Retreat to Husinish: a dead selkie, a farewell, and thanks

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My clutch pedal good and firm, I head back through and around the hills of North Harris where I will park up and weave for my last week on this island. After being Wi-Fried in town for more days than my system likes, I need to escape to the edge. I’m thinking of the white-lit blue spot in the dunes, but there is someone there, and when they vacate it the next morning, I am ready to appropriate a futher-away pull-in nestled between bends on the road above, and which has a burn tumbling through it.

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There is a path I’ve not yet taken: Northwards to uninhabited Loch Erisort, with the island of Scarp to the West, wends a steep and roughly paved path that could almost have been built by Romans (had they ever made it here). I’ve seen a spit of sand but am unprepared for the vastness of yet another stunning beach that is surely the most remote of this remote area on this remote island. We pass a few other walkers and there are century-old cairns on the ridges but the landscape is so big and so inaccessible and so little inhabited that even so, it feels like virgin territory. It feels as if I’m on a desert island, and it is sublime.

*

It’s a Monday evening. I’m preparing to leave these islands for this year, and it is hard. I’m sitting in my cosily-lit but dish-piled van listening to the sound of the burn falling down the rock into this muddy, quarry-like lay-by and eating a favourite salad of puy lentils, pomegranate, feta, lemon and mint. My bleak spot is slightly hidden but the white bay and croft houses are within sight and sound. I’ve just come in from a shorter walk: the routine evening stroll along NW Harris’ Caribbean shallows.

Just above the burrl of kelpy tideline, a dead thing caught my eye. I nudged it with my toe, couldn’t identify it – a weirdy weed, strange plant, sinewy and fingered – and walked on, and stopped, and walked back, and nudged it again, and turned it over, and touched  it. Fingers, metatarsals, skin a drowned grey, two hands, an arm bone.

Horror, fear, responsibility, evasion, guilt, dread, doubt.

Left brain: people die at sea, no big deal, c’est la vie. Call the police? Again? Missing person? Mystery solved? Relatives able to grieve?

Left brain: nearest signal?

Left brain: you’re imagining it. Don’t be ridiculous.

I walk back up the hill home, hesitant, still no signal. Then pick up a pace: those holiday makers did invite me to use their amenities if I needed. Freak them out with dismemberings at darkfall?

Right brain flash of lateral knowing: seal. A seal. A seal has died at sea. Seals must die at sea all the time. I have a dark writerly friend down South who is unflapped by my weird worryings:

’T, far from proper comms: please could you Google pictures of seal flipper skeletal structure ASAP and tell me it’s very similar to human hands so I don’t drive miles for a phone signal to make an erroneous report to the police of missing person body parts washed up on the beach? In particular, does a seal have a largish bone connecting flipper to shoulder? Thanks. E. x’

Sorry dear Selkie ones, but I’m hoping that it’s one of you.

*

And so I come to thinking about my fantastic support team: Tom, who won’t freak when I’m scared, and who offers social media help for my business; Will, who said he’d get in the car and come and find me any time I was in trouble; David, who gets in the car and travels hundreds or even thousands of miles for me and the music; my mum, who mothers me finely and who will give me a refuge in Brittany this winter; Chris N, whose address I use; Mark, rock, knight and carer of all things vehicular; Chris D, for maps, devices, podcasts, random-seeming-but-dead-relevant nuggets of solid gold, and all things expeditionary; Penny, who has taken on my beloved Horse; Nat, who keeps my beautiful yurt; Kat, who homes my old piano; Rich, who is out there too, blazing a trail, paving the way, sleeping under a tarp or not even, inspiring and encouraging; Amy, who prompted me to write and keeps egging me on; Sarah and Philippa and many others for reading and complimenting; and all of you for following, liking, buying, commenting, sharing. Thank you.

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In which I finish the blanket, enjoy a singaround, return to Harris, meet with my main musical accomplice, attempt a return to Husinish, and drive 25 miles back to town all in one gear

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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.

