Sunday, 19 July 2020

I've Been Painting...

I have just completed the redecoration of the outside of Summer Cottage. The cottage is a late 19th century stone-built one-and-a-half storey croft house, and is one of our holiday letting properties. In common with almost all domestic buildings in the Highlands, the cottage is harled and painted. (Harling is a local term for lime-based render). We had tried to find a local tradesman to do the decorating for us, but decorators here are always busy, and they can be reluctant to take-on more than a couple of outdoor jobs at a time, because of the vagaries of the weather.... so I ended up doing the job myself.

Since living here, I've learned a lot about roofs and stone-walled buildings. Summer Cottage has 3-feet thick stone walls, with gables capped with poured concrete skews. The skew forms a waterproof 'lid' for the wall, and the roof tiles are simply tucked under the skew - there is no lead flashing. The stone is pretty much waterproof, but the 19th century mortar is never rock hard at the best of times, and when affected by water ingress for years, it decays to have about the same strength as damp sand. Although I have been told by experienced builders that 'all the old places are like that' and 'they never fall down' - it is not a demanding task to scrape out some of the mortar and repoint as necessary. At least then the masonry paint has a better chance of staying stuck on the wall for a few extra years.

Some restoration of the harling was required for the most weather-exposed south-west facing gable. Part of the wall had suffered from water leaking past the skew as the result of an inadequately-finished roofing job, done before we bought the place. Last winter, heavy rain and a south-westerly gale had caused enough water to seep through the wall to be dripping from the inside of a first floor window reveal. It was definitely time to fix something! I made a rooftop investigation, found the poorly sealed area, and made a thorough job of re-sealing the cracks - but water had clearly been leaking in there for several years, causing a large part of the wall to become wet, and damaging the mortar and harling.

The rest of the paintwork was pretty straightforward though. With no holiday visitors at the cottage because of the lockdown, I was able to take opportunities to work in the best of the weather. I am fortunate to own a couple of good, long and light ladders as well as a roof ladder, so access to all parts of the building was reasonably easy - though I did wonder at times if I am beginning to be a touch too old to be clambering-about on a roof...!!

It is rewarding to get the job done. It all now looks very smart again, and will hopefully continue to do so for a few years.

Rooftop view - while painting the second chimney

All finished and smart
... and yes - it's yellow and cream, not boring white!

Wednesday, 15 July 2020

Is Skye Back To Busy?

In short - no. It is still very quiet here.

After the lockdown, self-catering cottages in Scotland were allowed to re-open a couple of weeks ago, and at the same time, travel restrictions across the UK were lifted. This resulted in a brief flurry of bookings, mostly from Scotland and a few from England, which has partially filled our calendars for mid-July through to mid-September - though we still have lots of gaps, and virtually no bookings at all in the autumn.

So far, there is a barely-noticeable increase in traffic across the island, though a few lumbering camper vans are swaying-about. 

Hospitality, as in restaurants, cafes and bars, are allowed to re-open from today, so this may encourage a few more visitors to venture our way, but overall, I have to admit to being surprised that there has not been a greater rush of people wanting to escape from their lockdown surroundings for a breath or two of clean, fresh Hebridean air. I can only assume many people remain anxious about travelling, though I rather think they will be further from any virus particles here than almost anywhere else in the UK.

Skye is at its summer best just now. The grasses are high, the wild flowers are more spectacular than ever, and the scent of meadowsweet fills the air. The unusually quiet roads and trails are a joy.  It is nice to have the place to ourselves, but sad to see all the tourism businesses struggling to survive.

The photos are from Sue...

Saturday, 13 June 2020

More On Midges

I've touched on this topic a couple of times before, but as the midge-stalking season is now with us again (they stalk us - not the other way round...) I thought a re-visit was appropriate.

