Thursday, 13 October 2016

To the Heart of A' Gàidhealtachd: Autumn in the Western Isles.

This leg of the journey was stupendous & ridiculous in equal measure: everything seemed to happen to extremes. As my new map of the journey (designed by Eilidh Price) shows, the kayak down the span of the Outer Hebrides is a longer voyage than was either Shetland or Orkney:
Exposure to the full force of the October Atlantic also meant this would be among the most forbidding legs of the trip.  The result is that this post might read a little more Bear-Grillsy than usual - sorry (I just still can't quite believe I managed, thanks to some freakishly helpful weather, to fumble my way from one end to the other). I've saved the wildlife pics for the second half; much of the first is devoted to contrasts between those forbidding seascapes & brief, beautiful spells of autumnul gentleness. If you're here for dolphins, eagles, otters & waders, please do skip!

The Atlantic is a very different deity on Western-Isles coasts than it is off the Northern Isles. A slowly-shelving ocean floor & multitudes of reefs mean that breakers form early & can be thrown huge distances before they erupt onto the shore. 
The result is that much of the Atlantic edge of these islands is little used for fishing & creeling: this was the first coast I travelled that wasn’t dotted with many obvious remnants of past coastal industries. Instead, prominent among the remains were pre-Reformation chapels & cemeteries on small islands, usually at fertile & sheltered sites that still had expansive ocean outlooks
I was now well & truly on ‘the sea road of the saints’ along which Irish holy men from the seventh century onwards undertook the ‘white martyrdom’ of exile, the ‘green martyrdom’ of the hermit & ‘the red martyrdom’ of self-sacrifice. For them, rough seas nearby meant protection from coastal raiders.

People I’d spoken to in Lerwick or Stromness had seemed to consider this journey a reasonable, even enjoyable, thing to do. But those in Stornoway & Tarbert made comments & faces that showed they thought I was unhinged (or else perhaps, that I was undertaking all three martyrdoms myself). I began to hear exactly the same phrase received by the ‘Canoe boys’, who pioneered Scottish coastal kayaking in the 1930s, when they tried to make it here across the Minch: ‘it's too late in the year’. 

This scepticism came to a head at the end of September when I was reported missing. Someone had seen me kayak out into a fearsome sea & when my car hadn’t been moved after dark they phoned the police. Fortunately, my wife, Llinos - when they eventually got through to her - knew where I was & could stop the coastguard being launched. (It's worth noting, before people feel too sorry for her, that she's a far more audacious kayaker than I'll ever be, whose sense of fear must have been anaethatised at birth). Stornoway police were wonderful: like everyone else, they seemed to find it hilarious that I was actually enjoying myself. 

That was one of 15 nights I spent in the waterproof sleeping bag, mostly on small uninhabited Atlantic islands, during this two-hundred-mile kayak. I began the journey from a small bay on the east of Ness, from which I paddled round the Butt of Lewis. Here, huge waves were breaking half way up the cliff face, reaching so high that each failed to return to the sea before the next hit. The result was a constant waterfall with no landward point of origin (for scale, note the sheep on top of the cliff):
Surf also exploded high into the air round any rock that interrupted the swell, although I was being thrown about too much to take photos of any acceptable quality:
More perturbing were the unexpected breakers out at sea. The first two of these photos show the general state of the foam-topped waters; the last shows something more concerning - I still don’t know what or why it was - it just moved through the ocean like a living thing, passing at twice my head height.
I deliberately left it until after I’d kayaked this exposed headland to mention my plans to any locals. When - salty & bedraggled - I visited the wonderful Comunn Eachdraidh Nis (Ness Historical Society) to do my research, the people there told me horror stories of the violent tides at the Butt of Lewis. Local knowledge about the sea is terrifying: anyone who listened to it would never go anywhere.

