D. Thoreau, WALDEN

It seems the less I have, the richer I feel, the less I carry, the lighter my journey. Of course, the world continues in its relentless attempts to be burdensome and the hard part is not just letting go but not letting oneself pick up more of what has been put down. It’s amazing how much is foisted upon us without asking, the expectations of friends, family, employers, strangers, appointed authorities and anyone else who decides they can make demands upon a person. Imagined wants and self-concocted needs abound, hastened by messages insisting you must have this and should attain that. Life is far more satisfactory once you stop chasing it all, dwell less on these man-made intangibles and pay more attention to the things that matter.

I’d never really noticed the seasons, the change in growth and colour over time, how verdant summer is compared to the barrenness of winter months. Or how the cycles relate to wildlife, the bird migrations overhead, matings, nesting and song. The fascination of growing from seed, the smallest of spheres spread in a rich drill of soil becoming so much more in a matter of months, basic biochemistry becoming food, the science still leaving the magic of transformation undimmed. A fertile hen’s egg with just the warmth of a broody mother becomes a perfect chick, hatched and left in her adept care, no need for incubators or technology to bring forth or bring up henceforth. Lambs taking their first steps, the mothering instinct and drive to suckle never fails to amaze. Changes in where the sun rises and sets, constellations, planetary rotations, Aurora and meteors and phases of the moon…

“If the stars should appear but one night every thousand years how man would marvel and adore.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

It’s these things that matter most, life at its simplest but most profound and I’m blessed to have the opportunity to witness it all without distraction. Nature’s machinations and mechanics are, as they always have been, in motion. Always ongoing, we would do well to turn our hand to steering our perception of such wonderous things, within and without us, more gently, employing and enjoying a defter touch, letting the natural world overtake our own self-centered nature more often. Resisting the need to control, allowing the moments to flow without grasping, revelling in enough inaction to quieten the noise of the throng, long enough to hear things with a little more clarity. Often all that is experienced is a moment or two but they’re worthy of the collecting, although the briefest in this the grandest of scales, it’s in these small moments that happiness, of its own accord, seems simply to arrive.

The State Of The Croft

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1508063_10152387287156105_3026520496099479934_nIt has been over a year since I blogged last but before the year was out I thought it would be fruitful to look back at the second year on the croft and gather some thoughts on the time that has flown by so ridiculously quickly. It’s been a very different year from the first, the honeymoon period being well and truly over and the reality of having packed in one way of life and packed up for another hitting home with no holds barred.

City life seems an age away, exacerbated by the fact that I haven’t left the island, save for once, since I wrote last. For the first time, 2014 was the year I missed the things I left behind for a whole host of silly reasons. I miss riding my bike through busy streets. I miss the immediacy of on-demand shops and services. I miss bustling bars serving incredible booze and restaurants where people more than ably cook and bring you amazing food in exchange for your hard earned cash. I miss a lot of old friends and the take-it-for-granted nature of being able to walk out of your door on a whim and meet them for a catch-up over a pint or three. I wistfully miss seeing, hearing, speaking to all manner of women and crave the anonymity that comes with living in a morass of crazy people, where idiosyncrasies are not only encouraged but blissfully ignored.

I could, at any second however, be in the midst of all that within a couple of hours. A car journey, a flight and I’d be in Glasgow, Edinburgh, London or beyond with ease. Or I could debauch myself in the heady environs of Stornoway just an hour’s bus-ride away. But work here and the limited period of grace I’ve been granted to make this crofting malarkey work means that such luxuries have to wait. I have just less than a year to run on the croft sub-let and when it runs out I need to stump up or bail out. So there’s everything to play for and no time to play. And despite the yearning for the bacchanal and bright lights I must state that I wouldn’t trade them back for this island life. Whatever the metropolis/metropolii holds, this small part of the world weighs far heavier on my happiness scale. It’s a joy to be here and at no point have I felt mistaken for coming home. I think any misgivings are a matter of balance and as long as the odd con can be countermanded by the pros of getting out and away here and there then this track being walked will remain an enjoyable one.

So what news?

