Time Travel: Free Church meets Freethinker

My last view of Lewis.

Angus told me a bit about the Sabbath on Lewis, particularly about the Free Church, the stern Presbyterian offshoot that is the dominant religion on the island. It seemed confusing and, well, kinda grim and anything but free to me, so I won’t attempt to repeat what he explained; I know I’ll get it wrong.  He gave me a tape of the Free Church singing of the psalms, which he said are in a traditional sort-of call and response style, and he told me how this practice was recently found to be nearly identical to the singing in certain long-established southern black churches in the U.S.  He said that there had been a mutual exchange of music between these churches that amazed everyone involved, on both sides of the Atlantic pond.  I liked hearing that story, very much.

Because my bag went missing until a few hours before I left for the Catskills, I haven’t listened to the tape yet, and I’m not sure what, if anything, I’ll be able to hear of it, but I intend to try. I admire and respect people who have strong spiritual beliefs, as long as those beliefs don’t involve harming non-believers in any way, and as long as the believers don’t expect me to adopt their doctrine. As a (Christian) online friend often says,” your rights end where my nose begins”. Amen to that. I have my own strong beliefs, and they are private.  But, after hearing about the strictness of the Free Church, and reading a few things in Stornoway’s many religious bookstore windows, I did begin to wonder if I might be, oh, burned at the stake if I ever attempted to stay there for any length of time.

On the ferry going away from Lewis, near the end of the crossing, I met a fascinating-looking old man.  He was very thin, skeletal, his ruddy, scarred skin drawn tight over his skull and the tough cordlike muscles of his jaw, with an incredibly wide, almost lipless mouth. I could clearly see all the bones and tendons of his hands and wrists.  Yet he wasn’t pasty or ill-looking; his skin shone with the blood pulsing beneath, and there was a fierce, wiry vitality about him.  I was standing on the side deck, sheltering from the wind, watching the distant mainland mountains glide by.  He came out to smoke, expertly hand-rolling his own.

“Did ye enjoy Lewis?” he asked.

“Yes, very much,” I said, “it’s beautiful.”

The inevitable response to my voice came next, “And where are ye from?”

“Chicago; in America.” 

“America!  Hhhmmmmff.” 

There was a pause while he peered at me, probably deciding if I was, in fact, worth talking to. Then, “Yes. Lewis is –“ and here the wind jerked his words out of my ears, but I heard the last two all right, because he thundered them, “ – and Christianity!  (pronounced something like Crrrrresst-chee-yan-ehtay!)

“Oh, great,” I thought, “and he’s got matches, too.” 

But I said, “Um, yes, I could see that it’s very religious. I was, um, in Stornoway on Sunday.”

Another long pause, while he stared at me, smoked, then said, abruptly, “And where did ye go?

“Oh, I went lots of places, a friend drove me — “

“What church did ye go to? On Sunday!”

Gently, I said, “I didn’t go to church. I walked about the castle grounds. All day. And I had a wonderful day.”  He drew himself up and sharpened his gaze so that his clear, pale blue eyes actually did bore into mine. I could feel them. So I stared back, shot him a huge, wide grin and cheerfully said, “I was BAD.”

For 1/1000th of a second, his mouth twitched up and the corners of his eyes began to crinkle, but he quickly got control of himself, put on a sour, dour face, and said curtly, “Ye were.”

“But” I said, “I was told that if I did want to go, I should go to the Free Church.”

“Yes!” He almost smiled. Almost.

I tried again. “My friend gave me a tape of the psalm-singing. I haven’t listened to it yet.”

Another slow drag on the cigarette, eyes still intent on mine. “Hhhmmmmfff. In English?”

I threw down the trump card. “In Gaelic.”

I won a genuine smile!  So I said, “My friend told me that the way the psalms are sung is the same as the singing in some American black churches in the sou–” and his face lit up like the summer sun coming out from behind a supercell cloud, and he trumpeted, in an accent that would astound anyone below the Mason-Dixon line, “Allll-i-bama!

And that’s where we connected; I could share in his genuine, enormous pleasure in his church’s cross-cultural bond, and he knew I truly did, even if I was a weird American, and a heathen at that.  I let him urge me to listen to the tape, because “ye can never be too deaf to hear The Word”, and then we comfortably talked about places on the island, and where Angus had taken me.  As the boat came into the Ullapool harbor, he smiled at me again and asked, “Will ye come back again to Lewis, do ye think?” 

We have now concluded the time travel section of our Blahg, unless for some reason, such as a lot more rain, we feel compelled to flesh out the very sketchy notes that we have remaining.  Please return your seat backs and tray tables to their normal upright positions, and once again: we thank you for choosing Blahg. 



Time Travel: A Bard’s-Eye View

My favourite photo of a Lewis beach; the Carribean meets Scotland.  The color is unenhanced.

I’ve already written a bit about the utterly grand tour of Lewis and a bit of Harris that Angus so generously gave to me, and since I’m time-travel blogging chronologically, and I’m at that day, I’ll show you some of the places he showed me.

