This week has been a particularly sad one, on Tuesday morning my wife phoned me to tell me that our elderly cat Pumpkin had died overnight. It wasn't entirely unexpected but his sudden decline was still a shock and it has left us with a wee ginger space in our lives that is going to be very hard to replace. 

I know, 'my cat has died' isn't exactly the most earth-shattering news that anyone can share, and God knows I'm not exactly the most sentimental of people, but his passing has left me sadder than I could have imagined possible. Although that's nothing compared to what my daughter is going through, she can't remember a time without Pumpkin in her life, we got him when she was three years old and he'd been with her ever since. Much as I hate anthropomorphism, they were like siblings in some ways. Occasionally squabbling; her whingeing that he was noisy/smelly/always hungry, and him grumping at her if her cuddles were too tight or taking a swipe at her if she was being too playful. Invariably though you could find him holed up in her bedroom taking advantage of the one person who was guaranteed to fall for his ginger charms.

He was a rescue cat that we got from the SSPCA way back in 2004. A cat wasn't top of my list of priorities, I've always been a dog person, and I maintained that cats were smelly, unhygienic and a pain in the arse to clean up after. And I was mostly right! However any hassle was quickly forgotten when he turned out to be one of the most personable and chilled out pets I'd ever had. We snuck him back to our house in Nairn, we'd been told by the landlord that pets weren't allowed, but she kept turning up unannounced with her stinky, yappy Bichon-Frise things. Utterly pointless, stupid, hateful animals that would bark at their own shadows, the best thing you could have done with them is stick a pole up their arse and use them as mops. And yes, I'm a dog person. Seriously, if you're going to get a dog get a proper one like a lab, or a Staffie or a Collie or a mutt. Anything but one of those pompous little monsters. So to hell with her. 

His day mostly comprised of lying in places. It would change from day to day, never really ever settling in one particular spot for more than a couple of days before moving on to another that suited him better. Whether it was a better view of what was going on outside or a more strategic position where he could plan on intercepting us to remind us that he hadn't been fed in at least half an hour.  He was like a slovenly ginger version of the Doctor Who Weeping Angels

A box. Or a bed. 
In fact lying around was exactly what he was best at, to the point where he ballooned up into Garfield-like proportions when he was mostly housebound during our tenure at the flat in Tomnahurich Street. It wasn't the nicest of flats and we shared it with a family of mice who seemed keen to evict us with an avalanche of mouse droppings. Fortunately Pumpkin The Merciless Mouse Botherer was there to apathetically bat them about the house before leaving them to die a slow death under the bed or on one memorable occasion, in Rhiannon's buggy. 

He spent an hour catching it and spitting it out at various locations around the house so he could chase it down again. Eventually I managed to intervene and put the bedraggled thing out of its misery. All at 3am. Lovely.

So as you can see above we had a fine specimen of a Ginger Cat. A hunter (sort of) and at his peak physical condition. Unfortunately a few years of not venturing out an awful lot took its toll. He was never one to stray far and the the busy road outside meant that he tended to scuttle back inside and never go beyond the stairs to the garden, which was pretty secure in of itself. But he was never one to shy away from an easy life and with a few staff to dote on his every need why bother going outside? So this was the end result and I warn you, it's not a pretty sight. In fact if you have small children around or if you're of a delicate nature I'd look away about now.....

'And finally monsieur, a wafer-thin mint'.
Like I say, not a pretty sight! Stick him in a white vest clutching a copy of the Sun in one paw and bottle of Irn Bru in the other and we've got white van man material right there. 

So he got a bit lardy and that was admittedly our fault for pampering him. However subsequent moves to bigger houses with better gardens soon meant he dropped the weight off, although (much like me) he was never at peak physical fitness. And despite all that he still mostly seemed to just lie about. Sometimes being a door stop...

Ok, so the door is about 3ft away but it's the thought that counts, and it does look he was heading in the right general direction before giving up. His later efforts were far more impressive though....

But he was a skilled seat-warmer-upper. Managing to get maximum coverage across the seat before willingly sacrificing his spot to any visiting guests. Ok... 'willing' might be a bit strong. 

He was also a skilled sports pundit and his 'love' of golf was unmatched anywhere in Drumnadrochit, although his perspective was slightly eccentric...

Not only that, but he was a Feline Style Icon. 'Cat' from Red Dwarf took style tips from him and celebrities such as Cat Stevens, Cat Deeley and um... Meowly Cyrus would all phone to get his views on what's 'in' for the season. His specialtity was always head-gear though, and last winter's number was particularly fetching....

