The people in the place

So I’d been wondering who my friends might be here this year.

Two families have taken me in. One is the St. Kilda swim family I’ve described a few times. They live a semi-rural life on the edge of town – the best of many worlds. We meet to eat charity cupcakes, drink from their homemade drinks cupboard (since soft fruit grows easily here), ceilidh and natter. Their daughter brings me eggs from their own hens – I love that crofting is still a part of so many people’s lifestyles here. She gives some helpful tips for my househunt, and invites me to supper. So then I am supping with both the captain of the world record-setting St. Kilda swim, and the big guy who landed first and punched the air with a ‘Yabba dabba doo!’ that echoed round the Husinish mountains that bordered that desert island shore. It’s a sweet evening.

And the other family are the ones I first met beachclearing. Their croft, where they’re building their house and planting hundreds of trees, is my transient Hebridean haven. I am heading here when a terrible noise comes from my engine, and the AA send a local recovery lorry that escorts me back to Stornoway. I love Stornoway but the West represents respite and I keep trying to get *out* of town and back into the hills. The mechanic I limped to once before recognises me with a laugh and on the spot makes a new adjuster rod to replace the broken one in my alternator and I’m back on the road again, no drama.

So then on to my new base on the beachclearers’ croft. I collect stones for them, pick some of their mint, wonder at their neighbouring broch, bathe in their rushes-machair-and-bay-of-islands view, and share tales and tea. They are soft spoken and I could listen to their voices for hours. I notice that the East Scottish accent has sounds in common with the Geordie accent, and the trained linguist in me makes a mental map of the geographical pooling and spreading of sounds. (The Lewis accent has more in common with the Welsh and some of the Irish, to my mind.)

They take me out in their little classic sailboat, and the day is Caribbean. They show me the white beaches on the backs of the islands; the sea caves and the ones that have caved in to roofless passages and made stacks and needles; the blackhouses, beehive dwellings and a lagoon. We see skewers, and draw up alongside a gannet, huge and regally swanlike but with its signature pale blue and yellow points.

Angus gave me my first and only fishing lesson in a burn near here three years ago, and now I catch six large mackerel. Jane sticks her thumb in their mouths and snaps their heads backwards to kill them sharply, and I watch, learn, practice on a dead one and resolve to face this final step next time. I fillet them, wash them, salt some, bake some in thyme, and boil some for Murph. He is unappreciative, as he has been in the past with roadkill or any other honourable-wholesome-perfect-ecology special treat I think that I’m giving him.

They show me the best 3G signal spot, which also happens to be a beautiful grassy divet between gold-lit knolls with a view over a two-mile stretch of white sand in a circular deep blue bay. I spend a day doing online promotion, which in this case means mostly curating an e-pinboard of works inspired by or made in the Hebrides, and contacting the artists and makers with compliments, an introduction to my work, and an invitation to cross-publicise.

Then I finally get back to the loom, and it’s a welcome change from househunting. I’d left rug #3 at a difficult stage: I’d undone and redone the warp three times to alter the set; then I’d woven half a rug and had to unravel it; then I’d begun redressing the loom yet another time, but had been called away to househunting and then the major migration from Brittany to Lewis and had left the loom just before my least favourite stage. I’d knotted an additional 70 or so ends onto the earlier attempts, and this had involved quite a lot of adjusting, fiddling, bodging and swearing. (‘I’m good at what I do, sure I can make rugs too’.) Now I have to beam it again, which means rolling the threads onto the back beam with a perfectly even tension. I’d forgotten the struggles of my first two years’ weaving as I strove to manipulate my equipment with little felt understanding of the subtle but pivotal difference in how the materials behaved. My favourite yarn, that used in Harris Tweed, which is currently and perhaps ongoingly my local source, was difficult to learn. But once tamed into my particular corral of kit, set, technique and product, I’d got complacent, and didn’t allow for the challenges of working it differently, with a different (linen, or linen/cotton) warp.

