North West Lewisian coastal communities

Satisfied after a good day’s vocational exploration, I head to the surfing beach as recommended. Busier than spots I’d previously sought, it is friendly and welcoming, and I find the Cairngormers and Gareth the nearly-Welshman in the hoody, both of whom were at ‘my’ beach a few days ago. Now Gareth is with another lovely guy, a gorgeous German called Sebastian who directs all his conversation at me, and we sip wine and chatter, joined by lovely Belgian Olivia and Yves and feisty French terrier Odette who demands love from Murphy every minute. I walk and weave and watch them surf. The sea gets big and looks terrifying. The Cairngorm girls bring me mackerel caught by their dad Mark, and I smoke it and it tastes delicious. Norman the Hattersley weaver visits the beach and we are surprised to see each other. ‘Is that yourself?’ he lilts, and gives me a kiss on the cheek. ‘And I thought I’d never see you again!’ It’s nice to know a few locals – anchor points, safe harbours. I stay for a few days, feeling cosy and enjoying our transient community.

I leave for a night and head to the northernmost point of Lewis, and Yves, Olivia and Odette appear there too. I walk both the dogs, spot fulmar chicks in the grassy cliffs, eat crab, go online, and watch the quiet harbour.

Port of Ness harbour colours

Port of Ness harbour

Port of Ness

Fulmar chicks

Feisty little French tart

On Port beach

Murphy doing the Spanish horse thing

Murphy and Odette

There is a fishing memorial, and the list of names and dates of stricken boats is moving.

Ness fishing memorial

I meet a Mr. Tumnus type with a beard and piercing blue eyes. I flag him down because he is driving an old Merc the like of which I’ve never seen: a Mog, apparently, with a crane on the back. We talk about engines. He is alternative and evidence of a scene. It turns out that his partner is the talented designer whose rugged but highly tailored and lithely-lined work – kilts, aprons, cuffs, belts – I admired at the festival. This quiet little harbour sprawl has some life behind its grey concrete walls.

Thou must not covet thy neighbour's peat stack...

Thou must not covet thy neighbour’s peat stack

On my way back down the coast a brief signal spot delivers me several messages from the Stornoway police who have been advised to take my telephoned complaint about the shooting incident seriously, so they send a van out from town to meet me in a car park I’m passing. I give them a detailed account. They take random notes and are interrupted several times by something on their radio that sounds briefly as if it is more exciting, but then disappoints them. We conclude that it was a more serious weapon than an air rifle given the distance it covered, but they think it was accidental. I think they are wrong and that they’re missing significant details in capturing my statement, but never mind. I guess they’ll listen better to the next person who reports it. I have a tummy ache for hours high up in my gut and I’m not sure whether it is the bleakness of inattentive policemen in a concrete car park, the crab, or the fermenting peas I ate earlier. (Must fix my fridge.)

I return to the surf beach and rejoin the comforting little community for another few happy days, sharing anecdotes, perspectives, languages, beer, potatoes, flapjack, chocolates and a Scotch single malt with an English name. I’m sad as one by one they all leave. I leave too, docking for a night in civilisation where I need hook-up to iron all the woves I’ve made, and then come back here, resting up before I muster the energy to hit Stornoway for a couple of marketing days online and a couple of musical evenings. After that I will start the next chapter: Harris.

Weaving in the Blackhouse


Buoyed up with inspiration and bowed down with a sackful of tweed bobbins over my shoulder from the mill, I get back in the van and head on out along the coast road to Garrenin, the blackhouse village. I buy a ticket for the museum and would like to linger in the shop and cafe (my fridge is empty) but I go straight to the weaver – also on an old Hattersley – and pounce, and cannot leave. He is tying the ‘weaver’s knot’: tying in the new warp to that of the outgoing cloth. Now that might not sound all that exciting but there has been a build up to this: my Glasgow friends admired the agility of his fingers as he knotted with great speed. I asked if they were sure that he wasn’t twisting the yarns together as I’d seen them twist it in the Ardalanish Mill on Mull. No, they were sure that he was knotting. And so that I happen upon him at just this stage in the process is a stroke of luck. He is leaning over in the authentically dim light and as other visitors and I crowd in to see we block his limited light and he can see even less. I say that I’m really keen to learn this speedy knotting technique and he gruffly asks me to hold the crossed warp threads a moment. This is an honour indeed, as though he is there to demonstrate to the public, he is weaving an actual tweed for the mill, and if I drop these ends, he is in trouble. He gets a magnetic LED light and sticks it to the underside of the ‘castle’. He takes back the threads, and his left hand holds the ends, whilst his right ties the knots, no left fingers involved at all. He can tie 540 knots in 35 minutes. He shows me the technique, offers an old cloth-end for me to practice on, and as his apprentice takes over I challenge him to a race. We don’t stop nattering, and as the apprentice is on knot 12 I am still only half way through my first knot. I get my fingers in the wrong place endlessly and can’t believe my clumsiness, but enjoy learning about weaving and the state of the market, the culture of crofting, the changes and challenges, and they invite me to take home my cloth-end to practice on.

