Winter in the Outer Hebrides. When it’s rough, it’s very, very rough. Violent. Fearsome! But when it’s not, it’s soft. Surprisingly soft.
It’s about the air – moisture-laden air. (We are, after all, talking small islands girt about by the Atlantic.) If the air is moving, then the moisture makes us feel it all the more. The humidity. From the north, the air is cold but dry, and it doesn’t even feel as cold as it truly is. But from almost any other direction – but especially from the south-west, the air is mild and very wet (and that’s even when it isn’t raining) – and that means sticky in summer and wearying in winter.
But when the air isn’t on the move, it’s the same moisture that makes the air soft. But don’t take my word for it : arrive here on the ferry, and take in deep-filled lungfuls of air, and you’ll know it for yourself. Sweet, and oh so soft.
Then there’s the sunshine. The further from the equator, the closer is the arc of the sun to the horizon. Latitude. The rays from a low-sailing sun pass through more of Earth’s atmosphere, where particles of moisture and dust scatter the photons and attenuate the power and alter the colour-balance of the light. Here in the Outer Hebrides, the light has a blue-ish cast, and is gentle on the skin. Soft!
We’re just back from Navarra, Spain. Our first night was spent snow-bound on a motorway slip-road! It snows, especially in mountainous northern Spain. But there the cold doesn’t feel so cold – because there’s little wind. Wind turbines are a-plenty, but unlike in Uist they’re less likely to be stationary because the wind is too strong, more likely because there’s no wind at all!) Lacking the force of the wind, rain – or even melting snow – doesn’t chill as it does in the Outer Hebrides, because the air is dry. Dry enough to make our head aches if we don’t drink water enough – a little, often. And when the sun comes out – as it did often during our January-long stay, it’s strong enough that, after our bodies are warmed through, we start to feel uncomfortable. A bit of shade would be good!
So today, in Uist, we’ve revelled in softness. Mild – perhaps about 6 or 7 degrees Celsius, and almost perfectly still. Soft.
So, today, Denise and I set about digging out the ‘mature’ compost heap (material collected in 2016). Growing plots in most need of nourishment were at the diagonally opposite corner of the garden – about eighty metres away by wheell-barrow-slalom course : that’s a lot of work for two folks about one sixtieth older than they were last year, so we only managed half the job today. That’s probably about four or five tonnes between us. The forecast for tomorrow looks to be even softer than today, so I’m sure we’ll manage the rest then : so we’ve left all the barrows and tools ready to continue. And the barrow-run will be shorter, too.
It’s a lot of physical work, and to be honest we do tend to find excuses to put it off, but truth is that it’s a job that we find extremely satisfying. The cats love it too: we only do this work on delightful soft winter days – like today, and after weeks of wind and rain, they like nothing more than to be out in the garden with us for company. The garden birds keep us company too, darting in and out of the compost bins, snatching some of the thousands of worms that thrive in the warmth and plenty of the undisturbed compost. Tomorrow we must try to capture a photo of a Robin!
Jonathan & Denise >
After a long journey, we’re back in Uist : home, sweet home! (No, we haven’t moved permanently to Navarra!)
Becky’s pleased to see us! Tilly’s pleased to see us! (And judging from appearances, Tilly’s tail is even more excited to see us than Tilly herself!). Pickle is pleased to see us, even if her demeanour is intended to convey her displeasure at having been abandoned by us in the first place. Dusky and Tabatha have each demonstrated their delight at our return by kneading our laps with sharp claws and squeaky purrs. Tom trots ahead of us to show us his empty bowl.
Becky’s done an excellent job of looking after home and garden. And, at the Big Garden Croft – over the water in Eriskay, everything is in excellent order. It’s true that we now have one chicken less than we had before we left, but after that first early-morning raid by an eagle, Becky shut the chickens in for a few days, and there were no more losses. All the sheep are present and in good shape. (Now half-way through pregnancy, that shape is getting rounder by the day!) They really do enjoy their morning supplementary ration of sheep nuts and hay!
Becky can’t be expected to do everything for us, whilst we’re away, so there’s a lot of jobs to catch up on – not least the the administration and bureaucracy of modern life (especially a life of multiple self-employments).
Then there’s re-stocking with animal feed and hay. Winter maintenance, decoration and improvements at the holiday lets to complete. The compost heap built up in 2016, and now matured, has to be dug out , and spread across about a third of the walled garden’s growing plots : the 2017 compost will take it’s place (thereby being thoroughly stirred up and aerated) and then over the next couple of months seaweed will be collected from the shore and piled up on top.
On the agenda today : shopping to re-stock the pantry shelves ; sawing firewood ; spinning wool ; checking our stock of potatoes ; filling the vehicles with fuel ; financial records ; and of course, inevitably, everything to tip out of our travel bags and put back in their proper places, and dirty washing to launder.
After excellent sales during the 2017 summer season, and an unexpectedly steady trickle of online orders since, the Hebridean Woolshed is sorely depleted of stock, and likewise the Big Garden of jams, chutneys and preserves. After nearly a month of our the winter making-season away from home, we’ve got a lot of catching up to do! And to add to the pressure, this year we’ve quite a number of early bookings for our two holiday cottages : not just in March, but even in February. No wonder we’ve scarcely had a holiday in more than fifteen years!
Having, now, a place of our own to go away to (albeit with not a little difficulty) does seem to have given us fresh motivation to make the most of what we have here, to give it our very best.