I’ve some rare and native breeds wools spun by Blacker Yarns in Cornwall which I’d hoarded excitedly when I first began. I remember the man who gave me my first loom watching me collect all sorts and, himself a craftsman of wood and metal, cautioning me to understand which I would need rather than to indulge in the sweet-shop-glee. He was right, and for three years this lovely and most ethical of stuff sat in my pigeonholes unused. I even got to the point of feeling I should just damn well use it up in a hurry to make space for some more Harris/Lewis and Shetland wool with their alluring tweedy flecked landscape colour blends that have formed my niche. The Cornish-spun breeds wool is thicker, and its palette more limited, and so less laboursome as a weft, and less convoluted as design inspiration. Fearing having to undo 20 inches of weaving all over again, I decided to go back to my roots, for this undyed breeds stuff is the wool of the 1970s craft revival whose weavers gave me the first vision for my own intended sustainable weaving business. Though currently absorbed in Hebridean colours – which on some days, as I say, are Caribbean – I content myself with the undyeds, which are plenty beautiful in their own right. I didn’t envisage it, but I find myself weaving weed and flotsam on white sand, and so I present to you a true fruit of all these isles, with wools from Galway, Ronaldsay, England, Shetland and the Hebrides, all spun in Launceston, and woven and photographed on Lewis:



Another pitstop in Stornoway and the launderette late afternoon. I’d not allowed for a queue in the tiny room, but it is here that I meet some other significant friends.

Tom and Emily are six weeks into their new van life. We all have things to do in town the following day and are looking for a nearby camp spot, so, bumping into each other again ten minutes after the laundry chatter, I take them up the coast to a spot I’ve not yet revisited. They love it, our dogs love each other, and we have a very late night. They’re vegan foragers, builders and adventurers, quick-minded, low-impact and switched on, and we have much to say to each other. I check with them later as to whether it’s ok to identify them in my blog, and we laughingly agree that they will be Esmerelda, speaker of seven languages and player of seven musical instruments, and six-pack Tim with red shorts. You’ll see why as this story unfolds.

Parting the next day is sad, as travelling we make intense connections and part with a wish to reconvene that we know we may never in fact realise. Emily makes keyrings and Tom chooses one for me as a gift – the one that says ‘Fearless’, and I laugh, think of a meme I saw recently proclaiming that ‘if you fear failure, you have already put it on the table as an option’, and tell him that I’m scared as hell most of the time. It’s good medicine for that very reason, and I’m touched. I flash my hazards goodbye as I disappear up the windy lane o’er the brow o’ the brae.

Four days later they accept my invitation to a theatrical work-in-progress performance in a remote community centre. Talented Glasgow artists convened by Julia Taudevin keen tales and songs in Gaelic, Italian, Swahili, Country and Gospel of migration, emigration and loss: parting, voyaging, drowning and asylum. On shores around the world they describe local fisherfolk; Jane Campion’s beach piano heroine; women raped; and babies whisked over mountains and seas to be brought up apart from their twins and mothers or photographed face down and bloated on an unwelcoming European shore. The performance is beautiful, moving and profound, with roots in tradition and an edge that’s cuttingly relevant.

At 930pm the slanting sunshine is still warm and bright, the sky still endlessly blue. Tom’s motto for finding a parking place for the night is always to twist, so from the campsite where we met this time I lead them a merry dance around my favourite peninsula, getting out to show them where I stay, where the internet signal is, where the music is, where the broch is, and where the evening sun flags the buttercups. We’re rushing carefully over the little humpy windy lane through the machair and dunes and divets to round into my favourite parking place on the cliff to meet the sun just as it sets over the sea – a sight that they haven’t yet caught on these islands – and as we pull in they throw up their hands and grin and gasp.

We eat the second half of our ealier-rushed curry and discuss the theatre piece. Then, mildly whiskey fuelled but drunk rather on idyll and red mackerel sky, we descend the grassy brae to the beach and wade into the dimpsy sea and swim and laugh and whoop. The happiest moments in life.

Dexter the Retriever swims far and strong and wants to rescue us from our watery jubilation. (In France I met a man who trained such dogs to perform such rescues.) Tom doesn’t swim more than a few metres at a time, but forges our path, diving fearlessly into the waves from the shoreside ahead of us. Emily next, the stronger swimmer between us, and less afraid of jellyfish, and we meercat our hair and faces dry, but swim a good distance parallel to shore, she leading and encouraging. We’re exhilarated and empowered with the effort of the night time thrill, the sunset rising and falling behind each gentle wave, sublime.

