Walking barefoot has gone out of fashion, but sensible people are reviving the habit.
Nan Shepherd, The Living Mountain
On the most solar-charged day of our Hebridean journey, Luskentyre on Harris delivered miles of white beach, shivering grasses and turquoise water. The lovely Laura Schreiner from Ontorio provided our lift out of Leverburgh heading north. Sinking deep into the generous sand so that the shells and rocks made fine by millennia of northwestern storms gave way to tired feet, we walked and talked before stretching out to toast our faces in the June sunshine and watch Bonnie negotiate the spaces between rock pools.
Always in the moment and of the here and now, dogs are zen masters. Not knowing if the journey from front door or tent door will be a short walk or a two week adventure, they shake between resting places to change state of being. I think we could all benefit from the shake-down method of preparing for transition.
The human and domestic pet relationship is an uncomfortable one – that we should confine a wild animal to our den, keep it on a leash, and make it dependent on our whims for all survival needs. Taken to its extreme, such anthropomorphism has forever altered distance between man and animal to such an extent that it is hard to tell whether we are still ourselves creatures of nature or the collectors of a curated, tamed nature that reflects back mini-me versions of self in order to sustain a feeling of both purpose and dominance.
Bonnie came from the Leith Cat and Dog Home and we have been through a lot together. Over the last seven years, different friends and boyfriends have come and gone but it is Bon that is always there in the morning, never resentful, and just grateful and joyful to be alive.
They say that dogs have the emotional intelligence of a toddler but there aren’t many small creatures that would keep walking one paw in front of another, without grumble or mutiny on the long journey from Barra to Lewis and Skye. Arriving at Sabhal Mor Ostaig, the Gaelic College, in Sleat, southern Skye, colleagues tried to persuade me to leave Bonnie overnight in one of their cars to allow me to enjoy the comforts of a warm room inside the student dorms. But by this stage in the trip, we had traveled a long way together and it would have felt a great disloyalty to have split from my small, black dog. I unpacked the tent.
Without Bonnie, I couldn’t have kept going along the bleak path to Rodel Church in South Harris, or have camped next to the ghostly cottage in Berneray, and I wouldn’t have met the crofters that wanted to tell me about their old collie dogs, or the children that encountered a real-life Hairy Maclary.
The Gaelic language has many double-meanings and a rich vocabulary to describe the natural world. At Sabhal Mor Ostaig, I learnt from the outgoing artist in residence, Murray Robertson, that the Gaelic name for the Isle of Skye, An t-Eilean Sgitheanach, denotes a land of grey clouds and mist and that the famous Cuillin mountain range, An Cuiltheann, means ‘hound of the blacksmith’. This stubborn, black dog was true to form and despite willing the mist to clear from the mountains, we never got to see the Cuillin summits on our visit to Skye. It was strange to be in this land of volcanic rock but see only the lush, green and flat forests of Sleat.
Hitchhiking in a Hebridean Galaxy is a lesson in 42 feelings of rejection and acceptance. I have backpacked in Sierra Leone and Sarajevo but securing a safe lift to Stornoway on the Sabbath caused me more uncertainty. Standing at a crossroads with large pack and dog, passing drivers make a snap judgement on the extent to how much you appear unhinged or unclean. Accepting repeat rejection is then followed by the surprise and gratitude of help along the road (even if this did result, in our case, in being dropped off outside REPTILE WORLD in Skye. On the whole, the Range Rovers and empty people-carriers passed on by and Bonnie and I received lifts from postal vans, other young women in hire cars, or friendly, local teenagers in old fiestas.
Now, heading for home on Midsummer’s Day, I am grateful for knowing my own country and, in turn, myself, better. It’s been an intense, immersive experience! The Bon in a Box carrier never came out of the rucksack. Neither did my bikini. I learnt to sharpen an eyeliner pencil with a pen knife. And that I don’t feel like wearing eyeliner after a few days in the wild. I met some inspirational 30-something women. Women like Christina Mackenzie, a colleague at Proiseact Nan Ealan and Lewis crofter; Laura Schreiner, a Canadian researching her Scottish ancestral heritage; and Charlie Johnston making home in Howmore, South Uist. I’m massively proud of Bonnie. And a wee bit proud of myself too.
Across the bog and heather of the Lewis moorlands can be found numerous Shielings. These huts made from corrugated iron and other simple materials were, up until the second world war, makeshift shelters for women leading their animals away from lowland crofts to graze on the higher pastures in summer. Alone with their animals in a wild, harsh landscape, these were strong women. There are nostalgic tales told by the women still alive who remember these days in the Shielings of coming together to make cheese from buttermilk and of liaisons with the men who came to cut and stack the peat on the moors. These hard days are gone but I think we should consider bringing back an annual retreat to huts in the wild for lone women and their animals.
But before then, there is a no. 22 bus to catch back down the hill to Leith.
Bow wow wow. I was a model student at the Sabhal Mor Ostaig in Skye- woolfing down contraband sausages from the dining hall, excelling in some late night drinking sessions and leading a fieldtrip to the Knoydart peninsula.
On the way home now and I’m fair dog-tired. Please, no one say walkies. Bx