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.