The Sound of Islay (2009)

 

Gylen Bunkhouse, Kerrera

The photocopied maps came out too light, so I am tracing the crinkly outlines of the islands with a fineliner as I visit them.  Day three and the rain is pinning me down on this one; it drips off the bracken, streams down the tracks.

Looking south from a bunkhouse byre on the southerly tip, towards where my tent is pitched near the ruins of a castle.  There are horns, skulls and whale bones on the windowsill, a Mongolian yurt in a nearby paddock.  Its occupant is the cook: a Glaswegian homoeopath who grew up in Malawi and has been telling me about the parrot sanctuary just down the road…

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I noticed it when cycling here on day one, fresh off the train to Oban and chuckling to myself as each turn in the gravel road yielded more perfect vistas of ocean and isle.  Apparently, parrots very easily become unhinged, intensely domineering pets, their bad and very possessive behaviour only reinforced by owners who don’t know how to handle them properly.  So they end up in a garden off the rough tracks on the island of Kerrera, tended by a woman who (apparently) knows how to give them the right kind of love.

In the course of her monologue about the island and its eccentric inhabitants, the Glaswegian/Malawian dropped in the information that there was space in the bunkhouse tonight and that wild parties were often to be had there.  I had the sense that she was looking at me meaningfully here, and when she changed the subject and went on talking about the sheep and how they destroyed the wildflowers, I began daydreaming about what it might be like to spend a rough and tumble night in a Kerreran yurt.  Now she’s gone off to ‘give the bread into second kneading,’ leaving me with my maps, a sketch of a whale vertebra, The Brothers Karamazov and the rain.

The month of September stretches ahead of me, cloud covered, damp, light withdrawing and yet intensely open.  The bread maker with the flirtatious eyes said she used to be in training as a psychotherapist, but got sick of other people’s problems and came away to this pocket of bracken, sodden grass and castle.  It looks south, away from Oban and its light pollution towards the Ross of Mull, Inch, Seil and the other tiny islets which are duly outlined and named on the information board next to the castle, the only object detracting from my otherwise superb camping spot.  That and the sheep, shitting everywhere, squatting down to piss all round my tent so that a slightly more directed gushing joins the million other water sounds as the rain percolates through this green sponge of a landscape.

So: looking to the south while the yeast is doing its occult work, looking through a window (past horns and driftwood) for a window of less grey clouds, an opening moving in from the Outer Hebrides so that I can cycle south to the ferry port and begin the journey during which (Callum assured me as we planned this over ordnance survey mapping software) I would have tailwinds almost all the time, the prevailing south westerlies helping me onward.

An Cladach, Islay

i

Fighting the wind, the rain, myself and everyone else (particularly white van drivers) all the way down the west coast.  Conditions still terrible, but at least now I am watching them through the window of a bothy filled with peat smoke and my damp clothing.  The wind is driving dirty dishwater-coloured wavelets onto the pebbly beach that I tripped and slid my way along for several miles to reach here.

This shelter is so well maintained and full of other people’s leavings that it feels as if there is someone else living here; that they will suddenly emerge out of the gale with a creel of new cut peat.  How I will replenish the cakes of the stuff that I have been loading into the grate ever since I arrived I am not sure.  An economy where nothing is wasted – a phrase from an anthology of writings from Jura, the wilder, empty island just to the north.  There is a writers’ retreat set up there above the distillery, a vague homage to Orwell and his time at the tip of the isle, a place called Barnhill where he wanted to be unreachable.

Fighting the headwind (unable not to take it personally), fighting the rain (thinking I could predict its movements but being proved wrong on a grim stretch of lay-by south of Oban); fighting arguments with people that are only hypothetical, preparing my line of attack against this Land Rover driver or that ferry official, expecting the worst when in fact everyone is more than friendly.  The bitterness; the blockage.  On my last bike trip to a Scottish archipelago, I wrote that the bitterness was eventually drawn out by the gears and cogs turning, the brute exertion.  But now I feel that cycling on main roads only reinforces and ratchets, clicks up through the gears of any given grievance.  The drivers barrel past with no conception of how many calories this tiny hillock is costing me.  How dare they?

The owners of the last bunkhouse I stayed in could not have been kinder, running after me to the bus stop in their pyjamas with a thermos they thought was mine; the barman across the road poured me a truly massive Jura single malt for my money.  But all night long, shuffling through endless permutations of grievance, expecting the worst. Lying in that dormitory, under a roiling big mountain biker on the top bunk who was making the bedsprings creak with every toss and turn.