The year has been dominated by the need to earn a living wage and the desire to do interesting and fulfilling work. On one hand I had the steady, reliable work weaving of Harris Tweed, which does not pay particularly well for a single, late-thirties man with no other income, but for a 40+ hour week (if your loom is singing) can guarantee a regular wage paid direct to the ol’ bank account. On the other, I had a myriad of (over)stimulating but often poorly paid projects, writing work and exciting potential revenue streams to pursue but which kept me tied to the desk and staring at a computer screen in order to make happen. Finding the balance was difficult, when one swung too far there would be politely irate messages and phone calls asking when tweeds would be finished and a pressure to meet quotas. When it swung the other way, similarly, clients would be demanding work be done at a moment’s notice and often unpractically added to at the last minute.

In the end circumstance and pragmatism won out. My loom went kaput mid-summer, basically a plethora of minor faults compounded into one, big, disaster-prone bit of machination and instead of weaving the cloth I love so much it was simply ripping it to shreds. It got so bad I phoned the mill I was working for and told them to come and cut out what was there and give it to someone who was able to produce a useable piece. And, being a self-employed, independent weaver, there was no assistance to my plight, least of all from my otherwise generous ’employers’. But at the same time the profusion of desk-bound work was not paying its way. Clients across the board were not coughing up on time for work done and every month meant issuing invoices and waiting for the inevitable lack of payment before going on the polite offensive to hustle, beg, guilt-trip and damn well demand their bills were settled. Not something I enjoyed at all and although very much par for the course for any freelancer or small business, the grief and stress was not something I’d signed up for here on the croft.

The many and varied conflicts of interest came to a head when the owners of the loom I rent, a smaller mill than the one I was weaving for, got in touch to say they were aware I was no longer using the damn thing and that they wished to repossess it to re-rent to someone able to weave to a greater extent than I was. I explained the machine was in dire need of multiple repairs but that I had neither the finances or the expertise to get it back in action.  So they offered to help get me working again, paying for new parts and the attentions of someone who could fix all the problems I had failed to. In return I agreed to weave cloth for them by way of thanks. And so it went. Almost a month of repairs in the hands of a local expert, new parts to the tune of around £700.00 and by the end up I was finally in possession of a smoothly operating loom but also a commitment to return to full-time weaving. Henceforth, I dropped the vast majority of clients on my books, retaining just two for nostalgic and personal reasons and became a Harris Tweed weaver once again. The conflict between one way of life and another resolved through fate and circumstance.

Everything else on the croft was, and is, a hobby. I make no money from the land, probably because I don’t claim any subsidy or grants. But that’s ok. This year potatoes were grown in the ground again and I built six raised beds from old wooden pallets in which were grown an abundance of salad leaves, lettuce, spinach, onions, cabbages, swedes, turnips, kale, carrots (not so abundant), beetroot and other hardy and tasty stuff. The hens and cockerel decided to expand their domain, laying eggs in secret places and hatching them to produce to big broods of new birds of their own volition. The flock now stands at twenty,  but only because the half dozen or so resulting roosters met their demise at my culling hand and knife and latterly with the predations of feral ferrets. Good soup stock resulted nonetheless. In the fields the flock of Hebrideans expanded also, new lambs from their own midst and pedigree stock bought in from Breanish to swell their numbers. At the same time others were sold on to new homes in the lovely land of Lochs on the far side of the island.

And I got a dog.

The mischievous Mara. A Border Collie who turned out to have a bit of Bearded Collie in the mix too. She’s wonderful but a handful, smarter than I’d ever imagined a dog to be, very obedient but a challenge to keep under control and on four paws, bursting as she does with energy and love. A friendlier dog you will not meet but every day is a lesson for both of us. She loves the sheep and had excellent instincts, already helping me to move the flock to where I want it to go. There is a lot of work to do and she’s by no means the perfect pup but any faults are purely my own and not her’s. She’s my first dog and it’s been a blast. Highly recommended but if you don’t have time, space and care then please don’t bother with a breed as psychologically complex as this.

