Wherever we have been lately it has rained persistently (Cumbria, Dorset, Somerset). Most of the UK is dripping at the moment so it seems like a good time to reminisce about our Hebridean journey and some blue skies. So the following took place back in June.
We had decided to go ahead with our Outer Hebrides trip. We turned up at Uig harbour, got measured to see if they could squeeze us onto a fully booked ferry and made the crossing to North Uist. From the harbour at Lochmaddy we drove south to Benbecula where fellow Airstreamer Andrew was staying and had reserved us a pitch.
Within a week we would be back this way to explore the landscape and bronze age ruins more thoroughly but this time we were basically passing through and just beginning to get a taste of this unique part of the British Isles.
I hope I can do justice to these islands. I suppose I can just start with my first impressions as we headed down to Benbecula. I didn't know what to expect, but I hadn't expected this. It was pretty flat. In my English mind Scotland is hilly. Surely the Western Isles would bear some resemblance?
Hills were usually visible at some point on the horizon but mostly there were wide open spaces. And these adjoining islands are generously dotted with various bodies of water. Or is it that the stretches of land are just giant stepping stones? Roads have somehow been built across peaty bogs, islands have been connected with causeways, watery areas of all sizes from pond to loch to actual sea surround you. There appears to be more water than land. The land has holes in it. It's like a massive peaty doily.
In a nutshell it is open, flat, boggy, lochy, causewayed and spread out. Oh, and no trees. But there is plenty of peat. More about peat later. Bet you can't wait. No wait, it's good stuff. Come back.
Buildings look like they are naturally spaced apart where the land allows. So instead of villages of close-together houses there are settlements where your nearest neighbour might be half a mile away, or more. Except on Benbecula where you come across an airbase and an attached community. Somewhere in there is a supermarket but you would have to be smarter than me or Andrew to find your way into it. We did eventually figure out that the entrance was disguised as a bus shelter, obviously. It probably gets pretty windy around there and you would need a buffer between the outside and inside. A bus shelter fits the bill.
It was worth the sleuthing though because among other lovely things within we found clotted cream to go with the scones we'd already hunted down. And so afternoon tea would be ceremonially enjoyed later that day.
On another day Pete and I returned to Lochmaddy to check out the arts centre. We had a look around an exhibition of photographs by Erskine Beveridge, a textile manufacturer who had been a frequent visitor to the islands in the late nineteenth century. He was interested in the islanders' way of life and captured it in pretty stark and atmospheric black and white images.
There was also an exhibition of sculptures by Claire McNiven. Figures caught in motion were built from tangles of string and rope which the sculptor had found on her walks on the beach. In a long-ago incarnation I was a dancer and seeing these figures really captured and reminded me of the split second moments of off-balance transition between one shape and the next. It was truly lovely and all from bits of reclaimed string.
We had a quiet Sunday on Benbecula which included a walk on the adjacent beach. The sand was white, the sky blue with voluptuous clouds hovering on the horizon. The sea was pure turquoise. There were tidemarks of small shells, crab shells, seaweed. There was even the jaw bone of a sheep. Since there is water everywhere, anything can eventually get washed out to sea.
The sunlight, the shades of blue and the reflectiveness of the white sand are incredibly uplifting. And there was plenty more of that to come.