Rathlin Island

For one week this June this small island off the Antrim coast was a constant presence. The cottage we had rented stood high on a hill a couple of miles outside the resort of Ballycastle and the view to the north was an uninterrupted panorama of sea, sky and the long, low profile of Northern Ireland’s only inhabited island. The view depended on the weather, of course, which was something that changed constantly and wavered between overcast and mixed spells of sunshine and showers.

The L-shaped island that hugged the northern horizon was always visible, although in less clement weather it was sometimes little more than a hazy grey outline, a vague smudge that sat on the water. Sun or shine, two of the island’s three lighthouses were always in view, winking at intervals to alert shipping – the waters around Rathlin Island have a long history of shipwrecks and the remains of many unsuspecting vessels lie gathering barnacles at the bottom of the Atlantic close to its shore.

On sunnier days, more detail became evident and the island’s magpie cliffs of basalt and chalk could be clearly discerned, as could the houses and church of the village by the harbour. It was on these brighter days that other landforms also took shape on the horizon. Most days we could make out the southern end of the Scottish peninsula that is the Mull of Kintyre but now and then, far beyond the island, more distant places came into view – the hills of Islay and the unmistakable rise of the Paps of Jura.

From our perspective the island appeared to be at the edge of things. The most northerly point in Northern Ireland, it was the place where the island of Ireland gave way to the Atlantic. A small island that lay off the coast of another larger island, it seemed to be more an outlier than a stepping stone to anywhere else. But it was a place that had not always been so peripheral: long before today’s national divisions had come into play Rathlin had been central to the ancient Gaelic kingdom of Dal Riada, a political entity that included the coast of Argyll in western Scotland as well as part of what is now County Antrim in Northern Ireland.

Some days we could make out the ferry, Spirit of Rathlin, plying its way between Ballycastle and the island. On a day that promised to be calmer and sunnier than most we made the journey ourselves. As we drew closer to the harbour at Rathlin an increasing number of seabirds could be seen bobbing about on the water – a taste of what we would soon be seeing on the island itself. These were mostly guillemots but there were also small parties of gannets flying low over the waves, identifiable even at distance with their butter-coloured necks and long ink-dipped wings.

At Rathlin harbour, a bus – the ‘Puffin Express’ – was waiting to drive passengers across the island to the RSPB bird reserve at its western point. Here, steps led down to a viewing platform opposite the cliffs and stacks where the seabirds nested. The malodorous smell of guano grew increasingly strong as we descended – observing seabirds up close is undoubtedly one of the least glamorous aspects of bird watching. From the viewing platform vast numbers of seabirds could be seen at their nests opposite on the rocks – as closely packed as an urban high-rise but with distinctly separate enclaves of guillemot and razorbill, kittiwake and puffin. Closer to the viewing platform, a few fulmars, contemptuous of the excitable human presence and unperturbed by the relentless glint of expensive optics, had made their nests in the grass just beyond the barrier.

Driving back to the village, past fields of sheep and grazing cattle, our driver stopped the bus briefly to point out a cave to our left. It was the entrance, he said, to the stone axe mine that had existed on the island in Neolithic times.

In Belfast, a few days earlier, I had gone to see the so-called Malone Hoard at the Ulster Museum. The hoard was a collection of 19 beautifully polished stone axes that had been discovered on Malone Road close to the museum. The axes were around 6,000 years old and clearly ceremonial objects of some kind: not only were they too large to be of practical use for chopping trees but when they were discovered some of the stones had been found aligned vertically in the ground. Even behind glass, they were undeniably beautiful objects and had a curvy heft about them that seemed to invite handling. Given the understandable restrictions imposed by museums, this, of course, was not possible.

The axes had been identified as being made from a rock called porcellanite, a hard, dense impure variety of chert so-named because of its physical similarity to unglazed porcelain. Unlike flint, porcellanite does not flake easily and has a texture that accepts a fine polish and keen edge. There were only two possible sources of this scarce rock in Northern Ireland. Both were in Antrim. One was at Tievebulliagh, a 402-metre mountain in the Glens of Antrim; the other was on Rathlin Island. Both sources yielded rock of exactly the same physical and chemical makeup so it was impossible to tell which had been used for the Malone Road axes. For reasons of romance rather than anything more scientific, I preferred to think that these precious objects had originated here on the island.

Back off the bus, we sat on the beach at Mill Bay listening to the piping of oystercatchers and watching grey seals as they made forays through the rafts of seaweed that lay just offshore. Seaweed was once a profitable business here. A little further on towards the harbour, an abandoned kelp barn stood roofless next to the shore. It was built of blocks of the same Cretaceous chalk that make up the white cliffs we could see from our rental cottage on the mainland.