The somewhat embarrassing thing is, is that I don’t know the names or exact locations of some of the photos, and that’s the down side of any tour, even an incredible one like this.  Like the Orkney bus driver said, we zoomed from place to place. We were most enjoyably talking, talking and talking the entire day, periodically interrupted by me suddenly exclaiming, “Oooooooohhhhhh!” as we’d round a curve and yet another spectacular view would be revealed, completely derailing whatever train of thought I’d been traveling on.  And, on the other hand, the conversation was so interesting that I didn’t really pay attention to where we were headed; just watched things appear before me, like a film.

Here’s what I know: we went first to Point, to see the house Angus had just built on his father’s croft land.  Then we drove down to Tarbert, in Harris, passing the place where he’d been born in a traditional (but turf-roofed) black house, and several awesomely huge sea lochs, enormous fjords that cut into the island, surrounded by great steep jagged stony mountains.  At Tarbert, we turned back up to Lewis to places where we had astounding views of immense beaches, and to a place where we saw the new green-design houses, and just across from them, we were high over another gigantic beach.  (We could just see two tiny human specks down there, moving, surrounded by vast white sands, and Angus said, “Hmmmm, it’s quite crowded today.”)  Then, we drove down to another beach, and got out again and walked for a bit (and I walked ahead alone for a time and just stood, completely mesmerized). We went on to Callanais, and the Black House village. Those are on the map, so I know where we were, and I’m reasonably certain of the road we took to get to the Butt of Lewis, the northern tip of the island, because we went past the Dun Carloway broch (but didn’t stop).

I took about 20,000 fewer photos than I would have if I hadn’t been with Angus; he was doing something wonderful for me and I didn’t want to wear out my welcome by pestering him to stop (well, at least too often). Poignant abandoned stone houses were everywhere, many of them within yards of the newer concrete houses that replaced them.  And, I saw places where peat had been cut and stacked to dry, and a couple of folks working at that. Though peat fires have been in my consciousness for as long as I can remember, going back to my very earliest memories of my great-uncle Mac’s stories, this was the first time I had actually seen this, other than in photographs (which I didn’t take, of the peat or deserted houses).

I didn’t walk the two-mile circuit around Callanais, deaf, experiencing it in relation to the smaller stone circles that surround it as I’d planned, but that will happen.  I could easily spend many days in any one of the places we visited. That is the largest gift Angus unknowingly gave me with his tour; the certain knowledge that I need to come back and do just exactly that.

On the road to Harris.  You can see some of the rulers of the Harris roads at the side; the black-faced sheep.  They wander free, and in the evenings, will come down to the road and lie on it, for warmth.  You have to get out of the car and chase them out of the way.

Enormous loch on the way to Harris; the rectangle in the water is a salmon fishery.

The other end of the same loch, with boat heading out.

A beach – for scale, look for three farms near the shore.  

On the beach.

The central circle of the Callanais stones.

In the black house village.

Sea stack at the end of the world, near the Butt of Lewis.  There’s nothing to show the scale, but trust me; it’s huge, and I’m standing over a long sheer drop to the sea. (No, that’s not my initial – or rather, I didn’t put it there).

Next stop, Canada and the states.  Again, these are gigantic.

Tapadh leat, caraid.



Time Travel: Sunday in Stornoway

Lews castle from the grounds; moored boats.

Today was Sunday, or rather, on Lewis: The Sabbath, which means absolutely everything on the entire island is closed down; there are intense (and very austere) religious practices here, and a great many churches and religious bookstores.  No busses or ferries run on Sundays, and the harbor is full of unused boats.

Though, last night, there seemed to be an equally intense amount of Saturday night ritual partying, loads of folks crowding a fair number of pubs and clubs, hanging out in front of them, smoking, groups cruising the streets, intently pursuing some fun, alcoholic or social or both. Interesting contrast.

Stornoway Sunday

At breakfast, I met the only other guests, a young English couple.  They were both in fine shape, but the male half, Steve, was just incredibly fit, all lean muscle, not an ounce of body fat on him, like a human greyhound.  He is a professional runner. They travel the world, he competing for the purses in major races, she his support system and training partner.  There had been a race on Lewis a few days before, and tomorrow there is a 26-mile race on Harris, which is the mountainous part of the island.  My knees ached just thinking about it.  They had been to Chicago, for the marathon that runs past my old Pilsen studio (for an entire day), so we found plenty to talk about.  They are nice folks, from the Lake District, which they enthusiastically encouraged me to visit. (They left early for the race, and left the island right after, so I didn’t see them again. Angus and I did go down to Harris, and we saw the stragglers walking and huffing.  Mrs. B told me the next day that Steve came in fourth.  Good on him!)

I knew I would be based around Stornoway on The Sabbath; even if I could have gotten to Callanais or the Black Houses, they would be closed as well.  But that was fine; there were some good walks in and near town.  I figured I’d spend my morning in the Lews castle grounds, and in the afternoon, either go to an old kirkyard four miles away, where there are gravestones of some of the Lords of the Isles, or else head across the causeway and find my way to the lighthouse visible from my room. 