Who would imagine that a simple knot would absorb me for the whole afternoon. Hanging out with a loom is like hanging out in a beautiful place, or hanging out with a warm, cud-chewing mammal.

Carloway Mill

I feared that too-frequent and involuntary moving on would make this lifestyle a strain and even be the dealbreaker for me. I need the reassurance of routine and to know and feel part of a place, and it is wonderful to stop for a week and settle into a rhythm and become familiar. But if someone asked me what the highlights of it all are, one of them would certainly be getting into the driver’s seat and heading off to a new place for the next adventure, wind blowing, van rocking, Murph peering, my eyes scouring, (probably Irish) music singing.

I take a side lane to the blackhouse village and by chance this takes me right past the entrance to the mill. As I pull up I greet a man with a Harris hawk on his hand. I’m glad that I recognise her and he is proud that he bred her. I ask whether she feeds him and he says yes, and I admit ruefully that my hound doesn’t feed either of us. (I must remedy this. He tries for the rabbits but can’t seem to turn quickly enough at his great height – gladly he is cautious by the sheer high cliffs, which seem to be the rabbits’ favourite, perhaps for that very reason? I’m wondering whether to get a smaller whippety lurcher companion for him for the smaller prey, since sheep are not fair game.) This one is six years old, and may live to a grand old 25 or 30, compared to the eight to ten years’ life expectancy in the wilds (of South America, I think, rather than Harris, though I should double check this).

(Photo by Carloway Mill)

(Photo by Colin Smith, Geograph)

I’m lucky at the mill, who don’t run a schedule of tours and cannot entertain visitors in their busiest moments. This feels like a special occasion – going to meet the folk behind the Tweed of Harris – and I have dressed for it, in high boots, a dress I used to teach in, my own woven jacquard cape, pearl earrings and a high, less-hedgerow-than-usual hairdo. I know that power dressing can, sadly, make a difference in how seriously people take you. Take yourself seriously Eloise, you’re a proper weaver on Important Business today. The first person I encounter is the production manager, known as DK (below), friendly and helpful, like all the 15-odd staff I meet. The atmosphere is relaxed, people are cheerful and serious both at once, not too stressed, but concentrating. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it’s nice to see an ordinary yet interesting bunch, informal, polite to each other and quipping too, looking quite at home and looking like they’d be equally comfortable tillering fishing boats, working bars, down mines, driving milk floats, knitting baby blankets, designing clothes, making music or working crofts. I feel over-dressed, posh, and terribly English – like someone who’d wear pearl earrings and Harris Tweed. But maybe that helped.

The Carloway Mill is the smallest of the three Harris tweed mills, says their website – which outlines the multiple steps in the milling process:   DK takes me on a labyrinthine journey through their many beautiful machines. It is fantastically, quintessentially steampunk, and I feel like I’m in a Hessian castle.

He shows me the dumpy bags with tons of fleece that has been washed and graded in Yorkshire where it is gathered from throughout the UK by the central Wool Marketing Board. All the fleece is bleached for consistency of colour.

Next we go to the dyeing vats – huge, aluminium(?) cylinders with pipes coming out of them, like the old copper whiskey stills used illegally in the hills, or (now) legally in the first distillery in the Outer Isles and the only one to use the most traditional methods and equipment. The weaving mill has machinery dating from 1906 – actual Industrial Revolution machines. If Saruman, Gandalf, Radagast, Alatar, Pallando, Dumbledore or the Wizard of Oz had factories for brewing spells in, this would be their equipment – all aluminium, steel, iron and wood.

