Friday, 2 November 2012

The Black House

By Peter May

This is the first in a trilogy of murder mysteries set on Lewis, the largest and most northerly island in the Outer Hebrides. Black houses were the stone dwellings lived in by people across the islands until relatively recent times. They were known as 'black' houses because the fire in the middle of the main room and lack of ventilation led to them being constantly filled with smoke. The white houses that came along later were basically modern houses, with a hearth and chimney to allow the smoke to escape.

Edinburgh detective Fin Macleod is sent to investigate a brutal murder in the north of the island. He is chosen firstly because he is investigating a similar murder in Edinburgh and it's possible it's the same killer, and secondly because he is originally from the village in which the killing has taken place and speaks Gaelic.

Through a series of flashblacks told in the first person we learn about Fin's early life on the island. These are intertwined with the present day investigation which is told in the third person. As secrets from the past are revealed Fin is dragged personally into the case.

The local men are about to leave on their traditional annual guga hunt. Guga are young gannets and as seabirds are protected under British law. However, an exception is made allowing the men of Ness to carry out their hunt once a year as it is seen as an important local tradition originating in times when the guga would have provided essential food throughout the winter when the weather was too bad for fishing.

The men are going to Sula Sgeir, a desolate rock out in the Atlantic. Once there they will be cut off from the mainland for 14 days until the fishing boat that delivered them, returns to collect them. The time on the weather beaten rock consists of long days of hard work and primitive living conditions. Fin took part in the guga hunt the summer before he left for university and knows full well what it entails. In the story his old schoolfriend's son is about to make his first trip.

The book provides quite an accurate description of the tradition with just a few details changed - the number of men who take part is increased from ten to twelve in the novel, and the rock is never actually referred to as Sula Sgeir. Wanting to know more about the tradition I googled it and came up with this BBC web page  based on a documentary made a couple of years ago by Mike Day. The page includes a series of short videos which were quite interesting and helped me to see how close the book was to the reality.

Did I like this book? Yes, for the knowledge of the guga hunt I gained and yes it was an entertaining story. I didn't like the switching from first to third person, though I could see the reason for this (kind of). I also wouldn't class it as one of the best books I've read in this genre, but it's certainly not the worst and so I probably will read the rest of the trilogy.

October 2012 Twelve Review

Some of my 2012 Twelve challenges seem to be morphing into different tasks. I'm not too bothered about this as at least I feel like I'm achieving something. However, there are still far too many challenges that I've really not made any headway with at all and I'm fast running out of year. This bothers me a bit more.
  1. Floating in a floatation tank (I'm hoping to do this in London during the February half term)
  2. Reading at least 10 books from the BBC Big Read list (if I read 10 a year, I'll have the whole 200 knocked off in the next 12-13 years!) - Swallows and Amazons read; nine more to go for this year.
  3. Taking at least one photo every day of the year (this will improve my photography skills, be a photo-diary of 'year in my life', and help me to learn to use my new camera) - very few taken. 
  4. Coming up with a fitness plan and sticking to it (the start of my training for Kilimanjaro, though I may not actually climb it for several years yet) - keep making plans to go to the gym and then something comes up and I don't get there.
  5. Leading at least 4 of my own walks (good practice for my walking group leader's qualification) - not done any walking, let alone leading walks.
  6. Buying another house (need to get my finances in order first) - this seems to have morphed into a 'starting my own business' task instead.
  7. Learning to use at least 3 new pieces of technology or computer programmes (not counting my new camera) - had a quick course on using a special interactive whiteboard package. Seems really good, now I just need to use it a few times to get the hang of it.
  8. Doing a writing course (depends on the length of the course whether I'd complete it in the year or not) - as with going to the gym, I keep making plans to knuckle down and do this, and this something gets in the way. 
  9. Getting at least one piece of writing published (paid or unpaid, as long as someone else makes the decision to publish it and it's not self-published)
  10. Making a start on sorting out my photos (putting the prints that are currently still stuffed in packets into albums and getting all my photos scanned into the computer - no way will this be completed in a year, but I'll feel good even if I get started on it) - I've now decided to concentrate on my book database instead for this year.
  11. Buying a car/van that I can sleep in (and doing any necessary conversions/adaptations) - van conversions are on hold whilst I do work on my house, but I'm still hoping to have at least made a start by Christmas.
  12. Getting into cycling (even if it's just short cycle rides along decent paths) - I've been reading blogs about cycling trips to motivate myself. I know this isn't the same as getting out cycling myself, but at least it keeps it at the forefront of my mind.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Mystery Walker

A few weeks ago The Ramblers were asking for 'mystery walkers' to undertake a 2 mile walk in an allocated area close to where they live in order to help them build a countrywide picture of the state of the nation's footpaths. I put my name down and have just received an email giving me a grid square and a list of questions to be answered. I don't tend to walk in my own area, as I usually head out to the Peak District, so it will be quite interesting to discover some of the footpaths that I live beside. I need to plan my own route within the grid square and so I'll have to dig out the relevant map first. I don't know when I'll get time to actually do the walk, especially as the nights are drawing in now and so I won't be able to do it after work. But hopefully within a month I'll have it done and dusted.  

