I sit here at my desk, my forearms resting on the papers open either side of the rings of a document binder, my hands swaying as my fingers dance across the keys of the laptop – typing this post.
Inserted into the spine of the 4-ring binder is a long strip of paper with a 7-letter word inscribed many years ago in bold felt pen, but now faded to near-invisibility by the sun pouring in through the windows of our office.
It must be ten or twelve years ago – at least – since this file was last reorganized, probably in response to some change thought to be significant enough to warrant the granting of a new folder to hold the papers accumulated over several decades, and the trouble taken to find the right thickness of card and cut it to just the right size for it to fit nicely in the spine pocket. Since then, the file has been opened just once every two years – to add another statement of account.
But the letter that came with the postie this lunchtime, and which is about to be punched and filed in the same folder, is not a routine bi-annual statement. I’ve known to expect that I would receive a letter such as this some time shortly before my 60th birthday ; but this has caught me by surprise.
The letter announces the intention to make good on a promise made to me very nearly 39 years ago – on the 1st August 1978, to be precise. That’s the date on which, recently graduated from Portsmouth with a degree in Civil Engineering, I stepped across the threshold of Citadel Chambers in Carlisle, Cumbria – and entered the world of work.
The promise made to me that day (I have it here in front of me now – Form S3, Notice in accordance with Regulation L4 of the Local Government Superannuation Regulations 1974) was – well I’ve given the game away, now, haven’t I! – was to pay me a pension, in return for deductions from salary.
I stayed with Cumbria County Council for just five years or so, after which I moved on, taking my pension with me, staying with a number of other local authories over the next ten years or so. As long as I stayed in local government, my pension moved on with me – the pension scheme was nationally recognized, but locally administered. The last local authority I was with remains to this day the administrator of my pension.
It’ll not provide much of an income – certainly not enough to allow us to wind up our various micro-enterprises and ‘retire’ in the old-fashioned sense. Only a third of my professional career was spent in local government, and all of that at relatively junior level. But the terms of the pension scheme, in the time I was a contributing member, were generous, and by leaving local government (and thereby that pension scheme) when I did, my pension was not affected by later changes to the rules: retirement age is now 65, and contribution rates are higher. Thank heaven for small mercies!
Receiving this pension won’t change our lives. We’ll have to keep working at what we do now, probably for as long as we are capable of doing so. But we will, at last, be able to afford to travel a little – not least to visit our grown-up children Rebecca (in Wales) and Catherine (in Spain) – though still not both of us at the same time, unless …
… well, the care of livestock is a problem we’re increasingly keen to find a solution to, as we now have a very special reason to want to travel to see Catherine in late November or early December.
That’ll be in response to another important notification we’ve recently received, from Catherine herself, just in the past few days. Ah, but I’m not giving the game away on that one – not just yet, anyway.
But perhaps you’ll guess?
Jonathan: Tomorrow, Denise will be on the morning flight from Benbecula to Stornoway. She’ll be back a week later. She’ll be having a very quiet time. Breakfast in bed. Reading in bed. Knitting in bed. Everything in bed. But it’ll not be a holiday!
Stornoway, on the east coast of the northern-most island of Lewis, is the largest town of the Outer Hebrides. Indeed it is the islands’ only proper town: and as such it is the principal settlement, seat of local government, and the centre of administration and operations for many other public institutions.
Accustomed as we are to a simple quiet country life, Stornoway – and indeed much of Lewis – seems almost a foreign land. There, in Gaelic, the weather is gendered masculine – not feminine as it is here: that seems to sum up the differences very neatly! We have very little reason or inclination to go to Stornoway, and in fifteen years Denise has been there on just three occasions. Once was with me in 2005 to see Runrig at the Hebridean Celtic Festival, the other two were both last year, and for the same reason as this impending visit. Hospital. Surgery.
