Letter to our friends at the Angel, from the Hebrides

Dear All,
it is seven months since we left Suffolk for good. Having kept in touch by the electric medium, people down south have suggested that I might add my own thoughts on moving and migrating and tearing up roots, to match those of Bob Chilwell.

I have resisted so far, firstly because first impressions, while lasting, tend to be the least accurate, and secondly, because I want to avoid, at all costs, sounding in any way patronising or discourteous towards the people we now count as neighbours, acquaintances and friends.
So any "humour" found here is aimed inwards, at the expense of our ignorance and misunderstanding, and not outwards. We have been greeted with unfailing pleasantness, courtesy and not a little sympathy! Undoubtedly, we have made gaffes, for which we hope we are forgiven - certainly, so far, in public at least, they have not been criticised.

How do we live?
Easily, is the answer.
Shopping is a universal chore, of course. Ours is done largely in Portree (6 miles, 10 minutes distant). There, we have all the suppliers we could want - a couple of supermarkets, one larger than the other and "Out of Village", - a baker, an excellent butcher who also runs cattle on his croft just over the hill from us, a newsagent (and, no, we don't have the paper delivered, nor the milk for that matter). There is the chemist with an efficient repeat prescription service, our doctor and dentist, a hospital, tourist shops. The library has a good and cheap CD/DVD section. The Post Office is in the town centre and the sorting depot on the outskirts. We get our daily post sometime after mid-day - sometimes earlier on Monday. To get post off the island the same day, it has to be at the depot by 1.15 in the afternoon.
But as with all things, it's the little things that get noticed, isn't it? The fish man on the Co-op car park, always friendly, always good fish, chieftain of Skye Camanachd (the shinty club), is always keen to help with advice about how best to cook his fish, or how to contact the club. The butcher is hugely helpful with ideas about his meat, but also about how to get to grips with our land. The postman drives to the door and recognises us when we are in the town.

I need to be careful here. It depends who you talk to, which sign you see, which book you read.

Is Portree a town or a village?

It's about the same population as Glemsford, but it has far more about it.

To the casual observer, the arrival in Portree by road from the south is not without interest. Past the futuristic frontage of the knowingly-named "Aros Centre", standing bravely head on against the never-ceasing onslaught of perfidious English against the native tongue, the natural route swoops by anxious, almost suburban, villas on that statement of the obvious, Viewfield Road.

Hard by the turning for Dunvegan, Portree High School stands guard over the town, and doubtless the minds and morals of the youth of the Island. It resembles nothing so much as the fortress that might have been built rapidly, and without concern for aesthetics, by an occupying army to control the natives, which, in a sense, it does. It is due to be rebuilt. One can hope that the new builing will be more in keeping with its surroundings.

Bridge Road leads, naturally enough, across a bridge, into The Green, which isn't, except for an oddly-coloured backpackers' hostel in what used to be the Post Office. The centre, where the banks are, and the bus station, and the taxi stand, and the police station and several churches, is Somerled Square. Steadfast buildings breathing defiance against whatever may be thrown at them, they echo the solidity and good intentions of those good men who built this place. A safe anchorage and a natural landing point were not, in themselves, enough. Those sturdy citizens had to embellish and adorn with signs and symbols of their wealth.

The quayside and harbour have a quaintness which stands apart from the grey fastness of the domineering citizens which look down on them. The colourful buildings on the quay contrast in a quite defiant way: if the walls above had mouths you would hear them tut-tutting at their inferiors.

So if it were asked, I suspect Portree would declare itself a town, but in an offguard, affectionate, late Saturday evening moment, it would be a village.

Best not to argue.

How have we fared?

I am attaching here some extracts from outgoing emails despatched to a variety of people since we arrived. Apologies if you have read them before, because they were sent to you. And apologies for occasional repetition and anachronisms, but I think they serve their purpose.

21 October 2003

It has been an interesting day. Awoke to a power cut. No problem, but everything goes on electric here, and the builders haven't delivered our multi-fuel stove yet, so, the power having gone off at c. 4 a.m., by 10.30 things were getting a bit chilly. This was confirmed by the fact that, looking to our favourite view of the Cuillins, they had somehow turned white. The first snow has arrived, although we have none here, or nearby. The power cut affected Skye, Lewis, Harris, Barra and the Uists - a major fault on the line out of the mainland, apparently. Didn't even make the local news! Now, if this were London, there'd be rape and pillage and a leap in the birth rate. Here, Mrs B (Next Door) popped by to make sure we had a wee camping gas stove to make a cup of tea (we did, I bought one in Argos before we moved), and that was it. The Post Office in Portree had power by 11.30, so all was well.