Sunday, 14 October 2012

September 2012 Twelve Review

Only three months of the year to go and I'm nowhere near finishing my list. I'm not going to stress too much over it as I'm happy with what I have achieved. I'll still keep trying though.
  1. Floating in a floatation tank (I'm hoping to do this in London during the February half term)
  2. Reading at least 10 books from the BBC Big Read list (if I read 10 a year, I'll have the whole 200 knocked off in the next 12-13 years!) - started reading Swallows and Amazons.
  3. Taking at least one photo every day of the year (this will improve my photography skills, be a photo-diary of 'year in my life', and help me to learn to use my new camera) - Never think about it unless I'm out and about somewhere and have a reason to take photos.
  4. Coming up with a fitness plan and sticking to it (the start of my training for Kilimanjaro, though I may not actually climb it for several years yet) - One walk and that's been it.
  5. Leading at least 4 of my own walks (good practice for my walking group leader's qualification) - One walk walked, none led.
  6. Buying another house (need to get my finances in order first) - started planning a business instead.  
  7. Learning to use at least 3 new pieces of technology or computer programmes (not counting my new camera) - I've been using my tablet and Kindle a lot and I'm really starting to get the hang of them now and I'm discovering what they can do.
  8. Doing a writing course (depends on the length of the course whether I'd complete it in the year or not) - No more achieved on this.
  9. Getting at least one piece of writing published (paid or unpaid, as long as someone else makes the decision to publish it and it's not self-published)
  10. Making a start on sorting out my photos (putting the prints that are currently still stuffed in packets into albums and getting all my photos scanned into the computer - no way will this be completed in a year, but I'll feel good even if I get started on it) - I seem to have replaced this with my book database.
  11. Buying a car/van that I can sleep in (and doing any necessary conversions/adaptations) - On hold whilst I sort a woodburner for my living room out.
  12. Getting into cycling (even if it's just short cycle rides along decent paths) - Nothing done on this one.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Swallows and Amazons

by Arthur Ransome

This book is number 57 on the BBC's Big Read list and is a children's book.

The Swallows are four children, John, Susan, Titty and Roger, who are spending the summer in the Lake District with their mother, baby sister and baby sister's nurse. Their father is away at sea but has given permission by telegram for them to take a boat and a couple of home-made tents and sail off to an island in the lake to camp by themselves.

The children spend most of their time in a make-believe world where the lake is a sea with the North Pole at one end and the Antarctic at the other. They have renamed all the places around the lake and so the river leading into it has become the Amazon, the village has become Rio and a pool part way along the river has become the Octopus Lagoon. They use sailor/pirate/explorer words for everyday things and people. The local people are referred to as natives and the charcoal burners as savages; a snake is a serpent; lemonade is grog; they don't go fishing, instead they go whaling.

The children quickly settle into a peaceful routine on the island, but then find themselves under attack by a couple of Amazon pirates. The arrow-firing Amazons are two sisters, Nancy and Peggy Blackett, who are also staying by the lake with their mother. The Amazons have their own boat and had previously claimed the island as their own. They do not take kindly to the intruding Swallows and the two sides declare war. However, they are soon united in battle against the mean Captain Flint (aka the Amazons' Uncle Jim) who lives on a nearby houseboat.

Adventures follow and the Swallows and Amazons find 'treasure' which had been stolen from Captain Flint. This endears him to the children and he gives them his parrot and agrees to lead them on a bigger adventure the following summer.

The book was first published in 1930 and the story is set in the 1920s. It always shocks me a bit when I'm reminded of how big the gap between the classes was in those days and how the working classes would be treated as so inferior. This is the case with this book. The children, with their naval father and baby sister's nurse, are obviously middle-class. The local farmers and villagers refer to them as Master Roger, Miss Susan and so on. When a policeman comes to the island to follow up a complaint from Captain Flint the Amazon sisters, who know him, are downright rude to him and talk down to him as though he is a naughty boy - 'as long as you're good we won't tell your mother'. The policeman is frightened and chastised and hastily leaves.

All in all, I enjoyed the book though I'm glad I don't have to teach the children - I think they'd be damned annoying and precocious in real life and I doubt I'd last a day with them before I'd be sacked for insubordination!

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Goose Fair

For the past 16 years, ever since my friends moved to Nottingham, I've been saying I must go to Goose Fair. Last weekend I finally got round to going.

Goose Fair is thought to have started in the 1200s and was originally a fair for traders, particularly those trading geese - thousands would be walked to Nottingham from Lincolnshire to be sold. These days it's just a funfair with rides and food but because of its origins and because it is reputed to be the biggest fair in Europe it is both well-known and well-attended. Truancy rates in the local schools always soared on the Friday of the fair and so now the day is set aside as an inset day.

I went to the fair on Saturday evening after spending the afternoon sitting inside and outside various old Nottingham pubs. With the sun shining it was so nice to be able to sit outside and relax enjoying a good beer, a nice lunch and good conversation.

Outside Ye Old Trip to Jerussalem
Inside Ye Old Trip to Jerusalem

We started with lunch at a bar opposite the castle and then wandered down to 'Ye Old Trip to Jerusalem' for 3 beers. Well, why have one when you can have three? The pub sells real ales and offers a 'pick and mix' of them - three half pints of beers of your choice served on a wooden platter. Of course it had to be done. The pub itself is interesting as it's built into the caves. Nottingham is riddled with sandstone caves that until relatively recently people still lived and worked in. It's possible to do a tour of the pub's cellars but these have been withdrawn at the moment. I would be interested in going along on one when they start them up again as caves always interest me and caves that are utilised as modern day buildings interest me even more.

Next we went along to 'The Royal Children' which apparently got its name when the children of King James II's daughter, Princess Anne, were entertained there back in the 1600s. Inside is a whalebone which used to hang above the door and was painted with the name of the pub. This dates to the time when whale oil became popular in oil lamps and the whale oil companies would use the bones as a means of advertising.

Finally we stopped off at 'The Salutation', another old and well-known pub. This seemed to be a bikers' pub and had loud music and lots of men with leather and tattoos. It also sold real ale and I got quite a nice beer. It's built over caves which are open to the public, though we didn't go down them. (Got to leave myself a reason to go back!)

After this we made our way to Goose Fair and spent a few hours wandering around, trying out rides and food. I went on the big wheel to get a good view of the whole fair and was able to appreciate the size of it. I had hoped to see more of Nottingham but it was too dark by this time and the bright lights of the fair blotted out of the rest of the view.

I ate mushy peas with mint sauce and bought cocks on sticks as presents. Mushy peas are something I usually eat with chips, but here they were sold as a snack in their own right and the stalls had large bowls of mint sauce on their counters for customers to add and stir into their tubs of mushy peas.

