In the Scottish summer, daylight never truly blacks out, and neither do I as I make the drive through the night from Glasgow to Uig on Skye; to the island ferry.
Ahead, Loch Lomond is a granite slab of speckled grit in the gloaming and the hills on the other side of the water black humpback whales outlined with silver pen – like a child’s drawing.
There is no sound on the road other than the rumble of wheel. There’s no movement but for a startled pair of doe on the grass verge – later a stag crashing through the undergrowth. And a fawn. There is no conversation other than in my head. Everyone is asleep – Tom nodding in the passenger seat and the boys tipping into each other in the back seat. There’s just me and the night and the nocturnal wildlife, and the car following the contours of loch, pass and base of hill.
Through Glencoe, the sky darkens to charcoal. This is as dark as it gets. By three, a buttery-yellow seeps through cloud and spreads across the glens, the lochs and mountains.
This is how we arrive at Uig. I fall into an exhausted sleep, stretched out along the back seat of the car as the ferry makes its way across the Minch from Uist to us.
Big skies fill your vision on the Hebrides. They are a symphony of movement. Shafts of light shatter mist and strike the earth. Rain-filled clouds form and reform until they burst and storm across the island in horizontal sheets carried by the wind. The elements are violent here, the water gushing off the hills – sometimes blowing back up again in defiance of gravity.
We run from car to house, shoulders hunched and heads bowed, buffeted by wind and rain. Everything is washed dishwater-grey: the hills, the sea, the rock and grass; even the lily ponds.
Our cottage is empty and cold. I strike a match to the set fire and wait for the damp to dissipate; wait for the warmth to leave the hearth and spread across the room.
I think I will go crazy in this water-saturated place. How will I survive a week?
We drive into Tarbert and go mad buying bags of logs and peat and coal from the grey, flat-roofed garage. Never go shopping for food when you’re hungry. Never go shopping for fuel when you’re damp and cold.
Soon Manuela, Michi, Gian and Aurelio will arrive, and the house will be filled with the aroma of cooking food and the sound of Swiss-German weaving through English – an old friendship rekindled with the fire.
Hearth & Home
There is something deeply satisfying in setting a fire; the scrunch of paper, the strategic placing of firelighters, kindling and coal. I watch with delight when the flames spring to life – then anxiously watch as they die back, threatening to extinguish.
I’m no expert. I tend to the fire like it’s a sick child, breathing life back in its dying form, providing it with oxygen. And when the flames finally lick over the coals and they start to glow, I’m as proud as the first fire-lighter.
Cluer Cottage is typical of the Highlands and Islands with its little windows set into the sloping roof and its simple lego-form, whitewashed over.
We reach the house by a long sheep-lined track of rough gravel that dips and rises with the moor until it drops sharply down to the sea where it comes to an abrupt full-stop – or exclamation-mark – just short of the shoreline rocks that plunge down to Cluer Bay and the Minch beyond.
This place is isolated, surrounded by sea and bog and sheep. From the window-seat you might catch sight of a solitary seal in the bay, or a pod of porpoises. You can sit for hours watching the light play off ocean and sky; watching the eternal lap of Atlantic against the land. It’s a form of hypnosis and healing.
Harris is many things.
It’s roaring wind. It’s silence. It’s biting cold. It’s gentle warmth. It’s beating sun. It’s the ocean bombing rocks. It’s sheep running off the hills and salmon jumping upstream. It’s young seals at play in bays. It’s the sea eagle’s wing bearing down on the cliff top. It’s the peregrine catching the curve of an air current.
It’s the stillness of 2.7 billion year-old hills.
It’s also monotone grey and an ever-changing canvas of colour. It’s the nuclear-mustard of lichen and the soft yellows and mauves of machair – clover, buttercup and vetch.
It’s the scrubbed blue-greens of ocean and sky, and the whitewash of beach and dune.
It’s gneiss-hard slab and watery bog. It’s rain and wind-dried strand. It’s black cloud and powder skies.