Fighting the rain (unable to dry my clothing) fighting not only the wind now but the sense that I am hearing voices in it, on it.  Work parties, gamekeepers, landowners who have come to chide me (for nothing at all).  In fact I saw the owner of the estate this morning walking in; she wished me all the best, said I was going to love the place, couldn’t miss it.  On the other side of the Sound are the Paps of Jura but (of course) the cloud is concealing those two conical, quartzite breasts which (another insight from the anthology) are odd in that they can seem beautiful and ethereal but also just as easily look like slag heaps.

ii

Coffee left by someone else, candle holder stands wrapped in tinfoil so they reflect the tea lights.  The bothy was restored in memory of someone ‘who loved the mountains and the sea and fell in Glencoe, December 1998, Aged 34.’  The plaque picks up the sea light through the window, next to the antlers off which my waterproofs hang to dry.

Bunk beds, bookshelf (rich in Doris Lessing), goggles and snorkels, silver goblets, colanders, even a cheese knife.  Even a winerack and several half full jars of peanut butter.  Workbench against the window, looking east for the two p.m. ferry, my only way of telling the time since my phone died and I left my bike complete with its odometer and tiny handlebar clock D-locked at the ferry dock.  Kindling, driftwood, firewood, coal and peat in two plastic creels, one of which I had just filled up from the cuttings fifteen minutes up the boggy hill.

I skirted the valley above today on its ridges; startled deer after seeing their droppings everywhere and watched them run all the way across the slopes and the burns.  Swans in the sea again, two otters swimming past – a snort made me look up from Dostoyevsky’s lurid stories about people taking satisfaction in, revelling in their own disgrace.  Round the corner from where I took sofa cushions out to read is a water butt, then an enclosure where a work party has planted trees, then bracken and bog, bracken and bog.  The wind and the rain tugged and speckled the roof all last night, then were gone today.  Shirt off as I ate my muesli, bay like glass most of the afternoon.  Things went back to, started to go back to, being just what they are.

The wind in the rain.

The rain in the wind.

iii

Day three of solitude, pinned down by the weather.  Late afternoon and I am still getting over last night’s storm.  The rain wind was terrifying: droplets being flung against the window and tin roof, sounding now like sand grains; now pellets, marbles, ballbearings, back to sand.  Chucked against the leaking, draughty bothy walls all night long.  Flashes of light that I thought were buoys, or perhaps the torch of an exceptionally dedicated serial killer, but must have been electric storms over Jura.

Here it is again, the evening rain starting, coming in on the wind.

Wandered south along the pebble beach toward a lighthouse, but a swollen, tea-coloured burn blocked me, and I fell into a gloghole.  Wandered north along the pebble beach toward nothing in particular, but my hands got cold so I came back and loaded the grate with coal, banging the charred cattle on top of it all.

When the rain gale was just starting last night, was just beginning to take its first breaths, I was listening to the music Giorgos loaded onto my MP3 player back in Edinburgh.

‘And this?  What, you don’t know this?’  he said, clicking through some obscure noise artist or Scandinavian circuit bender, ‘Well screw you for being able to hear it for the first time.’