But the noise, the smells, the feel - all of the explosive battering of the senses in these seas - were invigorating beyond any long-distance kayaking I’ve done before. It was exceptionally enlivening to plough past beautiful skerries, such as those west of Little Bernera (mid-Lewis) on wind-ripped brine that felt like it came straight from sailors’ songs or Romantic poetry (make sure you listen to these seas rather than just looking at the pictures):
Rolling over high swell near Mingulay at the southern extremity of this chain of 75 islands was equally visceral but a different kind of pleasure. The troughs between these waves were deep & moving fast:
Here, I frequently found myself surrounded by other sounds than the sea. One moment I'd be alone in a trough of the swell, the next, amidst a flurry of wings, I'd be on a peak, in a passing flock of eider a hundred strong

It's worth reflecting on such a moment. It's strange to be in a sweeping ocean expanse where so much is going on just in the few yards around you: your focus flickers between an almost claustrophobic immediacy & an extreme spaciousness. Even in the anthropocene, the ocean is often really, really busy: an A road where it was once a motorway. Here's one photo representing each side of that contrast of clutter/spaciousness as a vast flock flashes by then recedes into distance:
By sunset on that day, dense thickets of eider were huddled for warmth between waves - resisting as best they could the energy-sapping wind & cold; I often didn't see them until I was amongst them, looking up from a trough at a wave topped with art-deco sea ducks: 
A better sense of coastal sea can perhaps be gained from photos taken when I’d played the lottery of landing:
One day, my landing luck will run out - the last of these pics is a freak wave, it soaked me through at a spot where I'd sat, thinking I was safe, for ten minutes - I wouldn't have liked to meet it while making my way on or off shore.  

Other boats were rare. During the first two days I saw none. Then, to my surprise, before dawn on the third day, this vessel passed my sleeping bag, its bow plunging deep between waves:
And these boisterous seas soon rushed me towards another rarity of the early stages: the first mountains of the whole venture. The ridges of waves seemed to grow seamlessly into the peaks of the Harris hills. This is one of the photos from this trip that most evokes the experience as I remember much of it, rising & falling towards layers of scenic drama:
But for the whole second half of this leg a strange quirk of weather – a high pressure zone stuck over Norway – generated blue skies & strong easterly winds, making the Minch a maelstrom but giving the Atlantic a small measure of shelter & a huge measure of beauty. When I hugged the coast, going was made relatively easy, but each crossing, and every time I tried to follow eastward perforations in the coastline, was a visually sublime/physically nightmarish tussle with the winds.

Some sections of the coast proved camera-shy in these conditions. I have dozens of photos of South Uist hiding behind swell as I wobbled on waves:
On waters with any easterly exposure I often had to hope, late in the evening, that some semblance of a landing spot would appear between the steep, rocky headlands:
If that all presents a rather austere picture, it’s because I’m only telling a fraction of the story. Even in the first few days, when the Lewis coast was at its bleakest, there were moments of blissful calm or total shelter when the ethereal quality of the light was breathtaking & my world felt luxuriant. Ironically, this was where I was – happy & oblivious - when reported missing:
The evening & morning views were wonderful:
And here’s the dawn & departure atop those steep, rocky headlands pictured above:
Other sunsets & dawns, as I wandered islets by foot or paddle, were equally rich in colour:  
But the nights themselves were the true spectacle. Clear skies & an unobtrusive sliver of new moon coincided with the Draconid meteor shower & the first few Orionids (sparks from the tail of Halle’s Comet). As I lay watching meteorites zip by & constellations move with the earth’s turning, tiny black forms sometimes flashed across my vision – petrels, shearwaters or other oceanic nightbirds. 

I tried to learn the Gaelic names of the stars I could see & the stories associated with them. Orion's belt is Meadhan, and its chief stars are An Gille (the boy), An Cu (the dog) and An Sgalag (the slave). The stars of the Plough are Na Coig Gadhair Oscair (the five dogs of Oscar) while the milky way itself is the Bogha Chlann Uis (the bow of the children of Uisneach - these children are Naois, Ainnle & Ardan, who fled with Deirdre from Ireland to Scotland). The names of the stars Aldebran, Spica, Antares, Betelgeuse, Rigel & the Pole Star are 2,000 year old poetry: Aibhseag, Falachag, Sgleodhag, Spor Dearg, Spor Liath, Barr Reult (the shining one, the hidden one, the dim one, the red spark, the blue spark & the high star). I couldn't help reflect on the origins of these names: where English nomenclature is a mongrel Latin, Greek & Arabic, the Gaelic terms are from a different tradition altogether. 

