Croft 36…and that’s what’s important

8 08 2015

“It’s your fault there are no trees on the Isle of Harris” was the first thing we said, almost in unison, to the lorry driver standing by the cab of his open top lorry near The Anchorage restaurant in Leverburgh. Our eyes were drawn to TREE FELLER written along the side of the vehicle. I’m puzzled, was written all over his face. I gestured with my arms, waving at the landscape, not a tree in sight. He still looked puzzled. The lorry driver’s job, was, as the two-word description on the side of the lorry clearly spelled out, a tree feller. “There are very few trees on Harris. You’re a tree feller” I said pointing to the side of the lorry. “You’re the culprit”. “Ah!” he said. The penny dropped. It wasn’t important though.

Out here on the Island of Harris in the Outer Hebrides is a desolate, grey, rocky, treeless landscape. Under its spacious sky, the rest of the world seems even less important. Taking a photograph of a heart-shaped stone in an ancient stone wall miles from Tarbert… then knocking on the door of Croft 36 in the Hebridean outpost of Northton and watching Julie and Steve baking their rolls and preparing scrumptious takeaway meals that had been ordered for delivery that evening. That’s what’s important. And the space around you and breathing in the air. That’s important.

And we knew the lorry driver with TREE FELLER emblazoned on his vehicle had also, earlier, called in at Croft 36. His lorry was parked right across their roadside shed in Northton when we arrived there an hour earlier, and that’s when we first noticed TREE FELLER on the side of his vehicle and thought it ironic on the virtually treeless Isle of Harris. And he too was impressed by the great food in Croft 36’s humble shed, and Julie and Steve’s menus on the wall of seafood pies, fish curries and thermidores to order, their cooked half lobsters, home-baked bread rolls and pasties, and with the honesty box provided for customers’ payments. That was important.

As we stood together in Leverburgh, talking in the strong wind by the open door of this fella’s lorry he told us how he’d driven at 50mph all the way from Glasgow to Harris for the first time, and how his little girl sitting on the front seat and dressed in a new pink Harris Tweed frock, loved the place, the space and the air. That was important.

I liked the fact that this Glaswegian lorry driver appreciated Croft 36 in Northton on the Isle of Harris and “the trust of those people”.

And that’s what’s important.


A 16″ Laptop at a Table for Two

7 08 2015

Five friends, looking like visitors to the island, sat at a table next to us in the window at North Harbour Bistro on the island of Scalpay, the same table we sat at for dinner last Monday night. The five admired the view from their window, looking out over the harbour; they discussed the framed photograph in the corner above their heads of the aurora borrealis, a picture taken by photographer Darren Cole from Hebscape in Aird Asaig beside West Loch Tarbert; they raved over the Harris Tweed tablecloths on the cafe’s tables and “oh look at these” as they touched the Harris Tweed chair back covers complete with Harris Tweed labels. The enthusiasm could be measured in bucketloads.

Meanwhile I couldn’t resist observing the backview of a clown in his 60s at the opposite side of the cafe who sat at a small, square table for two with his elderly mother. While we savoured our carrot soup and seafood chowder at our table for two, the clown spent twenty minutes or so at his table attempting to boot up a blank screen on his 16″ Toshiba laptop which took up most of the space on his table for two, with the eventual Windows-opening-tune singing out to the cafe full of happy eaters. When his food came along he awkwardly angled himself to the right to pick off his plate on the edge of the table. His elderly mother sat there without complaint, without seeing the face of the man behind the laptop screen on the other side of their table, for the duration of their lunch together. That was her lot by the looks of it. No conversation. The clown showed no visible sign of interest in his lunch, carefully prepared by George the chef and owner of this unique seafoody cafe on the remote isle of Scalpay, instead preferring the struggle of getting into his emails.

I pondered.

The day before, the young American I mentioned in my previous Post, asked me about the changes we’d seen in Harris over the last 21 years.

Then, there were three cafes on the island: one in Tarbert, one ten miles from Tarbert in Borve, and one twenty miles from Tarbert in Leverburgh. And I remember on one occasion Rachel gave us tea and scones in her house on Scalpay!

There was no Scalpay bridge linking the isle of Harris to the tiny island of Scalpay. That came along in 1997: You could only get to Scalpay on the tiny car ferry that ran three times a day. We never took our car on it, and walked everywhere.

A seafood bistro on the tiny island would have been pie in the sky and WiFi was non-existent.

And would anyone then have placed a huge object, the size of an old wireless, on a small lunch table for two obliterating the view between two diners?


12 02 2012


The date was 20th August 2009. We were sitting in the car outside Amhuinnsuidhe Castle, situated on the precarious and remote switchback road to Huisnish on the Isle of Harris,  (in my opinion Huisnish has one of the most beautiful beaches in the world). Wild salmon leap in the waters close to the grey castle walls and gannets nose-dive into the sea.  It was in 1849, that Lady Catherine, wife of Alexander, 6th Earl of Dunmore, then owner of the castle, set up an embroidery school and also encouraged the then fledgling, now world-famous, Harris Tweed industry.

Torrential rain hammered on to the bonnet of the car. The loud sound of water rushing to the sea, surrounded us – rushing rushing, but no sign of salmon leaping that day. The ‘wee’ postie (postman) drove past in his ‘wee’ van, having delivered letters to the castle, and we watched through the windscreen as he battled his way against the torrential rain up into the mountains.

Then, typical of the Outer Hebrides, like magic the rain stopped,  the sun burst through, the light changing the hills from dull grey to purple.