So I listened to the long, ambient electronic tracks, listened to the ocean through the clicks and burbles: sounds, organic chemicals separating and re-condensing, peat turning into coal up there at the cuttings, ancient cycles speeded up time lapse photography, evolutionary algorithms, drum machine randomisers, sounds and species drifting in and out of phase – it was all speaking to me of an absolute materialism, an uber-Darwinianism as the wind started to ramp up.  Occasionally the sequence might stray into something vaguely tonal, but only the way the wind might make a singing stone give forth a harmonic, nothing to do with that whole cultured, classical progression, ring-fenced like the saplings behind me, protected from the ravenous deer, the elements and animals.  The keening menace, the insects in the bog, the sound of nature as one long scream – it was all beginning to mount up in the darkness, like the storm.  And there was no limit, no upper threshold for something like the wind. And doubtless I had inhaled (and am still inhaling) too much carbon monoxide from the coal fire.  You can stick out three days by scrawling all over pages copied from a road atlas when all you want to do is slump in the cradle of a payphone.  You can try to imbue that bland map with meaning and memories but the damp will pulp it all the same.  Dostoevsky is mushy and curling and only making me feel worse given that just being alive is a crime and all of us leave an ignoble trail, peat cuttings and coal smoke in the wind, plastic waste down the pebble beach.  So the music was doing its work then, but now I turned it off because the wind sound had become truly frightening, the rain really flinging it in my face.  All night, no threshold to it and the whole day to recover.  The few horror films I’ve seen were playing on high rotation; I worried about the tent and two red panniers being swept away from the bracken grove where I had concealed them (like an idiot) not ten yards from a stream.  The Sound of Islay is hardly the open ocean but still I was thinking of that fishing hut on a South African peninsula, a stone cabin not unlike this one, out on a limb in the ocean.  Newly refurbished with grants from local worthies; solar powered toilets and eco-friendly fire sticks of pressed grapeseed from the Parks Board office.  Dad covered it for the papers and got an old girlfriend and I a free night there.  She said the sea sounded loud but I reassured her; it was a long way away.  The last time I went back he said the whole thing was gone without trace.  Smashed and carted off into the dark by a winter storm.

Jura Hotel, Craighouse, Jura

‘It’s still a beautiful day.’

‘And you’re still an elitist curmudgeon.’

Things were getting heated in the Glengarrisdale bothy book: grumpy wilderness loners complaining about large parties taking their toll; entries from Dundee and Inverness hitting back within weeks.  Someone had pasted in an article asking ‘When is a bothy not a bothy?’  It gave details about where to find certain of the shelters and someone had inked out all the clues.

‘Which mean-spirited pedant is responsible for this?!’  someone asked.  Someone else took up a page ranting about there being not one but four bottles of ****ing Fairy Liquid left behind; about what even a drop of the stuff would do to the brown trout in the burn, and how the gentrification – or rather ‘poncification’ – of bothies had gone far enough.

‘Stop trying to make these places like a home away from home!’

Indeed I was surprised to notice a copy of Pinter’s The Homecoming on the shelf, carting it out with a whole lot of other reading matter and sitting on a beach chair in the holy sunshine.  My whole stay on Jura – biking and hiking up and back down its one singletrack spine – has been edged by holy Scottish light.  Even after today’s grey morning, when I hiked up to the saddle of the Paps, got sick of bogtrotting and turned back; even after that the three quartzite cones are divesting themselves of cloud, and the September sun is drying my laundry on a fence in front of the Jura Hotel.  All the others camped out on the lawn have headed up there and just now, right now as the cloud ceiling is finally lifting off the tops, they must be feeling very pleased with themselves.

Three kayakers arrived as I sat down on the bothy’s beach chair.  They had brought in red wine, coal and a lot of stories about ten years of paddling around the Western Isles.  My favourite involved the one where they had caused the deaths of a deer, two sheep and a seagull in a single weekend.

‘And three limpets,’ said Iain, a burly red-faced character who you would not suspect was a serious athlete if you saw him on a dreich Glasgow high street.

‘Aye,’ said Kevin, ‘And the thing is, the more animals we killed, the better the weather got.’

‘But at least we ate the limpets,’ said Doug.

They spoke about how different the islands looked from the sea.  Jura with its wild coast of raised beaches, caves and quartzite streaks.  I noticed them the next day as I teetered northwards to catch sight of the whirlpool of Corryvreckan: like someone had drawn lines in thick white crayon all the way down the tilted cliffs.  They described tidal races and the inner sanctums of lochs, bothies you could reach only by boat, thirty foot swell off Skye, hearing the rumble of Corryvreckan from the hillsides of Argyll, a sound like a plane passing that never went away.  That roar was everywhere in the north of Jura.

A farmer from Lincolnshire turned up with his son and his son’s friend, from Zimbabwe.

‘On the Mutare Road,’ he told me and asked if I had faith:  ‘Do you have faith?’

I wanted to explain, somehow, and that he didn’t have the right to ask me that question, just as I didn’t have the right to answer it.  But the bluff farmer father changed the subject immediately, telling how they had stumbled on a stag party in one of the caves to the north, big speakers booming out from the cave and no wildlife.  This jogged Kevin’s memory.

‘Remember that time, on Rum, or was it Eigg?  The rave on Eigg.’