Much of what has happened over the piece is gearing up for 2015, a crunch year if ever there was one. It’s clear that everything now will be centered in and around the loomshed, that manky, cluttered old cow byre whose walls I knocked out last year. As well as the working loom, there’s now an old Hattersley loom from the 1930’s in the middle of being put back together. There’s a wood burning stove, new framed prints on the wall, better lighting, a sturdy work bench and well-stocked toolkit, full whack wi-fi, streamed music and much more. And in my mind there’s a very concrete game plan, the result of which, if successful, will set matters firmly forth on stage two of this (possibly) fool-hardy life-choice. If I make it then I’ll have reached, if not the summit, but a pretty damn good basecamp from which to make even more adventurous journeys from.

It’s winter now, the storms are rolling in and the year is drawing to a close. There is much omitted here, the simple pleasures of life in Lewis, the good people I’ve met and worked with, being immersed in nature and community, growing closer to family and new friends, the freedom to be and do fulfilling stuff in a stunning part of the world, the opportunity to carve something out anew, free from all the usual ruts and restrictions of the banal day to day. And there is certainly much more to write but hopefully this blog will resurrect slightly, covering more of the less mundane stuff as it unfolds on into 2015…

Please do watch this space…

Yes

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I became a Yes voter, although I didn’t know it at the time, on February 5th 2003. Prior to that I had been a fairly staunch Labour voter, staunch in the limited sense that, as a mid-twenty something, I’d only really exercised my right to vote a handful of times before, most importantly to help bring Tony Blair to power in 1997 and again in 2001. But on that particular day I sat and watched the U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell give a speech to the UN Security Council that attempted to provide the Bush administration with some semblance of credibility to launch the ill-fated Iraq War. I’m not the smartest person, I’ll admit, but I clearly remember shaking my head and calling him a liar as I watched his improbable testimony, consciously told, a litany of bare-faced lies that were later to be confirmed as such, unambiguously, over the coming years. The same lies that the UK government, my government, tried to foist on us with their own version of dodgy dossiers and obviously doctored ‘intelligence’.

Ten days later, on February 15th, I took the day off work and marched alongside tens of thousands of others (estimates vary between 50-100,000) in Glasgow to protest the road to an illegal war the U.S. and with it my country, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, had undertaken. On the same day across the world tens of millions of people were doing likewise in thousands of other cities. The Labour party were holding their annual conference at the Glasgow SECC that same day and the march had chosen the venue to end its journey, a chance for people, the voters who had placed these politicians in government and power, to have their voice heard and their numbers in protest physically seen. These were people I had voted for and I looked forward to this rare opportunity to express my beliefs in person, right at their door, to witness democracy and freedom of speech in action.

Instead, the Labour party attempted to refuse permission for a PA and staging outside ‘their’ venue, ‘our’ leader Tony Blair rescheduled his speech to avoid speaking at a time we would be outside his conference and by the time the marchers had gathered outside the building to call our elected officials to account over their planned action, he had fled the city. It was clear we would not be listened to, worse still, we would not even be spoken to. Right there, right then, I realised how naive I had been. Something wasn’t right, something was very wrong. Westminster as a system of democracy was broken. Voters do not really have a voice, power does not truly reside in our ballot paper or our right to call elected officials to account, democracy in the UK is an illusion. Those in power in London will do as they see fit, or as they are told, first and foremost. Their interests are no longer ours.

The Iraq War remains the bloodiest of stains on the UK’s already grubby hands and Westminster will never be clean of them, with an estimated half a million deaths and an ongoing legacy of violence, hatred, terror and civil rights erosions established now in our name, as citizens (or subjects) of the UK. These MPs, current and former, who voted for parliamentary approval for the invasion in March 2003 are completely complicit in its predictable outcomes, no amount of self-rationalisation or mental contortions can exonerate them from their guilt. I was only 28 and I knew it was wrong and laden with lies, so these men and women of education and standing, those who claim to be humanitarians, socialists and ordinary, good people can have no excuses. I wonder how they sleep these days. But even supposing I could dismiss this gross perversion of democracy and foreign policy as a horrible mistake by those in Westminster, I can’t ignore the decades of disastrous behaviour in either the preceding years or those that followed. From Thatcher and Blair to Cameron and Clegg, it’s obvious that truly nothing really changes, nothing gets better, the gravy train just rolls on with slightly different drivers and with slightly different speeches and policies.

