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Scotland : Isle of Lewis

August 5, 2014

Hey beautiful one

How are you?

I am super and now on the Isle of Lewis.

It was an easy enough journey, except that I made the mistake of asking the bank in Skye to change my notes into bigger ones. £50 bills. Big mistake. The bus driver in Stornaway told me to get stuffed, and that he was leaving. I ran off the bus, realised I was in a desert, and jumped back on calling out if anyone might have change. Thank you, thank you old girl in the front seat. Saved me a three hour wait for the next one.

The bloke behind her was incredulous. “What the hell is that?” He was asking about the note. “Never seen one of those in all me life!” When I sat down another fellow turned behind and asked me about it, “I umm, got it from the bank.” He was angry on my behalf, “what the hell were they thinking giving you such large bills?” I kept my mouth shut. Lesson learnt.

In Argentina it was tricky changing the $100 peso bill, worth only US$10 in the end. Poor old Argentina, in the muck again. I must admit, I am missing the gangster feeling of working with cash only. All this card business in this western world. In the last 2 years living there, I would shove US dollars down my leggings before boarding the plane (any flight into Argentina and you can rest assured, every passenger is doing the same), and then I’d change them into pesos with my butcher. Good old Rudolfo. Before him it was the plumber. True story.

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I eventually landed in Gearrannan Village, Carloway, well-known for these black houses people speak of. The Blackhouses are not actually black by the way. Not at all. Someone said it was because there had never been a chimney but word on the street is that the name’s origin is all very debatable, and most possibly a translation accident when they messed the word black with the word hatch.

The 9 houses in the village are all now restored for punters like me, and my room was so teeny that myself and the 3 others (a mother and her 20 year olds) had to walk sideways between the bunks.

 

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It was crawling with tourists when I arrived but by early evening they’d all cleared out and a handful of us remained to watch the sunset, potter around on the beach below, and stroll up and down the teeny tiny street. We all felt a bit bloody special in the world calling it home for the evening.

Earlier, after I’d dumped my bags, explored a bit and learned how peat is made (earth = fuel), I ditched the tourist hoards of Gearrannan/Garenin and headed off for the Calanais/Callanish stones. Gaelic is alive and well here.

But hitching is not, and it has been getting harder and harder. The tourists are not that into it, and the locals are few and far between. One woman did actually stop, and it was confusing for both parties. I didn’t want to open the door but she wouldn’t put her window down. She eventually did, asking why I’d motioned her to stop. “I’m, umm, after a ride”. “Oh!” She quickly ran away, looking frightened and worried. I never pick up hitchhikers either, but if I ever do stop for one in the future, I’ll try not to make them feel like a mass murderer.

After an hour on the main drag a kind woman, returning from her daily visit to her son’s house, picked me up. He has progressive MS and she drives there and back daily, 32 miles each way. Her Jamaican partner is in a wheelchair because his back is buggered. Some people do it so much harder than others, don’t they? There is only one facility for care on the Isle of Lewis and he is too young for it. She didn’t want him to move out of his home in any case. “You must be very tired” I said, “who is looking after you?”

The stones were predictably marvellous and I spent some time in their company. The sweet mother had dropped me off at Calandais III, which didn’t look like the place the bus had pulled into 4 hours earlier, but I was hardly going to tell her so. She in fact had dropped me off accidentally perfectly, for Calanais I, II, and III are all within just a couple of miles of each other. Most don’t bother with II and III for they’ve seen the wicked, wicked one and after that the others are a bit of a letdown. But they’re not, and I sat in the centre of these circles with their tumbled down blocks of stone, mingling with those still standing, all by myself. Lucky girl.

Here is the postcard that originally inspired me to go.

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You’d have had another of my award winning photos but my phone has busted a little more, so bad luck, for you and for me. All gone. Adios dear snaps of the Calanais stones, and adios to one really terrific photo of a frangipani tart. Luckily I’d emailed myself that blue sheep.

Calanais I is impressive, and I was impressed. Really something, and I now want to go to Stonehenge. I couldn’t make head nor tail of it really but a few people gave me some pointers and I’d read a little of what the astrologers had to say.

The touristy hoards must have been having supper by the time I arrived at there, for there was just one couple standing at the main entrance. She had her camera on a tripod and I tried to hide behind the stones. But you can only hide for so long and eventually I wandered down. We three got to chatting, and they’d been on St Kilda the day I was. They were going off an eagle hunt the following morning and I bid them farewell.

Yes, yes my dear friend, I went to St Kilda.

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It was a fairly rough and queasy 3 hour journey to the medieval village which, this week, is occupied by scientists discussing soay sheep; a small and chocolate brown coloured flock who manage just fine without us interfering. The fieldmouse, a wren and a whole lot of birds are their only other company.

