‘Look, I’m an otter! And now, I’m an eagle!’ – young boy, aboard the Lochranza-Claonaig ferry.
I awake in Bill’s house in the village of Sannox, on the Isle of Arran. It’s a palace of a home, displaying the riches of a life well lived: photographs, mementos, books and random treasures. I read the motivational verses on his fridge and have a cup of coffee with some Weetabix, whilst in another room, I hear Bill’s gentle and merry voice bubbling with laughter on a phone-call with an old friend.
We breakfast together and share our plans for the day. That Viking longboat in Corrie harbour will be burnt in an Up Hella Aa celebration later today, Bill tells me, and he shares some of the histories of Arran, an island colonised by Vikings, amongst others. The Hebrides, islands of the Firth of Clyde (like Arran), and the Isle of Man once comprised the ‘Kingdom of the Isles’, a separate political entity that existed from the 9th to the 13th century, when it was absorbed into the kingdom of Scotland. Irish, Pictish and later Viking settlers arrived and each claimed some or all of the islands, but the Viking influence was more lasting, Bill tells me. I sense it in the names of places, and in the probability of its historical veracity, but unlike Shetland or even, to a degree, Newcastle, I get little sense of it on Arran. But then more recent ‘colonisation’ by retiring Glaswegians brings its own flavour!
And me? I’m off to Islay, but there’s one fairly considerable problem obstructing me and Bill’s plans: rain, and lots of it. The skies have opened and it is absolutely tipping down. I encase myself in whatever waterproof materials I can find and head out. Bill wishes me well, with an eye that reveals his relative contentment in his warmer surroundings. I quite understand it.
The road leading north out of Sannox is quite steep, but doesn’t deserve the reputation it’s given. Or perhaps after the Highlands, what one person calls a hill is to me a hillock? The scenery is nice and reminiscent of the north-west Highlands, like Shieldaig or Bettyhill: sloping hills that rise up along dramatic gradients into mountain peaks that tear at the clouds, verdant and alive with thick grasses and ferns, and with little evidence of any attempt at agriculture. It continues in this kind of mood for a good few miles, eventually steeping down into Lochranza, passing the Isle of Arran distillery.
As ever, I’m running a little late for this ferry, and I’m pedalling like a pneumatic drill to reach the harbour in time. The mind starts racing ahead into its own unique zone of sheer panic whilst the body pounds away without fatigue, getting on with it. Chasing after a ferry in a state of fear and dread can make one start to believe that the mind and body are two separate things. It expresses itself in words: what if I miss the ferry? Will I catch the next one? How can I dry out? AAAAaah! The mind is ever fretting, worrying about possibilities and pessimistic scenarios whilst the body operates with its more obvious impulses, sensations and intuitions. With this kind of panic, which does hit me from time to time, usually for a good reason, the best way of overcoming it is to bring the mind back into the state of the body, considering only what it senses around it, reflecting on the journey so far.
Love is another way of explaining this unhealthy and mistaken separation of the two. In love, the body knows its desire, or affection, or attachment, directly through the feeling it experiences when sensing it. The mind can complicate that with social implications, or fears of ‘history repeating itself’, of putting study or a career first, or whatever causes a person to extinguish something special and regret that later. Just follow the physical feeling. Estimations can be wrong, but feelings cannot – truth or falsity are not their zone.
A digression, sorry. But this thought sustains me the miles to Lochranza where, as it turns out, I’m quite early. Sadly it’s still chucking down with rain. In a nearby waiting room, a small number of motorcyclists, cyclists and walkers cram together, and I join them, wringing about my waterproofs in the doorway before sitting inside the humid room.
Such bleak weather! When I started out this journey in the suburban wilderness of Essex, the weather was equally awful. But the nagging and secret urges to abandon a fool’s path are gone. I can survive it, just that I won’t enjoy it. Everything I own will get wet, but in time it will dry. There’s not much to do except roll with it.
The small CalMac ferry comes in and scoops us aboard. It’s a short sailing over to Claonaig, on the Kintyre peninsula. I don’t plan to stop here, but I can’t help passing without sharing the Mull of Kintyre’s cultural significance. No, it’s nothing to do with Paul McCartney. This part of the world has inspired the Mull of Kintyre rule, an unofficial guideline used by the BBFC to decide whether a man’s john Thomas could be shown. If the member in question was more erect than the dangle of Kintyre from the Scottish mainland then it was too risqué to be broadcast.