The cocks on sticks are a tradition and have been made out of sweet rock for over 100 years by the same family. It took a while to find the stall as it's only small but eventually we did. Originally they were sold as geese on sticks but at some point the name was changed to the snigger-inducing cocks on sticks by the classy ladies of Nottingham.

Finally we headed home. Goose Fair done, old pubs done, caves under pubs still to do.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Sketches of Hong Kong

Saudi Aramco World is a free bimonthly magazine distributed by the oil company 'to increase cross-cultural understanding [and] to broaden knowledge of the cultures, history and geography of the Arab and Muslim worlds and their connections with the West.'

I've been on the mailing list for this publication for some time now and I always enjoy the variety of articles it includes. The recent copy really surprised me however, with the cover awash with a water-coloured sketch of Hong Kong. The corresponding article spreads over ten pages and consists of more of these sketches each annotated with relevant text in a hand-written style font.

The focus, of course, is of Muslim life in Hong Kong, but includes anecdotes of a more general nature. One in particular that struck me highlights how the passage of time, particularly where politics is concerned, is thought of differently by the British and the Chinese. A cartoon about the ceding of the whole area of Hong Kong to the Chinese in 1997, rather than just the New Territories as stated in the original 99 year agreement, shows both Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping thinking they are victorious because they have 'persuaded' the other to agree to a fifty year period of compromise: the thought bubble above Thatcher reads 50 years is LONG time - 2,000 quarterly statements! - will he notice?; whilst Xiaoping's thought bubble reads 50 years is just around the corner. Does she realize this?

The article is titled Hong Kong Day and Night and is written and illustrated by Norman MacDonald. I hadn't heard of him before, but assumed he must be a long-time resident as he has been able to get his teeth into the underbelly of Hong Kong rather than merely regurgitating the superficial top layer of skin, which is all most 'stop-over' tourists ever get to experience. I googled him and found from his website that he's actually resident in Amsterdam, which, along with Hong Kong, is another city I like and have spent lots of time in. I can feel an affinity developing here - maybe this is why I was so drawn to his work. I don't think he holds exhibitions but he has had work published in a wide variety of newspapers and magazines so I'll have to keep my eye out for more of his work.

Saturday, 29 September 2012

Climbing with Kids

So I took 15 kids aged 11 - 14 for their first climbing session. It was meant to be archery but had to be changed at very short notice when the archery people pulled out. Lots of last minute phone calls, emails, risk assessments and begging for funding and RESULT! ... we are climbing at Awesome Walls in Stockport every Friday afternoon until Christmas.

This is part of the Duke of Edinburgh Award and the students taking part are all new it and so just starting out on their bronze award. As you have to be fourteen (or close to it) to take part in D of E the younger kids are working towards a special school award instead. We're hoping they'll still get lots out of it and it will whet their appetites for the real deal when they are old enough.

We were pretty disorganised yesterday as everything was so last minute - we weren't sure what to wear or where to get changed, whether or not there would be time to eat lunch, if we'd worked the timings out ok, and what exactly we were going to do once there. Luckily it all went well and like clockwork. We got there on time, were able to get changed and have a quick bite of our sandwiches before we started. Then there was time to finish lunch before going to get the bus back to school.

We had a short introductory talk and then a go at bouldering to warm up. Then it was on with harnesses and the first climb on a not very high wall. They all did well and so were able to spend the rest of the session tackling much higher walls. The students were divided into three groups of five, each with its own instructor. The instructor was great, explaining things, making sure the students were safe and knew what they were doing, but still giving them freedom to push themselves.

We had a couple of students who were worried about heights but still wanted to give it a go. They did brilliantly and felt like they'd really achieved something when they got up near the top of the high walls. One girl was quite shaky and feeling a little traumatised when she came down (we'd told her she only had to do what she was comfortable with, but she got up so fast I don't think she realised how high she'd gone until it was time to get down!), but within minutes she was wanting to have another go.

On the bus on the way home they were all buzzing and saying how much they'd enjoyed it and how they think it's much better than the archery would have been (some were quite disappointed when I first told them we would be doing climbing instead of archery). I was buzzing because they were buzzing. The teaching assistant who'd come with me had enjoyed it as well.

I didn't think I'd be able to have a go myself as it's costing rather a lot and I thought I would be pushing it to ask school to pay for me as well. The students were all keen to see me have a go though and so the instructor said I can try it out next week. I must remember my PE kit. (The video 'daft teacher stuck up a wall' that I'm sure will soon be appearing on Youtube will be even worse if it's 'daft teacher in business dress stuck up a wall'!)

The students will be working towards their level 1 and 2 NICAS qualifications (National Indoor Climbing Award Scheme) and will have log books for this. I thought I'd just be watching and picking up tips so that at some point I can come back and do it for myself as it is on my list of things to do. But if I can have even a bit of a go each week I'll get a lot further than I thought I would at this time and may be ticking this challenge off in the near future.

Saturday, 22 September 2012

Climbing, archery and bad internet

So, what have I been up to? Quite a bit actually. Let's start with archery. 

The man at the archery club where I was going to take my Duke of Edinburgh students has let me down so I'm feeling rather miffed about it. I'd told him in my initial email before the summer holidays that it would be Friday afternoons from about 12.30. After several emails in which he's sounded as though it might happen at the last moment he told me they can only do courses on Tuesday evenings. Arrgh. 

After some frantic hunting for another activity I've come up with climbing. It all sounds very positive. The club can fit us in at the times we require. The students can gain their level 1 and 2 qualifications in indoor climbing and it costs slightly less than the archery. Only problem now is whether or not school will give me the funding for it. I don't see what the problem is as I only need the money I would have had anyway for archery, but for some reason no-one will confirm with me whether I can go ahead and book or not. 

