Sunday, 25 July 2010

Keeping Harris With Me

Harris, though joined to Lewis, felt completely different. The landscape is so rocky that at times it felt like we were driving through a mountain range, then we'd turn a bend and be level with the sea.

We stumbled across the stunningly spare and soothing space that is The Mission House Studio. A simple old chapel from the outside, it opens out into an open-plan space which is home to photography by Beka Globe and ceramics by Nickolai Globe. Both collections reflect the rough and weather-beaten landscape around them. Here I wished, for the only time in our travels, that I had walls and horizontal surfaces to cover with beautiful things. Never mind, just being in that space was inspiring, with Jan Garbarek playing in the background the atmosphere was close to spiritual.

On another day, a thrilling drive on the B887 to Huisinis. The road was narrow, often with a drop on one side, undulating and bendy. At the end of the road some small campervans had made it for a spot of wild camping with a view across the bay to Scarp. Unfortunately this is not a road for an Airstream. In fact, not many roads on Harris would suit a 684. Our movements from site to site were very carefully planned, even though there was no booking ahead, the journey would have been well reccied before hand.

And this spot may have felt like the middle of nowhere to us but for the scattered community around it was the right place for a tennis court.

We were sad to leave Harris. Heading back to Skye, lovely as it is, meant leaving the Outer Hebrides where the landscape and the mist and the colours had completely filled me with a feeling of calm contentment. I breathed in that scenery and I still breathe it a year later. If anyone or anything winds me up, I'm back there in moment.

The crossing back to Skye was as smooth as a landlubber like I could hope for. And as we approached our destination the island became enveloped in cloud.


Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Endless Blue Hues

After a month on the islands, from my diary... 1st July 2009

"Had the beach at Horgabost to ourselves, 10pm, still light. Yellow sand, sand hoppers. Grey sand below the yellow, revealed in trickles towards the sea. Bits of shells, white, orange, purple, sparsely scattered near shore. Calm calm calm. Lapping water's edge. Endless blue hues. Yellow showing through shallowest clear sea, graduating into the palest greeny turquoise. To my left a grassy dune casts an emerald reflection. In front of me misty purple mountains, and the sea between me and them layer upon layer of bluey, lilacy, mauvey, hazy greys, blues, purples.
My breathing quiet, my eyes won't turn away. The stillness a priceless gem. Oneness. This is what we hope to attain in contemplation. A blissful state manifest."


Sunday, 18 July 2010

Peat Fires and Standing Stones

Ancient history is part of the landscape in the Hebrides. Standing stones, stone circles, dry-stone buildings, they're made from pieces of the landscape and they stand or fall back into it.

Dun Carloway was impressively intact. Often you need some artist's impression to help you to imagine what looks like a pile of stones now may once have been. But here is a large intact section of a massive dry-stone, double-walled structure, beautifully built with the outward facing surfaces almost as smooth as if they had been built from purpose-made bricks. The stones have been so skilfully chosen and placed to have stayed put for over two thousand years, and arranged like an enormous three dimensional jigsaw puzzle.

The black houses which can be seen in good condition at Gearrannan and Arnol were possibly built in the same way for centuries and the village at Gearrannan was inhabited until 1974. These houses were built to withstand the lashing and pelting of the wind and rain. Gales in recent years apparently damaged modern houses while the old black houses stood their ground.

At the village of Arnol there is a preserved black house as well as remains of many more. The preserved black house is now a museum and they keep the peat fire burning at all times. This is not just for an authentic atmosphere, the smoke, which gives the thatched roof the blackened appearance, and hence the name 'black house', helps to keep it dry.

The Callanish Stones on the west side of Lewis is the most awesome arrangement of megalithic standing stones I have seen so far. There are lines of stones leading to a circle and a burial cairn. As usual there are various interpretations (ceremonial, astrological), and it is easy to imagine that the corridors have a kind of processional feel to them.

This monument is more than 4,000 years old and in that time it has probably been appropriated for all sorts of uses. In fact carbon dating has shown that the cairn is a later addition.

