Week five: On singing scaff bars, dimpsy encounters and being shot at

A ‘Mevagissy treat’, held my forebears, is a wet arse and no fish. The seventy-something Leòdhasach returned from his long night on the misty moor (Liz Caroll tune) fuming: ‘Never again! The quads and nets have drained the best lochen and it was so cold I didn’t get a wink of sleep. I am too old for this!’ I thought the clear evening and sunny morning beautiful, but I am dismayed. However he says he says this every time, and still does it, so then I am glad. I fear the world would be lacking if he ceased. (For one thing, I was glad that his scooter was parked by my bus overnight when an edgy-looking windsurfer cased my remote joint for a parking spot late last night, and looked at me just too long. Though likely he was more nervous than I was.)

I go into Stornoway for another reality-day, do some PR online, and gladly pick up another commission from another warm, inspired, American creative who knows the Chagfordian fairy-folk of Dartmoor and sends some beautiful pictures as inspiration (Amy, it’s quite surreal, and quite lovely, to be meeting you all over again in another!). I then head back out West. There is a ‘music night’ in the interesting-sounding Loch Chroistean (‘Krishten’?) Centre, but since this turns out to be a fully booked restaurant with a couple of local trad musician serenading the pre-booked diners of whom I am not one, I turn to go again. As I do I am caught by sirens chiming the wind: have you ever heard an orchestra of scaffolding bars singing in a gale? It is astounding. (Amy, did you send me those? Port Na Bucai)

Disappointed that I’m missing out on the (human-made) music front but delighted that I’m bound for my favourite bay after a week away, I get back into the van. I take a little detour though, trying again to identify the converted croft-house rental; this time I spot it as it disappears in my rearview. I pull up above my bay, wondering at the strengthening wind, but deciding to try the high spot anyway, in part for solitude, in part to allow the van already down on the machair to have it to themselves. Mindful of the force whateveritis, I keep back from the first grassy drop, pointing up the hill a little. I walk Murph along the point a short way. It is the kind of wind you can lean into but not breathe into. A young guy in a Land Rover pulls onto the same sheep tracks, and, recognising me from the lock-in in the Royal, reverses up beside me as I get back. It is Calum the local crofting, surfing, guitar-playing geologist (it turns out), checking the 10pm waves but loathe to get into a wet wetsuit. He points out how the clean lines of swell that are spanning the whole bay are taking too long to crest, only breaking in the shallows, flattened by the crosswind. We natter for 20 minutes, strangely softly over the diesel of his engine and the hassle of the wind. He asks questions about my new and former life, interested, and we exchange brief stories, but he has the kind of eyes that never leave the sea. 

I’m watching a bird that has been perched on the top of a tump in front of me for half an hour. I am in the eagle’s larder here, but this one’s shoulders are insubstantial, and that tump is too small and close for it to be a bird of her size. No-one is chastising her, but then apparently gazelle know the difference between hungry lion and satiated lion. My beachcombing friends said buzzards were rare here but they’d recently seen one mobbing another, whilst someone else here said there were none, only eagles. I would guess buzzard were I at home on Dartmoor. Maybe hoodie up here. Eventually it rises off the rock: buzzard. So small. Eagles seem in this landscape the size that buzzards are on Dartmoor, and buzzards here are tiny.

I learn what it means to batton down the hatches – though wish I had some battons and some hatches. Calum said a winter gale might take me over the edge, but that this one would be alright, though I could turn my tail into it rather than be broadside on. Keen to just get in out of the wind, I take only the first part of his advice. From the cab seat where I eat my supper, the van seems to move surprisingly little in the buffeting force, and I congratulate it. It’s a heavy old thing, seriously laden. From the bed up top though, the movement is much more, and increases as I lie awake. Everything rattles. The whole thing is only being buffeted though, I tell myself, not rocked. I hit upon a comforting thought, but draw a worrying conclusion, and go round and around the same thought over and over, hoping the conclusion might mutate. When I drive my cowbell swings and rings. If it’s not doing that, that means we’re not moving as much as when we drive, and when we drive, I don’t feel in danger of tipping over. Much. Though it does roll an awful lot. So can we safely tilt as much when stationary as when moving? The conclusion is, again and again: probably not, because when moving we are driving forwards out of the roll, and that’s why we don’t tip. When there’s a little lull, my eyes close and inertia beckons comfortingly. Several times I am jolted out of this, and worry awhile. What if an exceptional summer like this one brought an exceptional gale, like a winter one? In the interests of relaxing somewhat, I swap my feet and head end of the bed, so that if we tip over, I land feet first. Rattle, rock, jolt, roll, rattle. I forget to breathe. Finally aware of this ridiculous resistance to changing one’s situation, I get up, drive off the chocks, reposition, get out into the gale, move the chocks, drive onto them level again, and attempt sleep that way. Rattle, rock, jolt, roll, rattle. I think the wind swings northerly to match. What would it feel like to tip over? Would I be safer on the floor? No, because my furniture is dead heavy and unsecured. Calum said there was a digger at the farm could right me again. Anyway, it won’t happen. Sleeeeeeep… Rattle, rock, jolt, roll, rattle. LIFT. Fuck. I am in the driver’s seat, manoeuvring off the chocks, and driving down to the machair. Phew. The wind feels like nothing when driving along (note to self). It is 7am and I sleep until midday in this safe little bay I know and love. The flowers have all grown inches since I was here a week ago, despite the coldest, wettest summer they all remember, ever.

Next day the sun is shining as if nothing ever happened. Breeze in the night, you say?

Some friendly Glaswegians I met at my last spot invite me round for an excellent risotto. She’s an under-pressure art teacher, head of faculty at a prestigious secondary school, and I love her vehement, non-stop dialect. She offers helpful thoughts about artist residencies on remote isles. He’s a tough-looking electrician on off-shore wind farms, driven mad by the flicker and pulse of them. They are the type who won’t take any shit, but probably do. They are warm, caring and love Murphy. He complains insightfully that tweed needs something new, and they enthuse about my experiments. Their son is a squaddy and when he gets a moment, confides in me about the girl he loves in another regiment who needs space for a while, but whom he’d love to marry. It’s all another lovely encounter. Into the evening I wind another bladderwrack warp.