Although I won't be doing the climbing myself I'm sure to pick up plenty of tips for when I do get round to trying this for myself. I've put it on my list of things to do as some of my friends are climbers and seem quite obsessed with it. I thought I should give it a go to see what's so exciting about it. Personally I've always preferred to walk and get from one place to another rather than hanging about (literally!) in the same place all day. But I know I shouldn't dismiss something without trying, hence it's on my list. 

I've also been looking into doing my level 3 Basic Expedition Leader Award as this will be useful both for when I'm working on the Duke of Edinburgh expeditions and for when I get around to doing my Walking Group Leaders' qualification. The course runs over four weekends and costs £325. As it's work related school would pay for this so of course I'm very keen to do it. The course runs twice a year, once in the autumn and once in the early spring. The autumn course would be best for me, but it's full. I've looked at the dates for the spring course and it looks as though I'll be unable to do two of the four weekends. I'll have to try to move things around a bit, but as some of them are holiday things and as working in a school I have to take my holidays at fixed times, it won't be that easy. 

Duke of Edinburgh issues aside, I've also been starting to think seriously about my own business. Ultimately I want to own my own hostel and I have very specific ideas about what I want. But now isn't a good time economically to start that type of business and also it would need a lot of financial input upfront. As I don't have any track record in running my own business I'd find it difficult to get backing for something like that. So I need to start with something that is cheaper, easier to make a turnover in the beginning and ideally is something I already know quite a bit about.  I'm thinking sandwich shops / coffee shops. Having worked in this kind of business for years when I was travelling and a student it's the thing I know best. I'm starting to look around at businesses for sale to get an idea of prices and locations. I'm not in a position to do anything about it at the moment, but at least I've made a start. 

I've downloaded a few books on coffee shops, sandwich shops and small business start-ups on to my Kindle. My knowledge is out-of-date and legislation and so on does change so I thought I'd better read up. By downloading the books I'll also use my Kindle more effectively as I can use the tools for highlighting and annotating and so on, rather than just reading. This means I'll be getting to know how to use one of my new pieces of technology and working towards achieving one of my 2012 twelve targets at the same time as reading up on businesses. 

Another of my 2012 targets that I'm working on at the moment is reading 10 of the books from the BBC Big Read list. At the beginning of the year I set myself the target of reading ten books from the list thinking this would be easily achievable, but we're now three quarters of the way into the year and I haven't read any. I realise I need to get a move on if I still want to achieve this goal and so I've started reading Arthur Ransome's Swallow and Amazons.

I've also been working on my book database. I've catalogued my books up to the letter 'C' and already have almost 1100 entries on my database. I knew this would be a mammoth task when I started it, so I'm not setting myself a deadline. It does feel good to be getting on with it though.

The other thing that's taking my time at the moment is trying to get all my write-ups from over the summer transferred onto my blog. I found using my tablet whilst I was in the Hebrides a good way to get every typed up straight away, rather than hand writing and then typing up later, but I struggled to find internet access. In Shetland there's lots of free wi-fi and I was expecting it to be the same in the Outer Hebrides. So I have all these posts that I wrote at the time but was unable to publish. I have lots of photos to upload too and really it should be quite straightforward and quick, but my internet keeps playing up and stopping and because I have a rubbish internet company I'm struggling to get it fixed. This means that often when I do have the time and motivation to sit down and starting getting things updated the internet lets me down. As I do manage to upload my posts I'm backdating them to when I originally wrote them otherwise it'll just be too confusing for me when I look back over them.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Arabic books

The other day when I was feeling all enthused about learning Arabic I got online and ordered a couple of books from Amazon just to get me started. I don't have time to do a course at the moment so I thought books would be a good way for me to at least begin familiarising myself with the language. Today they arrived.

The first one is a child's book - 'The Usborne First Thousand Words in Arabic' by Heather Amery and Stephen Cartwright. The slim volume is slightly bigger than A4 sized and consists of a series of double-page, full-colour pictorial spreads, each on a different theme e.g. the kitchen or the hospital. The main picture shows a large array of items in situ, whilst around the border there is a selection of the items which can be found in the main picture. These each have the relevant word written in Roman and Arabic scripts. At the back of the book is a dictionary with each of the words from the books written alongside the English equivalent. This seems to be a good book for me to leave lying around so I can keep dipping into it.

The second book is 'The Arabic Alphabet: How to Read and Write it' by Nicholas Awde and Putros Samano. This A5 sized slim volume has an introductory chapter on the language and then goes into detail about each letter and how to write the different versions of it. There don't seem to be any exercises in it, but the letters are laid out in such a way that I can easily copy them to practise my writing.

I read a lot of reviews of different books before choosing these two. They both had plenty of positive reviews and they seem to fit my needs at the moment. When I improve, and when I have more time, I'll look for a book which includes grammar and sentence structure and has exercises I can work on.