I believe the sandbed to be vast and flat beneath the water, as it deepens only very gradually. The evening is extraordinarily calm for these shores, but I fear all water, and have spent long hours watching, though alas not registering, the complexity of this bay. With my scant knowledge and little thought, I suspect a rip in the middle of the main beach. As we approach the centre of it I wonder whether a pronounced roll there at the very shallow end of the waves is the body of last week’s dead cetacean. It is not, but as Emily, last in the water, is rammed by the sudden force of a wave even as we exit here in the ankle deep, I sense that it is the right moment to get out. We stand and marvel at where the brief ferocity came from in all the kind, surrounding calm. Back in their van, we enjoy a beer.

I sleep well in their company, and the next day is another Caribbean one. It’s Saturday, and I’ve planned to work, but of course we are having too good a time.

Tom & Emily & dogs at Cliobh

From our cliff top coffee spot, Emily points out the most regular and yet strangest and prettiest repeating wave pattern we have ever seen, as the tide reaches up the beach at the end of its flat bed to the markedly undulating shelf it has created high up the beach – a formation that I subsequently realise might not have been there just the week before when I’d first arrived. Perhaps it formed with the full moon yesterday.

We bask in the warm blue view, and go for another swim ‘before breakfast’. The water is much colder than it was last night – or was that the whiskey? We retrace our swimsteps, though with much more effort and brace, and a different type of squeal, and then sunbathe to dry off and warm up. Murph, happier with a pack and more independent, explores the expanse of beach, and my loudest whistle – which is a headsplitting finger-and-thumb-job – doesn’t bring him back awhile, so relaxed is he.

Then we adventure barefooted past the sand-buried wreck, over the grassy tonsil to the tiny far cove that’s been hiding behind a little point in the narrow bay. The rocks are sharp as we make our way down, and the rockpools not hot as we expected, but rich with weed – though I wonder why so much of it is dead or dying. Emily reminds me to forage only among the living weed, and we encourage the dogs into the rockpools too (though Dexter the water-loving Retriever needs no such). We explore the tunnels between rocks with their sudden deep holes and waves swelling in to fill them as the outgoing tide clutches at whatever it can seize from the shore. We paddle and laugh and clamber. We are kids at play, and then stand stunned and awed when we see eagle play: two huge white-tails spin and fall just a handful of yards from us and low over the cove, interlinked and spiralling downwards, furying in a whirling dervish of divine display – just when we thought that our grins could get no bigger.

Feeling blessed, we turn to go back. High and inflated but not forgetting a veneer of good sense (‘We’re not risk-takers’ said Tom, though you have to be, living this life), we recky our 100 yard route back round the little point before heading round. One little dog and one water-shy dog will not manage the watery ways even on this gentle day, so Tom will take them back over land, while Emily and I, the stronger swimmers, will go by sea. I don’t like the party splitting, but then I never do. ‘Don’t leave me,’ says the little girl inside, never given voice.

It is crystal clear, pale sand, not deep, and we think we may just wade. As we enter the water, the mood seems to change. The sky is an uninterrupted blue, and we notice no difference in the wind, but only knee deep two waves startle-hammer my ribs, and Emily suggests we go out beyond the break. I certainly don’t want to pass around the little point too close to its rocks, for my school friend taught us that the rocks are not friends when, surfing in a trio off some Cornish rocks, he had to watch his brother drown along with the other he was trying to save.

We get out through the break but find a pull so strong that Emily suggests we’re better swimming than wading. We stick close together, a team, reassured by closeness and, ostensibly, by outer confidence. She’s swimming just a few feet ahead of me starting to round the tiny point, and we’re communicating, but I’m on the outside, and then in just a few strokes and seconds, the distance between us increases dramatically, and I realise that I am being swept out. From one moment to the next I am out of my depth, out of control, feeble in the sea, able to do nothing in its invisible broil, casting uselessly in several directions, and panging with panic. I can’t swim inwards; I can’t swim crosswards; I don’t think to swim backwards to where even our entry to the water was tricky; I’m just trying uselessly not to go outwards.

