Jonathan: I lay low against the grassy bank, the wind roaring and tearing at the rock and heather above me, a barrage of hail beating into the back of my hood, the clouds above purple with rage. But I’d come into the hills well prepared, with layers of warm clothing, good oilskins, a spade – and I was comfortable enough. My thoughts were elsewhere – transported many miles away to Hesgeir island, which lies in the middle of The Minch. For despite the dark and murk of the day, there on the horizon, the lighthouse of Hesgeir was illuminated by a shaft of light, tightly focussed as if from some heavenly lighthouse. High above, a tiny fragment of pale blue, ringed with salmon pink: but the clouds closed ranks, and as the darkness swallowed up Hesgeir again, my mind reverted to the here and now. Ah yes, the spade. Yesterday I’d had a call from Murdo in Eriskay: sorry to be giving you bad news again, but did you know ….? No I didn’t, but I’ll deal with it as soon as the weather allows. And believe it or not this morning was indeed a big improvement in the weather. So there I was this morning trekking up into the hills to bury one of our Hebridean sheep – one of the 16 wedders we bought back in Autumn. I found it up on the rocky shoulder of a ridge that falls slowly to the south east, to the shores of Loch Cracabhaig – and extremely exposed to the prevailing winds from the Atlantic. Ordinarily I would have said it had died within the past week, but it could have been longer since: even the crows, eagles and buzzards who had already got to work on the corpse would have found the dining environment less than salubrious, and may have left it to come back to another time. I dropped down to the gully below and probed the soft ground with my spade. Yes, deep enough – but with the dense moss it was like a sponge. (Ever tried digging into a sponge – the type you wash the car with – with a spade? No? But go on, imagine!) I dug with the peaty bog-water slopping around my wellingtons, and though deeper would certainly be better, that was as deep as I could dig. It’s not good to handle a sheep by its horns, at least whilst it’s still alive, but under the circumstances the horns came in mighty handy. I found some heavy stones to weigh down the body, and then made good the ground. Inevitably a mossy mound remained. I recalled the cowboy and indian films that were on TV so much when I was a boy. In the aftermath of the Apache ambush, the wounded cowboy – arm in a make-shift sling, sets up a crude wooden cross at the end of the mound of earth where he buried his fatally-injured friend (scalped?); he puts his rifle back in the saddle holster, hat back on his head, foot in the stirrup – and rides away into the sunset. I leant my spade back over my shoulder, put my foot onto the ledge that took me back up onto the ridge, and set off into the … well, back home, anway. Alas it’s the second sheep we’ve lost this winter (the first was in the severe storm on the 9th), and it’s hardly to be wondered at, with the truly appalling weather. Let’s hope there’s no more lost! The next break in the weather, I shall have to get up into the hills and find the others, and take a bag of feed with me.