Lews castle is not very interesting, being only around 200 years old, looking like some administrative building, anywhere. The grounds were said to have a marvelous variety of ‘plantings’, so that attracted me.  I thought I’d spend a morning strolling through pleasant formal gardens.  I was wrong.  Around the castle, it began that way, but the ‘grounds’ were a huge maze of twisting, intersecting paths through a jungle of vegetation gone wild, running along the rocky coast and up onto high hills, through a slew of varying environments.  I spent the entire day there, walking, climbing out onto coastal crags at sea level and far above.  I found and explored caves, islets, sheltered bays, climbed Gallows Hill for a gorgeous view of Stornoway’s peninsula and beyond, drank from a fountain at an ‘iron spring’ (horrible).  It was also an unexpected motherlode of things I’d proposed to observe with my grant; I found a number of species of lichens I hadn’t seen on the mainland, curious primitive-looking ferns growing out of the sides of trees and on bare rocks, lichens like bright Spanish moss in the process of killing trees, beautifully, with their graceful draping.  Parts of it reminded me very much of Black Mountain, North Carolina; there were the same huge tunnels of rhododendron on rounded hills, purple to Carolina’s pink-blushed white. I even found my second sample of Scottish fungus.  It amazes me that in such damp, lush places as the Highlands and islands, replete with life in all its cycles, fungi seem to be such rare finds.

And, I met people.  Angus is right; everyone spoke to me: kids, families, groups of teens, couples or lone men and women of all ages: all said hello and most had some comment on the day (which was superb) or the habitat.  There was absolutely no evidence of the ‘urban trance’ with which we habitually ignore our surroundings and our fellows in the states; I didn’t see a single person tuned into ‘iPod armor’. Everyone seemed so alive to me, fully engaged in just being where they were, in and at and of that moment.  Only a few folks were without joyous canine company. As the morning turned into afternoon, and the church services let out (and, presumably, the revelers shrugged off their hangovers), more and more people came to the grounds, though it never became what I would call crowded.  I began greeting the people I saw first, and that led to several conversations, mostly with older couples.  Invariably, I was asked where I was from, and then, immediately, if I had ‘Scottish connections.’ Like my friend on the boat, a few folks mentioned my hair (and I do see a lot o’ bushy heads). Also invariably, every single person I spoke with who asked those two questions, asked me if I would be back.  That truly, truly moved me.  One pair of folks, both with glorious thick snow-white hair, asked me if there were many Highland people in Chicago. I didn’t know what to say, so I named some suburbs: Glencoe, Bannockburn, Elgin, Midlothian, Dundee, Inverness, McHenry, Highland Park, Matteson (their name was similar to that). I also told them about the huge attendance at the Highland Games and the Grant Park Celtic Fest.  And that seemed to move them, in turn.

The paths were twisty and mazelike; they left each other and rejoined at several points.  I kept passing a short, tanned-to-nut-brown bald man wearing a backpack, enough times that we started to laugh when we saw each other.  At one point, I climbed a steep wooded hill and went through a gate at the top; the riotous woods ended abruptly and became the native scrub and heather.  I decided to turn back and keep exploring all the wooded paths I’d passed by.  At the gate, I passed him again, still laughing, coming out to where I’d just been.  A short way back down the hill, I saw a small object in the path; an empty digital camera case.  Just as I picked it up, a tall white haired woman rounded the bend with her collie, and greeted me.  I asked, “Are you going up top?”  She said yes, and I gave her the camera case, and asked her if she saw a short bald man, would she give it to him, and if not, leave it on the gate?  She said, “Of course.” About two hours later, I was climbing the switchback path to the top of Gallows Hill, and there he came in the opposite direction, beaming, saying, “Thank you so much!”  I love when things work like that; and because the people are so fully aware here, it was, as they sincerely say, no trouble at all.

It’s late, and now I’m off to the single open restaurant I found, which is, wonderfully, the Stornoway Balti House. I get to top an outstanding day with Indian food, and tomorrow, I will have my bard-guided tour.

I am loving it here, beyond belief. That’s all I can say.

Stornoway from Gallows Hill.  The big black boat is the Eilean Leodhais ferry that I came in on; the bigger blue one carries all the island’s freight.


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.




Culture Shocks

Still waiting for my bag to arrive; I read on a friend’s blog that Heathrow has just  recently installed an updated computerized luggage tracking system, and that as soon as they did, they promptly lost over 6000 pieces of luggage.  (Why don’t I know these things?) Virgin Atlantic knows my bag is at Heathrow; they identified it there even before I landed.  But it’s still sitting there, it is not here, and there are five wee bottles of single malt lovingly packed inside. 

Breathing in the filthy, car-exhaust smell of the el was a terrible bit of jet-lagged culture shock after the delicious air and scent of Lewis and the Orkneys, the softer sweet air outside Inverness, where I did a lot of walking.  So was watching the eight lanes of stalled traffic on either side of the train, and the el’s grinding, jerking motion, snapping my neck back and forth, and its awful vibrations, felt in my teeth. But I’m less lagged now after sleeping 11 hours.  I woke thinking I was on Lewis at Mrs. B’s, and wondered briefly why my artwork was on the wall there.

