Rain awakes me from a bad night’s sleep. It’s been cold and very windy, and setting up the tent last night was difficult, gales thrashing the sheets, becoming a wrestling match between man and tent with no obvious winner. Rain falls with great intensity, and I imagine some desperate helicopter overhead, stalked by mad flashbacks of a forest fire, practising this morning over Callanish. At least I’m under some shelter, but will it ever clear? I doze off, wake up again to hear a hail storm, then doze into the mid-morning. The sun has now heated up the tent into a humid jungle. I’m missing my bed, my home and my partner so very much.
My bicycle is starting to feel heavier, and though the scenery has been at times enchanting and inspiring, the cumulative effect of spending all day cycling in the rain through great abysses, without birds, animals, people or much else, just a single track road, is wearing on me. The injuries from the previous day are aching with renewed intensity, and I spot that my luggage rack has warped and snapped. These places would appeal if one just needed to escape from a busy and stressful job, packed up with annoying people. But my life thankfully isn’t like this. I’m missing towns and their life. It’s the people and their stories that make these adventures feel alive and interesting.
I’ve camped just at the foot of the Callanish standing stones, perhaps the one thing aside from religious quirks, flat expanses and secluded beaches that Lewis is known for. The tent is between the glorious Callanish bay and a field full of cattle. In the distance I spy two smaller stone circles, called Callanish two and three, names no doubt inspired by the muses. In the dark I couldn’t make these out, but the pretty bay and the morning light is glorious, and the peaceful view and unusually clear light is tranquilising.
A short distance away is the Callanish stones visitor centre. I wander up and feast on some bananas in the busy car-park, and am gladly interrupted by a curious cyclist, a friendly German fellow named Chris. His bright blue eyes dart about in his speedy conversation and his mind is a Catherine wheel of observations, ideas and laughter.
He asks for a bike pump and we get talking about our adventures. He tells me about the beautiful view from the nearby stones in the distance, ‘where the tourists don’t go!’, laughing. He’s come up to Stornoway on his boat, leaving the Elba river, reaching Edinburgh and following the Firth of Clyde to Stornoway. He hates the marinas he often lands in,
‘Their white plastic boats, where the people talk about their water monitors, and their computers!’
I get an image of a man riding in a rickety plastic vessel little more sophisticated than a pedalo or amateur sailing boat, full of home-made seafaring instruments. He asks about the hostels, and seems keen to discover life in whatever form, in conversations with strangers. My descriptions inspire him. ‘Yes! I would love to spend more time travelling on this’, gesturing to his bike. I ask if he needs some oil, spotting the rusty chain. ‘Oh no. I use … what do you call it?’ He gives a German term and eventually we work it out, ‘moisturising cream, yes!’ He laughs, and his laugh makes me laugh. A few months ago I’d’ve probably used the same thing.
I wander in, take advantage of an actual toilet facility, a rarity for the unfortunate wild-camper, and spot Chris in the café debating with a Scotsman in the queue about who will take the last slice of apple pie. The Scotsman wins. Conversation continues, and I find myself explaining my story, writing, and university research with total ease. I realise later that I’ve been opened up in the same way that I open people up, by a seasoned outsider with a musical approach to conversation, finding harmonies and riffing on them.
We talk about Abelard, one philosopher that his lively mind summons first. ‘They were total rebels back then. Constrained by this church that, how you call it, cut his balls off! But the systems of thought were so advanced, I still don’t understand it. They brought Greek thought to us.’ But it’s a shared love of adventure, by whichever means necessary, that threads our ideas together.
‘Cycling, it’s the best way to see these places. Not like a car. You’re always continually out there, feeling it, listening to it, meeting the people.’
How I wish I knew how to sail, or to dive, or fish, or farm. All my skills are useless, ideal for the information economy I’ve been hived in and reared for, but little else. I feel increasingly embarrassed about myself as I go further north, where I meet people with what seem like actual skills and knowledge of the world. I see a practical use in telling the world about the pleasures of reading Spinoza, but it’s a peculiar livelihood compared to farming or logging.
