Travels with Fatty

Fri, Apr 26, 2019

Harris Bay and the mausoleum

Not a signal, not a sound, not a person save the unceasing roar of the sea.

Hyskeir lighthouse waking, rubbing her eye in the gloaming, ready for another night shift winking at passing ships. To the south, the beacon on Suil Ghorm joins her, perhaps remembering her mirror namesake Gorm-suil, Blue-Eye, the witch of Skye who wrecked the birlinns of clan chiefs by siwrling water in a rock pool on her skerry dwelling. I sat outside the tent, letting the last of the fuel burn in the stove, throwing flickering orange light over the grass, sipping real coffee from a sachet, listening to the last of the cries from the cliffs as the birds cooried doon for the night. As the sun sank behind the cliffs to the north west, Gealach na Beinne, the mountain moon rose over the ridge of Ainshval while Trollval and in the distance, Askival dimmed into the darkening sky. Such evocative names in an elemental landscape.

View from the tent at Harris Bay

Wild goats at sunset at Harris Bay

Satisfied the light would last and her charge now above the mountains, the sun sank and the pale light of the moon reflected from the lower slopes of Ruinsival across the bay, paving a pale yellow light across the sea to the shore above which I sat watching her progress. The colour and silence of her light brought back memories of caravan holidays on the north coast, lighting the gas mantles, burning that same colour, hissing that same silence until they glowed brighter white and whiter still while the soft purr in the confines of the caravan accentuated the deep silence of a world yet untouched by outside excess.

Moon rising over the Rum Cuillin from Harris Bay

I was here, on the Isle of Rum, a couple of days ahead of Easter to miss the tourist influx, cadging a lift from my lovely wife to Armadale with “Fatty” in the back, catching the ferry to Mallaig then hopping on the Loch Nevis to Kinloch. A luxury roll crammed with bacon and squary sausage and cup of coffee set me up for the ride up and over to Harris where I was now sitting, fully fed on camp-made lentil dahl, coffeed-up and happy.

I watched the tide come in and I watched the tide go out and it made me think of the sea doing lengths of the Atlantic sized hole between here and Canada. Rushing in, pushing her alabaster fingers against the rough shore, reaching deep into the clefts and gullies, playing with the trapped buoy, then turning round and rushing the other way, to play the same games on a far distant Canada shore. Again and again and again and again, for ever. Always trying to the catch the moon but always half a length behind.

Camp at Harris Bay

Rum ponies through the mausoleum at Harris Bay

When you have no fixed itinery, just an attitude of going with the flow, mentally and physically, it feels like those two parts of your existence, your brain and your body, what people with bigger brains than I call “mind-body”, start to do their own thing. They say a life of compromise, going with your innate flow is best for all concerned. Too much thinking makes your body restless, too much exercise tires your head and I found that I would spend an hour or two lying in the sun, propped against my reading stone engrossed in Jim Crumley’s The Nature of Spring. Then a feeling would suddenly appear and I’d think to myself, time for a walk and off I’d go, to the other side of the bay, a head satiated on nature writing and limbs that needed to climb, a heart that needed to beat quicker, a frame that needed to flex and mould itself to the scarifying gabbro shorescape. Exploration finished, I was complete, both parts satisfied and now in that receptive mood where I can tune into the landscape, its sounds, its colours, its inhabitants and reach that point where the mountains know you are there.

Wild goat and kid on Gualainn na Pairce

Emperor moth on Gualainn na Pairce

There was a stiff breeze blowing from the south east, sending dark scrapes across the moonlit sea with rushing noise of wind when they came ashore, pounding surf against the cliffs on which I was camped and rattling the tent, making sleep almost impossible. Around midnight the storm intensified, a dry coughing fit from the weather, pushing the tent in and in until a guy line popped and I hopped around in the dazzling moonlight popping it back in. While I was out I slithered barefoot down to the clifftop to watch the silver edged surf hurl itself up the geo, flying like the ragged dress of a wild banshee, spitting spells over the crest onto the goat cropped grass on the very edge of the black drop. An oystercatcher squealed to fright or excite.

Morning dawned calm and warm, the sun slowly climbing above the surround of mountains and turning the tent into a hothouse. I had an idea to pack up and ride over to Kilmory but it was far too beautiful a morning to do anything other than be inspired by the surroundings and do absolutely nothing. I lay outside the tent, full of porridge and coffee, listening to the breeze in the grass, the oystercatchers, the curlew (or was it whimbrel, I wasn’t sure), watching the horns of goats work their way round the top of the crags. I continued with my book, occasionally breaking to wander round the bay, onto the huge raised beach on the other side, back to camp, more reading, more walking, then a wander up to Gualainn na Pairce watching the waves out on the blue Minch, the deer come over the ridge and the families of feral goats stand and stare at me. Watching the wild interior of the island and its abrupt end atop vertical cliifs alive with birds. As the day drew on the haze increased until I could no longer see the mountains on the other side of the bay. I strapped water carrier and bottle to the bike and went up the road to fill up from the burn, get ready for dinner, another hearty blast of lentil dahl. Thanks for the recipe Tracksterman! Pot cleaned with a couple of garlic and coriander nan, again, followed by real coffee and I settled down to read the last of my book. A couple of walkers appeared over by the mausoleum then walked off somewhere. Apart from that no-one. The wind got up, I finished my book, the moon rose over the mountains again, a little later than last night. Such as simple life. Such a simple way to live. Is it possible to live like this? To not bother with work? To not bother with debts, bills, worries and all the sundry other apparent necessities of existence? If only it was.

