Journey through the music from the far North West to the far South West

Coming back to ‘civilisation’ was hard. I didn’t want to. After resting up in Husinish for a few days to muster the energy for the southward migration, I headed to my aunt’s home on the mainland above Ullapool. Never having visited her before, it was great to turn the wheel procrastinatingly north again, and wind through a few glens to get there. However, even the NW Highlands felt developed compared to the rugged Outer Isles I’d hated leaving. But her little Hobbity hamlet stood on a little green hill bathed in watery sunlight and perfectly overarched by a rainbow, and, looking to the West, I saw that ‘her’ two mountains were the same distinctive silhouettes that someone had pointed out to me from Tolstadh, East Lewis. ‘If you can see the mainland from here, it’s going to rain. If you can’t see the mainland from here, it’s raining.’ And there I arrived just behind the same crags that she calls hers. I couldn’t see Lewis, so it must have been raining. Chances are.

In limbo, even the weather stayed still – unheard of, apparently. We nattered ourselves all out, and I worked on a Devon hedgerow blanket for my mum’s upcoming Big Birthday. Then on the warmest day I’d experienced all summer, I got cheerfully back into the driver’s seat and, singing, drove all day through the (relatively) dry-looking Highlands on the only road through them that I’d not yet taken.

I had quite a decompression plan. Like sleeping on a beach the night after the end of a festival, one needs a long, golden bridge when crossing from the Other World back into This.

And so I and fortune had aligned my dates so that, earlier than originally planned but later than latterly intended, my trip south would take me via a gig of my biggest musical hero, John Doyle. A little folk club in East Scotland had booked him in what they’d called the ‘coup of their year’. Once before, hounds (two, that time) and I had found a great musician and a friendly welcome there on a similar rite-of-passage journey. On that other journey three years ago, with a broken heart, I had been on a recky to see what vardo-living might be like in Scotland. And so now, having made the leap into (albeit-102-horsepower) nomadry, it seemed right to catch John at that particular venue, and indeed it was gorgeous. I even overnighted in the same lay-by as that other time, and felt happy and safe and well.

My concept of home has mutated drastically: home is now simply faith.

So when, the next evening, aiming for the Cumbrian coast, I overshot and suddenly had to limp off the motorway near Morecambe clutchless again, it was ok. It just meant that, thanks to the AA (again), I met another nice mechanic and now know one in Lancashire too. On the advice of superhero Stornoway and Devon mechanics I was carrying a replacement slave cylinder in case the master replacement was not the whole solution, and superhero recovery mechanic Chris put me back on the road without fuss. And, little van working hard and going well, I pressed on all the way to Gloucester services and stayed overnight there – though beware, they charge more than a campsite, such that I begrudged them the price of breakfast (admittedly the best service station breakfast available, I’d found on my way north, with free range local meat and fresh squeezed vegetable juices) and forewent. But it was nice not to have to leave at silly-o’clock in the morning, and have time to be emotional, and then, on the M5, sing my heart out to the old Levelling the Land album, and then write a song in that spirit.

Still not yet fully decompressed (as I’d envisaged a day or two’s weaving in the beautiful Lakes), I phoned a rambling Devon friend and we met on a bit of Dartmoor I’d never met before and walked and chattered in the beautiful September sunshine, until at last I was ready to re-enter.

And then a whirlwind month of endless boiler stress, head gasket stress (did I mention the diagnosis by Iain in Stornoway, even though these engines are not supposed to have those difficulties?), money stress, HMRC stress, customers and orders, bad-warp-choice stress, and order cancellation stress…

I camped in SW Cornwall for three beautiful equinoctial days with my mum for her Big Birthday. We ate and drank and walked the dogs and rested in the sun (apart from when I was working) and it was great. Given how Hebridean the landscape is in Penwith, it was surreal how warm the weather, calm the sea and tropical the vegetation. All wrong, in fact.

We met a Poldark extra on an evening beach and my mum tried her usual matchmaking, but I wasn’t interested. We visited the set where they’re currently filming in a nearby cove and nosed among handwoven willow lobster creels and nets and old tools and centuries-old buildings – I was interested in that, it was magical. The moon rose big and bright over the sea and on the next headland the Cornish Proms rang out from the cliff-built Minack amphitheatre as the ships motored through the busy Channel.

On my way back through Cornwall I visited Horse, who is very well, which made me happy.

There was another visit which I have postponed until next year: an exciting commission for a number of seasonal wall hangings of a Cornish garden, artist-in-residence style. We’ve got excited over photos and Harris tweed yarn colours and textures and I nearly squeezed it into a little window but realised that, despite dire need for the money, it was not a job to squeeze into a little window. Art before bank, and the time that time takes, or life gets unhappy. The bills will be paid somehow.

There has been fantastic songmaking with my musical accomplices on guitar and cello. Our trio has surged forwards, nervously but successfully supporting a known act (Jim Causley) in a Devon folk club on our first ever outing, and being treated like special guests at other folk clubs thereafter as we gigged instead of rehearsed (though that was definitely a mistake for at least one song). HUGE thanks and appreciation to David and Jo, as we mostly pulled off our tricky arrangements. ‘Pentangle’ said our first host, and ‘Sandy Denny’, said someone else of our Planxty arrangement. We are onto something, though I say so myself. But have a lot of work ahead.

I find I love folk clubs, and love just how much there is going on around dear old Dartmoor, whose  pubs are full of geeky, rustic, humble, proud, pagan, farming, labouring, beautiful, tuneful specialists, with haunting local and far-flung songs to mine.

Now isn’t that the Celticness I was looking for? Right here at home all the time, if only I’d known how to look. Of course.


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