The Crossing Place

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A pinch of the River Clyde; a squeezing of the water that flows west through Glasgow towards the sea; a watery place where shipyards once dominated the shoreline and the air shook with the hammering of rivets, the scrape and spark of steel plate, the blinding blue light of arc welding. Across the river, south of the here, lies the city district of Govan, depleted of industry now but once the hub for shipbuilding in the region. Here on the northern bank, at Glasgow Harbour on the site of a former shipyard on the edge of Partick, we stand outside the city’s Riverside Museum. The museum is an arresting zinc and glass structure with a steeply curving roofline that resembles a cardiogram – a late work by the Anglo-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid.

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Afloat in the water in front of the museum, in purposeful contrast, is the handsome three-masted sailing ship Glenlee, a trading ship that after circumnavigating the world four times (and rounding Cape Horn 15 times) ended her nautical life as Galatea, a training vessel for the Spanish Navy. Abandoned and forgotten in Seville the ship was eventually saved by a British naval architect and in 1993 was towed home to Glasgow to end her days on the river of her birth. From the deck of Glenlee we can make out the old buildings of Govan across the water. But there is no way to cross, not outside the summer months anyway, as the seasonal ferry has stopped operating. So it means a retreat on foot back to Partick Subway station to take the Inner Circle beneath the river to reach our goal on the other side.

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Emerging from the subway into the bright sunlight of a gleaming autumn day, the Govan streets seems quiet, provincial even; not quite what we had been expecting. The Victorian buildings have a patina of age but are well-scrubbed, made of sandstone the colour of ginger cake. Govan’s Old Parish Church is built of the same stone.

Govan is the oldest part of Glasgow. Until 1912 it was a separate burgh that was historically part of Lanarkshire. Once a centre for the ancient Kingdom of Strathclyde or Alt Clut, it was the northernmost part of the Cumbric (a variant of Brythonic or Old Welsh)-speaking region of Hen Ogledd* or the Old North. A monastery was founded here in the 7th-century by King Constantine (later to be canonised as St Constantine of Strathclyde and Govan), to whom the Old Govan Parish Church is dedicated. In the early medieval period Govan was ruled from Dumbarton Rock at the mouth of the Clyde on the opposite shore until it was destroyed by Vikings in 870AD. The Kingdom of Strathclyde, the only part of the Old North not to be conquered by Anglo-Saxons, eventually became part of the Kingdom of Scotland in the 11th century.

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Govan Old Parish Church is home to the Govan Stones, a remarkable collection of 31 grave markers that date back to the 9th century. The church, a fine Scottish Gothic Revival building, is not so old but it stands on a sacred site that was in existence long before the Normans came to dominate the lands to the south. Our timing is impeccable – October 31, the Celtic festival of Samhain – is the last day of the year on which the church is open. As our enthusiastic Scottish-Canadian guide explains, it is too expensive to keep the church heated for the winter months and so it is locked up for the duration.

IMG_7566 The stones are arranged around the church interior so as to make a circuit. There is intricate Celtic lattice work on the first two – the ‘Sun Stone’ and the Jordanhill Cross – and on the third, the ‘Cuddy Stane’, a representation of a man on a horse, or possibly a donkey (‘cuddy’) bearing a Christ figure. A group of five Viking hogbacks, dark and heavy, and resembling those giant slugs that sometimes venture out along garden paths after rain, dominate the transept.  Unnoticed until is pointed out to us, the paws of a supine bear clutch one of the stones at its corners, a complex symbol that combines animal strength and tenderness and might, perhaps, relate to the high-ranking Viking it commemorates. The highlight of the collection is probably the Govan Sarcophagus, the only one of its kind from the pre-Norman era, which was unearthed in the graveyard in 1855. This intricately carved structure is thought to have once held the remains of King Constantine himself, although its symbols suggest that is more likely to have been made a couple of centuries after his death. Elsewhere are ancient stones that have been recycled as markers for later graves – palimpsests where earlier detail has been erased to allow a new name to be cut into the stone.

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The stone for each of the grave markers, like the church itself, comes from the hills across the Clyde. The feat of moving such a heft of stone might seem Herculean in its endeavour but a millennium ago the river would have been shallower and narrower and there would have been a ford across it; there may even have been stepping stones bridging the two shores. Later, in the medieval period, a ferry would have run between the two banks to transport Highland cattle drovers and their stock across the river to markets south of Glasgow.

