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?
It’s mostly by accident that we came to live in Newbury: five years ago, when a previous landlord served us notice, we viewed a couple of rental houses in the area to compare with what was available in Reading and discovered that our money got us more that little bit further out from London. We’ve come to love this part of West Berkshire and the community we’ve found. It may not be flashy or particularly famous, but it has natural wonders worth celebrating and a rich history of rebellion that Nicola Chester plumbs in On Gallows Down. A hymn-like memoir of place as much as of one person’s life, her book posits that the quiet moments of connection with nature and the rights of ordinary people are worth fighting for.
So many layers of history mingle here: from the English Civil War onward, Newbury has been a locus of resistance for centuries. Nicola* has personal memories of the long-running women’s peace camps at Greenham Common, once a U.S. military base and cruise missile storage site – to go with the Atomic Weapons Establishment down the road at Aldermaston. As a teenager and young woman, she took part in symbolic protests against the Twyford Down and Newbury Bypass road-building projects, which went ahead and destroyed much sensitive habitat and many thousands of trees. Today, through local and national newspaper and magazine columns on wildlife, and through her winsome nagging of the managers of the Estate she lives on, she bears witness to damaging countryside management and points to a better way.
While there is a loose chronological through line, the book is principally arranged by theme, with experiences linked back to historical or literary precedents. An account of John Clare and the history of enclosure undergirds her feeling of the precarity of rural working-class life: as an Estate tenant, she knows she doesn’t own anything, has no real say in how things are done, and couldn’t afford to move elsewhere. Nicola is a school librarian and has always turned to books and writing to understand the world. I particularly loved Chapter 6, about how she grounds herself via the literature of this area: Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, Adam Thorpe’s Ulverton, and especially Richard Adams’s Watership Down.
Whatever life throws at her – her husband being called up to fight in Iraq, struggling to make ends meet with small children, a miscarriage, her father’s unexpected death – nature is her solace. She describes places and creatures with a rare intimacy borne out of deep knowledge. To research a book on otters for the RSPB, she seeks out every bridge over every stream. She goes out “lamping” with the local gamekeeper after dark and garners priceless nighttime sightings. Passing on her passion to her children, she gets them excited about badger watching, fossil collecting, and curating shelves of natural history treasures like skulls and feathers. She also serves as a voluntary wildlife advocate on her Estate. For every victory, like the re-establishment of the red kite population in Berkshire and regained public access to Greenham Common, there are multiple setbacks, but she continues to be a hopeful activist, her lyrical writing a means of defiance.
We are writing for our very lives and for those wild lives we share this one, lonely planet with. Writing was also a way to channel the wildness; to investigate and interpret it, to give it a voice and defend it. But it was also a connection between home and action; a plank bridge between a domestic and wild sense. A way both to home and resist.
You know that moment when you’re reading a book and spot a place you’ve been or a landmark you know well, and give a little cheer? Well, every site in this book was familiar to me from our daily lives and countryside wanderings – what a treat! As I was reading, I kept thinking how lucky we are to have such an accomplished nature writer to commemorate the uniqueness of this area. Even though I was born thousands of miles away and have moved more than a dozen times since I settled in England in 2007, I feel the same sense of belonging that Nicola attests to. She explicitly addresses this question of where we ‘come from’ versus where we fit in, and concludes that nature is always the key. There is no exclusion here. “Anyone could make a place their home by engaging with its nature.”
*I normally refer to the author by surname in a book review, but I’m friendly with Nicola from Twitter and have met her several times (and she’s one of the loveliest people you’ll ever meet), so somehow can’t bring myself to be that detached!
On Gallows Down was released by Chelsea Green Publishing on October 7th. My thanks to the author and publisher for arranging a proof copy for review.
My husband and I attended the book launch event for On Gallows Down in Hungerford on Saturday evening. Nicola was introduced by Hungerford Bookshop owner Emma Milne-White and interviewed by Claire Fuller, whose Women’s Prize-shortlisted novel Unsettled Ground is set in a fictional version of the village where Nicola lives.
Nicola dated the book’s genesis to the moment when, 25 years ago, she queued up to talk to a TV news reporter about Newbury Bypass and froze. She went home and cried, and realized she’d have to write her feelings down instead. Words generally come to her at the time of a sighting, as she thinks about how she would tell someone how amazing it was.
Her memories are tied up with seasons and language, especially poetry, she said, and she has recently tried her hand at poetry herself. Asked about her favourite season, she chose two, the in-between seasons – spring for its abundance and autumn for its nostalgia and distinctive smells like tar spot fungus on sycamore leaves and ivy flowers.
A bonus related read:
Anarchipelago by Jay Griffiths (2007)
This limited edition 57-page pamphlet from Glastonbury-based Wooden Books caught my eye from the library’s backroom rolling stacks. Griffiths wrote her impish story of Newbury Bypass resistance in response to her time among the protesters’ encampments and treehouses. Young Roddy finds a purpose for his rebellious attitude wider than his “McTypical McSuburb” by joining other oddballs in solidarity against aggressive policemen and detectives.
There are echoes of Ali Smith in the wordplay and rendering of accents.
“When I think of the road, I think of more and more monoculture of more and more suburbia. What I do, I do in defiance of the Louis Queasy Chintzy, the sickly stale air of suburban car culture. I want the fresh air of nature, the lifefull wind of the French revolution.”
In a nice spot of Book Serendipity, both this and On Gallows Down recount the moment when nature ‘fought back’ as a tree fell on a police cherry-picker. Plus Roddy is kin to the tree-sitting protesters in The Overstory by Richard Powers as well as another big novel I’m reading now, Damnation Spring by Ash Davidson.