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 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 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?
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…
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.
Yūgen is a Japanese word pertaining to a profound awareness of the universe which evokes feelings that are inexplicably deep and too mysterious for words.
The word itself is like an extension of awareness, the aesthetic perception which allows us to conceive of the vastness of the universe but carries it beyond into an inconceivably mysterious realm. The feeling of Awareness is induced by confrontation to the brevity of life, and yugen is initiated from the awareness that even ‘aware’ itself is an ephemeral thing.
Zeami Motokiyo’s description portrays a medium through which one may experience the unspeakably deep, stirring, feeling of yugen:
“To watch the sun sink behind a flower clad hill. To wander on in a huge forest without thought of return. To stand upon the shore and gaze after a boat that disappears behind distant islands. To contemplate the flight of wild geese seen and lost among the clouds.”
…Over The Hill
It’s been the most beautiful of days.
From sunrise, a fishing boat blinking past Port of Ness harbour, the sky grew from peaches and pink to ever-changing blues. It was frosty and hundreds of spiderwebs strung between the spikes of the croft reeds shimmered with fat beads of dew.
The air was sharp and cold and the nearest house, down and across the village road, was already puffing out peat-smoke which filled the air with its reassuring reek. As the sun rose so did a mist, settling into the hollows of croft land for miles around and Venus, alone, pinpricked the sky.
The rest of the day was cloudless and still, just sunshine, which burned off the fog and frost, and I worked outside all day just to be in amongst it.
And tonight everything reversed, the sun set in familiar deep colours, those eerie clouds of moisture rose again, the moon appeared.
As I locked the hens in their coop for the night I spotted the cat perched on a fencepost, silhouetted against the darkening sky, just taking it in also.
I’ve had more happy days in recent memory than in years of Glasgow living and for no other reason than nature provides.
I feel privileged to be here.
Last year I organised Glasgow’s first Tweed Ride and such was the demand for another one in 2012 it would have been rude not to oblige.
Being so far from the city meant that this time around I took a back seat / saddle and placed the event in the hands of two Glasgow chaps I knew would make a sterling job of it.
And that they did…
I woke the next day at dawn with a slight hangover. The temperature had dropped and tempting as it was to stay in that warm bed, stuff needed done. Besides, there was no one else there beside me to swing the decision. It was raining outside, a cold, driving rain lashing the windows from clouds that hid the sunrise.
Yesterday’s idyll was soon forgotten. The day brought with it a long shift in the loom shed, the poor lighting making the complex plaid in the heddles hard work when mistakes were made. Fingers were cold and errors were plentiful.
The postman arrived with both cheques and bills. The cheques, such an archaic way of settling payments and invoices, could only be cashed in three days time when the mobile bank passed through this remote village on its weekly visit. Then another three days to clear meant it would be a week until the funds arrived in my ever dwindling account. The bills demanded payment at once, as usual.
Despite the impression given over these recent series of posts that all is rosy in the croft garden, it’s hard work and will only get harder as plans progress. This isn’t River Cottage or Escape To The Country, it’s not easy to make ends meet, harder still to make inroads into all the work that still needs done to make the croft flourish.
I’m not a rich man and know now I never will be, there’s no trust fund or money made on property booms to play with. Only graft, turning what few skills I have into resources and remittances for all the work rendered. But I relish the challenge and the hard work, because the gains are truly my own and noone elses.
Such is crofting.
After such a long struggle to get here, a harder struggle, so fortunately, finally, to sign a sublet on this wonderful piece of land, a good day like yesterday makes it all feel worthwhile, worth the sacrifice and the stigma associated with trying to carve out a better way of living, now alone, in the back of beyond.
Things won’t always be like this, one way or the other, but you gotta take these moments of outright happiness when, where and while you can.
“If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal – that is your success. All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself. The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated. We easily come to doubt if they exist. We soon forget them. They are the highest reality. Perhaps the facts most astounding and most real are never communicated by man to man. The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.”
– Henry David Thoreau, Walden, or Life in the Woods
We (the dog and I) got back to the croft as the sun was beginning to dip below the horizon. That perfect time of day when the northern latitudinal Lewis light, so beloved by photographers and artists, takes hold, casting high contrast shadows across croft land, fence posts turning to sundial arms, streaking the golden grasses of Ness.
