Day 1 – the long road to the north
I set off from Euston Station yesterday on a gloriously sunny day, and within ten hours had arrived very smoothly in Inverness. I managed to get most of my left over admin work done on the first leg of the journey, leaving my mind clear to enjoy the expanding horizons. It was interesting to sit for a while on George’s Square in Glasgow whilst waiting for my connecting train. Scores of delighted locals were lying on the grass marvelling at the hot weather, almost unheard of in these parts. A teenage girl freaked out about a greenfly landing on her flowery dress. People were swimming in rivers as I travelled further up towards Inverness, and the Cairngorm mountains looked like great smooth whale-like beings in the blue evening light. I’ve started reading Rebecca Solnit’s ‘Field Guide to getting lost’ – not that I need much help with that, as a rule! It’s written like a poem with a recurring refrain called ‘the blue of distance’. Apparently the light at the blue end of the spectrum doesn’t travel the whole distance from the sun to us – it scatters in the air and disperses in water, which gives it its sense of depth and distance and otherworldliness – wondrous.
I was staying the night with a Buddhist friend who lives in a caravan park right by the sea, in Brunchrew. The bus driver taking me there joked that ‘there was nothing out there’, speculating that I would be his only passenger that evening – which was almost true. There was plenty out there though if you had eyes to see, as the pictures in this post testify! My friend had cooked vegetarian moussaka and baked sourdough bread, and after dinner we walked along the beach to her favourite massive old cedar tree in the grounds of a pink luxury hotel. She told me she had kayaked across the bay recently, and we exchanged esoteric knowledge about sea- and river tides and shamanic nature connection practices, as the sun very slowly sank into the sea – my kind of evening (: I met two of my friend’s interesting neighbours: an 83 year old man who has lived in his caravan since 1957 but is now worried he may have to leave as his health is failing with old age, and a woman who has adopted the role of observing and caring for a rare Pine Marten which has started roaming the site, displaced from its former habitat by some tree felling further up the coast. She showed us little videos she had taken of the beast with a motion activated camera installed on her verandah – no need for TV or Netflix in these parts – a true marginal edge-land place in the best possible sense. I fell asleep guarded by Vajrayogini and Kurukulla – two female buddhist warrior figures – which felt like a very good start to this adventure. It’s now the crack of a still and sunny dawn, and I’m sitting in Charlie’s cafe at the bus station writing this, waiting for the bus to Ullapool, from where the ferry will take me to the island.
Day 2: Arrival on the Island
So this is the first of three wilderness locations I’m visiting over the next six month or so, to explore the potential of living in one of them, on leaving London next summer. This one is the most far out and least likely, but I was compelled to visit it on reading its description by a woman from my buddhist sangha who has lived there for four years, and invited people to visit her and consider joining her. The bus ride and ferry crossing were beautiful and smooth. Ullapool looked like an interesting and quirky little town, with a superior cafe just by the harbour. I spent the whole ferry journey lying down on the glassed-in observation deck, mesmerised by the expanse of sea and sky, with islands dotted about. I then had six hours to play with until R was picking me up after her day’s work in her local general store. She had suggested I explore the Art Gallery, castle and castle grounds – the only place on the island where there are big trees! Serendipitously, the current very good exhibition at An Llantair Gallery was around the theme of edge-lands, so this is clearly becoming my journey theme. I was very struck by the no-nonsense yet attentive friendliness of people everywhere, which seemed to correspond to their not yet being plugged into the matrix of their phones as much but noticing and interacting with each other instead. The Gallery was open until 1am for what sounded like quite a wild and eclectic live music event – no sign of presbyterian puritanism there!
The woods around the castle (complete with another superior cafe) were beautiful, and I learnt something about the history and landscape of the island in the museum-wing’s exhibition – it reminded me a bit of Western Ireland, with Gaelic and old crafts and an indomitable island community spirit being revived and freshly valued. I found out later that R is very interested in Gaelic singing in particular, and has tried to set up a local singing group to learn the traditional songs. However, joyful pastimes like singing and dancing were heavily prohibited by the quite fundamentalist Free Church in these parts, which sadly has really disinhibited people – unlike in the nearby catholic island of Barra, where traditional singing and dancing still abounds.
The day ended with supper together at a Thai community cafe, within a very pleasant looking student accommodation block. Apparently there are quite sizeable Thai and Nepali ethnically Buddhist communities in Stornoway, but it seems difficult to get them to see the value of linking up. I wonder whether joint celebrations of Buddhist festivals might be one way – or would this be frowned upon by the Christian community, some of whom believe any religion other than their own is ‘the work of the devil?’ R later told me that the symbolism of a church with a steeple was to point towards heaven, while the Presbyterian steeple-less church architecture symbolises the much more dark and pessimistic ‘blocking the gates to hell’.
