Islands are irresistible for the unique identities they develop through isolation, and the extra effort that it often takes to reach them. Over the years, my husband and I have developed a special fondness for Britain’s islands – the smaller and more remote the better. After exploring the Inner Hebrides in 2005 and Orkney and Shetland in 2006, we always intended to see more of Scotland’s islands; why ever did we leave it this long?
Rail strikes and cancelled trains threatened our itinerary more than once, so it was a relief that we were able to go, even at extra cost. Our back-up plan left us with a spare day in Inverness, which we filled with coffee and pastries outside the cathedral, browsing at Leakey’s bookshop, walking along the River Ness and in the botanical gardens, and a meal overlooking the 19th-century castle.
Then it was on to the Outer Hebrides at last, via a bus ride and then a ferry to Stornoway in Lewis, the largest settlement in the Western Isles. Here we rented a car for a week to allow us to explore the islands at will. We were surprised at how major a town Stornoway is, with a big supermarket and slight suburban sprawl – yet it was dead on the Saturday morning we went in to walk around; not until 11:30 was there anything like the bustle we expected.
We’d booked three nights in a tiny Airbnb house 15 minutes from the capital. First up on our tourist agenda was Callanish stone circle, which we had to ourselves (once the German coach party left). Unlike at Stonehenge, you can walk in among the standing stones. The rest of our time on Lewis went to futile whale watching, the castle grounds, and beach walks.
This post threatens to become a boring rundown, so I’ll organize the rest thematically, introduced by songs by Scottish artists.
“I’ll Always Leave the Light On” by Kris Drever
Long days: The daylight lasts longer so far north, so each day we could plan activities not just for the morning and afternoon but late into the evening. At our second stop – three nights in another Airbnb on North Uist – we took walks after dinner, often not coming back until 10 p.m., at which point there was still another half-hour until sunset.
“Why Does It Always Rain on Me?” by Travis
Weather: We got a mixture of sun and clouds. It rained at least a bit on most days, and we got drenched twice, walking out to an eagle observatory on Harris (where we saw no eagles, as they are too sensible to fly in the rain) and dashing back to the car from a coastal excursion. I was doomed to wearing plastic bags around my feet inside my disintegrating hiking boots for the rest of the trip. There was also a strong wind much of the time, which made it feel colder than the temperature suggested – I often wore my fleece and winter hat.
“St Kilda Wren” by Julie Fowlis
Music and language: Julie Fowlis is a singer from North Uist who records in English and Gaelic. (This particular song is in Gaelic, but the whole Spell Songs album was perfect listening on our drives because of the several Scottish artists involved and the British plants and animals sung about.) There is a strong Gaelic-speaking tradition in the Western Isles. We heard a handful of people speaking it, all road signs give place names in Gaelic before the English translation, and there were several Gaelic pages in the free newspaper we picked up.
Wildlife: The Outer Hebrides is a bastion for some rare birds: the corncrake, the red-necked phalarope, and both golden and white-tailed eagles. Thanks to intel gleaned from Twitter, my husband easily found a phalarope swimming in a small roadside loch. Corncrakes hide so well they are virtually impossible to see, but you will surely hear their rasping calls from the long grass. Balranald is the westernmost RSPB reserve and a wonderful place to hear corncrakes and see seabirds flying above the machair (wildflower-rich coastal grassland). No golden eagles, but we did see a white-tailed eagle flying over our accommodation on our last day, and short-eared owls were seemingly a dime a dozen. We were worried we might see lots of dead birds on our trip due to the avian flu raging, but there were only five – four gannets and an eider – and a couple looked long dead. Still, it’s a distressing situation.
We also attended an RSPB guided walk to look for otters and did indeed spot one on a sea loch. It happened to be the Outer Hebrides Wildlife Festival week. Our guide was knowledgeable about the geography and history of the islands as well.
St. Kilda: This uninhabited island really takes hold of the imagination. It can still be visited, but only via a small boat through famously rough seas. We didn’t chance it this time. I might never get there, but I enjoy reading about it. There’s a viewing point on North Uist where one can see out to St. Kilda, but it was only the vaguest of outlines on the hazy day we stopped.
“Traiveller’s Joy” by Emily Smith
- An extended late afternoon tea at Mollans rainbow takeaway shed on Lewis. Many of the other eateries we’d eyed up in the guidebook were closed, either temporarily or for good – perhaps an effect of Covid, which hit just after the latest edition was published.