Chris warns me about the fierce southern wind today that will be blowing me back towards Stornoway. I make the most of being in this quiet spot, and wander round the ancient stones pitched up in the shape of a cross some 5000 years ago. In the morning light one can trace all manner of unusual shapes in them. There are rings and lines, and speckles that sparkle in the light, revealing minerals like quartz and feldspar. They are cast in Lewisian gneiss, an ancient and unusual rock formed some 3000 million years old. The stones stand in pairs facing each other, and together give the impression of an outdoor cathedral marked out in invisible lines of energy, with the remains of a burial cairn in the centre like those of Orkney. The impression is spectacular, true, but I find neither Callanish nor the smaller circles at Callanish 2 and 3 as moving or interesting as Orkney.
The place is full of tourists, each one bending and twisting to photograph some aspect of the rocks. I wander about, touching the ancient stones and trying to visualise the ceremonies and rites that took place on this land five millennia ago. It’s tempting to consider these kinds of sites as benevolent manifestations of a more spiritual past, but their strong visual presence over the flat peatland of Lewis is foreboding and carries a heavy power. If they represent a kind of ancestor worship, as it seemed in Orkney, then wouldn’t such a weighty dependence on the past have led to a kind of repressive fear or intolerance of novelty, of the future? The stones were despoiled and damaged around 3000 years ago, suggesting some new set of beliefs took people’s minds hold.
I retrace my route for about ten miles from Callanish through these flat and desolate landscape. In the morning light I can see the effects of the glaciers that some two million years ago formed entirely over these lands, casting their shapes in the soil, drowning the landscape in isolated lochs and barren valleys. I cycle through Garynahine to Leurbost, where the road splits north for Stornoway, and south for Tarbert. As I turn south, the wind nearly knocks me sideways.
Steep hills I can manage, and even torrential rain too, but a gale blowing one back for six hours? It’s the worst conditions of all for cycling. I struggle across hills that slope and descend through an abyss of nothingness. Flat plains, stale lochs with a stagnant stink, distant telecommunications towers. This desert mirrors itself in the traveller’s mind. Images of hope, or joy, or love, gradually suffocate and disappear against the wrath of the weather. It becomes so fierce that even cycling down hills becomes a tough exercise, requiring going into the lowest gears just to pedal against the horizon.
The route towards Tarbert whinnies down some mountain ranges, but the southern wind is so fierce that one may as well be cycling up a staircase. It gets worse as I carry on, its campaign to inflict misery on others aided by the occasional heavy shower. I count down each village I pass, desperate to reach Tarbert, in the worst conditions and surroundings I’ve ever encountered. There is nothing here, no birds, or trees, or people to talk to, very few houses, the occasional hardy black-faced sheep used in the Harris tweed trade, but little else.
As the road weaves up and down, tormented by a gale as fierce as a jumbo jet’s backwind, I am in a personal hell. Sad songs fill my mind and I start to feel the pains in my body from the previous day’s near-collision. My elbow bends under the pressure of trying to merely pedal down a hill, whilst my knees and shoulders ache and fatigue rattles within me. The cuts on my hand burn against the handlebar. I can feel a cold coming on.
Could the island of Lewis, south of Stornoway, be a fitting place to sentence an evil murderer or toppled despot? I imagine Napoleon struggling to make his way across a peaty field, his military boots high-lined with a bog’s dirt, a few days’ beard extant, looking haggard and hungry. Sleepless and wretched, he sings the Marseillaise to himself in a weirdly high-pitched voice and laughs manically to himself before collapsing into some squalid bog.
There must be something now…? No. More abyss for you. It is like some kind of hell, the most desolate and dejected landscape I’ve ever glimpsed. At least complete deserts offer, in their desiccation, some respite from the human condition in their inhospitality. Here one could live, like in the ruins of cleared homes, a life … but only the most miserable of lives.