 Bladderwrack warp

Next morning I visit the croft house conversion, and neighbour Alistair, a yachtsman, tells me a hundred useful things, especially about inverters for vans and boats. (I need 240V for my steam iron, really.) It has a lot going for it, but I am loving this life in a bus, so we’ll see.

An internet-stop and then I head along the coast, checking out some new lanes as I go. I crane to see St. Kilda from the spots they say you can, but don’t. I walk Murph down to another beach that is supposed to be magnificent, and it is. Though it is empty, my favourite smell, woodsmoke, greets me, where previous visitors have pulled apart their fire but it is still hot. I would love to cook over this fire – it is that kind of evening: work done, Friday night, can of Guinness, and sunny. But that cauliflower needs using, you’ve got to make cauliflower cheese, you’ve just bought all the other ingredients, and it isn’t a fiery sort of meal. But how lovely: not only cooking supper over a fire on a beach, but cooking supper over an inherited fire on a beach. How lovely. I go back to the van and kit up and return. The fire is hottish but smokes and smokes whatever I do. I find some driftwood with some very weirdie beasties on it (anyone?), sadly dried out and shrivelled. 

Weirdie beasties 

My great, great, great grandfather, skipper of clipper Wytchwater and first importer of Guinness to the UK, toasted.

Aubergine, courgette, tomato, pepper and feta, prepared.

I’m about to put the veg over the embers when Murph jumps at what sounds like a twig snapping beneath someone’s foot just in the hollow of the nearest dune beside us. There is no-one, but there it goes again. More like a little pebble hitting a bigger stone, of which there are a few lying around. I look up, and see a man kneeling up in the short grass on the opposite hillside, facing us fully some 500 yards away, unhidden, and though I can’t see clearly, I suddenly know that we are being shot at. I shield my eyes from the sun and stop and stare at him. It looks as though he does the same, though he is in the shade – binoculars perhaps. I stare hard. He doesn’t move. Then I wave. He doesn’t wave back. I get up and scan the ground for what he might be shooting, but find nothing, and don’t dare look long. After a few seconds, he gets up, gun clearly discernible, and walks back towards the houses over there, disappearing behind a shed, and then reappearing bellying down again to shoot in a different direction. Rabbits, I guess, with an air rifle, I guess, and he knew that he could do us no harm from that distance, I guess – could he? I feel angry and alarmed, but not rattled like an act of hostility would usually rattle me, so maybe it’s ok, but I gather everything up and usher Murph back to the bus quickly enough. Bastard. I drive a good few miles, several villages away, to my eagle flight path, breathe a sigh of relief and cook cauliflower cheese.

I sleep well, apart from a nightmare that comes from godknowswhere in which a man orders a child virgin to rape and slay, to her weeping mother’s acceptance, ‘because it is Allah’s wish’. Today is another blue day and the sea sparkles – perhaps I just needed another reality-check, to reconnect with the big wide world, not get lost in my little idyll. Kill off the innocence. I follow the peat burn up the hill through red sphagnum bogs and orchids too numerous to count. We startle a bird couple who may be grouse – like corncrakes but redder and darker and the male(?) blacker, with a sound like a hen, a duck, a goose and a frog, all at once (anybody?). I turn around and sit on a rock and take in the golden sand and the rocks and the green and all the beautiful blue – and there she is unexpectedly, in four proud bumps on the horizon, St. Kilda.

Tweed, lock-ins, grammar and wilderness. (What else does a girl need?)

Week Four.

On experimenting with tweed

I have a commission for a red scarf for a plant lady, and I’d thought I might combine the red with a dark Jacob’s or similar. Inspired by the black and red bladderwrack from the very first beach (in my cover photo) I find that this project, to be sent to Wales, can benefit from some Hebridean coastal inspiration as well as act as a tweed experiment. I’ve used the same tweed yarn that they use in Harris Tweed before, stumbling across a thoroughly uncommunicative Leodasach (I think I am spelling that differently every time and resolve to look it up again) online selling it on industrial-sized bobbins for tuppence. Like an islander or a Dartmoor pony, it is hasslesome to work with. (At least, I imagine islanders to be strong-minded; I’ve only had gracious encounters thus far.) I’ve used it as a warp (longitudinal) thread nonetheless, but woven in a thicker, softer weft for a wide sett (8-10 threads per inch) and a (relatively) fast-growing cloth. I examine the tweed samples from the Lewis Loom Centre bazaar. 28 threads per inch is a lot of threads, and a lot of threading. I graduate a heathered burgundy with a tweedy rust and do a test patch with an almost-fluorescent sphagnum bog moss green.

Red tweed sphagnum detail

I love the colour result – the shot effect of Thai silk, which is one colour when you tilt it one way and another when you tilt it another – but curse the coarse hair-shirt effect and my imperfect technique and marvel at what by comparison is the incredible softness of the Real McCoy. Harris Tweed goes through many finishing processes – beating, steaming, washing, brushing, shaving, possibly a touch of felting (though I think they have more beautiful names than that, even in English), and my hand weave is very crude by comparison. For the next length I use a very soft Alpaca weft, DSC_1160

but for all its softness the cloth would still make your back sore if worn straight off the loom. Back to thinking of the bladderwrack again, I use a thick, softish Jacob’s, experimenting with twills and undulations, varying the weave pattern for an organic feel,

Red tweed bladderwrack skyview in sea


but I’m still not pleased.

Red tweed bladderwrack portrait 1

(Until later when I photograph them and they come to life in their seaweedy role!) I cut all of this off the loom and change the set, spacing the warp more widely and eliminating a third of the threads so I still have a scarf width. I’ve seen some handsome Harris Tweed bags, hoodies and crafting aprons made with a chunky-but-elegant sporting style this week, and my next two garments seem to reflect these: less the woodland whimsy  or seaweedy tangle, and more the bold, smart and functional: tweedy, but with softer, chunkier wefts, and straight lines. At first I don’t like them, until I consider their influences: since one of the reasons for being here is to learn from tweed, in that respect these snugs are a success.  The Diggory Brown (www.diggorybrown.com) crafter’s aprons, belts, cuffs, guitar straps and shapely Hebridean blacksheep kilts are strikingly earthy, trendy, chic and practical all at once. Hmmm. Perhaps I should just stick to blankets.

I shall run all these photos by the customer, but I don’t think I’ve got the red scarf right yet.

