Seaweed Season

Jonathan: After two days of dreich keeping us indoors, we’ve been making the most of better weather today by working (mostly) outdoors.

Pity our poor chickens – who spent their first full day confined indoors for 30 days – after all four UK national governments issued orders requiring all poultry owners to prevent their birds having contact with wild birds. There’s an avian flu outbreak in continental Europe, and the order is intended to reduce the risk of it spreading in the UK. This is the first time this has been done, UK-wide, and our first experience of such a lock-down.

This morning Denise went over to Eight Askernish. Denise completed cleaning up after the carpet-fitting and re-decorating, getting the house ready for for guests at Christmas and New Year. I was outdoors, fixing a leaking gutter, wire-brushing rust off the clothes line poles – to re-paint another day. Red Deer Poo in garden of Eight Askernish, Isle of South UistI tidied round the garden too … and spotted fresh clumps of deer-poo! I called Denise out to take a look together: deer-poo is quite distinctive, rather like sheep poo, but the pellets are elongated – even pointed. When I come back to paint the poles, I’ll have to set up the wildlife camera – perhaps I’ll have a bit of luck and actually capture wildlife on aforesaid wildlife camera. It’s good to be working together like this, putting things in order, and planning future work together.

After lunch, back at An Gàrradh Mòr, we were both out in the garden. Denise was pulling weeds to take to the hen house so that the girls still get their ‘greens and we still get yolks that are deep yellow.  I too had a wheelbarrow and fork, but took it out through the garden gate, across the road, and down the bank onto the beach.  Last night, out for a walk with Tilly before bedtime, the storm was abating, the skies clearing, and Tilly and I had stood – me in my wellies – at the line where the surf turned back on itself, the sea sparkling with moonlight. The sands, too, glistened in the silvery light, showing up the great heaps of seaweed thrown up by the sea.  It was that seaweed that’s what was taking me down to the beach this afternoon. Three barrow-loads taken home to feed the soil of our garden. Or, rather, the soil of a greenhouse, feeding it for next year’s tomato plants.  Seaweed Season has arrived! Gathering seaweed will now continue – every day if weather permits (bad weather to throw up the seaweed, good-ish to collect it!) until Easter.

And last, but not least, Denise and I moved the new batch of seven Welsumer chicks into another greenhouse, where – as we do every winter – we set up a small wooden hen house used for rearing chicks – now no longer needing the heat lamp – until they’re ready to join the main flocks.  The chicks have now finally joined Lucky, who made the same move three weeks or so ago. Poor boy, he’s been getting more and more distressed by his isolation: it’ll take a few days for things to settle down, but they’ll get on just fine!



The Reading Room: Old News, No News

Denise: These days we seem to have more time for reading. Or may be we make it? J’s now ‘retired’ from Civil Engineering. (He always rolls his eyes when he says retired. And he insists that Civil Engineering be capitalized!) He does now have more discretion over what he does and when. If he wants to roll eyes and capitalize he’s got the time and liberty to do so. Or read books. That goes for me too: the succession of operations over recent years, and the need for more rest, has gfited me the time and rekindled the inclination to read – and look forward to doing so.

Before we started crofting, before we started our holiday letting business, before we started the Hebridean Woolshed, before we started our own civil engineering consultancy, back in those days when J (and at times both of us) had paid employment and a workplace to go to, we were both avid readers. We had fixed hours of work, and outside those hours time was our own. From when we first met in Portsmouth in the 70s, we’d always be reading something. Sometimes together – one reading a chapter aloud, then swapping over. Fiction and non-fiction alike. Current affairs, biographies, classics.  These days, with both of us now with a pile of books by our chairs or on our bedside cabinets, we’re more likely of an evening to dismiss the TV option and sit in front of the fire reading – and talking.

We’ve found our tastes have changed.  Just as our taste in domestic architecture has shifted away from traditional to modern, from pine to plain, so too has our taste in reading. We’re now more likely to read modern literature as the classics. We’re now much more interested in real-life stories – particularly of alternative living, or moving to a foreign country.  We’re more interested in today and tomorrow, and both the problems and the promise of each. Our reading is extremely varied. Viz …

Recently I read two of three books I’ve bought, all by Marlena de Blasi –

I bought the first of these a couple of months ago in Stornoway, on my way to hospital. I wasn’t there long, but had plenty of time to get deeply into a book. I became immersed in the author’s world, one of daily life at a gentle pace, centred on food: and where better to be centred for such a subject, than Italy?  She’s a very good writer, certainly for the genre, and I enjoyed the book so much I didn’t wait to finish it before ordering the other two on Amazon.  To be honest, I was a bit disappointed to discover that Marlena de Blasi is in fact a prolific writer, and I do suspect that if you’ve read one, you’ve read them all.  I’ve read two of the three: I’ve just the Thursday Night Supper Club to read – some time when the mood takes me.

