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16 October 2014

Arnish Lighthouse - February 2006

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NHS Western Isles

Some very bad news continues to eminate from the smouldering embers of the NHS Western Isles. One of the people who had blown the whistle on the problems within the Health Board was more or less summarily dismissed over the weekend, after 32 years' service in the NHS. Other people of my acquaintance are now scared to speak out, as they now know that they stand to be dismissed if they do. The reasons given are "bringing the organisation into disrepute" and "misconduct". Bullying and intimidation taken to extremes.

The Health Minister on the Scottish Executive continues to turn a blind eye to proceedings in Stornoway, saying it's a local matter. As I've written two months ago, any opposition to proposed plans is effectively stifled and stymied. It cannot be seen to be supported by members of staff, all credibility is lost. Today, a projected shortfall of £3 million was published by Comhairle nan Eileanan Siar councillors - note, not the Health Board itself. They had planned to announce this tomorrow, February 2nd. This is another very serious issue: the breakdown of communication does not just extend within the NHS Western Isles, but has spread outside. There will be a stop on filling vacancies, and nobody will be taken on. Staff morale has plummeted further, as the existing stafflevel on the coalface has to work more, to cover those that go off sick or are on leave.

To return to the shortfall, a threat was made by the Health Board's chief executive in December 2005 that further criticism might result in the abolition of the NHS Western Isles. The level of disinterest shown from the Scottish Executive, coupled to an unbridled extent of mismanagement shown by the Health Board would almost suggest that that is what is being worked towards. Merging NHS Western Isles with NHS Highland will not resolve the issue of a shortfall, which stands at more than £110 per head of population. An independant review should be conducted into the reasons for the shortfall and any spending cuts that could be implemented which do NOT affect patient care. The breakdown of communication within the organisation should also be reviewed, as it has now reached an unacceptable level.
Health Minister: please act.

I am being unusually outspoken in this piece, but you don't play fast and loose with the health of the population. Irrespective whether they are in an island community or in a large city. When there is this much bad blood, staff morale and performance are bound to suffer, and as a consequence so could the health of the population that depend on them.
Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 13:44

Safety in the wilderness

Lewis is not well known as a walkers' paradise, although you can have some great walks off the beaten track. The best known one is the trail between Tolsta and Ness, which at one time was to become a road. It never came to be. Down in Harris, there are various trails through the mountains. The two best known ones are a stalkers' trail from Ath Linne on Loch Seaforth to Loch Langabhat - I've waxed lyrical about Loch Langabhat before. It is 4½ miles, but the trail is quite acceptable. It's a 90 minute walk either way. The other track leads from Bogha Glas, a mile or so south of Ath Linne, to Glen Langadale and Loch Bhoisimid. I've explained before that this is a great access point for hill walkers.

Shower moving across towards Eitsal (Achamor)
The Western Isles are not known for their steady weather. After all, we're on the edge of the Atlantic, latitude 58° north. Nonetheless, I do not believe in unpredictable weather. Even if the forecasters get it wrong for this part of the world more often than they care to admit, the sky itself should give you warning of any adverse weather to come.

View from the Barvas Hills, towards Stornoway and Point
Walking in the pathless wilderness that is much of Lewis and Harris, you always have to assess for yourself whether you're happy to go on if the weather or conditions underfoot deteriorate. Temperatures will fall as you reach higher altitudes in the mountains. Winds tend to be (a lot) stronger higher up as well. Similarly on the flat moors, if visibility worsens, you could be in serious trouble. Personally, I need to be able to see for several miles around me, if only to be able to take bearings on lochs, hills &c.

Mo Creag at ScaladaleThe ground underfoot will show you whether you can stand on it. It's a case of trial and error, and hope you don't sink up to your armpits into a mire. The advice is not to go out alone (which I usually flaunt). Clifftop walks are possible along much of the coast of Lewis, but please stay away from the cliff edges. The island is geologically speaking very ancient (rocks dating back 3,000 million years), and its coastline subject to erosion. The very edge of a cliff could crumble under your feet, and plunge you down 400 feet in some places.The picture of Mo Creag shows one of the more treacherous points in Harris. On the descent from Mullach an Langa, you may hug the higher reaches of Glen Scaladale, contouring at 300 m / 1000 ft. If you're unaware of Mo Creag, you'll find yourself at the top of it, admiring an unimpeded view down 500 feet. You need to veer down to the valley, the moment the grounds becomes rocky underfoot.

