Electricity arrives. The lights go on … and off

Electricity arrives. The lights go on … and off

14 February 2021

The lights went on in Lismore on 31 October 1970. A mere fifty years ago. On that Saturday, at 3 Newfield Terrace, the late Donald John and Margaret MacDonald with their children Peggy and Lachlan (and a few dignitaries) stared up and witnessed a lightbulb becoming bright. Peggy looks suitably sceptical!

And why was Lismore so late in being connected? A good question with only one answer. It didn’t matter. They certainly knew how to lay cables. One from Oban connected the telephone to Newfoundland in the 1950s. Laying an electricity cable to Lismore would have been easy.

Before October 1970 it was paraffin, Calor gas and diesel-generated electricity which pumped water into the lucky houses and powered the lights while others had gas lights in every room. The lucky ones. Donnie MacCormick told me that the gas came once a week in a boat skippered by John the Gas and was sold at the shop by the then shop keeper, his father-in-law  Mr Corrigan. Gas is still sold at the shop but not for lighting. Learning more about the island makes the  colours brighter and every stone more significant.

The irony is we still need them all. But not so far this winter.

This winter we have seen many sunrises and the wind from the north has been chilly and sprightly.

Winter is wonderful when the sun bursts through and the storms stay in the Atlantic or make landfall further south. Everything becomes easier. But, when the wind and rain dance like dervishes, our houses, our trees, our roads, our freezers, our health, our sanity and especially our power poles are all threatened.

Thanks to Roger Dixon-Spain at the Sailean Project I can offer some celebratory rainfall statistics :

December 20207.0411% below average
January 20216.3121% below average
and for a comparison
January 202013.2964% above average

And we have had so many wonderful sunrises, sunsets and sun-filled days.

Although power cuts are a feature of Lismore life, we had none last winter after they did work on the system. However, on 14 September 2020, between midnight and 2 am on a calm, stormless night, a major fault at the grid knocked out power from Glencoe to Barcaldine. We woke to it and it lasted 18 hours. Fortunately the sun came, so we were warm. H reported it; normal procedure. ‘Is there anyone in the house over 60 or under five?’ ‘Yes. Two.’ A very concerned voice (reserved for the very young and the older) then said: ‘It will be restored by noon.’ Noon came and went. Then it was four, but four came and went. Unfortunately, my phone and tablet were low, as I never charge overnight. A fire risk, I was told by someone who lost her house to a charging tablet. We were sent reassuring WhatsApp messages, the concerned voice phoned, and eventually at 7.17 pm, just after we had called a piece of dry bread on a bed of cheese and lettuce dinner, it came on. Electricity is much appreciated for a short time after a cut. The wind-up radio and the two-ringed gas camping stove take over inadequately, though having hot drinks is always wonderful. Imagine how they felt in October 1970.

Our last storm-related power cut was more three months ago on 31 October 2020. We had been warned it would get violent. The ferry from Oban didn’t run, though The Lismore at the north end ran all morning. Then, at 2.10 pm, when the wind was howling and the waves dancing … bang. We were plunged, and until 12.30 pm on Sunday afternoon we were mainly dark, and coldish. But not hungry.

The following morning, with the sea still dancing maniacally, H got the generator going. The generator he bought from two Irishmen at the door sometime last century! ‘Can it boil a kettle?’ he’d asked, and when they demonstrated, it sprang an oil leak. They explained that away brilliantly, because were they not full of the blarney! No, anyone would have explained it away, with or without blarney. Blarney just makes it seem palatable. With the generator, we were able to charge phones, tablets and torches. And plug in the freezer. Vital.

The engineers arrived at Port Appin about 10 am. The sea was boiling, but the courageous ferrymen attempted to cross. They had to turn back. They did manage to get over in slightly less rough seas at eleven and by 12.10 we were connected. A 22-hour power cut. The entire island was mired in gratitude. We were also grateful to our resident electricity person, Colin Fleming, who had been up poles till 10 pm, he reported to H.

The worst storm I have experienced was on 12 January 2005. It was the first time the sea had roared its way into the garden, destroying our septic tank and washing away the front of Strathlorne’s garden. It also washed away part of the road to the ferry—always vulnerable—and all over the island trees were mutilated, fields flooded and garden furniture tossed about.

The island has come a long way since that momentous day in 1970. We have an active Energy Group constantly auditing possible ways to become more self-sufficient, many houses have solar panels, one has two windmills, many compost, and in the 1990s Argyll and Bute provided the wonderful, free, green cones which convert kitchen waste to compost. The intention was to reduce the waste being carted off the island. A laudable aim only partly successful.

Perhaps the most unusual attempt at energy conservation was a weekend in March 2011, when the Energy Group invited the late Kerr MacGregor, a self-confessed solar missionary who was helping people all over Scotland to make solar panels to heat hot water. He’d invented his prototype in Africa, where they have lots of sun. That was crucial. On Lismore, he showed two full classes how to put together black aluminium sheets, some garden hose, plus polycarbonate glazing material and to then take home a very large and, to me at least, a most impressive solar panel. Unfortunately, the group he tutored on the Sunday were unlucky enough to have to work in a very cold hall, as a heavy snowfall resulted in a two-day power cut. Despite this, they too produced panels, but in great discomfort.

My panel sat in the garden and was fitted to our hot water supply. Alas, I think I got about half a shower from it on a very good day. Sun was the missing ingredient.

The rule about power cuts is that you have never just charged your gadgets, and you can’t quite remember how to work the camping stove—suddenly the love of your life—or the Calor gas heater, or where you put the candles, although you definitely moved them somewhere memorable. (Less of a problem since Lismore Luminations started.) I have known winters when Lismore stores had to ration candles.

Then there is the concern about anyone without family, alternative heat, and so on. The island did have a plan to have food parcels for such times, and it was then decided that everyone has someone looking out for them, and that is absolutely true. As you know, we are good in a crisis.