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By the 19th century Govan became better known as a centre for shipbuilding. It would go on to achieve fame as the birthplace of strong-willed characters like Jimmy Reed, Sir Alex Ferguson and Kenny Dalglish. But long before any ship was launched, Govan was a strategic and spiritual centre where Britonnic, Celtic and Scandinavian worlds overlapped thanks to an important crossing place on the river. If the Govan Stones could speak of those who carved them they would, of course, tell you this… in Cumbric naturally.

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*Hen Ogledd is also the name of an excellent Newcastle-based musical combo whose work sometimes references the early medieval Brythonic world their name suggests

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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Landfall – absence and dislocation on the Forth shore

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It began with a dislocation. A couple of weeks’ residence north of the border in the house of friends who had chosen to trade the Scottish late winter for the Antipodean summer. It was an opportunity for some writing time away from the usual distractions, with the bonus of optional walks along the Firth of Forth to stretch legs and imagination. The house, in a village a dozen miles east of Edinburgh, was situated midway between the railway station and the Forth shore – a ten minute walk to either. And if I needed a dose of cultural inspiration then I could easily catch the train into Auld Reekie and stay for as long as was necessary.

Travelling north by train, I don’t think I was even aware that the ‘Beast from the East’ was brewing trouble far away in continental Russia, and I had been installed in the house for a few days before the repeated warnings started to slowly filter into my consciousness. In those first few days of settling in, I usually worked until early afternoon before going out for a walk along the shore before it got dark. The first of these outings was at low tide. I walked westwards along the tide-ribbed sand, picking my way across shallow channels of water to head in the direction of Edinburgh, the city clearly visible ahead around the curve of the estuary. The twin-peaked bulge of Arthur’s Seat nudged the skyline in the distance, looking every bit the extinct volcano it was. Beyond it, the outline of Edinburgh Castle stood out amidst a hazy tangle of high-rise blocks and the spidery cranes of the docks at Leith. Across the calm, dark water of the Forth were the low hills of Fife. Beyond these, beyond the horizon, the jagged peaks of the Scottish Highlands rose stealthily in the imagined yonder of my mind, unseen yet a presence nevertheless.

The foreshore, glimmering in the low-slung sunshine of late afternoon, was dotted with waders preoccupied with probing the estuary mud. Periodically some perceived threat would alarm them sufficiently for them to fly off in groups before they settled somewhere else to resume feeding. A mixture of redshanks, oyster catchers and curlews, each bird provided their own distinctive piping call to create a wistful shoreline soundscape. In the shallow water close to shore, groups of wigeon huddled together companionably, elegant feathers rustling in the breeze. Out to sea, just about identifiable at this range, small rafts of goldeneye and eider bobbed dozily in the waves lost in sea duck dreams.

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Approaching Port Seton I came upon the wreck of a boat sticking out of the sand, its remnant ribs blackened by salt and age. I wondered about the boat’s history; how long it had been wrecked and abandoned here; what of the lives of the men that had once made up its crew? Time and tide had reduced it to a stark sculpture of salt-soaked wood, a skeletal marker for a vessel that had once sailed the Forth and provided a livelihood: a monument to past lives, or perhaps a warning, a cautionary memento that spoke of the power of the sea.

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On the day before the storm arrived I headed in the opposite direction for my afternoon walk, across the headland of Ferney Ness in the direction of Aberlady Bay through the curious woodland of the Gosford estate.  The sky was greyer today; the Fife shore across the water less well-defined, the ships out in the Forth no longer highlighted by sunshine but hunkered down in the water. The signs were there: a change was coming. Large concrete cube blocks lined the shoreline – tank trap defences dating from the last war; an incomplete wall to chaperone the meeting of land and sea. The blocks continued even through the woodland, weaving through the trees like a broken causeway, an accidental land art installation that marched like a concrete-laying behemoth ever eastwards.

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The ‘beast’ made landfall on Tuesday but the full extent of its might was not fully apparent until the following day. On Wednesday and Thursday it snowed all day without stopping… and then some more – Snow had fallen, snow on snow, as the famous carol goes. The world outside quickly started to lose its familiar topography – the edges of roads blurred then disappeared, footpaths and gardens lost their definition as they submitted to an ever-thickening cover of white. The world had been transformed; made pure, made ice, filtered of colour and tone to leave it monochromatic, but mostly white. The whole notion of travelling far became laughable – in a world without edges there is nowhere else to go. By Friday it seemed almost as if the world had always been like this… and always would be. Frozen in space, frozen in time, this was a world where eternity was cold and white.