A photo posted by Toby (@leodhasach) on

And that was Pumpkin. His last six months were, I think, blissfully happy. He had an unmatched view across the garden and out towards the village. There were plenty of passing cats to keep him interested, dogs to pretend he wasn't frightened of and bats would flutter by the window which would occasionally pique his interest. Although the bat that ventured into the house a few months ago had him the most animated he'd been in years! 

Wherever you are my friend, I hope cat heaven has plenty of places to sleep on, roll about on and generally mooch about on. 

           Pumpkin. 2001(ish) to October 18th 2016. 

A photo posted by Toby (@leodhasach) on

I’m not too proud to admit that the referendum result has left me feeling a bit broken. On Friday after a hellish day at work trying hard not to thrown my computer across the room in a fit of apoplectic rage, I paused and took stock after cycling part of the way home. Looking across over the mountainous sprawl of the Highlands, afternoon sun dappling the Firths I finally let go and broke down. Bubbling like a five year old I grieved for a lost opportunity and for a country that has been cynically manipulated by the mainstream media, big business and the Westminster establishment.

I dared to hope, but that hope was left in tatters on Friday morning as the final stark result flashed up on my phone via the BBC app (that I will be uninstalling later).  I’d gone to bed after the Clackmannanshire poll had come in, a knot in my stomach forming shortly after a friend texted 'It doesn't look good'. Irrationally I thought that if I slept through it the result would magically come good in the morning. Why prolong the torture?

55% voted to keep Scotland in the United Kingdom. Two million people. Many of whom have succumbed to what Anas Sarwar coined ‘Project Fear'. 55% were the first in modern political history to vote against their own country’s Independence. 45% are licking their wounds and wondering ‘what next’, whilst the 55% seem... well, not really that fussed at all. Aside from the reprehensible acts of a few Neanderthals dressed up as Unionists (they’re not representative of any of the decent people I know who voted ‘No’) nothing much has happened. The promised ‘vow’ looks to be dead in the water with Miliband already saying he’s going to back out and apparently has better things to do than worry about Devo Max. Even if a statement is released on Monday, Tory backbenchers have already threatened to rebel and block any changes. The always delightful Nigel Farage wants the Barnett formula to change if not binned entirely and meanwhile the thousands who dared to hope are staring at Billions of pounds of further cuts by Westminster full in the face.

The ‘Yes’ campaign wasn’t always perfect and there were a few inconvenient truths out there that surely held us back. The issue over currency was a definite weakness and of course Better Together spotted that and exploited it for all it was worth.

Although the Better Together campaign were far from perfect either.

Much of their own rhetoric was patronising and neatly summed up by the bewildered ‘Patronising BT Lady’ who had most of us looking on in astonishment as this so called ordinary mum passively decided it was all too much like hard work to put any real thought into the matter. 

Food prices would go up, they proclaimed in leaflets sent to households. Tesco, Morrisons, Aldi, Lidl publicly rebutted this. That didn’t stop the leaflets being sent out again with the same statement left in. Pensions would be in danger. Expect they wouldn’t, and this from the DWP in Whitehall. Certainly they would have been no more uncertain than they are presently.

If that wasn’t bad enough, Johann Lamont claimed that those of us who would vote yes were akin to a ‘virus’ and that Scots weren’t genetically predisposed to managing their own affairs. UKIP had an opinion, but then again even they were declared persona non grata by the Better Together campaign and frankly the malodorous David Coburn MEP doesn't deserve any more time spent on him so I'm not going to bother repeating his bile. It's all on Twitter if you're desperate to see it.

So where does that leave us? We’re tired, we’re emotional and we’re frustrated. But I’m not going to stop believing that we’re best managing our own affairs and I certainly do not believe Westminster’s timetable of events for further devolution. And it’s not like they’re sticking to that are they? Milliband is already indicating that he’s not keen and yesterday’s announcement was missing, presumed forgotten about.

Let me be clear, the 2 Million people who voted ‘No’ don’t deserve vilification, I don’t blame some of those for being sucked into the barrage of pro Union propaganda and fear mongering by the mainstream media and I don’t blame them for making a choice that they believed was the right one at the time, even if I and 1.6 Million others might vehemently disagree. 

I cried yesterday, my wife cried and many more of my friends have cried over this result. On reflection, daft as it might sound, this is a good thing. Think about it, people have got so emotionally involved in a political process that they broke down in tears when the result didn’t go their way. Can you honestly remember the last time that happened?

We need to channel that energy and move forward, The National Collective aren’t going to quit, the burgeoning 45 Movement is inspiring people to keep the candle burning and groups like Women for Independence and the Radical Independence Campaign don’t look like they’re going anywhere anytime soon.

Two years ago according to the polls we started with 25% support for Independence. On Thursday we got 45%.  1.6 Million of us want change on our terms and I suspect many of those who voted No wanted that too but just needed further convincing.