I believe that both Conservative, LibDem and Labour governments are now permanently in thrall to big business, the same corporations that are fuelling our rampant consumerism, trampling on workers rights and destroying our environment, these companies themselves only beholden to creating profit for their shareholders and nothing else, bribing and lobbying politicians as they do so. The massive financial industries thrive on debt creation, pulling billions out of the ‘real’ economy to maximise balance sheets and directors earnings, leaving governments at their mercy rather than the other way around. Our media is now mainly propaganda, the news fed to us like entertainment, issues twisted to become black and white stories and the approved side rammed down our throats without nuance. Such is their power that once again our government simply acquiesces, shaking hands and taking orders from media giants, spinning and burying stories to meet the wishes of the few and not the many in order to hold on to their own power. Who’s left to vote for? With Miliband’s Labour Party unable to return to its roots in any significant way, there’s just the Green Party I suppose.

Meantime we persevere. We get up and set to work, we try to enjoy life and each other as best we can. We might not be earning very much because our wages have stagnated, we might not be able to afford as much because food and energy prices are continuously rising, we might have less rights because our government wishes to make it easier to sack us or work on zero-hours contracts, we might have less freedom to protest or speak out to try and change things, we may never own a house because we’ll never make the criteria for a mortgage, our schools might be less than great and our healthcare poorer because of cuts and austerity, our safety-net might be taken away as our government cuts down on welfare for the unemployed and those unable to work. Meantime our elected officials repeatedly fiddle expenses, flip houses, game the system, take bribes and walk out into well-paid jobs in the businesses they were beholden to while MPs. But it’s not too bad right?

It’s not too bad that all our emails are being read and stored by national security agencies, that all our phone calls and texts are documented and screened and that, by proxy, our movements are tracked by our new media devices’ GPS. That the majority of us work all week and then hand most of it back to pay over-inflated rent, mortgages, council tax, electricity bills, gas bills, mobile bills, broadband bills, income tax, insurance, road tax and dozens more overly expensive outgoings. A necessary part of life yes, until it becomes clear we are not paying the fair value of the services we receive but rather we’re routinely and grossly overcharged just to increase company and shareholders profits or keep the mercenary CEOs on board. Our taxes flood the Treasury coffers as they waste billions through unnecessary spending on everything from unnecessary nuclear weapons to failed ID Card schemes. Lives have been wrecked and dreams destroyed by the avarice of those who continue to believe it’s back to business as usual for them, earning wages most of us can only dream about, while preaching to us about Austerity, vilifying the poor and weak by shouldering the blame for their mess on the disabled and unemployed.

The bigger picture isn’t much better. Take the now unquestionable issue of man-made climate change and the lack of any impetus to do something serious about it as tens of thousands of species begin to die off and our planet blindly stumbles through disaster after disaster on our way to the big one, whenever that, inevitibly, will be. We pollute and destroy through our enslavement to possessions, allowing companies to ride roughshod over man and beast, and their habitats, alike. As we sit in front of our TVs each night, or stare at our iPads and phones, we watch kids playing football on a beach get murdered by million pound hi-tech weapons and schools and hospitals be destroyed with civilians in them but our government just stands by and says nothing of consequence. They encourage us to mourn our war dead but not the dead of others. And we do very little either, impotent as we all now feel we are.

It’s madness.

Such is the madness that I’m not sure everyone sees it, or wants to see it. It’s so frightening that the security of immersing oneself in the relative safety of a good job, nice home and loving family makes for welcome apathy. Go to school, get to college, get a job and car, save for a house, get married, have kids, buy stuff, travel then post about it on Facebook. Rinse and repeat. Rather than address the immense lack of power we now have, we retreat into our own lives and hobbies, let ourselves be entertained by movies and celebrities and confine our outcries to social media and the odd heated debate over a beer or five. I’m just the same, sometimes I think that’s the best I can muster too.

