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.

Saturday, 23 May 2020

A Spring Storm On Skye - Part Two

The pending storm that I wrote about yesterday mostly blew-through last evening and night. It was a rough night. It brought to mind Ted Hughes' fantastic poem - 'Wind' - which starts: 'This house has been far out at sea all night, The woods crashing through darkness...' 

This morning, the rain still beats against the windows, but the tearing, roaring wind has died to little more than huffs and groans. 

Outside - all looks much the same, if rather wet and bedraggled. There's no trees or even branches down - locally at least. The allotment has survived reasonably unscathed, though the runner beans have lost quite a few leaves. If any fail, I have some spares, still in pots, in the cold frame. 

So there ends a further short chapter in Skye's wonderful variety of weather. It's never dull here!

The Roskhill trees lost a lot of leaves, but no branches

The 'earthed-up plastic bottles all survived, and protected my young sprouts and kale

The runner beans look a bit shocked.

Friday, 22 May 2020

A Spring Storm On Skye

A Met Office yellow warning for heavy rain and high winds is in place for the Western Isles. As we get a lot of rain and high winds quite often, getting a yellow warning is a bit 'special'. Up to 100mm of rain and peak wind gust speeds up to 75mph are forecast. The worst will be here overnight tonight - but at about mid-day today, rain is already lashing against my study window, and tree branches are waving-about pretty wildly.

How will the garden cope? Well, I have issued frogman suits and aqua-lungs to all the runner bean plants, and built scaffolding round the plastic bottle 'greenhouses' that protect my young brassica plants. The recently-emerged midges are out of sight, no doubt wearing galoshes and sou'westers and clinging to undersides of leaves by their teeth and fingernails.

Looking over the rain-soaked garden, I am always impressed by the amazing flexibility of the shrubs and larger plants as they are constantly blown almost inside-out by the gusty winds. Our local deciduous trees usually struggle a bit in weather like this. They have been through it all before of course, but they are still likely to lose some twiggy branches and quite a few of their new leaves will be on the ground by the morning. And how do the birds still manage to fly??? Salt-spray from the nearby rough sea can also cause damage. I have seen trees with almost all their leaves burned-brown by salt, but this early in the year, if this happens, there is time for them to have a 'second spring' and put out a second growth of green.

Joking aside, I am fairly confident that my allotment will cope OK, as nothing has grown big enough yet to be too exposed - though if my plastic bottles get blown-off my young brassicas, I would fear for the ability of the young plants to take the strain of the wind. I'll be out there in my waterproofs soon, to temporarily part-bury the bottles in the hope that that will keep them in place.

Here is a couple of photos of the allotment that I took yesterday, during the calm before the storm. If there is anything new to photograph tomorrow, I will add a new post here to show the aftermath.

Monday, 18 May 2020

More Garden Pics

Since we are still not allowed to go anywhere much, I'm restricted to taking photos in the garden.

Here's a few from today...

This is Sue's domain - a tiny part of the front garden

At last we have bluebells!
This is in what I call 'the wild garden',
below the allotment

The bottled brassicas are doing really well

The runner beans are getting established
and excitedly waving their leaves in the breeze

Sue's untidy strawberry bed
looks like it could produce a bumper crop

Aliens at Summer Cottage!

The aliens are in fact flower buds
of huge, delicate-looking poppies

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Allotment Update - Lockdown Restrictions Eased

As a follow-up to my last post about the baby plantlets emerging from the allotment soil, today I offer a few quick pictures of the pot-grown seedlings now released from their captivity in the shed and cold frame, and planted out in their rightful beds with strict instructions to make the most of the current sunny weather and get on with the growing.

The brussels sprouts and kale are currently enjoying the high life in temporary personal greenhouses. Not only does the plastic protection shelter them from the wind while they establish themselves in the soil, but the barrier also defeats any efforts by the cabbage root-fly to get up close to the plants and lay her eggs.

I have noticed that the emerging potatoes have been nipped by the frost. My fingers are crossed that the same fate does not take a toll of my runner beans.

Bottle garden?

The runner beans have some climbing to do...

... and in the wild garden, we at last have bluebells!