Day 3 – An excursion around the Uig peninsula
A sunny Sunday morning spent walking along the coastline and beach, paddling and sunbathing, followed by lunch in the ‘Cafe at the Edge’, in a village of mostly military style prefab houses up in the north of the Uig peninsula. The cafe was, as a child rightly remarked ‘like someone’s house’ – everyone sat round one long wooden table, and one woman ran the place singlehandedly, producing the most delicious food, though she was not surprisingly slightly overwhelmed by the number of guests arriving on her doorstep on this glorious day. Apparently this is the only cafe open on a Sunday between here and Stornoway, at the opposite end of the island! I met several of R’s fellow artist friends, all completely in love with the island, and one of them a german from Berlin – he said you do have to get used to the weather, this being quite possibly one of the only sunny days of the year…there was a local saying that this year, summer was happening on a Friday.
After a late afternoon nap, we then set back off for a couple of hours’ peat cutting, breaking the sabbath rule, and what’s more taking along a bottle of beer to share during breaks – which is traditional (: R’s peat cutting tool was handmade by a 90 year-old local toolsmith whose craft is slowly dying out, as these old ways of life are diminishing…sad but inevitable – and understandable, as I can now testify that ‘cutting the peats’ is hard and painstaking physical work – yet so satisfying and enjoyable when done communally, even with one other person. Traditionally, it would have been done by a whole village together, and combined with feasting and celebrating when the task was done. We fell into bed after a late supper properly tired out in a good way.
Day 4 – Walking with Ciostal the zen dog
I woke up this morning finding myself feeling quite overwhelmed by the sheer size and magnitude of the landscape, and my lack of any prior connection with or knowledge of it. So it was quite perfect timing that today’s circle was going to be a relatively small one: a walk all around a very beautiful bay full of Oyster catchers, across several beaches, and then on to the little Uig Heritage Centre (and of course Cafe!) and to the general store.
Not being a dog person, I felt nervous initially about taking Caoistal with me, but he is such a calm and friendly dog that it was a .pleasure to have his company. He seems to love gazing out across the water, in zen like fashion. Today though he was wildly excited about all the beaches and rabbit warrens in particular, and spent a good deal of time digging around in them while waiting for me. He also found a plastic ball on the beach which I threw around for him, and then we got a bit lost, stuck and weary on the last part of the walk up to the cafe – styles, roads and cattle grids were definitely not Caoistal’s thing. By the time we finally reached our destination, he collapsed in a heap on the grass and fell asleep, much to everyone’s amusement.
I feel a bit bad about having worn him out that much, although I also feel quite done in for the day (: We got a lift back from a local woman who runs a croft with 60 sheep and 40 lambs all by herself, having taken it on from her father. She talked about the changes on the island since her childhood, when she said there had still been large communities here, and sheep all over the hills – now the villages were empty, and the deer had taken over the island, in her perception. She was also very clear that she didn’t think winter was a good thing, she didn’t like its harshness. But for her there was no question that her life was here, come what may.
Day 5 – The bus to Harris
Gneiss – the oldest known rock.
R is teaching in Stornoway today and tomorrow, so I’m going into town with her early and taking buses north and south, to explore different parts of the island – it was Harris to the south today. The cloud hung low in the sky most of the day, with some spectacular downpours, but also the most magical misty light from the sun breaking through in places. Unfortunately I didn’t get that many photos, sitting as I was on a little bus going down a very windy road, all the way to the tip of South Harris and back again, with just a couple of strolls to the lovely ‘First Fruits’ teashop in Tarbert, and to an eery and fascinating medieval church in Rodel, down south. I didn’t find the image of an ancient pre-christian goddess R had told me about, but could imagine that the style of worship there would have fully embraced nature, set as it is in a dramatic, windswept bay.
The mountains were breathtakingly beautiful and huge. Two seals frolicked about in the water at one point, and I listened to and had interesting little conversations with the very friendly bus driver along the way – he clearly knew all his local passengers well, and went out of his way to drop an old man off right at his doorstep during a downpour, as he was concerned for his health. I listened in on an island gossip conversation between the bus driver and a woman who ran an airb’n’b house, examining the various habits and personalities and relationships of a number of local people, and passing quite definite judgment on them one way or the other, going as far as saying ‘I’m on her side / his side’ etc. – quite a warning of how intensely scrutinised anyone living here would be, and how crucial cultivating good neighbourly relations would be, so as to be regarded as a nice person, rather than one to be shunned or regarded with wariness.