I had wondered a bit, before going, about traveling alone while old and deaf, how well I’d manage. The further I got north, the easier it was.  The patience, kindness and courtesy of people in Scotland were noticeably better than in England (which itself was improved over everyday life in Chicago) and it reached its zenith in the Highlands.  Not only were there no real difficulties, I never once felt pitied, which is something I find exceedingly hard to stomach; nor did I ever feel patronized, which is worse. It was simply a natural, matter-of-fact reaction; people quickly adjusted to the fact of my deafness, asked me how they could help and were genuinely happy to. Not one person contorted their face to exaggerate their words, or shouted, and if I did not hear and asked for a repeat, no one ever became impatient or said the phrase most deafened people hate: “forget it, it wasn’t important.”

I had expected to have some reaction to being in the land of my roots, but thought that it would be a private, internal thing.  On Lewis, especially, it was shared.  In every conversation I had there that lasted longer than a few sentences, people asked about my Scottish connections. More than once, I was told, “that’s where you get your hair.”  (There were varying reactions when I said that the color came from a bottle, but the rest was mine; that could have something to do with a very strict religious atmosphere on Lewis, the only thing that sort-of worried me about it). I had some long conversations with an older woman who shared one of my ancestral surnames (which, she gently told me, I pronounce wrong). She looked exactly like my grandmother. I had to constantly remind myself not to stare at her teeth, which were exactly like mine, with the big front overbite that my dentist insists on calling ‘the Bugs Bunny’ look.  On Orkney, people never asked about ancestry at all, but did seem quite pleased when I said I wanted to come back.  On Lewis, and on the boat back to the mainland, virtually everyone asked me if I would be back, or said, “perhaps you’ll come back”.

Everywhere in the Highlands, people of all ages are out and about, mixing together, talking to each other.  There is a strong visual sense of community.  In Inverness, the most bustling city, I daily saw numerous people out on those motorized scooters or in wheelchairs; everywhere around the Highlands older (and some younger) folks were out with canes; blind folks had guide people, not guide dogs (though it seemed that everyone had a dog, and the dogs went everywhere; they waited patiently outside shops). Older folks and children are a vital part of the fabric.  If you are over sixty and a Highlander or Islander, you can travel anywhere in Scotland; you get so many roundtrip tickets a month, free.  The Scottish Tourist Board runs a service for finding places to stay; the fee is four pounds per booking.  In Inverness, I had two long in-person booking sessions with two lovely young folks, Sam and Heather, who did all the phone-calling for me, with a lot of jokes and story-telling and conversation in between, and though I didn’t ask for it, and though I was charged in Edinburgh, they waived the fees because I am deafened; they simply refused to accept them.

In my ancestral chauvinism, I like to think that this is all an echo of the old Gaelic culture, where everyone was valued, where there were leaders but no class system, and, as the old poem says, “widows and orphans (were) liberally provided for, without want was each pauper” (from the Gaelic ‘Song to the emigrants’, Ian MacCodrum, 1760s).  It could also be the superiority of the general British health care system, or even the fact that the population is smaller, so everyone is noticed more, but in my romanticism, cultural survival is what I want to believe. In any case, coming from the U.S., where all depends on money, where even the dignity of the most basic human needs depends directly on individual income, it’s utterly refreshing to see. 

Above all, people talked to each other, and to me, regardless of age, color, or anything else, especially on the islands.


There’s something else, and here’s where I picture all the Americans sniggering, or thinking how pathetic I am, but the hell with it, I’m writing about it anyways.  America’s culture, if we have one, is exceedingly youth-oriented, especially if you are a woman.  A woman can achieve enormous professional standing and respect no matter how old you are, but after a certain age, you become completely sexually invisible (or, possibly worse, one of the many women who are rich who start to pay out enormous sums to get chopped, to surgically alter the aging process). Older folks only seem to meet in personals ads, and men my age and older invariably seek women half their age, and if you choose to age naturally, you automatically become null and void.  That’s the way it is. It’s not much fun for women (assuming you’re heterosexual), especially if you always had a lot of male attention and inside, you’re still pretty damn well alive, thank you very much. Yeah, like me. 

Well, I got flirted with on a daily basis again, like it was years ago, and yeah, I liked it.  A lot.  Just silly stuff, mostly, a wink here and there, getting blown a kiss through a train window, or a cheeky, flirty comment that says, above all, I see you, see your vitality. It was just plain damn fun.

I never even considered the possibility of this happening, and at this confused point in my life, I was definitely not in the market for a wee highland fling, but there were two situations that were more intense, and that’s where my American orientation let me down (or saved me, depending on how you look at it); I couldn’t interpret them, figure out what was going on.  There are cultural differences, definitely.