Tuesday, 12 May 2020

A Cacophony Of Cuckoos - And A Bit About Babies

03.57 was the time showing on the bedside clock when a cuckoo launched into 'song' this morning.  The racket clearly woke a nearby song-thrush, who panicked, obviously thinking it was morning already, and began his 'wake-up everybody' serenade. A nearby crow squawked a few guttural croaks, which I am quite sure were bird-language for, 'shut up and go back to sleep'.

As it happens, I sleep through much of the cuckoo calling these days. One bird has been with us since about 18th May, and for a while roamed-around the area, cuckooing here and there. But there are several more cuckoos with us now. Today for a while we had two of them calling almost in sync - so it was 'cuck cuck-coo-coo' for a bit. Almost tuneful.

As to the babies ...

It's excitement time on the allotment. We have baby plants! This is not the strapping young seedlings in pots, that are now beginning to look like it is nearly time for them to be planted out. This is baby plants growing in the soil. 

Most exciting of all are the carrots. They take an age to germinate, and when they finally pop up, they are so teeny - almost invisible - before magic takes over, and they zoom into a growth spurt to produce their most wonderful tasting orange roots. There's nothing quite like fresh young carrots, except maybe fresh new potatoes... or maybe fresh baby sprouts... 

We like our veg! 

Baby sprouts always look limp.
On the right are the kale
Runner beans 'hardening off'. They'll be in the soil tomorrow.
Potatoes!. More are up - just not showing in this picture
Broad beans (nearest) and peas under their support sticks
.. and carrots...!!!

Saturday, 25 April 2020

The Barn Garden, 25th April 2020

The last week or two of staying at home during the current Covid-19 pandemic has coincided with some beautiful spring weather here on Skye, so with plenty of spare time on my hands, the garden and allotment are benefiting from greater attention than would be normally be the case. Today, I offer a photo-tour of how things are looking right now..

All through this blog - click or tap on a picture to open a full-size gallery (but, sorry - you won't then be able to read the captions...)!

I'm cheating already - this picture - the view from my study - was taken yesterday evening...
... but all the rest are taken this morning. Here's Cupar on the front lawn.
Sue is in charge of the flower borders.
As the daffs die down, montbresia and other herbaceous plants take their place.
Front garden entrance from the township road
Allotment entrance from the township road.
The road divides our garden ground into two parts,
and serves just 5 houses.
The allotment from the entrance.
Not much to see yet - rhubarb on the right. Untidy strawberry bed beyond.
The ridged-up beds are the potatoes.
Look very closely, and you might see four rows of onion sets.
I use a scaffold plank to walk on the beds without leaving footprints.
Yesterday, I planted a single row of carrot seed on the far right of this bed.
In the cold frame - runner beans starting to germinate.
I think the recent very cold nights and warm days have caused a number of failures in here.
I have started a further 20 seeds, which are under the window in the garage,
where there is a more even temperature.
The blue dots are slug pellets. Slugs love beans!
In the shed - brussels sprouts....
... and kale. Spot the difference!
A multi-species hedge I planted three seasons ago is just coming into leaf.
The hedge divides the allotment from the 'wild garden', and is planned to one day provide a wind-break.
The shrubs and young trees beyond the grass are at the top of the river gorge,
while the sitka spruce are on the far side of the river, and not on our land.
The un-mown areas in the wild garden are bluebells.
There is just one brave early flower!

Thursday, 9 April 2020

Lock-down On Skye

As none of us are permitted to go anywhere at the moment, I can only think of a few topics I can write about today.

I could regale you with my own thoughts, hopes and imaginations as to what the human race might possibly learn from our current desperate situation..

...or I could moan about issues that the over-sensationalist media choose to try to anger us with..

...or I could simply tell you what it is like to be living in Roskhill right now.

Maybe I will return to the first option in a future post, but for today, I am simply going to write about living here in lock-down.

The whole UK population (as well as much of the rest of the world) are 'in the same boat' at the moment, as the scientists and politicians try to find ways to bring our planet and its people back to what we term as 'normal'. Life here just now is undoubtedly very different to the living conditions that the vast majority of the populous are currently having to cope with. Now - we have always maintained that Skye is a pretty wonderful place to live, and I am quite sure that there can be few better places to be at a time like the present.