If things go wrong and help needs to be called there are several things that can be done. Relying on a mobile phone is not a good idea; I have written about the problems with mobile reception in Lewis. Should you have reception, dial 999 and ask for mountain rescue. Without reception, if you walk in a company, send one person ahead to raise the alarm. When you go on a long walk, miles from any habitation or roads, leave word with a responsible person where your walk will take you. Tell them when you expect to be back. If you go by car, leave a card behind the windscreen with details. This doesn't just apply to lone walkers.
Upon your return, report back to the responsible person. Visitors can leave a message in their accommodation (hostel, B&B, hotel); walkers in the Fort William area sometimes ring up the local policestation, who I believe are more than happy to act in this role. I have not checked with Stornoway police, but I wouldn't imagine there to be a problem.

- take a map (scale at least 1:50,000, preferred 1:25,000) and know how to read it
- take a compass, and know how to use it. Bear in mind that in some areas, magnetism in the rocks can cause a deviation in the compass
- be dressed for the conditions, using a multi-layered approach. In that way, you can shed layers or put on layers as the varying conditions require
- take adequate food and drink, with supplies to spare
- be prepared to turn back in the face of adversity
- do not take on more than your experience or equipment safely allows
Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 12:38

The Iolaire disaster - continued

Last week, I spent several hours in Stornoway library, looking up names.
Names of men, who were lost in the Iolaire disaster, which I have mentioned before. It is one thing reading the dry factual details. Two hundred and five drowned. Their bodies washed ashore around Holm, Lower Sandwick and Stornoway. Seventy-five survived. Many bodies were never recovered.

It becomes more alive, for want of a better word, once you start to browse through the Roll of Honour 1914-18. This always makes me sad. You see that some villages were very badly affected. Out of some families, one son would survive, but the other drowned. It became even more poignant when I came across the pictures. About 60 images are reproduced in the Roll of Honour.

Outside Lewis, this tragedy is little known, although it is one of the worst peacetime maritime disasters of the 20th century. The effect it had on Lewis was severe. Already, several hundred men had been lost in battle and on the high seas. The death toll was further augmented by this disaster, which meant that 1 in every 6 men who signed up at the start of or in the course of the First World War never returned home.

We should not forget them.

The list of names is published on this webpage. Any comments, additions etc. welcome.
Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 23:43

Hills in Lewis

The Long Island, which comprises Lewis and Harris, has two distinct halves. The part that is referred to as Lewis consists of mainly low, undulating hills with bogland in between. The boundary line stretches up Loch Seaforth to just south of Ath Linne, thence northwest to Kinloch Resort. Nonetheless, there are some conspicuous prominences in Lewis.

The hilliest part of the island is Eishken, which I have not really visited, due to the remoteness of the district. On public transport, you can only go as far as the roadend at Balallan, then it's at least 4 miles to Kinloch Seaforth. The area to the north, South Lochs, is well known to me, as I've tramped around the hills between Loch Seaforth / Loch Ouirn and Loch Erisort many a time in the previous winter (2004/2005).
Mullach Mhalasgair at Loch Sgiobacleit just east of Seaforth Head

South Lochs is perfect walking country, if you know how to handle the boglands. Mullach Mhalasgair rises to about 600 feet above sealevel, and offers a magnificent vantage point on a clear day. To the west, at Balallan, stands the pyramidal cone of Roineabhal, 700 feet, which is an easy ascent, apart from a brief scramble immediately below the summit.
Roineabhal from Balallan

Behind Roineabhal, to the north, lies a myriad of lochs and small hills. One hill, Trealabhal is completely surrounded by water
Trealabhal, cannot be approached unless you have a boat. Even going round the back of Roineabhal is a tricky enterprise, as it is supremely boggy. I have tried to cross from Balallan to Achamor, but had to turn back when one of the causeways I needed to cross was submerged.
The submerged causeway

I have been told that the deer, which roam the island, cross Loch Seaforth from Eishken, and head north towards Ness. Many an accident has occurred on the A858 Leurbost - Garynahine road involving a deer. And they do serious damage to your vehicle, if not yourself. I have written in a previous post about Eitsal, the hill just outside Achmore, so I'll just post the image. You can walk up easily from the main road at Achmore, to its summit at 700 feet. Achmore lies at 350, so half the altitude is already covered.
Eitsal from the Pentland Road

My image in the post about Safety in the hills from Eitsal looked north towards the Pentland Road. This is actually one of the more scenic routes in the island, looking out over the Harris hills to the south, and passing below Stacaseal. The Barvas Hills stand only a few miles to the north of this road, and are a challenge for the walker.
Barvas Hills from Leurbost

North of Stacaseal, near Shawbost, stands the lone double sentinel of Beinn Bragar. I went up it in late March, when there was snow on the ground. It facilitated my descent from the hill, in that I could slide down on my bottom. Like you do, very professional. Not. Walking from Stacaseal to Beinn Bragar is a serious bogslog, which I've not yet attempted.
Beinn Bragar from Beinn Mholach (Barvas Hills)