The fridge was full, so after Mac was fed the menu options were multiple thanks to the butchers of Cross stores, the local emporium that supplies everything from a needle to an anchor as well as good meat. There were lamb shanks and liver, local eggs and marag dubh but I had a big bag of mussels to use so that was to be devoured.
Olive oil, garlic, white wine, pepper, parsley and slosh of cream and they were done in minutes. The rest of the wine washed it all down. And as a case of decent red had been delivered earlier another bottle was cracked. It would be rude not to.
I built a fire in grate. Rolled and knotted pages from the Stornoway Gazette, kindling chopped from old wood found in the byre by a Finnish axe, a pair of split logs and a little coal to maintain the burn. The lit paper flared and the rest of the little pyre takes care of itself.
Weasels the cat arrives, popping in through the slightly ajar kitchen window looking for food and an armchair in which to spend the evening. He and the dog have been really wary of each other but seem to have found an uneasy truce based on non-interference of each other’s dinner arrangements. He gets fed a packet of cat food I keep in for when he shows his ginger face and then settles himself into the chair opposite mine.
I stream music from Spotify on the iMac next door, loudly so it carries through to the living room and over the crackle of the open fire. Alan Lomax stuff, old Americana and folk tunes. I catch up with old friends on the iPad, by email, Facebook and and a Twitter, happy to be connected to two old friends in particular, one in New Zealand and another heading for India.
I can handle solitude. I was slightly obsessed about Thoreau’s Walden and this move has proved interesting in many similar respects, despite the stigma associated with loners and hermits it doesn’t phase me in the slightest to go a day or few without socialising. After 15 years of non-stop big city hedonism, part and parcel of working in the music industry and licensed trade, this peace and quiet feels like a relief. But I’d struggle without an Internet connection. Thankfully, the world doesn’t feel too far away despite the remoteness. I can live without the usual male banter about football, birds and techno but lack of female company is rapidly becoming a drag…
The bedroom is lit by candlelight, warmed further by 13.5 duck down togs and a Harris Tweed blanket. There’s a book pile beside the bed and I dip in and out of a few on charcuterie, guga, sea fishing and a little Steinbeck until drifting off.
As the day draws to a close I can see the flash of the lighthouse nearby through the uncurtained window, intermittently, and I reflect on just how simple a day it was. Nothing of particular note happened, there was no drama or big event, no endeavour to brag about, no great achievement to speak of. Nothing but a profound happiness, a series of humble occurrences that added up to a perfect day.
Perhaps the bar is set low on my satisfaction scale?
But there was no pressure to do or be anything, life unfolded at its own pace and in doing so revealed a great many truths, beautiful things whispered so discretely they are seldom heard, so untuned to them our ears usually are.
It was a good day, I went to sleep glad and grateful to be here, looking forward to whatever tomorrow might bring, aware this might not last but willing to take it while I can.
The long arc of beach at Eoropie is probably my favourite place in the world.
I’ve been here a thousand times, at all times of year, in all weather and seasons and it always feels a very vital place. Once upon a time Viking longboats were hauled ashore here and it takes very little to stretch the imagination far enough to picture the sight today.
Legend has it the Vikings liked the islands so much they tried to drag them home to Norway from here, the loops of their rope fastened through what we call The Eye, a natural arch in the rock to the far north of the beach, seen easily from the sands, a peephole of light through dark Gneiss to the Atlantic beyond.
I feel a profound connection to this place.
My great, great Grandfather drowned in these fierce waters aiming for this very shore in the Cunndal drownings along with other relations and men of the community. In more recent times I have buried hopes and dreams with an old flame in the machair land nearby, a wee time capsule lost and buried after a special holiday a long decade ago. The family croft is but a stones throw from here.
Tonight, as Mac and I took an evening walk, the place was as beautiful as I’ve ever seen it. So hard to put into words really. The sea was a tumult of incoming tide, breakers nine or ten deep, cresting prematurely far out to sea, rolling and roaring in wave after wave on to the sands. The beach faces directly west and the sun was beginning to set and as it did so it fought through clouds of such epic size and scale, cumulonimbus’ of fat, deep, greys all pregnant with rain, beginning to glow pink with sunbeams.