On finding the farthest sites

After a reality-day where I get my washing done, buy some supplies, do my rubbish and recycling and go online, I follow the road as far as it will go, and it takes me to just the right spot: beyond the last hamlet, beyond the long-abandoned nunnery, beyond the torpedoed passenger ship graves, beyond the beaches and campervans to where only a very few sheep have made a path. On one side rocky peaks reportedly as tall once as the Himalayas, and on the other, the rocky shore and a sea full of islands, reefs and gannets. Somewhere I could be for months. People not far but nowhere in sight; no room for anyone to park beside me; no need for pleasantry or judgment. As it happens, on day two somebody comes into view on ‘my’ pebbled beach (I am relieved to hear other visitors also talking like this) and they are picking the litter that I’d thought I might pick before leaving so I join them, and enjoy both their company and their local knowledge, as conversation ranges from conservation and sports medicine through art to archeology. Apparently the Vikings do not deserve their bad name in clearing the trees from these islands: the temperature dropped a few degrees and that’s the main silvestral challenge. I am not totally convinced, as where the grazing animals can’t reach, such as on top of needles of rock and scarps, alders and rowans are, as I understand it, starting the reforesting effort. But what do I know.


Reminds me of home!

DSC_1125 DSC_1148 DSC_1153 DSC_1155  DSC_1180 DSC_1181 DSC_1192 DSC_1217 DSC_1226


There is a grave by the edge, delineated by smooth stones, and more that make a cross and an anchor. A little handmade white-painted wooden sign says ‘At rest’ and another says ‘In peace’. No name, no date, but adult-sized, and not too many years ago.

I wake up thinking of Bob Dylan. Although I am a fan, I don’t usually do this, and wonder if he’s ok. The next morning I wake up thinking of Kris Drever. This is less random because he has a gig tonight in Stornoway, but since I’m in such a stunning spot, working well, enjoying the quiet and not wanting dirge, I decide not to go. I am probably missing quite a special event, as he gets together with a Shetlander and a Leodasach to explore islands and song, and I am probably doing them a disservice too, as he certainly has skill. ‘There is an altar down my street, I lay my wages at its feet’ goes over and over in my head and before I’ve got up I’ve written a song called ‘There are no fences’. It’s about sharing, territory, exploitation and boundaries, ends with ‘there are more fences’ and has tight rhyme and metre (try rhyming ‘kindred’, get me), but I’m not ready to share it yet as some of the facts are not straight (sorry, Vikings) and it needs a tune. (But thanks, Kris!) On my way back from a long, boggy walk I complete the chorus of a Selkie song I began writing a year or two ago.

I fill the water tank with brown stream water, hoping that boiling it won’t lessen the effect of the huge amounts of iron and other minerals when I drink it in my fruit teas. Have you ever noticed your poo going a very dark greeny brown when your iron intake increases? Well. (Dealing with your compost loo, you notice this sort of thing.)

On encountering eagles, musicians and Gaelic

There’s a solitary duck who flies over noisily a couple of times a day, and I wonder why. There’s also a miaowing that can’t possibly come from the cormorant on the water, but there are certainly no cats out there (I check), so I guess it must be the eagle – more adult cat than the kittenish mew of a buzzard. I’ve seen her twice up close – within 20 feet of the van the first time, landing on a rock to longsuffer the hoody’s righteous wrath, and flying towards me within 10 feet of the van the second time, being harangued by a tiny-looking gull. When she lands the second time I see her white tail: a sea eagle, the largest of all.

I reluctantly leave this spot, but know that I will be back soon. Where there is just landscape, I fit in. Where there is a wonderfully noisy town full of thumping festival, with real musicians and real Gaels, less so. But I enjoy a Gaelic language class (interesting learnings below, if these sorts of things interest you), some Gaelic language singers, and some stargazing.

When I first went to a sit-down folk gig on Mull, I was dismayed, as up until then lively music had been for dancing to. But now, I like duos and trios – no more than that – whose seated gigs and musical prowess have all the splendour and dignity of a baroque concert and a Menuhin violinist. (Look up Martin Hayes, if you don’t already know him – pure Grace. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z2K_lJtFaIU)

HebCelt is not like this – there are too many drumkits and bass guitars; the tents are too big for the PA systems; the PA systems are too loud for me; the power supply is too small for pounding Salsa Celtica, who bring it all to a halt, twice. However Alyth MacCormacl’s voice in Gaelic is beautiful; my friend Hannah Fisher is ethereal with indie-Celtic-Americana Mullach boyfriend Sorren Maclean; and Karen Matheson’s waulking songs have great rhythms thanks to aforementioned Sorren (on bass guitar, but I’ll forgive him – acoustic he’s a whizz), a great young acoustic guitarist Innes somebodyorother (one to watch), Donald Shaw’s beautiful arrangements, and the creative acoustic bass of a man I later happen upon in the wee hours in a lock-in. Le Vent du Nord are like a French-Canadian version of Scots-klezmer outfit Moishe’s Bagel: heartful Breton, Italian and gypsy-feeling, full of passion and pathos and politics, and real showmen. And then there are Idlewild, whose introverted, island-dwelling singer and his wife I’ve met and like, and Shooglenifty, and Afro-Celt. At 11pm I wander deserted streets in search of ‘The Caladh Sessions’, and feel unusually safe in little, cosmopolitan Stornoway. The music, when I find it, is too Indie for me, but the atmosphere is nice, and I befriend a warm, lively and politicised woman travelling alone from Edinburgh. I leave, tired, at half two, and wander the streets back buswards, but stop to peer through a hotel bar window on hearing some true folky strains: and there is my friend Hannah, beckoning me in, unlocking the door to join the people I’ve just been watching on stage. I meet a local lad – a crofter, guitarist and surfer Callum Buchanan, I must look him up, band name Sea Atlas – whom Hannah knows through Dougie MacClean, and we find we’ve encountered each other before, at our favourite beach. I’ve been offered a converted croft house to rent near there, but been unable to identify it. I was hoping it was a particularly lovely one on a flower-littered machair, but apparently Dougie owns that. Damn. Eamon Coyne, from Dublin, Roscommon and Glasgow, leads a spontaneous session whilst Hannah and I natter until broad daylight drives me to bed (and her to another session on a boat).

He made her a crown of gold...

