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  1. Things have changed a lot since we moved here in 1994, and perhaps nothing has changed quite as much as the festive season. Our first Christmas came hard on the heels of the move from England at the end of September, and the time of year was a stark, grim contrast to what we had been accustomed to.

    True, we were in the thick of culture shock, I was only a few weeks away from giving birth, our children were still only aged three and two, and we were feeling fairly worn out and ratty. Even so, trekking up to town to do the Christmas shopping was a less than cheering experience. Our supermarket, where Tesco now stands, was Presto, and its idea of late night opening was 6pm – on a Friday only. Everything else was closed by 5.30. Driving through the dark streets, not a Christmas decoration or light to be seen, made us feel miserable and homesick. What had we done?

    I remember standing in despair in the wine aisle, searching for a bottle of bubbly to celebrate Christmas – something we had always done before. In the end, a friend sent us a bottle of champagne from the mainland, as we couldn’t buy it here.

    We did our best, but I remember feeling beleaguered and depressed by the whole thing. My best friend, who had just made the move from Lancashire to Tain, joined us for Christmas, and I don’t think we gave her a very good time. The house felt cold, the TV reception was atrocious and tempers were short.

    The second Christmas, a ton of snow fell – I don’t think there’s anything as beautiful as the Outer Hebrides blanketed in white, the extraordinary pink and purple-tinged skies and the sparkle of pure reflected light on the snow. One of my most vivid memories is walking my almost one year old son up the road in the dark, holding one hand while his other tried to catch and understand the snowflakes swirling around him.

    The spectacle of snow did much to compensate the two-day power cut we endured, which fell on Christmas day in the morning and lasted until the afternoon of Boxing Day. Determined not to be phased by a lack of electricity – which meant no cooker – I made my one and only attempt to cook the Christmas turkey over the fire. Don’t ever even think of trying this – I don’t know why I did. It tasted of coal.

    Over the succeeding years, things got better. I remember the first time there was a ceremony to turn on the Christmas lights in town – with carols and a little band playing. The shops opened late, the lights twinkled and it felt, at last, like Christmas. One year, there was a giant inflatable Santa climbing the clock tower on the Town Hall, the source of much controversy and letter-writing to the Gazette. The supermarkets went through their incarnations from Safeway to Morrisons to Somerfield to Tesco. Late night opening became a six-day a week thing, starting at 8pm and working ever upwards. Champagne and Cava appeared on the supermarket shelves.

    The drive home from town was cheered by an increasing number of homes displaying Christmas decorations – for a few years, there seemed to be a competition going on in Balallan for who could put up the best show.

    Nowadays, carol singing is not as controversial as it was the first time I heard it in Pairc school. The music teacher played valiantly at the piano, the children sang, and the parents and families were encouraged to join in. It was immediately and uncomfortably apparent that for some in the hall, the carolling children might as well have been singing dirty rugby songs. Away in a Manger split the gathering, into those who would sing and those who would not – in a manner reminiscent of the way Gaelic was to divide the school a few years later.

  2. di red portrait



    If you like cooking and enjoy sleuthing for unusual ingredients, here’s a cautionary tale about the perils of trying to source chillies from a home in the Outer Hebrides …

    Back on Christmas Day 1983, my parents gave me a great cookery book called The Spice of Life, which was written to accompany a C4 series about the history of spices and the European empires that were built on them.

    One of the recipes is for a Mexican dish of chicken cooked in chilli and chocolate. I was very interested in giving this a go, but getting hold of the correct chillies was problematic. In Bradford, I could get any number of Asian chillies, but this dish called for specific South American varieties – ancho, pasilla and mulato – which were impossible to find.

    A few years later, a copywriting buddy of mine on a round the world trip announced he was on his way to Mexico City. I immediately sent a begging letter, and when he returned a month or two later, he had a carrier bag full of chillies, and lavish descriptions of the specialist chilli shop where he’d found them.

    A year or two later, we had moved to the Outer Hebrides and I had all but run out of my South American treasures. In a flash of inspiration, I contacted the Mexican Embassy in London, who kindly supplied a list of wholesalers exporting chillies to the UK. Unfortunately, most of them were only interested in selling by the sack, so with a sigh I put the list of addresses, which included everywhere from Mexico to Buenos Aires, Rio and Bogotá, into the dashboard of the car, and forgot all about them.

    At this time, the car was playing up, and an acquaintance in the village recommended a bloke up the road. “He’s the best motor mechanic in Europe,” he said extravagantly. “He’ll do anything for a bottle of vodka.”

    The man in question did indeed turn out to be a fine mechanic, diagnosing an extremely subtle fault in the engine. We got the car back, paid in the proper spirit and drove it home.

    A few days later, I had a call from a friend, who said she had no idea we were cocaine barons and how cleverly we had concealed our activities. It transpired that while working on our car, the mechanic had gone into the dashboard looking for the manual, and come across the list of South American addresses. As far as he was concerned, the only products that came out of South America were illegal drugs, and we were obviously running an elaborate operation from the privacy of our blackhouse.

    I was never entirely sure that my cover story about trying to get hold of some ancho chillies was believed. Now we have the internet, it’s pretty easy to pick up any kind of chilli you care to mention – with no risk at all to one’s reputation.