A photo I’ve borrowed of DK at the dyeing vats, by Robin Mitchell

I have a particular thing about wooden pigeon holes or lab shelving. I somehow wrestled two huge units of these that my old university were selling off cheaply onto the roof of my car and up my stairs to my old textiles workshop at home. Then my neighbour helped me wrestle them back down the stairs – they’d grown even heavier, seemingly – to cut them up to furnish my van, and their satisfying subdivisions now hold all my wool (about 80 kilos after the Carloway visit, poor old van). The mill’s gorgeous wooden pigeon holes hold samples of fleece dyed in their 36(?) core colours, with names like ‘Rye’, ‘Straw’, and ‘Petrel’, because in this business people know their grasses and their birds.

DK takes me to the mixing corner, where another machine lurks and blows fleece through large, overhead pipes that look like air conditioning vents (how things change, and don’t!), into a room that reminds me of those washing-machine-drum fairground rides where the floor falls away from your feet while the centrifugal force pins you to the side. We go just inside the doorway and a tattooed worker grinningly imitates switching things on and I jump out again. He shows me the mixing recipe, handwritten on a notebook. Of 100 kilos of fleece, this colour is made up of 42 kilos of one green, 21 of another, 0.25 of another – such is the precision of the heathery blend that must make up this perfect yarn.

Next we see the old-but-still-very-much-working carding machine that sits beside a similar but computerised one: a huge thing the length of the room, like a carriage of a train, in Edward the Tank Engine green, complete with painted, glazed doors all the way along, and full of teeth, tines, rollers, cogs, belts and bicycle chains – or so it looks to me. So here the dyed, aerated, mixed and oiled fleece goes into one end and is finely blended into a more homogenous fluff before being stretched and rubbed into miles(?) of soft, delicate, drawn out strands. I pick up some blue from the floor and tease it in my hands as we walk, like a magpie with a treasure – a preciousss. The carding machine is about to be switched off, using a huge lever with numbers stamped into the steel (or is it iron?). Its operator wants me to see to the end of it before he does, and we prod the rotating reels of strands like he does to check for the density and firmness, which indicates consistency of gauge in the yarn-in-process. He heaves the lever from 10 down to 0 and says he feels like Frankenstein galvanising.

Next we see the spinning machine (but I don’t think it’s a Jenny?), and only the tiniest part of it inserts the twist in another warehouse-length row of reels and rods and rollers and bobbins. (One of my weaving students laughed when I said ‘bobbin’: we are talking about a huge 18 inch or so thing with a kilo of yarn on it.)

(photo by Juniper and Jane Textiles 2013)

We go to another warehouse to see the warpers, who are guiding very small handfuls of very long yarn in very precise order onto warping boards the size of warehouse walls and rotating drums and metal beams as heavy as ship’s beams with furled sails. The beam or the chain from the board will be delivered to the home workshops of the 150 or so weavers who work for the mills, and loaded onto their looms like cartridges, ready to weave a 50 or 90 or 250 metre tweed. A piece of paper attached to the beam tells the weaver the warp pattern they’ve been given and the order in which the weft yarns should be woven. (I am going to see another weaver this afternoon, and will fill in some of my gaps there.)

When the mill collects the woven tweed, the first thing they then do is mend it where the warp has snapped or the weft has looped: three or four women work with long darning needles, the cloth spread over table-like lightboxes or hung over them like tents against vertical lightboxes. A certain amount of time is allocated to this step, so if a weaver has left too many flaws, slowing them down he (or occasionally she) will be charged a penalty.

(photo by Elizabeth Martin Tweed)

DK and I chatter with one of the women as she works. She shows me the line of warp she’s working on. She wears glasses and I worry for her eyes but she says they are not strained and she doesn’t feel cross-eyed. We talk about the prestige of tweed, the Britishness and the Scottishness, the referendum and the company’s neutrality, the audience and the outlets. One of the mills has sold some lengths cheaply to Primark. I love that it could be a cloth for the people – as I understand it once was – but also understand the precariousness of brand and reputation. This is a cloth of integrity.