Heading north again, the next hill of any size is Muirneag. It's usually approached from Tolsta or Back, but requires great care. One man was going to walk from Back to Ness along the Gress River, and never arrived. His body was not found until SIX months later. I once walked to the hill from Tolsta, which was a serious exercise in jumping rather than walking. The return requires the use of a compass, as everything looks the same, whichever direction you look. The bearing is 110 degrees.
Muirneag from Diridean (Tolsta)
Our good old freight ferry is called Muirneag, and didn't we have some fun with it last November. This videoclip shows what she had to endure... (Click on the videoclip link).
Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 13:07

Historical research

As some readers may be aware, I have done a little bit of historical research during my current stint in the island. My post regarding the Iolaire was written on the 2nd, but not published until the 6th February, because I was still working on it. Net result is that people may well have missed it. My own fault.

Nonetheless, I would like to plug it again: a list of survivors and casualties of the Iolaire Disaster is available on the web, by visiting this page. Feel free to leave comments.

When you do research into anything related to the First World War in Lewis, you inevitable end up going through the Roll of Honour. This is an incredible piece of work, listing virtually everybody from the island who was involved in that conflict. It lists by village, house or croft number each person, the unit they were with, and what (if anything) happened to them.

A few crucial events are highlighted, and the Iolaire Disaster is one of them. The heroes of Buzancy is another, as is the Ross Mounted Battery. It makes very saddening reading, because you see relatives, friends or neighbours of whom one may survive, the other is killed, drowned at sea or is lost in battle. Injuries are sometimes mentioned, or some feat of forgotten heroism on the field of war. Some of their descendants are likely to still live at the very address listed in the Roll of Honour.

Pictures are also included, remarkably, and this really brings it home what a horrendous war the Great War was. But also, that it was a completely different era, it was 90 years ago, and it's about to disappear from living memory. Only 4 survivors are left at time of writing.
Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 17:48

Expiry dates

It is always wise to doublecheck the best-before dates on food items before you purchase them. I have recently run into a couple of instances where time had caught up with the goods concerned. I can imagine that in the mornings, not all expired goods will have been removed from view in shops, and one day should not really make a lot of difference. Nonetheless, you can't be too careful with meat.
But to go to a restaurant and find that the butter accompanying your bread went out of date a month ago? Tut tut. What really made me laugh was a box of eggs, which proudly proclaimed an expiry date of 30 Feb 2006. The worst instance I have come across was an ampoule of an injection fluid, dredged up from the seabed, which expired in September 1965. Yes, sixty-five. That didn't bother me. After more than 30 years (found it in 1996), nothing active will have been left. What is bothering me is this can from the Baltic states, alleging to contain Atlantic salmon, which I found on the beach at Holm. Its expiry date is 25 November 1989. The contents slosh around inside, and it is bulging at the seams. I wouldn't dare open it, for fear of the fumes that would emanate. So it still sits on that shelf, quite sealed.

I came across this proposed labelling scheme for cow's milk, from

Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 11:42

Lighthouse picture

I found this picture on another blog on the internet (courtesy, and a picture of this lighthouse, which I thought would be very appropriate for my blog.

Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 11:56

Maritime visitors

Over the past summer season, about 16 cruiseliners came into port. I have put pictures of some of them in the below gallery. One gained notoriety in 2003 when she was quarantained at Greenwich for hygiene problems. Nonetheless, the captain weighed anchor at 3 am and hightailed it for his homeport of Bremen, Germany. On board another cruiseliner, passengers encountered bad weather when rounding Cape Wrath. An Italian lady was not having the time of her life in a force 8 gale, so she rang her sister in Italy. She in turn got so concerned that she rang the Coastguard in Rome, who in turn contacted Aberdeen Coastguard as they assumed the ship was in danger of sinking. Aberdeen CG spoke to the ship's Master, who assured them that although conditions were unpleasant, the ship was quite safe and in no danger of sinking.
Another cruiseliner was detained in Stornoway by bad weather at the end of August 2005. A severe gale blew up overnight, and the master decided to postpone sailing for a day.

It depends on the size of the ship whether she can moor alongside one of the town's piers. Larger ships anchor in the Glumag, and the largest off Sandwick and Holm. Tenders (read: the ship's lifeboats) take the passengers ashore. A fleet of coaches usually await them, to take them all over the island. Having spoken to some passengers, it would appear that they can choose from a variety of destinations, including the Callanish Stones, Gearrannan Black House Village, the Arnol Blackhouse etc. Arrival time is commonly early in the morning, departure time early evening. In the meantime, everybody goes off on their own whirlwind tours. Cruiseline passengers are easily recognised, as they stand about, looking lost, perusing plans of the town and generally dressed for the weather they have been led to expect. Not necessarily the weather it actually is.

