01.06.2014 - 09.06.2014 12 °C
When Christopher Columbus set off to discover the new world he left from Portugal. This was a very important decision. Had he departed from the Inner or Outer Hebrides we would never have had Fast Food, the Internet or Bottled Laxatives. The reason is simple – the Hebrides are on the edge of the world. You can see it from here. Some easily influenced people think that the world is a sphere. If you visit the Outer Hebrides you soon learn it isn’t. Its like an LP Vinyl Record. From Portugal you scribe a big arc, as would a gramophone needle, until you arrive at the various America’s. From the Hebrides, you sail out through the gloom and straight over the edge – unless the dragons get you first. Don’t scoff – there are witches here too, we stayed with one … although she was really well disguised as a very lovely artist going through a personal crisis (although we may have been contributing to that.) She was a self confessed witch and even had the sticker from the Witches Union on her transport that surprisingly wasn’t a broom. I digress.
When the Vikings came – this is some time ago and you may not find this information on Wikipedia yet – they noticed that either the mountains were the highest in the world or the sky here was the lowest. You can still see this for yourself. After a bit of uphill puffing they discovered the mountains weren’t so large but they still reached right up into the clouds every day. That logically proved that the sky was curving down to meet the earth, right here in the Hebrides. That’s why they called their principal overseas island HQ from where they organised the rape and pillage, Skye.
The island of Skye was unknown until a Scot named Donald starting going down to civilization without any trousers. Again, I digress – sorry.
The inner and outer Hebrides islands in summer are quite different. The outer ones look very much like a slightly moldy date scone. Brown with tinges of green and bits of black showing through here and there. The brown is where the snow sits for 8 months of the year; the green is a sort of grass and the black is rocks. The inner islands differ significantly in that they are really moldy – lots more grass - and chubbier sheep. No-one knows what they look like in winter because the horizontal rain makes it difficult to peer through the mist. However, its not unreasonably cold. The Hebrides have a cool temperate climate that is remarkably mild and consistent for their latitude. The average temperature for the year is 6 °C (44 °F) in winter and 14 °C (57 °F) in summer. This is due to being right in North Atlantic Current which is a continuation of the Gulf Stream northeast. When the days are sunny and warm its truly idyllic.
But it is windy. The Butt of Lewis (that’s its official name) is the windiest place in Great Britain. There are gales here one day in six and often small fish are blown onto the grass on top of the 190 metre (620 ft) high cliffs at Barra Head. According to the writer W. H. Murray, “If a visitor asks an islander for a weather forecast he will not, like a mainlander, answer dry, wet or sunny, but quote you a figure from the Beaufort Scale”. If anyone denies this fact, just point out that the sheep are able to eat while sitting down. It stops them being blown to Europe and entering without the proper EU documentation. The outer islands are very bare. I asked our first landlady on South Uist if there were any trees on the island. She thought a while and replied, “Yes, there’s one at McNaughton’s near Locheynort on the East Coast. Our father took us to see it when we were wee”.
On the car ferry travelling out to these islands I not only asked the Captain if he was certain his navigation was good (I was worried he would overshoot), but observed our fellow passengers. They all looked very glum and determined. I wondered if some of them had been sponsored on this journey by their children as a form of euthanasia and they knew it. The other thought was they had been eating dry Weetbix and sucking lemons. Worryingly, they all wore stout boots. Quite a few were driving Road Lice with Netherland or German registrations. Past experience has taught me this can be challenging on narrow roads. It transpired that most visitors to the Western Isle spend their time staggering up and down hills with the aid of walking sticks and occasionally snapping a picture of a passing bird. Their camera gear would make a pro paparazzi green with envy.
A previous visitor to the islands predicted I would have little write about. He will be surprised. For example, most of the toilets we were exposed to at our Bed and Breakfast accommodations were trendy square shaped. This may have been a packaging issue to fit them in the small bathrooms. However, a square toilet seat is anatomically inappropriate. Its been proved that Darwin was right - evolution is real and inevitable if exposed to a certain factor over time. I imagine the inhabitants of the Hebrides will all need to find a supplier of square trousers when they visit the mainland in the distant future.
