On Thursday evening just gone Sarah returned from what’s now become her annual pilgrimage to the outer edges of Scotland.
“I am glad to be back home, knowing that the beaches and the strandline are there. For next time.”
For now though, here’s her story of this time. Reflections on solitude, taking life slowly and the elemental beauty of these Western Isles.
I have made a return trip to The Western Isles, also known as The Outer Hebrides. I came here last year, in late May and early June, looking for quiet. And I found it – amongst the machair, the white sand beaches and the strandline. I travelled then from Barra up through all the islands, camping in the golden summer, and was sad to leave, I felt that I had travelled through the islands too quickly. But I had experienced this special place, and knew I would come back.
I have returned this year to consciously take things slower, to stop and to observe more closely – most especially two islands, those of Berneray, and Barra.
Berneray is an island in the middle of these islands, in the Sound of Harris.
It’s connected to North Uist by a causeway. I arrive by ferry to Lochmaddy, at 9.30pm on Wednesday, having left Liverpool on Tuesday at 3pm. It’s been a long journey, and I arrive tired, knowing it will be completely light so I can put my tent up on the machair on East Beach, which I do, and quickly get my thermals on.
I love this beach, and last year it was gentle and breezy. This year it is windy and wild… and I still love this beach. But camping here is a challenge. Forty-eight hours later me and the wet tent and wet sleeping bag are bundled into the car, for shelter, and I am without a home for the night.
The phone signal is patchy but I manage to text Ronnie in Liverpool to ask him to help me find accommodation. I have been wearing the same clothes since I arrived, and I am in need of a dry bed and a shower. We find the last bed in a hostel on Berneray, John’s Bunkhouse, which opened last year. Chris and Mary have created a beautiful hostel which is a joy to stay in, right on Cockle Beach.
Although I am perfectly happy in the solitude of my tent, after all solitude is something I seek, hostel living opens up a world of fellow travellers, walkers and artists. I have a lovely meal with new friends at Berneray Bistro, something I would not have done on my own.
I sleep well, and I dream of my friend Rachel, who died in 2012. I am reminded of her because Chris who created the hostel has called it ‘John’s bunkhouse’ after his friend John, who died here over 30 years ago, in a canoeing accident. When he talks about John it is not like decades have passed, and I ask Chris, ‘Would John like what you have done?’ He says he would.
The beach here is full of shells, rockpools, lichens. I don’t want to leave. It is perfect, so perfect I book to stay again when I return here after a week in Barra.
Last year Barra was calm and sunny, this year it is very windy. It is a place that has a familiarity as I stayed in Dunard Hostel last year, and I like it. I dry my tent here. I am wearing thermals every day, but I am glad to be here. The yellow iris are everywhere, I remember them from last year. Every living thing here embraces the longer days.
I have come for kayaking, but have time off the water, because of the wind. I explore on foot, places I knew from the water last year, and now I can experience them in a different way – Castlebay, Vatersay, Traigh Mor…
I also meet another new friend, a solo cyclist, and we eat out together, comparing our separate adventures. I go kayaking, just me and Mark my coach. We have one day when we go up to Fuday in the North East of the island.
We have some other days in the wind – this is good experience and learning for me, good for my confidence and growing skills in more challenging conditions in a kayak.
And I am sad (again) to leave here, this island at the end of The Western Isles, with the sort of blue I haven’t seen anywhere else.
Driving back up through South Uist, along the single track road, and being reminded how polite the drivers are here, that even the driving is a pleasure. As are the views, especially the sandy strands of North Uist.
And then I am back in Berneray. At John’s Bunkhouse. Spending time here and on East Beach of course.
And exploring the sandy expanses of North Uist open to the Atlantic Ocean.
My last night in the isles is on Grimsay, where the wool I have bought has been made – it is called ‘Siaban’ which means ‘sand-drift on machair’ – the colour of grey shell sand.
In the morning before I catch my ferry I visit another perfect beach. A bench here is dedicated to someone, and this is the exact view from her bench. She was obviously much loved, the bench has shells and quotes decorating it. And a Tolkein quote I recognise: “The grey-rain curtain turned all to silverglass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores.”
And then I am starting to return south, sailing across to Skye, and driving to Armadale, and another ferry to Mallaig to go to Glenuig Inn, my final stop. I am here for two days kayaking with Steve.
One day out here in the Sound of Arisaig, in wind. It looks like a sheltered bay on the map, the reality is that it’s open sea. I realise that the scale of Scotland is enormous, so different to Anglesey. The learning for me is good. Steve is a good coach, and I am full of new information – transits, navigation and boat handling.
The next day we are out in Loch Moidart, less windy here, so beautiful and – again – so big. So remote.
And then the long drive home. Back in Liverpool I am still wearing thermals, as I am still in the habit, but I am too hot. There is white sand on the floor in the car, and on the roads the drivers aren’t as polite. The Siaban yarn is cast onto needles to be knitted into gloves. I am glad to be back home, knowing that the beaches and the strandline are there. For next time.
More of Sarah’s reflections and sea kayaking here at: Letters from Sarah