The finishing processes turn the coarse woollen weave into a smooth, refined material. After mending, the cloth is washed in what looks like a huge beer barrel with what look like tram wheels inside with brass rims that beat the cloth. This is the equivalent of the old ‘waulking’, though alas there are no brawny women singing the rhythms. Back to the final corner of the middle warehouse by the menders and DK shows me the huge, black tumble drier (my, inaccurate, nomenclature) that does nothing as random as tumbling and looks like an enormous, gothic sideboard (but is at least half the length of the room), and then the comparatively-small-but-still-enormous wooden and calico press rollers that steam iron the bolts. Sitting on the side of this machine is the gold for the crown: the certificates that declare the virgin wool, islander-woven, perfectly-finished quality of Harris Tweed, the name or number of the weaver, the mill, the certifier and a witness, and lastly DK shows me the jewels: the stamp every few yards on the cloth and the labels that the tailors can sew onto their garments to show that this is the Real McCoy as protected by an Act of Parliament: the only certified cloth in the world.

[I’d like to borrow all the photographs from this site, but the blog is beautiful, so just visit that: ]

The mills need more weavers, having about an eighth of the numbers they had in the 1960s boom in the face of continuously increasing demand. I ask about how the weavers are paid, how they acquire their looms, what the work pressure is like, how much autonomy they have. Just building an idea of what a Hebridean weaving life could be like…

Week seven: On Icelandic blankets, Pictish dwellings and Hattersley looms

I wasn’t all that excited about my latest blanket, feeling it a waste of Harris tweed yarn to be engulfed by chunky Iceland with my too-wide sett that made for a weft-facing fabric with the peaty seaweed colours all but hidden, but as I take it off the loom it feels larger than I thought, and weighty and soft and light all at once, and the touches of bladderwrack burgundy offset the sheepy colours well. I’m now in the perfect photoshoot spot awaiting a blue day – which is happening about once a week here in the Western Isles this summer, if we’re lucky.

Icelandic Hebridean blanket

 Icelandic and Hebridean blanket with a basket of lemons and parsley. Of course.

Icelandic and Hebridean blanket, Dail Mor

Icelandic Hebridean blanket

  Icelandic Hebridean blanket with pure Hebridean oatcakes

 Icelandic Hebridean blanket in the dunes

Icelandic and Hebridean blanket folded in the dunes of Dail Mor

However, we do seem to be lucky on the midge front for that – or else everyone is making a great big fuss about not very much. They should try living on Dartmoor. Indeed a local woman said the midge phenomenon only entered her consciousness recently as tourism has grown and grown. We natives of the wilder lands have worse things to worry about, methinks! (“Eee, when aar wer yoong…”)

Gateway to Mhealestadh

 Another 'road to nowhere'

 Urgent ovine parliament

Mhealestadh and Scarp isles

After a brave week in the bare rocky spot where I’ve finally relaxed and stopped worrying (much) about armed or drunken men and re-staked my place in the wilderness, I head back to ‘my’ little bay. I plan to go via the community shop and do a good few hours’ work on their internet, whilst their industrial-sized washing machines do my laundry. On the way I pass the Abhinne Dearg (‘avigne jarag’ = Red River) whiskey distillery and have to stop for a little taste and a tour. What a way to start a day’s work!

The barrels DSC_1252

One of the many mornings when I say over and over to myself, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe how good my life is’.

And after the so-called ‘reality day’, on to ‘my’ little bay.

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This place feels contained, familiar and very safe. I know the score: I know which spots offer shelter from the wind, and which are the more and less sociable. I know where the little fish reside in channels between the rocks. I know where the tide recedes to. I know my way up the rocks on each of the little inlets. I know where Murph will chase the rabbits. I know which pasture the sheep are in. I know where the fences have gates to go through. I know which rocks on the hilltops have a phone signal. I’ve had it to myself for one or two nights out of about 20, and apart from that there is always someone there. There is one other tonight, until a dark-coloured van pulls up at the end beyond me, and a wiry 50 year old cockily swings his leg over the fence to sit on the dunes with a can of beer and a fag to watch the sunset. Guess who. Dark is falling and I half pull curtains and, though I resent it, once again I skulk and hide as he drives back past, peering. The evening after next, there he is again, briefly, and hoots a hello, which I almost ignore, pretending to concentrate on keeping my *unruly* hound under control. (Smurf is being good as gold as usual, but if you see a very uncharacteristic picture of him looking like he’s about to rip somebody’s throat out, I’ve posted it to make myself feel better. He probably could if necessary.) Maybe I will leave this area tomorrow.