He made her a crown of gold…

I bought just one day’s ticket to the festival, feeling indulgent at spending that, but Hannah and Sorren kindly put me on the guest list for the third day. When it’s over I decide to leave town rather than outstay my welcome, even though where I’m parked up by the road beneath the trees near the inner harbour all feels well. I head over a misty moor at the recommendation of a couple of people: it is great to know that after 11pm there is still some daylight and to know also that there will probably always be a place to park if I follow the dead-end roads, and here I still am several days later on a peat-track with a beautiful view, relatively undisturbed beyond yet more beautiful beaches. I meant to head north for a Gaelic language singing class, but have had to stay here. This lochen, and many I’ve seen from the roads, is full of water lilies, and this one also has Greylags.  The wind and rain keep the midges away. Another motorhome pulls into the car park in the bay below me. A Leodosach in his seventies has come out from the suburbs on his shiny new L-plated scooter with his fishing rod and a small rucksack. He says it’s a long walk out and he’ll stay overnight. Off up the track he goes.

Gaelic according to Grisela (who probably doesn’t spell it like that)

I learnt how to say a few things, and enjoyed making the sounds and deciphering the spelling, but rather than the vocab, here are the principles and facts of grammar from the workshop:

Gaelic has 18 letters, not the 16 I was told previously. (My mum says it’s a Romance language, though I’m skeptical. Grisela just knows that it’s Indo-European, but that doesn’t help much, because it’s pretty much bound to be.)

A grave accent, à, lengthens the vowel.

‘H’ is a modifier, often silencing the consonant it follows, e.g. an mh = v, whilst an fh, dh or th is merely aspirated.

A negative starts with a ‘ch’, whilst a positive ends with an ‘ee’ sound, apart from in the most common verbs, which are irregular (always the way).

There is no indefinite article, they just use the object, or ‘um’ for a specific object, so ‘a strawberry’ is ‘sùbhan laìr’ whilst ‘the strawberry’ would be ‘um sùbhan-làir’ (I don’t know what ‘strawberries’ would be, anyone know about plurals?).

Between certain consonants there is a ‘svarivakti vowel’ (corrections welcome): often a schwa that is included in speech but non-existent in the spelling, e.g. ‘Alba’ is pronounced ‘All∂ba’. I suspect, looking at the place names around here, that such vowels later become part of the spelling too, as in Tolsta (English), Tolastadh; Laxdale (Lacasdel); though I’m just guessing – maybe it’s the other way around: possibly the Anglicised spelling contracts things that the locals retain from the Gaelic even when speaking in English. (Some Scots say ‘fillum’ for ‘film’ – a svarivakti (?) vowel.)

Possession: one only calls ‘mine’ body parts and immediate family; all others, and other things, are either ‘at’ us or ‘with’ us; we don’t possess them.

Syntax is all skew. (For a native English speaker.) They say ‘Be you cold?’; ‘To be she lovely’ (where ‘she’ is the weather – ‘it’s lovely’); ‘Not knowledge at me’ (‘I don’t know’); ‘Jumped me up’ (‘I jumped up’).

Related colour words cross over between dialects, so some might call the same colour either grey or blue.

There are diphthongs and silent vowels, but where both vowels are pronounced, e.g. if there are two broad (open) vowels together, they are pronounced as two syllables. So fuar, cold, is foo-urr. ’You must pronounce both syllables’, says Grisela. ‘There is time for words, here.’

Red tweed bladderwrack seascape lighter crop


Day, er – week, er, two? Three? – of the weavery investigation and my quest for autonomy and Celticness

Parked up in the same bay, with just a couple of gannets and a solid, friendly, unpretentious Portuguese couple braving the soaking gales in their tent. Dreach Celtic moment to play a little An Buachaillin Ban (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Tvgk2WjM_Y). Reading the local paper.

Which is nothing like reading the Western Morning News. Well, it is a little like reading the Western Morning News: there are typically rural concerns that very much remind me of home (wherever that is) – ‘Cattle and coping with extremely wet summers’; typically provincial pride (in an endearing way); lots of adverts; and showcases for local businesses and village fetes (‘galas’, here). But Lewis is forward thinking, outward looking, creative and critical. There is, understandably, a little anti-Westminster-railing (I love the  3D ‘Yes’ sign planted on an island in a lochen outside Stornoway), and this modest local rag offers intelligent, left-leaning critique of Cameron’s proposals to cut immigration (and thus, this author suggests, to once again compromise UK industry and increase unemployment). This modest local rag visits Cuba to learn about community and finds their people ‘financially poor, but culturally and socially […] millionaires’. This modest local rag ‘challenges private estate owners to create crofts’ for local people and documents the successes of community-owned townships. This modest local rag boasts of prestigious traditional music courses producing shit hot musicians in tiny places (my friend and I were mega impressed by young Cameron and Ross, students on Benbecula, in Glasgow in January (http://listenagain.canstream.co.uk/celticpodcast/index.php?id=299). This modest local rag talks of ‘Saving languages and crossing borders’ as Gaelic looks to Occitania and the ‘Poetry of troubadours’ for some lessons in survival. This modest local rag dedicates pages and pages to the only Scottish music festival to appear in Songlines’ Summer top 10 year on year, and the black artists get columns as long as the Celtic ones. This modest local rag features artists and craftspeople with as much pride as it features crofters, entrepreneurs, footballers, kebab shops and primary school activities. And with almost as much pride as it features Harris tweed. (Almost.)

Stornoway has the largest Co-op supermarket I have ever seen, easily rivalling the Tesco baddies on the other side of town. (The little Co-op forget to give me my £50 cash back and though I don’t want them to take my word for it when I go back – not least because I am utterly scatterbrained at present – they handle it generously, trustingly and responsibly, and like the friendly informality of the Post Office who offer me an ad hoc, no-charge, paperwork-free service, it leaves me feeling glad to have this as my local town.) As well as the long-lost favourite cheese in the whole world ever (Scamorza – smoked mozarella), Stornoway also has lemon and black pepper chocolate and a Gaelic-speaking Pakistani community.

Can you tell I’m impressed?

