Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Monday 03/04/2006I'm up in the Outer Hebrides, doing something I can't talk about yet for someone I can't mention — which is a shame, because it involves the best use I've seen of a technology about which I'd previously been less than enthusiastic. Bursting to tell all, I am.

Monday 03/04/2006

I'm up in the Outer Hebrides, doing something I can't talk about yet for someone I can't mention — which is a shame, because it involves the best use I've seen of a technology about which I'd previously been less than enthusiastic. Bursting to tell all, I am.

But I can't. All will be clear later this year. It did involve sand dunes, though, if it helps.

Nonetheless, it's enormous fun to be in a place where mobile phones just don't work for a lot of the time. That seems a satisfactory match for the islanders' famously laid-back approach to time management and a positive aid to appreciation of the place's unique ambience. Your mobile phone may be getting no signals while you're perched on a tiny island in the middle of a huge bay, surrounded by golden sand as far as you can see, but you most certainly are.

Now and again, there's a reminder that the outside world is sinking its digital tendrils in — a large microwave tower on a hillside that feeds a call centre hidden away on an industrial estate, a poster from a government agency encouraging Hebrideans to demand their broadband, a museum that bundles radar parts alongside Neolithic stone axes. Mostly, though, you can sink into the ancient landscape and pretend that the last few thousand years never happened (given much of the later history of the islands, that's not an unreasonable fantasy).

Broadband itself has only just arrived, with the Isle of Lewis being one of the last places to have ADSL enabled. Sometimes, though, being late to the party has its own benefits. There are already plans to put digital TV on broadband, and the island has its own wireless broadband system provided by a ring of masts "designed and installed with the local weather conditions in mind" — which means, I think, they won't fall over in winds that would fell a mountain. Given that the Hebrides contains most of the 40-odd remaining BT exchanges that the company says are unviable for DSL, this is the only option for many. I hope that includes the solitary would-be broadband subscriber in Amhuinnsuidhe, where the Scarp exchange has just one ADSL preregistration — the lowest level of interest in the UK.

This could be due to disappointment fostered by a previous failed experiment in high tech communication. The isle of Scarp itself was the site in 1934 of the UK's first proper attempts at rocket mail, courtesy of a mad German inventor called Gerhard Zucker. He turned up with an experimental device packed with 1500 letters, pointed it at the isle of Harris about a mile away over the water, and lit the blue touchpaper Government observers watched with horror as the rocket exploded, littering the beach with the burning remains of its payload. After being allowed a couple more tries, Zucker himself was deported back to Germany for being a menace, where he was even more promptly arrested for being too friendly with the British. (This is thought to have given rise to the saying "Never give a Zucker an even break")

Nothing as exciting has happened on Scarp from that day to this, for which five thousand sheep and the ghost of a solitary crofter are truly grateful.

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