Drying blanket

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.

View from Luskentyre to Husinish

Luskentyre 2

Luskentyre 1

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.

White horses

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.

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.

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.

Lews Castle and Cuddy Point Stornoway harbour

I love this island.

Snow-lit hedgerow weavery and St. Kildan Selkies

Tomorrow is beautiful. I’m awake early and hit the road in the watery sun. I’ve bought an FM modulator which enables Spotify to play on my phone through the van’s surround speakers. This brings great excitement, though considering that Spotify is the last expense I ever slash even when I can barely afford to eat, it is ironic that yet again I have another complicated, poor quality musical set-up, cobbled together with a tangle of cableage and floating cigarette lighters (plural). But the result is better than I’ve yet had in any vehicle, so there’s progress, and the windscreen-defying scarps of North Harris and views down the sea lochs to the Minch are commanding.

I’m heading for Husinish, the far north west of Harris, because two have told me about the castle lane and I’ve seen a parking spot through binoculars. Also because it almost meets with one of my favourite spots in the far south west of Lewis, though you’d have to go by crow, as both land and sea are impassable to all but the bravest veterans. None have told me about the perfect arc of white sand on the south shore at the end of the road though, and rounding the last corner the bay makes me gasp on this bright blue day. The best parking spot has been left for me, and I tuck the van into the middle of the dunes on a white promontory that leaves us almost on the beach, but perched atop a vantage point, and still nestled from the wind. We’re facing south to the waist of Harris, Taransay, West Harris and North Uist, with islets and reefs in between. And the indescribable blues enshrine us.

Yesterday I committed to a childhood friend to try and weave a blanket and get it back to Devon for her best friend’s wedding this Saturday coming. This is even more ambitious than I realised, as these troublesome Celtic yarns tangle and will not succumb. Although the machair flowers are yellow and purple and beautiful, I am surrounded by the white light of a snowed-in Dartmoor holding (as I remember it one rare Narnia Christmas) and the sapphire of a clear sea day and hatching designs for Hebridean coastal woves. However I must focus on the greens: when the Dartmoor hedgerows burst to life with bluebells, campions, beech leaves, stitchwort and ferns, I stocked up on those colours, and this has allowed me to say yes to my friend. I know I must work solidly for three or four days and evenings, especially as I lose time to tiredness the first day (not meant to work on the Sabbath here anyhoo, I’d be lynched!) and to a calculation mistake the second. (Said friend went into accountancy. She didn’t know me in my maths heyday when I peaked aged 15 and was top of the top set, and may not believe me since nowadays I struggle to even count or remember to double or halve a number when I need to.) I work later into the evenings thanks to the snow-light, and then on the third day, I lose time to something altogether more worthy.

In the morning the beach is confettied with jellyfish. The wind has stilled, the blue has stayed and the sea has warmed. Murph and I walk a circuit of the point – I haven’t been to the end of the road until I’ve been all the way to the edge, after all. We chat to the crofter on the way back. Yes, he says, some of those jellies are stingers. But I am hot and the sea looks Caribbean and I swim and it is amazing. And then I spot a purple stinger and turn tail in a flustered hurry and my stroke probably becomes an undignified doggy paddle, my head always lemmingishly high out of the water at the best of times.

Among the stranded jellyfish is a dead puffin. My first ever sighting, a littley, very sad.