OK, I admit it’s not Utopia. There are no trees, thanks to the Barelegged viking king’s scorched-earth battle tactics. Even the very few hardy Canadian conifers are struggling. The bungalows are still ugly, grey and prolific, planning regulations presumably pretty lenient, and people still consume like normal Westerners. The only whistle echoing round the hills and into the sea fog is my poorly played one. I have not yet found the ‘hireath’ that my mum tells me is Welsh for a mythical Celtic concept of the yearned-for, probably metaphysical, home – but there are music classes, sessions and ceilidhs on every night of the week around the island, if I’ve the energy. (I *will* find the time and energy for Gaelic language and Gaelic singing classes, I swear.) And this rainy bay is a good place in which to feel hireath, anyhoo.

On a mission for hook-up to do me ironing (no, not my clothes, silly, I mean crabbing my woves – steam ironing to set the cloth) I pass many a weaver’s studio with a welcome sign. There will be enough to keep me busy exploring for months – or, since I also need quiet time, music time and, ahem, weaving time, perhaps years. I also pass signs for Norse mills and kilns and brochs, and a friend of a friend gives me a lesson via Facebook on Norns (‘The Norns are most powerful beings,
In Norse mythology the three most well known ones are Urd (past) Verdandi (present) and Skuld (future, or that which will be)
They weave the fate of men, Gods, and even worlds. The skein of our personal Wyrd is decided by them…’)
. I know next to nothing about Norse mythology, so this is welcome information.

Docking in civilisation the campsite is astroturfed and unromantic, but still a reasonable place to go to work, and well-run. The Leodasach lady owner, whose lilt sounds very Welsh, who asks me what nationality I am and who totally counts the Cornish among the Celts, lived in a photographed-but-now-disappeared blackhouse village just 65 years ago, with animals under the same thatched roof. Is her tidy modernity an improvement? No, she says. We agree we’d rather battle the elements than the technology providers as she hands me a leaflet with WiFi instructions. (As predicted, the dear Highland WiFi won’t talk to my computer, though rather than getting furious I enjoy a chat with a taciturn character on Skye. He does all he can, and though it is unsuccessful, there’s something nice about contacting someone in a spot I can picture on another of these isles. It makes me feel connected – who wants a WiFi connection anyhoo?) She tells me that Gaelic has only 16 letters (the sensible ones), hence some odd combinations to make some sounds, like mh or bh = v. She tells me about broad (open, I think) and slender (closed) vowels in Gaelic, and how each side of a consonant the vowels must both be broad or both be slender, so for example in ‘abhainn’ the second ‘a’ is a simple spelling convention and silent. The stress or accented syllable changes the meaning in this case: if pronounced /avee(g)n/, it means river, if /aavi(g)n/ it means oven. Our lesson is rudely interrupted by my smoke alarm the other side of the campsite as I left the grill on.

So the greens are crabbed, finished, packed up and sent back to the National Trust gallery on dear Dartmoor. I go to the arts centre, plug in my laptop, get online, order a weird combination of foodstuffs sort of by accident that doesn’t work at all, and have grave difficulty focussing (not helped by a worried policeman’s visit that turns a wee bit heavy as a well-spoken young lad makes an ill-received joke and then admirably defends his right not to give his personal details. There’s a man gone missing near some cliffs. Fingers crossed for him and his loved ones.). I get very little work done, but do order a couple of useful things from eBay and enjoy giving my post restante address at Stornoway Post Office. Make that Post Restante. It feels exotic. The Post Office building is old and a little grand. Ondaatje’s Royal Geographic Society’s members in the English Patient probably had Post Restante addresses in Cairo. I don’t know why that comes to mind, but logic is often a few steps behind instinct, I find (or a few miles, or a few hundred or even thousand years, come to that). Maybe I’m enjoying the ex-pat thing. I hate, as an outwardly Englishperson, to be a privileged incomer – always painful too when one is at least as poor materially but doesn’t look or sound it – but though I am keen to be among the real Leodasachs, feel like an islander, maybe even *be* a crofter one day, I am also enjoying being a visitor: polite, alien, transient and anonymous. (A whole lot better than being alien in one’s own community, whatever that is, or was!) Maybe also it’s because the handsome postmaster is Canadian. He asks me whether I’m planning to live here and, vacant and startled, I smile wrongfootedly and offer a vague ‘possibly’. I barely know who I am, let alone where I live. I forget what simple, practical question I have to ask him – gone. I’m feeling very spaced out and Piscean and loving it. Neptune is definitely working his magic on me here.

I park up on the inner harbour facing the woods in the castle grounds (where there are some great long walks for Murphy to enjoy, and some more oraches for me to forage) and ‘stealth camp’ undisturbed as I am not yet done in town. In the van-sized parking places I puzzle for quite a while over the sign that says ‘Parking limited to 8 hours between 8am and 6pm’ and struggle to get my head around what this libertarian rule means for me in a 24 hour stretch, and read the sign again a few times. I was clever once. 

The next day I spend some more focussed hours sitting in the reference section of Stornoway Library using their internet (I know some of you dear readers are concerned about how I manage the pragmatics of life in a bus). Surrounded by local history archives and dictionaries, I feel at home, and like an undergrad again – languages, linguistics, and area studies: very much a part of what I’m doing here in the Outer Isles.

Lichen on old Blackhouse

And on my return to the little bay, I’m assembling yarns for the next big weave: heathered rusts, browns, reds, teals, ochres and greens, subtly combined in a peatlands-and-seaweed-inspired Harris-style tweedy-but-irregular-and-organic run of coasters (which act as useful little samples to experiment with weft combinations and weave patterns), snugs and scarves. I have to concede that these smaller things have their place, as especially with this fine, pain-in-the-arse twisty, ‘sticky’ yarn, embarking on vast blanketry or ‘clo mhor’ (big cloth) whose colours and patterns I found I disliked once combined would leave me either wasting kilos and hours or committed to several weeks of laborious dissatisfaction. I have to be feeling bright and strong at this stage in the process, energised and inspired, with the patience to think thoroughly through design and loom set-up, and the confidence to begin. Not today, but tomorrow, I hope.


 Those island colours Turquoise bay

Day Four

The sun is wholehearted today – truly hot – though the wind keeps us cool, but stomping up the heights to get a signal to see if a friend will be visiting on his RIB (alas, he won’t) I work up a sweat, and eyeing the crystal clear turquoise and azure bay beneath me I run all the way back down again and into the sea for my first Lewisian swim. Cold but amazing, of course. It’s 10am and I have the bay to myself again, after some noisy Danes and some shyly skinny-dipping Dutch folk left early. I do some stretches, dry off sunbathing and forage for some more gutweed. Murphy gets some in his breakfast and eats it all up. I make gutweed patties with butter, onion, sweet potato and thyme (yes, real wild mountain thyme, from the slopes here where more beautiful species appear with every look), and though they taste amazing in the cooking process and are soft and light and crisp with a toasted sesame seed coating, they end up tasting pretty much like every other patty I’ve ever made. Which is ok, but not earthshattering, unlike the rest of the day.