We have become collectors. The windowsills of our cottage are filling up with objects from the machair and beaches: a rabbit scull; an assortment of crab pincers; razor-shells, limpets, cockles and scallops, and the fragments of sea urchin. And for the geologist in our house, chunks of gneiss.
I walk for miles across headlands, past standing stones, through bog and marsh and along beaches. I splash through shallows. The sky and beach merge in mirror symmetry: blue on blue; dry on wet; gloss on matt. I run – I never run, but the soft sand beneath my feet and the breeze at my back make it easy.
Describing the colours of the ocean is another matter – they are deep and bright and translucent and utterly beguiling.
I’ve stumbled on an arctic tern’s nest on Scarista Beach – and its guardian is not happy. It circles my head from high above, then dives down, beak aiming for my scull. I flap my arms and it retreats for a moment before plunging down once more. I place my book on my head, but still the tern comes, squawking and clicking and angrily flapping its black-tipped wings. I raise my book and wave it at the bird – it’s my only weapon – and a useless one.
Still the tern comes, circling , then dropping down like a spirit-leveller – coming in close for the attack, blood-red beak ready to puncture my skin.
In a reversal of roles, Patrick, my son, runs at the tern: Clear off, you brute – leave my mother alone.
I turn and scramble for safety.
Just down the road from Cluer Cottage at Flodabay, we find a colony of common seals resting on a rocky headland. Out of the water they are ungainly lumps of blubber – like giant slugs. They belly-flop to the water’s edge, each inch of movement painfully slow and cumbersome. But in the water they metamorphise into graceful, streamlined creatures, their bodies smooth as silk.
Three young frolic in the bay. They flop and flick and dive under the water to reemerge across the bay, noses sniffing the air.
On Uist the weather closes in again, the mists gathering over the island like Dervish dancers. We had arrived here by ferry at Berneray, the ship twisting this way and that through the deeper waters of the sound. We find the Uists are more water than land – a scattering of blue veins that threaten to break up the landmass into ever-increasing islands. We cross causeway after causeway, skirting lochs and inlets. I have the feeling I am still on board, on a ship slipping through land.
On North Uist, we find a great mound of stones, a neolithic burial chamber. Patrick peers into the entrance at Barpa Langias, closed off because of a partial collapse, then disappears from sight. I worry he will join the bones that were once found here and am relieved when he emerges again.
Stones are used for the living and stones are used for the dead. At the nearby stone circle of Piobull Fhinn, ceremonies and rituals marked the daily routines of life and work, the changing seasons and the circular nature of fertility, birth and death; the alignment of sun and the moon and the harvests that sustain life.
We travel southbound and forward in time; to the ruins of Howmore on South Uist. When the rain stops pelting down, we run along the grassy path to the ruins of a medieval church. The stones are abiding, but their placing is not. Most have collapsed and disappeared into the earth. There is nothing left but a gable here and a couple of walls there, strings of foundations and a scattering of Celtic crosses around the four ruined chapels.
Nearby, a Victorian Church of Scotland (an island of Protestantism in Catholic South Uist) is grim in its austerity with its plain windows and hard benches for the long, narrow communion table that runs the length of the church. I place my hand on the peeling wall and it’s damp to the touch. There’s a simple pulpit and a laminated sheet with the Lord’s Prayer in Gaelic and English.
But in all its bleakness, I like the story of this simple whitewashed church, looking out to the Atlantic, a guiding landmark for the fishermen.
Also sitting in this humpy landscape is a scattering of thatched black cottages, their roofs lashed down with stones on ropes. This is an inhospitable place. I try to imagine what it is like to be here when summer’s over, when winter storms roll in from the Atlantic and the light fades out by mid-afternoon. And I can’t. The people here on Uist are as tough as the stone that shelters them, and as solid as beached whales washed up on the island’s shoreline.
While the islanders hunker down and brace themselves for the end of summer, we sail away from our Hebridean islands. We soft mainlanders would never survive the winter months. But we take a little bit of the islands home with us: a chunk of gneiss, a crab’s claw and a few fragments of sea urchin.