I stood most of the way there and back, as the dodgy last seat they’d sold me was indeed really dodgy. It was sidesaddle or not at all, for my legs were wrapped well into the stove otherwise.

Capt’n Tom and his first mate Ennis, who’d picked me up from Number 5 at the crack of dawn, were young boys from Harris and were terrific. While Ennis steered, Tom handed out biodegradable cups for anyone feeling rough, making certain we wore life jackets at all times. There was just one poor woman and Tom, always at the ready, tossed her cup of spew straight into the ocean, immediately handing her a fresh one.

I spotted dolphins and I saw my first puffin!
We also saw massive colonies of gannets and fulmars.
But puffins!

The way back was gentler for we had a southerly and they gave us a cuppa and a piece of Ennis’ mother’s ginger cake, for which I now have the recipe.

We had 4 hours to explore the island and, after reading the entire small museum, I headed for the longer walk up the higher hill.

It looked very foggy up there and every person I passed turned back saying it was too, too misty.

Previously, the ranger had warned us of a bird who will whack, and had asked us to stay within sight of the village, or to stay with a buddy. I had no buddy so I nearly turned back, but at the last minute I caught a glimpse of humans so I soldiered on.
It was clear as crystal once you were on the hill, very spongy underfoot and absolutely everywhere were rock cairns where they’d stored their food in winter. Everywhere. It was cool.

This small group I stalked were on a bird tour and staying on a boat for 3 nights. They all seemed delighted about it, saying I ought to be able to continue on down to return to the village. They’d not done it, but it should be fine. I don’t like going back the way I came, so on I marched.

And then I got attacked.

I wanted to have my lunch a little way down the hill (it was windy on top), to ponder life and look at silvery stacks, but then all of a sudden four massive, bitchy birds were swooping down at me, loudly and violently, just missing my head and occasionally thumping me with a paw for good measure. It was funny and it wasn’t. But I was laughing out of shock, shock! and running, and flailing my arms all about me, shouting out that I didn’t want their babies and “I’m sooooorrreeeee!!” For I was. Forewarned is forearmed, the ranger had said, but he hadn’t specified where they were hiding their babies. It was a scene out of Hitchcock, though I remembered the ranger’s grin and felt safe they’d not peck me to death. But for 5 minutes I leaped down this steep, muddy terrain (near the steepest cliffs in the UK I might add) and then suddenly it stopped. Little buggers. They really came at me fast and close. They were skuas, otherwise known as bonxies and I am a survivor.

By the way, in case you were wondering, St Kilda in Melbourne is called St Kilda because of a boat that passed through, and not because of the “vigorous and self-reliant” St Kildans of the Outer Hebrides.

And a stack is “a geological landform consisting of a steep and often vertical column or columns of rock in the sea near a coast, formed by erosion.” Thanks wikipedia.
I am a big fan of a stack, especially now that I know what one is. That Old Man of Stoor I mentioned from the Isle of Skye was very similar, but I don’t think it is close enough to the sea to win such a title.

This St Kildan mob were completely self sustainable, surviving more or less on just birds for years, seeing only their landlord who would row over to collect the feathers/rent each year. They accidentally kept the population manageable (never more than 180) because they were unknowingly infecting umbilical cords with fulmar oil and killing nearly every newborn. In the end it was thanks to dodgy ministers, nasty germs, tourism, and the war that ended them, and the remaining few were shipped out in 1930. There was water on the island, so why not live in the sticks? Apparently they got a real liking for tobacco too, and would pay most handsomely for it once they’d discovered its existence.

I grabbed a small publication titled “The Story of the Ill-fated emigration from St Kilda to Australia in 1852″, which is as uplifting as its title suggests. Almost everyone dies from disease before they reach Oz and I am now reading about skanky living conditions in Melbourne during the gold rush. The poor St Kildans.

Last night in Gearrannan I drank vino tinto with Howard and Dudley. Howard taught me the unpretentious way to trial wine…”give it a good whiff and and then go for it.” He was a geography teacher and all over his beaten up map he’d proudly scribbled thousands of notes. ‘My novel” he said, with one note that read “bus drivers are brill.” And sometimes they are.

His good buddy Dud is a musician, piano and acordian, who’d just scored a job at a ballet school. And this pair, with one other mate who had marital problems and was sitting this drink out, were cycling around the islands. They were very jolly fellows and as I headed off Dudley congratulated me “for being fab.” Who says that? “Cheers Dudley. And your name rocks.”

An English couple, Louis and Jess, passed by with Moby Dick and The Book Thief in hand. “How romantic” I thought, “literary dates by moonlight and the seashore, on the edge of an ancient village.” They were back at base within 7 minutes. Midgees got ’em.

I could only stay here the one night, no more beds for me, and my room buddies have just offered me a lift to Uig. Wicked. Best fly.

All my love

k xxo

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