Lentil Dahl ingredients at camp at Harris Bay

The third day dawned the same as the second, high pressure keeping the weather dry but breezy but it was time to leave, to head back to a much more crowded island. When did it all go to pot? We were looking at a video my wife made when we moved to Skye almost twenty years ago. It was Easter. It was deserted. The roads were empty. The landscape was empty. The only sound in the video was the wind, the sea and the birds. At Easter. Now it’s standing room only. Endless streams of “experience buses” stream out onto the roads every morning, making for the social media spots where selfiies can be snapped, as long as you wait in line to stand your turn on the bare patch of earth, the grass long since scraped away by the internet hordes. Giant car parks at the Storr and Glen Brittle. Fights at the Quirang over parking places in the mud. Social media zombies “doing Skye in a day”, driving at speed between selfie stops, driving on the wrong side of the road. Stopping in the road with the ten thousand to selfie with highland coos. Would it be possible to point to a date and say, “that’s when it all went to pot”? Sitting at the junction the other week, trying to get to work, I looked down the long line of traffic coming onto the island and it just reminded me of the Lake District. You can’t even get on a ferry now. We used to like just deciding on the spur of the moment to pop across to Harris for the weekend. Not possible any more. The ferries are booked weeks in advance. No room anywhere.

Plastic path to Bloodstone hill, passing Orval

Plastic path to Bloodstone Hill

But Rum was still stunning. With a stiff tailwind out of Harris Bay, the red coloured rocks and baking heat of the rough road transported me to the Atlas mountains of Morocco. The similarity was striking. I couldn’t help wondering if SNH did irony. In the heart of the Rum National Nature Reserve, they have begun covering the path to Bloodstone Hill in plastic. Despite all the concerns, despite the latest research showing almost 400 pieces of microplastic per square metre high in the Pyrenees, despite the harm we know plastics do to the environment, SNH have begun plasticising the NNR. I tried to ride the plastic path to see how far it went but I gave up as it was held in place by rusty staples which would tear the tyres to pieces. I can’t imagine they’ll leave it like that but regardless, it’s plastic. It will erode in the weather we get up here and the shards will blow everywhere, polluting everywhere. A plastic NNR. Whatever next?

Riding from Harris Bay to Kinloch

Waiting from the ferry at Kinloch

Despite the thoughts of environmental and over peopled gloom I had a wonderful descent to Kinloch. Riding at what felt like 1 mph, keeping the brakes working, watching the land pass in slow time, no pedalling required. Sheer bliss! I boarded the ferry for the run out to Canna and back to Rum then on to Mallaig, uncertain of making the connection to Armadale. Huge clouds of smoke belched from moor fires down the Arisaig coast, smothering the blue sky as we thrummed and throbbed up the Sound of Sleat. There was a big ferry at the berth at Mallaig and the Armadale ferry was steaming into port parallel to use, who make it to Mallaig first? We were running 20mins behind schedule. Would I miss the connection? Who cares! I’d decided if I missed it I’d just ride down the coast to the big beaches and enjoy another night out but as we neared port the big ferry shot out and made its way to Eigg while the Armadale ferry heaved to offshore while we berther, emptied and moved out of the way, allowing the Loch Fyne to dock and me to push Fatty down the ramp onto the ridiculously inadequate boat as it had spaces for about 4 bikes. Plenty space for cars though.

Hyskeir lighthouse from the camp at Harris Bay

The last ferry back to Skye was jam-packed with tourists, almost all in cars. There was only one other cyclist. Almost without exception, everyone exited their vehicle looking at their phone, swiping, tapping, staring, navigating the narrow spaces between vehicles with their gaze glued to their device, as if they were getting directions, as if they were pieces of data themselves, flowing through a metal network towards the metal stairs to the top deck where they assembled en-masse, presumably now satisfied they were up to date with their social media outlet of choice. They began holding their phones at odd angles, slanting their heads this way, that way, smiling, grinning, scowling while tapping before the signal disappeared, selfying their way across the Sound of Sleat. Grinning groups formed behind an outstretched arm, the selfie salute. Behind, out of their internet sight, the mountains of Knoydart hazed off into the evening distance. A cacophany of car alarms screeched and screamed, drowning the sound of the waves while keyfobs beeped reassurance to their offspring that all was well, until the alarms reactivated on the next steering adjustment from the bridge and the racket resumed.

They say monks are in demand these days, for teachings, for interviews, for inspiration, mainly for mindfulness but all you need is a bike and a mind that wants to be inspired. Sitting outside my tent watching the moon rise, spreading her pale gauze over the sea gets deep into your mind and calms everything down. Go out into nature, be part of it because that’s where we ultimately belong.