Monday, 25 April 2016

On the Shoulders of the Ocean: April in the Western Isles

If averages are anything to go by, April ought to be the month when the Atlantic blasts of winter fall away, when seabirds come in from the ocean & when scant sunlight more frequently breaches the clouds over coastal mountains. So this year we decided to make for ‘the long island’ – Lewis & Harris – in mid-April. Seeking connection to the coast, we chose to stay on Great Bernera, a small island on the West side of Lewis, which is itself surrounded by a host of dramatic islets & skerries. Facing nothing but accumulated swell of two-thousand miles of the Atlantic, Bernera offered seas that would challenge every muscle in our bodies & all our resolution to be venturesome. It also offered wildlife encounters as extraordinary as any to be had in the UK (aided by the fact that this area is much less frequented than Skye, Mull or any other major landmass in the Hebrides). 

When it comes to Western-Isles weather, ‘averages’ aren't, of course, anything to go by. Conditions here shift so dramatically & so quickly that any attempt to generalise is almost wholly misleading. Several of the next few pictures are of the place we stayed. Although they were taken over little more than 24 hours, these moments felt like different seasons. After arriving late on Bernera, we awoke to fierce sou’westerlies and thick, dark cloud. This was our home for the week:
I began by walking along Bernera as the sky brightened. This was a bay we might, on a different day, have considered launching kayaks from:
By the time I reached the end of the island, with glorious views over its rugged archipelago, the rough sea reflected perfect blue skies:
And those conditions persisted as we explored a little more of this freakishly dramatic coastline:
Such wild coasts mean that the winds are ridden by a wonderful range of seabirds, from fulmars & kittiwakes to gannets, whooper swans & redshank:
And the bleak clifftop landscape is home to corvids, waders, passerines, & raptors like these ravens, golden plover, redwing & hen harrier:
Amidst the wind, this day also involved digging deep into books on Lewis & Harris. I’d bought a large bag-full from the Ceilidh Place in Ullapool and, as so often, it was the ones acquired almost as an afterthought that proved most interesting. I found John MacLeod’s beautifully-written Banner in the West (a history of religion on Lewis & Harris) a better guide to the landscape & general history of the long island than any of the books devoted to those themes. In setting out his story’s context MacLeod explains the separateness of Lewis & Harris – although one island, the mountains of North Harris provided a barrier that has effectively been impermeable to human intercourse through most of history. The dialects of Gaelic spoken on each island are polar opposites, and even the local English-speaking accents are markedly different. This topography means that occupants of the flat expanse of Lewis talk of going ‘up to Harris’ (in the South) & ‘down to Ness’ (the northernmost point of the island). MacLeod introduces the dampness of the climate, but notes that 

much more shocking…is the wind. It is easy to hate the wind on Lewis and hard to credit (unless one has lived through it) how weeks of sustained storm and bluster can fray the nerves, frustrate outdoor endeavour, sap one’s energies…how incessant winds off the ocean cake windows with salt, burn shrubs and crops, rapidly corrode any exposed iron, can cast shreds of seaweed and wrack miles inland. But it is only one element of a profoundly stripping environment.

He goes on to describe the ‘pitiable soil’ (‘save in such districts as East Harris where you might wonder if there is any soil at all’), the gnarled, knobbed, crushed and creviced metamorphic stone ‘no more fertile than concrete’ & impermeable to water so that of 437,200 acres of Lewis, 24,863 is effectively puddle. The name of the island itself seems to derive from the Norse word Leodjus, ‘a place abounding in pools’.

Next day, with winds a little lower, we could get out in the boats. We aimed to set off early, but before we did I used first light to explore the place we were staying. Looking South from our door (the aptly-named Atlantic View Cottage), the vista took in old crofting buildings and Lewis’s Atlantic coast:
Looking West, a small sea loch populated by mergansers & tufted ducks lay between us & the rest of Bernera:
The join between this loch & the sea place the house at the focal point of extraordinary wildlife activity. When the tide goes out, the loch is funnelled under a tiny bridge, dragging with it fish & other small sea creatures. On this morning, I happened to walk down to this bridge at exactly the right moment. Around fifteen herons & at least twenty mergansers were feeding here, some using the rails of the bridge as a perch to hunt from. The birds flew to a safe distance as I approached:
But they weren't the only diners. On two of my visits to this spot, otters were making the most of the fish feast. They were the least bashful otters I’ve ever come across – unbelievably easy to photograph (hence the gratuitous number of otter pics here), and remarkably successful in their hunting.
They dived through the seaweed, frequently ending up with it worn as a blanket or hat:
And fish-filled faces, sharp teeth bared, could suddenly emerge from any spot:
By the time I’d taken these photos, Llinos had got in the car & was turning it round, wondering what was keeping me. As she approached, the otters decided we were worth investigating: 
Finally, we set off for our day’s journey (having taken the otter pictures but not transferred them to anything else, I was particularly determined not to drop the camera in the sea today). Our destination was the island of Pabaigh Mor, around four miles SW of Bernera & one of many islands in West Loch Roag that break the Atlantic’s impact on Lewis itself. With alternating cliffs & beaches, as well as being full of holes…
…these islands make for excellent kayak exploration. Pabaigh Mor is the subject of a wonderful Dougie Maclean song. Essentially a love song to the Atlantic, 'Pabay Mor' makes a great deal of the island's exposure to tide and weather. Here’s the song:
And a couple of excerpts from the lyrics:

When first he rounded Pabay Mor
And met the mountain waves alone
There was fear till there was fear no more
Wild Atlantic son

On the shoulders of the ocean
On the bare back of the sea
Held in her eternal motion
Someone to carry me

Well, the tide rolls dark round Gallen head
And the wind has nowhere left to turn
And the broken rocks the sea will bleed
Wild Atlantic son

Thanks to @dgriffinphoto for introducing us to the song.
The role of this island, and the others round it, as impediments to the huge swell meant that we faced diverse sea conditions. To begin with, there was plenty of rough sea to traverse, and Llinos (in the nifty little Rockhopper kayak) frequently disappeared through surf or behind swell:
Here, Llinos' head & paddle appear between waves:
My camera stayed well & truly packed away in rough regions (when taking a hand off the paddle could spell disaster) but in short spells of shelter behind islands, conditions were idyllic. Once we’d reached our destination, I decided to land & explore. Llinos, meanwhile, stayed in the kayak. This provided my first opportunity to record one of us negotiating some messy seas (I’ve always wondered what sea that feels dramatic to us would actually look like from shore):
Llinos reported that this sometimes felt too thrilling. My circumstances were different. The sun was out, and this island is an extraordinarily rich mixed habitat, thanks in part to its western ridges which provide a barrier against the Atlantic weather. Behind these are beautiful blue lagoons, whose entrances from the sea are so rocky that the swell is killed in an instant.
Moving South East, the island has high cliffs, populated by shag & fulmar:
On the inland side, these roll down to reedy marshland full of ducks, snipe & buntings. The slopes between the cliffs and marsh are grazed by a small flock of sheep, between whose feet wagtails run:
The southeastern end of the island – furthest from the incoming ocean – is the most hospitable. First the cliffs give way to fine sandy beaches:
Then the walker arrives at a remarkable palimpsest of human activity. The oldest buildings here are late Mesolithic shell middens from which tools of quartz & flint, cooked fish, mammal bones & charred hazelnut shells have been excavated. Then there are three early-modern houses & a kiln, which seem to have been abandoned in 1820 when the island was first cleared, before an attempt at repopulation in 1840 & the final clearance in 1849. Since then, some shepherding/fishing buildings of a kind I’ve never seen before have been erected in the footprints of the previous structures. Here they are:
This all amounts to 5000 years of use & reuse of a single tiny spot on an island with no other buildings: testament to the long, attritional consistency of the Atlantic’s influence. That night we ate a suitably traditional North Atlantic meal of herrings rolled in oatmeal & fried in butter (a family dairy cow is as much a feature of Lewis custom as a family fishing boat: even the times of church services – midday & 6pm – once took into account the need of most Lewis families to milk every twelve hours).
Next day we decided to venture South & explore Harris. Winds were high, but dropping later in the day, so we decided to take in some history along the way. We’d already visited the most famous historic site on the island, the Callanish Stones, where we’d watched the sunset:
These stones were traditionally known as Na Fir Bhreige, 'the false men', once associated with a myth that they were giants turned to stone by St Kieran for refusing to convert to Christianity. We’d also looked at Dun Carlabhagh, an imposing iron age fortification made to protect arable land from the sea, and later a focal point of clan battles between MacLeods, Morrisons & MacAulays & the Earl of Huntley (sent to impose Scottish rule over the clans).
These two sites are both on the edge of Bernera, just a couple of miles from where we were staying. As usual, however, the most intriguing historical sites were those happened across by accident. Having crossed the Harris mountains, we stopped at St Clement's, a tiny sixteenth-century chapel.
Built of huge stones, the tower walls are so thick that the space inside, as you climb the tiny staircases, is miniscule. The robustness is demanded by the chapel’s proximity to the Atlantic – here’s the view from inside:
The chapel was built for Alasdair MacLeod, 8th chief of the powerful MacLeod clan, and houses his tomb. Although the whole building is full of glorious carvings, it's this tomb that seems to conjure the whole of Harris life in the 1540s. There are ships to represent MacLeod naval power:
And elegant deer, for which the island is named (‘Na Hearadh’ is ‘the harries’ in Gaelic – grounds for deer hunting).
As the day wore on, we decided our most interesting afternoon would be to kayak round the island of Scalpay off the East side of Harris. This is a complex & beautiful small island which has been remarkably successful in retaining its inhabitants (unusual among small ocean outposts in having a similar population to a century ago). Houses are almost exclusively confined to the W side of the island (where there is, incidentally, an unexpectedly excellent small restaurant – the North Harbour Bistro – this lunch was the best food we had all week).