- A long reading session with a view by the Butt of Lewis, which has a Stevenson lighthouse.
- Watching mum and baby seals playing by the spit outside our B&B window on Berneray.
- Peat smoked salmon. As much of it as I could get.
- A G&T with Harris gin (made with kelp).
“Dear Prudence” (Beatles cover) by Lau
- Gorgeous, deserted beaches. This is Luskentyre on Harris.
- No midges to speak of. The Highlands are notorious for these biting insects, but the wind kept them away most of the time we were on the islands. We only noticed them in the air on one still evening, but they weren’t even bad enough to deploy the Avon Skin So Soft we borrowed from a neighbour.
- People still cut and burn peats for fuel. Indeed, when we stepped into the Harris gin distillery for a look around, I was so cold and wet that I warmed my hands by a peat fire! Even into the 1960s, people lived in primitive blackhouses, some of which have now been restored as holiday rentals. The one below is run as a museum.
- Not far outside Stornoway is the tiny town of Tong. We passed through it each day. Here Mary Anne MacLeod was born in 1912. If only she’d stayed on Lewis instead of emigrating to New York City, where she met Fred Trump and had, among other children, a son named Donald…
- Lord Leverhulme, founder of Unilever, bought Lewis in 1918 and part of Harris the next year. He tried to get crofters to work in his businesses, but all his plans met with resistance and his time there was a failure, as symbolized by this “bridge to nowhere” (Garry Bridge). His legacy is portrayed very differently here compared to in Port Sunlight, the factory workers’ town he set up in Merseyside.
- The most far-flung Little Free Library I’ve ever visited (on Lewis).
- Visits from Lulu the cat at our North Uist Airbnb.
“Wrapped Up in Books” by Belle and Sebastian
What I read: I aimed for lots of relevant on-location reads. I can’t claim Book Serendipity: reading multiple novels set on Scottish islands, it’s no surprise if isolation, the history of the Clearances, boat rides, selkies and seabirds recur. However, the coincidences were notable for one pair, Secrets of the Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford and Night Waking by Sarah Moss, a reread for me. I’ll review these two together, as well as The Summer of the Bear by Bella Pollen (inspired by a real incident that occurred on North Uist in 1980), in full later this week.
I also read about half of Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie, a reread for me; its essays on gannets and St. Kilda chimed with the rest of my reading. Marram, Leonie Charlton’s memoir of pony trekking through the Outer Hebrides, will form part of a later 20 Books of Summer post thanks to the flora connection, as will Jon Dunn’s Orchid Summer, one chapter of which involves a jaunt to North Uist to find a rare species.
Stormy Petrel by Mary Stewart: My selection for the train journey up. I got Daphne du Maurier vibes from this short novel about a holiday Dr Rose Fenemore, an English tutor at Cambridge, takes to Moila, a (fictional) small island off of Mull in the Inner Hebrides. It’s a writing retreat for her: she’s working on a book of poetry, but also on the science fiction she publishes under a pseudonym. Waiting for her brother to join her, she gets caught up in mild intrigue when two mysterious men enter her holiday cottage late one stormy night. Each has a good excuse cooked up, but who can she trust? I enjoyed the details of the setting but found the plot thin, predictable and slightly silly (“I may be a dish, but I am also a don”). This feels like it’s from the 1950s, but was actually published in 1991. I might try another of Stewart’s.
I also acquired four books on the trip: one from the Little Free Library and three from Inverness charity shops.
I started reading all three in the bottom pile, and read a few more books on my Kindle, two of them for upcoming paid reviews. The third was:
Tracy Flick Can’t Win by Tom Perrotta: A sequel to Election, which you might remember as a late-1990s Reese Witherspoon film even if you don’t know Perrotta’s fiction. Tracy Flick was the goody two-shoes student who ran for school president and had her campaign tampered with. Now in her forties, she’s an assistant principal at a high school and a single mother. Missing her late mother and wishing she’d completed law school, she fears she’ll be passed over for the top job when the principal retires. This is something of an attempt to update the author’s laddish style for the #MeToo era. Interspersed with the third-person narration are snappy first-person testimonials from Tracy, the principal, a couple of students, and the washed-up football star the school chooses to launch its new Hall of Fame. I can’t think of any specific objections, but nor can I think of any reason why you should read this.