Katherine Stewart - A Croft in the HillsJust now, I’m reading –

A Croft in the Hills, by Katherine Stewart

This was first published in 1960, instantly became a ‘classic’ and has scarcely been out of print since. Mine’s a 1962 Country Book Club edition, unfortunately missing the colourful dust jacket of the first edition, but nice condition.

This book makes me think of The Fat of The Land by John Seymour, published a year later.  Both are of the same Back to the Land genre, and both have a joyful innocence about them – one which belies the never-ending hard work of the life they espoused, and certainly belie the undeniable fact that the tide of economics was sweeping away small-scale family farms, and only the young idealists, some hippies, some not, some joining together in communes, some going it alone, would forge a new take on small-scale living on the land under the banner of ‘self-sufficiency’.  This is a lovely book, very much of its time.  Thanks Jacalyn for the recommendation!

Katherine Stewart - A Croft in the Hills

Jonathan’s recent reading seems to follow the principle of ‘pot luck’: I’ll hand over to him to finish this post.


It was me that ordered A Croft in the Hills, but Denise snaffled it: when she’s finished (and if it’s not too shrivelled up from her sucking all the goodness out of it) it’ll be back in my reading pile!  Not so sure about the Marlena de Blasi books: they look suspiciously like those paperbacks with overtly girly covers, but for more mature women of more sophisticated interests.

The Best of From Our Own Correspondent. BBC – Edited by Geoff Spink.

The Best of From Our Own Correspondent, Volume 4

Denise and I are both fans of BBC Radio Four’s long-running programme From Our Own Correspondent. So when I came across this book, ex public library but in excellent condition, in an island ‘thrift shop’, I snapped it up!

I won’t attempt to describe the programme, other than it is Journalism, capitalized [Denise: like Civil Engineering!?]. The best of it too.  And that makes this book the best of the best!! This is Volume 4 in a series of five or six published in the early 1990s. These days this would be published only as a podcast – and indeed that’s exactly how I normally ‘consume’ present-day editions of the programme.  Reading a book like this is a bit like coming across a stash of old newspapers: not just a pile kept by for lighting fires, but selected editions bearing banner headlines of major world events. There’s a freshness from the writing that transports you to those times, enabling you to picture events with a vividness that comes only from first-hand reporting, and that’s what Journalism (capitalized) is!  Perhaps there’s also an appeal in old news that’s ‘safe news’: no need to get anxious over world events of nearly 25 years ago! This book covers the period 1992-1993, when the world’s attention was focussed on the Balkan wars (the Journalists write of Srebrenica ominously, but who could have foreseen the horrors that followed?) ; of Armenia ruined by earthquakes and armies ; of Georgia at war with itself and with Russia ; of the then-current cadre of petty despots across Africa, and of an eastern Europe emerging from behind the iron curtain, but blinded by the bright lights of freedom.  It’s been good to rediscover the early 1990s, and find how much things have changed in the past quarter century, and at the same time how little has changed – especially in the West Bank. What goes around comes around. I found this book by chance. I’ve enjoyed reading it, but I won’t be looking out for any others in the series (they can be got cheaply enough on ebay). It’s more than enough to keep up with the podcasts!

Barbara Pym: Quartet in Autumn

This featured on one of Hogglestock‘s ‘shelf-by-shelf’ posts. His description of it immediately made me think of Anita Brookner, another English authoress and of the same era – both productive in the mid 20thC. Thomas of Hogglestock is certainly a fan of both, and as I’d read several of Brookner’s novels, about 15-20 years ago, I thought I ought to give this one – particularly recommended by Thomas – a read. I ordered it on Amazon, and dived in as soon as I got it.  What surprised me about this book was that, despite it featuring only four characters, all weak – and none of them prominent, and there being no plot as such, just a witnessing of the day-by-day progress through the last months of their working lives, and first of retirement, and with no dramatic events, ‘no news’, and everything so gently and kindly portrayed – not a harsh word by or about any one or anything … what surprised me was that this was a real page-turner. Difficult to explain why – but you really do start to care about these four people, who – truth be told – are the very people about whom society does not seem to care, and perhaps does not even notice. And that, indeed, is why the book was thought so highly of that it was nominated for the 1977 Booker Prize.