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

2012 Twelve August Review

I've done a few relevant things this month, but still nowhere near enough to be confident of ticking everything off by the end of the year.
  1. Floating in a floatation tank (I'm hoping to do this in London during the February half term)
  2. Reading at least 10 books from the BBC Big Read list (if I read 10 a year, I'll have the whole 200 knocked off in the next 12-13 years!) - still haven't done anything about this one.
  3. Taking at least one photo every day of the year (this will improve my photography skills, be a photo-diary of 'year in my life', and help me to learn to use my new camera) - As I've been on holiday all month I've taken loads of photos and had not problem taking photos each day until right at the end of the month when I came home. Then I forgot all about it.
  4. Coming up with a fitness plan and sticking to it (the start of my training for Kilimanjaro, though I may not actually climb it for several years yet) - I've done lots of walking over the past month in the Outer Hebrides. Nothing too strenuous, but at least I've been getting exercise.
  5. Leading at least 4 of my own walks (good practice for my walking group leader's qualification) - I've still not led any walks, but at least I've done lots of walking.
  6. Buying another house (need to get my finances in order first) - nothing done towards this yet.
  7. Learning to use at least 3 new pieces of technology or computer programmes (not counting my new camera) - I've been getting to grips with using my new tablet. It's very different to my laptop and Office so it's taken a lot of trial and error, but I'm getting there.
  8. Doing a writing course (depends on the length of the course whether I'd complete it in the year or not) - I took lesson 1 of my writing course to the Outer Hebrides with me but did nothing on it.  
  9. Getting at least one piece of writing published (paid or unpaid, as long as someone else makes the decision to publish it and it's not self-published)
  10. Making a start on sorting out my photos (putting the prints that are currently still stuffed in packets into albums and getting all my photos scanned into the computer - no way will this be completed in a year, but I'll feel good even if I get started on it) - Haven't been home to do anything about this.
  11. Buying a car/van that I can sleep in (and doing any necessary conversions/adaptations) - I've lived in my van for the past month, sleeping in it every night. I love it. I feel I've got the feel of it now and I'm ready to get it converted. I know exactly what I want, I just have to find someone to do it for me.
  12. Getting into cycling (even if it's just short cycle rides along decent paths) - I didn't get to do anything about this, though when my brother arrived from Germany at the end of the month, he brought me the panniers I'd bought when I was over there at Easter. So I'm getting all the equipment together, now I just have to get out and cycle!

Duke of Edinburgh and other stuff

I'm officially on the Duke of Edinburgh team at school. This is something I've been wanting to be involved with for a while, but it's never worked out before. I'd like to get some experience on it as I think it will be interesting and fun to do, but also very useful for what I want to do in the future. I never got the opportunity to take part in it when I was younger, so now I'll take part vicariously through my students. It was a bit touch and go for a while as to whether I could be part of the team or not - it all depended on student numbers. But as we have at least 80 students signed up we're actually under rather than over staffed.

I need to offer a couple of activities I can work on with the students, so I'm looking at doing web design and archery. I haven't done anything about getting my own website since I finished the web design course over a year ago, so if I have to start teaching the basics of it, this will get me back into it.

As for the archery, it's something I've been keen to learn how to do ever since I had a go more than 10 years ago whilst on holiday in Ireland. A few times I've emailed a local archery club but never had a response. Whilst researching this for the D of E I found another club that isn't too far away. It took them a while, but they have got back to me. The course they're offering might be a bit too expensive but I have been given a few options. Hopefully we'll be able to go ahead with it and then not only will my students get to take part in an activity and learn a skill they probably wouldn't otherwise get a chance to do, but I'll get to it for free and in work time - how's that for a cunning plan?!

At the meeting after school this afternoon, it was mentioned that it would be a good idea for someone to do a course for D of E expedition leaders. I seem to be the most likely candidate for this. The course, which I know nothing about yet, is apparently one step down from the walking group leader's qualification so this would be VERY useful for me.

Because I'm also teaching humanities this year (someone must have slipped up when they put my timetable together - this is getting me precariously close to teaching the subject I'm actually qualified to teach rather than a range of random subjects I know nothing about), I'll probably get to go on a lot of the trips. This is also something I want to get more experience in as I feel it will be relevant and useful in the future.

All of sudden, I feel much more positive about this year!

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Back to school

I can't believe school starts again tomorrow. The summer holidays have just flown by and I still have so much to do. I know I shouldn't complain as I have much longer holidays than non-teacher people and if I felt like I could still do lots of non-work things during term time then I wouldn't complain at all. But if the new academic year is anything like the last few years then I'll be working stupid hours and feeling like my life is on hold except during the school holidays. To try to make myself feel a bit better about the new school year I've told myself not to work more than 50 hours a week. If I work 8am till 6pm each day I'll have time to go to the gym in the evenings and do other things at the weekend. At the back of my mind I know this probably won't happen, but I have to try. Next September I'd like to be in a different job and preferably working for myself. That won't happen if I don't have time or energy to put things in place over the next few months. As lists seem to work for me (I'd probably not have done any of the challenges on my 60 things list if I hadn't written the list and created the blog to keep it in the forefront of my mind) I've made a list of how my job can work for me over the next year; what I can achieve or gain experience in to help me in the future; and what I need to do to achieve my goal of doing something different for next September. Now I just have to remember to refer to my list and hope it works!

I want to speak Arabic

This evening I took the various family members who are staying with me at the moment to the Curry Mile for an Indian meal. Once there, we had a change of plan and went to a Lebanese restaurant called 'Beirut' instead. The food was wonderful and we spent several hours eating from the buffet and the menu. We had desserts and soft drinks as well as mint tea and the whole thing came to less than £10 a head.

The staff were really friendly and helpful and extra nice to the children. They were all speaking Arabic to each other; a language I love hearing and would love to be able to speak. They sometimes didn't quite understand what we were saying and it was so frustrating not to be able to just say it in Arabic to them. Usually this wouldn't bother me too much, but because this is a language I've been wanting to learn for years, it frustrates me I think because it makes me aware that I haven't done anything about it yet.

I don't think it would be overly difficult too learn because I've learnt Hebrew in the past and the roots of many words are the same in both languages. Whenever I've looked at the alphabet I can see how some of the letters relate to the Hebrew letters and have obviously come from the same source even though they are very different now.

I've got learning Arabic on my list of 60 things, but didn't plan to do anything about it for next few years as I know I really don't have the time. But after this evening I'm wondering if I should really try to make the time and start now.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

St Kilda in a Day

When I first thought about going to St Kilda I didn't think about a day trip. In the absence of having my own yacht and not having the kayaking abilities to paddle my way out there (yes, some people do) I'd decided the only way to get to St Kilda would be to join a National Trust for Scotland working party and go for a week or two. However, in spite of these being quite expensive, they are still allegedly very popular and hence difficult to get on to. What makes it almost impossible for me though, is the time of year. The working parties are pretty much finished by the time English schools break up for the summer holidays.

Not wanting to let a simple thing like fixed holiday times get in the way of my ambitions I looked around for alternatives and after meeting someone in Unst last year who'd been for a day, decided that maybe a day trip wouldn't be such a bad idea after all.