But September 18th feels different. It is a very easy way to begin the challenge of changing if not everything, then a whole lot. It feels like a chance to start over, to begin a new way of doing things, to change ourselves and those around us. I honestly do not give twa hoots about Saltires, bagpipes, kilts, haggis, Braveheart, Jacobites or any other Scottish nonsense. My heart doesn’t swell to Flower Of Scotland, tartan leaves me cold, I’m not that keen on Burns poems, in fact I’ve just as much in common with Geordies as Jocks. None of this is about nationalism for me, in fact one of my greatest fears over this independence opportunity is that Scotland becomes some Brigadoon-esqe extension of Edinburgh. I’ve got no axe to grind with England or the English (my sister, bold brother-in-law and top notch nephew are 3 Lions I love dearly), nor the Welsh or the Irish or anyone else for that matter. I’m not that mad about the SNP or Alex Salmond, truth be told but it’s just not about any of that for me.

It’s about being part of a new democracy that works, that represents my values and speaks with my voice on a world stage. And does the same for everyone else too. A system that puts its citizens ahead of its corporations, that believes in spending on social care and not weapons of mass destruction, that looks after our environment and those who live in it. I want to live in a country that is not obsessed with global hard power and excessive individual wealth but rather on that which seeks to make the world a better place, in the short time we have left to do so. I know for a fact none of this will happen with a No vote, I know that as far as human beings go, we are indeed better together, but the truth is, as people tied to Westminster and all its myriad of failings, we most certainly are not.

I’ve been hugely encouraged by the lack of apathy in the referendum debate, on both sides, in particular the work of The Common Weal and the potential I’ve witnessed for an engaged civic society in future years. But I’m scared this will be lost through a No vote, a final nail in the coffin of disillusionment of our country. We’ve been told repeatedly that it will be bad, it will be a disaster, that we can’t have this and we can’t do that. And we’re told that from the heart of the very institution we are trying to rid ourselves of, by the very people who would lose most from our independence. Is it any surprise they say these things, that they lie and spin and corrupt the truth to meet their own ends? Is this not what Westminster and its associated institutions have always done? The truth is we can do all this, we can be a successful, independent nation and we can do it with our vote and if we work together again. They won’t make it easy and it won’t be without its challenges but once the decision is made and the people have spoken we will make it happen and for once Westminster will stop and listen to our voice. And I have just a little faith, in the face of all the opinion polls, that something might happen against all odds.

We have a rare and unique chance, it will never happen again. Certainly not in my lifetime. Failure to grab it will be the final blow for many in my generation, those who have stuck to the rules, worked hard and yet never gotten to reap the rewards. Those of us who think voting is a waste of time and are repeatedly proved right. As we approach September 18th I see and hear them raise their voices, people are engaged, if a little weary of the rhetoric! I’ve been listening to everyone, Yes or No, to be honest more closely to the naysayers, looking for the arguments that might convince me I’m wrong. I’m disappointed, in a way, that it has never come.

Where do we go from a No vote? Nowhere. I realise not everyone agrees with me and I truly respect their views. I admire the solidarity shown by many of the more stridently socialist minded among them, their belief that separation is wrong and nationalism is divisive, that we should all stick together for the greater good. I wish I still felt like that but it’s a sham of an argument with no teeth left under the current set up down south and even moreso when espoused by the sort people who, in reality, enjoy more of the champagne than socialist side of their conveniently vocal but undemanding political views. I sincerely wish those saying No Thanks would offer an alternative, put forward a positive vision for the future but instead they’re even more vague, uninspiring and wishy-washy than the pipe-dreamers they excuse seekers of independence of being.

For my part, I offer the crazy idea I hold that independence will only strengthen our bond as human beings no matter what country you call home. I believe it will allow us to lead the way, to lead by a new example, blaze a path that others will be inspired to follow. I believe it will lead to a system where people will feel empowered, able to have a say, argue and resolve their issues without braying and paper waving. I believe a new way of doing things will bring politics back to life for us again, where it will no longer be a dirty word or a concept shrouded in mistrust and apathy. It’s a crazy notion, having an ideal, setting a lofty bar, dropping the cynicism and embracing the possibility of something better. But it’s also a brave one. Pioneers are often the few rather than the many, and I hope if enough of us are brave enough, where we go as a new nation with higher ideals, others will undoubtably do likewise, empowered, confident and truly with us, truly better together.

