At last, we are back on Uist. After almost a month away, I am pleased. Sunny as it is, like the rest of the UK at the moment (but minus the snow) it is bitter with a brisk 35 mph easterly cutting across the islands today. Not much has changed since we left, particularly given the prolonged cold snap – all the plants in the garden have pretty much stayed static due to the nippy weather.
It was an incredibly busy month for us and in between travels from here to London, up to Angus, Glasgow, Manchester, Cardiff and back home, we covered thousands of miles. It was great to be able to catch up with more friends than usual, some which we hadn’t seen for a while, but encounters felt all too brief as we tried to cram everything we planned in.
I have opted to break myself in to cooking from scratch gently, trying a new biscuit for the musicians, by virtue of a miracle, produced in time for their arrival this week. Skip to the aniseed and lemon spelt biscuit recipe at the bottom of this post if the minutiae of island life is not your thing.
‘My car is a polluter and it’s messing up my future…there ain’t no gettin’ round gettin’ round.’
Julian Cope, Autogeddon: ‘There ain’t no gettin’ round gettin’ round’
We also had to find time to change our car while we were away. We have decided after much procrastination to get rid of our gas guzzling 4×4 and get a newer, greener and more economical car. It was a tough call as we have always used the 4×4 capacity as a crutch to do as we please without much limitation: off-road, towing, driving in bad weather, however, we are not that interested in cars beyond functionality and reliability.
The reality is we don’t treat cars well: two big dogs and a lot of mud = mess, our car was an ill-treated workhorse. The salt spray and damp here is very damaging and corrosive and in light of that and from the point of view of common sense, we could not justify a price tag of £25,000 for a new 4×4 (real ones cost this much).
There is also the issue of running costs. Fuel prices here are alarming, diesel being around £1.55 per litre, tax for a big 4×4 about £300 p.a., so it seems like a no brainer, despite our initial delusion that we needed and must have another 4×4. So, we will experiment for the next couple of years with our greener non 4×4 machine, and will be very glad to save £280 on tax p.a. and +35% on fuel per month as a result. Given it is shiny and new, we might even clean it now and then!
Having said nothing much had changed, while we were away, we learned that an out of control moorland fire had damaged a significant part of the area where we take our daily dog walk. We were pretty dismayed to hear this and a bit apprehensive about what we might find on our return.
The area in question is less than a mile from our house and forms part of the common grazings. In 2000, a deer fence was erected around 100s of hectares on the grazing to exclude stock and deer and a tree planting project took place, forming part of a network planted on the year of the millennium in celebration of the occasion. This so-called Millennium Forest has been struggling to cope with the Uist weather for the last 12 years. Pockets of trees, particularly on the lee side of hills out of the prevailing wind have triumphed against adversity, some of them reaching small thickets of 2m, no mean feat in these conditions.
The thicket of alder above is exceptionally sheltered, the dogs often flush woodcock from the area in winter and an otter regularly spraints along the heather-covered narrow rivulet that runs between the two lochs (in the centre of the picture). I’m relieved this part wasn’t damaged.
Some of the plantings across the moorland failed spectacularly, mostly due to the topography and severe exposure of the site. Native species planted include birch, hazel, alder, willow, rowan and Scots pine. Alder seems to have been particularly successful, especially on slopes and in small valleys, coping well with the water-logging typical of this blanket bog habitat.
Muirburning is supposed to be controlled burning for land improvement, as opposed to the picture of devastation we found at the ‘forest’. Of course, it doesn’t take long for the rumour mill on a small island to start about who may have been responsible and how and why this mess occurred. As have said before, it is a small community and I prefer to avoid controversy in this blog. It would be easy to be judgemental and lay blame, however, I don’t know the facts and it may be that this was an unfortunate accident in a well-managed muirburn episode.
That said, by all accounts it was very windy on the day of the fire hence in these circumstances, burning was possibly not carried out in line with the good practice guidance within the Muirburn Code. The fire brigade and beaters were out all night bringing it under control as it got uncomfortably close to the houses in the township.
In these circumstances, several offences may have been committed. This is not least because the burning destroyed the woodland, it also extended across areas of golden eagle, hen harrier and short-eared owl territory and habitat and I fear for the nest of the local golden eagles, one of which I photographed in a previous post.
A significant amount of deep heather habitat has been lost from an area where I have known hen harriers to nest for the last few years and I will miss the delight of seeing them fledge chicks as I have done for the last 3 years from this one particular area. Fortunately there is enough suitable habitat nearby for them to relocate.
I took a few photographs as a record and will continue to do so as the heather regenerates. Most of the trees across the burned areas are too badly damaged to regrow, or entirely annihilated. The acrid smell of burning vegetation still hangs heavy in the air.
Perhaps one of the most striking reveals is the scarring left by the mechanical tree planting carried out back in 2000. I didn’t live here at the time, but by all descriptions, a vehicle removed uniform chunks of peat at intervals across the bog and turned them over on top of the surface to provide a soil mound for trees to be planted on. I knew the impacts were there as it is almost impossible to walk across the ground due to the gouged out mounds. The scarring is quite horrendous and the damage will remain for many decades, long after the effects of the muirburn incident have disappeared as the heather regrows.
The 1000 mile challenge
Being away means I have been completely out of my running routine. Both of us also managed to catch a pretty horrendous cold, quickly followed by conjunctivitis, upon getting back to Scotland from London – a new and unsavoury experience for us both! Needless to say, it has taken some time to recover (and see properly again!), so I have only just felt up to running again for the first time in 3 weeks, and managed a 4 mile run today.
That said, in my wisdom, I decided to join one of my Facebook friends who has organised a group to chart progress over the year for a 1000 mile challenge – hence I have committed to running 1000 miles this year. This would be fine had I not had a 3 week lag in March. I better order a new pair of running shoes – I’m going to need them, sitting around 170 miles for year to date.
Aniseed and lemon spelt biscuits
Week 4 of my biscuit-making explorations and I have decided to ditch recipes and freestyle from now on. This biscuit is based on the flavours of pastis with a twist of lemon. Don’t be deceived by the bland image of the biscuit – it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing and packs a vibrant flavour punch. However, the punch is an aniseed one, so if this flavour is not your bag, try more subtle caraway, fennel for similar notes, or reduce the volume of seeds added.
The biscuits are not that sweet and are very crunchy. Good dunked in coffee, apparently, so I’m told, I’m not a dunker. Makes about 18 biscuits.
Pre-heat the oven to 180C (fan)
60g unsalted butter
40g caster sugar
40g soft brown sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla essence
80g plain flour
60g spelt flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp aniseed seeds
grated zest of one lemon
- Cream the butter and sugars together in a stand mixer.
- Add the rest of the ingredients and combine to form a soft dough.
- Allow to rest in the fridge, wrapped in clingfilm for at least a couple of hours.
- Roll the balls of dough to the size of a cherry and place on a greased baking sheet, press the balls down gently to flatten, spacing them a few cm apart.
- Bake for 15 minutes, check at 10, they may be ready depending on your oven – they should be pale golden around the outside.
- Place on a wire rack to cool. Get the coffee machine on.