My instigation to investigate these star names came from records made about a North Uist emigrant who taught Gaelic in the new-world places he settled. The names of stars were one of the first things his pupils learned. I wondered how many of the vast numbers of forced emigrants to Quebec considered the Gaelic sky - which they could still see from half the world away - to be a link to the Gaelic landscapes they'd never see again. I'd love to know what - if anything - has been written about this Gaelic starscape.

Contrasts between hardship & plenty are, of course, what the Outer Hebrides are known for. Half the land is a bleak domain of bare rock or acid peat that thrusts stubborn shoulders into the battering of the ocean; the other half is a bright, tropical world of flowers, grass & cockle sand that is one of the most diverse habitats in Europe. Too often, writers present the ocean as ‘eroding’ or ‘washing away’ the coast as though there were no balance; but here, the earth creates barrenness while it's the Atlantic that provides plenitude. The rock itself is useless as anything other than a mighty flood wall for Scotland. It exists in this ocean-beaten spot, 3,000 million years after its birth, precisely because it refuses to break down into the minerals that could replenish the ground; in many places, even the ice ages could leave no greater scars than a gentle sheen (they polished, rather than perforating, this land). But the long, violent breakers accumulate tons of rich, calcerous shell sand & heave it, wave-full by wave-full, ashore. This is the antidote to the acid peat: it stirs the most dazzling display of verdant growth imaginable. Cloud clings to the high, peaty ground inland, while sun shines more often on these low, flower-clad shores. Looking up from the kayak even at the end of summer, it’s as if the foreground was painted in acrylic children’s colours - a shock of vivid blues, greens & yellows - while behind them there’s a sombre, grown-up painting in night-tones of brown & grey.    

Wandering ashore, the details, especially in September & October, are no less contrasting. Where the rock holds sway, summer has gone. Slimy, nicotine-yellow, smudges that were once shining cotton grass are peppered with crispy brown cadavers of tiny heather bells. Both moulder in clumps of pallid sphagnum moss. Squelching up these acid hills, they feel no drier than the sea: where rock meets shore, vinegar meets brine. This isn’t land from which any real living could be made. In contrast, the dunes, with their thick machair of grass & flower, cling to summer. Multitudes of pink ragged robin & yellow tormentil shine out, even where the grasses over them slowly fade:
In mid-October, bees still suck at persistent scabious flowers:
The disjunctions between the dark land & the bright land are almost unbelievable.
This is partly why so much of these islands’ past has been dominated by the struggles of island people to assert their rights to the good land – whether in the face of harsh Norse raiders, harsher later landlords or current Westminster policies. The ruins of crofting features in regions of bright land that are now vast sheep runs are therefore bitter sights. This is a bay, sandwiched between rough mountain ridges on Harris, that now has no settlements nearby, yet every inch of green land bears testament to past usage. Note how stark is the divide - a tiny stream - between rich & barren land:
The cemeteries on western islands evoke the same feelings: the people have long gone (their communities sometimes forcibly relocated to the barren east) but these burial grounds were often the part of old communities that persisted longest. Slow funeral processions moved from new east-coast settlements to the land of the dead in the west:
Today, the machair is managed with extraordinary attention to historic detail & to environmental impact, encouraged by projects such as Machair Life