There’s something remarkable about traditional British attitudes to sexuality. Our slang is loaded with euphemisms, and this island has a long tradition of producing pornographic literature and images, yet its excitement still remains attached to being discreet or hidden, held back. Say the word penis or vagina in a crowded room. It’s easier to talk to one’s fellow about land-mines, world hunger or dysentery. Humour and alcohol remain the most common aphrodisiacs, proven ways of tunnelling through social niceties or prudence without acknowledging their existence.
When we disembark I get chatting to two cyclists on the same vessel, a man and his teenage son. I ask for directions to Kennacraig, a nearby ferry harbour and my next destination. ‘Och, don’t worry, come with us!’ says the friendly father. We cycle together and start talking.
Grant is cycling with his son Anthony to Islay too, and they haven’t any fixed plans on arrival. ‘We might go to Jura, but look at this weather, it’s pishing it down!’ They’re both from Glasgow, and conversation quickly screws into that marvellous subject. I tell them about my experiences in the city, of staying in the West End and in Govanhill. Grant and Anthony live on the South Side too and knows it well. Grant laughs when he hears that I used to live near the University.
‘So you’re a Londoner, and a West Ender?’
‘Yeah… the two worst things to be?’
The reputation of Londoners always precedes us. But what about the South Side?
‘Govanhill? Right now, that’s probably the worst part of Glasgow.’
‘Roughest, you mean?’
‘No, just… it’s changing. They used to call it Little Donegal. … Then later, after the Irish moved out, Little Bengal. Now there’s Poles, Roma people, but the place looks run down’.
We’re cycling fast, a little too fast for me and my gentle pace, but we’re chasing our second ferry of the day which sets sail in not enough minutes time. The undulating hills of Kintyre, a plain-looking, rural place, soon have me flat out. Fortunately Grant and I are getting on really well, and of course conversation returns to the sticky subject of Scottish independence.
Like the majority of Scots I’ve talked to, Grant’s strongly in favour of independence. He gives an analogy of a small business. Two people set it up together, and succeed for a time. One day, one wants to leave the business and set up his own. It’ll disadvantage his partner, but that’s still his decision to make. Scotland is free, and should be free, to pursue its own interests, and people in England shouldn’t be offended.
‘It’s like the Commonwealth Games. Those countries, for all their wars and problems, none have them have come back and said, come on, let us back into the empire.’
‘That’s right, they wanted to be free. They wanted to make their own difficult decisions’.
‘Aye, and Scotland will be the same. Even if the No vote wins, it won’t go away. Give it twenty years. Independence, this thing’s in the post.’
We start to approach Kennacraig with just enough time to spare to buy a ticket. I’ve been telling Grant about my PhD research, and this project, and he makes a direct link between the two.
‘So it’s a kind of field-work? Cos, I don’t mean to cause offence, your work’s particularly dry, what you read’.
‘That’s it mate, only I don’t think I’d thought of it that way before. But you’re right. It’s about democracy, communities working together to organise themselves. I’ve read so many books talking about who the people are, what they want, polls and statistics on beliefs and votes. But I’m out here now, asking people directly. I dunno how you can think to improve a society without experiencing and talking to as many people in it first.’
With stimulating conversation and in the company of fast cyclists, time just disappears. We’ve reached our port quickly, and get aboard a large ferry heading over to Port Askaig, on the northern edge of Islay. The pair are staying in a youth hostel in Port Charlotte and with this bleak weather, I decide to do the same. Nineteen quid’s a little steep but it’ll give the chance to dry out my clothes and get a comfortable night’s sleep. I’m still troubled with flashbacks from my night(mare) in Inveraray…
The crossing is gentle, and eased with a bottle of Black Rock ale from the local Islay brewery. As it pulls into Islay the rain has become horizontal, flaying the boat and anyone stupid or mad enough to be standing by the port with a cruel lashing. ‘There’s no way you’ll get us going out in that!’, Grant laughs. They decide to head straight for Port Charlotte but, me being an intrepid fool, I decide to brave it.
