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. 

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