Back in town I rummaged through the old fashioned treasure trove of a Harris Tweed shop R had recommended, and bought a few bargain offcuts for a future collage which is beginning to take shape in my mind, and to repair my favourite green coat. After a quick Thai stirfry meal, we set off for an evening’s stint of collecting sand and gravel for the foundation of an artist studio porter cabin R is going to instal at the bottom of her garden, as a hideaway for a good artist friend who often comes to visit. We passed a croft where a young family of 6 are living in a derelict bus at the moment, while they build a house on their land.The light here is most beautiful in the early morning and late evening – we meandered around a magnificent salmon filled loch on the way back – the perfect combination between quite hard physical exertion and natural beauty – like in Akashavana. However, like there I don’t feel this particular landscape speaks to me that easily – there’s a distance and quite cold, forbiddingness to it – maybe I will need something softer and warmer to live in than this…or maybe the forbidding remoteness is a reflection of my inner state, and therefore something to look at, soften and warm up in myself?
Day 6: Heading north: The Butt of Lewis and Port Ness
After a lovely birdsong meditation in the woods (interrupted by a few friendly ‘hellos’ from passing dog walkers) I took the bus up to near the lighthouse in the far north of the island. The woman in the bus station recognised me today and was in a much more communicative mood – she told me that her father used to be a lighthouse keeper and so her family moved around every three years, including to the island of Rona, which she said was stunningly beautiful. The landscape in the north is much flatter and less spectacular, but by the look of it also more fertile, with soft grass growing everywhere. A few houses had high walls around them and trees and bushes planted all around, like small forest hideaways.
The walk from the bus stop to the lighthouse reminded me of a smaller scale american prairie, with its straight road going through fields of grass. On the coast the cliffs are sheer and vertical, with narrow sea caves washed into them, and terns and seagulls nesting on the ledges. The small terns bravely kept me at bay of their nests by mock-dive-bombing around my head with shrill little cries. Clearly not many people used the faintly marked coastal path to Port Ness, so the cliffs were territorially owned by the birds. I had flashbacks to the wonderful Cliffs of Moher in Western Ireland, one of my favourite places…I seem to be pointed towards Western Ireland a lot this week.
I’m writing this in the quirky museum cafe down the road, waiting for the next bus back into town. The shop here is stocked with apocalyptic free church literature, admonishing people to repent so as to be saved as the end of the world approaches – oh dear…
And then my host, me and the dog ended the day with al fresco dinner by the loch – wrapped up in a few thermal layers!
The last few days – reflections on the island
So here I am sitting on the fabulous observation deck of the ferry back to the mainland, after spending an interesting couple of hours now talking and ‘coffee-crawling’ with the island’s currently only and clearly very committed buddhist man from our buddhist movement – although there are said to be a couple of resident zen buddhists too, in addition to the ethnic Nepalese and Thai Buddhist population; which could make for an interesting Sangha experience, if there were ways of enticing people to connect up – which however as I know from London is notoriously difficult. D tells me that there was a joint celebration of the Buddha’s enlightenment recently, which sounded like a good start. Thanks to the internet and the 2-3 degrees of separation within the Movement as a whole though, D seems to have made quite a few meaningful connections despite his relative geographical isolation. It was also impressive and inspiring to hear how much his practice and study had helped him with a very challenging personal situation over this past year.
I went out in a boat to watch grey seals, herons and a sea eagle, and visited the famous Neolithic standing stones and medieval black-houses over the last couple of days here, as well as a fortress like dwelling called a broch – all of which gave me a sense of the ancient and mysterious history of this place in terms of animal and human habitation. We still don’t really know and will never know for sure the significance of the standing stones, but the interpretations are all very evocative: that they symbolise sacred mountains, or people turned to stone, or provide a kind of dance floor for the moon to play along when it hangs low over the horizon during certain months of the year. I read around in one of R’s books about celtic places and symbolism and was thrilled to find that the lake of my birth and several features in the southern german landscape are sacred celtic sites! So although this is not the place I will be moving to, the journey has been important both in making me realise the magnitude of the step I’m taking in leaving the city for a wilder place, and in beginning to clarify one crucial condition for me to follow it through: namely some kind of prior familiarity, either in terms of the landscape, people or local culture. Humblingly, this place for all its astonishing natural beauty has felt too big and strange and overwhelming for me to really be able to get close to – difficult to describe in words, but I felt a visceral dissonance throughout the week, something not quite resonating. It had to do with a grey utilitarian hardness, like the concrete houses everywhere, which seemed connected with the dark and pessimistic so-called ‘Free Church’ Protestant Christianity that’s gripped this island. Which seems to my mind to have all of the harsh judgement and hypocrisy yet none of the exuberant magic and mystery of the more ancient catholic religion. Like someone’s put a serious fear-based dampener on people’s spirits here. I’d like to visit the smaller Hebridean islands over time to test out this impression – especially the still catholic ones! And of course Ireland…but for now, back to a busy few working weeks back in London, my current home, which has just been rocked by another random violent attack, a truck driving into crowds of people on London Bridge. ‘Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold…’
‘Some people inherit values and practices as a house they inhabit; some of us have to burn down that house, find our own ground, build from scratch…’
(Rebecca Solnit, ‘A field guide to getting lost’)