On evacuating the last villagers from the island of St Kilda in 1930, the British Government paid for the transportation of the islanders’ cattle and sheep but there was no space on the boat for their dogs. The dogs had stones tied around their necks and were tossed out to sea.
Grief, and loss, are heavy baggage. The Sound of Harris sea, with St Kilda beyond to the West, looks mournful set against Harris mountains veiled in black rock and the reverence of a clockwork ferry timetable.
In the Highland Clearances of the nineteenth century crofting families were removed from their homes, land and heritage by landowners to make way for lucrative sheep farming with such a brutality that in today’s language it might have been labelled a cultural genocide. Compounded by waves of economic migration, islanders (some incentivised and some misinformed) relocated from Hebridean townships to Nova Scotia and beyond; depopulating the islands, splitting families, and accounting for the prevalence of North American visitors now seen getting out of hire cars to examine the tombstone inscriptions of Harris graveyards.
It was only after setting up my tent on the white sands of Berneray (next to the prettiest of bunkhouses run by the Gatliff Trust) that I looked inside the walls of the ruined cottage that provided a wind-break for our camp. Burnt-down or abandoned suddenly, the ruined stone and thatch building contained pastel-coloured floorboards and bookshelves, as well as old bed frames and a range cooker. I was glad of my wolf-companion and the warmth of fellow travelers inside the bunkhouse, including a local fisherman selling fresh crab meat and a cycling father and son from Barcelona that gifted me with some Catalan olive oil with which to make a decent meal out of the crab.
Away from holiday beaches and Hebridean hospitality, there is a permeating mood of absence in the fresh north air. I think of Sorley MacLean’s dream-state poem, ‘Hallaig’ where he attributes the wildness of his native Raasay as a consequence of loss and the island’s solitude indicating human tragedy.
Mura tig ’s ann theàrnas mi a Hallaig
a dh’ionnsaigh Sàbaid nam marbh,
far a bheil an sluagh a’ tathaich,
gach aon ghinealach a dh’fhalbh.
If it does not, I will go down to Hallaig,
to the Sabbath of the dead,
where the people are frequenting,
every single generation gone.
Journeying across a moorland now spiked by a mix of commercial and community-owned wind farms to reach Uig on the remote northwest of Lewis, Chair of the An Lanntair arts centre in Stornoway and former Chair of UNESCO Scotland, Malcolm Maclean suggested that the ferry routes connecting islands to the mainland may have contributed to a fragmenting of Gaelic culture. Rather than trading culture and goods from one coastal peninsula to another (Uig and Stornoway used to be linked by boat rather than road), the sea paths are now horizontal lines from the mainland to the ports immediately opposite where the distance is shortest but community ties in the towns not necessarily the strongest – Leverburgh, Tarbert, Stornoway.
While waiting in a small pub in Tarbert before the early morning ferry to Skye, I found myself unintentionally brought into the conversation of the table next to me as a group of Canadian, Australian and English elderly tourists bemoaned the ‘problem of illegal immigrants’, ‘benefit scroungers’ and ‘Islamic fundamentalism’. As the prejudices became more vitriolic, I realised that sitting in silence made me complicit in the hate and I could not enjoy my food with a serving of racism on the side. Challenging the basis of their world view and pointing out that people rarely choose to leave their heritage and culture without the necessity of fleeing hardship or conflict, I was told that I simply didn’t understand how many of ‘them’ (the ‘illegal immigrants’) were of criminal bent and sought to take public finances away from pensioners and the ‘hard-working majority’. The irony of this from a group of visitors from North America and elsewhere, holidaying in the strictly Presbyterian islands of Harris and Lewis, was lost. I moved tables and looked out the window at the Tarbert harbour where only three or four generations before, homeless crofting families from the Hebrides had set sail for a new world and the chance of a better life.
Rather than feeling dismayed at the collective amnesia of my fellow humans, I thought back to a morning coffee earlier in the day with John Norgrove, neighbour of my host in Uig. John and his wife lost their daughter, Linda, in a Taliban kidnapping and failed rescue attempt five years ago. Linda was a young woman working as an aid worker in Afghanistan. It would be entirely understandable if the Norgroves were forever angry and bitter at the world. Instead, more compassionate, positive and productive people you could not meet. While John, an engineer, set about renovating a ruined cottage to ready it for holiday-lets, I read about the work of The Linda Norgrove Foundation in supporting women and children in Afghanistan.
In her ‘Field-guide to Getting Lost’, Rebecca Solnit notes that:
Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing… Some things we have only as long as they remain lost, some things are not lost only so long as they are distant.’
The layers of social history, awe-inspiring natural beauty, and archaeological remains (including, famously, the Lewis chessmen and Callanish Stones), of the Uig coast are over-whelming on a short visit. In talks with my host and at the volunteer-run Uig Historical Society, I tried to begin to know and understand the rivers, hills and hidden paths that have revealed bronze-age, Viking, and medieval clues to a lost past steeped in migration, trading routes and religious significance. It is a place where the most fantastical of myths and legends seem entirely plausible and where clumps of ambergris (extremely rare whale vomit worth its weight in gold and discovered inside Ancient Egyptian tombs) are lost and found in the North Atlantic high tide.
In the dimming light of a late, midsummer’s night, I waded alone in the shallow pools of the Uig basin where fresh water becomes salt water and faced due west towards Canada. I like to think that someone standing on the shoreline in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, was waving back.
Woof. The sound of Harris is… WIND. Wind in my hair, wind pinning back my ears as I dance through the Berneray dunes, and wind speeding the Bonnie boat over the sea to Skye.
But rather than lying over the ocean, I’m rather enjoying lying out on a velvet chaise-lounge with my aristo friend, Willomina, in a cosy cottage in Lewis. Pass the slippers. x