During my time in the Hebrides I've been trying to get myself booked onto a tour with one particular company. It's always a bit touch and go whether the trips go ahead or not, because they are very weather dependent. If one trip is cancelled the people booked on to it get taken out the next day meaning no free spaces for other people. A spate of windy weather seemed determined to prevent me from going. But then another company said they had room and the chances of actually going were pretty good on the day they were offering me.

The night before I drove out to the small pier at Miavaig in the Uig area of Lewis. I set up camp beside the office which conveniently had a toilet and wash basin round the back. I got everything ready for the next morning and settled down to sleep. I'd not been asleep long when I woke feeling a bit headachey and queasy. Not the best feeling at any time, and certainly not before such a big day.

By morning the headache had gone but I still felt a bit sickly. Hmm, what to do for the best when feeling a bit sick? Stay in bed, rest and relax? Or get on a little boat and spend 4hrs being tossed and churned as you crash your way across the Atlantic? Of course the only choice I really had was the latter. If I didn't go today, I wouldn't be going at all. 

Before it got rough

The other passengers arrived, about a dozen of us in all, and after re-arranging cars on the pier we boarded The Lochlann. I strapped myself into a seat and prepared for the worst. Once out at sea the roller-coaster started in earnest. The boat felt as though it was being plucked up high and then being dropped from said great height. Each time this happened the 'BANG' as the boat hit the sea and the reverberations through my body lifted me out of my seat. If it wasn't for the seat belt I'd have repeatedly hit my head on the roof. I tried to sit with my eyes closed willing the horrible feeling in my stomach to go away. No chance. I've never been sea-sick before and I have been on some tiny boats on some pretty rough water. But then again, I've not got onto a tiny boat on pretty rough water whilst already feeling sick.

My guts had no chance of recovering and at one point I had to stagger to the deck to lean over and throw up. I wanted to rush, but it's a bit hard when you're getting thrown from side to side and have to plan each move to ensure at least 3 limbs are firmly planted at all times. If I didn't have sympathy for people who suffer with sea-sickness before, I certainly do now.

One highlight of the otherwise dismal trip was seeing a shoal of tuna leaping and swimming in front of the boat. Even I stood up to get a look and watch them for a while. The tuna were dolphin sized, and look nothing like they do in a tin. Having seen them, I can understand how the nets used to catch tuna also manage to snag dolphins. I don't understand how the dolphin friendly tuna nets work though - how do they manage to keep the dolphins out? As a veggie I don't buy tuna anyway, but have wondered why next to the 'dolphin friendly' label that can be seen on some tins of tuna, there isn't another label next to it saying 'tuna unfriendly'? Apparently it's quite unusual to see tuna so close like this so we were very lucky.

St Kilda slowly came into sight and we could make out people sitting around on the jetty. These turned out to be students who were on some kind of placement on the island. We decanted ourselves into a dinghy and travelled the last tiny bit to the pier. Once we were all on dry land we were met by the warden who gave us a chat about dos and don'ts and told us about what there was to do on the island.

This would have been someone's living room
I set off for a wander, still feeling queasy. I had hoped to walk up to at least one side of the cliffs but didn't really feel up to it. Instead I wandered round the derelict village, poking in and out of the old houses. They were mostly laid out in one main street and in between the derelict building were a few restored ones which were used for accommodation and a museum. I spent a while in the museum finding the exhibits and the information provided quite fascinating. 

The MOD, as part of a long-running arrangement, have workers based on the island and their accommodation and offices are in green painted buildings near the pier. Maybe these could be said to be an eyesore and spoil the antiquity and isolation of the island, but the MOD have played such an important role on the island I'd like to think that in future years these buildings and their role will be seen as just as relevant to the history of the island as the remains from the St Kildans are.


A helicopter landed and took off whilst I watched. The unique St Kildan sheep roamed around, birds flew or skittered across the ground, the sun shone, a perfect day. If only I could have enjoyed it more.

We had a stay of a few hours on the island and this was plenty of time to have a really good look round the village and museum and would also have given me time to go for a bit of a walk had I felt so inclined. Just before the boat was due to leave, the warden opened the shop which sells souvenirs of St Kilda as well as a range of books. Next to the shop is the restored school (one classroom) and church and I had time to have a look round them. 

The Museum

The Church
The School

Once back on the boat we circled the island and went out to a couple of the stacks to look at the birds before heading back for Lewis. It was much later that evening before I started to feel alright again. 

I managed to enjoy my day on St Kilda even if I wasn't feeling great. It's such a special place and felt like such an achievement to get there, that even an upset stomach couldn't put too much of a dampner on things. I doubt I'll ever get back, so I'm glad I didn't decide to give it a miss, as I now have memories that will last me a life time. 

The Details

Company I travelled with: Seatrek
Cost: £180
Depart: 7.30am
Arrive back: 8pm
Time on Hirta: approx. 3.5hrs.

Here's a copy of the press release Seatrek issued regarding the tuna we saw. I've copied it in rather than just linking to it, in case it later disappears off their website.

Shoal of Tuna off Lewis
Press Release 30th Aug, Seatrek
Tuna Sighting West of Lewis

On one of our regular day trips to St Kilda on the 24th of August 2012, our Seatrek vessel, the  motor cruiser Lochlann, sighted an unusually large and concentrated flock of diving gannets.
We decided to go over and investigate, fully expecting to find the usual dolphins feeding on a shoal of herring.  We told the passengers to get their cameras ready for the spectacle of diving birds and jumping dolphins and possibly minke whales. We very often see diving gannets in a feeding frenzy as they can spot the fish from a great height. The gannets are helped by dolphins, which herd the fish to the surface.

