The Tropical Hebrides

Ahhhh, here we are now in Stornoway back in our room after a beautiful day on the isle of Lewis / Harris. And fortunately, Mara was correct in her prediction that this huge rainbow we saw yesterday was an omen for some good luck. This morning we drove down to Huisinis, a place that we’ve been meaning to see since arriving on Lewis, because it’s incredibly close to the isle of Scarp. You could say that we’re considering Scarp kind of like our “substitute island” because Taransay proved to difficult to find ourselves affordable passage. From Huisinis pier Scarp seems so close that walking across might be possible at low tide. Apparently, this did actually happen in the past, but it was extremely dangerous and on occasion lives were in fact lost. Anyway, our timing could not have been better for arriving at the pier because just as we walked down a few people were tying-up their boat and bringing a box filled with lobsters and a sea urchin up the ramp. After talking with Donald for a bit we are now preparing to hitch a ride on his boat Friday morning at 11am for the short trip over to Scarp. This is very good news after we managed to collide with some of the local livestock on the isle of Lewis after having such a good time on Berneray with Loriana.

We’ve been driving around these isles for almost 5 weeks now and passed countless sheep on the side of the road, but this one proved to be the dumbest of them all when it looked in my direction while we approached and then proceeded to jump from the ditch on the side of the road directly into the path of little Subaru, or Subie, for short. Suicidal sheep? We may never know…. It was quite an impact and the sheep spun across the road, flailing its legs for a few seconds before lying on the pavement when two people in a van behind us checked that we were alright and then, without hesitation, tossed the sheep to the side of the road saying, “don’t worry about the sheep – it happens all the time”. Obviously not a concern for the islanders, the poor sheep was the first thing Mara and I looked at when we stopped the car to see the freshly killed animal. At least it was a relatively quick death! Inspecting the front end of our car revealed wool stuck in the cracks caused by the impact, a dangling license number plate, loose headlight, detached bumper and a bent engine hood. Quickly our worry transferred from the sheep to the gimpy little blue car. It was really a low point, but we can be thankful that nothing happened to us and I chose hitting the sheep rather than veering off the road. It was a setback for the project here on the islands, but thankfully we had some angels keeping things afloat and lil’ Subie has been put back together again. I suppose this is the type of story that we’ll laugh about it in the future.

To mess with the chronology of this post a little further, before any of this sheep mess happened Mara and I were happy to meet up with our friends Gerhard and Sandra from Vienna. Earlier in the year they decided to come to Scotland and since we are here on the islands they spent a few days with us, joining in on the trip to the Monach Isles. The Monachs were something quite different compared to all the other destinations, most strikingly because of their low-lying landscape. I think the highest point on the islands is just 19 meters – quite a summit! After spending the night in Balivanich on the isle of Benbecula, the 4 of us drove to a small island by the name of Grimsay, to meet up with Nick, the captain of the Lady Anne. It was a beautiful morning heading over through the low tidal islands between Benbecula and North Uist, but it got much cooler as we got into the Atlantic, the wind picking up as we arrived on Heisker, the most easterly island in the group. The boat was quite full of passengers and cargo, something we didn’t really expect but 12 people spread across the island is nowhere close to being too crowded. Besides Nick steering the boat, there was a good variety of people: the old grumpy deckhand with bad legs and a bad temper, the retired Irish geologist trying to add more chapters to her book about the structure of the Monachs, a middle-aged couple ready with their bird-binoculars and zoom-lens cameras, 3 Scottish shepherds (one of which was a 12-year-old boy), 2 Australians assisting the shepherds, and one motivated collie dog who occupied himself on the boat by jumping up and down with excitement. Gerhard, Sandra, Mara and I of course carried all our equipment for camping and for sound recording, photographs, et cetera, and the shepherds brought along all the necessary supplies to set up a temporary fence in order to corral the sheep for shearing. They come over to work with the sheep about 3 times in the year, so we were lucky to be around for it. The return trip would be even more fun because 2 rams needed to make the crossing with us!

As we landed on the seaweed-covered “jetty” on Heisker, the dune-like appearance of the island was the first impression. So much sand and grass, but plenty of black rocks too! We unloaded all our things and found a place to pitch our tents next to a couple of ruined houses, their thick stone walls still providing some shelter from the wind, and the ground there was quite flat for a good night’s sleep. We heard from Nick on the boat that the tide is low enough on the Monachs to allow for walking to the two other islands to the west. When it was time to turn around before the water came flowing back in, I told Mara and the others that I’d just be a minute, trying to capture a few more recordings while I had the access to that part of the Monachs. I guess I really took my time because when I got to the sands, where before there was no water, it was only possible to cross without my rubber boots, socks, or trousers (such a nicer-sounding word than pants – don’t you think?). After cutting it close we sat on the sand for a while drying out, just staring in amazement that the Hebrides finally offered up some truly summer temperatures with clear blue skies to accompany. We eventually moseyed on back to the campsite and discovered that over by the old school house was a shelter that doubled as a museum. Inside was a wind-still space perfect for cooking our dinner. It was a nice combination to cook a meal together while reading about the history of the island on the walls.

I’ll say that on the Monach Isles I started to get a deep sense of tranquility, a feeling that one might commonly associate with the island experience. There is something calming about walking through thick grass, hearing the muted ocean roar in the distance, tiny birds chatting about whatever, the absence of industrial and urban noise…. but this notion of contentment could only be felt if I really allowed my mind to be completely aware of my surrounding, really placing myself consciously in that refuge of the bit of land in the middle of the sea. I wonder if the people living in these places years before had similar thoughts or just accepted their environment as the way things were. I find it hard to believe that the islands’ inhabitants didn’t have a deep appreciation for their way of life. But, maybe I’m just an outsider peeking in, romanticizing it all.

After a windy evening, we all settled into our tents and awoke in the morning to another blue-skied day with a bit less wind (almost always a good thing when sensitive microphones are involved!) After catching some more interesting sounds we got word that there were a few basking sharks off-shore, so we tried to catch a glimpse of them but their fins appeared like little black triangles way off in the distance. When it was time to board the boat, the rams had to be loaded on first, which was quite a sight. Horns and tails are both very useful handles when you need to move a sheep. When they were secured in the stern on the boat we all got on and cruised back to Grimsay.

Feeling dirty and hopeless about finding a place to stay for four people that night, we were completely shocked to find an old schoolhouse which had been converted into a holiday home available to us for just that one night. Amazing luck! The next morning Gerhard and Sandra left us to hop on a ferry back to the mainland, so we became a party of two once more. Mara and I drove up to Berneray to stay with Loriana, her dog Roy and cat Misch. We had a great time and Loriana introduced us to Duncan MacKinnon, a Berneray native who was a generous host to us, even bringing out the whisky and singing songs to us written by his father, the bard of Berneray.

After such an amazing few days with friends and fair weather, the luck began to change when the clouds, wind, and rain rolled in…  and then the sheep decided to give warm greetings to our front bumper.

Enjoy the photos!

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