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During a break in the snow showers I ventured down to the Forth shore and found the same transformed world. Stems of straw-coloured grass poked thinly through the snow on the dunes as if grasping for air. Another landfall other than that of the storm had taken place – the fresh arrival of wind-blown thrushes from Scandinavia. The sea buckthorn bushes behind the dunes were flurried with activity, noisy with bird chatter, their branches weighed down with feeding fieldfares that threw themselves up into the air at regular intervals to make a quick fly-over of the beach before returning to the shelter of the bushes and the winter-bleached berries that sustained them. In the trees of the golf links behind, there were hundreds – perhaps even thousands – more of the thrushes perched in the higher branches, occasionally flying up en masse into the air on a whim before returning to the tree. The tide was on the turn and the narrow ribbon of sand and seaweed between the water and dunes held an improbable number of birds frantically sifting through the tide line detritus for something to eat: an odd mixture of redwings and golden plover along with a few lapwings and turnstones.  This unusual parliament of birds appeared to coexist peacefully enough, out of the necessity of hunger if nothing else, but it all seemed strange and topsy-turvy: the harsh weather had brought about a dislocation, a disavowal of familiar habitat to leave an absence somewhere else.

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As if experiencing the aftermath of an apocalyptic event, I felt a parallel sense of dislodgement from the world. Telephone calls to my wife and emails to the house’s owners heightened the sense of dislocation as our communications triangulated between Scotland, Norfolk and Australia. There were absences too – of me at home in Norfolk, of my friends in the house in Scotland. The snow globes of our everyday lives had been given a severe shake up and we were all dislocated, unwittingly or otherwise, from our habitual places in the world. Digital technology has resulted in the world we live in becoming a shrunken globe of instant communication, yet the heavy snow and the enforced lack of mobility that the storm wrought resulted in a sudden reduction of the possibilities the world had to offer. In an instance, while horizons had drawn closer, the world beyond had become vast once more.

Life went on as normally as possible. I spent the days indoors writing and editing work, glancing occasionally out of the window to see if it was still snowing. I occasionally ventured out to trace a route to the village shop to buy food basics from its panic-shopped shelves. I followed my own boot prints back on the return journey – Crusoe and Man Friday on a snow-desert island. In the evenings, I cooked a meal and drank a glass or two of rationed wine. I watched the TV weather forecasts and listened to Landfall by Laurie Anderson and the Kronos Quartet, a newly purchased CD that turned out to be uncannily apposite. The music helped to extricate an ear worm: Harry Lauder’s  Keep Right On To The End Of The Road, which had been put there by way of googling for something I was writing (don’t ask… not yet anyway). There again, the Lauder song was appropriate too.

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After five days of snow, wind and reduced horizons, the thaw began. Local trains started to run once more and I was able to get into Edinburgh, where I had the pleasure of meeting up with fellow bloggers Murdo Eason and Brian Lavelle. Meeting with folk whose interests overlapped with my own, my sense of dislocation eased – I was back in the world, the familiar world of brick and stone and street signage, once more.

Before I returned home I went back for a final look at the shore. The snow had largely melted by now, although there were still frozen pockets of it on the dunes. The beach birdlife was much depleted: the usual redshanks and curlews were there but only a handful of redwings remained. The sea buckthorn bushes had also fallen silent now, although I could make the silhouettes of a small number of fieldfares that remained in the trees on the golf course. Thousands of birds had vanished overnight from this same locality in the brief transition from freeze to thaw. Their abrupt departure had left a void; an emptiness in the soul of this place, a sudden absence that was almost heartrending.

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Thanks to Murdon Eason and Brian Lavelle for taking the trouble to slog through the Edinburgh slush to meet up with me. Both have excellent blogs that are well worth investigating, From Hill to Sea and Edinburgh Drift. They have collaborated together to produce the highly recommended book + CD Language of Objects.

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

Gloomy Sunday

It is Sunday in Edinburgh and the city streets are filled with Frenchmen in blue shirts and black berets all come for the Six Nations rugby match against Scotland at Murrayfield stadium. Preferring the game that favours a more spherical ball it seems like a good opportunity to take the train to Glasgow for the day.