But I had a conversation with a white-haired woman in her seventies and mentioned one of them, and she said, “He must fancy you!” I mumbled something about being too old, and she, may all the goddesses there are love her, immediately and very, very seriously replied,

“Oh, no, you’re never too old for that, dear!”


So: If I should end up old and alone, I know where I’m retiring to!

Mural in the Invergordon train station


Beannachd liebh…sigh.


The mist today near the Dochgarrock lock on the Caledonian Canal…there are two larger hills/mountains completely obscured behind the one you see here.

A deep, deep sigh.  It’s essentially over, for now – tonight is my last night in the Highlands. Tomorrow evening, the latest possible train to Glasgow, and a B & B in Paisley near the airport; Friday morning, an early flight to London.  Sigh.

Today, I walked and walked, for nearly eight hours, dreaming grand, wild dreams.  I’ve been uncannily blessed with great weather and beautiful blue skies since I’ve been here.  Today it rained, but that was fine. Scotland’s skies are equally beautiful when they’re moody, at least to me. I started out on the Great Glen Way, with periodic pleasant drizzle, but after a couple of miles, nearly to the top of the first great hill (and finally out of the Inverness suburbs), I turned and went back.  I could see what was headed towards me. Before I got halfway down the mist came and blanketed the hill.  I don’t have boots nor a compass with me, and the mist can be incredibly thick and the path was steep and slick with mud.  So, I have some sense after all.  Instead of the hills, I decided to follow the wide towpath along the Caledonian Canal, to where it meets the River Ness, and view the mist from below; if it came down to where I was, I’d be on a wide, easy-to-follow path.  It never did, but it moved through the hills all day, revealing mountains and making them disappear.  For a long while, it stopped raining.  I passed the Dochgarrock lock just as the Jacobite Queen, a Loch Ness tour boat, was lowered down to river level.  I got to watch that. Then I went as far as the path would allow, not quite to the place where the river meets the canal.  As I turned to loop back to the towpath, this fellow was waiting for me.

I considered picking him up and kissing him; he might have turned into a prince who’d make it possible for me to stay here forever, but I don’t think that’s a Scottish story.  Besides, he looked a bit dour, and gathered himself to jump when I reached for him, so I kissed my finger and put it on his head, and he simply hopped away; and so, I’ll be on that flight.

On the way back, it poured down thick, sheeting rain for two long periods.  I had about four miles to go when it started, so I just kept on.  My jacket and hood kept my upper body dry, but my heavy jeans and shoes got soaked, and then after the rain, the wind kicked in.  My legs got chilled, and my ankles, then knees and finally even my hip joints started to seize up.  Aging bodies are no fun.  I was limping along by the time I reached the B & B. During a long, long, long hot shower (wishing for a bathtub) the sun came back out, and I went and treated myself to a good Indian dinner and watched it slowly set behind some thunderclouds out on the firth.


This has been an exceedingly important visit for me.  I did everything I proposed to do; I have my photographs and sketches and research notes, but I have so very much more than that. I had no idea when I wrote the grant that my life would be at a profound crossroads; I just knew I needed to return to Scotland.

I haven’t written about Eilean Leodhais, Lewis, yet.  Or rather I have, for myself.  But I don’t want to publish it.  What happened to me there reached right into my core and that’s for me alone. I’ll write about it and show you photographs soon.

But a large part of my love for Lewis was due to the fact that I made two friends there, or rather, I was befriended in the kindest and warmest of ways, and I need to thank them, from the bottom of my heart.  Barbara, who ran the B & B, made me feel as if I were visiting an old friend, not renting a room.  Her family has been on the island for generations.  She told me tales of my family names, told me, “you will find relatives here”.

And there is Angus, a Gaelic poet (who are still rightly called bards here).  We met on the boat over and he just sort of took me on; he spent a day driving me all around Lewis and down into Harris a bit as well; he showed me where he was born, the house he’s just built on his father’s croft land, lochs and stony mountains and vast blinding white beaches where the sea is a heartbreakingly beautiful clear Carribean blue; we went to my touristy desires, to Callanais and the reconstructed black house village (even though they were almost the same as the house where he was born).  He told me countless and varied tales of the island, answered every question; we talked nonstop, all day. We saw another pair of houses that are turf-roofed, just like the place where he was born had been; these had just won an all-Europe competition for the best new green design, and we ended up at the end of the world, at steep fierce huge rocks near the butt of Lewis, that break the waves of the Atlantic, arriving at full speed from Canada, the U.S.  He drove me to the pier on the day I left, and waited and waved to me as the ferry pulled out of the harbor. I don’t know if I have ever met anyone kinder.  For the company of these two fine people and many other reasons, I did not want to leave.  At all.  And so it was so very good to have Angus there to generously wave me on my way; when someone troubles to see you off, it means you are welcome back.

What Orkney started, Lewis finished.  Somehow, I’ve been healed.  Even coming back to Inverness, finding free wireless in my room, and reading about the latest firing at Columbia is put into its very petty perspective.

I have one of my goals now, and that is to come back, as soon as I can, to spend as long as I can on Orkney and on Lewis, grant or no grant. So: really it’s not beannachd liebh; it is chi mi dh’aithghearr sibh. 