So the next morning I hit the road, singing my heart out to Christy Moore’s deep enunciations and Andy Irvine’s plaintive bouzouki, and go-karting from bay to bay over the yellow machairs and round the lochens and through the rocks and up and down the knaps and dales with a grey wet gale rocking the van I grin at the sadness of leaving and the excitement of moving on and all the wonderful Celticness.

Peat cuts as I leave Bernera

I go all the way to the top of the little island of Bernera, off the island of Lewis, off the bigger island of Britain, run through the dunes in a downpour that is too horizontal to be called ‘down’, to the refuge of a peat fire in a 5th Century Pictish hut.


It is round, with double-skinned earth-filled walls a total of more than a metre and a half deep, half underground, turf-roofed. I think of Dartmoor hobbits, tangly low dark ancient woodlands, and my friend Alan Lee who recreated our landscape in New Zealand for the films. This house is a reconstruction on the site of an actual Iron Age house that would have been the same. Curiously, they took these stones from a slightly younger Norse-influenced blackhouse nearby, and found that there were exactly the right number of stones, lintels and all, to make the Pictish house – presumably successions of settlers re-used each other’s materials. It’s funny nowadays the number of croft-house shells that sit untouched with a new house in their curtilage made of very different, less beautiful materials. Apparently though some of the building principles have remained: most houses still have their backs to the north wind, their doors to the south and some even follow the old layout. In this roundhouse the entrance hallway is at a diagonal through the thick walls, with its own slight curve, seemingly so that the wind funnels clockwise around the room, where the earth floor is trodden to follow, so that the left side, the walkway from the entrance through the main room to the cold store at the back, is cooler and the draught curls around the central fire pit to send the smoke upwards and the warmth rightwards. There are sleeping platforms in the rafters. The hut feels low-ceilinged but is not. Elizabeth MacLeod, our proud local host who is young but who could have lived here for all the 1500 years, wiles away her hours in the dark house making the kinds of tools that the Picts might have made. Her prized possession is a smooth, flattish, black stone the like of which she says is commonly found at Irish digs, and which is rough at either end as if it’s been much used as a tool. She has worked with archeologists and scholars and though she is technically neither, her interpretations of things, when they differ from those of the scientists, are more compelling. Much is unknown, but she tells us that here there was a ‘Late Iron Age’ that the South didn’t have, because the Romans had moved us into the Dark Ages. (Thanks guys.) It seems as if the Celts played a much lesser part in shaping these isles than the Picts and then the Norse, whose language litters the Gaelic here. Elizabeth says that DNA tests on locals reveal often as much as 80% Norse blood. I ask her what she considers herself, and she answers ‘Hebridean, like the sheep’, and we laugh that they are a breed of black sheep. I haven’t seen any on Lewis yet, alas – they are among my favourites: dark coloured, pale-eyed, wildy and a little goatish, like the Soay.






Earlier my friend Angus and beach combing daughter, artist and environmentalist Violet spotted my van and made a detour to greet me and offer hospitality in the holiday cottage that they’ve taken for a week. For a bunch of introverts who seek the farthest edges away from hustle and neighbours and interaction, we have a lot to natter about, and it is great to see them, as it is every time. The following day at a local show (where I am lured by the Harris Tweed weaving class), I bump into some lovely young girls who have made good friends with Murphy, and we find ourselves together again in a new (to me) camping spot, reassuringly. Leaving the last spot I kicked myself at not having crossed paths with a young guy I’d not sought to greet simply because he was male and alone (and wearing a hoody – god, that makes me old – though my jumper has a hood, so please, not that old): when I left after two days we finally exchanged lovely smiles. It turns out that he is at today’s camping spot too. I like this travelling community. It’s like a market or festival scene, a kind of informal circus, a diaspora that moves like an undulating flock of starlings, sometimes closer together, sometimes further apart, sometimes landing in different divets, sometimes in the same one. Some we see again, some we don’t. Summer people with the camaraderie of rain.