This afternoon, we planted some bushes, then watched aghast as the local yobbery, in the form of 12 Cheviot and 2 Black Faced Ewes passed through the garden, doubtless having heard that there was a tasty nosh courtesy of the newcomers. Luckily, they were scared of me, and went hurtling off down to the A87, nearly causing mayhem with the afternoon bus to the Kyle.

The lights went out again this evening, so I missed the Anderlecht goal against the Bhoys. Somehow, satellite tele has a special section for the Scots, so I didn't get the Arsenal game in Kiev.

Yesterday was fun too. several buzzards circled the garden and a weasel played skittishly on the builders spoil heap ...

9 November

We are pottering along quite nicely. It is silly how easy it is to slip out of "teaching" gear. It is also very difficult to avoid slipping into neutral. However, we promised ourselves this autumn and winter off, and we're sticking to it. The house remains a dream, although we still have bits and pieces to get stowed somewhere. Storage is at a premium, and not everything will go in the shed.

The garden looms over us, threateningly. "I'm going to pull all your muscles," you can almost hear it laughing. Clearing bracken is intensely time consuming and not very rewarding. We also have to be on constant guard against the odd vagrant ewe, but all those years watching "One Man and His Dog" are proving not such a waste of time after all. Our fire is now in place and toasts one's toes to a turn. Despite this, I have still not succumbed to pipe and slippers.

The weather (how English of me) has been interesting to say the least. We have had some absolutely glorious autumn days, brilliant sunshine, just enough edge to the air to make it interesting, and views forever. We have also had some very strong winds. We always knew we were coming to that place where the isobars are closest together on Mr Fish's weather map: last week the wind got up on Monday night and finally eased off on Thursday, only to return the same night! Never mind. The houses are built with such matters in mind. Temperatures have also been interesting. On Friday, the car said 18C, and I've always suspected it of under-reading.

The other vaguely meteorological experience happened two Thursdays ago when we went outside at 9.30 in the evening to watch the sky turning purple and white and red and light blue in the most amazing way. Our first Aurora, after that sunspot activity. Quite magical it was, and could explain several of those late 60s/early 70s psychedelic album covers.

17 November

The house is good and getting better, and we have, I think, already turned it into a home, with all those little touches like a scratch on one wall and a dirty mark above a radiator where I tried to bleed it and it sprayed too far, your honour.

... the garden is taking time when it's not raining. I tend to dig for a third of the time and spend the other two thirds admiring the view, which just gets better. The ovine branch of the Scot Nats seem to have got the message - no marauders for nearly a fortnight now.

We get out and about. Portree is but a caber toss away and has an excellent Co-op and fresh fish man. We can always score free coffee in Skye Batiks, which is our favourite clothes shop in the universe. We will have to head for Inverness in the near future for Big Christmas Shopping, but it's 3 hours each way.

We've joined the History Society and the Wildlife group, for interest and to meet people. The first meeting of the Wildlife group was all about the spawning habits of wild salmon and sea trout, and the effect of fish farming and the activity of sea lice in particular. Strangely compelling. ...

The nearest pubs are in Portree or Uig, about 6 miles in either direction, but we tend to stay in and sample bottled ale, or head for Stein (our favourite) which is 25 minutes by car. The builders have fitted a hugely efficient multifuel stove in the hearth and it pumps out the heat, I can tell you ..., so there's an incentive to stay at home.

The weather has actually calmed down: no more snow, and it cleared from the hills quite quickly. We didn't get the Big Storm last week although everyone was expecting it, and we have had a number of sparkling days. Plenty of rain too but nothing to grumble about - not that we would.

2 February 2004

Snow and ice

What's that then? After all the build up, we ended up with a light dusting that looked like a mild case of dandruff. The roads were clear, and apart from a couple of 15 minute heavy showers, you wouldn't have known it was winter - apart from the temperatures that is, which were very low. Quite disappointing really, as we were all stocked up and raring to get some decent winter photos. Never mind. Anyway, now its b. wet again, and the wind is blowing a severe hoolie.

So we're fine. We did confine ourselves to barracks for a couple of days, just in case, but there was no need. The house has never looked cleaner, and we've got the CD collection on the way to being catalogued, and I was able to update various bits of the site.

19 February

We've had some really lovely sunshine up here over the last couple of days, so the garden is, regrettably, back on the agenda. Raking up bracken on a 1-in-3 slope is not my ideal occupation, but there are compensations when skeins of geese fly over and the local ravens put on a show. We haven't had any eagles for the last couple of weeks - I'm coming to the conclusion that they are just weekenders, but we did spend countable time watching them cavort over the headland the last time they appeared.