Orkney Magic

The Old Man of Hoy


I am madly in love. Madly. With Stromness, with the Orcadians, with Orkney.  I’m so sorry I’m not staying longer.  But I WILL be back, and soon.

First, there is the landscape.  The ferry was not the open-air, Staten-Islandish utilitarian boat I imagined, but a proper small ship.  In the hold were four full-sized semi-trucks, a horse trailer with horses, and enough cars and vans to make a genuine Chicago rush-hour gridlock on a side street.  We weren’t allowed outside, and I sat in a lounge three stories up, as we passed the spectacular Old Man of Hoy.  I think I was taken right then. 

Stromness is fantastic.  Built way before cars, the major street that I’m staying on is the width of a downtown Chicago sidewalk, perhaps narrower, and twisty.  There’s the harbor, and then Stromness climbs up a steep hill.  The stone is the old Orkney bedrock, that breaks into long thin slabs, so there is a fascinating quality to the building, both biomorphic and linear. 

Today I saw Skara Brae, a Neolithic village over five thousand years old, something I’ve always dreamed of seeing.  I planned on that.  Unplanned, I saw a whale, I saw puffins and learned how and where to spot seals playing, and I saw them, too, and watched them for a long time.  They watched me back. 

I took the local bus to Skara Brae.  I was the only person on it.  There were perhaps six other people at Skara Brae when I got there, all English couples.  I kept hanging back so I could be alone with each of the structures.  The young, spiky-haired attendant watched this for awhile, then he walked up to me and showed me a viewpoint, a small, easy-to-miss window set into one wall that he said was one of the things that caused the place to be discovered, originally. As he spoke, he became very animated, and it was clear that he truly loved this place.  I said, “This must be the perfect job for you”.  His face lit up, and after that, he took me into the middle of the village on stone stairs marked “staff only”, lifted up two hatches so I could see into passageways, and regaled me with tales of the conservation efforts. Then, the tour busses began arriving. I’ll write about the tourist industry later, but it was disturbing. I left to see the entirely silly Skaill House (home of the discoverer of Skara Brae, and part of the ticket) and had an uncomfortable hour waiting for the next local bus to arrive. 

Again, I was the only passenger.  As we waited for anyone else to climb aboard, the driver had a long conversation with one of the tour bus drivers, which I didn’t completely hear, but seemed to be a lament about the tchyoooo-wrissts. I wasn’t sure if this was for my benefit or not, but I didn’t care; I was too happy to have seen Skara Brae. Then, we pulled away, and went barreling through idyllic, beautiful countryside on a one-lane, two-direction road; there were frequent “passing places” – once a car, and later, a motorcycle, saw us coming and pulled into those and let us pass.  Then, suddenly, the bus pulled over, stopped, and the driver had about a five-minute cell-phone conversation. Then as he pulled away, he said something to me, and I moved closer so I could read his lips in the mirror.  He had a marvelous accent, some Scottish-isms but something else, too; his vowels were so round they could have rolled down a hill with enough steam to get them up the next.  It was lyrical.  He was making an apology for his phonecall, and talking about someone who was elderly and ill, and I expressed sympathy and then said, “There sure are a lot of bus tours” and that was that.  He went off, and we talked all the way to Stromness.  At one point, he said, “You aren’t like an American.”  He was so wonderfully opinionated that I wanted to needle him a bit, so I asked, “What are Americans like?” and he looked at me dourly and said, “Ahhhch!You know.” 

I wanted to get away from other tourists as well, to soak up Orkney itself, so that afternoon I bought a map, and found a four-mile shore walk. On the way there, through Stromness, I passed a tiny close; then I saw another, titled ‘Khyber Pass’, and grinned; I made a note to get a shot of the sign on the way back.  Near the Library, I saw another sign: ‘Hellihole Road’.  I laughed out loud, got out the camera, and just as I shot the photo, a man came out of the library, stopped, and stared at me.  I said, apologetically, ‘Well, I just can’t help it.’  He pointed past me and said, ‘And did you get the Khyber Pass?’  I said, ‘No, but I will,’ and he laughed; we stood in the street and talked.  He was retired from the post office, and he said that now, he did a lot of beachcombing.  He recommended the very walk I had decided to take. 

The walk was just the best thing I could have done; it was spectacular, along the southwestern tip of west Mainland, looking out over the Sound of Hoy to the dark, brooding mountains we’d passed on the ferry.  There was stiff, cool, constant, salty sea breeze, but warm sun.  I saw a whale spouting, saw its tailfins as it dove, was enchanted. At the end of the walk (a stonewalled graveyard, graves from the 1700s till now, all facing away from the sea), I took a twisty little footpath about another mile further, and found what must be the ‘Black Craig’ I’ve seen on the maps, a brooding, dark, rounded headland, an echo of Hoy. I found a bench at the very tip of the land, at one end of a dep curved bay, and sat there for a good long time at the end of the world, feeling the sun, the sea wind, and watching the tide race in.