They had beached kayaks and run away from the midgies.  When they came back they noticed that a huge bonfire had been built on the beach, a tower of wood waiting to be lit and nobody around.  Then some characters arrived with speakers and a generator, offloading it from a small boat.

‘Big bassbins they were – so high.’

They had stumbled on to the location of a secret party, and felt there was nothing else for it but to join in.  I could imagine the burly Kevin and Iain stomping around on the pebble beach, the more aloof Doug sipping a can in the middle distance perhaps, or tending to his Trangia.

‘And then those pallets on the fire.  Do you remember those fuckers?’

‘The crate dance.’

The addled ravers had eventually started chucking wooden pallets on the bonfire and having competitions to see who could dance on them the longest.

After the farmer and his two awkward teenage, and possibly gay charges had gone to bed in the loft, Doug lit some scented candles that he had been carrying, a present that he hadn’t wanted.

‘My wife’ll think ah’ve been fuckin’ around,’ said Iain.

‘It’s gonnae smell like a poof’s paradise in here,’ said Kevin.

But the essential oils only combined with the coal and the peat smoke to spur them on to greater narrative heights, lengthy reminiscences of all the various kinds of sea creature they had caught and eaten: Greenland halibut, specimens growing in the warm outflow of power stations.  Or not eaten: monkfish caught off the Butt of Lewis.  Because trawlers had dumped so much over quota or undersized bye-catch in the area, the sea bed was coated in rotting carcasses.  The monkfish which bottomfed on them stank like sewage in turn: when they were brought ashore, these normally expensive delicacies could not be sold.  Mackerel they caught and ate immediately, before it could go oily and fishy.  Trout they pulled out of the small estate lochs with spinners.  Lines they attached to the backs of their canoes as they paddled along, seeing what they could snare.

‘Here’s Henley talking about all that terrible rapin’ and dredgin’ of the sea bed,’ said Kevin, ‘And you’re trawling up and down yourself Iain.  I dinnae know, honestly.’

They swept out the fireplace, left me some red wine and launched early the next morning, in time for the tides to carry them home.

Tomsleibhe, Glen Forsa, Mull

On the ferry to a smaller island you can scope out the cast of characters that will be playing out their holiday antics and impinging on your journey over the next few days: buying you a drink, offering you a lift, forcing your bike off the road.  On the front lawn of the Jura Hotel, a mini encampment of gentle people came together for a while, among them a couple my age from Glasgow who said their flat had burnt down during a party; they had been living in a camper van ever since. They spent a long time counting out coins in shops and bars.  There was another Glaswegian, a gay sixty year old art teacher who ranged all over the place with his newly acquired bus pass and was completing his second round of Munros and Corbetts before his legs gave out altogether.

‘My knees are roasting hot,’ he said in the hotel bar after toiling up and down the three Paps in heavy clag, ‘I need an op, otherwise I won’t be able to do this.’

He and another couple of ageing ramblers compared notes about replacement patellas and hip surgery for a while.  I felt shamed, having only hiked up to the saddle, watched the cloud base blowing across the scree, and turned back.  Most of the day I spent arranging and rearranging my laundered underwear on the hotel railings.  I was (as usual) having hypothetical set-to’s with irate punters, but nobody seemed to mind.

Late at night, woken by the sound of a helicopter, I crept out of my tent to piss at the edge of the lawn.  Immediately the big rescue machine wheeled and strafed me with its searchlight; then turned again over the Sound and did it for a second time.  I was just beginning to feel very nonplussed when it dropped and landed not thirty metres from my tent, almost blowing me and all my possessions into a skip.  Malcolm, the hippies and the ramblers all peered out from behind nylon flaps while someone was airlifted from the hotel carpark.  Then it took off, popping my tent pegs like thumbtacks, whipping the groundsheet out like a tablecloth.

Our little group dispersed again at Port Askaig, Malcolm staying on the ferry which dropped me at Scalasaig on Colonsay.  He was off to tick another Corbett before catching a bewildering array of local bus services back to Glasgow, one of the thousands of pensioners now ranging all across the UK since the new free bus pass legislation. We had talked a lot over pints of Caledonian 80 and I was sad to see him go.