Jonathan: The life of the crofter in the 21st century. Up 6am – shower, get dressed. Breakfast and washing up the pots with Denise. 7am – check emails, and into civil engineer mode for a quick reply about changes to the railway crossing at Royston in Hertfordshire. 7:30am – into crofter mode for drive to the Eriskay to feed and the hens and collect eggs, scatter some grain for the geese and make sure they all have access to clean water. Then the sheep – a quick count and a small offering of sheep nuts, just to keep them friendly – not that 0008 needs any encouragement! 8:30am – start work on fixing guttering to Hi Hen House, but discover I need a ladder to reach one corner, but ladder at home so decide to do something else. Walking back to the car our guests at Carrick come out to speak to me. Everything okay? No! Ah but nothing wrong with the house – it’s lovely – but alas their 12-yr old spaniel died this morning. They’d rushed to the vet in Benbecula but it died in the surgery. Apparently it had pneumonia. But they have a problem: where to bury the dog? So switch to grave-digger mode for half-an-hour or so whilst I struggle to find somewhere where the rock has more than just a few inches of soil over it! Ah yes, at the head of the peaty valley, where we’ve been planting trees. Wet ground, but easy digging. I got some straw to line the grave with and then left our guests to a private moment to bury their dog. Switch to builder mode to continue a drystane wall I’m building to provide more shelter by Hi Hen House. And then back to tidying up the grave. Off with the trailer to the skip at Acarsaid Mhor to dispose of accumulated cardboard boxes, rubbish from the shore etc; and then put up some notices about us buying this year’s sheep fleeces. Home for a clean up, a good coffee and toast with D’s amazing lemon curd. 11:30am – half an hour or so of work designing a website for someone’s holiday cottage business. Noon: A simple lunch of bread, cheese, home-grown salads, fruit and a very welcome cup of tea. Back to engineering for some emails about geotechnical report for a beach landing of wind turbine in Barra. Then boiler suit back on, and load up the car with tripod, total station, a flame gun and a petrol strimmer. 1:30pm drive to Askernish, and thankfully the guests are out for the afternoon so I got straight on with strimming the grass and burning off the weeds – a very noisy and smelly job all told! 3:15pm – tools back in the car just as guests return to cottage, and drive back south to the mill stream outfall at Tipperton on the very SW tip of South Uist. Clamber all over the rocky shore marking spots with red spray paint to come back to later to survey; set up total station over permanent marker I installed a week ago (when I came this way to walk the dog) and sighted five trig points on distant hills (one in Barra about 9km away!) to establish my position by a procedure called re-section. 4:30pm – back to the house to persuade D and Becky that we should have an early meal and then go and do the survey work. But Becky has gone out for a walk … Wound up a skein of hand-spun merino wool into a ball for D. D reports that whilst I’ve been out she’s sold almost £200 of items from The Hebridean Woolshed, plus eggs, preserves and fresh produce, all whilst she’s been spinning wool and making two batches of spicy marrow chutney and one of gooseberry and raspberry jam. When Becky is back and we’ve eaten, I drive over to Tipperton to set up ahead of D and Becky only to find the tide is already too high. Back to the house just in time to stop them leaving in D’s car. What to do now? Ah yes, make first ever order with Tesco Online for delivery to a carrier in Glasgow and forwarding to us here in Uist (Tesco have until now been unwilling to deliver directly to anything other than a mainland residential address). Carriage charges saved twice over by savings on staples for jam making. And then a little light browsing on the internet, looking up various things of interest … and watch the news … and some time together with D and Becky and the cats and Tilly talking and making things. 11:30pm – still light as I take Tilly for a walk along the road and then a run back along the crest of Cnoc a Deas, but Tilly comes back with a limp and blood dripping from her front offside paw, so a bit of a fuss and a palaver as we persuade her to keep still whilst we bathe it in TCP solution. The doggy treat helped. 11:30pm – talked to the goose eggs in the incubator – it encourages them, you know – and would you believe it there’s chirruping back from inside the eggs! On closer inspection there’s cracks in the shells of some, so they’ll start hatching tomorrow!! 11:45 – still not dark as eventually we all climb into our beds and fall soundly asleep at the first drop of the eyelids.
Jonathan: During the night a wild north-easterly laid down a carpet of fine powdery snow. Icy cold despite heavy cloud. Roads not salted, so a bit wobbly going to the croft. Loaded up with my bucket of grain and egg collecting bucket, I’m enveloped by a ferocious blizzard, blasting in from The Minch. In seconds I’m lost in a maelstrom of needle-sharp ice and swirling darkness. The geese are calling for me, and I for them, but I can scarcely see my own feet. I abandon the usual feeding point and rush headlong down the hill, for the shelter of the old ruins. Amidst the howling wind and stinging ice I can make out their call, but in the meagre light before dawn I can see nothing. Then, suddenly, the heavy beating of wings and looking up, the air is filled with geese descending around me, their wings outspread, all white feathers and bright orange legs lit up against the black sky by no more than the ethereal light of the snow itself. One of the most beautiful things I have ever experienced. A moment I’ll never forget – not least because one goose thumped right into my chest!