After an unproductive listen for corncrakes in a field we had been told about by an RSPB warden we made our way to the jetty to wait for the ferry back to Ballycastle. Notwithstanding the lack of corncrakes, it had been a satisfying few hours. We were by now brim-full with all the wonders that Rathlin Island had to offer: the seabirds – the smell, the noise, the frantic flying about; the wider natural history of the place – the seals, the kelp, the garden flowers that had gone feral and colonised the island’s dry stone walls. Then there was the geology – the Cretaceous chalk and Tertiary basalt of the cliffs, the flints on the beach, the cave with its supply of elusive porcellanite. It would have been nice to have taken a peek inside the cave where the stone axe mine had been but it did not really matter. Prehistory, myth and memory are all intertwined and we make our own emotional truths. Whatever the true archaeological facts of it, in my mind at least the Malone Hoard axes would always be associated with this place on the edge of things.

Riasg Buidhe – an abandoned village on the Isle of Colonsay

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It is not that easy to find but if you go to the recycling depot at the highest point on the road between Scalasaig and Kiloran on the Isle of Colonsay, then follow the rough track that leads towards the coast, you will eventually stumble upon it.  The abandoned village of Riasg Buidhe lies a kilometre or so east of the road. The Gaelic name translates as ‘yellow moor grass’, although how yellow the grass is tends to depend on the time of year and how much recent rainfall there has been.

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Walking towards the sea, the Paps of Jura rising across the water like a squirming sea monster, the village ruins slowly pull into focus ahead – a freestanding gable here, a dry stone wall there. The most notable of the ruins is a row of terraced cottages, seven in total, each one now roofless and overgrown with bracken and foxgloves. The cottages are probably of 18th century origin with chimneys and fireplaces added in the 19th century. Originally rush-thatched, their roofs, long-rotted away, are now notable by their absence.

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Formerly a village associated with run-rig agriculture, Riasg Buidhe transformed, with encouragement from the local laird, into a herring fishing community in the late 19th century. The transformation was not wholly successful however, as shortly after embarking on this new venture a great storm silted up the approach to the curing station on neighbouring Islay. The villagers then tried their hand at lobster fishing, pursuing this as a livelihood until the coming of the Great War, after which they left the village for good.

A community had existed at Riasg Buidhe for more than a millennium. Of far greater antiquity than the cottages are the chapel and burial ground that stand to the south of the village. Little remains of the chapel today and clear identification on the ground demands a keen archaeological eye although a few un-inscribed gravestones can still be seen. Southeast of the chapel was the village’s water supply: a well that was once marked with a finely carved cross. This we had seen a few days earlier in the gardens at Colonsay House, where it had been ‘taken into safekeeping’ and repositioned next to another well (Tobar Odhrain – ‘St Oran’s Well’) in the 19th century. The cross, known locally as Dealbh na Leisge (‘the sleepy figure’), is believed to date from the 8th or 9th century and portrays a cleric with a tonsure. Its reverse bears a fertility figure, a reflection perhaps of the pluralistic faith of the Viking settlers who occupied the island when the stone was carved.

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Walking among the ruins, exploring the terraced cottages and trying to make sense of the village layout, the sense of absence is palpable: a tangible awareness of long centuries of human presence and then sudden abandonment. Standing within one of the cottages and looking up, the low walls make a frame for the ever-changing Hebridean sky above, which one moment may be cirrus-flecked blue, and the next, a silver-grey glower of cumulus that threatens rain. These same stone walls and the small, bare living spaces they enclosed would once have rang with children’s voices, Gaelic song, whispered endearments, perhaps heated argument. Like all ruins, they were a stone repository of memory.

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There is an echo here of the much-photographed terraced cottages on Hirta in the St Kilda archipelago. These are similar in structure and size yet Riasg Buidhe was a very different community to that of far more isolated St Kilda. The villagers here were never evacuated wholesale to start a new life on the Scottish mainland, nor were they driven from their homes by the hated clearances that plagued much of the rest of highland and island Scotland. Instead, they moved away simply because of the provision of new homes at Glassard on the coast just a few kilometres away. With more comfortable and better equipped housing on offer, who could blame them?

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(Thirty-)Six Views of Bass Rock

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It is just the one crag of rock, as everybody knows, but great enough to carve a city from.

Robert Louis Stevenson Catriona

Japan’s Mount Fuji is a dormant volcano that looks just like a volcano should. An almost perfectly symmetrical, snow-capped cone, its image is deeply embedded in the Japanese psyche. Sacred, beautiful, mysterious, its most iconic representation in art is the Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji series painted late in life by the ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760—1849). Probably the best known of the series is Under the Wave off Kanagawa, which depicts a distant Fuji framed by a terrifying tsunami wave. My own favourite is no. 33 Fine Wind, Clear Morning, which shows Fuji’s cone rendered deep crimson by the rising sun. Featuring delicate cirrus clouds against a blue sky and iconic sun-lit mountain, its aesthetic simplicity ticks all the essential boxes of classic Japanese woodblock art.