Other maritime visitors include the Coastguard tug Anglian Prince, the BP tanker Border Heather, SFPA [Scottish Fishery Protection Agency] vessels and navy boats. An Icelandic boat has come in twice to deliver road salt. One of the first posts on this blog concerned the Celtic Spirit, which had developed a list as a result of shifting cargo. But let's not forgot the ferry Isle of Lewis (currently the Clansman as the Isle of Lewis is away for refit) and its much maligned freight counterpart Muirneag.

The resident fishing fleet can be seen coming and going most times of the day or night. A few weeks ago, after a week of gales, three Irish vessels from Sligo left port, with a severe gale still on the go. One of them had a lot of trouble rounding Arnish Point, and had seas washing over its decks. On good days, Lazy Corner (the fishing boats' moorings) in the Inner Harbour is empty. On bad days, it's full of boats.

Recently, the Arctic Jotun, a small yacht, called into port for repairs. It had started from Alaska in 2003, intending to sail the North West Passage round Northern Canada. It had become stranded in ice over two winters, before finally managing to break free last summer. On crossing the Atlantic from Cap Farvel [southern Greenland] to Norway, it encountered a storm, and quite a few of its windows got smashed. The two huskies on board were not allowed ashore, but they managed to escape and ran round the quayside by Amity House. After a bit of a chase, they were caught, put back on the boat and its owner served with an official notice that he could face prosecution on repeat. Dogs (and certain other mammals) are not allowed in the UK from overseas, unless they are certified rabies free. Otherwise, they require to be quarantained for 6 months.

Back in June 2005, a large yacht, measuring about 3,300 tonnes, was anchored in the Glumag, off Arnish, for seatrials. A long distance shot is included in the second gallery, above. It arrived on a Friday evening, and nothing much happened over the weekend. On Monday, its on-board helicopter (yep, you read that correctly) whirred off to Stornoway Airport to pick up its crew of 26. They were all decked out in ship's uniforms, and there is a specific medical kit on board as well. Its propulsion system is unique (information courtesy Internet). On arrival, the boat had been launched only a week before. It subsequently turned up at Tobermory, and is rumoured to belong to the wealthy owner of chocolate brand Ferrero Rocher.

All in all, although it's not a busy port, there is always something happening in Stornoway.
Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 17:55


As my colleague Rywyn, up the road in Point, already pointed out, the skies have been positively stunning recently, and not just at sunset. Although I quite agree, yesterday was absolute tops. I'll just put in a gallery of pics I've taken in recent days, and let them do the talking, rather than me.

Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 12:17

Small Isles

I take the liberty of excusing the good folk in the Small Isles for not blogging as vociferously as some of us do. The other day, their broadband was turned off because the company had gone into receivership. And they are busy flattening plastic with the tractor (Isle of Muck), watching bottle-nosed whales off Laig Bay (Eigg), staving off urges of cannibalism (Canna), and building piers (Knoydart). Mostly, they're just having a whale of a time down there. Read more in West Word, link to the right of this blog.

I've recently put in pictures of our ferries here in Stornoway, I'm actually very worried about the Small Isles boat - look at this

Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 13:32


Well, it was too good to last, wasn't it. A fortnight without any significant wind or rain. And those gorgeous sunsets of the past few days should have been a warning. So, last night the wind grumbled in the chimney and the rain clattered against the window. Fortunately, it was all in the hours of darkness. By daybreak, things had dried up. The wind is still going at a good old 27 knots sustained windspeeds (10 a.m.), with gusts up to 37 knots, which is a gale. This is very photogenic weather, particularly because visibility is excellent. The lifeboat went out as I was having breakfast, at 10.15 (it's a Saturday, okay?!), and it battled against huge seas by the Arnish Lighthouse. Even the gastanker, which went out an hour later, was pitching and heaving in the seas. It is quite busy this morning with shipping, with a French fishingboat from Lorient coming in. I'm not sure, but it might be for a crew change. Two other Frenchmen came into the port this week for the same purpose. If they manage to do that within 24 hours, they get a 25% reduction in harbour dues. The reason Stornoway is so convenient, is that the airport is only 4 miles down the road. So, the fishing company charters a plane which takes the fresh crew up to SY. As soon as the old crew comes off the boat, they are immediately flown back to France. The boat stays in the area, doesn't have to travel thousands of miles and it saves a lot of money. On the subject of the gastanker, she came in yesterday with a pilot on board, and went out with one today. Don't see the pilot boat out that often, the previous time was with the Celtic Spirit, the timberboat that developed a list off the north coast of Scotland back in November.

Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 11:56

An Lanntair

Today, the new Stornoway arts centre An Lanntair was officially opened by Scottish First Minister, Jack McConnell. As per normal on these occasions, the centre was closed for opening. At 12.30, proceedings were opened by Cllr Angus McCormack, with speeches by the Comhairle nan Eilean Siar convener Alex MacDonald, Jim Tough from the Scottish Arts Council and the First Minister, Jack MacConnell.