The leading edge of the diving gannets was unusually fast moving at 5 knots, and as we closed in we could see the fast moving splashes among them. We were amazed to see the characteristic upright, thin forked tails of tuna darting through the water.
Some were coming to within 10m of us and you could see they were about 6/7 ft long, maybe more. The sight was amazing. The furiously diving gannets were accompanied by fulmars, skuas, manx shearwaters, sooty shearwaters, black backed gulls and herring gulls, all looking for a piece of the action.
We watched them enthralled for some time and thought they were possibly Bluefin Tuna;  such an unusual wildlife sighting we had never experienced before so close at hand.

The next shoal was moving much faster, say 10 knots to the SW and zigzagging with birds showing their whereabouts when near the surface. The tuna were about the same size.
Earlier in the day we had seen a handful of smaller Bonito type, 2ft long, just East of Gallan Head, Uig, Lewis. These were fast moving along the surface just beside the boat but were unaccompanied by birds.

The rare sighting of tuna so far north of their normal habitat was a memorable experience. Unusual also was the distinctive spectacle of the exceptionally large number of gannets that were following the shoal of fish. We have never seen such a large flock in such a small area; they could be seen from many miles away.

Sunday, 19 August 2012


I had no intention of arriving in Stornoway last night and when I did I didn't like it very much. It has all kinds of unexpected things like trees and people and, wait for it, traffic lights and roundabouts. I was expecting it to be more on the same scale as Lerwick or possibly Kirkwall, so to be driving along (it was a miserable rainy night and so I thought I might as well go for a short drive, but it ended up that I just kept going) the peaty, rocky moorland and suddenly run into an area with trees was rather a shock. There weren't just one or two; it wasn't a plantation of evergreens planted for business purposes; and it wasn't just a patch of stumpy scrub masquerading as a wood. No, these were full on, full grown, tall trees of all different varieties and there were lots of them. 

Next it was the houses that struck me. There were lots of them and I wasn't even in Stornoway yet. I was somewhere called Marybank which turned out to be a suburb of Stornoway. Yes, Stornoway has suburbs. Then suddenly there were cars everywhere and a set of traffic lights and another one and a one-way system and a roundabout and another one. Everyone seemed to be driving quite badly and I wondered if it was me, just not used to being among other vehicles. Then I wondered if they are driving badly, is it because they're all out-of-towners who are as shocked as me by traffic lights and trees and don't know how to handle it?

I drove around a bit, wasn't impressed, called at Tesco which had lots of empty shelves and was crowded with people who were manoeuvering in the aisles as badly as the drivers manoeuvre on the roads. Again I wondered if they were out-of-towners and not used to crowded supermarkets and the etiquette required to push a trolley in a socially acceptable manner. 

So I left. I drove back out and stopped at the war memorial in Kinloch to camp for the night. There was a picnic bench and a nice view and a public toilet (with a shower) just down the road at the Kinloch Historical Society in Laxey. it had stopped raining and I planned a nice evening cooking and sitting outside making use of the picnic bench. But then the midges got me and I ended up cooking in a hurry - quick stir of the pasta, prolonged swatting of the midges - and then securing myself in my van to eat and read. 

This morning looked nice, but as soon as I opened the van doors I was under midge attack again. I gave up any idea of a nice leisurely breakfast sitting at the picnic bench and drove down to the public toilet for a wash. There were no midges there so I made coffee and sat outside the toilets for a while. Not quite the leisurely breakfast with a view that I had envisioned. 

Once finished, I headed back to Stornoway. I thought I should give it another go and as it was Sunday and nothing is supposed to happen on a Sunday due to everyone's extreme religiosity and strict adherence of the sabbath (something which the checkout girl in Tesco had confirmed for me last night) I thought I could wander round and take photos without any people in the way. 

I arrived back in town and parked by the waterfront and the public toilets (30p for the toilets and £1.50 for 3 hours parking during the week - parking and toilet charges are also something I didn't expect, but at least being Sunday I didn't have to pay for parking). After a quick walk round the town I still wasn't impressed. A few interesting looking (closed) shops but mostly charity shops and everything seemed a bit grotty with lots of litter. I didn't take many photos but instead headed across the bridge to the castle grounds to follow one of the walks in my walk book. 

The castle, known as Lews Castle, was built in the 1840s by the then owner of Lewis, James Matheson. It was later owned by Lord Leverhulme who gave the grounds to the townspeople in 1924. The castle itself ended up being used as the local college until new premises were built beside it. Currently the castle is covered in scaffolding and green netting and not much of it can be seen. No-one seems sure of what its future use will be but there has been discussion of a luxury hotel or museum. 

The grounds are extensive and full of those trees. Lots of paths wind their way through it and the walk I had was a four mile loop. I started on the walk a bit further in that the book said as I crossed the river leading into the harbour at the first bridge rather than the second. The tide was out and the river bed was dry and litter strewn so I didn't feel any particular desperation to walk along more of it. 

Once the harbour was reached it got nicer with yachts and seabirds and the CalMac ferry getting ready to depart. This is the one I'll be on this time next week. I followed the path along the harbour wall which was crumbling in parts. I passed the visitor centre (closed, including the toilets, on Sunday). It looked nice inside and the book said it was a good place to stop so I must come back here for lunch before I leave. Outside there were some interesting looking seating/play areas such as seats made out of barrels and an old boat, but some of them were rotten. 

As I got further round the harbour wall I could see the end of the bay and a lighthouse. The path climbed to a viewpoint before heading inland. At the viewpoint I as joined by a man who was waving his family off on the ferry. A born and bred Stornoway man he seemed to like his hometown and so I didn't mention that so far I was unimpressed. 

I followed the path inland alongside the River Creed (appropriate for a Sunday) where another man I chatted to for a while told me it was possible to see salmon (I didn't). At a footbridge I turned right. The book then instructed me to turn left at the first fork and right at the second. I came upon the first fork much sooner than expected but followed the instructions. I should have followed my instincts and not assumed that the first fork was the first fork as it wasn't and I ended up off route. However, I was glad I did. I climbed quite high on what turned out to be a loop and came out at a wonderful viewpoint overlooking everything and everywhere. I could see all of Stornoway laid out before me and could see the coastline on the other side. This reassured me that it wasn't as huge as I'd first thought and it actually looked really pretty from high up. The shining sun probably helped of course. 

