‘I thought I’d gone deaf. There it was: nothing. Silence.’ – Nigel, Berneray.
Look upwards on a lonely evening’s sunset on the rugged Isle of Harris. You may see an albatross soaring aloft in the distance, its wide black and white wings outstretched. Hear, against the lapping of the tides, its hoarse cry into the distance. This albatross is seeking its lover, its lifelong mate, lost some years ago along the coastline of this rugged and bleak Outer Hebridean island. It continues its solitary search, clinging to life through the hope of finding again its other half.
Some of literature’s greatest epics are not journeys into the unknown, but journeys home, or to find a home. The Odyssey of Homer, or the Aeneid of Virgil, are each stories of men’s wanderings in search of the peace and warmth of the hearth. Berneray has given me just the sanctuary I needed. Being away from home has me cherishing it all the more.
The small dorm is cosy and quiet and I’ve had a fine night’s sleep. My waterlogged shoes and socks have dried out and there’s the chance of a much needed shower. Under the rinse I discover many tick bites across my legs. These creatures are disgusting things, burying themselves into the skin and causing a large red bump. They anaesthetise the area so that one has no idea one’s been bitten. I’d been warned all about the midges, but never about these things. Each one has to be pulled, scratched and squeezed out clean, else it will spew some vile brew into the wound which, if it becomes infected, can lead to Lime’s disease. At worst, it can cause paralysis.
Inside the warm cottage and its kitchenette, conversation flourishes among the hostel’s fellow guests. I bring up the Gaelic language, something of interest to me as a relatively unknown expression of Scottish identity (in England at least). Nigel and Fe’s eldest daughter has been studying it since a young age.
‘I’ve been learning it since the age of 5, but I still would struggle to understand someone speaking it. I can’t have a conversation in it, ’ she says, a little sadly. Her dad Nigel thinks that it would be more helpful if schools taught a more international language like French, Spanish, or even Chinese (‘that’s forward thinking’, adds Fe). But they recognise a benefit in learning a second language, and believe in its importance for empowering Scottish culture, to a degree.
There’s something about his hostel that feels more like the cottage of an extended family. Food and tea is shared out amongst everyone, and over toast and jam and cups of peppermint tea, easy sputters of chat are separated in intervals by moments where one can hear the gentle lapping of the sea outside. The sun is out and it is a glorious morning.
The morning passes on and the hiker, and the family, each part to wander across Berneray. I stay behind in the cottage, reading through a book of poetry left behind and allowing my mind to slow down and recuperate. A litter later an early middle-aged hippieish lady pops in, the hiker who’d been missing the previous night. She chuckles as she describes how, out hiking yesterday, a local farmer offered her a good dinner in exchange for herding sheep, the kind of serendipity she seeks and finds in this landscape. The island, and this place in particular, is just magical.
‘It took me twenty years to find this place. Now I come back whenever I can. I just keep it open, I don’t plan anything. There’s something magical about here. Perhaps it’s on a leyline…’
This enchanting beach outside and this warm and homely cottage may also play a part. It is a refuge and an idyll to many. She’s not the only one to keep returning here:
‘People just keep coming back here. … Some people, they don’t want to leave. One guy I heard about from Jackie, he was here for three or four months, he might’ve had a nervous breakdown … it was getting to the point where divorce proceedings could happen! He said, you’ve got to kick me out of here. He just sat out there looking at the sea, every day.’
I can well believe it. I wander out onto the white beach and look out at the aquamarine sea, turquoise in some sections and darker in others. The morning sun streaks a golden ray that ripples over the waters. Amongst the sands I spy pretty shells, crabs, jellyfish and seagulls. The teeny granules crackle and crumble between my toes.
At the end of the beach I find a fragment of green pottery with ‘England’ etched on it. This broken object represents the puzzle I must complete. What England? Why England?
As the Scots move with irreversible momentum towards autonomy, a motion that will likely pull other regions of these isles to similar self-government, what of English identity and collective belonging? How is it expressed today, except through frustration, fear, and resentment? Visions of collectively creating a better society have been lost. Even the political left have lost heart, haunted by futures that failed to arrive, critical of the present and unsure of the past.
Scotland is aware of its own history of Highland struggles, technological innovation and civic pride. Conversations about independence are lively, vigorous and well informed to a degree, certainly more so than any comparable kind of political debate you’d find in a pub say in the Home Counties. Rarely in England have I been told of our histories of popular struggles for workers’ rights, or the vote, or a welfare state, or our traditions of fair play, egalitarianism and toleration. Instead I’ve heard people’s pessimism, their doubts about the St. George’s cross and their desire for… something else, but what, they cannot state. Some great blockage collectively inhibits people from visualising an alternative where equality, fairness and sustainability are at play.