Today, the day dawned calm, with a thick white frost on the grass and patches of thin cloud in a pale blue sky. Sue went off to carry-out her home-care routine at 6.30 as normal, and I pottered up the main road, half a mile or so each way, to give Cupar his morning stretch. Just one car passed us today. There were none at all yesterday. It was very quiet. The nearest coast is about half a mile away, but the distant splosh of small waves breaking onto the rocks provided a background sound to the enthusiastic noisy twittering of chaffinches in the roadside willow and a peep-peeping snipe on the moor. It is a stunning morning.

I haven't ventured far from the Barn in the last few days. The weather has only just calmed - we had a bitterly cold wind for a while, and a blanket of drizzle yesterday. The last time I drove the 3 miles into Dunvegan Village was last Monday. There were one or two people on foot, but I didn't see more than a couple of vehicles moving. The car park at the medical centre was about half-full. Every hotel and B&B is closed of course, but the garage is open, as is the sole and small village shop. A notice at the shop door asks people to wait outside if the shop is busy - but I was the only shopper on this occasion. The shop assistant wears a mask.

Inside at home, everything is normal. The radio plays BBC Radio 2 much of the day. The computer takes my attention for an hour or so of glancing through Facebook and reading any new email - just one holiday cottage cancellation today. A few domestic chores keep me occupied for a while. Soon, I will pop Cupar into the back of my car, where he can sleep undisturbed while I turn-over the soil on one of my allotment beds - it will be planting-time very soon now.

I will leave you for now with a photograph taken from my study window a little earlier this morning. I know I've posted the view many times before - but it is not a view I will ever tire of.

Friday, 3 April 2020

Changing Rooms

This story starts with a piano.

The particular instrument was owned, loved and played by Sue's Grandmother, and featured in many happy family sing-alongs. After Grandmother's passing, in her memory, Sue was determined to keep the piano, and in time, use it to hone her own playing skills.

For some ten years, after we moved to Skye, the piano resided at Rowan Cottage, where it was occasionally played by our self-catering visitors. When we sold Rowan, we had the piano moved to Summer Cottage, Being much closer to our home, Sue has been able to call-in at Summer when the cottage was vacant, to have a little tinkle, and is now becoming an ever more accomplished pianist.  But popping up to Summer to play is not a very convenient arrangement, so we came to the decision that the piano would have to be moved here to Roskhill Barn.

Now, the only place it could stand here would be in the downstairs room that we refer to as the study. This room is also my 'playroom', with decor and furnishings to my taste. Sue has her own 'playroom' - furnished to suit her - upstairs.

I didn't want the piano in my playroom, and there wasn't space for it anyway, so the only option was for us to swap rooms. This means I have to give-up my view of the bird-feeders, and my convenient en-suite bathroom, but I do get a larger room, and - to be fair - a rather better view over our garden and field to the cliffs and sea beyond.

As we are currently enduring coronavirus lock-down, I have no-where to go just now, and the weather is not good enough for working outside, so I have dedicated the last few days to stripping out both rooms, moving a lot of furniture (and all it contained) plus all my computery stuff. I have redecorated both rooms (luckily there was enough paint for each room in half-used cans in the shed...) (just as well I'd kept them...) and now, my 'new' playroom is all-but finished. Sue will spend some time in the next few days organising her books, pot-plants and trinkety bits and pieces to suit her, and will leave a large space for the piano, which will be moved here as soon as we are allowed to do such a thing.

Now, we just need to get Cupar used to the new arrangement.

The study / my playroom, in the process of being 'taken apart'
Sue's former playroom, in a similar state of disarray
The upstairs sitting room became a temporary furniture store
I thought everything was wireless these days...???
My new view -
the weather was good this morning but it has been raining since lunchtime
My new playroom...sitting end
... and again - working end

Friday, 27 March 2020

SOO Moves On...

No, not SUE. She's stuck with me. ..!!

SOO is the letters-part of a number plate I bought for Sue when we bought her a new Mini way back in 2001. The plate has been on quite a few different cars since then, and it has now moved on again.

