Jonathan: A lovely late summer morning – and a strong desire to linger over the routine duties, to revel in the familiarity. Last to be attended to in Home Park, down by the shore, are the rams and the geese, who form a combined scrum around the line of feed I lay down. The rams push and shove from either side of the line, whilst the geese dive in between their legs to grab what they can! Some of the bolder chickens stand at either end of the line, but they’re not there as referees, they’re picking up the small fragments of feed where they’re least likely to get trampled, kicked or butted! As the food disappears, the tension eases and the animals reform into flocks and start to move away. I sit awhile, on the grass, making the most of the moment. Rhubarb (one of this year’s bottle-fed lambs) leans against me, resting his chin on my shoulder and his cheek against my face, urging me to rub behind his ears and talk to him. There’s Flotsam and Jetsam too, the two goslings hatched out at home and who have known Rhubarb since they were all of them tiny. Flotsam – who we think is a girl, settles down close by my right side, letting me stroke her. Jetsam is behind me investigating the details of my boiler suit – the collar, waistband, and the pockets. These three familiars are too close to photograph, so here’s a few of the others.
Jonathan: This year, July seems to be suffering some confusion as to exactly what’s expected of it. It says one thing, and then does the opposite. Today was forecast to be mostly sunny and dry, but is turning out to be overcast and drizzly. Yesterday was just as unreliable: expected to be cloudy and wet, it was dry throughout and mostly sunny. So we made the most of it, outdoors almost all the day busy with this and that. To be honest I really don’t know where the time goes! How on earth did we ever find the time for other people’s projects as well – and ambitious building projects at that?
Morning feeding and cleaning routine? It starts with us! Breakfast is muesli with fruit and nuts and yoghurt – and a good cup of tea, with talk about our plans for the morning. Then, at home Denise tackles the cats, the dog, the Buff Orpington chickens. And the house, though that doesn’t need feeding. Well, perhaps the house plants!
Me, at the croft: Chickens, geese, sheep. Taking some feed up the hill to the ewes and lambs, I took the opportunity – as I do most mornings – to take with me four wooden fence posts, balanced on my shoulder. By the time I reach the sheep, I’m sweating and my heart is pounding from the effort – and shoulder is sore and my left arm numb from steadying the load.
Compensation? Five minutes or so sat with the sheep. It helps to build in their minds a perception that this is their territory – they’re safe to remain up here. And anyway the view is beautiful, the breeze mild but cooling, and I’m watching a rare yellow-backed bumble bee working the tiny flowerlets of the ling heather.
Primrose stays with me a while, leaning into my shoulder, sozzled with milk. Her last bottle. I’m reluctant to let go of her, but I must. Over the past week or two she’s become less and less quick to run up to me, and less greedy pulling at the teat. She has sometimes needed persuading to finish even the less-than-half bottle she’s been getting. As the ewes start to move off and the other lambs with them, Primrose follows. Tomorrow will be hard. Queenie turns to look back at Primrose: she looks out for her.
Queenie herself is eight years old now, and showing her age – in a good way! She still produces good lambs – sometimes twins, and continues to provide strong leadership for the flock. And she looks good too! Maybe not the luscious black fleece of youth, perhaps a bit hairy, but good quality and full of character. Perhaps next year we’ll put her fleece to one side for hand-spinning and knitting into something to remember her by in years to come.
Back at home, mid-morning coffee and toast are interrupted by our first customers of the day – our guests from Carrick looking for hogget lamb, herbs, eggs, and some produce. (We don’t sell produce, and right now we’re selling eggs only to regular customers – but there are advantages to being our self-catering guests!). Then a string of other customers wanting this from the Hebridean Woolshed, that from the Big Garden, and others again just ‘looking round the garden’ – notwithstanding the sign on the gate that says it’s a ‘Private Garden – No Exploring, Please!’ Eventually we get to finish off our nearly cold coffee and soggy cardboard toast!
With a couple of hours to go before lunch we head outdoors to see what we can get done in the garden. Denise is weeding around the winter kale, planting out leeks into their final positions, and harvesting the onions. It’s early to harvest them, but there just isn’t enough light for them to grow, let alone ripen, and in the damp air some are already starting to show signs of neck-rot. It looks to be the worst year – by far! – for onions since we came here in 2002.
In our ‘wild woods’ – the south west and north east corners of the walled garden – I’m ‘topping’ a proportion of nettles before their flowers turn to seed: some are left for butterflies, moths and their caterpillars. The same for other native species that we could all to quickly find ourselves with too many of. Umbellifrae family, mostly, and above all a species we’ve been unable to identify, but with huge 7-lobed dark green leaves, shrouds to the flower stems, and huge white flower clusters. Our apple trees are suffering from the heat and humidy, their roots over-run by the natives: I cut them right down to the ground with the sickle, but it’s probably too late, as most have already dropped for lack of nutrients. Next year, I’ll not have the croft fencing to do, and I’ll have time to better look after the fruit trees!
Lunch is home-made sour-dough bread with rosemary and olives, home-grown salads, rice with sweet peppers and olives, stilton cheese, and a sweet, properly-ripe nectarine. And a good cup of tea, discussing our plans for the afternoon.
Denise: Almost all our self-catering guests are from various European countries: mostly they’re from the UK, France, Netherlands and Germany – though it’s surprising how many of our Carrick guests come just from Perthshire or Cumbria! Every year, though, there’s just one or two from much further afield – Australia, New Zealand, Canada, or the US. Their journeys are long, of course; but they can also be complicated, not least because they are often making an extended holiday – taking in various destinations and perhaps including family visits. I think the record for both distance and complexity – and for that matter travelling stamina! – goes to Jacalyn and her friend Mary, who come from California. They’re both nuts (in the nicest possible sense!) about sheep and wool, but Jacalyn is also a serial island-hopper. This year her journey took her from California to Denmark, from there to Faeroe, and then to Scotland and the Outer Hebrides via airports at Edinburgh, Stornoway and finally Balivanich.
