Jonathan: Well, from the Scottish Government Rural Payments and Inpsections Directorate, otherwise referred to as SGRPID. I thought it was one of those pesky sales calls at first: you’ve been selected for … an inspection of your sheep. Before I could recover my bearings, he was reminding me that notwithstanding the fact that half my sheep are roaming – quite legitimately – out on thousands of acres of rugged and inaccessible mountain, moor and rocky shores, and even if I had a dog it would be a couple of days work to get them in, and that I do actually have a ‘day job’ to do, it is my legal duty to present them for checking that they have the EU-mandated eartags in place. Let’s just say that did not endear me to the fellow, and I would dearly have loved to give vent to my views over the army of officials and technocrats who draw enviable salaries with job security and gold-plated pensions, all at our expense, and have the power to devise (and continually refine) rules and regulations sufficiently onerous and complex to keep themselves in the comfort and ease to which they feel entitled, and to marshall ranks of officials to enforce their will; and whilst I’m on the subject … But as I’d already put the phone down (I hope his ear hurts!) it was only D who had the opportunity to consider, review and suggest refinements to the polemic. Anyway, as the other half of the flock (Himself and his ewes) are still in the field, I agreed a time and that was this morning at 9am. He didn’t have much to say for himself, The Man from the Ministry, and neither did I. After he’d made a proper show of disinfecting his boots and overtrousers, I led him to the field gate and told him to wait there. Trobhaibh, Trobhaibh mo graidh! (Come hither, Come hither, my dears – Gaelic is so poetic!) and over they all came and as I fed them sheep nuts from my hand (that No 8 is so greedy!) I pointed out to The Man all the ear tags and gave details of ages and thus justified why some (those born before 1st Jan 2010) only had one ear tag. He seemed satisfied with that, so then it was back home, where I left The Man in the cold conservatory (the rest of the house is even colder!) and brought down my computer to him. My record-keeping and paperwork is (even if I say so myself) immaculate beyond the call of duty, so taking the reasonable assumption that the sheep out on the hill would be to the same standard (generous, don’t you think?) The Man anounced I’d achieved a score of Zero – ie no ‘failures’. Phew! The Man, just perceptibly relaxing somewhat from this trial, volunteered that actually there was a mistake; but it was the Ministry tjat had got it wrong, not me. According to their records – he showed me – my home address was in New Brunswick, Canada. That would have been Alexander Lachlainn MacDonald, I said: the previous croft tenant, and even that address was long out of date. (Alex inherited the croft tenancy, and having no use for it sold it to me and then flitted to Florida, and who can blame him.) So off he went, the Man from the Ministry, to do his inspecting work elsewhere. Looking around at others’ sheep in Eriskay and in South Uist, there’s many with no tags at all, or only one, so I’m sure that’ll please the Mandarins of the Minstries of this and that: their jobs would be in question if all the farmers and crofters turned out to be a squeaky-clean goody-two-shoes like yours truly!
Jonathan: Driving along with Kenny yesterday, I pointed out the beautiful wild flowers in the gearraidh [meadow] in the fields of Smercleit. He said that when he was a boy, all these fields were ploughed each year for growing barley and other fodder crops, or were cut for hay – often with horse-drawn reapers and binders, in some cases still by hand with a scythe. But after WWII life here changed dramatically: the young men and women who came back from the war soon drifted away to the big cities – in those days you could leave one job in the morning and start another in the afternoon for more money. There was no future in the islands – there was no tourism then. But now it’s the flowers and birds that visitors come to see, and that’s where our future lies. With scenes like this, then, there should be no shortage of visitors and a bright future.
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: I started re-routing a long line of electric fencing a couple of mornings ago, and finished it this morning. The weather has been grey and windy, but even with light rain I was warm enough working in my boiler suit of thick, tightly-woven cotton and a couple of layers of jumpers. Before heading home I let the sheep through to the lower half of the ‘pairc’ (or ‘park’ in Scottish English) by the sea, where there’s a good few weeks yet of grazing. Befor lunch – the weather now being so much milder – I took the lids off the beehives to check if they needed any sugar, but both hives seemed to have plenty of honey in reserve, and hadn’t touched the fondant I’d provided previously. After lunch I went along to the beach at Smercleit Taobh a Deas and filled the trailer up with 18 wheel-barrow loads of seaweed: back at the house Denise and I worked together to off load it all to the compost heap. It’s five or six weeks since we last got seaweed like this, and we really need to do it at least once a week, but the cold spell is because of calm weather, and that means no seaweed cast up on the beach. But now the weather is back to ‘normal’ (ie stormy!) and I shall have to make the most of it. Yet somehow I’ve also got to find time to design changes to a large roundabout on the A414 in Harlow, Essex!
Jonathan: Denise and I drove down north to Taigh Chearsabhagh in Lochmaddy today for a cup of tea and a cake in the cafe. 45 miles for a snack? Well of course we did other things along the way: buy a new bin for the kitchen (we’ve had the old one 24 yrs!) and some Xmas cards; bought a big bag of dog food at Lovett’s in Iochdar. Oh, and we collected the sheep from the abattoir – the real purpose of the journey. A sheep in a polythene bag. Five poly bags on the cold room floor. Quite heavy: encouragingly heavy! Iain commented that they were very good sheep – which was even more encouraging. I paid up – £20 each for killing and butchering; a £100 cheque on the office desk; and then I loaded them into the back of the car. An hour and a half later we were home – and the first thing I wanted to do was weigh the bags! And the result: 5 bags, very similar weights; totalling 75kg or slightly more. It’s difficult to put a value on this, as we are keeping it for ourselves, but wouldn’t ordinarily afford this quality of meat – and Hebridean is very highly regarded. But our non-meat equivalent would certainly be a moderately priced cheese, at around £8/kg. But even at that measure we’ve brought home £600 worth of meat from the five sheep. Bagging up the joints and cuts into individual freezer bags, seeing and feeling the wonderful quality of the meat, I felt for the first time in my life really pleased – proud, in fact – of the results of my own vision, commitment and hard work. Yes I’ve felt some measure of pride in my civil engineering work, but never anything like this!