Jonathan: For the past week or more, Uist – and indeed almost all of the Highlands and Islands – has been enjoying fine weather – unusually fine for this time of year. Nearly windless, clear blue skies, warming sunshine, star-lit nights. But cold. Not just a faint touch of fine-powder frost on the paving flags and inexplicably scattered patches of ground, but proper Jack Frost, with intricate patterns etched out on the car windscreens and grasses sparkling white.
A few days ago we switched the Aga on (it will stay on until late Spring) and over the course of that day and the next the centre-point of our lives subtly shifted into the kitchen. Of course the Aga is not there just to keep us warm – it is to keep us fed! Now, soups rein supreme, root vegetables are relished (nothing, just nothing, compares to the scent and promise of freshly-dug carrots and parsnips!), and lamb casserole is loved!
This is also the season for working with wool – and I don’t just mean indoors, sitting at a spinning wheel or leaning over a loom. This afternoon we were in the croft store, working through our stock of fleeces – of un-processed wool. We’ve now taken all the wool we’ll get off our own Hebridean sheep, and what white Cheviot wool we’re likely to get from other crofters … well, we’ve already got it. The fleeces collected since this time last year have been sitting in ‘tonne bags’ on the concrete floor, increasingly cold and compressed – and difficult to handle, – and if left like that for much longer it will be nearly impossible to feel the quality.
We cleared space, set out the trestle tables, and set to work. After three hours or so, we’d graded and sorted the wool into three categories: Cheviot ; Hebridean ; Hebridean Lambswool. Small quantities of the very best of each are kept back for hand-spinning. The selected wools are now packed up and ready to be sent off for mill-spinning. When they’re back, we prepare them for sale in the Hebridean Woolshed.
The waste wool – dagged, stained, felted, secondary-cut – came back with us to the walled garden, where it has been added to the compost heap. Here it is, spread out over the surface of the heap: over the coming days it will be covered with other material – from the garden, the kitchen, from the henhouse and sheep shelter, and seaweed from the shore. In January, the whole heap will be forked into an adjacent ‘bin’, from which the compost of 2015 will previously have been barrowed out into the growing plots.
Jonathan: This morning, I was summoned to the sitting room by a call from Denise. The kind of call – with notes of both concern and suspense – that sends a shiver up my spine!
Clearing the ash from the wood-burning and setting it with newspaper and kindling for this morning, Denise had caught sight of something on the floor of the recess, behind the stove. Now, the stove sits half-in and half-out of a small recess (a recess which originally had been that of an old-fashioned open fire). Whether peering over, around or under the stove, it’s difficult to see what’s going on directly behind it – I had to rely on my recollection of installing the stove and flue-pipe nearly 14 years ago.
There’s a T-piece at the back of the stove, connecting it by a short horizontal pipe to the vertical flue pipe: up to the chimney proper; downwards, a short stub fitted with a cap. The cap had fallen off … pulled off by the weight of ash that had accumulated in the downward stub.
Here’s an admission: it’s 12 years or so since the chimney was last swept. Why so long? No chimney sweep, here in Uist. Yes, there was a sweep, 12 years ago – a family recently arrived in Uist, bringing with them a small business … but then finding there’s insufficient custom to keep going … and the family soon moves away again. From time to time, others have come and gone: chimney sweeps, domestic appliance repairers, upholstery and carpet cleaning specialists … When we’ve seen in Am Paipear (Uist’s community newspaper) a chimney sweep’s ad, we’ve made a note … but when we get round to calling them – there’s no answer.
It’s the same story for the other two stoves (same to our own) at Eight Askernish and Carrick Eriskay. They’re busy with holiday lettings, so the best time for chimney sweeping is just before we start winter maintenance and redecorating, during the quiet weeks in November and early December. We’d had in mind that we’d get all three swept at the same time. So they haven’t been swept, either!
The lack of custom for a ‘professional’ chimney sweep is two-fold. Historically, islanders would do these things themselves, perhaps with the help of a relative or neighbour. And, nowadays, there’s not many houses where a solid fuel stove is still used.
Just before we moved here, I bought from a hardware shop on Longden Coleham in Shrewsbury a good set of drain rods, complete with a variety of accessories. I seem to recall justifying the expense on the grounds that our new island life would require us to be a lot more self-sufficient and resourceful. Well that proved to be both an accurate prediction and a sound investment! The rods have been in use at least once each year, often several times. Let’s just say that both the septic tank and the foul drainage connecting the house to it bear testimony to the skills of the builders of our house, back in 1974 .
Amongst one of the accessories that came with the rods was an attachment we’ve not – until now – had occasion to use: a chimney brush. But now – it’s moment had come!
No more procrastination, I said. We must grasp the moment … and learn new skills. Denise said, if you’re going to grasp anything you’d better get a really good grasp of the chimney pot, as it’s windy up top!
We donned our boiler suits. I gathered up the tools: rods, brushes and ladders. Denise got piles of old sheets and towels to fill the gaps around the stove … and an old deep roasting tin to catch the sweepings.
Two ladders are needed: the first to get up to the flat roof of the conservatory; the second ladder to get on to the flat roof of the front dormer. It’s then just an easy clamber up onto the ridge,and then to make myself comfortable perched, side-saddle fashion – on the slab of the chimney stack. Quite nice, in the brief spell of sunshine – though there were ominously dark cloud rolling in from the Atlantic: we’d better get on with it!
I called down the chimney (Denise says Tilly was puzzled by my voice booming from the glass pane of the stove!) and got a reply (muffled by all those old sheets) from Denise: Ready to go! I screwed the round chimney brush to the first rod and lowered it, brush-first, into the chimney. Then, reach over my shoulder I took a second rod from the make-shift quiver on my back and screwed it on to the first. This was repeated another four times, until there were six rods, and the brush had reached the bottom of the chimney, where there is a plate and adaptor to which the smaller diameter flue-pipe from the stove is connected. Now I pulled the whole length back up, a series of short pulls up, and slightly shorter pushes back down, all the while rotating – firmly but slowly – the rods clockwise, to ensure the rods stayed properly connected. And then back down again, in similar fashion – but reversed. And then finally pulling up back up. Before returning to terra firma, I fixed the new rain-cap we’ve had in stock for ten years ago – ready for fitting by the chimney sweep!
There had been a lot of loose fluffy (and sticky) soot in the chimney pot, but I was surprised how little was being drawn up with the brush, or by the draught. Was all going down? As I gathered up the tools, and made my way down. Denise emerged, her arms full with bundled-up dust sheets, and in her hands a neat parcel of newspaper containing … a disappointingly small quantity of debris from the chimney, a mixture of soot and fine ash. Mostly ash! So much for those dire warnings of ‘common knowledge’ that a chimney in daily use not swept every year was liable to catch fire!
Askernish’s chimney hasn’t been swept since we rebuilt the house in 2006, and Carrick not since it was built in 2009. We’ll sweep both this winter, but I don’t think we’ll be doing any of the three every year.
It’s good, though, to have done this ourselves, by our own teamwork. Sooty and Sweep!
Denise: This is wild honeysuckle growing up the high garden wall. When I say wild, I don’t just mean a generic primitive variety, I mean that these really do grow wild here. Walking out in the wilds of the east coast of Uist, you’ll come across wild honeysuckle climbing up a rock face or cliff. So our honeysuckle on the wall is just practicing! It’s been here since long before we came, and is now recovering strength after a string of damaging winters. The scent is heavenly!