The next character to loom into view was a Jehovah’s Witness called Rosina who walked everywhere but was nonetheless obese in a jolly, red faced farmer sort of way.  She would scour the left-behind foodstuffs shelf and load up on Fray Bentos instant pies in the bunkhouse kitchen before setting forth and inevitably getting picked up, always arriving at each beach, cove or concert before me.  Eventually I scoured the map to find places where the gradients might deter her, but she was remarkably thorough for a large woman, and had a lot to say about ticks, liver flukes and other diseases that I might well have fallen prey to when wild camping in Jura.

Finding some mobile reception, I was horrified to pick up a series of messages from an increasingly worried University of Cape Town administrator called Nalinee Maharaj saying that the panel needed to interview me within the next two days via telephone, and why wasn’t I responding to her messages.  And so, after making some hurried notes with a pen from my Swiss Army knife one hungover morning, I found myself fielding questions about South African literature in a tiny office next to the village hall while musicians from the folk festival did their soundcheck next door.

Walked across the tidal strand to Oronsay, still full of coffee and spouting vast, brilliantly witty elaborations on all the answers that I should have given.  I met a French girl who couldn’t have looked more Scottish and we kissed against a dry stone wall after cycling back from the pub in the dark.  She seemed to have visited almost every inhabited island in the Hebrides.

‘So did you exchange addresses then?’  asked Rosina on the ferry to Oban, ‘I saw you!’

She came and found me later to explain how she had missed the final call for dinner on the ferry.  It was a blow from which she never really recovered.

 

‘Clansman,’ en route to Barra

Drawing a thick white wake between Mull and Ardnamurchan after five days easy pedalling round the island.  Sat out the worst of the cold front at a lodge full of unusual bit players, the most flamboyant being a chef cum handyman called Jefferson.  Brazil born but raised in Italy, with one of the most extraordinary accents I have ever heard.  Like the Congolese and other African immigrants in Cape Town, he added ‘ee’ to the end of words, but with much greater frequency and conviction.

‘You want to go to Tobermory?  It’s a big trippy, a bigee trippy for this time.’

Even when the word already ended in a y, you could sense that he wanted to add another ‘ee’ on to Tobermory.

‘Bloody hellee,’ he would say, striding around the kitchen in full waterproofs at even the faintest sign of drizzle, ‘It never stoppee rainy, never stoppee rainy.’

He stayed in a yurt with an older woman called Janet, while a younger girl called Cathy ran things indoors.  She had freckles, a big van, an annoying dog called Cream and a slightly bovine expression on her face.  The dog refused point-blank to walk in the rain, and so spent most of its time begging for food.  I scrolled through the BBC Internet weather maps, watching the rain bands roll over Mull, biding my time and finishing Karamazov.

‘Oh. Oh, ho, ho,’ said the tall, thick set Armenian called Constantine who was sharing a dorm with me, ‘That book, that book.’

He explained that when he was ‘a Soviet schoolboy,’ it had been the Bible, the cornerstone of all things literary, and that as a result he couldn’t stand it.

‘Oh my English, sorry, sorry,’ he would apologise, face racked with embarrassment, as he reeled off all the names of Russian authors I should read.  And then German, Czech, Polish, Japanese.  The man was a giant walking polymath, whom I last saw walking off in the rain at Tobermory after he had just exclaimed good-naturedly that it was ‘Toytown, Toytown.’  Just when I had stopped having ridiculous arguments with imagined enemies, I was plunged into a dispute with a woman in Co-op when she refused to give me a plastic bag for a leaking quiche.  I pedalled over the pine covered hills in a rage which was only dissipated when I found a bookshop in Dervaig run by an old fellow with a bow tie and plenty of conversation.

‘An espresso topped up with hot water?  What they call an Americano these days, isn’t it?  Though not in Venice of course.’

In this tiny village on Mull, his mind was moving on the lagoon of Venice, taking up residence there.  He talked to me about the city non-stop for an hour so, and during that time a package arrived from Amazon: a book about Venice by Peter Ackroyd which someone had sent, anonymously, and presumably for his birthday.  I took a copy of Stevenson’s Kidnapped with me and pedalled off into the wind, thinking that if Venice was the place which he would fasten onto in the face of death and dementia, it was a good one.  I lit a candle for my mother in the abbey on Iona, thinking that, when I was four and travelling through these islands with her, an idea of beauty was imprinted, deposited in my young head, and that a quarter of a century later I am still redeeming it.  The glens streamed with waterfalls and a following wind whistled through them, whipping me back to the ferry in no time at all.

  

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