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In the United Kingdom, a long way from the tectonic frontline of the Pacific’s Ring of Fire, our volcanoes are of a more ancient vintage. Not so much dormant as comatose, long inactive through an aeon-slow unfolding of geological time, all that we have are fossilised remnants of our islands’ distant fire-spewing past. In Scotland, Arthur’s Seat just outside Edinburgh is one such example, as is the rock upon which Edinburgh Castle sits — both volcanic remnants from the Carboniferous period that gripped the Earth over 330 million years ago. Further east, close to the mouth of the Firth of Forth, the island of Bass Rock, located about two kilometres offshore, is of similar pedigree. An igneous volcanic plug created when magma hardened within the vent of an active volcano, the surrounding rock eventually eroded to expose the plug and leave an upstanding landform that rises 100 metres above the water it finds itself in today.

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Bass Rock is probably better known for its bird life than its geology. Northern Gannets nest here in enormous numbers — something in the order of 150,000, making the rock the largest colony of the seabird in the world. The gannets are not permanently resident but leave the rock after breeding each year, migrating their way south for the winter. They were still present when we viewed the rock from the East Lothian shore at Tantallon Castle in October, a small number of the birds straying from the security of the rock to fish close to the shore.

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We had seen Bass Rock from a much closer viewpoint six years previous when we had sailed past it on a boat. It was June then, the height of the breeding season, and the birds seemed to fill the sky above the guano-washed rock, crisscrossing haphazardly above our heads before peeling off to plunge vertically at great speed into the sea in pursuit of fish. On that occasion we were able to smell the colony long before we arrived – an ammoniacal stench so strong that you could almost see its vapour shimmer skywards. Our boat drew close enough to the rock to be able to identify the individual nests of birds, and we could also make out the ruin of St Baldred’s Chapel atop the rock – not the most obvious place for a retreat into the spiritual life given the omnipresence of eye-watering guano deposited by the  rock’s hyperactive tenants.

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Even from the more distant viewpoint of the shore we could discern the rock’s landing places, a fragment of the old castle remains and the white lighthouse, designed by Robert Louis Stevenson’s cousin, David. Although there was nothing to be seen now, there was also once a gaol here. James I incarcerated a number of political enemies here in the 15th century, and two centuries later religious prisoners, Presbyterian Covenanters mostly, were also held on this island prison.

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Comparisons between Mount Fuji and Bass Rock are, of course, futile. But there is at least some commonality: both are/were volcanoes; both are capped with white. Hokusai famously produced 36 different views of his beloved mountain, each work unique in terms of distance, viewpoint and time of year. I can only offer something far more modest. Here then, are six views of Bass Rock, taken either in June or October, from shoreline (Tantallon Castle and North Berwick) and from sea.

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The Shores of Loch Bee

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An island. A loch. An island — South Uist — that forms a link in an archipelago that lies off a much larger island, which in turn lies to the northwest of the world’s largest continental landmass. If the world has an edge, a legendary place for ships to plummet off the rim, then this is as good a contender as any.

A loch that shares its name with an insect but there the comparison stops: Loch Bee (in Gaelic, Loch Bì). The shallow loch extends across the northern reaches of South Uist, joined to the sea on both coasts by a floodgate at a narrow inlet. A causeway traverses the loch, north to south. There’s a road sign here that says, Caution: Otters Crossing — photographic click-bait for any visitor in thrall to the sheer otherness of these islands. There are no otters today, nor on any other occasion that we motor across the water in the direction of Benbecula, but their existence seems tangible enough.

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Venture a little further south beyond the loch and you soon reach a tall imposing statue on a hillside, a modernist rendition of Madonna and child, a reminder that this is around the point where the Wee-Free north of the archipelago morphs into the Catholic south. Not that it matters that much, it would seem that the people who inhabit this landscape share a mutual islander mentality that rises above any petty sectarianism.

Our rented house lies just beyond the causeway, its lounge window gazing east towards the water of Loch Bee, the far-distant Cuillin Hills of Skye across The Minch providing an impressive backdrop, a jagged wall of limestone in a world of water, peat and gneiss. The loch’s brackish water changes colour with the light and the play of clouds. In late April the heather is black and withered, still reeling from winter, the moorland devoid of flowers other than tiny violets. For the few days of our stay it is bright and sunny, not a cloud in the sky. The brilliant sunshine, although welcome, seems like an interloper so far north and so early in the season.

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The sunshine and translucent sky engenders a clarity of air that reverses the wing-mirror axiom that objects may be closer than they appear. Even the Cuillin Hills, which given the curvature of the Earth, must be teetering on the brink of the horizon, look reachable in a stiff day’s walk were in not for the inconvenience of The Minch. The weather eventually turns of course, giving way to showers and scudding clouds; then uniform dreich, a grey eiderdown of cloud hauled over the land to render it almost monotone. As each day passes, the wind grows a little stronger, un-sensed behind the double-glazing until sight is caught of the wind turbine blades spinning like dervishes. Whipped up by the strengthening southwesterly, the surface of the loch transforms from glass to whisked meringue, its colour darkening azure to peat black.