Firstly, let's get clear - midges are carnivorous flying dots, at least ten-thousand times smaller than a mosquito, but about 100 times more vicious. If you have any less than 20/20 vision, you may never even see a midge.  But believe me - they can see you... Midges spend their winter first as eggs and then as larvae, slumbering peacefully and harmlessly in cool peat bogs. As with many insects, they emerge in late spring as fully-fang-equipped flying versions of themselves in order to meet other midges and mate. The female needs to feed in order to lay her eggs - and female midges feed on blood. Any blood will do - sheep, deer, cow... but human blood is the gourmet choice.

Midges are a gregarious lot. They like to spend their time in the company of at least a couple of million of their best friends. When it is windy, they grip by their fingernails onto leaves and grasses, and just chat among themselves, pretty much leaving humans alone. But when the wind drops - it's time for reveling. In cool, damp evening air, a light at an open window is like a mega-midge-magnet. It takes precisely one minute and thirty-seven seconds for a 12ft by 14ft bedroom to become tightly packed with partying midges. Woe betide any human who happened to be in there having a doze.

However, it is not all blood-letting, itching and irritation for every human in the Highlands. You see, in spite of having a brain one thousandth of a nano-millimetre in diameter, midges are actually pretty intelligent. By employing their laser-sharp long-distance eyesight and highly developed sense of smell, they are easily able to identify the most succulent prey. The Highlander, striding through open fresh air, with long-sleeved shirt tightly buttoned at the collar and cuffs, long trousers stuffed into socks or boots, and a whiff of deet around the face and hands is quite enough to deter all but the most ravenous midge. (Midges abhor the aroma of repellents containing deet). However, the unsuspecting tourist, smelling of a delicate eau-de-parfum, and relaxing on a sun-lounger in the windless shade of burn-side trees, clad in shorts and an open-necked short-sleeve shirt, is a far more likely victim. Campsites are a particularly rich hunting-ground for starving midges.

So, should the abundance of the midge put you off visiting the Highlands in summer? No, of course not. There's plenty of humans LIVING here, and we cope OK. Just remember to behave like a Highlander when you come.  

Saturday, 6 June 2020

Where Do We Go From Here?

March 23rd 2020 - a date which will live-on in history.  Today is the seventy-fifth day since the UK went into lockdown (not that I'm counting...). Here's a post I wrote that afternoon...

Along with everywhere else, Skye has become a very strange place in that time.  Although nothing physically has changed, there is a very different 'feel'. I sense fear and anger, frustration and worry. The lifeblood of modern Skye is tourism. Accommodation providers had fully booked calendars by March, but the cancellations quickly flooded in, and although now only a trickle - a new cancellation continues to drop into the inbox every couple of days. 

Other than a minor relaxation of some restrictions, Scotland remains largely closed. Locally, only the village shop, bakery, post office and petrol station remain open, albeit with reduced trading hours. A couple of places tried offering take-away food, but there were no takers. There's very few people about, and almost no traffic. We are requested to wear a face covering to enter the shops.

The Scottish government is yet to announce any guidelines, or a date, as to how or when small accommodation providers will be allowed to re-open. Meeting people from different households indoors is currently forbidden, and a 2-metre social distancing rule applies for everyone, unless you live together. Common sense suggests that it will be relatively easy to meet those regulations in a fully detached self-contained self-catering property, but there will understandably be huge issues to face for the owners of guest houses, traditional bed-and-breakfasts and house-shares. 

Further problems are the track-and-trace system, which could unexpectedly require a visitor to self-isolate for 14 days... where do they go? And then there's talk of 'local area lockdowns' should a surge in new virus cases occur in a particular place - so anything open could suddenly be ordered to close... how can any accommodation provider cope with that?

The simple answer would be just to close the calendars, take no future bookings, and 'wait and see'. Government cash handouts - for those who qualify - may have gone a small way to easing the financial pressures for now, but I don't see an end to the present situation. As with any tourism-dependent location - the entire local economy depends on the income generated by the visitors. The people of Skye are quietly suffering. 

It continues to be a scary time.