Friday, 31 October 2008

Catching up is hard to do

Listening to: Rock'n'roll (Led Zeppelin)

The wind got worse. . . and was accompanied by an electric storm which knocked out most phones and all broadband connections in Westray and most of the other islands in Orkney.

Ferries were cancelled and, by the middle of Saturday, the winds had reached hurricane force (that's over 70mph apparently) and it was a battle to stay upright outside.

The pigs, wisely, hunkered down and emerged only for food, delivered at an angle of 45 degrees by a windswept pig "farmer".

The weather eased through the week and, pig arc apart, there was little damage, although the phone wasn't fixed until yesterday and the broadband wasn't back with us until a very polite lady at BT told me to switch it off and switch it back on again this morning.

As we struggle back to normality, my stepdaughter Amy has arrived with horses Jessica and Dotty. Having got used to Teddy and Merlin, it was a real shock to see proper sized horses. At 16 hands-plus, they're a bit scary. However, they do look lovely. . .

. . . don't they?

Dotty (the brown one) is from Crossmaglen in the former bandit country of County Armagh, while Jessica is Hung-g-garian. . .

There's a nasty rumour going round that the pig "farmer" is going to learn to ride.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Pig arcs might fly

Listening to: Clampdown (The Clash)
Weather: rain/hail/sunshine/gales/more rain/stronger gales/even bloody bigger hailstones

A handy tip for finding a pig hut in the middle of a gale - follow the trail of wood.

At 10.30 last night, with a force 9/10/whatever hammering away at the front of the house, I felt it might be an idea to check the pigs in the bottom field.

Eric and I had put up another pig arc (like a little nissan hut), I'd driven in a couple of fence posts and screwed the panels to it, then Sal and I had moved Kim the sow down to her new quarters.

That lasted only a few hours as I got to the field only to find a large, not too happy pig and no pig arc.

Having asked the usual "where the bloody hell is the pig arc?" questions, we led Kim, who was good as gold, back to her old hut behind the house. Then it was out into the fields with the torches to find out what had happened.

The arc end panels and some timbers were still lying in the bottom field, but the large metal panels were nowhere to be seen.

We found one of the skids (so you can move them around!) in the top field - that's the other side of the island's main road. I put the wind to my back and walked up the field, finding a dislodged fence post at the top and then a snapped timber in the next field.

I crossed three more fields and there was still no sign, but, reassured there was no chance the flying hut could have hit anything/anyone/a cow, I went to bed.

At first light I retraced my steps and there it was, battered, leaning up against a fence, the best part of a mile from where it started off and only a couple of hundred yards from the sea and the start of a voyage towards Norway.

Getting it back to the croft in such a high wind was out of the question, so it was a case of lying it flat and weighing it down with really big stones before taking it away for scrap next week.

So, to recap, the arc flew across the main road, crossed five fields, several fences and another road before giving up. The other - identical - arc is still in place, interestingly enough. Although I've added some more timber to hold it down.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Autumn days

Listening to: There Is Power In A Union (Billy Bragg)

I should be outside. The pigs need feeding. The hens need feeding. The ponies need to be put out. I still have 100yd of potatoes to lift. I have to move Kim to the new hut in the bottom field. I have to make a start on converting the old cattle byre into a stable for my stepdaughter's horses who arrive in a couple of weeks.

I'm not doing any of that. I'm drinking tea, listening to the free CD that came with last month's Mojo magazine, surrounded by dogs who, having been out for their morning constitutional, have gone back to bed.

Outside the wind is whipping around the house, the rain occasionally slapping against the windows. The forecast is for it to rise to Force Eight or Nine and probably stay that way well into next week.

It's autumn in Westray and, after a beautiful summer, we are again getting used to Mother Nature going through the full repertoire.

Yesterday started with bright sunshine highlighting views over a lively Westray Firth towards Rousay and Orkney Mainland, the waves crashing over the reef that extends out from the west side of Westray. The island at its very best.

Trying to get things done was another matter and by the time Eric came to help me put a pig hut together, the wind was strengthening and Mainland had disappeared as showers moved towards us. By the time we had realised that all three drill batteries were flat, it was time to get out of the rain and get a brew on.

The job got done in the end, the increasingly strong wind tugging at our hair (well, mine anyway) and by the time I went to collect Sally from the ferry, dark clouds were bringing an early dusk to the island.

The barn door rattled through the night (the pig "farmer" having failed so far to find a way of wedging it tight shut) so Sal is enjoying a lengthy lie-in.

OK, deep breath, woolly hat and big boots on, sod the weather, I'm off out.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Seconds to go

Listening to: Cast of Thousands (Elbow)
Weather: high winds, showers

Mrs Pig "Farmer" hurried onto the ferry just as they were about to raise the ramp.

Five minutes earlier (08.44) I'd been in the driver's seat, gunning the engine, wondering where the hell she'd got to.

Red-faced, she tumbled into the car and said, by way of explanation: "The phone went and had to answer it to tell them I was too busy to talk."


Saturday, 18 October 2008


Listening to: Thought so. . . (Nightmares on Wax)
Weather: wind and getting windier

He made that kind of sucking sound beloved of mechanics and (in this case) builders. He shook his head a couple of times and added a "tsk" by way of a finishing flourish.

