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power cut

The Ramsay Hall, Port Ellen <em>Picture: Hamish Macdonell</em>

The Ramsay Hall, Port Ellen Picture: Hamish Macdonell

No email, no texts, no mobile phone coverage, no heat, no electric light, no power – it was like being back in the 1970s during the three-day week.

The storm tore into Islay at 5:20am on Tuesday. By 5:30am we had lost our electricity supply and we didn’t get it back for another 53 hours.

For the first day, it was something of an adventure – especially for the children who had to take a candle or a torch everywhere they went, including the bathroom. As dawn broke on the second day, though, and we were still cold and sitting in the dark, the novelty had begun to wear off. By the third, when we would have given at least half our New Year whisky supplies just for a hot bath or a shower, the power cut had started to make us more than a little grumpy.

But at least we had water. Neighbours not that far away from us had to try to catch rainwater because there was no power to drive the electric pumps bringing their water up from their bore holes.

And at least we had an open fire. The local cottage hospital was reported to be full of elderly, vulnerable people who had been rescued shivering in cold, dark, unlit houses because they had absolutely no way of getting warm or producing any hot food.

We also got our electricity back during that third day (thanks very much to the power company engineers who worked hard to get all of us reconnected). There were parts of Islay where the electricity was still not back heading towards day four and others may not get it back even today.

Despite everything, though, the whole experience was both salutary and revealing, in many ways.

For a start, I learned some new skills which I never thought I would need: like trimming the wick on an oil lamp, fitting a mantle to a Tilly lamp in semi-darkness and changing the butane canister on a single ring gas ring with a torch clamped between my jaws.

We also learned to live by the natural rhythms of the day – which, on Islay in the winter, means that dawn doesn’t really break before 8:30am and, with the clouds low and heavy, there isn’t much light much before lunchtime and it goes again by 4:10pm.

There was simply no point trying to get up before the sun was up because it meant laying the fire in the dark, refuelling oil lamps and shivering in the dark.

We learned how much we rely on electricity and how far we have to adapt when we don’t have it. But it also taught us how much there is to enjoy without it – like how good an open fire, a few flickering candles and a bottle of Ardbeg can be after a day struggling to complete even the most basic of tasks.

The children got to find out what it’s like to make breakfast by toasting bread over an open fire and how to cope without television, computers and all other appliances they take for granted.

Our house lost a decent number of slates but we came out of it in a far better state than many. The Ramsay Hall, Port Ellen’s main hall, which has withstood storms and gales for more than a century, had a large part of its roof ripped off by the winds.

On Tuesday morning, I drove down the main street in Port Ellen and it was as if the road had been paved with broken house slates which had rained down over the tarmac from all sides.

The storm was preceded by such a deluge of rain that the ground everywhere had been turned to mud. Apparently, this was one of the reasons so many trees were torn up and thrown about – because there was nothing firm for the roots to hold on to.

One of the most extraordinary aspects, though, was the speed with which the storm passed over the island. Islay is relatively flat and the weather doesn’t tend to linger very long. But the wind barrelled in at 5:20am and was gone by 6:30am.

Lying in bed, it sounded like the sea had risen up from the shore some half a mile away and was crashing against the house – then it was gone, leaving months of repair work and fixing in its wake.

We have our electricity back (and emails and the internet – which is both a blessing and a curse), and most others should get reconnected soon.

It was inconvenient, yes. It was uncomfortable, certainly. But it made us stop and think – and, looking back in the electricity-generated cosiness of a warm and well-lit house, that may be no bad thing.

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