We set out from the harbour and headed round a series of headlands to the East. The views to the South were soon extraordinary: down the whole line of the Western Isles, the headlands of the Uists looking like islands themselves. The views South East soon took in the peninsulas of Skye’s West coast. Here Llinos heads out in the direction of Waternish:
We stopped on an eastern peninsula as the sun began to set and took in the views back over Scalpay & Harris...
...watched by a wee island lamb:
From here we could see dozens of gannets & a pod of dolphins feeding at shoals in the middle of the Minch. Far stranger was a creature that swam in towards the coastline. This was perhaps the oddest ocean animal I’ve ever seen. Presumably some kind of deep sea shark, about the size of a porpoise, it swam with dorsal fin & very strange snout out of the water. The pictures are awful, but I’ve put them here in the hope that someone with unusual eyesight & insight might be able to provide an identification:
Back in the boats, we headed up Scalpay’s E coast, which provided great views of the Shiant Isles…
…and of Scalpay’s lighthouse with its ENORMOUS fog horn:
The sun was now down, but the moon up, providing plenty of light to kayak by – here’s the Trotternish ridge on Skye…
…and one last view back across Harris:
By the time we paddled back into the village we had little light but the moonlight:
Running out of time in the Western Isles, we had one last day of paddling. We headed straight out from the door to explore more of the myriad islands in West Loch Roag. The initial gloom in the sky…
…soon gave way to yet more brilliant sunshine, though the sea retained the wonderful roll it had shown all week:
Although flat seas provide the best wildlife sightings & photo opportunities, the experience of a rolling sea easily compensates for that. I love the feeling of waking up in the night to the sensation of rocking – the body remembering passing in a tiny plastic shell across the moving swell.

Every so often, we’d find crowds of auks bobbing like corks on the deep waves. Here’s one such flock of tysties:
Early on we watched a distant sea eagle rise from Eilean Fuaigh Mor & soar over Harris: that, we thought, was the local Flying Barn Door off for the day. A little later, we were rounding Eilean Fuaigh Mor ourselves…
…and were surprised when another eagle took off from the island. Appearing while the camera was stowed, and flying into the sun, a proper photo was impossible, but here’s a sea eagle silhouette ascending into vaporous cloud.
That night we went to the only bar on the W side of Lewis (!), the Doune Braes Hotel, and shared a few pints with a local fisherman & a chef (off duty due to a broken wrist), hearing stories of the past glories of the bar when the neighbouring village of Carlabhagh was more thickly populated than today.

Next morning, head a little fuzzy, it was an enormous wrench to pack the car & head to Stornoway. But with a second winter arriving – snow & gales forecast – the kayaking might have been over anyway. We left Lewis expecting not to be back in the kayaks for some time. But after a night in the Ceilidh Place in Ullapool the weather gave us the chance for one of the most magical day's kayaking we've ever had. We took a substantial detour North on 'the way home', taking the chance to explore some coastline we've not visited before. 

The day began with the most spectacularly lucky of encounters. Confronting a short-eared owl always sends a chill down my spine, and this was the first time it's happened with a camera to hand. There's something about the superior glare these birds give you that feels not just interrogatory but like the judgement of a fire-and-brimstone preacher. From sea level, looking up across the machair, the impression was particularly intense:
Then, with an air of utter disdain, the owl will fly around, not away from, the intruder, still seeming to insist 'it is you who should be afraid of me':
After our pulses had returned to something-close-to-healthy, we made our slow way down a coastline of caves, stacks, tunnels & blowholes:
As with most cliff-frilled coastlines, the wildlife was as impressive as the scenery: guillemots, razorbills, puffins, fulmars & seals present in numbers.
Then, a little later than promised, the storms returned - snow as far South as Bournemouth - and our kayaking had to stop. The next Scottish visit will be 'Traversing the Field' - an event at the University of Dundee where I'll be talking about historians & the art of walking for research. So with a parting glance at one last coastal viewpoint, we headed South...

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