While the Peugeot 208 that we have just parted with was a very smart little car, with its leather trim and glitzy looks, its firm sporty suspension and ultra-low-profile tyres were not a good match for the dreadful state of the Skye roads. So we have opted for something a little more 'chunky' this time.

The new SOO is a Citroen C3 Aircross, Sue drives some 90 miles every day when she is undertaking her home-care round, and she is already appreciating the comfortable and accommodating ride of the C3 as she bumps and bounces round Skye.

Sue's Mini - 2001, in Kent. You wouldn't dress like that on Skye...!!!
Saying goodbye - last day with the 208
Note - Skye clothing...
The new SOO

Monday, 23 March 2020

Quieter Than Quiet

There is a strange new hush all across Skye.

In an attempt to stop, or at least slow down, the spread of the highly contagious Covid-19 virus, government advice is not to travel un-necessarily, to work from home where possible, and although it is OK to be outside, people should not crowd together. There's very little traffic on the roads. Pubs, cafes and restaurants are all closed, as are camp sites and paid-for visitor attractions like the Talisker distillery and Dunvegan Castle. All of our cottage holiday bookings are cancelled - at least for the early part of the year.

On a calm day, the only sound is birdsong. Possibly the most surprisingly noticeable difference though, is that the very distant and almost constant roar of high-flying aircraft is gone. I had never even noticed that the sound existed until it was gone.

There's a few other things we won't have noticed we have until they are gone... well-stocked supermarkets spring to mind... and the freedom to go out... meet friends... hug an elderly relative.

I don't feel optimistic for the future. Until our wonderful scientists produce an effective vaccine against the virus - which is forecast to take many more months yet -  all we can do is hide behind our closed doors, keep washing our hands, and hope we don't fall ill. Can the world's population cope with holding its breath for half a year or more? From pictures and reports I have seen today, people in many parts of the globe are already ignoring the advice to keep isolated. Total lock-downs enforced by police patrols are in place in a number of countries, though even in those places, the infection-rate, and death-rate,  from the virus continues to climb almost unchecked. And then - if lock-down measures DO eventually begin to work - what will happen when the lock-down is removed??

As for how the world's finances will cope with it all - I simply cannot imagine. I am no financial wizard, and personally, we are thankfully able to cope without any cottage visitors for a season. But so many people will be frightened of how they will manage without work or income. Various governments seem to be finding spare cash from somewhere to make grants and hand-outs. Is that going to mean future tax-rises?

It's a scary time.

I fear 2020 is going to go down in history as the year the world changed for ever.

Sunday, 1 March 2020

Spring ???

It can't be... 1st March, and I have spent the morning on the allotment! To my surprise, the soil was light and easy to turn, so I have dug over a bed-and-a-bit, which is about all my back can cope with for today. It is really lovely out there - there was just a trace of frost when I got started at about 9.30, and a couple of robins were trying to out-do each other in a contest of who could sing the loudest.

This is not the first gardening I have done this year though. Now that we have a few self-catering visitors booked to stay at The Old Bakery - our little cottage in Strathpeffer - we thought we should make a bit of an effort with the small and steeply-sloping patch of garden there. So far, I have cleared the weed growth from about a third of the plot, moved several badly-sited shrubs (which may or many not survive the move), removed a very straggly pampas grass and two ginormous gunnera plants. I have then installed a rather precipitous flight of steps up to a new, small paved patio area where we intend to site a bench and table. The plan is to create a nice spot for a morning coffee or maybe an evening glass of wine. Unfortunately, I have thus far failed to take a decent photograph of the area. I'll have another go next time I am there.

The Barn allotment -
not at its tidiest yet, but it is good to get the chance to make a start!

Thursday, 13 February 2020

A Bit Of A Gap

To my horror, I have just noticed that it is well over a month since I last posted on this blog. Where does the time go?

On the whole, the winter is a quieter time for us, as we have almost no holiday bookings, so no turn-rounds and associated laundry to deal with. On the other hand, bookings and enquiries for the forthcoming season come in almost every day, and they can sometimes take a while to respond-to. Winter is also a good time to catch-up with a few cottage maintenance tasks, and also to ensure the websites and cottage information folders are up to date.