B&B is the only way to live when visiting places like this. One meets the local people who inevitably turn out to be very interesting. The fact that they hope for strangers to invade their homes as often as possible is in itself an interesting characteristic. The additional fact that they extract significant sums of money from those invaders adds to their anticipation and pleasure when it happens. Some hosts only welcome and farewell their guests in the belief that the travelers will be tied and hoping for a good nights sleep before challenging their lungs and thighs on yet another steep climb to see a similar sight to that experienced the previous day. Other hosts want to impress with their service and knowledge so that one will scurry home and tell acquaintances that their dream of servants in the house can be realized by visiting certain addresses. Others just want to party and the nights rent is absorbed into ones bloodstream as a result of numerous refills of the local beverages. The remainder, who are in the majority, are very hospitable and happy to chat so long as you wish and it doesn’t impinge on their favorite TV program.
B&B accommodation is comfortable but often a little cramped – particularly in the bathroom. Some thought has to be given to the particular procedure planed before entering. Those taking an XXL shirt or larger, are best advised to pack plenty of deodorant and use the toilets at the gas station. Of interest to me, and my first time exposed to it, was a ‘lawn’ covered in crushed glass. Green, brown and clear bottles had been broken down to peanut size and spread thickly around the homestead. Our host confirmed that it had very low maintenance and her grandchildren preferred to stay inside where she could keep an eye on them. When I asked where to buy some she responded, “You can’t. The local Council stopped crushing their glass when they discovered I was the only customer. Its exclusive”.
Be advised to book accommodation in advance when visiting the Hebrides. There are hundreds of hotels and thousands of B&B … but from June to October they are all booked out. Given the lack of things to see and do, that astonished us and we did occasionally struggle to find a bed for the night. On one occasion the receptionist at a hotel told Flypaper that they only had a room for a ‘Handicapped’ person. “That’s me”, she said. “My handicap is still out in the car”. That’s despicable – and I think it falls under the heading of ‘negotiating under false pretences’.
I took the opportunity to ask all our hosts and anyone silly enough to fall into casual conversation, their opinion regarding the forthcoming poll asking for independence from Britain. It will be a close call.
About half said “Yes – the sooner we get rid of those thieves in Westminster and can spend all our own North Sea oil revenue and our EU subsidies the better”. When I suggested that experts advise the oil is about to run out they respond, “Oh no – there’s much more where that comes from. We’ll hire people to find it”. I suggested that should this indeed be the case, wouldn’t they need the large oil companies to invest, develop and harvest the oil. Normal procedure is for the resource owner to receive a royalty for the result. Their reply, “Oh no – most of our boys have been out on the rigs for years and they know how to do it”.
The agin half said, “The separatists are just a bunch of egotistical maniacs who want to be Kings and high paid Courtiers. They should put more water in their whisky”.
A small subgroup said, “We’d be happy enough with a compromise. The English must stop stealing our best football players”.
In the Hebrides the breakfasts are legendary. In addition to the well known full English which is called a ‘Scottish breakfast’ north of the boarder, there is almost certainly going to be black pudding and haggis. Both of these local delicacies are a worry to those who know what they are and how they are made. However, a traveler with intestinal fortitude and a positive attitude together with the knowledge that a medication called whisky is close at hand, should learn to enjoy these tasty treats. You will realize that given my surname, I am of Irish descent. My father never saw the bogs of Ireland but once a year he exhibited the stereotyped Irish confusion. On ‘Bobby Burns’ birthday he considered his Gaelic ancestry gave him the right to be an honorary Scot and he bought home all the ingredients for mother to prepare a Haggis. These ingredients included a sheep’s stomach in which the dish was cooked. There were also other things in the recipe of which I developed a mental block. Its advisable to leave the building while this is being cooked. On Burn’s big day this Haggis was shared with the nearby McLeod and Gibson families. We children showed great neighborly love by graciously giving our share to others. Today I would tell the neighbours to beggar off and find their own sheep offal.
