The weather breaks at Husinish just as I’m finishing my weaving. I wash it and spread it on the roof of the van to dry in a hurry – or so I hope: the gales are strong enough.
I head back to Stornoway to dock in a campsite, crab it, catch the post and do my washing. This is all much more of a mission than it sounds, but, willing the gods to dry this wildy unco-operative Hebridean yarn, I achieve it, and by evening make my way to the folk club singaround. It is in a heavy-feeling pub, empty except for a few heavy-feeling characters and one friendly folkie. More folkies join us with guitars of various sorts. The first folkie, Don, is welcoming and exceedingly courteous, introducing me immediately to every new arrival.
The bunch of blokes are clearly excited to have a new young female in their ranks, and show off no end. They are less courteous among themselves, and the banter is sharp, but full of affection. A loud Glaswegian with beautiful bone structure, punky social justice songs, a foul mouth and a tender heart has told everyone to fuck off within the first five minutes (although it’s not my turn for a few hours, as I’m polite for a while). We have well-sung songs from Yorkshire mines; tongue twisters on Scottish distilleries; poetic ballads from a shy policeman; self-penned family love songs from an accomplished singer-songwriter; Americana and bluegrass from an Irish David; Dougie MacLean and clerical disgrace from a cheerful Peter; jigs from a dignified high whistle player; airs from a much-loved and harangued low-whistle player; Summertime from a deep-voiced mandolin player; and stories from another charming, skinny old sea dog with a finger missing, an eye twinkling, and a Harris tweed slung over his polo-necked shoulder. His forte and pianissimo tones beguile, and two of us accompany him with chords and melody as his tale breathes like swell.
As the turn comes inevitably around to me I writhe with performance anxiety, but then can hardly wait for my turn each time, until, happy at gone 1am, my small repertoire is exhausted. I drive back through town to the campsite wincing as I awaken the town with a screaming fan belt, and wondering as I pass a police van whether half a Guinness (yey again to my great, great, great grandfather importer!) has put me over the newly reduced Scottish limit. I ride the clutch as I approach in an attempt to quieten the fanbelt and our eyes meet but he doesn’t flag me down.
As ever I have loads to catch up on in town and am frantic. I’m due to head back south for the evening in case my visiting Devonian friend has any energy to meet up the evening of his arrival. Before I leave town I find a friendly mechanic-knight with hazel-flecked eyes that see into the other world and kind hands that fix my fan belt. Iain has the silky-soft inflections of an old, old Leodhaisach, like the voice that first enchanted me on Dartmoor as another warmhearted one leant on my gate one crystal clear New Years.
And then back down South to Harris. My friend, who will have travelled over 1600 miles to be here for just a weekend, is knackered and recludes. I take the Westerley road to Luskentyre as a platinum sun makes white light of the whole gulf’s sands. The cemetery car park at the end of the road is sunken in the dunes and dingy and grey, but there are holiday chalets, so I decide that I’ll feel safe enough to stay. I head through the dunes to the endless beach and look North and North West to Abhinnsuidhe Castle and Husinish where the wet green and silver crags catch occasional gold. I think to walk West and South along the firm sand of the intertidal zone, and walk and walk and walk but barely make it halfway around the point before concluding that it is too big to round before bedtime.
On returning to the not-entirely-friendly car park I meet two familiars near my van: white Highlandy ponies with all the curves and pride of my beautiful Spanish horse. I stick my nose in the thick mane of one and the horse-smell brings forth decades of tears for the greys I have loved and lost. If horses make a landscape look more beautiful, white horses make it magical.
The next morning my friend is game, and we explore West and South Harris in convoy in search of a music-making spot. My friend is even more particular about his music-making spot than I am about my parking-up spot, and it is amusing, and somewhat fruitless, though we get beautiful views, find a fantastic cafe, visit an Ionian church and get a good idea of the lie of the land. We return to a pull-in by still-platinum Luskentyre and practise some songs in the van (for the midge cloud is fearsome) in the evening sunlight.
My friend has escaped a loathed hot, summery, touristy Chagford and replaced it with this year’s only weekend of hot, summery, touristy Harris and Lewis. We do the tourist thing and go to Callanish. It is busy, but stunning nonetheless. Since I have my fill of solitude, I am learning to enjoy sharing such magical places with other awe-stricken people, especially the Down’s Syndrome boy who, mesmerised and mesmerisingly, does a gentle breakdance in the strong wind for ages.
