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Three Hours Till Sunrise

It was the midsummer solstice on June 21st and we spent the longest day of the year in Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis. We have spent the past week visiting the Scottish islands of Orkney, Lewis, Harris and Skye, experiencing something just short of a midnight sun, with a blue suspended twilight occuring between about eleven pm and three am. I found myself waking at all hours of the night to check my watch; even with an eye mask on, my body must have sensed that it was broad daylight outside.

Ring of Brodgar, Orkney Island
Pagan offerings, Ring of Callanish, Lewis Isle

The day following midsummer, we visited the Ring of Callanish, a standing stone formation in the shape of a Celtic cross. The debris of pagan rituals was littered in the grass – incense sticks, little bunches of wildflowers and mouse skulls. There were also offerings of oranges, apples and kiwi fruit left in the centre of the circle. Standing stones are found all over Britian, with some of the most impressive neolithic sites being located in the Orkneys and the Herbrides, north and west of the Scottish mainland. It amazes me that so little is known about the purpose of these monoliths. They only seem to raise more questions about the local cultures and archeologists are left floundering in guesswork as to how and why they were constructed. In the Orkney islands many of the stone circles have been built miles apart but are directly aligned, suggesting each site contributed to a larger formation that spanned the breadth of the main island. Whilst on Orkney we also visited some of the burial tombs and village ruins dating from the same period, including Skara Brae, a perfectly peserved fishing village that was abandoned in a hurry. All the pottery and tools were found in place inside the houses, suggesting the people left due to an unforseen event, such as a sandstorm or a violent raid from the sea.

Orkney was my favourite island of the four we visited – and not just because the ice cream made there is world famous (though I did consume several tubs of it!). The Orkneys are low, green and relatively flat. There are barely any trees or bushes anywhere, so if you climb any small hill you are treated with a sweeping view across crofter’s lands to the sea. Similar to the rest of Scotland, the houses are mostly grey stone, grimly designed to withstand the elements and to dissolve into an overcast sky. You will often see a single standing stone covered in moss in the middle of someone’s chicken pen. I even spotted a driveway that snaked around two stones, the second of which had been split in half by lightning. Often the stones are the tallest point in a particular landscape, so many of them have suffered such damage.

Lewis is a not as picturesque as Orkney and large sections of the island could only be described as peat bog. There is nothing, nothing, nothing – the only entertainment we had was two hours of ‘spot the red tractor’. The peat heather is cut up by the locals and fashioned into bricks that can be used as fuel in the winter, a practice that hasn’t changed since prehistoric times. Island life isn’t as harsh and isolating as it once was; most villages have access to mobile libraries, internet, a touring cinema and a postal truck that doubles as a hop-on-hop-off bus. Still, many islanders have to work quite hard to keep their community alive, with many of the residents keeping multiple jobs. Aside from maintaining the family croft, a farmer may also be the postman, school bus driver and the barman of his village. The crime rate is very low in these parts and houses are never locked. Still, you can sense that the communities are under threat, as young people are lured away by the conveniences of the mainland; it is inevitable that they leave for university or to get married, particularly the young men, as they outnumber women three to one.

I have included some pictures from some children’s books I came across in a gift shop on Lewis Island. Scottish illustrator and author, Mairi Hedderwick (1939 – ) has lived most of her life on the Hebridean island of Coll. She is best known for the Katie Morag series, which is set on the fictional Isle of Struay, off the west coast of Scotland. The books consider how island life is slowly changing and follow the adventures of a little girl growing up in a fishing village. Thankfully Katie Morag’s island is thriving and extra ferries are being scheduled to Struay; the same can’t be said for many real-life equivalents.

Lewis Island is attached by a land bridge to Harris. Technically they are the same island, but the imaginary border between them is reflected in the landscape, as Harris is a sudden, mountainous growth at the foot of Lewis. Harris is one of those places I would love to go back to just to disappear. The countryside is very green and craggy, with unexpected sheens of pinks, blues and oranges which have been captured as thin contrasting threads in the local tweed fabrics. Aside from amazing hiking trails, Harris also has long white beaches and pretty port villages. I really could have spent a couple more days there, but if I lingered every time I thought that I’d probably still be in the Middle East!

We pressed on by ferry to the island of Skye, one of the most popular destinations in Scotland. Dramatic scenery and a bridge crossing to the mainland has resulted in Skye being overrun by yuppies relocating from London and Edinburgh. It is also full of day-tripping tourists and you have to walk well off the main trails to avoid the sight of grey nomads with fluro Gortex jackets, bum bags and hiking poles. We clambered up to the foot of a precarious, crumbling mountain called the Old Man of Storr. The sea was a rich turquoise that day and the strait below was so reflective that the islands were cut out of the water like shadow puppets. Unfortunately, the stony ledge we perched on was absolutely infested with midges and we now look and feel like we have chicken pox. Small price to pay for such an incredible view.
Beach on Harris Island
View from foot of Man of Storr, Isle of Skye

We returned to Edinburgh with some reluctance and have found the bustle of the city irritating. It is not a large city by any means but we both prefer to be out in the green silence of the middle of nowhere. We only lasted a day in the capital before we got fed up and took a day trip out to St Andrews. There was a medieval reenactment taking place on in the ruins of the castle, where we watched grown men belt each other with shield and sword. We then sat for an hour on the golf green and tried to wish ourselves up north, back into the Caledonian wilds.



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