Today as well, the Gaelic Language Act was put on the statute book, which gives the language a formal place in Scottish life. After centuries of active neglect, Gaelic has now come into its own. What that place precisely is, is still the subject of debate. There is a fierce discussion going on in Sleat (South Skye) and Mallaig and Morar, across the water from Skye in Lochaber. This entails the provision of Gaelic-medium and English-medium primary school education. Whether it is the Morar or the Mallaig primary school that will go comprehensively Gaelic, and similarly across in Skye. The debate is fuelled by those residents who are not interested in giving their children a Gaelic medium education, and wish to have the option of an English language education.
I am casting my mind back to a speech by Inverness MSP John Farquhar Munro at the time of the first opening of An Lanntair, on October 1st, 2005. Having a new arts centre in the heart of Gaelic speaking Scotland is a very important stepping stone in the reinvigoration of the Gaelic language. I will add that this carries the greatest promise of fruit if all residents of the Highlands and Islands can be taken on board.

Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 17:10

NHS Western Isles

This saga continues to rumble on and on. The £3m shortfall which was highlighted in the media just over 10 days ago is now likely to be met by the Scottish Executive, as Jack McConnell (First Minister) said today during his visit to Stornoway. It gets murkier and murkier, as local radio station Isles FM reported that a letter from "a senior councillor" had been sent to the Health Minister, Andy Kerr, to express concern. This letter was waved in front of a committee of senior councillors, who all denied writing it. How this letter found its way from the Health Minister or whichever source is subject to conjecture. It merely illustrates that it is actually beginning to descend into a farce, if it was not so serious in terms of the provision of health services to the people of the Western Isles. BBC Scotland are carrying a sensible report today: click here
Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 17:29


The weather continues to be interesting this week, after two weeks of flat boredom. The barometer was rusted shut on the 1030 mbar position, although the weather did give rise to some beautiful sunsets, as pictured on several blogs. But today, we're back to Hebridean changeable weather. Heavy showers, bright intervals. The strong winds are expected tonight. After giving the eastern seaboard of the USA a good helping of snow, we can now expect the relevant weather system to give us a good helping of rain and wind. Barometers will be shedding their cobwebs - later in the week, Hebridean instruments will be tipping to the 965 mbar mark.

With a bit of luck, and providing my reading of the weather charts is correct. I think it's a timely reminder that we are actually nothing against the forces of Mother Nature. People in these islands are only too aware of that, but those cocooned away in airconditioned and heated offices tend to overlook that fact. Until they venture out of doors and get blown off their feet, slide around hopelessly on iced up surfaces and can't see the bonnet of their car for the fog.

I love weather.

Dusk 06-02-2006
Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 18:45

Island hopper

Noticed Stephen's blog in the Argyll & Clyde section about which islands he has visited. Calling yourself an island nerd is too negative, I think. Island hopper is much more acceptable. Anyway, here is my little list. The total is roughly 35.

Inner Hebrides
Isle of Seil

Outer Hebrides
Lewis / Harris
North Uist
Great Bernera
South Uist

Orkney Mainland
South Ronaldsay
Brough of Birsay (tidal)
Papa Westray
North Ronaldsay

Shetland Mainland
Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 13:52

Transport arrangements

Now that we're in the last six weeks running up to the Dating Festival at the Fank, I would feel it incumbent upon myself to offer a few words of advice regarding secondary arrangements.

First of all, I wish to point out that the docking arrangements at Achmore Pier are primeval. I mean, if both the Isle of Lewis as well as the Muirneag are going to dock there, I am seriously concerned. Many years ago already, an appeal was issued to have this seen to. The stanchions under the pier are seriously corroded, and any vessel trying to dock there is in danger of bringing the entire structure down. Advice is sought from the committee looking after the Pharos at Alexandria, Egypt, how to preserve this, the Seventh Blunder of the world. Secondly, last week I received a Pan Pan message from the lighthouse keepers at Achmore that they had not been relieved for months, due to inclement weather in Loch Ganvich. They were apparently reduced to scraping limpets off the rocks to keep them alive.

I recently had occasion to browse through the brochure of Lews Castle College, and all sorts of useful, noble and local courses were lined up there. I would like to suggest that Caithris na h-Oidche be included in the curriculum. It is still alive by all accounts, but the finer points seem to be lost on the current generations. Whether it be going by tractor from Shawbost to Lionel, or on foot within the village - the old custom is to be preserved. Particularly if, heaven forbid, anybody is not successful at the Fank.
Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 12:32


There has been a lot of talk recently of a postcode lottery for expensive medical treatment. Herceptin, the breast cancer medicine, topped the bill in recent times. Thought I'd explain a little bit of the background.