The previous day, on our mentioning Scotland’s largest city, Colin, our bed and breakfast host, remarked, “Well, I’m Edinburgh man so I’m biased but I think Glasgow makes the most of what it’s got to be fair.” It is no secret – Edinburgh and Glasgow may be less than 50 miles apart – one hour on the train – but there is a cultural gulf between the two cities. Or so they would have you believe: rough, working class Glasgow versus genteel, middle-class Edinburgh; Billy Connolly versus Miss Jean Brodie; deep-fried pizza versus herb-infused foccacio. This is, of course, a misleading generalisation but it cannot be denied that the two cities do have a markedly different feel. Edinburgh is no longer ‘Auld Reekie’ but a stylish European capital with a beautiful skyline. Glasgow, on the other hand, remains a Victorian city par excellence – famously, the second city of the British Empire. While Edinburgh seems to thrive on its glorious past and embody the spirit of the Georgian Enlightenment, Glasgow, like Manchester and Sheffield over the border in England, is a place in post-industrial transition, a city trying to find its rightful place in the 21st century. Despite its City of Culture makeover a decade or so ago, Glasgow still manages to look a bit threadbare around the edges in a way that central Edinburgh does not. This is only part of the picture though – take a bus out to one of the outlying ‘schemes’ in either metropolis and peripheral Edinburgh looks every bit as unattractive and dysfunctional as the wastelands of outer Glasgow.

In Glasgow, the Willow Tearooms still operates in the city centre, a working shrine to the distinctive secessionist style of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, one of the city’s most famous sons. The Glasgow School of Art designed by Mackintosh when he worked as an architect in the city lies just around the corner. The ‘Room de Luxe’ at the top of the stairs is a delight – elegant high-backed chairs, roses in vases and a view through stained glass windows down onto Sauchiehall Street below.  The window glass (original we are told) distorts a little, affording a slightly twisted view of a boarded-up Pound-Mart store opposite, humdrum 1960s and peeling paint. A solitary busker, clearly audible from the tearoom, plays the trumpet to passers-by, belting out jazz standards like Summertime in fast rotation. But summertime it is not – the day is dreich and chilly, the sky the colour of cold porridge – Gloomy Sunday might be a more apposite choice.

A mile or so to the east, beyond Queen Street Station and George Square with its Modern Art Gallery, St Mungo’s Cathedral sits next door to the Royal Infirmary, a proximity that is surely no mere coincidence. Beyond the dark glowering sandstone of the cathedral and across a footbridge (‘the Bridge of Sighs’ utilised by funeral processions) lies the Necropolis – Glasgow’s city of the dead. The most obvious monument, looming high on a Doric column at the top of the hill is a memorial to John Knox, the Protestant reformer but the first that we pass on the winding road uphill is a monument to William Miller, ‘The Laureate of the Nursery’ responsible for the children’s nursery rhyme Wee Willie Winkie, which was originally written in Scots:

Wee Willie Winkie rins through the toon,
Upstairs and doonstairs, in his nichtgoon,
Tirlin’ at the window, cryin’ at the lock,
“Are the weans in their bed? For it’s now ten o’clock.”

We climb the path to the top. Low cloud has drained all colour from the view apart from that of the glowing rust brown of the neo-Norman Monteath mausoleum, which brings to mind an Armenian church but was apparently modelled on the Knights Templar Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Further up, the William Rae Wilson mausoleum is decidedly Moorish, a fitting monument to someone who travelled and wrote about the Middle East. Next to this, the entrance of the Graeco-Egyptian mausoleum of John Houldsworth is flanked by stern white angels, Hope and Charity, while Faith lies within glowing almost praternaturally in the gloom.

The view is the thing here. From the vantage point of the Necropolis it is easier to grasp the scale of Scotland’s largest city, even on a dull day such as this. The concrete, brick and stone of the city centre sprawls to the west beyond St Mungo’s spire and buttresses. Elsewhere, the land dips and rises gently to trace the valleys of Glasgow’s rivers, the Clyde and Kelvin. High-rise housing schemes dot the horizon east and north, an architectural echo of the serried ranks of tombs that line the Necropolis thoroughfares – a world of folk that once belonged to Glasgow’s inner city but now find themselves detached and isolated. If you believe the clichéd image, a realm of ne’er do wells – bampots, malkies, and chiv-wielding neds – but also pensioners, terminally unemployed steel workers, young single mothers and beleaguered immigrants. Whatever the reality, it is a long way from the fancy designs of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and certainly no place for Wee Willie to wander alone at night.

Heading back to Edinburgh our train squeezes past another returning to Glasgow at Croy station. Not quite as crowded as those we saw heading for Edinburgh on the way there, its carriages are full of middle-aged men in kilts and Scotland rugby shirts. They look somewhat subdued – clearly Scotland has lost the rugby.