The Hattersley

Today I finally visited a proper weaver. A Harris Tweed weaver. Norman Mackenzie is independent, which means that although his tweeds achieve the official orb that marks the provenance and quality, he does not weave under instruction from the mills. Where 98% of the weavers receive ready-wound warps for ready-planned designs that they must follow to the letter, he has creative freedom, but has to do his own buying and selling, rather than being paid by the metre. For sale at £17.50/metre, as I’m told it is all across the island, this certified, quality cloth is surprisingly affordable. He is a hobbiest, he says, though his workshop looks serious and his tweeds handsome. Fancy weaving 90 metres of the same cloth for fun! His warping frame is the size of one wall, and makes mine look like an Early Learning Centre toy, as does his beautiful 60 year old Hattersley loom. It is made in Keighley, Yorkshire, and I like that I have been there – and been there when their hills were as yellow with buttercups as the machairs are here. He shows me the weft winder filling the bobbins, answers all my questions, and even lets me have a go when I cheekily ask. I perch on his too-high stool, but the bar on his loom takes my weight on my hands. My knuckles are white and he tells me to relax. The loom makes a violent sound and I fear jamming up his machine or wrecking his bolt of cloth or catching one of our fingers in some heavy slingshooting bit of steel. But I get into some kind of rhythm and enjoy it, and watch intrigued as he fixes stray threads (even as he weaves, not just when I do) quite frequently and easily. This is the vintage Mercedes of the textile industry, with well oiled heavy parts and the odd thick, sturdy, supple leather strap. If I settle as a weaver with a fixed workshop I’d like one of these Hattersley looms.


Norman MacKenzie can make cloth to order and can be contacted on 01851 643 413 or

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Tomorrow I go to the old blackhouse village and will probably see its wooden predecessor. I also hope to persuade the nearby mill to let me visit. Meantime there is a very golden light over the sea, a very leaden sky over the land and a rainbow over the both.

Week six: on drunkards, politics and learning to fish

In 1994, as a teenager, I got very cross about the Criminal Justice Bill, later Act. It legislated against such dubious things as human embryo testing and outdoor parties. (Did you know that more than eight people gathered together in their garden accompanied by an unlicensed repetitive beat constitutes an illegal rave? Apparently so. For the record: I am dubious about parties and irritated by other people’s repetitive beats (folk music doesn’t have a repetitive beat, surely?) but do lump parties and embryo testing together in irony.) It also outlawed the travelling way of life – officially – and, moved by impassioned and fearful traveller speakers at Glastonbury Festival and elsewhere, I joined the many marches in protest. I wasn’t planning a travelling life, but apart from the principle of freedom and the infectious jubilation of the Levellers’ ‘One Way’ anthem (here) something resonated: the freedom, or the dream of it. I probably knew that at some stage I would want to live like this, or would want the option. A friend sent me the Dubliners’ farewell to travelling life and Christy Moore’s version of Go, Move, Shift is a favourite (here). However, when I decided to swap the smallholding for a bus, I feared prejudice and hassle, didn’t want to join the hippy trail, and very much wanted a motorhome in which I’d look like a tourist, and smart. I couldn’t afford smart (I wasn’t allowed anything but a Mercedes, of which I could only afford old; I was told off for nearly being seduced by Fiats with shiny bodywork and pretty cushions, which were probably scams anyway), and I don’t look like a tourist. I don’t think there’s much of a travelling scene here in the Outer Hebrides, so probably no-one’s given it a bad name here. However there are hundreds of motorhomes, and I’m told that we are resented, as they think us wealthy spendthrifts. (Can’t win: ironically it felt pretty embarassing to spend as much as £70 on a basketful of shopping – I hope it lasts me more than a week! I’m going on a high-protein, low carbs diet to try and address the dreadful low energy levels.)

After the shooting incident, I’m certainly feeling less welcome than I was, and more aware of how the locals (of which I gather he was not one, but still) must feel invaded.