As I sat there a man walked the other way and stopped to chat. We ended up chatting for quite a while. He's originally from Durham and is a serious walker. He moved here eight years ago after his wife suggested it. They'd had several holidays here and liked it. Sadly, she was only able to enjoy her Lewisian life for under a year as she unexpectedly died from a heart attack. The gent has made his life here now though and plays the accordion at local pubs. He seemed quite lonely and I got the feeling it was through missing his wife rather than not getting to know people here. 

We went our separate ways and I found my way down to the path I'd originally started on by the harbour wall. The walk I was supposed to be doing would have taken me past a monument to James Matheson so my wrong turning meant I missed out on this. However, if I had followed the walk accurately I would have missed out on the amazing viewpoint. I'd much rather have my version of the walk than the book's so I'm quite glad I went wrong. It might even be enough to change my view of Stornoway!

Friday, 17 August 2012

Getting closer to St Kilda

I arrived in Harris on the first ferry from Bernaray this morning and one of the first things I did when I realised I could get a phone signal was ring to enquire about trips to St Kilda. The lady I spoke to told me they'd had to cancel a trip because of the heavy winds - it wouldn't be possible to land passengers on St Kilda so there was no point in the trip going ahead. The weather should improve over the next few days though and so she said she'll ring me to let me know when a trip is scheduled. As my phone isn't on very often she also suggested that I call again on Sunday to check. She seemed confident that the weather would be the only barrier to me getting to go and that there won't be any problem with either too few passenger or too many. 

I've been finding out quite a bit more about St Kilda over the past week. In Linacleit library and museum I picked up a copy of the National Trust for Scotland's Site Management Plan for St Kilda 2011-2016. At nearly 200 pages long I couldn't believe this was a 'freebie' and checked before taking a copy. But, yes it was. It's made fascinating reading. As well as descriptions of the geology, flora, fauna, history and so on, it also details the issues with running the site.

For example, since the 1950s the MOD (Ministry of Defence) have leased part of the island. Their presence does a lot more than provide a rental income. They take responsibility for providing electricity, sewage and waste disposal systems, water supplies including hot water, and medical personnel, all of which are used by Trust employees and volunteers when on the island. They also provide accommodation for visiting researchers and official visitors and deal with the bringing in of supplies. Also very important, they provide a year round presence on the island and so deal with security and 'policing'. The National Trust only have staff on the island during the summer months and before the MOD's arrival vandalism could and would occur during the winter months by people arriving with their own boats. 

If any environmental disasters happen at the times of year when no NTS staff are present they can also deal with them quickly. An example of this occurred in 2008 when a deep sea fishing vessel ran aground in a storm, and about 8 tonnes of diesel oil escaped to sea. Because of the storm NTS staff were not able to reach the island for two days. In the meantime MOD personnel had put the action plan for such an event into prompt practice and prevented what could have been serious consequences for the archipelago. 

In 2009 the MOD considered automating their base on St Kilda and withdrawing all personnel. This would have had a dire effect on the preservation of the island as in this time of cutbacks the NTS would have struggled to cover the costs involved in providing all the necessary services themselves. Fortunately the MOD have continued to keep their base manned but the NTS have realised their withdrawal could happen and so are working on contingency plans in case this does ever actually happen. 

I've also bought a couple of books on St Kilda. I'd looked at these books in several shops but at £35 each considered them way too expensive and resolved to do an Amazon search when I got home. They're the type of books I might have difficulty finding however. Whilst in Benbecula, I called in at MacGillavray's, a renowned shop for selling everything from sweets to furniture to jumpers and has a good collection of local books and second-hand books. I didn't see anything I fancied in the second-hand section but I did find the two St Kilda books I'd been looking at reduced to £20 each. This is still a lot of money and so I hummed and haa-ed a bit but then decided to go for it. So I'm now the owner of two rather heavy tomes. I'm glad I'm travelling with a vehicle and not backpacking!

Leaving North Uist to go to Bernaray on Wednesday I spotted a road sign pointing to a St Kilda viewpoint. Luckily there's rarely anyone behind on these roads and so I slammed on my brakes and did a quick turn. The road wound up and up towards the MOD listening station (or whatever it is). Just before the top was a layby with a telescope and a panorama depicting what was in view. St Kilda could be clearly seen even without the use of the telescope. Much clearer than when I saw it from Heaval. As I drove back along the coast road heading north I kept the islands in view for a while. 

So now I've seen them from a distance a couple of times, learnt lots about them, and put my name down for a trip. This wind had better die down - I'd be really upset if I got this far and then couldn't go!

Is the weather worse when indoors?

Is the weather better when I sleep in a tent?

People shudder and say 'but aren't you cold and wet all the time?' when I tell them I'm going to Scotland or wherever and I'm going to spend weeks in my tent. I usually respond with something along the lines of 'but when you're outdoors the whole time you don't notice the weather'.

Having spent this Scottish trip so far sleeping in my van, I've started to elaborate on this 'theory'. When I'm all snug in my van and it's windy or rainy or just looks cold outside I'm really unmotivated to go out and do anything. I just want to stay snuggled up in my sleeping bag. But once I get out I realise the weather is nowhere near as bad as it seemed. Even what sounded like heavy rain from inside the van is usually no more than a few drops once I'm out in it.

So I've changed my theory slightly. Instead of thinking that when I'm outdoors the whole time I don't notice the weather, I've realised that actually the weather doesn't seem that noticeable because it's really not that bad. It just seems worse than it is when I'm snug inside.

So when I'm at home or wherever I happen to be indoors, if I'm put off going out because it seems so bad outside I now know that actually it's just an illusion and in reality it's not that bad at all.