There’s still work to be done, who’s in?

Last weekend was looking iffy due to the high avalanche risk throughout most of the Highlands. Rather than than sit it out, I thought I'd check the various blogs and forecasts out there and find something doable, even if it was just a low level plod. Most higher areas looked like a slog through powder was the only way to get about, however the North West was looking pretty good. There had been considerably less snow falling up that way so I felt that it was worth a look. If nothing else the views would be good - the forecast was for very little wind and cloud cover negligible.

And so....

Ben Mor Coigach from the road, a good start!

Cul Mor from Stac Pollaidh

Stac Pollaidh was our chosen hill, conditions were friendly with little of the avalanche risk further South. We started off in full winter kit but this was rapidly discarded due to the mild conditions on the hill!

The views to the North were something special, Suilven has to be one of my favourite hills, I used to be able to see it from my bedroom in Lewis. The mountains of Coigach and Assynt seem to erupt from the surrounding moors and tower over the surrounding countryside, none of them are Munros but to be honest they all have the feel of bigger mountains.

Cul Beag and Loch Lurgainn.

So it was definitely worth the trip!

Crazy, crazy conditions up here just now. Avalanche warnings are widespread across the Highlands and the risk of triggering a slide is considerable on even easier angled ground. Just this afternoon two skiers were caught in a huge avalanche at the Glen Coe ski area. If you are planning on heading out to the hills then take a look at the SAIS forecasts for the latest updates on conditions. Personally I'll be heading North West for a wander round Stac Pollaidh and hopefully conditions will be clear enough for some great photos. I'm toying with a wee winter traverse of the ridge but we'll see how it goes. My winter climbing techniques are rusty to say the least!

So... Otters.

Quiet, solitary, shy animals. Difficult to spot and still a reasonably rare sight on our rivers......?

Our most recent resident of Inverness would appear to think otherwise. I got an excited phone call at 4pm this afternoon from my friend Calum saying that he was a watching a wild otter hunt for fish all of a few meters away from where he was standing. Calum is a wildlife guide based on the Black Isle so I presumed he was out in the wilds somewhere up to his waist in snow, freezing his bollocks off. But no, he was in Inverness town centre, looking out over the River Ness just across the road from Johnny Foxes!

The Ness flows through the town centre and is flanked on both sides by roads, shops, hotels and pubs. There is a constant buzz of traffic and the roads beside the river are busy with traffic and pedestrians. It's not exactly my idea of a typical Otter habitat!  However when we got down to the River... there it was. I think we stood there for about an hour watching it catch fish and frolic in the water. Incredibly it seemed utterly oblivious to the fact that it was in the middle of a bustling city centre. It would occasionally roll on to its back and idly float along while gazing up at the locals who were gawping at it, but other than it didn't seem unduly bothered by the noise.

We watched it long enough to discover that it seems to have a holt along the riverbank so I wander whether it's here to stay for a while? According to wikipedia their range can be around 11 miles so this would easily include the entire River Ness and into Loch Dochfour and Loch Ness.  I've no idea how often they change holt or whether they'll have more than one in their territory. So who knows whether he/she will be a regular site in town, but I hope so!

It was incredible to watch and a real privilege to watch one of our iconic British mammals hunt and play so freely in front of us. The pictures aren't great because my camera is really struggling to take close ups. New camera please! I suppose the one thing we can take from this is that it proves the River is clean and has enough food to support a predator like an Otter. I've also noticed an increased amount of seals heading up the river in the last few months. Before you'd see one every month or so but I've seen at least one in the river almost every week since before Christmas.

Someone on the UK Climbing forum has started a thread about old characters they used to see around their village or town. Lewis had more than its fair share of the weird and wonderful.

One individual in particular used to be a family friend and due to far too many drugs and a mental breakdown ended up being a tad 'eccentric'. I remember taking my wife on a tour of the West coast of the Island and telling her about 'Kenny Leather' (he used to run the leather shop 'L for Leather' just off North Beach Street in Stornoway) she refused to believe the rumours that he'd set up his own golf course on the grounds of his old crofthouse in Shawbost. I proved her wrong when we walked past his house and the man himself was on his Sit On Lawnmower giving the green a fresh mow. Granted it wasn't the most traditional of courses, more a pitch and putt, but it was undeniably somewhere you could get a wee round in!

 You can still see the old 'L for Leather' shop sign on the gable end of his house. I couldn't find any photos of the course.

Another character was 'Domhnall Ban' (Fair Donald) who used to live in a Black House down the road from me in South Dell, Lewis. A born and bred Niseach he'd been in the Second World War and would head out Guga hunting every year. This was in the early Eighties, he had no electricity or gas in his 'Taigh Dubh' and I think his only running water was from a stand pipe by the back door. He wore the uniform of your average elderly Leodhasach - an orange boiler suit with a tweed suit jacket.