I spot a monument to Bonnie Prince Charlie near Laxay, where the unfortunate Stuart prince landed some eighteen days after the disaster of Culloden, a mess of his own making. He was harboured by Lady Kildoun and, despite divided loyalties, no knowing Hebridean ever grassed him up to the authorities.
A life without pleasure or human company is a living death. Unable to make any real progress in the fierce wind, I find myself shouting and swearing at the winds, at the hideous hillsides, at my waterlogged shoes and socks, at the barbarity of existence here and the domination of the most un-Christlike Presbyterian traditions. It is bloody stupid to swear at the wind, I admit it, but I have fifty miles to cover in order to catch a ferry of escape, and little else. It brings no consolation, and the wind renews its efforts to blow me back to Orkney.
After some brutally steep mountain range I pass, somehow, into the Island of Harris. It’s not actually an island at all, but the southern part of a larger island that comprises itself and Lewis. The scenery changes quite dramatically, from the flat abysses of Lewis to great rocky ranges beyond this point. With a mountain peak like this, one can see why communities at either pole of the landmass consider the other a distant stranger. I swallow a bag of hobnobs to make it up the very steep hill, but it takes much time and effort to ascend it, hampered as ever by the fiercest of winds. I’m spent.
Tarbert eventually arrives, a small village but at least boasting a couple of shops and a bus garage, even a hotel with a bar! There are people here, and the opportunity to… stop! I feel depressed and exhausted by the journey across this ugly landscape, and resolve to leave Harris by whatever means necessary. My plan had been to catch the 6.30 ferry from Leverburgh to Berneray, the top of the next set of islands south of here, but the wind has slowed me down massively, and there is no way I’ll reach the ferry port in time, as a woman in the tourist office confirms. I can either stay in Tarbert, with its hotel bar, leering locals, and scenery as bleak as baby’s funeral, or I can…
I’m pointed to a local bus, whose driver is unable to help me. Bikes aren’t allowed, but he and a nearby French woman point me to a nearby boozer. ‘Ask for Big Michael’, he may be able to help. It’s a weird tip but I’m desperate, and there’s so little in Tarbert to stick around for, so I grab it. I follow the tip, and find a large fellow at the bar downing what looks like not the first beer of the day.
An old Englishman from Nottinghamshire, he finishes up his pint and offers a cheap lift to Leverburgh. I won’t cheat myself of the opportunity to escape, and a recent quarterly payment of my university scholarship means I can probably afford it. The chap probably isn’t legally allowed to take me in his car, on a number of levels, but hey, these are the islands. Another local man hurries out of a hardware shop and helps bundle the heavy bike into the back. ‘We’ll get you there, young man!’
We drive on, and the rain falls heavily as we rise up one steep and barren hill after another. The landscape becomes increasingly lunar, particularly to the west. Stanley Kubrick used parts of these landscapes in 2001: A Space Odyssey to represent the bleak surfaces of Jupiter, and nearby Taransay island was the site of Lord-of-the-Flies style TV show Castaway. The isolation and bleakness of these scapes has been harnessed for some value then, at least.
The rugged rocks are bare and horrific, a void of life. But later, eerily, the barrenness gives away to some very beautiful beaches, now enjoying some rare sunlight, like pretty Luskintyre on the western coast and others. They are completely empty, the schizoid weather deterring even the most optimistic of tourists.
As we pass these juxtapositions, Michael tells me about his life. Alongside a life working in building (‘til me knees went in’), Michael discovered Scotland in his 30s and kept returning, eager to explore more, finding some refuge in its epic mountains, absence of humankind and infinite wildernesses.
‘It can be clannish here. It’s alright if you’re a man, going into the pubs, people are welcoming, but for me second wife, it was too hard. She wanted to go back to England, and I said ‘ta ra!’
