In the spring of 2015 four intrepid dashing gentlemen cycled through the Western Isles (Outer Hebrides) battling storms, rain and mountains. I was not one of them. I took the sensible option and hitched a ride in the dry, warm support van.
Grey seas, Coll and Tyree
The ferry is sailing through a leaden-grey world. Grey sea, grey skies, even the flat rocky islands that slip past us seem grey. A shout from a passenger: ‘Dolphins! Loads of them.’ We all excitedly rush to the window. Wave after wave of dolphins are gleefully and deliberately racing towards us. They course and leap with sea and wind, diving under the boat and then bursting out of the bow’s wake, twisting in air and spray. They do this with such joy that when they are gone they leave behind a thrilled but also subdued silence, wanting them back.
Barra, Vatersay and South Uist
This other-worldly chain of wild, barren, near treeless islands is the heartlands of the Gaels, Gàidhealtachd country, and a language enriched by landscape and its particular ways of living.
The landscape is long beaches, brooding hills, rock, flat machair, islets, endless peat bog, and mountains. Water is everywhere in sea, dark lochans, bogs and streams all of which are named and described in almost endless variations by the Gaelic lexicon. The machair is low-lying dune grassland formed by the eternal grinding down of shell fragments, a vast spring-summer blooming of wild flowers.
These islands are the dreams of misty-eyed Gaels in Glasgow pubs or Gaelic concerts, gently stamping their feet and singing the old songs.
It is not soft and bucolic, it is not for everyone. Mrs C is seriously spooked by these islands – she won’t go near them. She just has to see photos and she slumps to the floor, trembling in the foetal position. ‘There are no trees,’ she jibbers, ‘and if there are no trees how can they grow apples to make any cider.’
Edge of a continent, Polochar Inn, South Uist
We camp at the outer edge of a continent. Next stop America. The rain clouds clamp down overhead, draining colour to muted browns and greens. The beach is a ribbon of dirty yellow. The wild spring flowers of the machair are late, delayed by the cold. Pitching tents in a strong wind is tricky, one slip and the canvas will take flight and disappear over the Atlantic. A storm is coming.
The next day we follow the road north through straggling ribbon villages and squat stark churches. To the east the dark hills seem ever shrouded in shifting clouds, to the west machair and sea. Roarie bummlers (fast-moving storm-clouds) fly over us. Abandoned houses mix with new builds – it is cheaper and more comfortable to build a new home than renovate the abandoned houses and crafting cottages that scatter the countryside. Bathtubs are put out in the fields to catch rainwater for livestock.
The old Gael
Gaelic culture is especially rich in music and oral traditions, stories invented and shared during long winter hours of darkness.
So at the end of a lonely dirt track an old man lives in a crofter’s cottage with rough earthen floors and a kettle hangs down from the ceiling over a peat fire. Soon he will sleep on a bed made from driftwood and a mattress of sea grass. And when he sleeps he will dream in Gaelic for he knows not a word of English. Does he still hear the swell of the sea, its rolling slapping drums and the sound of water gurgling rock holes. What will die with this man?
A dictionary of him? – Can you imagine it?
A volume thick as the height of the Clisham,
A volume big as the whole of Harris,
A volume beyond the wit of scholars.
Missiles amongst beaches and wild flowers
Scattered across the machair of South Uist and Benvecula are an incongruous mix of bunkers, aerials, golf ball-like structures, security zones and missile launch pads. It is the South Uist Missile Range, another chunk of British wild places taken for military and surveillance purposes. Meanwhile the birds wheel and chirp away and the waders dash along the wave line, all oblivious to the signs promising danger and red flag alerts. That is until the missile testing starts.
And always the beach is oghamed and cunieformed
By knot and dunlin and country-dancing sandpipers.
North Uist…and then the sun came out
When the sun comes out this muted brooding world pours out colour and light. The sea glows in hues of milky green turquoise and blue, speckled with the white crests of waves. The beach is now a glorious bright yellow, the lochs tinged with orange seaweed, the rocks a-flutter with clumps of sea pink.
North Uist is a cartographer’s vision of both heaven and hell. The main road is the only true path through an unfathomable, masterless labyrinth of water, land and sea. On the hills we walk with the rionnach maoim. (Shadows cast on moorland as clouds move across the sky on a bright day)
Storm in Harris
The storm finally breaks. There is no camping in these gales. We sit it out in a bunkhouse in the small port of Leverburgh, drinking whisky and swapping tales while the storm rages outside, just like the old Gaels. The wind sighs with despair through the broken windows of an abandoned house.
Harris is beautiful with its moody, stark mountains and indented sea lochs. We take the Golden Road to lonely churches, cottages and art galleries lost and hidden amongst the lunar grey rock and green heather scenery.
Cold, wet and hungry on the peat moors of Lewis
The cyclists can go no further, broken by headwinds and endless lonely peat bogs with their trenches and stacked slabs of cut peat, drying for fuel. Temporary airigh or shieling (a shieling is a huts on the moors, used as shelter for while grazing cattle) is set-up near a feaden (a small stream that flows from a loch). This airigh na h-aon oidhche (shieling’ of the one night’) is in a part of Lewis noted for supernatural stories of young women killed by each-uisge (water-horse or kelpie) that live in the bogs around us.
The nearest shop or pub is miles away so dinner rations are limited, everything is damp and the weather is poor. Stashes of alcohol and crisps are pooled and we squashed into the back of the van as it is buffeted by rain and wind. Somehow a small television and satellite connection allows us to watch the Champions League final in Berlin. It looks warm and dry, the players are all tanned. Barcelona win. The kelpies must be pleased for the night is quiet.
Stornoway, Sunday morning. The heavy hand of the Sabbath quietly controls the empty streets: nobody moves, everything is closed, nothing is permitted. I sit on a bench waiting for the only ferry of the day to take me back to the mainland over the grey sea.
Further information and reading
Poem extracts: By the graveyard, Luskentyre – Norman MacCaig
Rathad an Isein – The Birds Road. A Lewis Moorland Glossary. A Lewis Moorland Glossary
Two superb articles by Robert Macfarlane – The eeriness of the English countryside and The word-hoard: Robert Macfarlane on rewilding our language of landscape