‘He said, “we’ve got to call out the assessor”, and I said, “nae yous fucking won’t, that’s my horse!”’
– Ray, Dalmellington, on calling out the fire brigade to rescue a beloved 30-year old horse, neck-deep in a quagmire.
I awake after a reasonable enough rest in a youth hostel in Port Charlotte, on the north-western edge of isle of Islay. The island’s shaped like the three legs of the Isle of Man, a triskellion that points in three different directions. Port Charlotte sits on the left foot, Port Askaig on the right, and Port Ellen on the bottom. In the centre is Bowmore. The shape of the island corresponds surprisingly like the Celtic symbol for birth, beginning and nature, three swirls that connect. Perhaps Islay truly is a wild and magical isle.
The morning sun adds some evidence to the hypothesis. The bay is gorgeous, the golden light of the rising dawn skittering against its gentle flow inland. I’m also pretty sleep deprived, which adds its own intoxicated edge to perception. Writing up my notes takes me deep into the early morning hours. Lorna, the hostel manager, asked me how I can manage the cycling, drinking, conversations, and then writing it all up in the same day. I’m unsure either.
Either way, people are becoming increasingly perceptive of who I am, and more quickly grasping the reasons why I’m travelling, or the necessity of re-exploring and re-defining the cultural and social history of these islands. Maybe I’ve dropped my guard, or maybe it’s something about the random fortunes of who I’ve met, or something special about Scotland. I can’t decide.
‘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!
‘The boss man’s here, watch out!’
‘Yeah, I’d better do some work.’
– Punter to a barmaid, Brodick.
Taking a week’s break from cycling has been a really good idea.
For one, I’ve been able to piece together notes with photos and get up to date with the writing. But homesickness can build up cumulatively. For some, there’s a need to express and experience tenderness and affection. Among strangers this is occasionally possible, but returning home, seeing my family and my partner, has been a rejuvenating tonic. And returning to London? Well in a funny way I love the place too, but that will require some explaining. I’ll save that for the end of this journey. Right now, I’m heading back up to Glasgow on a ridiculously cheap coach, returning to the city where I left my inspiration, along with a sleeping bag, tent, and bicycle.
The motorways are filled with delivery lorries bringing stuff hither and thither. One has skidded and slid over, the driver’s supply of caffeine from countless energy drinks perhaps failing him at some unlucky moment. The coach gets caught in one glut of traffic after another, and a mere ten hour journey stretches to around thirteen. To complete the misery, I have a hyperactive kid behind me tapping and kicking the chair. It’s the kind of testing exercise that would send a bodhisattva on a killing spree.
‘I might go home. Nah, I’m not sure.’ – Pissed man in Aulay’s bar, Oban. His accent becomes increasingly foggy in correlation with pints of Tennents’ lager consumed.
I awake on a grassy plain beneath a sloping hill, hiding me and my tent from a nearby farmhouse and its insistent signs not to camp on this pretty spot. Stubbornly and stupidly I have refused, and my reward is a delightful beach, and a constitutional stroll among a small herd of goats and sheep preoccupied with their Sisyphean task of keeping the grass short. It’s a sunny morning, and the fresh dawn light skitters a gold veil over the surrounding grassland.
Time to pack up and jump aboard my transportation device. I am leaving Iona happy with a heart relieved of its concerns, and a mind refreshed and ready for future misadventures. Passing the pretty abbey and the surrounding village, the conviction grips me that I’ll see this place again, some sunny day. It’s a happy-melancholy feeling, sad to be leaving such a tranquil place and the state of mind achieved within it, but energised and yearning to reach home, albeit along the most scenic and strange route available.
‘Time, it doesn’t matter’ – Bill, the ex-lighthouse keeper, Ardnamurchan Point.
In a remote and rainswept tent, on a most remote and windswept peninsula, I awake after a night of strange and intense dreams. A combination of oscillating emotions, fatigue, and heavy intake of cheddar has shaken up my psyche.
I’m surrounded by ferns, their delicate fronds flickering in the morning’s easy breeze, but little else: a farmhouse in the far distance, a telegraph pole behind me, and the slither of a road ahead. I pack up and follow the single-track trail I’ve slept nearby, somewhere between Kilchoan and the very end of the mainland, a place called Ardnamurchan Point. It’s a bumpy track that passes the occasional field of sheep but otherwise rocks along an ancient landscape, unspoilt by KFC drive-throughs or Argos distribution centres. Occasionally some rallying bit of graffiti appears on the broken road: ‘nearly there!’ ‘go go go!’, remnants of some fun-run once? Otherwise the landscape is wild yet peaceful, a pleasure to rove up and down in the gentle and dry morning.
The narrow road eventually reaches its an end at the foot of a lighthouse and a traffic light, one that feels almost like a sarcastic joke in this most remote and undisturbed of places. It ensures that in the extremely rare event of two vehicles attempting to pass each other on the bridge to the building, no accident ensues. Well, caution is the aim here. Ardnamurchan Point is the most westerly point of the British mainland, and a small visitor centre by the lighthouse makes the most of this fact. Inside, a local girl from nearby Kilchoan sells me a ticket of admission and tells me of her enjoyment of life here. Her accent is sweet, soft and light, much milder than those one hears elsewhere in the Highlands.
‘It reminds me of home’ – Britt, Strontian.
Home… where is home? Home this morning is in this rental car, parked on the outskirts of the eastern Highlands tourist village of Pitlochry, sat next to my younger brother, listening to country music on BBC Gael. Home is a conversation the previous evening with my wife, the intimacy of shared phrases, experiences and concerns that lovers have and know. A weekly phone call from my folks opens up a front door in my mind with a familiar carpet, a cat capering in the kitchen and the love and laughter of my immediate family. Drinks, jokes and banter in a small boozer with a gang of wizened geezers feasts the spirit with the pleasure of friends known and yet to know.
Home has no fixed location and needs no set of keys. Its security is not in alarms, fences or boundaries but in openness, generosity and just chancing it that wayward hello to a passing stranger.
As we rub our faces awake and share our yawns, a couple of locals wander by our parked car and say hi. We’ve probably been rumbled but there’s no problem here. Christy needs to get back to Fort William to start his journey home, so with a little reluctance we leave behind Pitlochry and head back east, passing through pretty Aberfeldy. The road is full of marvels. After Aberfeldy we sweep along a narrow road that presses the spectacular Loch Tay to our left, and the almighty Ben Lawers and surrounding mountain range to our right.
‘I think things are much more fragile than they seem. Poke at the right hole, and the whole thing could come falling down.’ – Ewan, Isle of Eigg.
I awake a little late in cheery Mallaig, a harbour town on the Scottish mainland. Disconcertingly, the sun is out already. Contrary to local wisdom, perhaps Scotland does have a summer?
It’s not long before I’m back in Mallaig harbour, boarding a small vessel with my bike that takes the twice-weekly journey to the isle of Eigg. This peculiar and remote island has a small community that was one of the first to buy back its own land. In the case of Eigg (pronounced egg), this was through a protracted struggle against an obnoxious and inconsiderate landowner Keith Schellenberg. The story of the island’s struggle has been shared with me in various pub conversations on the way, and I’ve found out more through Alastair McIntosh’s excellent book Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power, a potent and inspiring book about community and the possibility of political change.
‘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.