And come the worst case scenario, that evil Alex Salmond, a man with no blood on his hands despite a lifelong political career, leads us into a tartan Tory-esque hell, that economic armageddon befalls us, that the oil dries up and our UK neighbours turn their backs on extended hands of post-referendum friendship, that life grinds to a halt and we are forced to admit our gold was that of fool’s, then one solitary silver lining remains…when we take to the streets to make our grievances known it will only be as far as Edinburgh we’ll need to travel to make ourselves heard again, we’ll do so in greater numbers than ever before and the politicians won’t be able to flee south to hide. And how bad could it be? Worse than the overnight decimation of our heavy industry was, worse than being dragged into a long and protected bloody foreign war, worse than being instrumental in the world’s greatest economic disaster, worse than an enforced austerity that brings families to point of feeding themselves from food banks, worse than continually suppressed wages and ever rising costs of living, worse than vilification of the most vulnerable among us by millionaires, worse than the relentless drive towards privatisation of our public services to make money for investors with institutions we funded from our own taxes? Some say it could be worse, I don’t think it could. But we’ve somehow survived all this, so we can survive the worst independence can bring.

The very fact that a decade later I can see and hear all the lies and manipulation again, like I did all those year ago in the run up to the Iraq invasion, confirms everything I thought then, but a hundredfold. And while the scale of the establishment’s deception and propaganda should scare me, it doesn’t, rather it fills me with the confidence that I, we, are right in our beliefs and correct in our faith. Not just a change but a revolution is required and make no mistake this is that opportunity. While I read and listen to those self same lying Labour politicians fill their newspaper columns and interviews with can’ts, won’ts, shouldn’ts and scaremongering, I know it’s only themselves who are scared. Scared of losing a seat on the gravy train, now that most of them are extremely wealthy and working for the businesses they represented while in government, scared of ordinary people wielding power, scared of change.

Whether it’s a Yes or a No on September 18th a change is coming for these people, one way or another.

I encourage you to make the change a positive one, one within your own ken and power, a vote to say YES.

Full Circle

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The first year is over here on the croft.

Life has come full circle in more ways than one and now seems as good a time as any to look back on the journey through the last four seasons and, ultimately, bring things to a close.

Autumn, coming at the end of August 2012 was the first season here and saw the conversion of the old byre into a working loom shed and office from which to work. Sledgehammers were swung and walls ‘n’ stalls came down to make room for the double-width loom that was to serve as my financial means to an end while other plans were made. Some wood stain and whitewash later and there was a large, airy space from which to carve out a living. Livestock came next, a “starter pack” of three Hebridean ewes and a ram called Calan joined me, forming the basis of a flock that would grow to 19 beasts before the year was out. A wooden henhouse was commissioned from a local man and half a dozen or so chickens at just six weeks old procured to provide that crofter’s staple of fresh eggs every morning. A wee ginger cat found lurking in the croft grasses became an ever present new pal.

Winter rolled in quickly and the days were short and dark nights long. Weaving in the loom shed proved challenging, often done in the full get-up of thermals, woollens, waterproofs and fingerless gloves. When the wind blew in certain ways, rain and hail would accompany the peddling inside, the Ness gales blowing gaily through the cracks and crevices in the old tin roof. Bad weather affected the sheep too, with an outbreak of snow blindness, one girl almost losing her sight as a result. The classic Colnago Cross bike I’d relied on to get me back and forth from the local shop for supplies was of no use in the face of daily 50mph+ winds, a journey that took just 20 minutes one way could take twice that in the other direction. So an old jalopy was bought for buttons, probably the most impractical vehicle for any crofter to be driving on these islands. A convertible with slow punctures, ropey battery and a rasping exhaust, the back seat could hold one bale of hay and the boot a couple of bags of sheep feed at best. But it lasted long enough until the bank balance was back on track and a more up to date replacement was bought.