Under a heavy barrage, I dash out. I need some strength, and a cash machine, so I pop into the Port Hotel bar, one of about two buildings that comprise Port Askaig. There’s a two quid charge on transactions, something that really ought to be banned, so being both enterprising and a lover of whisky, I get a Bruichladdich malt and some cashback. It’s deliciously sharp and rich, not peaty like the malts Islay’s known for like Lagavulin, Ardbeg and Laphroaig. A feller comes in with his mate, both fairly drunk and very rude with the Polish bar staff. He asks for rum and coke, beers and a grouse. ‘But you’ve come all this way mate’, I say next to him. He looks at me accusingly. ‘I’m from Hamilton!’ As if where you’re from is an excuse to be conservative, narrow-minded, and stubborn.
I head out and catch the teeny Jura ferry. The crossing’s quick, and on the other side is… nothing. Feolin is simply a house and a sign. There’s then six miles of a road that follows the coast, before heading a little inland. I race a CalMac ferry in the bay, narrowly beating it, then brave a series of undulating hills that tire me out. The rain slaps against my face and freezes my skin. The landscape is unusually bleak. Not with the lunar misery of Harris, just absent of life. There are hillsides alive with ferns, and great craggy rocks that punctuate this shifting spectrum of green. But there are no farms, or houses, or telegraph poles, or much else except a road, which I follow, expecting it to eventually arrive somewhere.
There are very few cattle or sheep yet many cattle grids, giving Jura a depopulated and either post-apocalyptic or magical feel, depending on mood. With the fierce torrential rain and headwind, post-apocalyptic’s my feeling. I’m cursing and shouting at the wind as it changes course around me, blowing me back towards my left, then my right. It’s tough, and there are no road signs, or maps, or few cars. I’m aiming for the Jura distillery, but can’t quite remember where it is. But with nowhere to stop, I pursue it on.
Eventually signs for Craighouse appear, the only real settlement on the island. In my mind I’d decided that Craighouse was too far to go today, and had made plans to turn round before. Tough luck then. It’s a small harbour village, dominated by the Jura distillery. It’s closed by the time I get there, but desperate, I knock on the door, hoping for the briefest of peeks within.
A young man had knocked on it about 30 seconds before I arrived, then headed back into the pub opposite in defeat. I wait around a minute, freezing cold, soaked through and worn out. Thankfully the door opens, and a friendly and kind-souled lady lets me into a large room filled with Jura bottles and merchandise. ‘What are you having?’, she asks.
‘I’ve come all the way from London for this’, I say. And I have. Jura remains one of my favourites, and having a small bottle in my bag sustained me through the tough start of my journey. That was Jura Origin, sweet and rich. I used to draw out its Celtic symbol on the bottle, representing infinity. Rachel’s a little surprised at my knowledge. ‘The past, the present, and the future, all coming into one’, she describes. I try some Prophecy, and my word, it is delicious! It’s especially peaty and produced for only four weeks a year by the distillery. It’s creamy, oily, smoky yet sweet and damn scrumptious, the most delicious dram I’ve come across. It has been worth coming all the way for this.
The symbols get us talking about Gaelic, and I tell her what I’ve found, travelling through the islands, speaking to people, of the vitality of the language and its heritage. I tell her the story of James VI of Scotland at Iona, who met with the Highland Chiefs and instructed them to send their sons to the Lowlands and to speak English. This political act of 1609 by a Scottish king who would later take up the English throne as James I marked the demise of Gaelic culture. She’s really surprised I know, and I share a little of my stories, of travelling in the Highlands, of the people I’ve met and their stories, young and the old. It gets me onto land ownership, of visiting Eigg, and the real blight of continued English landownership in the Highlands. Scottish independence is so important on a number of levels.
She smiles, and lifts up her bracelets to reveal a Yes wristband. I am talking to the organiser of the Yes Islay campaign, a lady whose friends nickname her ‘Tartan Drawers’! She tells me about the campaign on Islay, and about her work. As well as setting up and managing the visitor centre here, she runs two small businesses: the Wild and Magic Islay travel company, and Whisky for Girls. With an extensive programme of disinformation about Scottish independence in the Scots and national press, she suggests a few pro-independence alternatives worth exploring: Wings Over Scotland and Bella Caledonia.
We’re getting on really well, in that way that’s always possible between strangers, where race, gender, age are minimised or non-existent, and differences are openly broached and affirmed. To toast this unlikely yet seemingly fated encounter, she retrieves a bottle of Jura 1977, a very rare malt usually sold for £600 a bottle. She asks me for my tasting notes. I’m getting a good nose for malts, and I sense its brandy qualities, very rich but not too fruity, kinda dry but not earthy. It’s lovely, but unlike Jura’s other concoctions.
