Winds of Change

Langass Plantation North UistAutumn in the Outer Isles can be somewhat blustery and at times storm lashed. Each year we get our share of  violent storm force winds (Force 11 – winds over 64 mph) when it’s normally dinner by candle light and an early night with a hot water bottle.
The winds can be very destructive and, although the bane of every gardener’s, crofter’s’ and fisherman’s life, they helped save the island from being covered by the conifer plantations which blighted so much of Scotland. However, we did not escape entirely as there was some planting by the Forestry Commission and other land owners at the end of the last century. Many of the Commission’s plantations were experimental and slowly these have passed into community ownership. These are now being transformed into an educational and recreational resource for the benefit of local communities and visitors.

Wood sorrel Oxalis acetosella

Wood sorrel Oxalis acetosella

Langass Community Woodland on North Uist is one of our regular haunts, and although primarily Lodgepole Pine and Sitka Spruce, it supports a diverse community of mosses, lichens and fungi. The trees were planted in 1969 but in 2005 and subsequent winters many of the large trees have been blown-over by the gales. Some of the fallen stands of timber have been partially cleared creating sunlight mossy glades where ferns and wood sorrel flourish. These new open areas and fallen timber have done much to increase the biodiversity and landscape value of the woodland.
The island landscape is sculpted by the wind, its the physical form changing over millennia and sometimes more dramatically in the lifetime of a storm. Such elemental forces may appear to be superficially destructive but they are also creative, forming new habitats and acting as one of the many agents of evolution and natural selection.


All the birds of the air

Sanderling ardivachar beach

Sanderling Ardivachar Beach. ©Ian Butler

Considering that birds are an integral part daily life at Ardivachar they rarely feature in my accounts of island life. After a lifetime of watching birds the fascination has not faded but I prefer to watch rather than be distracted by trying to capture their magic with a camera. They rarely inspire my literary muse and I hesitate to produce a catalogue of sightings which would bore all but the most nerdy, ornithological anoraks.
However, when Ian Butler (friend and wildlife photographer) just happened to mention that the photograph he took of sanderling on the beach by the cottage in September 2012 was in November issue of the BBC Wildlife Magazine, it presented the perfect opportunity to share this wonderful photograph and to write about the winter birds at Ardivachar.
The birds I see from my kitchen window or when working in the cottage garden are enough to make any birdwatcher, especially those with twitching tendencies, a little envious.
I must be one of the select few who does participate in the annual RSPB Garden Birdwatch as the birds I see in my garden do not feature on the list; unless you include the 3000+ starlings which might be hanging around the croft on that particular day. There are usually lapwings feeding on the grass by the house, sometimes in the company of golden plovers and a curlew or two, with a flock of greylag geese on mowing duty nearby. A quick scan with the binoculars will often reveal a great northern diver fishing in the bay with the cormorants. Mallards (of dubious pedigree) appear from time to time, along with shelducks who strut majestically along the beach, but it is flashing wings of the male eiders which attract  attention that is until a flock of elegant long-tailed ducks arrive for a little surfing.
Each month we count the gulls and wading birds at Ardivachar for the Wetland Bird Survey.  We never quite know what we will find, will there be a handful or 900 sanderling running around along the tide edge, have the purple sandpipers arrived yet, will we be able to see the perfectly camouflaged turnstone as they delve among the seaweed, will there be ringed plovers and bar-tailed godwits? We are rarely disappointed and it doesn’t matter whether it is a rare American wader or the impossible task of trying to count 500 or more gulls of various species feeding, bathing sleeping or squabbling which tax our skills and delight the eye.
These wonderful birds are part of my daily life and although I don’t always stop to watch for more than a few minutes, I still marvel at the daily performances of our avian

