Time Travel: To Eilean Leodhais

There’s not much going on here at the tower; or rather, not much to write about; the art is (and will remain for awhile) in the embryonic test stage, and I’ve also spent two and a half days wrestling mightily with enormous issues that are not for public consumption.  So, here’s part of a blog from Scotland that didn’t get published while I was there.

An interesting thing is occurring; when I look at the photos, I can actually smell the delicious sea air, smell the islands; the images trigger olfactory time travel! Nice. Very, very nice.

Way above the tree line on the way to Ullapool.

Steornabhaigh, Eilean Leodhais, Eilean Siar

I am on Lewis, and whether or not it will prove to have its own island magic, the journey here was one of the most dramatically gorgeous trips I have ever taken (something I never thought I’d say in relation to anything that involved a bus ride, anywhere). The bus was full of islanders, many of them elderly; it looked like most of the folks had come into Inverness to shop. There were only a few empty seats.

We left Inverness and climbed, and climbed.  My ears popped several times as we drove through seriously high mountains.  First, the landscape was almost alpine, tall, tall pine forests, glimpses of rocky peaks, of crystal blue lochs, of rushing, rocky, white-foamed rivers, and we passed a spectacular, high roadside waterfall.  The sky was glorious.  Then we climbed above the tree line, to mountaintops both craggy and rounded, some showing stretches of snow.  We crested a peak, ran alongside a long, wide loch, and through a forested band; then, just like that, we were at Ullapool.  In that part of northwest Scotland, the mountains simply run right to the sea.  Ullapool is charming and photogenic, the buildings almost all bright white, built in a line along the shore, wide but only three or four streets deep.  The view across the bay, as the loch heads straight into the mountain range, is breathtaking.

Above, Ullapool.

Below, across the bay from Ullapool, where the loch heads into the mountains.    

I’m thinking the word breathtaking a lot, but that’s just how it is; so was the ferry journey. Ullapool is located in a sheltered inlet, and we moved slowly through tall mountains, past small gleaming islets of craggy rock, topped with velvety green.  As we moved further out, blue-shadow peaks of more distant mountains were revealed, blackened where the quickly moving clouds cast their shadows.  The sea was a deep, deep eternal blue, an even clearer version of pure undiluted aquamarine from my painting days.  I was completely captivated.

I made a friend on the ferry, Angus.  He has the head of thick white hair and beautiful clear voice of the islands.  As soon as I got onto the boat, I made for the outside deck.  He was the only other person there; he said, conventionally, “It’s a lovely day for a crossing.  We have been having unusually wonderful weather.”  I said, “I know. And I’m shocked!” And of course, hearing my accent, immediately he asked where I was from.  I told him and he said, “Are you of Scottish heritage?  Were your people Highlanders, perhaps Islanders?”  I gave him a bit of the history, and he said, “Yes, that’s where you got your hair.”  I said, “Well, the color comes from a bottle, but the rest comes naturally; hair like a heilan coo.”  He laughed.  He said he’d just come from Inverness, where he’d been recording a CD in Gaelic; he is a songwriter (poet, bard). He was born on Lewis.  I told him I had never been to Lewis, but visiting it had always been a wish of mine.  He said I would love the island, “Everyone talks to everyone else there, whether they know them or not.  There are so many places in the world where that cannot happen, where you would need to be cautious.”  I said I knew that, I lived in one of those places, but that I’d just been on Orkney, and it was like Lewis there.  I told him about the old man and the seals, and how he’d shown me how to find them.  Angus said there were perhaps six seals living in Stornoway harbor.  I said, “The lady who ran the guest house in Stromness told me I should sing to the seals, that they liked it and would come closer.  Do you think that’s true, or is that just on Orkney?”  He laughed hard and said, “I think if you sing to the seals in Stornoway, what will come to you will be the men in the white coats.”

Moving out of the bay, and moving away from mainland Scotland.

As we got out to the open sea of the Minch, Angus said, grinning a bit ruefully,  “I need to move about.  I’m not a good sailor, and I find the only way I can keep a small measure of self-respect is by walking.” I wished him well, and he left. I was so fascinated by watching the changes in the land, I didn’t want to move.  Though the day was beautiful, the sea was a bit choppy. We pitched and rolled some, and people staggered a bit about the deck.  I’ve never really been on open sea before, except for the shorter journey to Orkney, and I always wondered how I’d do, but I liked it, didn’t feel ill at all, and actually found it exhilarating. I spent the entire three hours out there, tasting salt on my lips from the spray, loving it. Angus came by periodically, and we talked about many things, from the highland clearances to dogs to Vikings to world economy. He was very enjoyable company, no matter what we talked about. As Lewis appeared, mistily, on the horizon, he came and asked me if someone was meeting me.  I said no, I was walking, and he said his car was at the ferry terminal, and offered me a ride.

The first thing I saw when I got off the boat were palm trees.  Small, ragged, and slightly anemic looking, but palms nonetheless, thanks to the gulf stream. 

The second thing I saw was a large wooden replica of one of the Lewis chessmen (and I shot it for Linda).

The third thing is that here, the signs are in Gaelic first, with smaller English translations. This pleases me to no end. I am in a place where the culture survived, at least linguistically, even though so many were forced to leave, and all were required to learn English.

Angus dropped me at the B & B, and on the way, he offered to give me a tour of the island on Monday, saying “It would be no trouble at all”.  And so, he is going to appear at the B & B at 10 am, and drive me round to Callanais and the Black Houses, and perhaps down to Harris as well; and he’ll show me “places I should see.”  This will be great; I will get to see Lewis through his eyes, and he clearly loves the island and has known it all his life, and is an excellent storyteller as well. 

Mrs. B at the B & B was lovely, too, and it’s a spacious room, the largest I’ve stayed in, with a big bed, comfortable chairs, a desk and a view of a lighthouse and the sea, full of paintings and prints by her artist son, who lives in Glasgow.  She gave me keys, but said that her front door is never locked till very late at night, and she lamented the fact that her son lives where he needs locks. 

The view from my room in Stornoway, a little before midnight. 

(Ahhh.  Here in the Catskills,weeks later, I’m breathing in the ‘tangle o’ the isles’, deeply.  More later, and more time travel. There were a few things that didn’t get published due to the intermittent wireless access, and I’m liking going back.)

ps – Yesterday, while I was in a monumental funk, my cell phone rang.  It was Virgin Atlantic, wanting to know if I’d ever gotten my bag.  Nice of them.




4 thoughts on “Time Travel: To Eilean Leodhais

  1. love the men in white coats story.

    looks to me like scotland looks like a continuation of the north england lake country. gorgeous stuff.

  2. >>The second thing I saw was a large wooden replica of one of the Lewis chessmen (and I shot it for Linda).

    For which I am excessively grateful! 😉

  3. The images are amazing. I looooove all the water. All the water. And all the time travel! I can relate to how good that feels when the present seems more difficult.

  4. Smith: Actually, I was just reading, today, about the geological formation of Scotland for the work I’m doing, and I found out that England and Scotland were once two different continents/ islands, that slammed together at one point and stuck! (that is my highly scientific encapsulation). They are made of entirely different types of rock. So though they might look the same, they’re different lands (in more ways than one, but I’m just talking about the rocks here).
    Linda: I will do almost anything for people who bring me large bottles of single malt :-).

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