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 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Uq30FeeLTM&feature=youtube 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.