Denise: You remember Lucky – the just-hatched chick Jonathan saved from imminent death?  Well he’s growing fast, and looking to be a good healthy cockerel. We can’t put him in with the rest of the flock because, it’s pity but true, they’ll pick on him and he could be pecked to death.  Better the other way around, a lonesome hen will generally accept – and in truth may well be very glad for – the company of a number of youngsters.  So as soon as it looked like he was going to survive, we put a load of Welsumer eggs into an incubator and … here they are together for the fast time, Lucky and a random three of the wee chicks. The chicks are cute, of course, but poor Lucky’s at the scruffy stage, as different parts of his body take it in turns to grow adult feathers. Currently, it’s his head!

Luck & Co. The Big Garden, Isle of South Uist

Luck & Co. The Big Garden, Isle of South Uist

Normal Service Resumes

Denise: As Jonathan has already remarked, here and elsewhere, I’m recovering from my operation much more quickly – and apparently more completely – than anyone had expected. That said, there’s only so much repair work a body can take, so I really have to avoid heavy strains on my abdomen. It seems though, that doesn’t mean giving up this or that task, but rather modifying how I do them, and of course that’s still likely to mean J doing some of the things I used to.

Spinning, for example. I had feared that I might have to entirely give up spinning with a wheel, and instead rely on an electric spinner. We’ve had an Ashford electric spinner since just after my first operation a few years ago, but I found it too slow (especially tedious for plying!), and though J likes to use it, both for his own production spinning, and when he’s teaching students to spin. We both criticise it for the various switches and knobs can only be operated by hand, and are awkward to reach: it would be better with a foot pedal like that provided with a sewing machine.

I have looked on the internet for other electric spinners, but they are all very expensive, and I can’t seem to get information on how the controls work, and how ‘fast’ it is. And there’s something else that holds me back: an electric spinner is not, simply not, deep down, the same – culturally, aesthetically, even practically – the same as spinning with a wheel. If there were only electric spinners – no wheels, it’s unlikely either of us would ever have been inspired to spin in the first place.

So, in recent days, I’ve experimented with other types of spinning wheels. We have those as well – in fact we have an entire fleet of spinning wheels! We use most of them for tuition purposes: in fact I’ve used them only in order to be able to teach others to use them.  I’ve recently looked into how I get on with our Ashford Traveller – not just for spinning-for-pleasure, but spinning-for-profit.

The Traveller uses the same flyer and bobbin configuration as the Ashford Traditional, but with a smaller wheel: the drive ratio is significantly lower as a result – and thus also the potential maximum production rate. This means that for the same amount of finished wool, the power applied through the legs, feet and joints is less on the Traveller – but I’d need to keep up that effort for longer.

[J: The total work effort is the same however. If D were electrically powered: less kW, more h, the same kWh in total!]

The Traveller has another feature which – in my circumstances – truly makes a decisive difference. Unlike the Traditional, the Traveller is not powered by foot … but by feet – two feet, to be precise. Instead of one largish treadle board, with a single connecting rod and crank, the Traveller has two smaller boards, each connected to the drive wheel axle via its own rod and crank.

Denise with Ashford 'Traveller'. An Garradh Mor, Isle of South Uist

Denise with Ashford ‘Traveller’.

J says they’re opposed to each other, which to me sounds like a criticism, but he says it nodding approvingly, so he clearly thinks otherwise.

[J: A few years ago, Ashford started offering the Traditional with a double-treadle option. All three of our Traditionals all pre-date that innovation!]

What it means is this: when one treadle is up, the other is down, and as you press one down, the other comes back up. Yup, like cycle pedals, J says. ‘Gotcha!’

This means the work effort is shared between both feet, both ankles, legs, knees and hips. And I’m finding that I work with a more ‘symmetrical’ and balanced posture.  I feel more relaxed.

In fact, I feel relaxed enough about restarting productive spinning that I’ve decided to produce some skeins of handspun wool for you lovely people to order from the Hebridean Woolshed’s website – in time for Christmas.  I’ve recently sold – from existing stock – some Uist Landscapes hand-spun merino, and we’ve received tentative enquiries from others for skeins of Atlantic, Peat Stack or other colours from this range. So, we’ve decided on this …

We’ve re-opened our website for online purchases of Uist Landscapes hand-spun merino DK yarns. Orders received by 10th December will be hand-spun to order, and delivered to you by Christmas. (For delivery to outside the UK, please enquire as soon as possible.)

Normal service resumes!