"Have you thought about knocking it down and building a new house?" he asked. Sal's bottom lip was wobbling badly as she told me the verdict over the phone. I wasn't surprised - the surveyor had left me no illusions. Woodworm, damp, inadequate roof, rotten doors and windows.

That was getting on for three years ago when we first bought the croft. Needless to say we didn't take the advice, but there are times when I can see where the builder was coming from.

Westray is dotted with the ruins of old croft houses, while many more are reduced to agricultural buildings. Many folk here are moving into kit-built houses - easy to build, equipped with all the mod-cons, good in a gale, lacking in any soul whatsoever.

But character comes at a price and progress on the renovation is glacial. I've tried not to set myself deadlines, but I had hoped to get the kitchen and one bedroom sorted out by the winter (Mrs Pig "Farmer" and I sleep in a caravan parked in the barn).

Ho ho, bleeding ho.

When renovating an old house, double the amount of cash you expected to spend and treble the length of time.

We started work on the kitchen in July, stripping the timber off the wall, breaking up the rough concrete floor, digging down so we were left with nothing more than a hole in the ground. . .

It's not the sort of job you can do on your own, so work goes in fits and starts.

In a tortuous week, the concrete base for the floor was laid and a few weeks later Eric and Big Tall Paul helped me sort out and lay the stone slabs, while Pete the plumber started work on the solid fuel burner and central heating system.

Here they are before we did the pointing (you can see Sal and I have been working around the chaos). . .

Then Eric and BTP surprised us by sneaking in and replacing the existing kitchen window and adding a second while we were on holiday in Edinburgh.

It's been a bit of a pain in the backside fetching water from the bathroom to do washing up, so it was a great relief when Eric came round this week to get the sink plumbed in and to give me a hand with rendering the stone wall at the end, leaving us with this. . .

. . . still some way to go, but a work in progress. The ambition is to have Christmas Dinner there - don't hold your breath.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Runs in the family?

Listening to: Combat Rock (The Clash)
Weather: wind hammering the front of the house

My mum visited us in Westray for the first time last month. She travelled by train from Exeter to Aberdeen, took the ferry over to Kirkwall before moving on to see us - pretty fair going for an 80-year-old.

The force is certainly strong in the old girl and her mind is still sharp as a tack, even if she has fully embraced the 'mad old lady' thing. A lifelong academic - she was one of only a handful of female undergraduates at Trinity College, Dublin in the late 40s - she spent a good bit of time studying in in the family history section of Kirkwall Library.

Among the Irishmen of various shades of orange, a smattering of English Midlanders and the occasional 'continental' in my family background is my mother's grandfather James Bews, a farmer from Tankerness on Orkney Mainland.

I won't bore you with the mass of information unearthed, but Mum traced the family back to the mid-1700s, discovering in the process that James was running the family farm at the age of 15 before heading south in 1879. His silver medal for ploughing, won in 1874, is on display in Kirkwall's museum.

We did a little tour of East Mainland and found the old house and, after asking permission from the current tenant, took a few pictures which, obviously, won't be appearing on t'int.

What Mum didn't find was any living relative - possibly a good thing, although it would have made for a more interesting blog post than this is turning out to be. All our close family in Orkney are in Tankerness Hall cemetery. . .

That's my great, great, great grandparents. . .

. . . and that's my great grandfather's little brother. I was interested, although I can't imagine you would be.

I've no idea what this is all meant to mean, although I suppose it does give me some sort of blood tie to the place - if that's important.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

The long and the incredibly short of it

Listening to: The Ghost That Carried Us Away (Seabear)
Weather: Wet, south-easterly wind

There's a new inmate on the croft. Teddy - now recovered from his foot problem - is, just for a change, feeling a little on the large side.

Merlin, a Shetland owned by our neighbour Mike, has come to stay. He was lonely, Ted was lonely, so it made sense.

Yes, he really is that short. Look. . .

When he first went into the field, Kim the sow - who rarely pays much attention to anyone or anything that doesn't involve food - got up, came out of her hut and could hardly take her eyes off him with a "What the fu. . .?" expression on her face. I know how she felt.

He's a lovely lad, really friendly and he's getting on with Ted like a house on fire (or should that be horse on fire. . . and why do you get on with someone like a house on fire anyway? Seems a bloody silly phrase now I think of it).

Wednesday, 1 October 2008


Listening to: Last Man Alive (The Levellers)
Weather: Greyish, kinda moody, a few bright patches
0-3 defeat: Normal service resumed in Wolverhampton
Thanks Rosemary: for pointing this one out

I'm barred from using the phone, particularly to call Rachel on 07930 550821.

Rachel works for a TV production company called Betty (!) who are planning a documentary series on people starting out as smallholders/farmers, especially those raising rare breed animals.

I know what you're thinking and I'm way ahead of you, but Mrs Pig "Farmer" has strong views on the subject, strong views along the lines of "over my twitching corpse".

I looked at Betty's website and they seem a reputable company, their past efforts including 'Addicted To Boob Jobs', 'Diary of a Porn Virgin', 'My Breasts are too Big', 'Short Angry Men', 'Desperate Virgins', 'Let's Talk Sex' and 'Britney's Redneck Roots'.

Can't think what Sal's worried about.