I wake before dawn on 30th December 2016 determined to bring in the New Year with something different. Instead of boozy urban revelry, my plan is to spend Hogmanay in Berneray in the company of seals, otters, oyster catchers and sanderlings – occasionally brushing shoulders with the rare species of hostellers who roam the remote Western isles in midwinter.
So I sprint across Glasgow, with wheelie case in tow to arrive at the Buchanan bus station for a 7am depart to Skye. I hope to catch a boat from Uig pier to Lochmaddy on North Uist in the Outer Hebrides. As usual my travel arrangements are minimal. I dislike planning so there are uncertainties ahead.
With gale force winds forecast, I risk spending New Year in the ferry terminal if the boats are cancelled. Checking the Uist bus timetable, I find there is no service meeting my ferry. I call the bus depot to clarify, the driver Tom tells me he can put on a special service to pick me up, if there are no other last minute requests. He asks me to phone back at 6pm to arrange. The idea that someone will bring out their bus, just to collect me, makes me smile. Where else on earth would you get such an offer?
I’m not certain I will get a bed when I finally get to Berneray’s pretty thatched waterfront hostel. The Gatliff Trust operate on a first come first served basis and do not take bookings. Of course it is unlikely all 18 beds will be occupied. On the other hand it is not unheard of for big groups – bands of hairy Hells Angel bikers with death head insignia and bristly beards – to rock up out of the blue for a night or two. In a world where we expert to control everything with light finger tip pressure on a mobile key pad, such uncertainties and inconveniences make up the Hebrides’ unique appeal. Life has more surprises if you can not plan ahead.
Generally, I hate bus journeys. But the meandering route through the spectacular Glencoe mountain range demands my full attention. It is gob smackingly gorgeous – and I am forced to put down my book. The crepuscular light, wreaths of mist round the mountains, black skeleton trees, dark slippery ravines, fast flowing rivers, buffeting winds and relentless rain reveal the life force at its most dramatic and mysterious.
And so my seven hour bus trip speeds by and finally, I am at Uig Ferry Terminal in the rain with a four hour wait for the boat which has been delayed by bad weather. Last summer I spent 15 hours waiting for the ferry here. The weather was fine so I climbed to the highest cliff top and lounged in the springy pink heather waiting for the boat.
It is too soggy for hill walking so I pass a happy afternoon in the bar on the pier sampling Guinness and whisky specials and reading Barbara Pym by the stove. Occasionally, I poke my head out the door to check the weather and feel mist on my face.
Onboard the captain announces a gale force nine gusting ten. It is 6.30pm and distinctly chilly and I get a sudden gloomy premonition of plummeting to the sea bed for a watery hogmanay. I banish these visions by filling up on a surprisingly tasty curry and nan bread in the restaurant. I’ve a stash of lentils and onions in my suitcase, but it is unlikely I’ll be anywhere near a kitchen for a while.
Horizontal with a full belly is the way to weather a stormy sea. I stretch out in observation lounge, which becomes deserted as soon as things start to get choppy. I’m impressed by the tumultuous force of the water as the waves violently slap the windows. A discarded water bottle bounces erratically to and fro across the carpet. I doze.
I am as fresh as a daisy walking down the gangplank, with a helpful ferry man carrying my suitcase. It is hard to believe I’ve been travelling for 13 hours. Luckily I have been saved from a night in the ferry terminal by a pal I met on Berneray in the summer. He happens to be on the island, and has come to rescue me, He laughs at my jaunty stride with wheelie case. “Everyone else is staggering about finding their land legs and you look as though you’re stepping out on Kensington High Street,” he says
I spend the night in the quiet Howmore hostel in South Uist which is in the atmospheric grounds of a ruined medieval church swamped in lichen. It is simple accommodation, a small one storey stone building with pinkish hills in the background. There is no radio or TV or phone signal, shops or restaurants. I am a brisk 20-minute walk from the nearest bus stop and the main road. A flickering coal stove is the only man made distraction.
Walking the seashore the next day, my eyes need time to adjust to the desolate beauty. Everyday things have a different significance in this empty landscape. I wonder at the speed with which nature greedily reclaims discarded human objects. Old plastic, scrap metal, ropes and giant anchors – rot, rust or are ripped to shreds. There is no doubt about the dominating force of nature. In this landscape human life appears fragile and impermanent. There are countless ruined dwellings while the inhabited buildings are low rise and dispersed – giving no sense of humanity as a collective force.
It could be a post apocalyptic landscape. Motorcars and heavy machinery built for mastery of the planet – lie broken and abandoned. In this scene human is destroyed and not the destroyer. After two decades living in Brighton on the South Coast of England where every inch of land from the front door to the seafront and hills, has been concreted to make way for cars – I am elated to find a place where the motor is not king.
The power dynamics between human and nature is reversed. In my eyes this makes discarded objects more precious and beautiful. Elsewhere they would be litter or blight – here they add colour and interest to the barrenness. The once garish red paintwork on an abandoned dumper truck blisters and peels and fades until it is in harmony with pinkish tint of the hills.
Even the barbed wire, that ugly human invention designed for trench warfare and the conquest of the American West, rusts and softens and takes on a gentler hue. A dirty old black plastic sack is ripped to shreds on the fence – and dances in the wind.
The New Year arrives. With an almost biblical sense of timing, the landscape switches from a desolate void to a creation scene. There is light, lots of it. The sun comes out and the mood lifts.
I celebrate by rambling across the coastline in Berneray, tripping over ruins and old bones. Momento Mori, whispers a perfectly formed sheep’s skull washed smooth by the sea.
Later, on the path to the West Beach, I meet a strange mutant sheep with a freakishly large head. We trade stares in a stand off. He refuses to budge so I take a diversion into an ancient burial ground where the head stones have been reduced to weather beaten stumps, smothered in lichen. There are none of the grandiose structures and defiance of mortality usually found in graveyards. Even the graveyard walls are low and unobtrusive, merging seamlessly with the shape of the hillside.
This is a place where the dead surrender to the earth without the need for fuss or adornment. The stunning views, watery reflections and dappled light on this hillside are enough for them.