We are offering our little holiday home in Strathpeffer for occasional self-catering stays this year. This entails getting a few extra things in place and making sure that everything works the way it should. I am also gradually altering the steeply sloping back garden area, by installing steps up to a paved seating area, which I am hoping will become a nice place to sit for a summer-evening barbecue.

The Old Bakery garden steps - paved area still to come
- pictured on a frosty January morning!
I have also had another of my regular trips south to visit friends and family. This time, the weather forecasts were suggesting snow and ice, so I chose to drive down in my 4-wheel-drive BMW X3, which handled the wintry conditions without any drama at all - though the drive is no comparison to Puss-the-Jaguar when it comes to motorway-cruising.

The Highlands become a Winter Wonderland in the snow...
Who's speeding...?!!
Now, some signs suggest that spring might be just around the corner. We have snowdrops in flower, and daffs in bud. And the garden birds, which have largely been absent through the winter, are returning in greater numbers to feed-up on our fat balls and peanuts in preparation for their breeding season. This means it is almost time for me to rummage in the shed for the garden fork and get the allotment beds turned over. It won't be long before I will have to try to start the lawnmower...

Sunday, 5 January 2020

Why Are All The Buildings White?

This is a question I have been asked a few times by visitors. In fact - not ALL the buildings on Skye are painted white, a few are cream... However, I have to admit, I do not know a definitive answer to  the question.

It is probably mostly to do with tradition. The natural local building material is stone - if it is not ON the surface, bedrock is pretty close the surface almost everywhere on Skye. You don't see any brick-built buildings here. There's no clay to make bricks, and anyway, brick tends to be porous, so would not be ideal for use in the West Highlands weather conditions. So, the earliest dwellings were simply stone-coloured. When lime mortar became available, the stone would be daubed with this, which when dry has a pale grey colour. A limewash might then be applied - making the final finish white(ish) in colour.

Scroll-on to the 20th century, and masonry paint is invented - available in a multitude of colours. A few old buildings in the most famous photo-spots, like Portee harbour, get painted blue, pink and yellow - but everywhere else - we tend to stick to white.

Modern buildings continue the white trend - though almost none are built of stone these days. Since the 1970s, houses here are constructed using a pre-fabricated, pre-insulated timber frame which is then clad with more insulation and covered with concrete blocks,  making a strong outer layer. A cement render is then applied to the blocks, to provide a fully waterproof skin. Invariably, the render is decorated with a few coats of white masonry paint.

Maybe one day it will become fashionable to paint houses here in other colours - but for now, white looks good to me...

Houses of all ages in Glendale - and all painted white!

Wednesday, 1 January 2020

First Light 2020

I am just back from taking Cupar out for his first walkies of 2020. We went our regular route, but this morning was unusual for more than the fact that we have now entered a new decade, and more than that we did not see a single moving motor vehicle throughout our half hour on the local main road,

We are quite used to the daylight and weather conditions here being extreme in one way or another. But this morning's dawn was one of the most eerie I have ever experienced. The wind was strong - coming straight in over the sea, and gusting to at least 50mph I would guess. The temperature was probably around 6C. Nothing unusual so far.

No - it was a combination of an extremely low cloud base - certainly no more than 500 feet - and the attempts by the weak winter sunrise to turn night into dawn that led to the unique scene. The cloud was thick and heavy, and covered the entire sky in a surging blanket. In colour, it was a peculiar and indescribable grey-purple. It moved fast, so low overhead I felt if I reached up my hand I would touch it. The dead moorland grasses at the roadside, flattened by the wind, glowed far too brightly in a weird near-fluorescent orange. Other than the buffeting of the wind, there was a complete absence of any sound. It was not raining, but there was a distinct dampness to the air - probably the result of minute droplets of sea-spray suspended in the atmosphere.

It was good to get back to the cosy warmth of the Barn. As the days, weeks and months pass, we will doubtless see many more sunrises, but the curious fist light of 2020 certainly gave the new decade something to live up to.

Happy New Year!