Day 51: Skye to Mallaig

‘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.

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Day 50: Berneray to Skye

‘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.

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Day 37: Stonehaven to Ballater

‘I think things are changing, where it won’t be normal for people to lock themselves in their little homes, with their TVs, all alone. People need each other.’ – Joe, Banchory.

For the first time in my life, this morning, I watched the dawn break out and filter through the trees. Its gentle golden light streaked across the fern leaves surrounding me, and permeated the tent with a rich and uncanny glow.

It’s also the first time I can remember going to sleep without setting an alarm. Since the age of 11 I’ve adhered to the harsh disciplinary regime of the all-too-early wake-up tocsin. Before that my mum would wake me up for school. The terror of 07:00 on the alarm, the anxiety of worrying you won’t drop off, and over-thinking the moment where consciousness becomes sleep. Or the misery of waking from a great dream half an hour before you must get up, sorely interrupted. How I hate the tyranny of these clocks!

At first I’m worried – will I sleep all day and get disturbed by a local farmer? No no. Instead I discover that I sleep in occasional bursts, as many of us do. It’s the dawn that wakes me at around 4am. I have another snooze and then rise as the sun gets warmer around 8, I think.

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