As quickly as it came in, the darkest season crept out and Spring was soon in the air. The grass that had so long been burnt dry and withered by wind began to grow green again, feeding the now in-lamb ewes in preparation for the arrival of newborns. The flock had been expanded with two young Hebridean / Jacob’s crosses towards the end of 2012 and Calan had carnally joined the pure Hebs around that time too, working his magic with the ladies and, unfortunately with one of the under-age girls after an illicit midnight escapade into their field. The result of his prowess was a brilliant lambing season that produced eight healthy lambs in total and no losses, two pairs of twins, a triplet and a single. With the weather improving there was some back-breaking work to be done breaking new ground for growing vegetables and after a bit of graft there were soon potatoes, onions, lettuces, beetroot, carrots, cauliflower, peas, cabbages and carrots in the soil. Time would tell if I’d reap what I’d sown.

Summer on the islands is always special, especially when the sun shines and the days are so long the time between sunset and sunrise barely registers. With the fields full of lush grass, the vegetables growing, hens laying and the loom singing it felt as if the hard part was over. Things were established, stuff had worked out, progress had been made. With a bit of wi-fi re-working I was able to move the office into the byre and online work reached a peak with half a dozen good clients paying monthly for various marketing, copywriting and social media projects. Visitor numbers to the croft took a steady uptick as dozens of schoolkids, art-school students, textile designers, photographers, journalists and old friends made their way to this far north-west outpost to see what was happening. The sheep were sheared with the help of a neighbour and the village roads were full of activity from tractors to tourists. Sunsets were many and there was even a period of midnight barbecues and books read by twilight in sandals, shorts and teeshirt. Imagine that.

As summer faded and the forecasts began to take a turn for the worst the cycle of the seasons had almost made its full revolution. Other local crofters brought home their peats and stacked them ready for the colder months ahead, something I failed to get organised enough to do despite having a peat-bank and the tools, if not the time or manpower, to do it. A regret I’ll now end up paying for, literally, as I fork out cold, hard cash for coal instead of this free fuel I could have had. The declining days were heartened by a harvest of my own making. Some things had thrived, predictably the traditional and hardy root veg of potatoes, onions, turnips and beetroot. Other things failed miserably like the green beans and carrots who struggled in the dense soil. Lettuces of all kinds were a bumper crop and filled plate after plate as they were cut and came again but the high hopes for the kale and cabbages were dashed by the double predations of cheeky chickens and cruel caterpillars. In spite of these failings, the veg growing has been a wonderful experience, something I never expected to enjoy so much. Even with the bad weather looming and the ground now bare, I’ve planted out dozens of new late season seeds to see how they’ll fare.

It’s all been truly satisfying and deeply nourishing on every level. Like being plugged back into Life after a lifetime without access to the very basics of living. Fundamental truths have abounded, something only nature and quiet simplicity can reveal, and with them a real and profound happiness ensues.

Which brings us back to today, the point at which the whole process begins again. Another go around. It’s here that thoughts turn to future plans, consideration given to what has been learned, what worked and what didn’t, what has been achieved and what can be improved on. It’s also the time to reassess life more generally, set some new goals, alter plans and perhaps choose new paths.

Next year there will most definitely be a polytunnel present and more time devoted to growing my own produce. There will be more of the good stuff that worked growing in more of the ground, enough to fill store-cupboards and possibly even sell on. Raised beds will be built to use up the bad ground too. Better fencing and windbreaks need erected. Conversely, my previously held desire to raise my own meat has wained somewhat. While I have no ethical problem with killing and eating animals, (although I’ll admit the connection to my fellow creatures has deepened considerably) the practicality of doing so is weighing on me a little.

My intent was never to maintain a flock of hundreds and gain financial benefit from sales and grants, rather it was to simply have food for the freezer and at this level I’d far rather do the dispatching myself, here on the croft, than ship two or three beasts to the abattoir to go through the stress of the production line there. And I’d like to use a lot of the offal too, something prohibited by the official processes. But home slaughter has its problems too, I’m comfortable with the culling but skinning, gutting and disposal prior to the butchering presents challenges. Neither is ideal for me but at least I have until next year to make that particular bloody call.

