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April 17, 2012

It’s been a hectic few weeks on Iona. Easter has come and gone along with a steady stream of guests to the island and hostel. It’s been a pleasant and social time: the guests have been an interesting and friendly crowd, the sun has largely shone and the transition from late winter to spring has come and gone. Lambs are abounce and the shoots of the flag irises are sprouting through the grass. The ground is drying, the sheep, almost visibly, are relaxing after the hard winter and boats are on the water. Skylarks are singing their hearts out over the machair and it won’t be long before the Corncrakes arrive. From Lagandorain I see the Staffa boats to and fro throughout the day and all in all it’s a fine time to be here.

Silvia has moved on to a job at the excellent restaurant Am Birlinn, up near Dervaig. It’s a fantastic spot and tomorrow Marc, Tammas, Aaron (who managed the hostel with Felicity a couple of years ago) and I are having a day out to go to visit her and to explore Mull. Sure beats working ! ‘Santa Fe’ Tammas has taken over from Silvia in the hostel and has been busy around the place with Marc. The place is singing and I’m delighted.

I’ve just said goodbye to Sabrina, a film-maker, who has spent the last couple of days making a short video about the hostel. Have a look at the website in a week or two and it will be up and running. I’m very pleased ! It’s simple and short but hopefully shows the hostel and its setting better than photo’s can.

Marc, with the help of Tammas and Aaron have been busy planting trees. It’s an area of around an acre just to the south of Cnoc Buie (the little hill just outside the hostel) where I have already planted a lot of mixed natives (trees -not local folk…) over the years.  Rosie put in about 1000 willow saplings a few weeks ago and Marc & Co are now putting in about 400 rowan, birch, hazel, ash and blackthorn. It’s a slow job -especially digging in the mats to inhibit weed growth, but it’s a job well done. Now we just sit back and wait for them to grow !

It’s tough growing trees on Iona, never mind the North End. Some of you will know the gales that come in through the winter, salt laden, and things have got to really love life for them to make it throught the winter months. When I started planting ten years ago I had fond hopes for trees with stately boughs that I could hang a hammock from. A bit like Surrey…   The reality will be what you see by the road along the Ross of Mull: scraggy mixed scrub of around two to three meters height. That said, the birds and beasties love it and there has been an increase in birdlife (or at least birdsong) on Lagandorain over the last few years.

Iona would once have had a covering of scrub woodland and though most of it is long gone there are a surprising number of shrubs and dwarf trees that still cling to the rocks and inaccessible cleughs. Over the years (the last thousand or so…) most has been taken for firewood and building and the grazing of sheep has done the rest. A few years ago I had a fascinating bloke from Orkney called Roy Harris carry out an environmental survey of Lagandorain croftlands. His specialism is the impact and use of grazing to enhance biodiversity. Very interesting stuff when you have both a piece of land where you want to increase the biodiversity and a hungry flock of sheep ! Roy found several dwarfed fragments / remnants of what would be classed as ancient woodland up around the crags on Dun I.

Conservation and restoration aren’t exact sciences, so while I have no illusions that my tree planting is anything other than a sympathetic plantation (I’m not trying to recreate the Great Forest of Caledon here !), it does create variety in the landscape and encourage wildlife. As far as natural regeneration goes you have to be very careful. This landscape and its species base is the result of generations of animal grazing and husbandry -take the animals off and you will end up with course scrub overwhelming the rich variety of plant species. So, in this context (much as Roy Harris proposes) the wellbeing of this particular landscape depends upon the encouragement of the existing species range coupled with appropriate grazing. On Lagandorain I feel I slightly fail in this because while sheep are good for the land in many respects, what I really need is cattle to trample, dung and graze the land as only they can. However, before you start imagining a couple of Highland cattle at the hostel gate, I’m not going to do it ! Cattle are specialised, expensive and you can  forget going away for a couple of days (never mind for a holiday) over the winter months. Tempting as it is, I value my freedom too much.

The black boat is now in the barn and thismorning I had the help of lots of NTS Thistle Camp volunteers (who’re staying in the hostel) to turn it over so I can scrape her bottom. I’ve already sloshed about a gallon of linseed oil and turps inside her to feed the wood so she smells gorgeous. It’s a pure sensory experience -the tactile old wood, the gorgeous sensual shapes and the smell. Heaven.

Maybe I need to get off the island more.. ?

Sorry about the lack of photo’s. I’ll get them on when I can work my new computer out.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 23, 2012 8:21 am

    Hi John – a great blog. I had such a great stay with the Thistle Camp at your hostel and loved the Hebridean sheep. I think I mentioned I have just started a blog myself, though my writing ability isnt fantastic – but maybe it will improve. Anyway there is a little bit on my co leading experience on there from Iona inlcuding a link to your hostel and blog. Hope you have a busy year and I’ll keep an eye on the blog to see how the sheep and the boat are coming along. Wendy

    • April 23, 2012 11:46 am

      Hi Wendy,

      Thanks for writing and it was a pleasure meeting you. Your blog is excellent, by the way, and I really enjoyed it ! The weather here continues glorious
      so life is good. Hopefully I’ll see you back on the island sometime.

      Best wishes,


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