On the down side, we woke up on Tuesday to the sight of 6 ewes demolishing our newly planted hedge and taking out the two rows of broad bean seedlings that were looking so promising. The pain was somewhat alleviated by the vision of Marilyn chasing after them, in the half-light, dressed in dressing gown and trainers. It looked like something out of a Carry On film.

The sheep have not been back since. Draw your own conclusions.

24 February

All very well here. Yet again the snow is amounting to nothing more than nuisance showers with no sign of any accumulation. Between times we are getting some more bright sun and everything looks great. An eagle over the patch yesterday afternoon, being mobbed by a couple of buzzards.

I like that expression; conjures up images of eager young birds demanding autographs.

28 February

Skye is well. Before we moved we were assured that winters were more mild and muggy than cold and bright. We've had snow all week, and rather more last night. Not, I hasten to add, on an East Anglian, or even just a cataclysmic, scale, but enough to make the world look better still. The Glasgow bus seems to get through ok, so civilisation still exists somewhere, we gather. Portree employs a little man with a little pavement-size tractor and snowplough, to clear the pavements. Now, why didn't Bury St Edmunds think of that?

Much as I deplored the ignorance through which "the wrong kind of snow" came to be used as a baseball bat to batter BR, I've rarely seen snow in the style that we have it here today. You know that sort of polystyrene snow they put in shop windows at Christmas that always looks so artificial? Well, our snow has been just like that, and very dry for snow, until it melts when it's just as wet as ever. Strange that.

We've encountered eagles at last - two cavorting over the loch, and one being mobbed by a couple of buzzards. A spectacular sight, and one of those that I would not have believed possible a few months ago.

The locals are still friendly, and the living is good - 3 hours to Inverness when I need a new pair of trousers, but who's counting? I've been off the island twice since we moved, not including collecting Christmas visitors from the Kyle, and will have to be careful about incipient agoraphobia. We're going back to Suffolk in mid-March to see M's mum, and will probably be down again in the summer at some point.

7 March

We continue to prosper. We had some big snow before last weekend (8 days ago), but it cleared quickly and we have had some lovely days since, so we've been out on the garden clearing bracken and planting willows. The evenings are starting to draw out, so we're getting some great sunsets, and it's also getting lighter in the mornings. There is a down-side to this, in that the sheep get up earlier too, which is threatening our new plants and blood pressure. We suspect the next 6 weeks or so are going to be the best of the year up here, in that spring is coming, but not so many tourists yet. ...

Life continues to be particularly fine. We did have a decent amount of snow last week (February 26 - 8) so that travel was briefly difficult, but again, it didn't last long. We have since had some real sparklers, with many hints of spring just beginning. We've been able to get some garden preparation done, but that is a very long term job. Today is glorious - but it is not the "done thing" to work in the garden or wash the car on the Sabbath, so we went out to look at the oyster catchers and curlew, and now I'll watch the rugby instead.

The local sheep are still a threat to new vegetation - or, at least, two are in particular, and now the mornings have opened out, they tend to launch their raids that much earlier. I wish I'd had a camera out one morning when M spotted them at work and chased after them in her dressing gown. Mrs B (Next Door) was out after them in hers (dressing gown, that is) at 2 a.m. the other morning - she claimed the full moon had meant the sheep wouldn't settle. At least, .... They certainly made a mess of some of her (and our) bulbs.

The local bird life is gearing up for spring, too, so they're becoming quite noisy. There's a flock of Greylag geese who cruise past occasionally, and the Hooded Crows are beginning to cavort aerobatically. Eagles are putting in more frequent appearances, as well. We've spotted the first of the new season lambs trotting behind its mother across the common land. I dream of mint sauce ...

As for the whisky, my doctor is insisting that I should lose several hundredweight, but they're quite relaxed up here: cut out the beer, but the scotch has very few calories, you'll understand, so pass me the Johnnie Walker.

7 April

We continue to be very well. The winter was all and nothing - certainly, we had more snow on average in Suffolk. The days are opening out nicely, and the garden is just starting to look as though we care, about some of it at least! The sheep continue to wreak havoc with our bushes however. We are still promised all sorts of protective barriers, but I reckon a twelve bore would be best. We're getting out being sociable now. Cinema, concerts, societies, occasional pub. I didn't know films existed. And the surroundings remain magical. When you get a chance, you must drop by.

