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