Emily is closer in – safer, it seems – but closer too to the rocks, and swimming hard for them. She doesn’t think of their hostility, and keeps her voice calm, but I sense it. ‘Keep going, swim this way, towards me’. But I can’t swim towards her, much as I want to – and also don’t want to. I don’t know which way to swim, I don’t know this little cove, I don’t know how far out the rip goes, I don’t know the route to safety – I don’t know if there is one.

Emily keeps going. I want to reach her, I want to hold onto her, I want her to hold onto me. Holding hands, everything would be alright, wouldn’t it? She wants to help me; we think that she is in less trouble. I want her to come out to me, but we both know that she mustn’t. I try not to implore her with my eyes. She apologises with hers.

I cast about. Panic rises. Are these the last minutes? Is this how it happens? Is this what it’s like? Are these the choices we have to make? This beautiful day, these happy hours, this company of friends, these gifts from the gods, and then all goes wrong, and each of us alone? This would be how it happens.

‘Save yourself’, do they say? Being pulled quickly outwards, I am in danger, and, closer to the hot spots, so is she. She again tries to guide me with her voice, seeking to reassure us both. I know it’s not alright, and need her to know. ’Emily, I’m scared.’ I mean it, and she hears it, and now so is she.

Scared to death: the panic the even graver danger than the current. Said the RNLI video last year, ’Fight your instinct, not the water’. I turn onto my back to float, fight my terrror, recover my breathing a little, turn again to try and swim – another futile attempt to fight the water, and, swimming on the spot, my eyes do a desperate scan: who can help?

Out here in the wilds there are no flags, no life buoys, no ropes, no lifeguards – the remoteness is its beauty and its draw; no maps or charts of the sandscapes that change the currents with every storm. Only two people on the big beach, not very far away, but the other side of the darkest seam of water, and all they can do is stand witness.

Who can help? If we were close to one another as we wished, one drowning will drag the other under too, as an Irishman warned me after he saw father drown son and self in a Connemara loch. The Irishman on the shore could not swim – and perhaps the knowledge of not being able to swim saved his life if it stopped him from going in after the ill-fated pair. I gulp in seawater and I’m probably flailing, or doggy-paddling at best.

Who can help? Where is Tom? Tom said he can’t swim. Tom mustn’t come in. Where is Tom? ‘Tom!’ I spare my left hand a moment for a whistle that bounces round the bay – at least I learnt to do that – and Emily shouts his name.

Tom hadn’t liked going out of sight of us, and though I didn’t see him, Murph had planted on the beach in refusal. Tom had turned back to check on us, heard us both and worried, paused to judge my trajectory, seen me drifting outwards and backwards, and taken action.

I see him come back down to the cove, taking a moment to sum things up, standing on a rock, the good-looking blond shaggy man and the good-looking white shaggy dog, and the sight of these new, loyal friends looks like the lifeline. But when one is in trouble in the water, there’s no use another getting into it with them.

But Tom wades in. Which of his companions is in graver danger? I am floating on my back again, some semblance of control. Tom is coming towards me, then veers towards his wife: the choice he must make. We are both silently pleading with him to help and not to help. Tom reaches Emily, takes her in his arms.

I’m casting about again, testing all directions, finding none. Another flood of gladness as I see Dexter the Retriever beelining for me, and I think that I could grab his collar. My floating and kicking takes me sideways – or backwards, or inwards, I’m not even sure. This moment of my relative calm and a foot or two of travel is enough for my sandbar salvation: unexpectedly my feet again find the bottom, and of a sudden I am upright and stronger than the tow, and out of nowhere there’s a crofter on a quad right here above us on the machair tonsil who comes to see that we are all on our feet and wading into the cove, and collapsing on the sand stunned, shaken and ashamed, and leaning on the dogs and on each other for the warm solidarity of still-breathing bodies.

And we sure as hell won’t make those mistakes again, and I hope to goodness we never have to make those choices again, and I wish everyone safe in the water and on all their travels.