When a new medicine is discovered, it usually takes about 10 years to come onto the market. By law, its benefits have to be proven and any adverse effects not to outweigh those. After trying the compound out on rats, mice, and other animals, the clinical trials start. Patients who meet certain criteria are given either the new compound or a similar looking empty - a placebo. Instead of a placebo an established treatment can also be used. Quite often, neither the doctor, nor the patient nor anyone else directly involved with the patient knows what is what. The difference of response to either treatment is noted, and taken as a measure of efficacy. Rarely, the response to the new compound is so good that it is deemed to be unethical to withhold it from the other patients.

After the drug is licensed and marketed, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence NICE has to make a judgement where the new compound stands in comparison to other treatments. In other words, is it to be specially recommended or is it just another in a long line of similar medicines.

What happens in the case of Herceptin is that it was licensed for use in advanced breastcancer. NICE have not yet made an assessment on its use in early-stage breastcancer, although trial results also showed that it helped in that category. Unfortunately, because it is so expensive, health authorities across the country felt they could not afford it to be used outwith the license. It is an ethical dilemma, because either you withhold a beneficial treatment from someone who could die of the disease. Or you give it to an early stage breast cancer patient, and draw away resources which could otherwise be used to treat other patient groups, who may not be as vocal. Antibiotics can be very pricey, mental health patients use expensive drugs as do many others.

It's a difficult call.

I'm aware I'm slightly off subject, because Herceptin treatment in the islands is likely to be carried out in a mainland centre like Inverness or Glasgow.
Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 19:27


As I was going for a walk in the Castle Grounds here in Stornoway at any rate, I thought I'd take the camera along. Theme of the week appears to be SPRING, although the forecast is actually for a return to winter. Better make the most of it, and hope the frosts this week won't be too harsh. It would a shame to lose all these pretty flowers, green shoots and budding leaves, wouldn't it.

Included in this photo gallery are two bird pictures, which I couldn't resist. Today (Saturday 18th) was so spectacular...

Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 22:20


I am not an expert on birds by any stretch of the imagination - I think it is already no mean feat that I am able to distinguish a blackbird from a song thrush. Nonetheless, there are a few birds that I've caught on camera and others that I have encountered on my numerous bogslogs which were too quick for me to snap.

In the moors, the shrike does just that - it takes off out of its hiding place with a heart stopping shriek. The grouse does pretty much the same when you come too close, whirring off with a inane cackling. One grouse near Airidh a'Bhruaich (Lochs) was injured and could not fly or run away. I could have a close look at it, 14 months ago, but didn't have a camera with me at the time. Higher up in the hills, you may encounter the golden eagle. One whooshed overhead, not 10 feet above me, one day whilst exploring the southwest of the Isle of Eigg. I have seen them from a greater distance whilst waiting for a bus at Balallan here in Lewis.

I know a little about seabirds. For years, I used to visit one of the largest wetlands in Europe, the Wadden Sea basin, which stretches from northern Holland as far as Esbjerg in Denmark. It is there that I learned about many different birds. Some of them I have encountered in the islands of Scotland. I have seen eider ducks, much maligned by, at Gress. They probably migrate out of the Wadden Sea to the Hebrides, but ornithologists should have a more definite opinion on that. Sea gulls, in all sorts, shapes and sizes, not to forgot the bonxie. The great skua, the proper name for the bonxie, is a predator, a large, brown gull-like bird, which is an expert flyer. It can take a tern or a kittywake in mid-flight, and rip it apart. The only thing a tern has in common with a skua is its behaviour when humans approach its nesting site too closely. It will swoop down and attack your head. It's not just humans that suffer this treatment, I have seen a flock of sheep being hounded out of a ternery on Eigg once.

There is a reasonable variety of garden birds in Lewis. Here in Stornoway, I have seen blackbirds, thrushes, robins, starlings, doves, greenfinches, bullfinches, chafffinches. Hang a few birdfeeders out, and there is no end of variety. Provided those starlings don't take over by the dozen.

Out in the Newton Basin, there tend to be golden eye ducks in winter, and the colder / and or windier the better for them. Cormorants occasionally come to fish. I spent a few hours on a Saturday afternoon, watching a cormorant trying to swallow a fish that was a few sizes too large for it. At low tide herons will be fishing as well.
Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 11:47

Maritime disasters

In remembrance of those lost on the Norge, 28 June 1904.

The sinking of the Titanic in 1912 was one of the worst peacetime maritime disasters of the 20th century. Others have happened before and since, some of which have faded from memory. I have highlighted one other before, the sinking of the Iolaire on the Beasts of Holm, on 1st January 1919.