I finish off a run of green woves, tidy their tassels and darn them, and need hook-up for the final ‘crabbing’ process (steaming with a hot, static iron), so will have to dock in civilisation soon for that.

I go to Callanish and the stones appear dramatically on a tump, friendly but black and jagged against the apricot evening skyline. On other tumps, some surrounded by sea loch, there are roofless ruins in sympathetic alignment. There is music in the visitor centre but it is disappointing, so I leave again, pulled back to my incredible bay. I am missing it like mad but pass straight on by to explore another headland just to the south. It’s not the same, but for practical reasons I stay, pulled up alongside a burgundy and white (unlike my burgundy yellowing cream) Mercedes Chieftain so much like mine that its owner and I inspected each other’s and generally geeked about them for an hour till it seemed too late to head back to ‘my’ bay. Here I can’t see the sea or hear the waves, though it is only over a very small rise, and the evening is beautiful nonetheless, so it’s ok.

Croquettes Geekybuses palest pinky white orchid Pink nettle orchid Pink sweet pea orchid Pink nettle orchid Pink sweet pea orchid pinky white orchid pinky white orchid fat pinky white orchid slender purple orchid red moss rocky lichen moss

 Panorama 1a Panorama 2 Panorama 3 Panorama 4 Panorama 5 Panorama 6 Panorama 7

Day Five

I thought I might go to the local gala, where apparently the whole island is gathered, join in with local people instead of meeting only motorhomers (who are a wonderfully gracious breed, I notice), but it has come in stormy and I get distracted by unexpected internet access and a hundred other useful and tasty things – island shops rock! Nearly forgetting to pay for my fuel, and nearly forgetting to withdraw cash for the camping honesty box, when the latter was my main reason for leaving ‘my’ bay in its utmost glory yesterday, I return to my Greenland-facing spot late in the day and breathe a sigh of contentment. I am in a constant dreamlike state, and frequently doing silly things, but a most of me is very level, very focussed and very receptive. I finished some damnprettylittle coasters (for the National Trust shop, but which P possibly won’t even like, since she is a woman of taste and these were meant to evoke campions but possibly just evoke pink) and congratulated myself on a surprise day’s work (it’s normally the converse, isn’t it?). If blogging and coaster-making count as work – which they must. Saturday work, anyhoo. Oh and I did meet a local, or two and learn how to say Happy Birthday in Gaelic, though promptly forgot again, but here’s the written version: ‘La breiath sona dhut’

Above my parking spot there is an abandoned old school. It’s sad. I feel a sudden wish to fill the cleave with children and revive the school, Small School-style.

The School

A dear friend sent me an incredible article on a certain Mati Ventrillon, a beautiful young woman who left London to join the 54 other inhabitants on Fair Isle (the outermost inhabited island of the UK) and help revive their knitting tradition. She keeps 20 sheep with her two children and collie. Look her up, I’m going to. Fair Isle blankets perhaps? Definitely a stop on my tour one year.

Today’s recipe: happiness and calm

Give up everything.

Go and live in a bus on an island.

Watch the tides.





Drink valerian tea.

Sleep well.

(If 1-3 aren’t available, 5-9 can be served separately, with noticeable benefits to health.)

Day Three

Day Three

I haven’t seen any darkness here yet, despite awakening once or twice in the dusky night. Last night there were oyster catchers and a bumble bee still up at gone 11. This morning in the small hours I thought someone was checking out my van, peered through the curtains and off fussed a noisy chatter of little brown hobbies – starlings, I realised later as the whole flock descended again around the van and on the fence, and doing their thing (starlinging?) from spot to spot in their waves.

I’m in my driver’s seat (thanks to aforementioned mechanic-knight for a safe, solid, adjustable, allegedly spine-adjusting, original Type 1 van seat) watching the sea again, as I’m finding I can do for hours. I didn’t think I was particularly a sea person, wedded as I’ve been to the uplands, but my thousand miles or so were not complete until I’d got all the way to the Atlantic. The inland-facing sea-lochs just didn’t cut it – I just had to come all the way to the edge. I can’t actually *see* Greenland, but it’s quite amazing knowing it’s there. (Note to self: double check maps. I could be way out!) And so here I can rest. And weave. And play tunes.

On the loom is a project I’ve brought up from Devon, where I was seeking to capture the bluebell wood just below Huckentor: the truest, softest, strongest blue; the most acidic greens of new leaves; the red young bramble stems; the darker green nettle and the white of stitchwort.

Bluebell wood on the loom

The National Trust made a plea for colour

a pale gold sun appears, wintry and northerly, setting down the line of the headland into the sea – pale, palest icy colours…

just when the Westcountry hedgerows were at their most incredible. With all this upheaval I’m behind though: stuck on Westcountry hedgerows (when the all-pink campion-smothered bank was what I really wanted but failed to capture), when now it’s summer and all I want to be weaving are the Harris yarns I’ve just bought, and the island austerity. At least the acid green of beech leaves is practically the same as the acid green of drying gut weed (which, incidentally, I ate for lunch today, see recipe below), and I have earthen reds, rusts, terracottas, brackens and rainbow tweedy browns for the kelp and dulse and bladder wrack, or whatever the other red one is here. (I could have eaten the whole rock face, but my (highly recommended) River Cottage Edible Seashore only covered a number, and though I understand that something like 99% of what comes from the sea to be edible, I don’t know what the 1% is (bankers? Oil barons? I’m an ethicatarian, I don’t eat those).)

I’m troubling over the nature of my weaving business. P – a ‘good egg’, as my friend says – at the National Trust gallery is enthusiastic and supportive and has some good ideas and is great to work with. However I need to watch my tendency to try to please and work *for*. A remit, brief or specification can be great: inspiring, steadying, focussing. Creativity can thrive within parametres, like the strict rules of a haiku, or like compression in a diesel engine. I think. But the perennial questions of the artist or craftsperson: how to make a living without playing to the market? How to make affordable things without compromising the artefact’s integrity? I don’t want to make pretty trinkets. I don’t want to make luxury garments. I’m not sure I even want to make art. I want to make good, honest, cloth. I’m surely in the right place for that, but next to the weavers of Harris tweed (and even the Bovey Tracy weaver in his deeply inspiring traditional workshop) with their Hattersley looms I feel like a WI hobbyist with my (relatively) little table loom and recent pretty colours.