I pad back to the van in my wet-dress-competition outfit and by swishes a 4×4 with a satellite dish and camera on the top. Google Street View just got me, dressed like this – here?! A van squeezes into the little gap beside mine. This would normally annoy me but the woman looks nice. She looks out to sea searchingly, looks around, makes tea, looks some more. ‘Cooey’ she calls (or a Scottish equivalent) to someone down on the beach, and ‘Oh, there you are!’ when I appear in my doorway. There’s a car behind me. ‘Can they block you in? We’re waiting for a boat!’ This would normally annoy me even more had she not asked – my escape route has to be clear at all times, I’m that sort of person – but the people in the open-topped Mini look warm and we exchange a wave, and I am curious about the boat. There was one that came into sight earlier, but not many would be passing, let alone docking, in these waters, even on such a heavenly day as this. They’re waiting for a team of swimmers to come in from St. Kilda, which is some 60 miles, to the English/French Channel’s 20 odd. More cars arrive – excited parents. A warm Glaswegian woman, Catherine, rests her hand on my shoulder. Her husband Duncan is a Leodhaisach. I greet people, get back to the loom, go to my door and join the conversation, get back to the loom, offer kit that they haven’t brought when I overhear requests, get back to the loom. There is some backing and forthing as they prepare banners and charity collection buckets and picnics and check trackers and mobiles and – will they land on the beach or on the north shore? How far away are they? How are they doing? Who’s in the water now? Can you see the support boat yet? Gosh aren’t we relieved that they’ve made it! I am almost as excited as they are. This is the fourth attempt – others have been thwarted by seal-tossing killer whales, gales and tides. They are nearly here. Everybody goes to the north shore and I stay at the loom, diligently thinking of my promise, but then grab my bike and charge over the machair with Catherine and Duncan who’ve collected the forgotten banner. We fear we’ll miss the landing, but we don’t. We join the little party on the grass facing the isle of Scarp and cheer the boat and the kayakers and the swimmer. The press are there – the 4×4 with the dish are broadcasting live – and there are bottles of champagne and whisky and rum. Catherine and Duncan’s son is the ringleader, and Duncan is just utterly relieved that they have all made it alive. How proud he must be, and though it is nothing to do with me, I am moved, alternately wooping and welling up (for which Duncan gives me a gratitudinous hug when we later say goodbye). The other swimmers dive off the support vessel and they all swim to shore together, and the big man of the final heat thrusts his fist in the air and a tired but triumphant ‘Yabba dabba dooo’ fills the hills of North Harris. A new world record has been set by these very human immortals. I watch as they drink and cheer and pose for photos and hug each other and their families. Murph mooches about and makes friends, and the old sea-dog skipper of the boat comments on my seal. It is an honour to talk to him and his crew and a kayaker and a swimmer, see photos of the dolphins and minky whale they swam with near St. Kilda, and chatter to Duncan and Catherine and lead-swimmer Colin’s wife Donna. They joke about family seal blubber and happen to mention a tendency to breathe for only one minute in six, and I think that I have met a selky family.

The St. Kilda Swim raised money for local charities. You can donate or follow them (there will be another big swim I think) here and here. 

Stornoway stowaway

My sadness at the passing of new friends through the surf community is abated a little by the arrival of three great guys about my age who set up a fantastic camp and invite me to a lunch of their own caught mackerel (if I bring my smoker bag). It doesn’t happen, perhaps because I’ve warned them about fishing off the rocks when this sea is anything but mirror-like: I leave and pass them fishing in a loch inland some hours later. The succession of friendly folk is comforting nonetheless.

Hitting Stornoway, this down to earth, provincial, cosmopolitan, humble, proud little port town with its pretty boats and rough edges, is always a whirlwind of finding out, leafy bike rides, friendly encounters, stockpiling, WiFried over-lit sleep and internet intentness. People think that nothing ever happens here, but it does. It is 4pm on a hot, sunny afternoon, and I am cycling to the post office to be reprimanded for not having collected my parcels for ten days. Standing on my pedals up a steep side street and squinting into the abnormal light in the sky I see that the man in front of me is not only a heavy looking drunk, but a heavy looking drunk with a grossly bloody, freshly gashed, face. He looks like he has been bottled, and I wince all over. Luckily he has a kind-looking friend taking care of him, and they go on their slightly stumbling way. I am shocked. The clean, sweet, polite and friendly young guy I tell in the arts centre cannot believe it either. Stornoway is no Dartmoor village: Stornoway is like a little tiny Plymouth or a little tiny Glasgow, with a good dose of Looe and a little tiny Edinburgh thrown in – and all its own.