Cirque du Soleil.  The daily programme varies and you never quite know what to expect. Will this be a matinée or a gala, will the prima donna arrive? The entertainment usually opens with a party of gulls transcribing circles as they wheel above the waves intensifying the winter sunlight with their pure white feathers. A conspiracy of ravens often provide a comedic interlude performing barrel rolls in tumbling towers with the careless skill of acrobats. On stormy days there may be a corps de ballet of diving gannets, sleek, arrow straight and performing with deadly accuracy or the stealth bird may appear as a manifestation of silent grace. The peregrine, the prima donna, does not always honour us with her presence, but when the sky is clear a distant figure will climb towards the horizon, effortlessly ascending the heavens, disappearing into the sun. Her wings gilded by Apollo, she appears in a blinding flash of light, a lightening stoop of speed and then she is gone. Just time for a finale before the light fades, a small brown sprite, quiet and agile, glides into view, hugging the contours of the coast. The merlin launches a surprise attack and with a touch of Celtic magic transforms a mundane, chattering, gabble of starlings into a twisting, turning, sinuous, dark cloud; birds moving as one in a sublime exposition of aerobatic synchronised flying. Predator avoidance behaviour or perhaps a spontaneous symmetry breaking phenomenon, a sort of non-equilibrium counterpart of the well known Heisenberg model”, I prefer poetry in motion!

Sanderling Ardivachar Beach, February 2013

Sanderling Ardivachar Beach, February 2013


A stormy afternoon with chutney, muffins and Dave

Green Tomato ChutneyOn dark autumn mornings when the wind is thumping along the roof and the rain is hammering against the window I know that it is going to be an “inside day”. Resolutely delusional and optimistic, I still believe that if I tackle the mountain of paperwork on my desk or discipline myself to doing some do some of the ironing, without getting too grumpy, that after lunch the weather will improve and I can get as far as far as the polytunnel without having to alert the Coast Guard. All morning I watch the squalls hurtling along the horizon and the waves pounding the reef and try not to be a sulky child.
It is tempting to seek refuge by the fire with tea, cake and a good book, but I have a guilty secret – there is a big bag of green tomatoes from last year lurking in the freezer. There is no excuse, it has to be turned into chutney before I start this years batch!
My chutney recipe is a closely guarded secret, mainly because it varies from year to year depending on what’s available on the day. On this particular afternoon there were some small and very hot Apache chillies, Hungarian hot wax peppers (small, yellow and a funny shape), an assortment of rainbow coloured sweet peppers, desert apples from the supermarket (variety unknown, past the “sell-by” date but only 25p for a big bag), onions (a supermarket bargain again as they were a “non-standard” ? size), a vast array of spices, sugar of various hues from dark brown molasses to soft light brown, and some ancient cider vinegar. Oh yes don’t forget the garlic (lots), especially at this time of year.
Making chutney appeals to my frugal instincts, it not only uses the occasional fruit and vegetable gluts from the garden but it can be supplemented with the periodic eccentricities of our local supermarket – one week apples are £2 a bag and the next 25p. It is also pretty fool-proof, although beware of the chillies of unknown strength!
I like making chutney, but I find that I get distracted by repetitious chopping and if I’m not careful I am prone to lose parts of digits. My knife skills are not be envied. This is when Dave arrives, aka Mr Brubeck and his trio, with some very cool jazz. Rock ‘n’ roll, blue grass, Celtic fiddles or some thumping Beethoven would probably result in the loss of whole fingers!
Finally it is all in the preserving pan and gently simmering and the jars are ? In the shed. I’d forgotten to bring the jars into the kitchen, so on with the waterproofs and wellies, a dash to the shed, wrestle with the barn sized door in the wind and an unsteady lurch back to the house clutching a large box. At this point I’m ready for some calming Mozart and a cup of tea.
Whilst rootling around looking for potential chutney ingredients, I’d discovered a half-full jar of pesto in the fridge. Not suitable for chutney but a candidate for savoury muffins. Not too demanding on the baking skills thus giving me time to stir the bubbling brew in the pan from time to time. By the end of the afternoon, the sun had come out, the chutney was cooling in the jars and the muffins were on the table.  Maybe not a perfect day, but not a bad way to spend a stormy afternoon.

I do not have a chutney recipe to share, but you might like the Pesto Muffins.