Black dogs

ferry from Oban to Barra

ferry from Oban to Barra

You know the one about leading a horse to water? How about leading a small, black dog to a lamppost?

Early on Sunday morning, at a time when most people would have been still warmly tucked up in bed or staggering home from the night before, I found myself squatting down near a grassy verge on George Square, next to Queen Street Station and the train to Oban, simulating ‘pssss’ noises and trying to press upon Bon that it would be a good idea for her to relieve herself in comfort before 3hours on a train and nearly 5 on a ferry. Terriers are renowned for having strong bladders. Bonnie, my small, black dog, stubbornly crossed her paws and gave me a withering look. And so began the journey that will eventually take us north along the spine of the Western Isles through Barra, the Uists, Harris, Lewis and Skye. Or rather, it began on the no 22 bus from Leith, but then nearly everything begins or ends on a no 22 bus.

On the subject of calls of nature, Bonnie has some attachment/anxiety issues when left alone. This is fine in the confines of a small flat and open bathroom doors. It is not fine aboard a CalMac ferry. Queue whining and pacing outside the ladies’ loos. The following blog posts therefore come with the health warning that descriptions of bodily functions and fluids will feature regularly.

All of us live with good and bad mental health at different times in our life. Depression has been described as being like a ‘black dog’ (first by classical poet Horace, then famously, Churchill) owing to its heaviness, stubbornness and seemingly intractable stuck-ness. On a recent visit to the Lowry Gallery in Salford, Manchester, I noticed how many of Lowry’s industrial landscapes included skinny, black dogs amidst the hunched stick-men and women spilling out of the factories and pit mines. The dogs may be a visual metaphor for the working-classes and an under-dog mentality, but I suspect they hint at Lowry’s own deep unease at himself and an existential loneliness.

I don’t have depression at the moment but I can relate to the heavy, ‘stuck-ness’ feeling embodied by the block dog , in my case brought about by the darkness of a long, Scottish winter and reflections on some sort of ‘third-life’ crisis.

LS Lowry, 'Going to Work'

LS Lowry, ‘Going to Work’

I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”

John Muir

So, I’m going out for a long walk. Far out, to the outer edges, the outer frontier of Scotland’s land and sea- the Outer Hebrides.  Exploring this archipelago in the North Atlantic and meeting with some of the people and nature that call the islands home, I want to feel my own outer edges, to go out into the wild to come back in again and realise an inner calm with myself. Like this, walking can be a form of active meditation. I hope to be surprised and challenged. The only thing I’m certain of is that the weather won’t be calm.

Summer in Scotland is predictably unpredictable but this June has been unseasonably cold and wet so far. These things matter when you’re sleeping, or trying to sleep, under canvas. Added to the dismal forecast, ask anyone about Hebridean adventures in June and they inhale, shake their heads and then exclaim ‘the wind’. Weather with a definitive article is serious weather. Duly informed, I upgraded to a tent with ‘geodesic’ (2 crossing poles) as instructed. A new tent also offers a new ‘den’ (Dens Road) and seemed kinder on the soul than the prospect of arriving to a bleak expanse of tundra in a howling gale and unfurling layers of canvas and old, pressed grass that would then cocoon me in a sad shroud to past loves and former, shared dens.

I stand by the new tent being a good decision but it would be fair to say that the tent and I have not gotten off to the best of starts. In the Edinburgh Meadows last weekend, my good friend Vic watched on with horror as I accidentally punched myself in the face, with some force, on trying to dislodge a tent pole from a tight eyelet. After checking all my teeth were still fixed, spitting out a mouthful of blood and accepting some first aid from Vic, I was able to see the lighter side of the tragic comedy.

For the amount of money I’ve spent so far on new camping kit, I could have afforded to stay in decent hotels. I made the decision to camp after the logistical complications of finding hotels or hostels that accept dogs. Friends and family tried to persuade me to take my car or to leave Bon at home. But, for me, there is a certain romance of starting a journey on foot from the front door and, despite her indulgences; HRB (Her Royal Bonificance) is excellent company.

I hope she says the same about me because it’s certainly not straight forward to travel together. In a chance telephone call about timetables, the ever-friendly and helpful staff at CalMac let it slip that the local bus service on Harris have recently changed their policy to prohibit dogs from transit in lieu of complaints about canine travel-sickness on the twisty roads, unless small, black dogs are carried in a carrier crate.

Bon in a Box practice

Bon in a Box practice

The ‘Bon in a Box’ contraption arrived in the post a few days’ ago, complete with faux sheepskin mat and Velcro windows, and since then it has been erected in the flat to try and acquaint my stowaway companion with her carriage. A Cat in a Hat would have caused less trouble. But, undetermined, the light and collapsible Bonnie-tent has been afforded valuable ruscksack space.



Kit list: 2 tents, 2 weeks’ dog food, 2 weeks’ reading, 2 torches, 2 mats (sleeping and yoga), 1 laptop (nb: not a lightweight ipad or kindle but the old acer workhorse), 0 hair straighteners, and some luxury items – a bikini (optimistically), Clinique body butter, fresh coffee.

In the film ‘Wild’, Reese Withersppon (Cheryl Strayed) embarks on a journey along the North Pacific Trail to escape self-destructive behaviour and over-zealously packs her rucksack with an excess of non-essential, outdoor kit to such an extent that she can’t haul herself plus pack up off the floor. My physical load weighs and looks about the same right now, but I’m emotionally more balanced, I think.

Wild film

Next stop is Barra.

Bon here. Feeling sick as a dog.

I hope this holiday improves or else I have been duped. I got plunged in a bath tub at 6am after a night battling with a delicate stomach. It’s the sensitive palate, you see. I should have just walked on by, past the remains of that kebab and curry sauce on the pavement outside Perinos on Friday night.

Packing unsettles me. I’m no nomadic hound. Leave the sleigh rides and sea crossings to the huskies and lassies. I’m still Bonnie from the Block.

And it’s been hours since I had a wee. Been crossing my tootsies since Leith. The dog days are very much not over.

Are we there yet…?


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