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Issue 35 - Life on Lewis

Scotland Magazine Issue 35
November 2007

 

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Life on Lewis

At this time of year I am usually to be found on the island of Lewis, where I annually meet up with a group of old friends in a stalking lodge, far from the madding crowd.

As the temperature drops, heralding the end of yet another summer, there is something profoundly reassuring about being at the end of a nine mile single-track road and surrounded by a landscape that has remained unchanged for several thousands of years; where the outside world invariably slips out of sight and ceases to have any relevance, especially as the lodge has neither a television nor radio.

My dictionary does not acknowledge the existence of the word ‘madding,’ which was so effectively used in the title of one of the English writer Thomas Hardy’s novels set in the south west of England. However, when contrasting the vast peat acres of the Hebrides, where you can walk for 20 miles without seeing another human being, with the teeming ant-heap traffic of our towns and cities, it sounds just right.

On the slopes of Ben Mhor there are spectacular glimpses of the Shiant Islands, mainland Scotland and Skye to the east; to the south, Loch Seaforth and the northern shore of Harris, to which Lewis is joined at the foot.

Somehow, in such places the weather ceases to have any significance. If it rains, it rains, and you waterproof yourself accordingly. Harris Tweed was not invented for the designer catwalks of the international fashion luvvies; it was created as a fool-proof shield against Scotland’s elements. And it works. The crofters of old who spun the coarse, water-resistant yarn through the long dark days and nights of winter, knew exactly what they were doing.

But when the sun shines in the Hebrides, and the sky is cloudless and azure blue, there is no greater paradise on earth, and it is no coincidence that, for those in the know, autumn is the time to visit Scotland’s west coast. Of course, there is no guarantee of sunshine, but as the old saying goes, you can at least expect to experience all of the seasons of the year in 24 hours.

Although I enjoy fishing for trout and salmon, I have never been a competitive sportsman. The catching of a fish has always been a bonus for me. I principally fish as an excuse to be on my own, be it on a remote riverbank or in a boat on a loch. If I do succeed in hooking a salmon, nobody is more surprised than I am.

The same indulgence applies when I go deer stalking. Arecent survey has indicated that deer stalking, together with upstream and downstream activities, contributes £105million to the Scottish economy and supports 2,500 full-time equivalent jobs. I personally do not shoot and participate simply for the exercise. However, I often wonder what the gamekeepers and ghillies on Highland estates, who earn their living in this way, must think of the rich city guns who arrive in their custommade Barbour jackets and plus fours.

Of course, I have to acknowledge that many of the gamekeepers and ghillies I have encountered are equally well kitted out, and some of them far greater personalities than I have ever met in any urban environment.

“My father didn’t like to be called a gamekeeper,” I was told by Tommy, a retired head stalker who up until recently presided over 60,000 acres of mountain, moor, peat bog, and loch. “My father was proud of being called a stalker because stalking is an art which requires special skills.” And he is correct in saying this. Deer stalking, for those who genuinely understand what it is all about – the culling and survival of a species – is a great art. The deer herds of the Hebrides are as wild as anything that exists on earth. Their terrain is so entirely untouched by human footprint that unless you actually set out to find them with somebody who knows their habits, you will never catch up with them because they will have either seen or heard you coming hours before you get to where they have been.

Life is harsh in the wilderness. Some years ago, a guest at the lodge, unaccustomed to the rules of where not to go unaccompanied, set out for an afternoon walk on the hill with his dog. When the dog returned without him at sunset, the alarm was raised and there followed an extensive search. All that was found were his hat and stick. He had fallen into quicksand.

Now well into his 80s, Tommy has a fund of stories about the people he has met throughout the years, for example, the grumpy German who complained to him: “Grass, grass, grass. There is grass everywhere.” “Well, we don’t have a lawnmower,” Tommy replied.