The night after that, a notorious local alcoholic with angry eyes I’ve been introduced to comes and camps in the remote ‘safe’ spot I’ve retreated to. I ask the friendly, avuncular Angus, whom I met with his litter-picking daughter and who, like me, keeps coming back to his favourite spot, to park nearby. At nearly 10pm the man with the angry eyes knocks on my door, sounding friendly enough. But 10pm? Come on, man. I’ve pre-empted this, and have pulled up the mozzy nets so as to be less visible. Hiding, in effect, like a prey animal. I wondered whether I might answer and what I might say, but I don’t answer, keeping still until he goes, which he soon does, swaggering up the lane, can in hand, pissing in a burn as he passes.

These two incidents leave me feeling pretty vulnerable. An incomer, seemingly privileged, a traveller, a single woman: fair game, apparently. And leave me feeling pretty angry. But I don’t move from the retreat spot. I check every night that there is someone else camping within earshot – remote and wild and exposed though the place is, there always is, despite how many campers come to the end of the road and turn back again – it is too bleak for many, and only has little hidden sandy beaches that they miss.


The next evening kindly Angus gives me a fishing lesson in the river. It has to be that evening because the following day is the Sabbath, and (he says) you can’t do anything involving two hands on the Sabbath, or we will offend the locals – especially fishing. We go just ten yards from the lane, and he catches a littly in the first pool we try, with the first cast, nonchalently. I take longer, but catch three. This is a big deal for a nearly-life-long vegetarian, and I am delighted. They are all too small to eat really, and we throw them back. Poor little loves though, I don’t like getting the hook out of their bruised lip, and I’m nervous, fumbling and clumsy. Holding them in my warm hand I try to be sensitive but wonder if I’m clutching too hard and burning them, and tighten my grip as I get more worried about unhooking their mouths gently. It reminds me of holding the cockerel of mine I killed: sensitive, firm, warm, reassuring; nervously fumbling and clumsily treacherous. I may buy myself a rod though.

The day after Angus heads into town, and I think I may head off too. I walk down the lane to see who is around, and meet camper Jim, a sheiling enthusiast with a pair of binoculars on a tripod. Another walking encyclopaedia, like Angus. I learn that there are beehive shelters like those in the Lot in France that may be as many as three thousand years old; that the solitary duck is not a duck, but a red-throated diver, as seen in Ewan MacGregor’s beautiful Islands on the Edge series; that when one doesn’t know if one’s watching an Arctic Tern or a Common Tern, one reports a Comic Tern; what a Merlin looks like; that the last baby born on the little island in the bay is still alive even though she was left on the island hours after birth on the assumption she wouldn’t make it while her dangerously-affected mother was carried partly by foot to the only hospital four counties away where she gave birth to a twin two days after the first; and a hundred other things about the place. The red-throated diver flies over quacking (sorry, diver, but you do quack), and I wonder if he’s telling his mate that he’s on his way home so can she put supper on. And then I realise that if he’s been out fishing, it won’t be that, and when next he flies over without quacking, I see he has a fish in his beak for her.

And for every screwy man there are at least three good ones.


Oh and the weaving – and a little more on fishing

Hmm, I seem to be forgetting to tell you about the weaving. I’m sure I should depict it as the most exciting thing, but I shall be honest: lately I’ve not been liking what I’ve been making. The tweed yarn is wonderful, but in trying three experiments all at once none of them are working. I’m just not excited by what’s weaving up. One lunchtime I see a couple of lads arriving with serious fishing kit. Glad of the excuse to leave the loom, I go and watch them on the rocks and chatter. Local boys, they say that even today’s relatively quiet sea – and Angus has not seen a period this still in his 35 years of coming here – is treacherous and that they shouldn’t be at the water’s edge. ‘We wouldn’t kayak or anything in these currents here’, they say. This little channel is full of reefs, and I’m surprised to see any vessel in it. Always I think of the boys at school smashed on the rocks, claimed by a Cornish sea that would not let them out, and of their families. These lads’ lines snag in weed – too much weed, they say, is not good for fishing, ‘we probably won’t get anything here’, and they don’t, but quickly get back into their cars to move up the coast, hoping to find pollock and laith there. A brief interlude, and not the wealth of fishing spectacle I’d hoped for, so back I go to the loom. As hoped, the change of space has slightly refreshed my mind and I remember the original experiment I’d wanted to undertake on this bladderwrack warp: weaving double the width of the loom (get me: this is pretty clever you know). I have the barest instruction but extrapolate successfully, and a blanket of Icelandic wool is growing.