‘I’ve only been to England twice, I’ve been to Germany more often. London, that’s like a foreign country, but yet it makes all the decisions that affect our lives.’ – Kieran, Skye.
With a furtive thrill, last night I pitched camp in the arena of the Highland Games at Portree, Skye. The surrounding views of the harbour, verdant forests and Black Cuillin mountains in the distance are quite a spectacular and rousing image to start the day, and the Lump itself, as it’s known here, is totally deserted.
I could return in a few weeks’ time to watch, with thousands of others, brawny Highlanders toss the caber and fling various weights across the field. There would be bands of local pipe-players competing to perform the most stirring rendition of the Bonny Banks o’ Loch Lomond, with the descendents of the local clans of MacLeod and MacDonald showing off their tartans and symbols. There’d be sailing, and dancing, and… masses of tourists.
Escaping the crowds on Skye is pretty difficult, but that’s not to suggest that some kind of authenticity might be scraped out and saved beneath the superficialities. The Highland games happen across Scotland and are, like Shetland’s Up Helly Aa, a Victorian construction, taking some vague aspects of local traditions and transforming them into a sanitised tourist attraction. Queen Victoria’s move up to Balmoral in 1862 kicked off the Highlands craze, and what remains of the local clans is nothing compared to their customs, power and communal pride before the fall-out of Culloden. So this event is all about tourism. Gladly, this morning, I’ve got it all to myself.
‘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.
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.
‘The most terrible creature on this planet? It’s the human. We destroy everything… closely followed by the midge, and the tick!’ – Greg, Lochinver.
I awake with a fierce hangover on a shrubby hillock in the heart of Culag woods, a small but dense forest overlooking the fishing village of Lochinver. The beer, whisky and good times made sleeping easy, but the surface around me is uneven and boggy. Some strange little insect has lodged itself in my arm and with some difficulty I manage to squeeze it out. I’ll quickly become accustomed to these nasty critters. My socks and much of the tent are soaked through, and a pair of damp and whiffy socks are unhappily thrown away as tribute to the rain gods.
It’s a Sunday morning and the overnight rain seems to have cleared. Being dependent on tourism and fishermen, Lochinver actually has a shop and tourist office open, with a little museum at the back. There’s nothing about the wretched people of Assynt that Pennant saw, but the collection completes the pieces of a familiar puzzle. After Culloden, the local MacLeod chiefs had their obligations to their clans removed. Like other highlanders, they took well to making money from their lands, and gradually adopted a London-based lifestyle of the rich, spending the income of their estates in coffee houses and card tables. Debts lost them the land to the enterprising Duke of Sutherland. Over the early 19th century local farmers were burnt out and cleared to make room for sheep farming. Economic profit continued to trump traditions and human lives.
Lochinver was built in 1812 as a fishing port for these evicted farmers, and over the following nine years the surrounding area – that Jurassic wilderness I passed through yesterday – saw burnings and evictions. There were riots in nearby Inchnadamph against the collusion of the local church with the lairds, but most people were forced by starvation to move to Canada, Australia and elsewhere. By the 1870s the price of wool collapsed, and greedy lairds faced financial ruin, until Queen Victoria turned the Highlands and hunting into an English aristocratic retreat. Whilst the rich came to holiday, those locals who managed to eke out a living through croft-farming or fishing struggled to survive. It was a bleak place. Some organised deer raids against the rich, driving away toffs and their game to preserve ‘the land of Assynt to the people of Assynt.’
‘Not everyone could do it. It’s his choice, he loves it.’ John on John, on the island of Johns, also known as Cape Wrath.
I could gaze at this view forever. Scatter my ashes here. This is a longer post, but the sights, stories and scenes ah, it’s worth following!
It’s 8.30am. At different times in my life, I’ve spent this time cattle-trucked on morning tubes and trains, fellow passengers arguing and fighting, stress and frustration sweating from people’s shirts and ties like a miasma of tolerated suffering. Or buses caught in interminable south London traffic, making me late for school, then university, some arsehole’s music blaring at the back from his phone. Or in the last year, dodging blind taxi drivers and the horsey wives of the rich in Chelsea tractors along the south circular to my current university on this very same bike besides my tent today.
‘Stay with life’ – Father Michael, Tongue.
Thibault and I awake in our separate quarters of this mostly-refurbished flat in Thurso. It’s an unloved town on Scotland’s northern coastline, and the end of the line of the railway route that runs from Inverness to the very end of the land. I stayed up late the previous night talking to my partner on Skype and then writing. The alarm wakes me up several hours too early, but it’s no good: time to get up.
We breakfast on bananas and shreaded wheat. Our warm host, John, pops back in from the other nearby flat he’s doing up, and conversation kicks us all awake. The morning’s subject is midges, a terrible scourge of the north western part of Scotland. Thibault tells us about one man he heard about who became so crazed from midge bites that he began to scratch away at his face and arms, inflicting terrible wounds, until he had to be sedated in hospital. I’m frightened for the days ahead, and John offers to give me a lift to a nearby fishing shop where there should be some kind of better protection beyond a trucker hat, flapping hands frenetically, and DEET cream.
Thibault boards a bus back to Inverness, off to continue his walking across as yet-unknown parts of the Scots hinterland. John and I drive through Thurso’s small town centre. There’s a prominent church and a small area around a few streets with some grubby shops, but much of Thurso is of an ugly dark-yellow/brown brick or of pebble-dash. Low-levelled narrow streets continue on an improbably long scale with ugly houses and shops. The town’s dirty appearance gives the impression of wearing beer and sand spattered sunglasses.