And this is surely part of the reason why the wildlife here, even after summer had ended, is just astonishing. I didn’t go a day on this journey without at least one pulse-quickening encounter. A pod of bottlenose dolphins joined me for a stretch of the paddle round Eoligarry, north Barra. Over-excited & rocking on the sea, I made a total hash of photographing them: every picture of a face or tail is blurred beyond salvage:
I woke on a sandy North Uist beach to find myself surrounded by otter footprints that emerged from, and returned to, the sea. 
Once I’d launched, I found the probable culprit hanging around eating small orange fish, perfectly happy for the kayak to drift close (until, that is, it had finished eating, when I got the long inscrutible - teacherly? - glare in the last photo). 
On Lewis I woke to find rabbits all around on one night (and a hole nibbled in one of my gloves) & then ringed plovers on the next:
Then, I woke in the Harris hills to find a golden eagle perched yards from where I’d slept. I failed to photograph it, but collected a huge piece of eagle down from where it had been perched (and felt like Chris Packham, whose wonderful Fingers in the Sparkle Jar I’d listened to on the journey up); on the evening of the same day, a sea eagle investigated my sleeping bag on the island of Taransay:
Next morning, a different, younger, sea eagle flew over… 
…I only just spotted it, my head lowered to photograph jewel-like sea gooseberries in the shell sand - these are the one creature that most reminds me of childhood beach-combing - utterly beguiling:
But as I walked along the beach, a small turnstone raiding party followed, eating every sea gooseberry I’d passed: 
Other waders were even more characterful. While reading on one small island I caught a movement in the corner of my eye. This sanderling was creeping up behind me: 
Whenever I looked round, it stopped:
When I turned away, it carried, sneakily, on:
On the island of Vatersay, I sat, elbow on a rock, reading Ben Buxton’s powerful book about land reform on the island, when a pair of tiny dunlin sidled up. 
Only gradually did I realise they wanted to feed at the little strip of seaweed where my elbow was, and that they weren’t going to let my presence stop them. Seeing them, at their eye level, negotiate rock & weed, seemed to change the proportions of the scenery: each barnacle & rockpool was magnified into a landscape feature:
Great northern divers cackled & cruised past:
Scythe-winged gannets rarely flew by without investigating the kayak:
Guillemots, black guillemots & razorbills, all in winter plumage, popped up between waves:
And I was surprised, at the cusp between Lewis & Harris, to watch black guillemots swallow shore crabs whole:
 There were hen harriers, buzzards, curlews, lapwings & golden plovers: 
Oystercatchers, in surprisingly large flocks, hung around by a ruined chapel. With their white clerical collars (clear in some, barely there in others), and their deportment & intonation - more upstandingly preacherly than any other wader - this felt strangely appropriate:
On Barra, I finally got the golden eagle photos I’d missed earlier. I’d climbed up to the island’s highest point, Heaval, and was taking advantage of the phone signal afforded by elevation to ring Llinos. I’d just said that I mustn't talk much longer, because I should look for golden eagles while up here, when I glanced over my shoulder for the first time for ages. Without hanging up, I dropped the phone and uttered uncouth pantomime words born of total surprise: "~*!!*~% #!*!, it’s behind me". Slowly drifting away, wings folded back, was a bird that looked huge. (Presumably it had been investigating this creature lying in the heather to see if I was carrion yet). By the time I’d gathered the camera up & fixed the settings it was far further away:
But I still hadn’t seen enough, or become convinced enough of perspective, to be entirely sure it wasn't a buzzard. Then, in a magical moment, it unfurled those ridiculous wings, and soared a figure of eight, gaze fixed - presumably in annoyance - on its revivified snack:
Slowly, it circled out towards the Skye cuillin.    
But perhaps the most incongruous creature of all, hopping out from a misty island ruin & bursting into totally unexpected song, was this:
I didn't see all that many creatures of the land. But when up in the Harris hills, looking down on the Atlantic & wondering whether there’d be (as my poetry promised) a path to the sea…
…red deer were, of course, prancing about the slopes.
I hadn’t thought until I was there about the fact I was sleeping on deer hills right in the middle of the rut. These bucks, with their little twiggish antlers, were fortunately too young to be part of the hormone frenzy, but I wouldn’t have liked to confront their father that night. It's a poet from nearby - Iain Crichton Smith in his masterpiece 'Deer on the High Hills' - who has most famously evoked their antlers tearing flesh.

