Thursday, December 9, 2010

Islands at the Edge of the Sea

Scotland, I’m coming to believe, is all about the islands.  I didn’t see nearly enough of them when I lived in the UK, but even then one of ‘em (Skye) ranked as one of my favourite places on earth.  Now that I’ve seen a bit more, I think that’s even more true – I’m adding a few more islands to my “favourite places” list. 

There’s an enormously long coastline for such a wee country – it twists and turns and bends back on itself for thousands of miles – and the coast on any side is spectacular.  (Well, not south, since there’s no south coast.  But every other direction.)  But the islands are even more incredible, whichever ones you hit.  When you go north, to Shetland and Orkney, or west to the Hebrides, some of them feel so palpably remote and otherworldly that you can easily believe that you’re at the very edge of the world; there’s just you, and the sea, and the wind, and the mountains.  (Oh, and some sheep.  Always sheep.)

I’ve visited a few now, starting with the far northern islands of Orkney – utterly beautiful in that bleak and windswept way that I find so much more compelling than palm trees and miles of white sandy beach.  (There are beaches on Orkney, actually, but as I was there just when a blizzard decided to ravage the country, I wasn`t inclined to visit any of them.)  I have to go back in the summer – when more things are open and I won`t be at risk of dying of exposure by hiking around – and have a proper look around.  I`ll head even further north to the Shetlands, too – I am determined to get to Unst, the most northerly inhabited place in the UK.  But I`ll save that for slightly warmer weather, and more daylight:  the sun was setting by 3 p.m. in Orkney, and it was absolutely black by 4, with no sun to be seen again until after 8 a.m. the next morning.  That`s a little too much darkness; think of the wonderful long hours of daylight in the summer, though!

From Orkney, I`d planned to work my way across the north coast to Durness, and then down to Ullapool to head over to the Western Isles.  Well, the weather had other plans for me; since I didn`t fancy driving a car on the wrong side of the road in the midst of a blizzard (and there was no other way of getting across to Durness, except for one bus on Saturdays IF it ran, and then no way at all to Ullapool from there, I opted to abandon the original plan and headed back to Inverness.  Stopped just for a night, and then caught the early bus over to Ullapool, the ferry port for the Isle of Lewis.

Lewis – the northernmost of the Hebrides (the Western Isles) – is incredible.  Again, if your taste runs more to palm trees and lush rainforests, it wouldn`t be for you, probably; but if, instead, you are more dazzled by dramatic rocky cliffs and wide open spaces and craggy wee mountains (as I am), then you`d love the place.  I stayed in Stornoway, in what is possibly the best hostel I have ever seen – in a converted house, the “female” dorm is in the former master bedroom, complete with attached master bathroom and its deep clawfoot tub.  Downstairs, there’s a cozy common room with squashy couches and a lovely woodstove; the peat fire burning all night finally allowed me to get warm indoors, probably for the first time since arriving in Scotland.  And because it`s such a slow time of year for tourists, I had the place almost to myself (aside from a very shy French backpacker boy who just about jumped out of his skin every time I talked to him). 

My whole reason for going to Lewis was the Standing Stones of Callanais (pronounced “Callanish”), and they didn’t disappoint.  It’s a henge similar in concept to Stonehenge (but even older), and pre-dates the Egyptian pyramids; this is an ancient place we’re talking about.  No one knows exactly why or how it was constructed, but because the shadows line up perfect once every 18.6 years in tune with a slow lunar cycle, it’s thought that it was built for astronomical observation and religious ceremonies.

Callanais Standing Stones, Isle of Lewis
If this was down south, as Stonehenge is, within easy reach of London, it would have the millions of visitors a year that its more famous cousin sees.  As it is, even in summer you wouldn’t be overwhelmed by hordes; and in the winter, when I visited, you can stand in the circle (they let you go right up to the stones, unlike Stonehenge where you have to keep your distance) and marvel at it, and wonder about its significance, and just drink in the physical beauty of its setting on a hilltop in Lewis.  The only onlookers I shared my view with were sheep – and they’re not a rambunctious bunch, generally.

And it’s a lovely trip just getting there and back —there’s a very handy public bus that runs in a big circle around centre of Lewis from Stornoway, and stops at a few of the sights including the Callanais stones.  (There are a couple more I’d have liked to see, but the winter bus schedule did not lend itself to visiting more than one in a day.)   I shared my bus on the way back with junior-high-age kids who’d just got out of school; it’s been a while since I hung out with 13/14-year-olds and they’re pretty amusing.  I eavesdropped on one boy making a prank call to a youth helpline —he told the counsellor at the other end that he was on the bus and was getting “the eye” from a girl aged about 20 whom he thought was pretty, and wondered if he ought to go talk to her.  Apparently, the counsellor urged him on (really?) because as soon as he ended his call on his cell phone, he came down the aisle and plunked himself in the seat next to me, and started to chat.

Apparently *I* was the “20-year-old” in question.  (But, just for the record, I was NOT eyeing up a 14-year-old!  I see nothing wrong with younger, but there’s a definite limit on HOW MUCH younger. 14’s way past that particular line.)  I had to laugh.  He was a cheeky little git, I’ll give him that, and I’m sure in a few years he’ll be breaking hearts all over town.  Just hope he aims a little bit closer to his own age next time.

Anyway, I’ll definitely go back to Lewis —in a slightly warmer season next time when more things will be open and more people will be around (I like having a dorm room to myself, but hostels are a lot more fun with other backpackers around to chat to.  Especially if they’re cute Aussie boys.)  But, even in winter – when it is, without doubt, spectacularly beautiful and even more dramatic -- I’m so very, very glad I got a wee taste of the Hebrides; I think this is going to become one of my favourite places on earth as well.  (I have another couple of isles on that list, that I’ll tell you about next.)

And, hey, if anyone’s up for it, there’s a big “Hebridean Celtic Festival” every July on Lewis – kind of the northern version of Glastonbury.  Anyone fancy coming along?

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