I cried awhile.  There are so many border collies here. I thought about Face.  I thought about the job, how it, and the twelve years I spent believing I was working towards something good, is over for me, cut down in a day like a burnt house. I tried to think of what I might do now, and all I could find is that I want to live here, to have my days calmed to the rhythm of the tides, the endlessness of the sea, to live always in the presence of full and ancient time. I would live here, I would have Face back with me, and we would be young again, with our spry bodies, running over the hills and looking out towards an endless future …yes, I cried. Good crying, unashamed, the kind that waters the things that need to grow, within.

On the way back, almost to Stromness, a little, round old man stood staring out to the sound.  He looked towards me, raised his hand, beckoned.  I looked behind me, no one was there; he meant me. He beckoned again, urgently. I walked up to him and he pointed to the bay, said, ‘Look!  Look! Look there!  There is a seal.  Do you see him? Just there, his head is out. There. Now, do you know what a seal is?’  Immediately I thought of all the legends, the selkies, seal-men, seal-brides, but simply said, ‘Yes. Yes, I think I do.” And he nodded, said “Yes. They come here, you see, this time of day.  Sometimes it is there (pointing).  It depends on the direction of the wind.  Ah, he’s gone under now.  Watch for the wave that moves differently; they’re under there then.  You’ll see them.  Not long ago there were forty here.  Forty.  Just here.  Forty seals.”

I thanked him, he went on, and then, sure enough, I saw a wave move differently, then another, and then the gleaming heads poked up, stared back at me, dove under, resurfaced, staring at me, following me as I walked slowly past. 

There is magic here, there is room for grief, for sadness that is just another part of life, there is wonder, there is calmness, there is eternity and the capacity for and the promise of great, boundless joy.


The next morning, I brought a book down to read at breakfast, but while I was pouring some juice, someone said, “Well, hello!”  It was Claire, a New Zealander who’s been living in Australia. I’d met her two days before at the Inverurie train station while I was on a day trip; I’d seen her again in the Inverness station later that day, and she’d said she was headed up to Orkney.  She’d been going to Kirkwall, the bigger town, but after we talked, she’d decided to come to Stromness instead.  She ended up at the same B & B, in the next room! (And a lovely place it is, the best place I’ve stayed in, not the grandest but the most homelike: the Orca Hotel). Claire’s cure for the angst of a divorce was to embark on a five-month tour that began in Africa and will end in Sedona, Arizona, and will also include Ireland, France, Canada, and Alaska.  I admire this immensely. We hit it off immediately; she’s outgoing and very, very funny.  We planned to meet for dinner, then she headed for the Kirkwall bus, and I headed back five thousand years, again.

I spent the day walking near Stenness, the heart of neolithic Orkney (and a World Heritage area), and covered about eleven miles, back and forth.  The local bus dropped me about a half-mile from the Stones of Stenness. I saw that circle of megalithic stones, the Watch Stone, the Barnhouse neolithic village, the standing stones at Ness of Brodgar (which are in someone’s front yard!), the Comet Stone, the utterly spectacular, gigantic Ring of Brodgar stone circle, and the mounds and knowes that surround it, and then, finally made my way past the solitary Barnhouse Stone to Maes Howe, the remarkably preserved chambered tomb.  The only admission to Maes Howe is to pay for a guided tour, and I was really glad I did that.  Just as I walked up the hill, a woman named Jean was leading a group of folks, and she invited me to join them right then, and pay later.  She gave a great talk, and it was very clear that, like the young guide at Skara Brae, she’s immensely proud of and endlessly fascinated by her history, and it is hers; she was born here, her family’s been here for generation after generation. Her enthusiasm and detailed knowledge richly animated an already haunting place.  Her talk also made me very, very glad that I had chosen to see these sites this way, by walking to them.  I’d wanted to approach them on foot, to see them the way ancient people might have (ignoring the road, the fences and the few farmhouses), and the entire day was highly charged because of that. Orkney is treeless, so the sites are all visible from each other, located around a very narrow land bridge between the saltwater Loch of Stenness and the freshwater Loch of Harray, in a sort of huge natural ampitheatre.  The tall, rounded, shadowy mountains of the isle of Hoy, the highest in the Orkneys, across the sound from the shore I’d walked the previous afternoon, loom in the distance. There is a deep valley cleaving these mountains. In opposition to the white nights of summer, the winter days are dark, and the sun is low in the sky.  For a period of three weeks, with the winter solstice of December 21st in its center, the sun shines directly through the gap in the mountains of Hoy, strikes the Barnhouse Stone, and continues on up the long, low tunnel-like entryway to illuminate the back wall of the center chamber of Maes Howe.

All this hits me deep, somewhere essential, in a breathless way.  It moves me profoundly, as did walking Stenness.  Not only that, but walking let me see a curious fox, a huge group of swans, play games with lambs, watch the sky change and the light flit across the smooth green hills, meet a few cats, and it let me see the tour busses coming, and to avoid them and have time alone in each place.  I saw my bus driver from the previous day twice; once while he waited for a group at the Stones of Stenness (Ah!  And you are back again to see more of these old rocks, are you?) and a couple of hours later, he leaned out the window and waved wildly as he zoomed past me on my way to Maes Howe.