Like many English people I’ve met in this area, he too has found meaning in the isolated yet majestic landscapes here. He leaves with a cheerful goodbye and gives me a bottle of coke from the back, ‘some young feller left it behind, he had it with a bottle of vodka, didn’t touch the coke!’, he chuckles. I too feel the need for some strong tonic.
There’s a temptation on a tour like this to tick things off. Most northern point, tick, most bleak and desolate mountain, tick, deepest cavern, tick, most violent pub, tick, oldest mullet coiffure, tick. I realise that I might be going through the Hebrides at the wrong speed.
I decide to cut a few places out, and spend my time exploring a smaller amount of places in greater depth. So, rather than forcing my way round North and South Uist, Benbecula, and over to Barra, I decide instead just to stick to the very top end of North Uist. It’s not about completing the islands, as it cannot be exhausted, like any place. One path is necessarily chosen over another. At Leverburgh I find out about an unusual and quite special sounding hostel at Berneray.
My nose is snivelling and I am done in. By the ferry port, the nearby Anchorage restaurant has a bar and I find refuge and a place to charge my phone. Consolation comes in fleeting conversation, mental images of home, and a couple of bottles of Caledonia brewery’s Flying Scotsman, followed by a snifter of peaty and delicious Ardbeg whisky. I leaf through a letter I found on the road to Loch Assynt, a most mysterious thing, with a small publication inside written in Greek. What does it mean? It’s another magic spell of that strange landscape.
I get talking to the friendly barman, yet another Englishman. One could be forgiven for thinking the Highlands and islands were some rugged part of Northumbria. He’s from Brancaster, that ‘Chelsea on sea’ I came across on the road to Hunstanton. He tells me that most people have been priced out of the area by wealthy southerners, a true bane on their surrounding countrymen. He went off to Dubai to work in oil and gas distribution,
‘Dangerous work, but after a while you just want to get out of there. Four years I was out there, that’s double the time of the average person!’
It’s a politically unethical but intriguing line of work. He’s now escaped here, where local fishermen exchange their catch for beer and life is slow and calm. ‘You don’t earn as much here, but you can’t spend any money either!’ He’s waiting it out here then will move onto bar-work in the Alps for the winter.
‘Should’ve done this when I was younger!’
Quite right. If I travel through the landscape on a deadline, I’m missing the point. Travel is about exploration and pleasure. The charm of the Hebrides is, it seems, in slowing right down. The landscape may change or it may not, and much of it will be rugged and desolate. It’s not a place to track down conversations, or changes, but in finding a moment of inner stillness. Berneray, my destination, seems promising.
A small ferry arrives, and passengers about me speak often in Gaelic. It’s a smooth and short ride, and on the other side, the ferryman gives me simple enough directions for the hostel:
‘Take a right, then a right, for about three miles, and that’s it!’ I look at him and he smiles. ‘That’s all there is!’ No complicated roads, no major settlements, just the small peace of village life.
I take those two rights and find a small village store that doubles up as a tea-room. Inside I find a very cheerful shopkeeper and his daughter who welcomes me in. There’s delectable beers and some relatively fresh veg to complement my food, and Bob and Shannon are warm people and curious about my travels. They’ve both come from England, Bob and his wife bringing their daughter Shannon for a better life from Lincolnshire. He’d worked in engineering, but just loves his life here now, the quiet and the peace. ‘Go and check the beach, it’s wonderful’, and the directions and suggestions come thick and fast. There’s only 1300 people here on the island, and I get the impression of a close, mutually-interested but not overcoddled community.
A narrow road leads past small, peaceful looking houses rubbing up against the bay. There’s a briney tang in the air but few sea-birds, and the overcast silver skies clash against the rich marine blues, like a troubled moment of doubt or uncertainty in the lexicon of J.M.W. Turner. Besides the ruins of some old cottages is a sign for a hostel, and a most deeply unconventional and wonderful one for it.