Now, if you need to look up Faeroe on Wikipedia, well that’s okay – we all need to, apparently, and not least Jacalyn. Faeroe has lots of sheep (more sheep than humans) and lots and lots of wool, and nice things made from sheep and wool, and that alone was good enough for her to include Faeroe in her tour. But then to discover that it is not just an island, but a whole archipelego of islands, out in the middle of the northern Atlantic, with spectacular scenery, their own language, and … Well, what’s not to like? as the saying goes! Exploring with a hired car, Jacalyn and Mary visited several of the inhabited islands, with scenery as dramatic as St Kilda, tunnels under the sea linking islands, the variegated Faeroe sheep everywhere, and small woollen mills and factories where beautiful garments (mostly outer-wear) are made with the wool. It’s a trip Jonathan and I would love to have made ourselves, partly because we are ourselves drawn to ‘woolly islands’, but also because the Faeroes and Hebrides having so much in common, the differences are all the more interesting.
Our guests are, if anything, more varied than the places they come from, and that goes too for what they do during their stay at Carrick or Askernish, and what we see of them – if anything at all. Alas it’s rare for guests to much if any interest in us or what we do – and that means we value and appreciate guests who do spend any time with us all the more. It’s perhaps as true of people as it is of islands: having so much in common, it’s the differences that are all the more interesting!
Jacalyn and Mary travelled here via Edinburgh, which must have been quite a contrast to Torshavn, the capital of Faeroe! In Edinburgh they stopped and shopped (can you guess what for?) and then a day of flights to Stornoway in Lewis, then Balivanich in Benbecula, and then driving south through South Uist to Eriskay.
So, another contrast, arriving in Uist! For one thing the weather. Cold, overcast and windy in Edinburgh. And in Uist? Well, last year’s May might have been the worst anyone could remember, but May 2016 was already on its way to be the sunniest and driest May in for many a year! Sunny, dry … but not warm: there was a brisk cold wind from the north throughout their stay. Sheltered from the wind, though, it was glorious, and Jacalyn and Mary saw the islands at their near-best, with blue skies, turquoise and azure seas, the white dash of waves on the rocks and beaches, cattle and ponies grazing the hills, wild flowers in bloom, and everywhere – just everywhere! – the call and cry of birds on the wing, curlew and cuckoo, lapwing and lark, buzzard and bunting, gull and gannet … ! And sheep of course. Lots of sheep. And above all our sheep!
Jacalyn and Mary were really interested in the progress of our bottle-babies Rhubarb and Primrose, and most days got the chance to bottle-feed at least Rhubarb, who during their stay progressed from complete dependency on Jonathan to spending his first night with the older boys – last year’s lambs, and the ram. Jacalyn and Mary got time to watch the sheep and the hens and the geese closely – and were soon knew more about what they get up to during the day, when neither J or I are about, than we ever knew!
We spent a few delightful mornings or lunches or afternoons with Jacalyn and Mary, learning about their adventures in Faeroe and exploring with them the various treasures (mostly woolly in nature!) they had acquired on their travels. One morning they were with Jonathan as he sheared Baghasdal the ram ; and a very sunny afternoon was spent with me at the walled garden sorting raw wool (in fact sorting Baghasdal’s fleece!) and in the dye-shed dyeing wools. One evening we had dinner together at the Polochar Inn. It was such a special treat for us to have guests staying we could share our interests with, and we hope they enjoyed their holiday in Uist as much as we enjoyed having them!
Jacalyn first stayed at Carrick last year, and managed without a car. But this year she had planned a short trip to Harris – or more particularly to ‘centres for woolliness’ – Tarbert, Urgha, and other places off the beaten track – and that requires a car. This was Mary’s first experience of roads where you either drove on the left – or straight down the middle, but after Faeroes sub-sea tunnels and cliff-edge roads, she was ready for the adventure, especially after getting a tutorial from us on passing-places and ferries!
Jacalyn and her husband have a small farm at the end of a long lane in the rolling countryside near Vacaville, California. Unsurprisingly, she keeps sheep, and a variety of sheep at that, including Herdwick and Jacob, and Evangeline and the other Llamas, too. And yes they have names! Jacalyn is fortunate to have nearby a network of others – including Mary – whose interests overlap, and who like to help eachother out. (You’d think there’d be something like that here in Uist, but no, not unless you were born and brought up here and have extended family.) Jacalyn spins and knits, of course, but above all she felts. In fact she has recently acquired a big machine for carding wool and producing long batts of wool perfect for felting. She does a lot of felting and a good deal of it is for one-off pieces specially commissioned. And pieces she’s made a few of, to sell at craft markets, or as gifts for friends. And on that subject, last year Jacalyn kindly gave us some coasters and place mats (though actually we use the place mats on our bed-side cabinets). This year, something really quite, well, out of the blue … a felt chess-set. A travelling chess set. Yes, that’s right! A travelling chess set, made of felt. The board is made of felt. The pieces are made of felt. And it all packs away – the pieces into two felt purses, both tucked into the folded felt ‘board’ and secured with two felt straps and press-studs. Okay, the press-studs aren’t of felt – nor the product leaflets. Look – see what I mean?! Gary Kasparov? He doesn’t have one of these!
Happy Woolly Adventures to all!
All mosaic photos in this post are by Jacalyn Post, with her kind permission. Other pictures are by himself, Jonathan Bridge