And the sun beamed through, great swathes of rays, ramroddings of light piercing their sky, stitching air to sea. It was just glorious.
I’m not a religious man but sometimes it’s hard not to feel in the presence of God. Or at least a higher power, a bigger picture, the great tapestry of LIFE.
As we walked towards the beach across rabbit hewn green grass the whole scene just revealed itself. A fresh wind blew every cobweb and the salt sea air cured the soul with every breath. The beach was empty save for a lone photographer, wrapped to the nines, a fancy camera on a tripod and a second DLSR stuck to his eye.
As we passed, we both grinned, nothing needed to be said, just an exchange of looks to say “fucking wow!!”
I threw stone after stone for the dog and just soaked it all in. The sun had cut through a huge rain cloud in the bizarrest manner, for all intents and purposes there was a mile high and wide Acid Smiley Face leering over us, as if a tripped out God was grinning at his own handiwork, eyes all ablaze at his creative madness.
As we turned for home the horizon filled with two shadowy clouds, shifting shape and moving erratically, far too quickly to be wind borne. As the disparate patterns in the air drew closer we saw geese, Grelyags most likely, fighting their own currents as the sea below them ripped. A duplicate pair of V-shaped formations converged right over our heads in a cacophonous crash of birds that emerged from the collision in an even bigger arrangement of black silhouettes, squawking loudly heading for who knows where.
The camera guy had spun 180 to capture the fly past and I just craned my neck and laughed in guilt free joy.
The dog, oblivious, padded towards home, a stone still clutched in his broken toothed maw, sandy, salty and as happy as I, despite missing the point completely.
Apart from weaving, I do a bunch of other work to earn a wage, mostly to do with writing words for people. Which is pretty much a perfect paying pastime for me.
Broadband here is surprisingly good, I get 8mb speeds easily which is a huge relief as my previous abode in another part of the island was a super-slow 1.5mb which is barely enough to surf but impossible to download large files, stream film or music or do anything that most of UK takes for granted.
Some villages on the island struggle even to get those speeds, having to rely on a sort of wireless broadband which costs a lot and generally has a bad reputation. The importance of getting good broadband here should be the number one priority for any and all campaigns. Never mind wind farm and Sunday sailing debates, connecting to the rest of the world at decent speeds is vital if the islands are to have any chance of thriving in the future.
With good broadband you can do good work, young, creative folk can return home and set up shop, design, make music, do everything they can do in a city but from a far nicer place to live.
I digress. All this is for another post on another day…
The rest of the afternoon was spent at the desk, a huge plinth of beautiful wood on trestles in the window of the front room, a view overlooking fertile croft land and three big Highland Coos grazing dolefully. A nice shiny iMac sits there among fairly neat piles of random paperwork and a wall of books.
I write a couple of blogposts for the Harris Tweed Authority website and line them up to go live at set times. Some time is spent, as usual, exploring what waves Harris Tweed is making on various blogs and websites, Twitter and Google searches being plundered for anything of note. And anything that looks good is posted to the Harris Tweed folks’ social media, part of my monthly remit to keep their online presence active and interesting.
A few emails are batted back and forth with colleagues in Glasgow helping to organise this year’s Harris Tweed Ride event, enquiries from this blog are responded to, visits from documentary makers and a brand collaboration’s director booked into the diary for later on in the week. Since setting up here ne’er a week goes by without someone planning a visit to observe life in the back of beyond. I’m happy to share even though it does cut into weaving time, it’s great to have visitors and their enthusiasm always leaves me happy when they arrive and lingers after they leave.
I log time spent on various things in a notebook to keep track of hours to be billed to clients at the end of the month, usually erring on the conservative side, none of this feels like work but I have to top up the bank account despite enjoying the graft.
And then that’s it…working day done…
It’s around tea-time I think, I don’t have a watch these days and the only clock in the house is on the computer. Mac the Collie, my parents old dog who I’m looking after while they swan off sunbathing in warmer climes sits looking at me in his “I’m a good boy” pose, head cocked to one side, eyes implying he wants either walked or fed, preferably both and in that particular order.
The sun is much lower in the sky now, starting to crack the clouds which don’t look like releasing their rain so we head for Traigh Shanndaigh a long, wild, windswept beach just a five minute drive from here and probably my favourite place in world.