Thanks to David Wyatt for the b&w photos
I show my friend my favourite spots in Uig, and we find a new little beach – Caribbean, again – and I swim (briefly), and then we get out a notepad and compare understandings of musical modes. Back at the van an hour later in a rush before a supper booking, we snatch a try of this joyful Irish love song and are pleased.
Photos by David Wyatt
The next day we head for Husinish, and I enjoy the rural-childhood-evoking sight of a big yellow library van. My friend goes on ahead but I don’t ever catch him up.
I am most of the way along the 14-mile track, a carful of Grecians waiting behind a cattle grid to let me pass, when without warning my clutch goes soft and I can’t get into gear. Local residents, they offer to help or drive me to my friend, and suggest I try getting into gear with the engine off. This works, and I go on my way a mile or two, and then stutter to a halt up a steep slope unable to get out of third gear. I’m in a passing place, but sticking out. I check the clutch fluid level – no problem. I try to force the gearstick – no chance. Oh well, most vehicles would get by. There aren’t many tractors here, but tractor drivers aren’t fainthearted, I’m sure they’ll manage with two wheels in the mud.
I walk to the top of the hill, thanking the universe that everything is in order because I’ve just met a Leodhaisach mechanic nice enough to ask if I can camp on his forecourt while he fixes my van again. Used to old vehicles, I have visualised this scenario months ahead, and also have AA cover. And everything really is in order, because not only do I have a friend nearby, but I also have a signal in this, the longest and most unruly road of the whole island.
So I’m on the rise of the road making phone calls when who should fail to squeeze by my van but the only vehicle on the whole of the island that couldn’t squeeze by: the larger-than-standard library van Sprinter, whose innards are lined with the weight of books from floor to ceiling, so that its nervous, non-native driver fears toppling if his wheels on one side go into the soft verge. He is stressed and I have to pull out all the stops of graciousness and persuasion, but since he has little choice, he kindly helps.
I have a serious rope on board – a thick, sailing sheet – and we tie my van to his. We pause to let friendly locals by and after several false starts, tentative ineffectual tugs, and jumpy brakings on my part, he puts his foot down in reverse and heaves us backwards and we roll towards him and I manage to free the gearstick and manoeuvre into the passing place to let him by – and then thank Goodness that we are both in robust Mercedes with good torque and good brakes.
More of an islander than he thinks, he then invites me and hound aboard to give us a lift to the end of the road to find my friend, who has finally noticed than I am more than usually late and meets us on the rise.
Meantime my Stornoway mechanic has alerted the recovery company that they will get a call from the AA on my behalf, and wheels within wheels are moving fast on this little isle so that, in surely one of the most remote spots not just on this island but in the whole of the UK, Calum from Arnol Motors – cursing warmly that I am on the worst of all roads – arrives after my friend and I have had just one run-through of our new song. My friend leaves to catch his ferry.
Calum bleeds my clutch, and I agree to the ‘exciting driving’ that my Devon mechanic has advised against, because on the back of a recovery truck I would not fit under the castle arch down the road. So it’s fourteen miles in second gear, with Calum a safe distance ahead (in case I have an engine-in-drive-in-conflict-with-brakes moment) ensuring that all oncoming vehicles pull in to let me by so that I don’t have to change. The clutch goes soft again pretty quickly. I only hold up one follower, and manage to nip into a gravelly pull in and out again without stopping while he, frustrated and on the ball, zooms past. We pass a sheep who has his horns stuck in a gate and I wonder how I can communicate this at the nearby croft house without stopping, and fail to.
At the main road, Calum bleeds my clutch again, which holds pressure for a few miles up the hugest hill of North Harris, and then I stay in fourth all the way to Iain’s in Stornoway, and no-one is hurt.
And for four days I camp in the carpark of surely the only Malaysian takeaway in all the Western Isles. The manager puts his hand on my shoulder and grins and gesticulates ‘one night, one pound!’ and I buy a meal instead. Murph and I say good morning to Iain every day, who loves him. We bike to the point through the castle woods, and I use the library internet and do my usual in-town thing, even shyly joining in a trad session with talented young beautifuls in the arts centre. I marvel at how, spoilt for silence and beauty, I manage to make myself at home here in this car park jammed in my bus between a roundabout, a Novotel, an old dairy, a garage and the takeaway, but I do.
I love this island.