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The loch is home to a large population of mute swans that float regally around on the far shore, occasionally taking to creak-winged flight in search of better pickings. Greylag geese honk by in small squadrons, while lapwings and oystercatchers pipe wistfully above the heather of the loch shore. A small group of red-breasted mergansers in the middle of the water, their handsome plumage reduced to piebald by distance, take turns to dive down in search of trout. Almost overlooked close to the shore, a solitary raven appears reluctant to stray far from a group of plastic-bound hay bales next to a gate. The mystery of this is revealed with a stroll down to the water, where the corpse of a young deer is found lying behind the bales, its ribcage already exposed to the elements in a slow exposition of sky burial — a mortal slur on the tranquility of the scene, perhaps a necessary one. There are other predators at large. As dusk descends, a glimpsed crepuscular flurrying may or may not be a short-eared owl in search of voles — this is indeed their territory, as it is for hen harriers, which we do see several times elsewhere on the islands although not here.

Early evening is also the time when the red deer usually make an appearance, arriving in view by nonchalantly leaping over fences that pose not the slightest barrier to them. A small herd of females and a lone stag nervously stray between the house and the loch shore, ever vigilant, their heads bobbing erect and watchful between mouthfuls. Our human smell is masked by brick and glass but can they see us, recognise our human outlines, curious figures with protruding metal and glass eyes that gawp at them from behind the window pane?

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The Bridge to Nowhere and the Bays Road

IMG_7499Just three main roads radiate out of Stornoway, the capital of the Isle of Lewis. One heads across mountains towards Tarbet and Harris to the south; another goes east past the island’s airport and along the Eye Peninsula to come to halt at the lighthouse at Tiumpan Head, while a third leads across the island’s moorland interior to reach its west coast. A little way along this last road is the turn-off to Tolsta, a minor road with the most unexpected of endings. The road passes bungalow settlements and sea-facing graveyards as it leads north. In Hebridean terms, this is relatively densely populated terrain — one settlement merging into the next in a loose sprawl known collectively as Back. This stretch of Stornoway’s hinterland might elsewhere be termed green belt were it not a fact that pretty well anywhere on Lewis and Harris could be described as ‘green’.

Some fifteen miles from Stornoway, a little way beyond the small coastal village of Tolsta, is Garry Beach, a quiet sandy beach with its own car park. A few campervans are parked up here and a rusty caravan is tethered in a boggy field alongside, more likely a base for itinerant workers than a low-rent holiday home. A couple, well wrapped-up against the cool on-shore breeze, are exercising their dog on the beach. A couple of jagged sea stacks rise vertiginously just offshore; half a dozen oystercatchers methodically work the tideline, red beaks wrestling with molluscs. The asphalt road, single track since Tolsta, ends abruptly at the car park and continues only as a rough peat-digging track that winds up the hillside towards a concrete structure. Walk up here and you soon come to it — a bridge over a narrow gorge that, counter-intuitively, appears to be the very end of the road.

The Bridge to Nowhere, as it is generally known, was constructed by Lord Leverhulme, one-time owner of the island, as part of a project to build a road that connected Stornaway with Ness, a fishing village at the northern tip of the island. Like many of Leverhume’s ambitious schemes, good intentions went awry and for a number of reasons the road was never completed. Even today, the only direct way between Tolsta and Ness is on foot, a weary ten-mile slog through soggy moorland that for most people makes the longer, circuitous trip by road via Stornaway and Barvas a more attractive option.  The original vision was to build three large farms that would provide dairy produce for fish cannery workers. Alas, the fish canning empire never came to fruition and a lack of both funds and enthusiasm resulted in the road never extended beyond the bridge at Garry Beach.

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Head south of Stornoway, over the North Harris Hills to Tarbet and then across the isthmus into South Harris, and you have two options to reach to the ferry port of Leverburgh at the southern tip of this, the largest of the Hebridean islands. The road that skirts the west coast is relatively wide and easy to navigate but the road that runs parallel to the east coast, circumscribing many rocky inlets along the way, is of a very different character. The two coasts of South Harris have strikingly contrasting landscapes. While the west road swoops smoothly past enormous tidal sandy beaches like that at Luskentyre, the narrow east road weaves erratically around rugged inlets and rocky outcrops.