In Orkney, except when you’re in Stromness or Kirkwall where there are designated stops, if you want a bus, you simply flag it down.  The man who was taking the money for the Maes Howe tours checked the bus schedule for me, then showed me the best place to do that.  Fifteen minutes later, he came out again, and said, ‘I’m going to Stromness now, would you like a lift to the square?’  We talked about his son, who was going to New York for the second time, and about Edinburgh, where he was from. He said he visited once, and had to move to Orkney, even though he missed trees. I said I knew I had to come back to Orkney, and he said, “Ah.  It takes some people like that. You will be back. The man who has the Stromness bookstore is an American.  For him it was the same.”

Claire and I met up, had tea in her room, then went to the Ferry Inn and splurged.  I had fresh-caught Orkney prawns, about a dozen smaller tails the size of jumbo shrimp, and a big, whole one in the center.  They were utterly delicious, sweet, like lobster rather than shrimp.  We drank lemon, lime and bitters, which is what it’s called in New Zealand; in Orkney, it’s called Angus Juice.  And then we split a clootie dumpling (it’s a warm steamed cake, sort of like a very moist gingerbread, with chunks of soft dried fruit) with hand-whipped, unsweetened cream. It’s been something like 40 years since I’ve had anything like it. Then we bundled up against the sea wind, and went to go see if we could find the seals.  The round old man was there.  “Ah” he said, “you have returned. Just now there are two seals out there. Two. It is a cold wind tonight, but there are two seals.  Just earlier today, there were forty.  Forty.” And then he walked on.  We found one seal, who we named Black Dot, because he stayed just far enough away that even Claire’s great zoom lens would register nothing but that.  He was playing with her, poking his head out of the sea until she aimed the camera at him, then ducking under as soon as she did, and following us as we walked along the shore.  We got goofy, laughing, the light began to fade into dusk, and then suddenly we saw many seals, maybe even the forty, further out, leaping, playing, while Black Dot continued to follow us.  By then, we were chilled through, so after we walked the three-quarters of a mile back, we went to the fancy Stromness Hotel, and asked for hot chocolate in the bar; to the amusement of all there, but the bartender said he could arrange it and did.  We went back to the Orca, and I showed Claire some of my work, and we exchanged addresses, and planned to meet for breakfast.  It was well after midnight, and still there was some light in the sky.

Claire was already down when I went for breakfast; the hotel owner told us, in all seriousness, that we should have sung to the seals.  They’re very curious, she said, and singing fascinates them.  Then, sadly, I had to go pack up; Claire was staying another day, and went on to a tour.  I settled my bill, told the owner I had to come back, and she said, “Ah.  It takes some people like that. If it’s taken you, then you will be back.”  I stopped in a little knitwear shop, envied the beautiful sweaters and hats, and bought a small knotted wool brooch, like a sea creature, for myself, and one for a friend, and talked to the owner about George Bush, not my choice of subject. I reminded her that even if the vote was correct, it was 49% against him, 51% for, that half of us did not want him.  She said, and you were in the 49, I can tell. I told her I needed to come back soon.  She said, “Ah.  It takes some people like that.  You’ll be back, you’ll see.”

On the ferry, we were allowed out on the sun deck, three stories up.  The wind was fierce, and even though the sea looked calm, the salt spray soared up over the deck.  We moved through the Sound of Hoy, past the Black Craig which revealed its craggy face only from out to sea, and rounded the tall majestic cliffs of Hoy, past the Old Man; people surged outside with cameras, then quickly went back in to the bar or the restaurant or the lounge.  I stayed out on deck with two or three others, and thought about more recent history, about all the people who had immigrated from the highlands and islands during the clearances, as I watched Mainland Orkney and then Hoy grow smaller and smaller as they had done, and fade into the mist like a legend, shadowy but still, ever, present. 

Orkney is someplace I always wanted to visit.  Now, in all the uncertainty of my current life, I know one thing: Orkney is someplace I want to come to know, as well as I can.  It’s taken me, and I will be back.

Stromness, Victoria Street

House in Stromness

Skara Brae, House #1

One of the Stones of Stenness, more than three times my height, with the mountains of Hoy.

Beautiful Orkney sky, and Maes Howe, about 1/2 to 3/4 of a mile away. 

The misty isle of Hoy, receding.  

Mainland Orkney is behind it, nine miles from the coast of Caithness.  

I am back in Inverness for the night, and I am at a freakin’ McDonalds, drinking a barely-flavored watery hot chocolate, because they have free wireless.  So I’ve admitted to weeping in public, and I am enduring a place I’d never go to in the states.  The things I do for you, Blahg…

I leave tomorrow for Lewis, and I’m hoping it has island magic of its own.  I’ve always wanted to go there, too.  It’s a bus trip to Ullapool, and then a three-hour ferry crossing.  See you soon…

Me heid in Orkney sea wind.