What I did on my holidays.
Cut for length.
An t-Eilean Sgiathanach
I'd had a mail on Thursday night saying I should just turn up about ten, but I couldn't mail back because t'Interweb was feckerred. I called after eight or nine in the morning to say I'd be over, packed, panicked, worried once more about whether I had everything important, thought about it some more, fed the cat, watered the plants, fretted a bit and then headed out of the door. I think the only thing I didn't take that I could have done with was shampoo, so I just used soap and survived happily. With the altered arrangements - Adele having dropped out during the week and Martin replacing him - there being one more car meant that I was going up with Lara and Seth, and would have the whole back seat to myself. Once I was there and inside,Seth made tea while they went through the fret/worry/panic cycle themselves, and then we went down to the car and headed through Comiston to Fife. We had to be there for about ten or we'd Miss The Big Event, but getting out of town at about eleven counted as plenty of time.
I was struck once more with the beauty of Loch Leven. I can never work out why it's never used in tourist publicity. If I was the Fife tourist board (and surely even Fife must have one? I mean, it does have a reputation as being one of the more strange and sheepshaggy bits, but there's a lot of folk visiting that'd be very happy and appreciative, right?) then I'd use it constantly. Anyway, we got through Fife and went a bit further north and then went ahead at Perth rather than turning right, which took us up past Pitlochry, turning left at Laggan. A bit later we stopped by Loch Laggan (that's around where Monarch of the Glen is shot, apparently. I think it's one of those televisual programmes, and probably has kilts and shortbread in it) for tea, photographing small purple flowers, and Graham realising that the reason his photos have been looking a bit grainy is that his lightmeter's reading about two stops too high. Oh well. good to know, at least - I can get it fixed now.
We went on through areas called things like Moy and Roy and Tulloch until hitting the Great Glen at Spean Bridge. This is a good place which has toilets. And my Granddad's got the freedom of the place, I believe. We didn't stop at the Commando memorial, although I must do at some point (I was already feeling guilty in anticipation of holding everyone up on Saturday, so I didn't push my luck). Loch Duich and the Only Castle In Scotland™ followed. It looks a lot more touristy now than it did in the Eighties, but that's fair enough. Even aristos have to make a living.
There'd been something in the paper about Yo La Tengo - a review, i think, as they'd been in Edinburgh a couple of nights earlier - so I remember I was singing Tears are in your eyes to myself, and feeling a bit melancholy.
It was good to see Skye again, although the bridge came into view as soon as any of it, and it's very mundane compared to the scenery around. We didn't go to Plockton - one for next time, maybe - but went straight over onto Skye. It hasn't changed much, apart from it being more obvious how dependent the place is on tourism. It's fine, though. Nothing over the top. A few more things like the serpentarium, and boat trips to see dolphins and whales and things - good and interesting stuff, basically - and lots and lots of B&Bs. I pointed out - as if anyone could miss them - the Red Cuillins (granite) and the Black Cuillin (gabbro) and there was a buzzard off to one side, and we passed the extravagantly eroded mass of Sgurr nan Gillean and soon after we saw the Storr ahead, way past Portree as we approached the town. It was really good to be back. It had been far too long and I have to make sure it isn't that long again.
The B&B - Meadowbank - was easy to find, and oddly was right by a field where I camped with my friend Alistair on my previous visit. A nice place, with a friendly and helpful landlady - I'd recommend it, personally. We went for a walk into Portree to have a look around and a bite to eat until the others arrived. There was, of course, some slight concern over whether they'd be there by ten, especially as the ETA for two of them was about nine, but it was OK. By the time we had to leave, Sharon and Eirean and Sandy and Martin had turned up and were ready to go.
Without a shelter, here on the cliffs of the heart . . .
Around the time of the Beltane fire festival, we became aware - I don't remember how, exactly - that the main mover behind the revival, Angus Farquhar (lately of the erstwhile Test Department, of course), and the organisation he's a director of, NVA, were in the final stages of arranging a landscape art event on Skye. I don't think it took us long to decide that this was something we wanted to do, so we got signed up quickly (thanks, Seth).
We got picked up from an arts centre in Portree, an easy walk from the B&B. The moon was full, and low above the eastern horizon, and there was hardly a cloud in the sky. Perfect weather. Sandy was taking a great interest in the lighting conditions, trying to relate them to Ansel Adams' zone exposure system. After a while he pronounced that it was "really dark" (which I assume was only the executive summary - perhaps his pictures will show that he got it right). We got given tags (I was number 62, of about 75) and headlights and then climbed into a bus (very snug - five seats a row) for the drive to the Storr. There were a couple of talks, first one in Gaelic which was apparently mainly about the bus trip, and then one in English about the event itself. The walk was described as a relaxed thousand-foot ascent, which contrasted with the pre-event publicity stressing the need to be prepared, and the possible hardship. And a thousand feet isn't far, after all - even the Empire State Building's only a couple of hundred feet more than that. What could possibly go wrong?