Hopefully this trip will sort the problem out for good. She’ll be home, hopefully, late next week, but she’ll require a long period of rest and recuperation. It could be some weeks before she’s out of bed, and perhaps even a year before it’s safe for her to do the kind of physical work she’s used to – especially in the garden. She’ll be very frustrated at times – but she’s just going to have to make the best of it.
Between the autumn and spring equinoxes, the weather in the islands is frequently severe, sometimes savage, and indoor occupations are an essential to surviving the winters. For us, winter’s a time for planning and preparing for the following summer: designing garments, spinning and dyeing yarns, weaving, knitting, packaging … along with ordering seeds and supplies for the garden, cooking marmalades, painting and decorating the holiday cottages, refreshing or even rebuilding of websites … It’s a busy time of year for us – possibly even busier than summer – but mostly spent indoors.
This year, we’ll be as busy as ever – but with a twist. Much of what Denise normally does – her daily routines and more physical tasks – will fall to me. No doubt that’ll be subject to her tuition and supervision! Without a doubt, it will! Denise will have more time for quiet thought and gentle hand-work. Together, we see this winter as an opportunity for research and reorientation – discovering new ideas, learning new skills, and steering ourselves in new directions.
New directions … or perhaps better put, new expressions. New ways to express our core values, which are at once both very simple and very complex. Keywords: Natural ; Local ; Self-made ; Hand-made ; Indigenous ; Traditional ; Skilled ; Useful ; Unique ; Simple ; Tangible ; Personal ; Intrinsic, Connected, Universal …
Over this winter, and continuing over the coming years, we’ll be steering ourselves clear of the creeping gravitational pull of mass consumerism, locking onto a path defined by those values we always have and always will hold dearest. Some of what we have been doing in recent times will fall away.
The first of our Uist Landscapes range of hand-spun merino wools was a one-off. We think it may have been in 2006 and in the colours we now call Atlantic. It was instantly popular – and still is the most in demand. Denise tried other colours. They were very popular too. We started to buy the pre-coloured merino tops in bulk, to reduce cost.
To maximize on the investment, we devised the Uist Landscapes range, and gave each colour a name. Denise perfected the spinning to produce the yarns extremely consistently, so that customers could buy a number of skeins – for a large project – with confidence ; and so that if they later found they needed more, they could order another skein or two – and it would match up with what they bought before. As a result, sales of Uist Landscapes, and everything made with them, continued to grow.
Most of the stock for each summer is built up during the preceding winter. Each year Denise has spun more than the previous winter, but each year it’s earlier and earlier in the summer that Denise finds she needs to spin more to maintain stock in the garden shop or at Kildonan. And this pressure to produce – to re-produce old ideas, is at the expense of time to think, to create the new. Isn’t this what it means to be a victim of your own success? It isn’t really what we set out to do!
Denise’s will not be able to do much spinning this winter. Plying of singles into 2-ply yarns will be out of the question for quite a few months. I don’t have the high level of skill required for this particular work. We have therefore taken the decision, in principle, to discontinue Uist Landscapes. However, as we have a lot of material in stock, it will be a few years until the last skein is sold, so for those in need of an additional skein or two, rest assured we’ll not let your project remain unfinished! Otherwise we will be using the remaining stock of merino ‘tops’ more spontaneously, with ad-hoc designs in very limited quantities – never to be repeated.
More importantly, we’ll working with a multitude of fresh ideas and new materials and techniques. What these will result in … ? Well, we may give some glimpses of work-in-progress, over the winter; but as we ourselves, right now, have absolutely no idea, you’ll have to wait until next Easter (when we re-open the Hebridean Woolshed’s garden shop for the summer) to find out!
Denise is taking with her, to hospital, a few skeins of black Shetland with silk …
Jonathan and Denise: We’ve just now got home from a series of disasters (on an otherwise glorious late summer’s day) to find an email from our solicitor with an important ‘status update’: Today, Friday 26 August 2016, we have finally become joint proprietors of the freehold of our (previously rented) Eriskay croft, having bought it from the landlord, South Uist Estates. In terms of crofting law, we now have the status of Owner-Occupier. Or rather Occupiers, as both title and croft are registered in both our names, jointly and equally.