And then I think of the (dark and miserable but still a bit pretty) songs I’ve been making with guitarist and cellist friends, and remind myself to work for edginess. I think of my musical heroes – tradmaking Celts: the depths they plumb and the new ground they break, and how when they work with popular, even more prestigious, highly ’successful’ outfits (I’m thinking especially of the Transatlantic Sessions) they lose their edges, and, for me, are sorely compromised.

And that’s why I’m out here, right on the edge.

Maybe I’ll make only blankets from now on.

Cliff camper-van stir-fry


Courgette (optional)


Smokey tofu (with good, firm texture)

Gutweed (the limest green, soft, fine fronds, cut from the rock, not ripped; ultra mild flavour; can be eaten raw)



Soy sauce (not Marmite, as I used)

Rice noodles

Toasted sesame seeds

Lightly sautee the courgette in butter, salting to taste and adding tofu, garlic, lemon and half the rinsed gutweed (a good taste-carrier) when courgettes are lightly done. After a minute add just enough water to cook rice noodles in the same pan, with a little soy sauce. After a few minutes, when almost all the water has been absorbed or turned to sauce and the noodles are cooked al dente, stir in the remaining gut weed (to get the benefit of the bright green). Lastly, sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds and serve with a sea view.

(Photos to follow)

The journey so far

I’m not sure where to start this one – being a baby in a bus with my parents in the Basque Country?  Being dragged to Scotland by my zealous mother? Getting my little white palfrey? Losing her son in a tragic accident? Pitching my whole strength against his mighty successor? Being dumped by a Scottish fiddle player? Meeting an incredible Irish guitar player? Being given a loom? Having a Swiss fairy godmother? Teaching critical thinking (all three of those in inverted commas) in a university until I alienated myself by being a little too critical? Working with students who helped me like myself? Being a resentful tenant? The realisation that I could not be a cog in someone else’s wheel? The death of the old dreams? (I don’t know what the new ones are, but living in a bus is a sort of no-compromise compromise for until the next ones take form, and will do just fine for now. It is liberating not to know one’s dreams.)

The wind is warm and this little bay looks blue and uncomplicated, but I am mesmerised by a little meeting of very shallow waves that come from 270 degrees around the slightest of sandbars and converge in an irregular twig-and-wool snowflake of the sort my mum and dad made to decorate the van in the Pyrenees for what was my second Christmas.Colours of Cliobh bay water

I was heroically on track with the the two-month smallholding packdown right until the very last evening, when, despite it’s different design and heat shield to protect from my super-go-faster-turbo-and-intercooler (cursed from the start by my oracular mechanic), the van’s starter motor no.4 sprung a sticky solanoid, just like starter motors 1, 2 and 3. Clearly I could not leave my best knight in such a hurry, and further work on the van’s innards (engine-ish, boiler) and outers (newly-crumpled bodywork and historically-rotted plywood) had me and others bodging, innovating and experimenting (I’m lucky to know the right people who won’t just go by the book but who will rewrite it expertly if it needs rewriting), and I saw parts of Plymouth I’d never had occasion to traverse in 20 years. I now know more about wiring, plumbing, solanoids, mastic, hydraulics and split voltage-sensitive relays than I did (which is easy), and the van is more sorted than it otherwise would have been had I rushed off to meet the Solstice on Lewis. (Welcome to homeowning, Eloise.)

So having missed the longest day on Lewis and hearing of Calmac strikes that meant I had to transfer my ferry ticket for 10 days hence, I decided to take the journey slowly. Even so I left at ridiculous-o’clock and indulged in a huge and imaginative free-range breakfast at the amazing new Gloucester Services (including broccoli juice – this is not any old services; like Tebay, they even sell smoked stilton), which even has flags on wooden frames that look like the remains of a jousting tournament. (Though I concede that they probably are not.) So I had decided to take the journey slowly but nonetheless was well impressed with the van’s steady 65pmh all the way to Beverley (this is fast for several tonnes of brick-shaped thing on overladen axles and cheap tyres).


I’d never heard of Beverley, but not only was it great to visit my almost-oldest friend and her about-to-be-ordained husband and charming boys who were sensitively enthralled with Murphy, we also had lunch in a square and  it felt like when we were in the south of France together. Complete with bagpipes, naturally. Oh and as well as a stunning minster it has cattle grazing in the town centre and lovely common land and kind Jewsons staff who got me a sackful of sawdust for my compost loo. Good place.

N & S

Then I drove through stunning Teesdale, and thought it was the most beautiful place on earth and that I might like to live there, until I saw 106 moles strung up on a barbed wire fence. I picked some flowers and strung them up with them.

My kind of LandscapeMoles 4Moles 1Moles 2

Moles 3TeesdaleBus in Teesdale

Supper in a friends’ garden near Newcastle on a high hill overlooking a big flat valley reminded me of being with them in Calvignac, in the Lot, on a stunning wisteria-terrace overlooking a flat river-valley growing tobacco (really?) and walnuts with a derelict mill and an illuminated castle on the next limestone cliff. (Rich life that I have led! Well done mum, on a shoestring!) I guess the French feelings are because I may go to Brittany in the autumn, and because of the warmth.

Lewis is dreach but the wind is warm. Ullapool even has palm trees!

So from Teesdale to Tyne I looked up Fraserburgh and Peterhead (those are references to two of my favourite John Doyle songs BTW; probably Ewan MacColl had something to do with them too) and made an unexpected visit to Findhorn, where a Devon friend was participating in a course on animal communication. I’d known of Findhorn, and though I am quite allergic to Communities with a capital C and the Enlightenment Competition, as well as to rendered suburbs, flat land and sand dunes hosting mediterranean pines, it is an interesting social experiment. Some of the wooden houses that are built more harmoniously with the surrounding flora were beautiful. A largish primer-coloured jet sits next door with the Duke of Edinburgh’s name on it.  A grey 11pm sundown on the North Sea was the last moment I’d expect to have a skinny-dip, but the wind was balmy and after all this is something of a rite of passage.