The story and images below are partly taken from
SS Norge
In 1904, the emigrant vessel Norge sank off Rockall, 200 miles west of here in the Atlantic. Rockall is a rock which juts out of the oceanfloor, and sticks some 70 feet above the waves. A nearby reef is partially submerged, Hazelwood Rock, and both constitute a danger to shipping.
On 28th June 1904, the SS Norge was heading from Norway to America, when she struck Rockall. Her bow became embedded in the rocks. Lifeboats were readied, but the captain ordered the engines in reverse to extricate his ship. Unfortunately, there was severe damage below the waterline, and the Norge sank, taking 700 emigrants with her to the bottom. A number of them were picked up by a British merchantman, the Cerwona. Some lifeboats made it to the Outer Hebrides, and were cared for in Stornoway. Nine of them succumbed to the effects of their ordeal and are buried in Sandwick Cemetery, near Stornoway.

This link leads to transcripts of newspaper articles about the disaster, as they were printed in 1904. A book has been written about the sinking of this ship, but otherwise the event seems to have faded from memory.
Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 12:03

Sunday - 3

The debate about Sunday sailings across the Sound of Harris has hotted up considerably in recent weeks. In my role as observer, I am writing this with a slightly lopsided smile on my face. Because it's a debate on a background of double standards.

Let's list the facts.

Sunday, the Sabbath, should be kept as a day of rest. As a day of religious observance. In accordance with the Scriptures, according to some sectors of society. Others, not so deeply religious, just want a day which does NOT involve fuming at the rush-hour queues on the Manor roundabout, at the check-out queues in Somerfields or the Coop. No rushing kids round to and from school, or extraneous activities. No work. Just blissful idleness.
There are no ferries to or from Lewis. No buses run on Sunday either.


As things stand, late February 2006, the following things already happen in the islands, which have been going on for quite a while.

Planes fly in and out of Stornoway airport.
Ferries ply between Uig (Skye) and Lochmaddy (North Uist).
Isn't it crass that there can't be a ferry between the same island of North Uist and Harris? The argument that Uisteach cannot visit relatives in hospital in Stornoway over the weekend does carry some weight, I believe. And why can't there be if only ONE ferry between Stornoway and Ullapool on Sunday?

The filling station on Sandwick Road in Stornoway is open on Sundays, and it does a roaring trade by all accounts. It's the only place open between Port Nis and Leverburgh. Eighty miles apart.

Buses do run on Sundays, to ferry people to and from church. Why not put on a busservice in Summer, to take the tourists round the West Side? At the moment, if you haven't got a car with you (as a tourist) you're stuck on Sundays. Not very convenient, really.

Further south, I'm told that the spinal route from North to South Uist is very busy with people from the North going South to visit a pub. The Coop in Castlebay is open for a few hours on Sunday.

To summarize:
Across the area of the Western Isles, there are glaring inconsistencies in service provision, which, if challenged in court, would not stand up for one minute. Again, I respect local custom. But it should not go to the extent that people are inconvenienced.
I suggest that everybody abandons their entrenched positions and work together to find a solution. Is that too much to ask?
Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 11:58

Cockle Ebb

Yesterday was such a gorgeous day that I decided to head out for a walk, about 5 miles, along the Cockle Ebb to Steinish and across to Sandwick. I have mentioned the Cockle Ebb before. It is the estuary of the River Laxdale and the Blackwater River. A tidal basin, which turns into mudflats at low tide. A haven for wildlife, but very dangerous for crossing on foot. I was told that many years ago, a lady from Back would walk to Stornoway across the Ebb, crossing from Aird Tong to Culregrein and into town. There are warning signs on the access roads, that you can easily become cut off by a high tide, that there are quicksands and other hidden dangers. Nonetheless, I have once crossed the Cockle Ebb barefoot (saves taking boots off and putting them on again every 2 minutes) from Culregrein to Tong. Nice walk, about 1½ miles. Yesterday, I just walked along the edge to Steinish, only to be confronted by a body of water about 5 feet deep. I had to divert to a shallower part, only 4 inches deep, to wade through to terra firma. From Sandwick, fantastic views of the snowcapped mainland mountains. Have a look in this gallery.

Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 16:56

Iolaire disaster

I have recently written about the Iolaire disaster. An updated list of names of all those on board HMY Iolaire is now available on the website, link to the right of this entry. I am particularly endebted to Malcolm MacDonald of the Stornoway Historical Society. I can only echo his dismay that such a list was never published in the 87 years since the disaster took place. It would have been so much easier when the survivors were still alive, as well as the families of those grieving for loved ones. The last survivor died in 1992. Some of the stories have been handed down through the years. Even when the final version of the name list comes on-line, in the next week or so, it can never be a definite list. The bodies of many of those who drowned were never found.
Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 22:11

Winter weather

According to the current forecast, a spell of wintry weather looks set to sweep down over the Isles in the next day or so (writing this Sunday, 26th February). Should make for an interesting episode. In the 15 months that I've been in Lewis, I have experienced some accumulations of snow. Some of it on higher levels, like on the path between Bogha Glas and Glen Langadale. In November 2004, there was a reasonable, 2 inch, covering in South Lochs. Temperature was correspondingly low, +2C. Four months later, in March '05, there was a full days' snow cover, about 1 inch, and similar temperatures.