He probably saved my life! I think I was about 8 and I had been playing in the ruins of an old house in the village. In amongst the rubble I found a large bullet shape metal object with a brass cap at the top. It had arabic writing on the brass section. I thought it was very cool and rolled it the half mile down to my house in the village. Intrigued I decided I was going to take it apart to see what was in it. I was eight, it was treasure! I spent a happy half hour attempting to twist the brass top off, when that didn't work I took a screwdriver to it and tried to prise it off. Still no joy so I bashed it with a hammer a few times. Nuthin' doing! Getting bored I kicked it down the road to my friend Robin's house to see if he could help.

As I was making my way down the road Domhnall intercepted me and asked 'De a seo a bhalach?' (whats this young man?). 'I found it, its mine' was my cheeky reply. He bent down to inspect the rusty and now slightly dented object by my feet, 'Mo Dhia!' he exclaimed and looked up at me, his eyes were now bug eyed and he'd gone very pale. "Where did you find it"? So I explained where I got it and helpfully told him how my investigation as to it's nature had gone.

'Amadan! It's a bomb!'

He hid it in the hatch of his black house and called the police. The bomb squad later disposed of it on Barvas beach, apparently it made quite a big bang.

It's a true story! It was in the local newsletter which if I recall rightly used to be called the Ness News? I think I've still got a copy of it kicking it about somewhere.

So thinks Deirdre Mackay, councillor for East Sutherland who had a rather misguided, not to mention ill informed rant, against all things Gaelic. In a tirade at a community council meeting in Brora she claimed that Gaelic was for the elitist few,  a costly 'luxury' that we could ill afford and criticised the proliferation of Gaelic posts. The original article was published in the Northern Times and can be seen here.

A couple of things seemed to have escaped Ms Mackay's notice; the actual cost of supporting Gaelic uses up less than 1% of the total budget of the Highland Council, in fact according to Arthur Cormack of Bord na Gaidhlig it's closer to 0.07 % of the budget!

My initial reaction to the article was one of dismay, more so when my eight year old daughter read the piece over my shoulder and asked 'daddy, why doesn't she like us?' I wonder whether people like this realise the impact they have on others when they sound off in this manner.

In response to the article, the Northern Times ran a poll to ask whether people thought Gaelic funding was a waste of money. The overwhelming response seems to be 'No'. What was heartening was the online response to the article. Out of 97 comments the vast majority were speaking out against Councillor McKay. The few that supported her seemed to be intent on trotting out the same tired old arguments that were  at best anecdotal and at worst utterly false, quite often disregarding the facts that had been presented by other posters.

Arthur Cormack has repeatedly tried to engage in an open discussion with the Councillor and her father Councillor Rosie of Wick who is also fiercely opposed to all things Gaelic (conveniently ignoring the fact that next years Mod will bring a much needed  boost to the economy this autumn). Frustrated by this he resorted to posting an open letter to them on the FootStompin forum. In short he picks apart each one of her arguments and shows how they are utterly without substance. He refutes her claim that there are a proliferation of Gaelic posts within HC:

" criticise the “proliferation” of Gaelic development posts. Where are these posts, Cllr MacKay? The Highland Council had one Gaelic Development Manager but that post is currently vacant. To my knowledge it has a Gaelic Early Years Officer and a Gaelic Development Officer. I am not aware of other Gaelic posts having been created by the Highland Council that would have resulted in Lawrence Jamieson, whom I know, losing his job. What are these posts you claim were being created? And in any case, don’t people in jobs who speak Gaelic contribute to the Highland, Scottish and UK economies in exactly the same way as the millions working in English, through the taxes they pay?"

He also notes that Councillor MacKay is a member of the Labour party... ".. I believe you are a Labour councillor. Indeed I understand you are employed part-time by the Highlands & Islands Labour MSPs. It was one of those MSPs, Peter Peacock, who led the introduction of the legislation to the Scottish Parliament on behalf of the previous Labour administration"

And so on. I really do recommend that you read the article! 

So Ms Mackay, what now? Do you and others of your ilk continue to lambast Gaelic and shout 'No' at every opportunity, or do you open your eyes and ears and realise that supporting Gaelic is beneficial to us all. Economically and Culturally. Why be so ashamed of your own culture?

So 2010 is shaping up to be one of those winters to remember, we've currently got a decent layer of snow outside and apart from a couple of weeks during January it's been a constant presence since 18th December (the day we moved!)

The highlight so far has been the Sled Dog Rally in Aviemore last Sunday. For the first time since 1995 they were able to race the huskies on snow.

I think the pictures tell it better!

Start line

And they're off!

Huskies on the run