I have been away for the last two weeks and because of that, I unfortunately missed two of the important events in the local summer calendar.
One was the Field Club’s insect walk. This has become very much an annual event and one which I normally look forward to. It is led by Stephen Moran who is an amateur entomologist, and as is often the case with the amateur enthusiast, his knowledge is second to none. Going out on these walks with him is a real eye-opener. For one thing, I have learned that weevils are the most numerous species on the planet bar none – and that includes Homo Sapiens! There are normally half a dozen or so members of the Field Club who meet to go out on these walks and we all go properly equipped with lenses and pots or small jars to pop the insects in for proper viewing. Gwen as always keeps the records of what we find.
We meet in the designated area – this year it was at Little Loch Duart – and Stephen brings along nets with which we sweep the tops of the vegetation and then investigate down the net to see what we have caught. This may sound all rather nerd-ish and boring, but there is many a wee creature that look dull brown until seen under a lens, and suddenly the whole insect world can take on a new perspective. Then the colours can be seen in their full glory and many of them reveal themselves to be stunningly beautiful and jewel-like – especially the slightly larger of the spiders. Some have strange shapes, such as over large legs or odd shaped antennae, which cannot be seen by the naked eye and which make fascinating viewing! I am not especially interested in insects, but since going on these walks, I can really see how people become deeply immersed in the subject – and how they would have to have understanding families! I was quite disappointed when I realised I was going miss this event this year – even though I am a member of the committee for the Field Club, I still managed to double book the date; as it turned out it was not only rather unavoidable, but also opportune.
The other thing I missed by being away was the most important event in the summer calendar and that was Games Day. There are many more famous Highland Gatherings than ours, of course – Balmoral being probably the most famous. Ours may be much smaller, and not in the slightest well-known, but it is important to us. There are Highland Games happening all over the highlands over the summer and ours always falls on the second Friday in August – they have to be on regular dates because big, strong men come from all over the world – especially the north American continent – to compete in the “heavy” events. These are the events such as throwing the hammer or javelin and the more famous caber tossing. The men (and they are only men!) who compete in these events are specialists and they come in their kilts, wearing spiked shoes and large muscles! They tour the various games in the hopes of course of getting the prize money – nowadays I am sure they can’t make a living at it, although I have heard that in the past, a successful competitor could actually make enough in prize money to keep himself and his family! The other people who tour round all the events are the highland dancers – in this case normally girls – whose dedicated parents take them to the games to compete in the competitions, and the pipers who again come from all over the place.
These people provide the main attraction for both tourists and locals alike, but there are events for locals as well. To the best of my knowledge, my neighbour, Donald Strathan’s son, John Hugh, still holds the record for tossing a weight over a bar – it stands at 16 feet. There are running races, a casting competition – without hooks on the rods I hasten to add! – also hammer and javelin throwing for the non-professionals, and of course local pipers can and do compete in the piping competition.
For many locals who come to the games, the biggest event takes place under canvas – and no, I’m not talking about the beer tent! There is a craft and produce show which has been going from strength to strength over recent years. It is amazing what people can bring to the growing side of things – albeit that many of the vegetables and flowers are grown in polytunnels given the nature of our climate. Two years ago, I won the turnip section with my purple khol rabis and I found that there is certainly a disproportionate amount of pleasure to be gained by winning, even in the turnip section! One display that is always beautiful is the sweet peas, and also the roses although that can vary a bit if the weather has been bad. I would have put a rose in had I been around as I had a couple that were just at that perfect stage! However, that was not to be for this year… The craft side of things is always amazing: there is a huge amount of talented knitters, embroiders, weavers, etc. in our community and they not only excel in their handiwork, but also in the imagination brought to bear on the pieces they put into the various competitions.
The other big attraction is the Ullapool school pipe band, and very good they are too. They have to come to us for a games day event because for some reason they have no Games Day in Ullapool, but as the members of the pipe band often include children from our area as well as our children have to go to Ullapool for their secondary education, the pipe band is seen as belonging to both communities.
However, this year I missed it! On the Sunday of the insect walk, I was driving down to Skye to take a course in Gaelic at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic college which is in Sleat on the south of the island. Literally translated, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig means “Big Barn of Ostag” and that is where the college was originally situated when it was started by Sir Ian Noble back in the early seventies. It is now much more than that having a new main building, including accommodation, a separate tower for accommodation which looks rather like a lighthouse standing out on the head, and a brand new block for media studies and things of that nature – although the original part is still in use. There will be more about the college on this blog site in the near future, but now suffice it for me to say that I went to do a short course – i.e. a week – in Gaelic at level 8. The college runs these courses at levels 1-8 and nowadays they also provide Ùlpan courses on the same basis – but again, more on that later.
For now, I just want to say that I had the most tremendous time at the college. As there was a bit of a muddle up with our tutors for the week, we got a bus tour of the island, where we certainly felt like tourists all standing round Alistair – the short-course manager and our guide for the day – speaking a “foreign” language! I have never seen Portree so busy, but we managed to find some superb locally made ice cream – I had lemon curd in a cone and very good it was too, and one of our number had both lemon curd and Jaffa cake ice cream and pronounced the combination excellent! The tour took us up to Staffin and the superb views of the Outer Hebrides, and the following week, I was looking over the water at Staffin from the Outer Hebrides – but more on that next week…
[Photos by Clarinda]