“Other Side of the World” by KT Tunstall
General impressions: We weren’t so taken with Lewis on the whole, but absolutely loved what we saw of Harris on our drive to the ferry to Berneray and wished we’d allotted it more time. While we only had one night on Berneray and mostly saw it in the rain, we thought it a lovely little place. It only has the one shop, which doubles as the bistro in the evenings – warned by the guidebook that this is the only place to eat on the island, we made our dinner reservation many weeks in advance. The following morning, as we ate our full Scottish cooked breakfast, I asked the B&B owner what led him to move from England to “the ends of the earth.” He took mild objection to my tossed-off remark and replied that the islands are more like “the heart of it all.” Thanks to fast Internet service, remote working is no issue.
We are more than half serious when we talk about moving to Scotland one day. We love Edinburgh, though the tourists might drive us mad, and enjoyed our time in Wigtown four years ago. I’d like to think we could even cope with island life in Orkney or the Hebrides. We imagine them having warm, tight-knit communities, but would newcomers feel welcome? With only one major supermarket in the whole Western Isles, would we find enough fresh fruit and veg? And however would one survive the bleakness of the winters?
North Uist captivated us right away, though. Within 15 minutes of driving onto the island via a causeway, we’d seen three short-eared owls and three red deer stags, and we got great views of hen harriers and other raptors. One evening we found ourselves under what seemed to be a raven highway. It felt unlike anywhere else we’d been: pleasingly empty of humans, and thus a wildlife haven.
The long journey home: The public transport nightmares of our return trip put something of a damper on the end of the holiday. We left the islands via a ferry to Skye, where we caught a bus. So far, so good. Our second bus, however, broke down in the middle of nowhere in the Highlands and the driver plus we five passengers were stuck for 3.5 hours awaiting a taxi we thought would never come. When it did, it drove the winding road at terrifying speed through the pitch black.
Grateful to be alive, we spent the following half-day in Edinburgh, bravely finding brunch, the botanic gardens and ice cream with our heavy luggage in tow. The final leg home, alas, was also disrupted when our overcrowded train to Reading was delayed and we missed the final connection to Newbury, necessitating another taxi – luckily, both were covered by the transport operators, and we’ll also reclaim for our tickets. Much as we believe in public transport and want to support it, this experience gave us pause. Getting to and around Spain by car was so much easier, and that trip ended up a lot cheaper, too. Ironic!
“Take Me Back to the Islands” by Idlewild
Next time: On this occasion we only got as far south as Benbecula (which, pleasingly, is pronounced Ben-BECK-you-luh). In the future we’d think about starting at the southern tip and seeing Barra, Eriskay and South Uist before travelling up to Harris. We’ve heard that these all have their own personalities. Now, will we get back before many more years pass?
This past weekend was my fifth time attending Nature Matters, the annual New Networks for Nature conference. I’ve written about it on the blog a few times before: last year’s 10th anniversary meeting in Stamford, plus once when there was a particular focus on nature poetry and another time when it was held in Cambridge. This year the theme was “Time for Nature” and the conference was held at the very posh St Peter’s School in York, which dates back to 627 and resembles an Oxford college. We have close friends in York, but our timing was off in that they were in Italy this week. However, they sent us a key to their house and let us stay there while they were away, which saved us having to book an Airbnb or guest house.
What makes Nature Matters so special is its interdisciplinary nature: visual artists, poets, musicians, writers, activists, academics and conservationists alike attend and speak. So although the event might seem geared more towards my ecologist husband, there’s always plenty to interest me, too. In particular, I enjoyed the panel discussions on nature in children’s books and new directions for nature writing. This year the organizers were determined to make the speakers’ roster more diverse, so some panels were three-quarters or wholly female, and four people of color appeared on the stage. (That might not seem like a great record, but in a field so dominated by white males it’s at least a start.)
The Friday was a particularly brilliant day, the best day of sessions I can remember in any year. After a presentation by wildlife photographer and painter Robert Fuller, the first session was “Nature in Deep Time,” featuring three archaeologists from northern universities who talked about cave art, woodcraft, and evidence of rapid climate change. “Taking a long view, we get a very different perspective,” Professor Terry O’Connor of the University of York observed. The topic felt timely and tied in with a number of books that have come out this year, including Time Song by Julia Blackburn, Surfacing by Kathleen Jamie and Underland by Robert Macfarlane.