These days you may spot a hippy smoking a joint and enjoying the vibes. You will also find it difficult to get a photograph without another photographer in shot. Especially at sunset.

Perhaps the lack of solid facts on something this old is what allows speculation. The imagination can play. The atmosphere and prehistoric other-worldliness can be enjoyed.

By the way, those of you who crave factual detail can find it on Wiki or elsewhere. This is just me saying, I was there. And this was the view from the 'bedroom'.


Wednesday, 14 July 2010

The Windiest Place In The UK

Contininuing our journeys to the furthest points on the map and the ends of roads... we took ourselves to The Butt of Lewis lighthouse at the north end of the island. Apparently it has appeared in the Guiness Book of Records for being the windiest place in the UK. To the west there is nothing between it and north America, while the next stop in a northwards direction is the Arctic. So you would expect something wild and windy, with crashing waves. We had a freakishly warm day with clear blue skies and a calm, lapping sea, perfect conditons for this couple to perch on a cliff face and have a picnic.

If you need supplies, this might be the place.


Monday, 12 July 2010

On to Harris and Lewis

The journey from Benbecula to the Isles of Lewis and Harris went like this: A drive to Berneray to catch the ferry to Leverburgh. The crew were careful, guiding us on. The issue being the angle between the land side ramp and the ramp on the boat. We had grounded before. We took it slowly. A smiley crewman told us, "That's you on the ferry". I could stop holding my breath.

A hairy journey along twisting single track roads with ditches either side, to a campsite on Harris, misnamed a 'touring park' made us rethink our plan. We headed north to Lewis. A few days in a site with all the facilities near to Stornoway were followed by a move to Siabost (Shawbost) on the west coast, where the site was basically the back garden of a lovely, friendly woman called Mary.

Siabost was a great base from which to explore some extraordinary ancient buildings and monuments on Lewis. You have to squat to get a good look at the wild orchids. These images are from our first visit to the stone circles at Callanish. Since it was grey and wet, we would return on a brighter day.

Friday, 2 July 2010

More Island Memories

As promised, here are some more highlights and images from our three month trip around the Scottish Highlands and Islands last summer. Well, you don't want to hear about our recent preoccupation with an ant invasion, and how we gained an even more intimate knowledge of the innards of our Airstream, do you?

When we returned from Barra to the conjoined islands of the Uists and Benbecula we spent a couple of days driving around them, taking in the strange, loch-pitted landscape. We would do the end-of-the-road thing that we love to do. When you're following the coastline, or on an island, you may as well follow a road to its end. You might find nothing. You might find a great view.

We were so lucky to have sunny weather in which to enjoy the openness of the scenery. With a landscape this flat, surrounded by sea, I bet you can get a right old pelting when the wind picks up. Mind you, makes you feel alive doesn't it?

We took in the monument at Flora MacDonald's birthplace, the statue of Our Lady of the Isles and a whole bunch of drystone ruins. Those old buildings must take hundreds of years to topple, even if you do borrow a few stones to build your new house. Typically, it looks like you build your new house next to your old one, move in and let the old one fade away very, very slowly.

On our second day of exploring we pointed ourselves northwards to North Uist and Berneray. We found a stone circle which had eluded us a few days before. Pobull Fhinn got an enthusiastic write-up in one of our Aubrey Burl books and so we had another look. You can walk from the Barpa Langass chambered cairn, or via a footpath next to the Langass Lodge Hotel.

I know these old stones don't touch everyone but believe me, they are pretty much always in a beautiful spot. Pobull Fhinn overlooks Loch Langass, which glistened on the day we were there, with hills beyond. And anyway, you have to savour and respect something that's probably been there for about four thousand years. And respect to the people of a place who just leave things be for all that time.

Further north we strode across the stepping stones of the causeway to Dun an Sticir, a broch in a loch. Then on to the Balranald RSPB nature reserve where we saw Lapwings, Terns, Oyster Catchers,

and we endured an overpowering stench of rotting seaweed, reminiscent of soiled nappies. Sometimes the sea air palpably fills you with the invisible life force, sometimes it makes you gag.

Here's a view to uplift and to end on a more pleasant note.