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.

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