The latest stories about covered-up child sex abuses among the highest parts of the political establishment are wounding people’s trust in the government to its very limit. Even the OECD report that growth in developing and developed countries will stagnate and peter out and, in the process, cause humongous inequality as a global norm. A dangerous situation is arising, but the narrative is half-formed and needs to change. When do we stop talking about inevitable catastrophes, a self-fulfilling prophecy, to a reason and evidence based case for a new kind of social democratic society with a detailed model, based instead on happiness, well-being, hope and common sense?
An opportunity seems to present itself, but like this shard of crockery, looks half-formed and impossible to locate. Out on Berneray beach, among the seas and sands, I wonder about a line in that poetry book, that each of us has an obligation to everything smaller than the universe. I take the object with me as a memento. This puzzle won’t be solved just yet.
The walk across the eastern beach gives plenty to think about for the journey ahead. I’ll need to speak to a wider variety of people than I’ve reached so far. I’ve relied entirely on accident and chance, fine enough resources, but there are stories and experiences that I’ll miss unless I seek them out. Different religious communities, minority groups, and walks of life. Slowing things down seems more important than ever. Time is something that should be given to others. This seems missing in London, that overcrowded place left behind, where people haven’t got time for each other. But not just slowing or suspending time, but rechanneling it, volunteering it to charities in some capacity, one day a week. A new plan foments for when I return.
I get back to the cottage and have a small lunch. As the sun flits through the window, I hear the rustle of the wind as it laps against the cottage door. A middle-aged southern English couple wander in and say hullo, and we take turns to trade tales of ourselves and our sorties around Berneray. They ask me about the Independence question.
The guy volunteers his opinion:
‘They don’t realise that once they leave the UK, that’s it. The oil won’t last more than thirty years. They don’t see how much they depend on London and its income, through taxation.’
‘But what if our economy was re-organised so that this imbalance disappeared? Power could be devolved to all the regions…’
He’s sceptical of any kind of change. Once again, the political idea of independence, democracy and self-government is being lost to bickering over economics.
Lost in these arguments too is the political idea of union and cooperation, of the benefits of pooling resources fairly and working together. This is part of the resentment that’s led to the question of independence. End London rule is a recurring slogan. It’s not an anti-London or anti-English gesture, but a protest against the unequal centralisation of wealth and power in the capital. Though independence is one solution, a confederation of semi-autonomous regions of the British islands has yet to be raised. Wouldn’t this actually unite resentments and frustrations across these parts?
Berneray my paradise… it’s time to leave.
The road threads by beachside dwellings and over a causeway into North Uist. It’s pleasant in the light, rocky and bare to a little like Lewis and largely flat, but with more shrubbery and vegetation to it. It’s also very sparsely populated. I travel along past abandoned houses and sheep with pink punky Mohican dyes until I reach Lochmaddy. I’ve little appetite to go any further. People across Berneray and Harris have already warned that there isn’t that much to the Uists. ‘No, not much there in south,’ said the English couple earlier, ‘mostly flat’. The antipathy’s confirmed in Lochmaddy, where local shopkeepers suggest that Benbecula’s fit only as ‘a place to drive through’. But…
‘What’s north Uist like?’
I ask two locals in the café of Taigh Chearsabhagh, a small museum by the ferry terminal. They’re a little puzzled by the question, and seem to have rarely been asked to reflect on the place as a whole. It just is, their eyes express. ‘Yes it’s very quiet, I suppose!’ I ask if they visit South Uist much, trying to see if those religious divisions influence people’s behaviour still. ‘Ah yes’, and they advise me where the best supermarkets are on the islands. There aren’t many local people (or any people) around here, and conversation is hard to come by. A empty sheep pen faces the Lochmaddy hotel. After a time the ship comes in.
Two cyclists give me a friendly nod as we board, and soon chitchat flowers into thriving conversation. Dan and Rick are two close friends travelling together across the Highlands and islands. Rick’s between jobs and Dan’s seeking an escape from a job in project management, and together they’ve been well… struggling like me through the recent bad weather, cycling and kayaking in Lewis, Harris and elsewhere. We find a table in the ferry’s cafeteria and Rick brings over pots of delicious Mackay’s ice cream and a bottle of beer and shares it out. We find out about each other’s lives and our motivations for travelling, and trace lines over maps of our planned adventures ahead.
Our ferry is heading to Uig on the northern tip of the Isle of Skye. I’ve been especially looking forward to visiting this beautiful part of the world. The eyes of strangers have often lit up as I’ve explained my itinerary. ‘Ah, the Hebrides! You must visit Skye! It is truly magical’. There’s been enough benign sorcery in this scenery already, but the pleasure’s amplified once we disembark. I have made two friends also heading my way, and together we three travel in a neat line to Portree, the main town on Skye.
Rick rides a recumbent bike. Locals give him a funny check as he passes. Though the bike is pretty punishing going up hills, the speeds it takes going down them are something else. At times he whooshes ahead of me and Dan into the distance, the bike’s rounded bulk appearing like a granny’s mobility scooter with a Ferrari engine inside.