LATER THAT DAY – recorded in my journal

In 1999 when I photographed with difficulty (because of the pain in my face and weak eye resulting from Bells Palsy) the group of children that I described previously, I never for one minute thought I would become a published author. Opportunities have arisen that would have seemed unthinkable on that damp, midgy Sunday afternoon.

But something happened on 20th August 2009, that would destroy my faith in the media.

When we got back to Tarbert, the ‘capital’ of the Island of Harris, an American friend of long-standing, greeted me from across the other side of the road, and waving her just-delivered American newspaper in the air. “Hi Monica, great to see you, there’s an article about you on the centre pages here, about your book about Ruth Ellis the woman who was hanged in the UK, and about your nephew…..I had no idea you are related to Rob Pattinson, the Twilight star.

The newspaper to which my friend referred had linked me to my nephew Robert and the fantasy world of Twilight.

It was actually a few weeks before that the article had been published. I had glanced at it and thrown it in the bin, where it belonged. It was not until that day in August whilst on holiday on the remote Isle of Harris, 600 miles from home, that the story resurfaced.

We had strolled into the village that sunny afternoon. But I crawled with embarassment as my friend handed over the newspaper for me to read the two-page article consisting of make-believe trash. In essence, the newspaper debased our book, RUTH ELLIS MY SISTER’S SECRET LIFE, the real-life story of 28 year-old Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in the UK, by linking it to the fantasy world of vampires and the fictional character Rob played in the Twilight film.

I felt disgusted as I read the low-life article. For public decency, the quotes I had allegedly given, are too vile to include here. I wasn’t used to seeing these revolting lies thought up to sell newspapers. What sort of person conjured it up?What sort of publisher allows such stories to be read by the general public? And what sort of readership needs these lies? I dreaded to think how many people had read the article and taken it at face value. And at what cost to me and my family?

…another Post to follow


11 02 2012

Hello again

This is a short article I wrote some time ago about three Hebridean ladies to whom I am closely acquainted. It was published in Scottish Home and Country, the magazine of the Scottish Women’s Rural Institutes.


In 1950 the Labour party won the General Election and Princess Elizabeth gave birth to a daughter. Life is a series of significant moments.

“We got the electric in 1950. I was 14” says Ina Morrison. “We couldn’t believe it. It was one of the best things that happened”.

Women in this Gaelic-speaking corner of Scotland, on the Isle of Harris, spoke to me about significant moments, mishaps and milestones that have shaped their lives. The traditional image of women spinning wool and the accompanying click-clack of Harris Tweed being woven on Hattersley looms is fast disappearing. The quiet revolution from crofting to tourism gathers momentum.

Ina, 65 (when I conducted this interview) described her childhood as significant:” I was only 6 when my mother died. My youngest brother was one-and-a-half and he went to live with my aunties over the hill. Father gave up his job to look after the three children.

He bought a loom and started weaving Harris Tweed at home. After school we all had our different chores to do. Saturdays were busy, blacking the stove and collecting water from the well. Every pot and pan had to be cleaned, which we did in the river with Brillo until they sparkled. Nobody went to the well on the Sabbath.  To me singing the psalms in Gaelic is part of our culture. It’s uplifting. It does your heart good”.

Despite the changing lifestyle, Gaelic culture remains strong. “I’m part of a community” says Marie a 35 year-old crofter. “It’s not as tight as it used to be, but tight enough….I used to do the lambing but I pay someone to do that for me now”. Marie keeps 100 breeding ewes on her 16-acre croft at Seilibost. “The biggest change for me is being myself and having to go out to work. My husband died five years ago, leaving me with four children. The youngest was 7 and the oldest 12. I cook at the cafe in Tarbert [capital of the Isle of Harris], I’m a waitress, I’m a barmaid and two nights a week I work at the Harris Alcohol and Drugs Group. I’m busy all the time but I wouldn’t say I have a hard life….One significant moment in my life was being told my daughter has cerebral palsy. I came to terms with it. She’s 12 now and getting on fine. Inner strength? I don’t see myself as any different to anyone else. You just look at other people who are worse off than yourself. Yes, I would say I’m a survivor”.

To many, the Outer Hebrides is a place on the Shipping Forecast! Hebrides…wind southerly, gale force 8 veering westerly. And it’s these harsh conditions that form the backcloth to a rare way of life.

“The weather? In my job I have to persuade the guests it isn’t like this all the time” says Sarah Morrison. “If we’ve got people staying for a week and it’s rained for four days, you’ve got to try and not let them get down-hearted. I have to be optimistic. Sarah, 29, studied for her degree in Rural Resources at agricultural college in Edinburgh. Today she manages the world-famous Harris Hotel in Tarbert.

“I’ve brought youthfulness and an eye for detail to the business. If dining room chairs aren’t lined up I’ll staighten them….The biggest change for me is the position of responsibilty. That came four years ago. Being in control of 50 employees is quite a challenge.I didn’t see myself carrying on the family business but I’ve grown to enjoy it. If there’s a complaint the buck stops with me. I get over it. Life’s too short to worry….I like to be involved with anything that’s happening on the island. I sing in the Gaelic choir. It is important to retain our culture. In a standardised, centralised world, we must preserve our identity. We’ve clung on to our culture for so long, if we were to lose it now we’d lose so much. But there’s a wind of change and we must move forward. There’s been doom and gloom about high unemployment and the island’s brain-drain. But there’s things in the pipeline. There’s a petrol station opening, a new school being built and a Harris Tweed Centre being developed”.

Meanwhile at Ina Morrison’s home in West Loch Tarbert, hail is falling like a thousand pebbles on a corrugated roof. Ina reassures me, “It’ll be getting better soon”.