Over a couple of glasses of this delightful stuff, we talk about the situation in Palestine. She tells me of her friend in Israel, a man who was until recently a border mediator. He would help Palestinians get over the border to access hospital treatment, and he would also coordinate deliveries of aid. It’s worth remembering and thinking of the countless Israelis who do not support the brutality of their government. He’s been too busy recently to update friends on his safety, but his last Facebook post was an image of Palestine and Israel flag, each superimposed on the other. It’s an image worth bearing in mind at a time when it’s easy to lose one’s head. To pursue settlements of peace, and to end the involvement of civilians in wars – what a better world this could be. Well… Turkeys wouldn’t vote for Christmas…
Rachel worked in Sheffield in the past as a nurse, and later in architecture. ‘I love Sheffield, and I love Glasgow. Both are Socialist cities!’ They’re both special cities, each surrounded by beautiful nature, be it the Peak District, or Loch Lomond and nearby Arran. She shares her memories of being involved in the Stop the War campaign, smiling as she recalls posting up a huge ‘Peace not war’ sign on the top of the university building, visible across the city. She took part in candlelit vigils in the city-centre, a reminder to people about the war in Iraq. It’s reminiscent of the situation in Israel, and the mistake of attacking all Israelis, or even worse, of the depressing rise in anti-Semitic attacks across Britain since the military onslaught began. So much misinformation was produced at the time about a 45-minute bomb attack, of Saddam Hussein’s links to Al-Qaeida, and the libellously underreported numbers on the major protests. The world could’ve mistaken the entirety of the UK as supporting the Iraq war, but it was unpopular at the time, and loathed even more since.
The whisky’s warming me up. Rachel tells me about George Orwell, who came up to the northern edge of Jura in 1946 to write Nineteen Eighty-Four, his dystopia cautioning against totalitarianism in all its forms, the hideous ways it can corrupt and transform language, and through that, thought itself. Yes, as we found out in Newcastle, the book is to a degree nicked from Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, but as Picasso said (or was it Dan Taylor…?!), ‘good artists copy, great artists steal’.
But it’s not the details of the plot, but the political critique implicit within them, that makes the novel so powerful. Countless phrases stand out as warnings to our own time:
‘To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing in both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it, to believe that democracy was impossible and that the Party was the guardian of democracy, to forget, whatever it was necessary to forget, then to draw it back into memory again at the moment when it was needed, and then promptly to forget it again, and above all, to apply the same process to the process itself — that was the ultimate subtlety; consciously to induce unconsciousness, and then, once again, to become unconscious of the act of hypnosis you had just performed. Even to understand the word ‘doublethink’ involved the use of doublethink.’
Today’s successful politician is, unconsciously I expect, a master in it. Think of the excessive use by Tony Blair of phrases like ‘new’ or ‘modernising’, of Cameron’s use of ‘pure and simple’ or ‘fairness’, or moreorless anything Ed Miliband says, ‘hard-working families’, ‘the cost of living crisis’ and the like. Each means nothing, and cannot be reflected on without cancelling its enchanted spell: it speaks instead of power, no longer of ‘a boot stamping on a human face – forever’, but more a small probe injected under the skin of the temple, injecting fears and desires into one’s thoughts.
With the normalisation of CCTV and internet surveillance, we’re quite beyond anything Orwell imagined. Individual privacy is impossible, nor is it desirable: many of us would sooner post our exploits on Facebook than keep something back. Employers, weirdo exes and whoever search these and find what they will. Orwell nearly drowned whilst rowboating out here in 1946, but the rugged isolation of the place must have helped cast together his thoughts and fears into an impressive form. Rachel tells me that Haruki Murakami, author of IQ84, will be visiting the island soon, in search of Orwell, and she’ll be hosting him. All kinds of stories and reasons bring people to Jura. The connection of the Japanese with Scotland is intriguing, from a shared love of whiskies, to a similar traditional hierarchy of clans and chiefs/samurais.
What a wonderful afternoon. ‘I must’ve opened this door to you for a reason’, she says. ‘That’s the wonder of these travels. Encounters like this have happened to me, and I’m not sure why.’ Pure serendipity.