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Rough country, largely soil-less, infertile, with very little land suitable for grazing or farming — you might wonder why people might live here in the first case. The reason, of course, as in so many places in the Scottish highland and islands, is because of widespread clearance in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The extensive land clearances of Harris were enforced by the Macleod family who once owned the island and who, to make way for their profitable sheep enterprises, forcibly moved many crofters off the relatively fertile land of the west coast to the far poorer, rocky terrain of the east. As a result, many families migrated to Canada to seek a better, more secure life, while those who remained struggled to survive by digging ‘lazy beds’ for potato-growing — labour-intensive raised beds in which the thin poor soil was bulked out and enriched with seaweed and straw. Never was the word ‘lazy’ so misappropriated.

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To travel the Bays Road, as the C79 east coast road is better known, is to witness a dramatic sweep of exposed gneiss, sky and water, with ever-changing glimpses of narrow rocky inlets, dark reed-filled pools and peat-stained streams the colour of strong-brewed tea. The road is not for drivers of a nervous disposition – narrow even for a single lane, with a general allocation of passing spaces, it is a constantly winding tour-de-force where each mile covered seems more like five. Stark, barren, primeval: the landscape is far from bucolic but it is undeniably beautiful. Sheep wander across the road with impunity; white-tailed eagles and buzzards spiral slowly overhead; curious ravens perch on rocks eyeing the sporadic passing traffic like pensioners on a park bench. For the briefest of moments, a pair of golden eagles make an appearance silhouetted high above a ridge. At the road’s highest point, the peaks and headlands of the Isle of Skye show themselves to the east across the wave-flecked Little Minch. The sea is translucent, deepest blue; a CalMac ferry is halfway across the channel steadfastly plying its twice-daily journey to Uig on Skye. In the diamond-clear light, the far-distant Cuillin Hills can be seen glinting crystalline in the sun. Deprived of a decent livelihood by uncaring landlords, you can only reflect that the crofters who were banished to this unwelcoming, unworkable terrain were at least given possession of some of the finest viewpoints in the kingdom.

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Callanish

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a place appointed for worship in the time of heathenism

Martin Martin A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland circa 1695

Someone once said that the wonder evoked by historical sites is inversely proportional to the number of eyes that have already gazed upon them. ‘Must-see’ tourism and mystery tend to stand in direct opposition. This is partly connected with the familiarity of the site itself — how well we think we already know somewhere from postcards, tourist board propaganda, travel features and social media. The Pyramids at Giza, probably the oldest tourist destination in the world, are a prime example. Magnificent though they may be, there is much at the site to detract from unbiased appreciation: crowds, trinket hawkers, faux guides, camel-hire men, and the very fact that an image of them has been burned into the retina since childhood even if we have never even stepped from these shores.

Similarly Stonehenge, England’s prime sacred site, which is of even greater antiquity and in many ways even more mysterious than the Egyptian pyramids in terms of function. In recent years, for perfectly understandable reasons, the monument has  been sanitised and practically cling-film-wrapped by its guardians at English Heritage. New Age travellers, modern-day druids and miscellaneous stone-huggers are kept well away if at all possible, while the sightseeing general public is discouraged by means of fences, timed tickets, high entrance fees and the benign tear gas of lavender-wafted gift shops. The presence of large coach parties and the constantly rumbling A303 does little to engender a mystical atmosphere either. This may seem a little harsh but, personally speaking, I can no longer bring Stonehenge to mind without thinking of the film Spinal Tap and a particularly comical stage set.

Stonehenge! Where a man’s a man

And the children dance to the Pipes of Pan.

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A place which, for me, has far more resonance is Callanish on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. Not that it is undiscovered, far from it — this 5,000 year-old stone circle has long served as a poster girl for Scottish Highlands and Islands tourism promotions — but Callanish/Calanais is at least suitably remote, close to the western shore of Lewis and the best part of an hour’s drive from Stornoway, the main town on the island.

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The first thing you notice on arrival — the stones themselves are already half-familiar thanks to photographic reproduction — is the immense beauty of the landscape that surrounds the site. Less raw and perhaps a little softer than some Lewis scenery, the stones stand on a bluff above the small eponymous village that developed in their shadow. The view from the hill is a pleasing vista of lochs and inlets, with the low hills of Great Bernera rising in the distance, the outlying stones of Calanais II and III pinpointed by distant figures on their way to view them.

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The stones, of course, are not deserted of people — it is a fine late September day when we visit and visitors are making the most of the clement weather. A couple of tour minibuses are parked up outside the visitor centre and the gift shop and café are both enjoying a brisk trade. Walking the short track that leads to the stones we come upon a French tour group who are engaged in photographing each other as they stroll around the monoliths. Most of the women of the group sport black midge masks that droop in front of their faces like saggy proboscises — the fine mesh protecting them from ravaging insects. The donning of masks also appears to be an unconscious act of sympathetic magic as their chosen headgear makes them look uncannily like giant flies — biped flies, that is, garbed in Gore-Tex and Barbour. Truth be told, the midges are really not all that problematic and it seems that the French fly-women are perhaps overreacting to the perceived threat. It seems a little ironic, too, that they hail from a country that banned all-enveloping face coverings like the burqa just a few years ago.