And then a fairly easy drive to Ullapool, with red kites and bleak Highlands. Drivers on Scottish roads are terribly cautious of late, and numerous times I regretted pulling over courteously to wait while they cautiously passed, only to be held up by them on the next dip (I need a run-up, dammit!). And then I probably (mildly) menaced someone who pulled over for me, and when shortly after I came upon my turnoff way too fast and precious friend-made ceramics flew out of the locker with the crappy spring, I thought that it was probably instant carma.

A prolonged siesta at Ullapool meant I missed all but the last half-song of the live music in the village (but it wasn’t trad), and finishing up my tomato juice over the last half-song meant I missed what may have been a stunning sunset over the sea and the Outer Isles, if the red light on the rocks to the East was anything to go by.

Ullapool moods red

Camping pretty much on the shore was great though, if grey and blustery.

Light in the isles

Ullapool moods

Ullapool moods 3

Beautiful green lorries

On the ferry the next morning I watched the also-grey profiles of foggy headlands and moody mountains recede, the only person sitting out on the aft deck in the rain, lulled by the throbbing engines. Having felt out of touch with my mission these last liminal weeks, it is good to have the bleak Celtic moments to remind me, and after a strange absence the strains of an Irish lament brought me back.

Ullapool pierULlapool harbourReceding Highlands

Then of a sudden I got all into focus on a little white low-flying thing that was clearly tailing us and getting closer. ‘They’ve found me!’ The red and white helicopter took its time approaching, then hovered over my head, and dropped a coastguard on a cable onto our ship’s deck. By now we were a little crowd, applauding this spectacular show. A royal bow and the guard caught the cable again and was hoisted back up as the ‘copter did a super-smooth Hollywood veer to the fore and port side and then turned tail, off to exercise their heroics somewhere else.

Suddenly out of the distanceCoastguard dropHeli

Stornoway when we arrived was even dreacher than

the Yorkshire moors, Highlands or Ullapool. ‘Summer’s coming next week’, they all said – it’s now next week and I’m still waiting. An unbeautiful grey town in which you are welcomed off the ferry by Tesco (there is a little colour – blue with a touch of red), and as I headed to my gravel caravan park where I’d thought it would be a good idea to spend my first night safe in suburbia, the scabs of grey bungalows blighting the crofting land made me wonder what on earth I was doing here. Another siesta and the airport suddenly got noisy with ferocious jets. Fuming, I peered through the yellowing perspex of one of my bedroom windows and wondered grumpily at the purple-red cloud and then realised that the invasion was by the Red Arrows. Are these the Chivenor ones, from my town of birth, to welcome me here? The world is strange!

And then the speed-delve into Stornoway, where the posh but friendly Harris Tweedshop with Ian Lawson’s stunning book, a great film, beautiful fabrics and the weaving songs book too; the grotto-like bazaar that is the Loom Centre with the eccentric pair (one white-haired Leoisaich man, one Indian/Pakistani/Spanish/Irish Scots woman) who sell me tweed offcuts to make bunting for the bus and, along with the Wool 4 Ewe lady, sell me some Harris Tweed yarns and know the character who sells it for tuppence on eBay; the long-lost Italian scamorza; the trad sessions research (they are numerous) and the quick picnic in the castle grounds, all remind me exactly why I am here.

Bridge Centre    Mercedes drain

   Bus on inner harbourStornoway inner harbourLews Loom Centre signLewis Loom Centre antiquarian Lewis Loom Centre antiquarian 1 Lewis Loom Centre antiquarian 3 Lewis Loom Centre antiquarian 4 Lewis Loom Centre antiquarian 5 Lewis Loom Centre antiquarian 6 Lewis Loom Centre antiquarian 7  Lewis Loom Centre antiquarian 8    Old loom Stornoway Tweed, glorious tweedRainbow tweed clothRainbow tweedsHeading West  Moody Lewis     The road WestHighland glenRed bladderwrack and toes on Cliobh beach web Orchid 1         Happy Smurf

And now supper on this little Greenland-facing beach that I have all to myself. Frosted oraches, or perpetual spinach, from the pebbly upper shore of Ullapool, with garlicky tomato, rice and melted cheddar.

Cliobh bay view 1 Cliobh colours Cliobh colours 2 Cliobh colours 3 Cliobh composition + gutweed Cliobh diagonal Cliobh emerald water Cliobh hell of a parking place Cliobh land Cliobh sheep tracks 

PS I just closed the laptop and looked out the window. MIDGES! I wonder whether the Gaelic class I booked today will teach me how to say ‘fuck off’ in a way that they understand. 


The office

The office. Somewhere on the west coast of Lewis. A week or so after the Solstice. Hands smelling of the rotted sheep sinew I wrested from between Murphy’s teeth.

In the wilds at last! Friends thought my old moorland home was wild and that my life there was fairly free, but not wild enough, nor free enough. I held (almost) all the stuff of my dreams in my hands but it was too heavy to walk with. Packing up two and a half bedrooms, three sheds, a barn and an acre or two and making arrangements for chickens, Horse, piano, tenor guitar, treadle Singer and old Merc was something of a feat in two months. I even did a little weaving along the way – although not much. Somehow Catholic guilt passed all the way to me (contrary to my mother’s belief, and Zen persuasion), and although some don’t see my Protestant work ethic, I certainly feel bad when I don’t work. God knows I cannot afford to be a lady of leisure, any more than I could afford to live like a married and moneyed woman smallholding without the husband or the money. I hope I can afford to live in an old motorhome. So tomorrow is at last, I hope, the first day of my new normal: weaving quietly all day in a bleak Celtic spot – or possibly weaving singing in a bleak Celtic spot, since I have a book of Scottish songs, a book of Irish tunes, and, as of today’s inspiring speed-delve into Stornoway, a book of weaving songs too.

As I type I’m watching a gannet colony speed-delving into the sea. There is ground elder, and I’m going to see what my hedgerow cookbook says of it. There are three types of orchid, scattered gentian(?), sea pink, white campion, violets – ach no, I discover that they are nae violets but something far more exotic – prolific clover, buttercup and daisy, cinquefoil, sorrel, sunshine trefoil in abundance, sea-rocket and various others I don’t know. And all that just at an ill-informed glance.