The rain’s still falling hard but I’m feeling good, a little drunk, and full of positive warmth. A song I’d long forgotten comes into mind, Nina Simone’s rendition of ‘Feelings’, and I sing it aloud the eight or so miles back along the bleak track, passing the occasional group of red deer and little else.
I pass the Paps of Jura, two ‘mamillary’ mountains as Pennent would put it that overlook the southern side of Jura, and reach Feolin. The ferry arrives and takes me back to Askaig, where the rain roars down with renewed vigour. I find shelter in a closed ferry terminal and eat a bowl of granola, trapped. The ferry timetables have very recently been changed, and so my planned ferry for the next day now leaves from here, instead of Port Ellen in the south. I’m glad I found out, as I’d be stuck here otherwise, but it means having to skip the southern part of Islay. I had planned to camp on a small piece of land I own by the Laphroaig distillery – yes, I mean it. When one buys a bottle of Laphroaig whisky, one is given a square foot of land by the distillery. I’d meant to rest on mine, but another time.
Ach, it’s staying put, this rain. I psyche myself up, then go for it. It’s a steep zigzagging climb out of Askaig, but after that the road is gentle and undulating. It’s a nice island, Islay. There’s nothing too harsh about it – no vicious crags or cruel abysses, just undulating hills, an abundance of trees, and an array of verdant colours richer and more fertile than Jura or Arran. I pass the Bunnahabhain and Caol Ila distilleries, and a number of derelict old cottages, but the majority of the scenery is of passing plains and fields, some with sheep, some green with grasses and thistle. At Bridgend the road splits, and I take refuge inside the Bridgend Hotel bar, refreshing on an Islay brewery Finlaggan ale, a fine and tasty tipple.
There’s little to Bridgend – a hamlet with a hotel, post office, and a lawn with a lovely tree, and holiday cottages further afield. Nearby Bowmore is the largest settlement on the island, but by urban standards it would count as at best a village. The rain has taken a pause, so I head out towards Port Charlotte, along a lovely coastal road with a delightful sunset. It passes the village of Bruichladdich with its large distillery, but for most of it I am alone, with a sky larger than the land, and the occasional gang of sheep obstructing the road.
Port Charlotte arrives in the distance, a village with a very similar style of 19th century white-clad housing, giving the impression of being built in one moment. It’s a peaceful place, sitting just by the sea, and quite lovely. I find the hostel and settle in, talking to Karl and Lorna, its friendly and laid-back managers. They’ve been running the place for seven years. The hostel is open from March to October, and between those times, they travel. It seems like a good life, and the hostel is well-kept, with a laundry and a much-needed drying room. All my clothes are soaked through, and this is just the ticket. I change into something relatively dry, and head out for a final pint and natter.
There’s only two bars in the village, but Rachel’s tipped me to the more lively Lochindaal Hotel, and it doesn’t disappoint. I get a Finlaggan malt, an odd Islay whisky that no distillery will take responsibility for. It’s peaty but light, and delightful. I sit at the bar, and get talking to a gentleman next to me, Alistair. He’s a sound engineer and has played in bands, and tells me that ‘Ardrossan was one of the roughest towns I’ve played in!’ He travels around Britain and Europe for his work, and enjoys the independence, novelty and freedom of his work. He buys me a pint, and we continue talking.
He brings up Scottish independence, and we start to debate it. Curiously, Alistair has engineered the sound for live events for both the Yes and the Better Together campaigns.
‘What side did you find more persuasive?’
‘Well, I’m a Yes supporter. But the No campaign, it’s all about facts and figures. And the Yes campaign draws on emotions. … But, with all this, there’s no civil war here, you know. It’s not like other countries. No-one’s shooting each other! This shows Scotland well. It’s an important moment for us.’
Alistair’s side interest is also in whisky. He’s on Islay for a family holiday, but he’s taking time to visit the distilleries and interview people in them, producing small videos for his website, The Drinking Man’s Guide to Scotland. Do take a look, it’s excellent!
As we talk, a fiddler begins to play with a guitarist accompanying. The bar’s pretty empty but they do their best to stir us up with Scottish folk songs. It’s superb stuff, but with midnight coming on, it’s time to get back to the hostel. I say my goodbyes and disappear back. I make up a meal out of some free leftovers in the kitchen, write these words, and with a dry shirt on my back at last, sigh with relief.