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Issue 47 - Hugging stones

Scotland Magazine Issue 47
October 2009


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Hugging stones

Ihave just returned from the slopes Ben Mhor above Loch Seaforth where the island of Lewis meets the Island of Harris, and where I have been watching the weather fronts roll in relentlessly from across the Atlantic Ocean.

One moment the sky was azure blue and I felt the warm bake of sun on my face; in the next instance, the rain came sheeting over the hillside, splashing onto my waterproofs and soaking the springy ground at my feet. Writing a century and a half ago, the Reverend George Hely Hutchinson, who annually leased the stalking lodge at Aline, described the island of Lewis as a giant sponge. Nothing has changed.

A friend of mine recently observed that you know when it is summer in Scotland when the rain gets warmer. She had a point, but when you are out-and-about in the Hebrides, it is this same rain combined with mist and wind, and coupled with the shafts of sunlight on a distant lochan, which makes the landscape so spectacularly, and so evasively, beautiful. This has to be God’s own country, although I do have some sympathy with the residents across the Minch on Skye who recently reported fifty days of continuous wet weather, the longest period on record since 1861.

Abrief glance at the on-line weather forecast says it all – 1300: Heavy Rain, 1600: Light Rain (shower),1900: Sunny Intervals, 2200: Light Rain (shower). That’s what you get in the Outer Hebrides, four seasons in a day. It’s all part of the great west coast of Scotland experience and you soon learn to live with it, and you learn to love it because it was ever thus.

Long ago, in the seventeenth century in fact, Coinneach Odhar, better known in the Highlands as the Brahan Seer, prophesied that the island of Lewis would one day sink beneath the sea without a trace. Given the accuracy of some of his more bizarre predictions, not to mention our twenty-first century obsession with climate change, this might explain why the islanders are currently so preoccupied with the pros and cons of wind farms and tidal power.

None of this, I have to admit, however, intrudes upon my thoughts so much as the sheer indulgence of my being able to explore the treeless glens of Kintail and the lonely shores of Luskentyre, where time stands still. Some might call it a harsh and unforgiving landscape. It certainly was for those forced to scrape a living from the now abandoned crofts and summer sheilings.

I am immensely grateful that in my life I have not only had the opportunity to sail to St Kilda, the nearest outcrop of land between Scotland and America, but have stepped ashore on Eriskay, Scalpay, Benbecula and the Uists, their very names resonating in the romance and melancholy mind-set of the Gael. Even so, none have eclipsed Harris and Lewis.

As a teenager, I was taken to meet the writer Seton Gordon who lived at Duntulm in the north of Skye, and from where, across the Minch to the North, could be seen the looming shadows of Ben Mhor and Uisnis. Seton Gordon was then in his eighties, always wore a kilt, and played the bagpipes. By then he had written thirty books on the folklore and wildlife of Highland Scotland, and was, to my young mind, an inspirational character. Nowadays, I like to stand on the shore of the village of Lemreway and look south towards Trotternish, where he took me to see my first golden eagle circling under the clifftops.

Skye is therefore special to me, but Lewis is where I make my annual pilgrimage to the standing stones at Callenish. My friends may laugh, but I never return without having hugged a stone.

And at the end of a day walking deep in the hills, there is nothing in this world comparable to a long soak in a vast bath filled with hot brown peaty water before a dinner of lobster fresh from the loch and venison, and perhaps a dram or three of single malt to wash it down with afterwards.

The feeling of well being engendered under such circumstances surpasses any rejuvenation cure that a health spa could ever invent.

“The sea-loch, without a ripple at your feet; Glen Scaladale’s dark side, falling down upon its shores; and the Clisham lowering into the evening mist, with the peaks of Glen Langadale and the other Harris hills clustering round, form a scene that often and often have I passed hour after hour looking on and thanking God for such a sight and the power of enjoying it,” observed the Reverend Hely Hutchinson in 1873.

Given the passage of time since he wrote those words, I find it immensely reassuring that I feel exactly the same.