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The site is relatively busy yet the proverbial camera proves to be an efficient liar. It is approaching lunchtime; the crowd around the stones has already thinned, and it does not take long to snap a number of images in which no human presence is detectable. No doubt, with sufficient Photoshop tweaking, I could possibly also adjust the contrast and saturation to simulate a sunrise rather than late morning scene. But I am happy as things are and reflect that as most of the evidence points towards Callanish being constructed as a temple orientated to moon-rise I really ought to be here at night instead.

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The Callanish site is well known and rightly cherished but there are other, less-heralded standing stones in the vicinity. The previous day we had come across a small group of monoliths close to the bridge that leads across to Great Bernera. These stones, fewer but similar in size and shape to those at Callanish, were of the same three-billion-year-old Lewisian gneiss, one of the oldest rocks on Earth. Known locally as Tursachan (Gaelic for ‘standing stones’), or more prosaically by archaeologists as Callanish VIII, they stood on the island of Great Bernera overlooking the bridge from the Lewis mainland. Formerly an island off an island (Lewis and Harris), which, in turn, stands off a much larger island (Scotland, England and Wales), Great Bernera has only been connected to Lewis by bridge since 1953. When first erected, the semi-circle of four large stones would have stood sentinel-like overlooking the straight between the island and Lewis; now they overlook the bridge that connects them. Unlike their better known neighbours to the east these stones are now almost forgotten. With little more than a modest signpost to point them out, they are a sidebar of prehistory, mere cartographic marginalia on the OS Explorer 458 West Lewis map.

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The Shape on the Map — South Lochs, Isle of Lewis

IMG_7623Eleven miles east of the main road, six from the nearest shop (closed on the Sabbath), two miles from the open sea as the raven flies. Glen Gravir – a slender thread of houses stretching up a glen, just four more unoccupied dwellings beyond ours before the road abruptly terminates at a fence, nothing but rough wet grazing,  soggy peat and unseen lochans beyond. This was our home for the week, a holiday rental in the Park (South Lochs) district of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.

IMG_7596Gravir, of which Glen Gravir is but an outpost, is large enough to feature on the map, albeit in its Gaelic form, Grabhair. The village – more a loose straggle of houses and plots – possesses a school, a fire station and a church but no shop. A road from the junction with Glenside next to the church winds its way unhurriedly downhill to the sea inlet of Loch Odhairn where there is a small jetty for boats. Some of the houses are clearly empty; others occupied by crofters and incomers, their occupants largely unseen. Others are long ruined, tenanted only by raven and opportunist rowan trees, with roofs absent and little more than chimney stacks and gable walls surviving. It is only a matter of time before the stones that have been laid to construct the walls will be indistinguishable from the native gneiss that underlies the island, surfacing above the bog here and there in outcrops like human-raised cairns. Lewisian gneiss is the oldest rock in Britain. Three billion years old, two-thirds the age of our planet, it is as hard as…well, gneiss. It is the same tough unyielding rock that five thousand years ago was painstakingly worked and positioned at the Callanish stone circle close to Lewis’s western shore; the same rock used to build the island’s churches, which occupy the same sacred sites, the same fixed points of genii loci that had been identified long before Presbyterianism or any another monotheistic faith arrived in these isolated north-western isles.IMG_7587Ancient hard rock (as in metamorphic) may underlie Lewis, but religion is another bedrock of the island. Despite a respectable number of dwellings the only people we ever really see in the village are those who come in number on Sunday. The Hebridean Wee Free tradition guarantees a full car park on the Sabbath when smartly and soberly dressed folk from the wider locality congregate at Grabhair’s church, which, grave, grey and impressively large, is the only place of worship in this eastern part of the South Lochs district.IMG_7586IMG_8372At the bottom of the lane beneath the hillside graveyard next to the church are a couple of recycling containers for villagers to deposit their empties and waste paper. Larger items of material consumption are left to their own devices. Rain, wind and thin acidic soil are the natural agents of decay here. Beside the roadside further up from our house lie four long-abandoned vehicles in various stages of decomposition. Engines are laid bare; bodywork and chassis, buckled and distressed, rust-coated in mimicry of the colour of lichen and autumn-faded heather. Cushions of moss have colonised the seating fabric. The rubber tyres remain surprisingly intact, the longest survivor of abandonment. Sharp-edged sedges have grown around the rotting car-carcasses as if to hide them from prying eyes, preserving some modicum of dignity as the wrecks decay into the roadside bog, all glamour expunged from a lifetime spent negotiating the island’s narrow single track roads. On Lewis, vehicles die of natural causes, not geriatric intervention.IMG_8301IMG_8306Our cottage was rented as an island base: a place to eat, rest and sleep before setting off each morning on a long drive to visit one of Lewis’s far flung corners. Happily, it feels like a home, albeit a temporary one – a domestic cocoon of cosiness with all the modest comforts we require. Its small garden is a haven. As everywhere on the island,  tangerine spikes of montbretia arch like welder’s sparks from the grass. Rabbits scamper about on the lawn, colour-flushed parties of goldfinches feed on the seed heads of knapweed outside the kitchen window. Robins, wrens and blackbirds flit around the trees and shrubs that envelop the cottage – non-native plants that have adapted to the harsh weather conditions of this north-western island, softening an outlook that on a grey, wind-blown day, with a gloomy frame of mind, might be considered bleak.