We talk and laugh as we ride across Skye’s pretty roads. The island is marked out by a much more copious and thriving landscape. A great dark mountain range looms in the distance, the Black Cuillins, but each hillside is alive with trees and forest, thriving in its own abundance. It is a consoling and lovely sight after the bleak plains and peaks of Lewis and Harris.
To avoid confusion, I am now ‘Dan 2’, and my double is ‘Dan 1’. It’s a new pleasure cycling with others and sharing the pleasures of travel. It’s my first time in the company of other cyclists too, and much of what feels normal to me, like not wearing gloves when cycling, or continually riding in the highest gear possible whether I’m going up or down some steep hill, is quite strange and bizarre to them. ‘You’re hardcore!’, laughs Dan 1. A little naïve more like it.
The weather is glorious, and sixteen miles disappears in a matter of mere moments. The road gives way to a deep valley with a settlement nestled within. We’re shocked that we’ve already reached Portree. Celebrations are marked outside a Co-op supermarket, where Australians bring out cases of Tennents lager and Americans talk loudly about the weather.
Inside I find an actual Skye local after a few forays into small-talk. A young cashier tells me there’s ‘nothing here’, in terms of a future.
‘It’s difficult. You’ve got to go to another island just to go to college. It’s a nice place, but … not many of the young come back once they leave.’
Her method of escape is college to study medicine, though her smiles betrays a little uncertainty. ‘To be a doctor?’ ‘Och no, a nurse maybe.’ ‘Why, you might be good at it?’ She smiles uneasily again, as if I’ve suggested she sprout wings and learn to fly instead of walk.
Portree itself is a very pretty little town, marked by a town square flanked by bakeries, pubs and civil buildings, and a small number of lengthy streets threading out towards a hospital and harbour, and beyond. As we arrive, a bagpipe band is marching up and down the square. Tourists cram round to photograph the display, eager to capture some kind of trophy for their times. The band had won in the pipe contest in Forres, that crazy town I visited little over a week ago. So much have I seen here that it feels like several years ago now.
Dan and Rick depart for a nearby campsite and we agree to meet up later that evening. I tour around the pretty harbour, its fish and chip shop populated by persons of every global continent, before cycling up a steep hill in search of the Lump, site of the Highland games. A cheeky scheme is forming itself in my head…
A local man gives me clear directions there, and I ask him whether it’s possible, for a travelling youth with little money, to pitch a tent and sleep the night there? ‘Aye well, as long as you didn’t just tell me you were planning to!’
The Lump is an expanse of green at the top of a steep hill that overlooks Portree harbour. One gets there via the hospital, and up a very steep footpath that my bike just about manages. ‘Need a push?’ asks a local lad jovially. A small amphitheatre has been cut out of the rock and grass, and nearby is a small tower overlooking the harbour, shielded by thick trees. Inside, three teenage girls laugh over the details of their social lives. The midges are out in force, but as I capture a snap from the top, they tell me ‘there’s not much you can do’. Contrary to suspicions, even the locals have little clue how to beat them. As George in Stornoway said, ‘they’re just bastards!’
The site looks good for a spot of wild camping. I head back to McNabs bar where tourists from Germany, Switzerland and elsewhere gently knock shoulders against locals to watch Brazil get roundly trounced by the Germans in the World Cup. Dan and Rick arrive in and conversation continues over pints of Black Face and Pinnacle from the local Cuillin brewery and bottles of Isle of Skye ales. The beers have us talking candidly and openly about our dreams and regrets. Dan 1 advises me in the strongest terms to move to Canada with my wife before I turn thirty. ‘It’s too late after, believe me!’, he appeals, carrying his thirty three years like a life sentence.
Whilst he heads to the loo, Rick affectionately tells me about Dan 1’s belief in justice and ‘setting things right’. He comes back and returns my rank tasting pint at the bar for a pint of Ember, and drinking and chatting continues.
‘Don’t say this will be the only time, the one time. What you’re doing now, you can do again. People say too easily, “this is it”. They go travelling before or after uni, then lock themselves into a miserable job, and life. Don’t feel obliged to be responsible!’
Ah drunken conversations amongst new friends!
We move onto the Isles Inn, a shit pub, then find a nearby hotel bar where drunk Germans cheerily knock back shots and cheer loudly. It’s been a superb night. We leave the joint pissed and exuberant. As we pack up the bikes, Rick and Dan 1 tell me that they’d like to leave me with a present to help me out on the road. Rick prises off one of his bicycle mirrors, and Dan 1 uses a knife to cut a hole through the rubber edge of my bike’s handlebars. They attach the mirror on. ‘You might need this. Stay safe!’
It’s not teary goodbyes just yet. Like a naughty kid I want to show them where I’m planning to camp. We sneak up to The Lump and gaze out at the harbour views, the dark blues of the midnight and the fleeting star casting just about enough light to agree a good camping spot. They’re already set up elsewhere, and we shake hands and part ways.
Berneray and Skye, and the redemptive power of human generosity, kindness, conversation, and copious pints of beer can restore and replenish even the most weary of souls.