The Hebrides - 'Seriously, look at the view!'
It’s a braw, bricht moonlit nicht the nicht.
As a native to the level-turf of Suffolk, my attitude to the Scottish Hebrides tends towards Wordsworthian wonder. It really is quite a job to to bring myself back to earth when writing about this landscape. The Katie Morags of the islands, or the salesgirl at Tackle & Books in Tobermory (the only shop on Mull where you can buy Middlemarch and a midge machine) might roll their eyes at my fifth exclamation of, “Seriously, look at that view.” Another eye-roll might be allowed for my surprise that Robert Louis Stevenson also thought that the Isle of Rum was “strange.” He’s confirmed it for me. I absolutely recommend that you go to see what we mean.
Those who live on the islands, or nearby, can’t be completely immune to the untamed grandeur, however. In fact, fictional Katie Morag, and the sweet girl whom I mentioned from T&B would probably join me in my enthusiasm, if there wasn’t so much work to do. Living on some of the smallest islands, such as Eigg, Rum, Muck or Canna, isn’t something that simply happens, it has to be earned. Uncle Quentin and Aunt Fanny, in Enid Blyton’s Five on a Treasure Island, don’t seem to have jobs. They just live in quiet eccentricity. That’s fiction for you.
What is it about remoteness and drowe weather that people are drawn to? What could bring people away from their WiFi and lattes? I should mention here that WiFi and lattes are available, but must be sought out. You may need to climb a heather covered hill, or sail to Tobermory for the luxury. I have been lucky enough to visit this beautiful world several times in the past nine years. With some time between each visit, my wonderment returns with a vengeance each time.
I’m not the only habitué of these Isles. Queen Elizabeth often spends her summer cruising the area, and Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea FC has recently been seen roaming the Mull of Kintyre. A multitude of world-travellers seek out the wonders of Fingal’s Cave, a Cathedral-like cavern on Staffa which inspired Felix Mendelssohn’s concert overture, The Hebrides. Tourists cluster in their waterproofs on ferries at Oban anticipating a Moby Dick-like search for whales, dolphins, seals and sea-eagles. At Mallaig, visitors take the ferry to the most remote pub on Britain’s mainland, The Old Forge. Here they and are welcomed by award-winning service, a warming atmosphere, singing if you’re lucky, and a menu made up of Scottish coastal catches.
As a sixteen year old, I came here for the first time to sail. I was escaping from my concrete-grey school to a new world of burns, castles, the Grey Dogs, and evenings shrouded in mythic-blue light. On the first evening in a loch which I now know well, I was sent off to explore in the boat’s dingy. Thrilled with this sudden freedom, I rowed from where we were anchored towards a small tidal island. The water was rising and the land was forming into its nightly island state. Off I went towards the purple haze, revelling in my aloneness. Suddenly I became ultra-aware of the blackness of the water. Nearing the hunkering land, I let my mind saunter and the possibilities of what could be below became unbearable. I looked down and saw inky seaweed and sea-monsters. Making a quick retreat, I splashed the boat back to the cosy lights of the boat.
Rookie-mistake. A few years later I returned to that tidal island again— Oronsay. This time accompanied by an adventurous crowd. We trampled the long grass and waded through ferns and discovered our first sign of life. A bothy of Scandinavian simplicity— unlocked, of course. I thought we were trespassing but my friends explained to me that bothies are left open to be used for shelter. Amazing. This mountain refuge was built as a walkers’ retreat, constructed with a 6 meter by 6 meter Douglas fir frame. It had a shower room, and a gorgeous open plan living area and a log burner. Really, it was so beautiful. Six carpenters spent five-and-a-half weeks building the place with materials and tools shipped across to the island on a landing craft. This project was a labour of love, made simply for the fun of it. There are pictures on the internet of families actually staying here, cooking their meals together and looking out to the water where boats anchor, and people swim.
Loch na Droma Buide is a popular anchorage and is possibly the busiest spot on the west coast in summer. Yachts wait here for pleasant weather before sailing around Ardnamurchan which is the most westerly point of mainland Britain. In these waiting periods, yachters traditionally spell out their boat's name in the white shells on the beach. My initial might still be there. It’s not the scary foreign-land I once imagined. Though our boat adventures vary, Loch na Droma Buide tends to be our first port-of-call before the real fun begins. The place where we stop before binoculars come out, and the first whale is spied.
Let me leave you with one of my favourite memories from the Hebrides, and goodness, there are many. Early one evening, as the light was turning that mythic-blue, our wee bonny boat was anchored off Skye. Unlike my maiden voyage, there was a lot more of us on board. There were cousins, husbands of cousins, sisters, brothers, brother-in-laws, and of course our wonderful Captain. As the evening rolled on, someone snuck over to the stern of the boat and quietly sunk a plastic fishing-line with blue shells tied to the end of it. Moments later from the inside of the boat we heard a surprised “Err…. guys!” There were fish everywhere. We caught so many, it felt Biblical. The next day we sat on a nearby beach burning our fingers on barbecued mackerel. It was wonderful.
Words by - Caroline Apichella