Bleak perhaps, but beautiful: nature simplified to an essential dichotomy of land and sky – the former, solid, dark, numinous, unrelenting; the latter, capricious, changing in minutes from Mediterranean blue to storm-cloud black, with a cloudscape that can quickly morph from a liquid mercury-silver  to a rose-pink blush. There seems to be something about the air here that enables a clarity of sight, even when it is overcast or misty – an acuity of vision, a sharper edge to things. The topography is finely delineated, a bold line divides earth and sky like the firm brush stroke of a child’s painting.IMG_7568Most days on our jaunts around the island we would see an eagle or two, golden or white-tailed, sometimes both. The majority of these sighting are in more mountainous Harris, or in that southern part of Lewis that lay close to the North Harris Hills, but on our last day on Lewis we see a white-tailed eagle fly over Orinsay, a village relatively close to where we have been staying. An hour later we spot another bird swoop along the sea loch at Cromore, a coastal village that lies a few miles to the north. It might well be the same bird. White-tailed eagles are very large and hard to miss, and their feeding range is enormous. But that is exactly how Lewis seems – enormous, almost unknowable despite its modest geographical area. A place larger than the shape on the map – a mutable landscape of rock, sky and water that does not easily lend itself to the reductionism of two-dimensional cartography.IMG_8399IMG_8426IMG_8433IMG_8439IMG_7559

Skellig Michael – The Edge of the World

IMG_4023Today is St Patrick’s Day and March 17 is the supposed date of the 5th-century missionary’s death. Patrick was the forerunner of many early missionaries who came to Irish shores to preach Christianity, the island more receptive to new ideas about religion than its larger neighbour to the east across the Irish Sea. Consequently Ireland abounds with relics and ruins of early Christianity, sometimes in the most improbable of places.IMG_3921.JPGSailing around Ireland’s southwest coast, skirting the peninsulas that splay out from the Kerry coast, the two islands of the Skelligs come into view after rounding Bolus Head at the end of the Inveragh Peninsula. Both islands are sheer, with sharp-finned summits that resemble inverted boat keels. The smaller of the two appears largely white at first but increasing proximity reveals that the albino effect is down to a combination of nesting gannets and guano.  The acrid tang of ammonia on the breeze and distant cacophony announce the presence of the birds well before the identity of any individual can be confirmed by binoculars.IMG_3925As the boat draws closer, the sheer volume of birds – gannets, fulmars, puffins, terns – becomes plain to see. With something like 70,000 birds, Little Skellig is the second largest gannet colony in the world. But on the larger island of Skellig Michael, although seabirds abound here too, there is also the suggestion of a human presence, albeit an historic one. High up in the rocks, small stone structures can be discerned: rounded domes that are clearly man-made and which soften the jagged silhouette of the island’s summit.  These are beehive cells, the dry-stone oratories favoured by early Irish monks for their meditation. Sitting aloft the island on a high terrace, commanding a panoramic view over the Atlantic Ocean in one direction and the fractal Kerry coast in the other, these simple stone cells came without windows – the business was one of prayer and meditation not horizon-gazing. Such isolation was necessary for reasons of both safety and spirituality. And Skellig Michael was the acme of isolation. In the early Christian milieu the Skellig Islands, facing the seemingly limitless Atlantic off the southwest coast of Ireland, were more than merely remote: they were at the very edge of the known world.IMG_3960The island’s monastic site is infused with mystery, as all good ruins are, but is thought to have been established in the 6th century by Saint Fionán. Consisting of six beehive cells, two oratories and a later medieval church, the site occupies a stone terrace 600 feet above the swirling green waters of the sea below.IMG_4001Skirting Skellig Michael, a landing stage with a helicopter pad comes into view. A vertiginous path of stone steps leads up towards the beehive huts close to the island’s mountain-like summit.  We do not disembark. Instead we keep sailing, bound for a safer harbour in Glengarriff in County Cork. No matter, the sight of the rocks, the winding, climbing path and the austere cells on the terrace at the top is already imprinted on our memory.IMG_3989Without doubt this was a life of supreme hardship: the isolation, the relentless diet of fish and seabird eggs, the ever-battering wind and salt-spray. Such was the isolation, and so extreme the privations of this beatific pursuit, that one might assume that the monks would have been left in peace to practice their calling. This was not to be. Viking raiders arrived here in the early 9th century and took the trouble to land, scale the island’s heights and attack the monks. For most of us it is probably difficult to comprehend the blind-rage fury of the raiders, the wrath invoked in them by pious upstarts with their new Christian God. Easier perhaps is to imagine the dread that must have been felt by the monks as the Vikings approached their spiritual eyrie.IMG_4041