I wander into a very warm thatched cottage with a family and a couple of guests. They look up and smile. ‘Is there a reception?’ Nope. ‘How do I check in?’ ‘Just find a bed!’ There’s a delicious smell of cooking and the room is warm with the fire. I find a bed and wander back in, and soak in the conversation. Most are English, some are walking up and down the islands, others are families who keep returning to this part of Scotland, compelled to return and wander and find in the tranquillity and majesty of these landscapes some internal state that mirrors it.
A warden called Jackie comes by later to welcome us in and take payment, a mere £12 for such wonderful and rustic facilities. The hostel is in fact two thatched houses that look out onto white sands and the most heavenly of bays. She notes with a degree of irritation that a pedantic local had scourged the style.
‘Someone came past a few weeks later [after it was put up] and said it’s not a Hebridean thatch!’
Hebridean thatch requires something called marram grass. ‘Typical!’ replies one wanderer making his home here tonight. She tells us about the Uists and Benbecula, a strange cluster of islands linked together by causeways but little else. North Uist is deeply Protestant, and South Uist Catholic. Yet there is no permanent minister in the churches, but churches outnumber pubs… it’s hard to follow, but I’m tired to trace facts. The hostel itself was set up by a guy called Galstiff, and made deliberately cheap so that young people could afford to come and experience beauty of Hebrides,
‘We’ve never turned anyone away once. Most we had was 31. We have camp beds, and people can camp too.’
All are warmly welcomed. One walker has been out for the day but not returned, and there’s some relaxed concern. I talk to a family with three daughters about our mutual travels, hayfever remedies, and Scots independence. We agree that there’s not been a clear distribution of facts by either party. The father, Nigel, expresses his concerns.
‘I worry that many of the people voting, whoever they are, won’t know the facts of either side. Leaving the UK is going to be incredibly expensive. But people aren’t thinking like that. But in places with poverty, where there isn’t much chance of an education, you’ll find people making uninformed choices…’
‘Yes, the paradox of democracy, and the main problem of my PhD!
‘People are ruled by their heart, not their head’, he fears.
We discuss the slight majority support for the No vote. ‘It’ll split the country’, worries Fe, Nigel’s wife, causing a division that’ll be hard to heal, ‘though Westminster seems keen to grant some degree of devolution.’ I’m intrigued by a point of Scots resentment I’d not encountered before, when their eldest daughter mentions BBC weather coverage. ‘We only get five seconds, it’s all about the south-east. And then it’s usually wrong!’
There’s a feeling amongst this group that Scotland has been disserved by a London-centric government in a similar way to the other outlying regions, suffocated by a lack of resources and infrastructural spending and marginalised in the media. ‘It’s true of Cornwall, or Yorkshire, or other places’, says Nigel. ‘It’s about the south-east sucking all the power, all the life.’
It’s a common story. I can’t help thinking that neither side has been compelled, nor capable, of producing detailed plans for government in Scotland with either a Yes or No majority vote. Would Scotland withdraw from the NHS, or what of arrangements with the EU? Those farming subsidies are a lifeline to farmers in England and Scotland. Uncertainty weighs on both sides, though most people I talk to seem to concede that a very narrow No win is most likely at this point in time. I’m reminded too of the arguments I’ve heard by many Yes supporters, particularly with young people, that hinge on economic self-advancement. I’m not sure how sturdy or reliable that kind of reasoning is for democracy. What if it were later in Scotland’s economic interests to remain part of UK? Then argument lost. Independence ought to be a question about the political and ethical choice for popular self government. It is as relevant in Berneray or Edinburgh as it is in Bradford, Cardiff or Truro.
I sip on Loch Ness brewery beers and enjoy the heat of the fire and the warm conversation. But it’s getting late, and I’m tiring. This cosy cottage has saved my spirits and handed me back my hopes. Some stay here for weeks, even months, just gazing out at the nearby seas. There’s something magical about this place too, in a different way. The pleasures of travel are in discovering, often through a path of sheer despair, these quiet, private oases.