Now, the huge investment we’ve made since 2009 – in money, yes, but far more in hard work and ideas – is secure ; and likewise the potential for further improvement, too. We’ll have more to report on this news when we get the official paperwork. But right now there’s that bottle of Rioja we bought on the way home: to drown our sorrows, we thought, but now to celebrate an important milestone! Let’s drink to the health, happiness and long life of hard-working crofters everywhere: may their families prosper and their land flourish! And may it once more be said of Uist, that it is a land flowing with milk and honey!
Jonathan & Denise: The day’s been overcast, dreary and wet, and we’re glad to be home from a trip to Benbecula. Fleece jackets are returned to the row of coat hooks in the hall – still flecked with cat hairs from our visit to the vets. We would have brushed the hairs away … but for the fact they’re Molly’s, and there’ll never, ever be any more of them. We’ve laid her in her basket by the Aga, for the other cats to find and to acknowledge.
Molly was born in Brockton, Shropshire, 10 July 1995 – during a thunderstorm. A few weeks later we saw an ad in the Shropshire Star … Denise and the girls came home with Molly and her sister Meg.
Chalk and cheese! Molly was always the ‘superior’ of the two – and knew it: physically bigger, stronger, with a thicker more richly coloured coat, a self-confidence and what might be called presence. Meg couldn’t compete with her sister on physical attributes, but made good by acquiring social skills that endeared her to her human friends … but the weaker constitution and made her vulnerable to disease, and in 2009 – at age 14, she died of kidney failure.
Molly, too, developed kidney problems, but – unlike Meg – seemed to find a way to cope, though at times seeming as if she was at death’s door. Her strength of constitution – not to mention her character – saw her through again and again, and she continued to enjoy life to the full. As other younger cats joined our family – Pickle just a few weeks after Meg’s passing, then Dusky and the others – Molly’s self-assurance was challenged by the sheer cheekiness of the newcomers. It took her a long time to come to terms with the upstarts, but in time they learned to respect her age and dignity, and her to acknowledge that … well, that they were good company, lighting up her increasingly quiet life. Tabatha – if not the youngest, certainly the smallest – was no threat to Molly’s status as ‘Senior Cat’ ; and Tabatha in turn found in Molly’s company a refuge from the bullying of her peers. Winter evenings, Molly and Tabatha would settle down together on the settee, enjoying the warmth of the fire. Occasionally, Pickle – jealous of their privileged place beside Denise, would squeeze in!
Over the past two years or so, Molly became increasingly frail and needing constant encouragement to eat enough. But just a week or so ago, Molly’s health took a very sudden turn for the worse. Her appetite had not been good for a long time, but now she could no longer be tempted with delicacies such as salmon, or ham – or even sponge pudding with custard (yes, really!). Some old favourites returned – tuna, tinned cat foods, cat biscuits, but only a little. Very little. Already painfully thin, she lost weight rapidly, and was increasingly struggling to walk in a straight line. In the past week she lost sight in one eye, and started sneezing blood clots. Yet she continued to take herself to the litter tray, to her water and food bowls, and would routinely climb the stairs to spend a few hours in the office or our bedroom. Yesterday, and the day before – for the first time since last autumn, she suddenly decided to go for a walk around the garden, visiting all the greenhouses, and touring all the paths. We found her asleep under the tomatoes in Greenhouse Four.
And yet … last night, just before bed-time, we found her asleep in her basket with blood drooling from her mouth … and she seemed to have suffered a stroke. We stayed up with her late into the night …
This morning she was more perky … but it wasn’t going to get any better, was it? And we didn’t want it to get any worse.
Molly has been with us, day after day, longer even than our own two daughters. She’s been a big part of our lives and we’ve grown to both love and respect her. We will never forget how much she has meant to us!