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?
I’m more likely to choose lighter reads and dip into genre fiction in the summer than at other times of year. The past few weeks have felt more like autumn here in southern England, but summer doesn’t officially end until September 22nd. So, if I get a chance (there’s always a vague danger to labelling something “Part I”!), before then I’ll follow up with another batch of summery reads I have on the go: Goshawk Summer, Klara and the Sun, Among the Summer Snows, A Shower of Summer Days, and a few summer-into-autumn children’s books.
For this installment I have a quaint picture book, a mystery, a travel book featured for its title, and a very English classic. I’ve chosen a representative quote from each.
Summer Story by Jill Barklem (1980)
One of a quartet of seasonal “Brambly Hedge” stories in small hardbacks. It wouldn’t be summer without weddings, and here one takes place between two mice, Poppy Eyebright and Dusty Dogwood (who work in the dairy and the flour mill, respectively), on Midsummer’s Day. I loved the little details about the mice preparing their outfits and the wedding feast: “Cool summer foods were being made. There was cold watercress soup, fresh dandelion salad, honey creams, syllabubs and meringues.” We’re given cutaway views of various tree stumps, like dollhouses, and the industrious activity going on within them. Like any wedding, this one has its mishaps, but all is ultimately well, like in a classical comedy. This reminded me of the Church Mice books or Beatrix Potter’s works: very sweet, quaint and English.
Source: Public library
These next two give a real sense of how heat affects people, physically and emotionally.
Heatstroke by Hazel Barkworth (2020)
“In the heat, just having a human body was a chore. Just keeping it suitable for public approval was a job”
From the first word (“Languid”) on, this novel drips with hot summer atmosphere, with its opposing connotations of discomfort and sweaty sexuality. Rachel is a teacher of adolescents as well as the mother of a 15-year-old, Mia. When Lily, a pupil who also happens to be one of Mia’s best friends, goes missing, Rachel is put in a tough spot. I mostly noted how Barkworth chose to construct the plot, especially when to reveal what. By the one-quarter point, Rachel works out what’s happened to Lily; by halfway, we know why Rachel isn’t telling the police everything.
The dynamic between Rachel and Mia as they decide whether to divulge what they know is interesting. This is not the missing person mystery it at first appears to be, and I didn’t sense enough literary quality to keep me wanting to know what would happen next. I ended up skimming the last third. It would be suitable for readers of Rosamund Lupton, but novels about teenage consent are a dime a dozen these days and this paled in comparison to My Dark Vanessa. For a better sun-drenched novel, I recommend A Crime in the Neighborhood.
Source: Public library
The Shadow of the Sun: My African Life by Ryszard Kapuściński (1998; 2001)
[Translated from the Polish by Klara Glowczewska]
“Dawn and dusk—these are the most pleasant hours in Africa. The sun is either not yet scorching, or it is no longer so—it lets you be, lets you live.”
The Polish Kapuściński was a foreign correspondent in Africa for 40 years and lent his name to an international prize for literary reportage. This collection of essays spans decades and lots of countries, yet feels like a cohesive narrative. The author sees many places right on the cusp of independence or in the midst of coup d’états. Living among Africans rather than removed in a white enclave, he develops a voice that is surprisingly undated and non-colonialist. While his presence as the observer is undeniable – especially when he falls ill with malaria and then tuberculosis – he lets the situation on the ground take precedence over the memoir aspect. I read the first half last year and then picked the book back up again to finish this year. The last piece, “In the Shade of a Tree, in Africa” especially stood out. In murderously hot conditions, shade and water are two essentials. A large mango tree serves as an epicenter of activities: schooling, conversation, resting the herds, and so on. I appreciated how Kapuściński never resorts to stereotypes or flattens differences: “Africa is a thousand situations, varied, distinct, even contradictory … everything depends on where and when.”
Along with Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts and the Jan Morris anthology A Writer’s World, this is one of the best few travel books I’ve ever read.
Source: Free bookshop
August Folly by Angela Thirkell (1936)
“The sun was benignantly hot, the newly mown grass smelt sweet, bees were humming in a stupefying way, Gunnar was purring beside him, and Richard could hardly keep awake.”
I’d been curious to try Thirkell, and this fourth Barsetshire novel seemed as good a place to start as any. Richard Tebben, not the best and brightest that Oxford has to offer, is back in his parents’ village of Worsted for the summer and dreading the boredom to come. That is, until he meets beautiful Rachel Dean and is smitten – even though she’s mother to a brood of nine, most of them here with her for the holidays. He sets out to impress her by offering their donkey, Modestine, for rides for the children, and rather accidentally saving her daughter from a raging bull. Meanwhile, Richard’s sister Margaret can’t decide if she likes being wooed, and the villagers are trying to avoid being roped into Mrs Palmer’s performance of a Greek play. The dialogue can be laughably absurd. There are also a few bizarre passages that seem to come out nowhere: when no humans are around, the cat and the donkey converse.
This was enjoyable enough, in the same vein as books I’ve read by Barbara Pym, Miss Read, and P.G. Wodehouse, though I don’t expect I’ll pick up more by Thirkell. (No judgment intended on anyone who enjoys these authors. I got so much flak and fansplaining when I gave Pym and Wodehouse 3 stars and dared to call them fluffy or forgettable, respectively! There are times when a lighter read is just what you want, and these would also serve as quintessential English books revealing a particular era and class.)
Source: Public library
As a bonus, I have a book about how climate change is altering familiar signs of the seasons.
Forecast: A Diary of the Lost Seasons by Joe Shute (2021)
“So many records are these days being broken that perhaps it is time to rewrite the record books, and accept the aberration has become the norm.”
Shute writes a weather column for the Telegraph, and in recent years has reported on alarming fires and flooding. He probes how the seasons are bound up with memories, conceding the danger of giving in to nostalgia for a gloried past that may never have existed. However, he provides hard evidence in the form of long-term observations (phenology) such as temperature data and photo archives that reveal that natural events like leaf fall and bud break are now occurring weeks later/earlier than they used to. He also meets farmers, hunts for cuckoos and wildflowers, and recalls journalistic assignments.
The book deftly recreates its many scenes and conversations, and inserts statistics naturally. It also delicately weaves in a storyline about infertility: he and his wife long for a child and have tried for years to conceive, but just as the seasons are out of kilter, there seems to be something off with their bodies such that something that comes so easily for others will not for them. A male perspective on infertility is rare – I can only remember encountering it before in Native by Patrick Laurie – and these passages are really touching. The tone is of a piece with the rest of the book: thoughtful and gently melancholy, but never hopeless (alas, I found The Eternal Season by Stephen Rutt, on a rather similar topic, depressing).
Forecast is wide-ranging and so relevant – the topics it covers kept coming up and I would say to my husband, “oh yes, that’s in Joe Shute’s book.” (For example, he writes about the Ladybird What to Look For series and then we happened on an exhibit of the artwork at Mottisfont Abbey.) I can see how some might say it crams in too much or veers too much between threads, but I thought Shute handled his material admirably.
Source: Public library