Having spent so much time at sea level, it was great to be reminded of the glories of a mountain sunset:
Besides wildlife & landscape the most striking thing along the whole length of this journey was the prevalence of old religious sites. From my first night, near the ruins of St Rona’s chapel near Eoropie (Ness), to my stops at Pabail on Little Bernera…
…to the island of Pabbay Mor, where there are remains of a tiny chapel to St Peter looking out from a fertile haven onto a realm of rocky skerries... Taransay, which has an equally diminutive chapel & a standing stone marked, possibly as early as the seventh-century, with a cross that can just about be discerned in the second of these pics… the island of Pabbay in the Sound of Harris...
...and yet another beautiful Pabbay south of Barra... extraordinary number of the places on my route were holy sites of the early Irish church (the Pabbay/Pabail place names are one indication of this identity). I was moving slowly from areas of Norse influence into the historic Irish world, from Protestant to Catholic, and through the heart of A' Gàidhealtachd, where English is a tolerated second language. By the time I was working in the Barra archive & library, most conversations I heard were in Gaelic. Several were discussing the upcoming Mod - the Gaelic equivalent of the Welsh Eisteddfod I've often wandered round with Llinos. I’d been reading Roger Hutchinson’s excellent The Waxing Moon: A History of the Modern Gaelic Revival as I travelled. And, despite my uselessness with languages (which anyone who has heard me try to speak Welsh will attest to), I really need some elementary Gaelic lessons soon.

Barra was the one place on this leg that I’d never been before. Along perhaps with Ness (where the cultural & archaeological riches are just stupendous & everyone seems to be a historian) & the strings of islands at the mouth of Loch Roag, it was my favourite part of the month. Given that many of Barra's resources were closing for the winter by the time I arrived - including the archive - I was really, really grateful to Mairi Ceit MacKinnon (for letting me sneak into the closed archive one evening & lending me reading about the island of Mingulay), to the staff of Castlebay library, and to the wonderful volunteers at Buth Bharraigh for being so ridiculously helpful in every way (Buth Bharraigh became a kind of surrogate archive - there can't be many community shops in the UK that could or would do that - thanks to Jacqui in particular).

Utterly distinctive in its landscape & culture, Barra still encapsulates the essence of the Outer Hebrides. Tropical waters…
sit alongside Nordic views…
…bitter autumnal seas…
…and scenes of archipelagic kayak paradise…
…all within the space of a few miles & on the same day. (If I was able to spend a long time in any of the places I'd passed through so far, I'd be hard pressed to choose between the Barra Isles & Shetland mainland.)

Like the views in the Sound of Harris…
…the Sound of Barra showed off views to the Scottish mainland, the Inner Hebrides & St Kilda. I loved looking across to the Black Cuillin of Skye & tracing past journeys along its ridges…
...even more of a nostalgia trip were the views of Askival & Hallival on Rum, with the usually imposing Oigh-Sgeir lighthouse a mere speck in the foreground:
It was on Rum that I took one of the first island trips I ever did alone: a week, a decade ago, wandering the hills of the spectacular interior.

As my bow rose…
...and fell…
…along the Barra coastline, lurching me along in my customary wave-top motion, I wondered how ‘institutionalised’ to the Atlantic I was becoming. I was certainly increasingly attached to my sleeping-bag nights - increasingly oblivious to rain & general damp. Even more certainly, I was decreasingly presentable in public.

I know what my themes need to be for this chapter: the Pabbay sites, the Gaelic landscape, and the conflict for machair & croft land (from the Vatersay raiders of the early twentieth century to Stòras Uibhist & the West Harris Crofting Trust). But I have much more research to do before I'll be able to write about those things responsibly. Nor did I manage to speak to as many people here as I did in Orkney or Shetland, simply because (with a greater distance to kayak & a house-move to accomplish back home) I didn't get chance to organise such things. I'm going to come back for Faclan - the Hebridean Book Festival - at the beginning of November. This is themed, fortuitously, around the North Atlantic. Those few days, I hope, will be my chance to learn more about the Western Isles from the archives & experts to be found around these islands.