Thingvellir

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The winter solstice marks the dark frontier of the annual cycle: that time of year when days are at their shortest; the period of feasting before the corner of the year is turned and daylight and warmth return to awaken barren nature with voluptuous spring. Perhaps it is appropriate to represent this seasonal turning point with images of another type of frontier – a geographical one?

Thingvellir in southern Iceland lies at the meeting point of two continents and two major tectonic plates – the Eurasian Plate and the North American Plate. Rather than a violent collision of rock, as in the case of great mountain ranges like the Andes or Himalayas, here the plates are pulling apart in opposite directions – the rift valley between the two is actually becoming wider by approximately 7 mm every year. This is, in fact, the only place on earth where seafloor spreading of a mid-ocean ridge can be seen on solid land rather than at the bottom of an ocean. Elsewhere in the world this might seem remarkable but in such a newborn baby of a landmass as Iceland, where it is possible to witness the creation of new terra firma before your very eyes, such phenomena seem almost commonplace.

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By what we can only imagine was serendipity the earliest Viking settlers in Iceland chose this very place for their annual outdoor assembly. Thingvellir and the beautiful lake of Thingvallavatn, the largest lake in the country, lie at a natural crossroads that connects the south and west of Iceland and so make for a convenient location for large gatherings. It was undoubtedly a pragmatic choice but, even so, the landscape here seems to glow with an inherent magic that goes beyond mere aesthetic appeal. Such magic of place seems to be at its most powerful during the short days of mid-winter when these images were taken. Those early Icelanders clearly knew what they were doing.

Happy Christmas

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Lofoten – from Å to Bø

North Norway’s Lofoten Islands are famous for their beauty. Not for nothing have these islands been sometimes described as the most beautiful in the world. Even on the dullest of days, the landscape here is breathtaking. Vertiginous ridges of ancient granite and gneiss emerge almost directly from the sea like sharpened teeth and, in those rare places where the land is flat enough to have allowed a thin layer of soil to develop, a velvety carpet of grass clings like green baize. Around the islands’ coastline, homely clusters of rorbuer – wooden fishermen’s cottages painted the colour of ox blood – project over the sea on platforms.

It may seem counter intuitive given the rawness of nature here but this has long been a peopled landscape, its folk drawn by the bounty of cod fishing grounds that lie not so very far offshore. Cod remains an industry here, although these days it is less the catching of the fish as much as the processing of them. As evidence, each village displays an array of the fish drying racks that are used in winter to salt and dry the cod in order to produce the bacalao much loved by the Portuguese, Spanish and Italians.

One of Lofoten’s most iconic locations lies at the far southern end of the archipelago, a fishing hamlet whose name is spelled using just a single Norwegian letter: Å. Travelling by bus south to Å from the Lofoten capital Svolvær, you might also catch a glimpse of a road sign that points away from the main road to a village called Bø. So, perhaps only in Lofoten is it possible to literally travel from A (or rather, Å) to B(ø)?

Å may sound like a disappointment (the Norwegian letter is pronounced ‘oh!’) but the village is anything but, even though on the very wet end-of-season day that we visit we find everything closed apart from the museum. In Å, ‘everything’ simply refers to a bakery, restaurant and gift shop – the village is a quiet place at the best of times, apart from in peak season when the occasional coach-load of tourists descends on the village to visit the museum and take a few snaps before sampling salt cod for lunch.

Å may be Lofoten’s poster girl but there are ravishing villages around every turn; like Reine, where we stayed for a couple of nights, and Henningsvær at the end of a rocky isthmus close to Svolvær. Other settlements like Hamnøy, Ramberg and Kabelvåg, passed through swiftly on our bus journeys in the islands, looked to be equally alluring from the mind’s eye snapshot that a window view affords.

Such is the numinous splendour of the Lofoten landscape that accidently stumbling on the quotidian comes almost as a relief, a chance to draw breath and rest weary eyes from  relentless beauty. Passing through Leknes, a refreshingly ordinary market town, the place was busy with its annual Western festival – a chance for townsfolk to dress up in cowboy hats, drink plenty of Norwegian beer (which must be brewed from unicorn tears given its price) and survey the classic American cars that had mysteriously assembled on its streets overnight. Elsewhere, the small port of Stamsund seemed just a little less prosperous than its neighbours, with just the slightest hint of decay – the perfect place to take our leave of the islands by catching the Hurtigruten ferry service north.