The forecast episode would appear to be more prolongued and severe. Anything between 1 and 12 inches of snow would be possible, with drifting. Last week, I noticed that spring was extending its first tentative tendrils. Leaves were starting to bud, and the snowdrops and crocuses were out. Although we're near the sea, some severe overnight frosts are to be expected. An elderly gent told me a story that during the 1950s, the A857 Stornoway to Barvas road was virtually impassible. Only following in the wake of an army truck was it possible to travel between the two places, and only during a clearance in the weather. Supplies were being ferried to the West Side, which had been cut off for a few days. As the weather started to close in, the vehicles made their way back to town. Visibility slowly dropped down to zero, but the driver managed to make his way safely back to town. As he drove down Bayhead and Cromwell Street, everybody turned round to stare at his truck. It wasn't until he pulled up outside his house that he noticed the snowgoose, plastered all over the front grill.

I'm looking forward to seeing the island in white.
Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 18:18


Last week I posted my third entry on the subject of the Lewis Sunday. It appears to be an emotive issue, on which people hold very strong views. That's putting it mildly, by all accounts. The invitation for me and my "heathen friends" to man the ferries, buses and shops on a Sunday was benign, in comparison to the vitriol I have seen strewn about on another messageboard, on precisely this subject. It got so nasty that the administrator of the relevant board deleted the thread concerned after repeated complaints of personal abuse.

Just want to reiterate that I respect local traditions, and (as I wrote earlier) find the quiet on a Sunday one of the pleasant features of life in the island. In my capacity as an observer, I have highlighted various points of view on this issue, for and against. My slant is probably biased in favour of establishing services. The reason is that there are glaring inconsistencies in Comhairle nan Eilean Siar policy on this issue. If someone were so inclined, they could use the European Court of Human Rights to FORCE ferries, buses and shops to operate 7 days a week. I have therefore argued for a consensus on the issue, but I am saddened to note that the probability of this would seem low.
Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 15:01

Shiant Isles

The Shiants is that funny group of islands just southeast of Lewis, 8 miles south of Lemreway, 17 east of Harris and 12 miles north of Skye. The owner of the archipelago, Adam Nicholson, has written an excellent book on the isles, and also keeps a very nice website - I have little to add to either of them. It is just one of those places, not unlike St Kilda (still awaiting my footfall) where each island hopper really should have been.

My visit was part of the Islands Book Trust program last June. After Adam Nicholson's talk, which I missed because of the unsurpassed bustimetable for South Lochs, four boats were going to ferry the 110 people (give or take a few) from Lemreway to the Shiants. This started at 11.30 a.m.. Unfortunately, two boats could not be there, due to mechanical problems. So we were left with a 12 man RIB and the Eishken estate boat. Needless to say, it took a while for everybody to be ferried across. A return trip took about 40 minutes. By the time my turn came along, it was 4pm, rain had started and the fog had come down. On the way across, the fog was as dense as peasoup. Something tells me, judging by some pretty large bowwaves that rippled the otherwise glassy sea that we were crossing the path of the QM2, which was heading south as well. Half an hour after leaving Lemreway, the strange shapes of the Shiants loomed up out of the mist. Our group of 11 were put ashore on the narrow isthmus between Eilean Tighe and Eilean Garbh. You can't miss Eilean Garbh: it rises a stupendous 500 feet out of the sea, at an angle of 45 degrees. Earlier arrivals had actually climbed to the summit of the island. I had to contend with scrambling off the little beach onto Eilean Tighe, and making my way to the wee cottage. This was doubling as a hostel for a party of Czech archeologists, commissioned to carry out a dig on the island. The cottage is notorious for its rats, and for having the worst expiry-dates in the Western Isles. Coffee with a best before date of 2001? Hmpf. I made my way to the extreme south of Eilean Tighe, through the fog. Slight problem: the island is surrounded by cliffs, which plummet 250 to 400 feet straight down into the sea, and I was a little disconcerted to find myself at the top of them. On return from the far south, the fog was lifting and the views cleared. The Galtenach, a string of rocky islets to the west of Eilean Garbh, loomed up under the blanket of cloud. When I got back to the cottage, the outlines of the lochs in the Eishken area were visible under the cloud, as was Scalpay (off Harris). It was such a shame that I only had about 2 hours there. But, I still managed to shoot this little collection of pics. For those of you who may never have the chance to go there.

Posted on Arnish Lighthouse at 22:36

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