The other foods we have been sustained by are Venison. Some islands deer populations outnumber humans 30 to 1. (eg. Jura means ‘deer island’) and fish. After eating Halibut for the first 3 nights Flypaper suggested it was time to move down to the 2nd line on the menus. She’s become very authoritative about fish since she ate a ‘Kipper’ for breakfast. These are oily herring that have been especially prepared to look like fresh road kill. Flat and red. I was tempted, until told that Kippers are popular with the working class. We have eaten well, except in the capital town on Lewis – Stornoway. It’s the largest town in the Western Isles with 9,000 inhabitants plus tens of thousands of visitors passing through. There are 3 Chinese, 2 Indian & 1 Thai Restaurant for casual drop-ins together with 1 overpriced hotel dining room and a café that requires a reservation if you want their ‘fish & chips (but closed Sunday & evenings). There’s a big opportunity here for a canny Scot chef who can whip up a dish or two of the local fare. I envisage the pièce de résistance being a full Haggis - piped in on a tray with Neeps & Tatties, sliced at the table with a Highland Dirk – closely followed by a serving wench with a compulsory glass of Scotch. (The crass can have Haggis as a Pizza topping.)
While the average tourist would have sheep offal, Connoisseur’s like myself would be offered the ‘real’ wild haggis.
The Wild Haggis (Haggis scoticus) is a very rare creature native to the Scottish Highlands. It should not be confused with the final preparation, the dish also known as haggis. The Wild Haggis's right and left legs are of different lengths allowing it to run quickly around the steep mountains and hillsides which make up its natural habitat - but only in one direction. Owing to a process of natural selection, there are therefore two varieties of Wild Haggis, one with longer left legs and the other with longer right legs. The former variety can run clockwise around a mountain while the latter can run anticlockwise. The two varieties coexist peacefully but are unable to interbreed in the wild because, in order for the male of one variety to mate with a female of the other, he must turn to face in the same direction as his intended mate, causing him to lose his balance before he can mount her.
The Wild Haggis can only be hunted after training with the ‘knowledge’. First, be sure to identify whether the ‘Haggis’ you are stalking is a clockwise or anti-clockwise variety. Dig a hole in which to hide then, as it approaches, leap out and yell, "BOOOO!!" (it will be noted that facing in the wrong direction at this point would be rather ineffectual, hence the importance of pre-determining the rotational preference of the intended prey). Fright will cause the animal to recoil and turn in an attempt to run in the opposite direction, the consequences of which will be immediately apparent. While it is still stunned from rolling downhill, scurry down, whack it over the head with your shillelagh and pop it into your haversack. Your hunt will be more effective if you have a ‘Haggis Whistle’. After practice you can imitate the matting call of the wild Haggis with predictable results. (To purchase a whistle just send me an email)
Everyone in the Western Isles can speak English and quite often they can be understood. Left alone they prefer to speak Scottish Gaelic. This is also the language dominant on all the signposts. Fortunately they provide an English translation in small print which is a great relief. The locals are not happy if you remind them that their language evolved from Ireland – as they did. The early colonization of the Hebrides was north from nearby Ireland. Examples of Gaelic … Good morning is Madainn mhath. Thank you is Tapadh leat. Perhaps when they get independence the Scottish ‘guvmint’ will insist that all communication is in Gaelic.
Nature provides almost every region of the world with a natural and relatively accessible energy source. ie. something to burn that provides heat and enables cooking. The exceptions are the Arctic & Antarctic where it’s a little difficult because you have to get the process started by rendering down a few seals or penguins. Here in the Hebrides they have Peat. People have been living here for 7,000 years. Mind you, ‘living’ is a relative term. It’s been pretty tough until the EU started sending subsidies for uneconomic farming. Peat is formed when dead plants decompose in waterlogged acidic soil. The brackens, heathers, mosses and grasses marinade for a few thousand years until they become a soil that is about 60% organic. The thick gluggy loam is cut out in ‘bricks’, left to dry for a few months then carted home to store until needed to fuel a surprisingly hot and smoke free fire. All over the islands one sees the evidence of generations of families’ efforts harvesting peat from the bogs to heat their homes. Many still do. I imagine the first person to discover peat burns was the one who built a mud hut then rashly discarded his cigarette butt. His house burnt down but he discovered a way for his ‘missus’ to add variety to the menu. In addition to lamb tartare, they now have fried, roasted, grilled and burnt.