Stornoway harbour

Stornoway harbour

I’ve timed my visit to coincide with an open mic in an Irish pub (of course! There is nowhere they do not get!) which, so I’m told, often hosts trad musicians. However it is 10pm before anything happens, and when it does it is loud and indie. They also turned Murphy away. At least they have some Abhainn Dearg, but after that I leave without waiting long. Also at least there were some Gaelic speakers who were able to confirm that a mystery Hindero Horo sung by an Irishwoman, is not Slavonic, as some have suggested, but indeed Gaelic, of some sort.

Friday nights are trad nights in the Retirement Centre. I have followed so many great musical leads: dear friend Hannah Fisher and boyfriend Sorren MacLean and father Gordon MacLean of An Tobar fame, and how they drew me into the pub with Karen Matheson’s bassist, Eamonn Coyne and the Treacherous Orchestra in a session, and Calum the local musician, and their mate Dougie MacLean my other friend’s neighbour, and this weekly class and that weekly class and this weekly session and that weekly session and none of the leads have gone anywhere thus far. I haven’t done enough playing or singing alone, and none with others. So now I am visiting the Retirement Centre at 6pm for my Friday night. I call in early as fliers say contradictory times, and meet a couple of oldies who welcome Murph. ‘We’ve all got cancer’ says one, cheerfully – a cancer support group member. ‘Well, you look well on it’ I say, and we grin, warm, and talk about deerhounds. And not long after 6pm two men are comparing chords and some lovely Donovan fingerpicking reassures me that I’m in the right place. (I try to overlook the synthesiser and the electric guitar, the latter played by a bejewelled and mulleted dark haired man in black with a white ruffle blouse and black and white pointy shoes. His name, I think, is Gary and I wonder when the glitter will come out.) Not liking me to sit by myself, folk draw me into the front row, and admitting I like to sing, I pick out some of my favourites from th songbook of a gutarist called Alan and have a quick rehearsal. Of course the rehearsal goes better than the performance, but the audience – old Leodhaisachs, young people with special needs, young Canadian nuns and some of their relatives – are appreciative as I give them some Irish Gaelic, Black is the Colour, Speed of the Sound of Loneliness and the locals give them some wartime waltzes, hornpipes and Americana. Alan sings a song written by a local friend, the true story of the three lighthouse men from the Flallan Isles off Gallan Head, where three untouched meals were discovered days later, all ready to eat, with no other trace of the disappeared men. As my friend would say, these are not the Doyles and the McGoldricks, but it is a sweet evening, and lovely to be a part of. I’m invited to sing at their monthly folk club next week, and I go back home full of song.

The mood lasts all the next day as I, in feverish creative mode – always a productive one – build this website in 24 hours, staying online in the Arts Centre till gone 10pm enjoying my Mac. Filled with energy I charge on my bike in the dark from little Co-op to big Co-op, do a late-night shop, and then refuel the van and stock up with a fine selection of luxury and organic chocolate bars from the garage. (Stornoway rocks.) I’m about to head down to Harris and didn’t want to leave for unknown territory at nearly midnight, but I am getting brave, and do. It seems a shame to drive through new country in the dark however, so I resolve not to go far, although the garage staff tell me that there’s nowhere to camp between here and the beaches of South Harris, which a good few hours away in my (much admired, you know) brickmobile. I’m heading down the east side of the island enjoying some tunes and turn off to take a long, ugly road out towards the coast. Every layby looks bleak, and every scattering of houses shuttered and unwelcoming, until I spot a Cornish-looking hobbity creek, and tuck myself in between the grassy tumps twixt houses and a pretty slipway, and sleep contented in my strange little world, thanking my nose for a good place. Hitting Stornoway is also always a bridge between one adventure in a stunning wild spot and the next, and I know that tomorrow will be beautiful, wherever I land.