There are also downsides to the financial and time commitments required to raise animals. I had hoped to have pigs on the go too for splendid charcuterie purposes but, as with the sheep, I’ve much to consider there also. Money is required for housing, feeds, vet bills, shearing, slaughtering, drenching, fencing…all of which makes me wonder if it’s worth it when I can buy a perfectly good, locally raised carcass (or three) from one of my neighbours. The two obvious reasons for continuing  down these animal tracks are the fact it brings the 5 acres of land here into use and also that it’s very enjoyable. We’ll see how it pans out but the level of animal management right now is more than sufficient for my purposes. Except perhaps for bees, I miss my inner-city beehives so getting new colonies on the go needs to be prioritised.

Which all brings me to the big con of this new way of life.

Time.

Time is money, there is no way to earn unless I am working and the simple fact is that I need to earn money. Every hour not spent working is an hour not spent earning. Much as I love it, weaving Harris Tweed does not pay well enough to justify doing full-time. It’s ideal if you’re supplementing a pension or using it to pitch into the family income as a part-time endeavour but to earn a decent living peddling under your own steam…forget it. The awful truth is I can easily earn more money (double) sitting at a desk than at a loom.

The second caveat is that I would like more of my own time and work for money a whole lot less. Livestock keeps me bound to the croft and after a year here I would like to get away a whole lot more. And I mean a WHOLE lot more. In the unplanned absence of a female sidekick due to rather unforeseen circumstances the goalposts have shifted more than a little. The prospect of living on the croft as a bachelor all year round fills me with fear! I’ve handled the situation admirably through a combination of cod-philosophy (pragmatism and stoicism with a smattering of Thoreau-esque  transcendentalism mostly) but something’s got to give in 2014 otherwise I’ll go crazy. I’ve also not seen enough of the world for my liking.

And so, inspired by Chris Guillbeau I hope next year to work even more with the seasons, remain fully tied to the land but not be tied by it. To be able to work hard for two-thirds of the year, spring through Autumn and have the freedom to explore new cities and places for four months rather than four weeks of the year is the ultimate goal. Meet new people, do new things, keep being inspired and motivated and moved in this short life while still being true to my attachment to home and family and this croft I’ve worked so hard to get to.

An over ambitious dichotomy? An impossible undertaking? Another pointless pipe dream?

Perhaps!

But I like a challenge and my baggage is light these days so what better plan than to simply face the horizon of one’s choosing and keep walking…

Afterword:

By 2015 I hope to build one of our Airigh dwellings on the croft and never have to pay a mortgage again. The sublet on the croft will have expired and I’ll be given the option to buy that too. A beautifully simple home, on the island I was born, working for myself,  growing my own food and being able to travel when I want to.

Now that’s real freedom.

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OTCFINALLOGO

WordPress, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Spotify…I seem to be everywhere and nowhere online and all at once and it’s been getting really difficult to keep track and on top of all the updates and connections needed to stay this “social”.

I’d been thinking that the blog here has sort of lost its momentum a bit, since moving back the impetus for the blog’s original purpose, namely researching and finding my roots and routes home to these islands has been lost somewhat. Instead of being a resource for exposing the islands music, art, culture and history to those who might also be interested, it’s in danger of becoming one of those island blogs where your day to day life gets written about and snapped and put out there for all to see…not really what I want or had intended for it. I’m also blogging about Harris tweed stuff over at www.harristweed.org/blog so even keeping this blog busy with tweed stuff would be just plain ol’ repetition.

So what to do?

Well basically I’ve picked a format, namely a Facebook page at www.facebook.com/OffTheCroft that will have a nice and simple, short and sweet, feed of goings on from life here on the croft and will be focussing my attention there from now on.

If you’d like to keep track of The Croft going forward then that’s the place to go, simply “like” it if so. If not feel free to keep checking back here to see if anything more heavyweight crops up. You never know…

Either way, thanks as always for reading!

PS You can always reach me via email at mike.thecroft@me.com

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