We were also promised a book each at the end telling us more about the Storr and the event, and told that we were going to be the smallest of three groups on the hill that night. There were a few groundrules we were asked to go along with - no cellphones, turn our headlamps off during the marked sections, be relatively quiet, and don't run amok damaging what is, after all, a fragile and valued natural habitat (i.e. try to stay on the path).
On disembarking, we got given walking sticks (for those who wanted them) and set off up the path through the woodland. The first half was indeed plantation, although there being a few feet clear either side of the track and it being very dark gave it all a strange sense of space - until I turned my head to look at the trees, it almost felt like being in the open. Turning back to watch the line of headlamps coming up the path behind us felt rather magical, too. There was something almost conspiratorial about it all at this stage, even though I hadn't exchanged a word with anyone there that I hadn't come along with.There were reflective markers by the path. they were white at the bottom, then further up there were lilac ones, and later blue, green, yellow and other colours. Soon we came to an arch, or bower, woven from branches, and soon after that there was a sign to turn our headlamps off, and a change to a green ropelight marking out the path. We started to hear sounds ahead and to either side. They could have been machinery, or animals (monsters?), or strange music, or at times distant speech.
Soon I could tell that some of it was speech, although in Gaelic. There were lights and movements off to each side, and projected images of ghostly figures walking uphill alongside us. Later the poetry turned to English (I think it was all Sorley MacLean, but don't quote me on that). After many turns to and fro, and several bouts of lights, sounds and verse, we started to come out into the open. The full moon had risen well above the horizon, reflecting beautifully off the loch on the plain below, on the sound of Raasay, and on the inner sound behind that, clearly lighting the islands, and then range after range of mountains on the mainland beyond them. Magical.
After a pause on the level ground, we set off up the bare hillside. This section was steeper, rockier and (of course) far more open. On the other side, the view over Raasay towards the mainland got better at every turn (I mentioned to Seth that it's at such moments that I remember why I like the word "archipelago" so much). We walked quietly, with the occasional sound from the forest below, back and forth across the hillside until we were walking northwards just below the Old Man himself, standing accusingly on his mound of rocks. A couple more turns and a steep path upwards, and we approached a saddle beside him, and passed over it into the Sanctuary.
Little fishing seats had been laid out, so we sat down filling them from the far end, as we'd been asked, and waited. There was more of the droning music we'd heard in the forest, and sections of the corrie were lit up, and fell dark again, while we were played a poem, in German (Rilke's Ausgesetzt auf den Bergen des Herze - "Exposed on the Cliffs of the Heart"). At times a stage was lit in the distance, and a man danced, but mostly it was just slowly-changing light on the rocks, and slow music. I was puzzled by what I now think was just a rock or stump below us. It looked to me like a cowled figure, and I kept expecting it to move, although it never did. A satellite went over, and flared brightly for a few seconds. By the time the performance finished, another group had arrived and were standing along the edge of the sanctuary with their lamps shining on us.
We filed past them and they moved forward to take their seats. We walked off the saddle and onto the path. The moon was still bright and slightly golden, still reflecting off the water of the loch and the sounds, but a scattering of blue lights had appeared around and beyond the loch and out on Raasay. I'm fairly sure they were there for us (as they were all the same colour, an unusual shade of blue to see at night), and that they hadn't been there as we came up the hill. We stopped several times as we moved down the open hillside to admire them. I thought I saw, two or three times, a third group of headlamped walkers coming up towards us, but we never passed them and they didn't appear elsewhere on the hillside. Maybe they were just guides conferring, or perhaps there was a different path so that we wouldn't meet. As we neared the forest I heard singing in the distance, and as we moved back between the trees there was more music - not electronic droning this time, but from real instruments, and more poetry, starting abruptly enough to make me jump. Before the path descended into a gully we were moved off towards a rise on one side of it (past a fragrant toilet), from which we could see the bluff opposite, where a woman stood backlit singing in Gaelic. I have no idea what she was singing about, or who wrote the songs, but in the moonlight, with that view, it was wonderful. After four or five songs we moved back onto the path as the second group arrived (can the songs really have taken as long as the performance in the Sanctuary?) and we walked back down the last section of the path, the lights calmer now and the sound of singing receding behind us, until we passed back though the woven arch, and a moment later we were back by the road. Our lamps, tags and sticks were collected, and we were handed the promised books - not little pamphlets as I'd expected, but card-covered 110-page glossy books with more information, photos and diagrams about the setup and history of the project than I would ever have expected. There will, apparently, be a second edition in the autumn, presumably with updates on how it actually went.
The bus trip back was quiet. A book was passed round for comments and I flicked through the book, reading the Rilke poem. It turned out that a lot of people had been involved in the organisation over the last three or four years, including Doug Scott. That name probably won't mean much to you unless you're either as old as I am or into mountaineering, but when I was quite young he became rather famous for his part in the 1975 expedition to the Himalayas with Chris Bonington that resulted in Scott becoming the first Briton to climb Everest. From his biography he's a bit of a hero in other ways too.
Back in Portree we got off and walked back to our beds.
Neither of the reviewers had weather like we had. They might well have been on the same night as each other, of course.