22 April

As I type, the rain is blasting horizontally against the window, our stream is threatening to overflow, and the last of the daffodils are being blasted to eternity, so no gardening today (again).

We are well. Touch wood, we have survived the winter with no outbreak of flu, nor even a cold, sleeping sickness or tick-related ailment. We shouldn't be, but are, mildly surprised at the way the length of the day works up here. Intellectually and experientially, we know we will get longer evenings and shorter nights to make up for the sun setting at 3.15 in December, and rising after 9 in the morning, but, checking the BBC site, we are already 45 minutes later than Suffolk in the evening. I spent a happy hour trying to work out whether it was northness or westness that caused it and concluded that it was both, with an increasing emphasis on the former! Thus is time spent in retirement.

I mention this as a long-winded introduction to the point that we have already successfully negotiated our first three sets of visitors from down South. Everyone seemed to enjoy themselves immensely.

Unfortunately, the weather was typical while Pip was here - a few glimpses of sun but a lot of rain too. We still got out and about, though, including a concert performance in Portree - our third venture into Gaelic music this year, and excellent. Bagpipes, electric fiddle, bass and drums make a wonderful noise. We've also been to the "pictures" for the first time in our 32 year relationship - "Lost in Translation" - which was excellent.

As you'll have seen in our photos, the builders are still working (very slowly - and not at all for the last two days) on the front of the site. We are awaiting our own version of a stone wall, but we do have a gate and the cattle grid is in place, although not sheep-tight yet.

Talking of sheep, lambing is a lot later here than in the Archers. The one reported back in March must have been premature. The fluffy little Aaaah-provokers are beginning to bounce around the township land in numbers, but must be in severe danger of drowning, or at least rotting, in the current downpour. My call of "Mint Sauce" is greeted with disdain.

Spring birdlife is showing itself too. The first martins and wheatear have appeared, for instance. Eagles have disappeared for the moment, but we are confident they will return.

16 May

We seem to be getting the reverse of your weather at present. We've had several brilliant days of late, when it has been gloomy in the south, and vice versa.

One of the real bonuses has been the length of the evenings. When the sun shines, the views down the loch really are something very special. But, hey, I forget myself, I like rain, remember? The great thing is having the time to look at it all.

The garden will, I think, take years. It could take all the time we have if we let it. My day normally begins with a brisk 15 minutes Bracken Stomping. Our land is infested with it; we refuse to use chemicals but it is nasty and poisonous, and will be around for a long time, but some farmers swear by releasing cattle onto Bracken-infested fields to trample it into submission, so I'm doing my imitation of that!

Positively, we've had a brilliant show of primroses, and there are signs of vast reserves of bluebells for years to come.

The builders are taking a long time to do the finishing off. We now have a proud dry stone wall of our own, but are waiting for the tarmac on the drive and (still) to be connected to the main sewer. We do now have a gate and a cattle grid, so should be safe from further predations by the sheep, even though there is a group of 15 or so stroppy and curly-horned rams staring accusingly at us from the field opposite a I type. I stare back.

However, nature "red in tooth and claw" continues to surround us, if rabbits have red teeth, that is, because no sooner had the sheep been banned than Flopsy Little Cotton Tail made its first appearance. We are not amused, since our first vegetable attempts are just starting to show above ground level, and we have spent a Pensioner's Fortune on new shrubs and plants. The Fritillaries already seem to have succumbed. We are hopeful that the local neighbourhood stoats may do some good, along with the buzzards, but we have a can of Reynardine in reserve too. I should start work on my 12 bore licence, I suppose.

The other major nuisance is the Cuckoo, harbinger of spring, and all that nonsense. You can take it from me that it is all very well hearing one in the distance. It is also a real buzz to see one sitting in the tree at the top of the garden, and to study it for half an hour and more, but to have the so-and-so start shouting (for such it does) outside the bedroom window at 3.15 in the morning is no joke, I can tell you. It goes on and on and on. Another case for the 12 bore? (Animal Right-ists? I jest, ok?)

Other birdlife is far more exciting. The wheatear are back. We have whinchat in the garden regularly - another beautiful bird; greenfinches and thrushes abound; I was able to count 8 heron in view from the window recently; we are told to expect corncrake soon, too.

No midgies yet, but they can't be far away.

So there you are, or rather, we are.
Our best wishes to you all; keep in touch, and let's hope the result at Upton Park go the right way!

Page maintained by Stephen Clarke, stephen.clarke@ukonline.co.uk. Copyright(c) . Created: 17/05/2004 Updated: 18/05/2004