Next up was “Now or Never – Fighting for Nature,” featuring three female activists: Ruth Peacey, a filmmaker for BBC Wildlife whose subjects have included bird persecution in the Mediterranean; Sally Goldsmith, a campaigner who deployed poems and songs against the mass street tree-cutting campaign in Sheffield and helped save some 10,000 trees; and Hatti Owens, an environmental lawyer with ClientEarth who has partnered with Extinction Rebellion. The panel chair and one of this year’s organizers, writer Amy-Jane Beer, noted that activism is no longer radical, but an obligation.
Either side of lunch, Dr. Sara Goodacre of the University of Nottingham SpiderLab demonstrated how money spiders walk on water and “sail” using two raised legs to cope with wind; and Dr. Geoff Oxford of the University of York told the successful conservation story of the tansy beetle, which has recently been celebrated with a crowdfunded wall mural on the corner of York’s Queen Street and the Tansy Beetle Bar at the Rattle Owl restaurant on Micklegate. After the day’s proceedings, we joined a general movement over to see the mural and toast the bar’s grand opening.
The children’s books session featured Anneliese Emmans Dean, who gave very entertaining performances of her poems on insects and birds; Gill Lewis, who writes middle grade novels that introduce children to environmental issues; and Yuval Zommer, who writes and illustrates nonfiction guides with titles like The Big Book of Bugs and The Big Book of Blooms. Panel chair Ben Hoare, another of this year’s organizers and a former editor of BBC Wildlife magazine, concluded that children’s books should be joyous and not preachy.
There was still more to come on this jam-packed Friday! “The Funny Thing about Nature…” was essentially three stand-up comedy routines by Simon Watt, creator of the Ugly Animal Appreciation Society; Helen Pilcher, who has written a speculative book about the science of de-extinction; and Hugh Warwick, an author and hedgehog enthusiast. The language got a little crass in this session, but all three speakers were genuinely funny. As Watt put it, “Sincerity should not be our only weapon” in the fight for nature; he’s trying to reach the people who aren’t “already on our side.”
After free gin and tonics provided by local producers SloeMotion, we had the absolute treat of a performance by Kitty Macfarlane, whose folk songs are inspired by the natural world. The title track of her 2018 album Namer of Clouds is about Luke Howard, who created the naming system for clouds (cumulus, stratus, and so on) in 1802. Other songs are about eels, a starling murmuration and the Sardinian tradition of weaving sea silk. She often incorporates field recordings of birdsong, and writes about her native Somerset Levels. Her voice is gorgeously clear, reminding me of Emily Smith’s. We bought her album and EP at once.
Saturday was a slightly less memorable day, with sessions on insects and the uplands, an interview with clean rivers campaigner (and former pop star) Feargal Sharkey, and the short film Raising the Hare by Bevis Bowden. Most engaging for me was a four-person discussion on new directions for nature writing, chaired by author and academic Richard Kerridge. Katharine Norbury is editing the Women on Nature anthology, which I have supported via Unbound; it’s due out next year. She went all the way back to Julian of Norwich and has included novelists, poets, gardeners and farmers – lots of women who wouldn’t have called themselves ‘nature writers’.
Anita Sethi, a journalist from Manchester, speaks out about inequality of access to nature due to race, gender and class. She read part of her essay “On Class and the Countryside” from the Common People anthology edited by Kit de Waal. Zakiya McKenzie, a London-born Jamaican, was a Forest England writer in residence and founded the Green & Black project to give underprivileged children trips to the countryside. Richard Smyth, the author of A Sweet, Wild Note, spoke of the need for robust nature writing – and criticism. He stressed that it’s not good enough for nature writing to be “charming” or “lyrical”; it’s too important to be merely pleasant. I would have liked to hear him explore this more and for it to turn into more of a debate, but the discussion drifted into praise for experimental and speculative forms.
There’s something for everyone at this conference; some of the elements that I didn’t get on with or found pretentious were others’ highlights, so it’s all a matter of taste. Spending time in York, one of my favorite cities, was an added bonus. We managed to fit in a trip to the National Railway Museum and lunch at Bettys on the Sunday before our train back.
Next year’s conference will be at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, 10–12 July. I’ve never been to Norwich so look forward to visiting it and attending the full conference once again. It’s always a fascinating, inspiring weekend with a wide range of speakers and ideas.