Notes from a (very) small island

We’re at the North Cuan ferry port, waiting to make the crossing to the isle of Luing. The wind is blowing and the dark blue Atlantic swirls and bubbles, but there’s no chance of getting sea sick: the channel of water we’re about to cross is so narrow that we can see the ferryman chatting to locals on the far side. If it were calmer, we could get the kayaks off the roof rack and paddle there. Only we’re laden with shopping – seven days’ worth of food and drink – to save us having to make the 19-mile trip to the nearest supermarket during our first week of island life – and leave more time for exploring.

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The crossing to the ‘mainland’

Luing is part of the Hebrides – famed for their remoteness – but it is one of the innermost Inner Hebrides. Just 280 metres divide it from the North Cuan ferry port on Seil (technically another island, but joined to the mainland by the 225-year old graceful arch of Clachan Bridge, dubbed the ‘Bridge over the Atlantic’).

 

However, as we are soon to learn, remote and isolated are not the same thing. Despite its proximity to the mainland, Luing feels remarkably cut off. The small island – 5.5 miles square, though long and narrow in shape – has just one shop and no pub or hotel or, indeed, any facilities at all from doctors to hairdressers, playing fields to petrol stations. Electricity only arrived in 1956. The ferry operates every half-hour, but outside summer, it stops at 6pm, ruling out evening excursions in search of booze, conversation and other such entertainment.

A single road travels north to south with a spur to the west, where the island’s main village of Cullipool faces the Atlantic Ocean – and one to the east, to the more sheltered coastal village of Toberonochy. This is where we’ll be living for the next month.

 

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The isle of Mull from our local beach

Filling the trolley in the supermarket in Oban earlier today, I’d felt a sudden weariness for life on the road. The idea of actually unpacking our belongings, cooking fresh food and sleeping in the same place every night for a few weeks fills me with glee.

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Our cottage is a traditional island dwelling – long and single-storied with thick, whitewashed walls and a woodburner to keep us cosy. The garden backs directly on to a quiet inlet. At night you can hear the gentle lapping of the water and the occasional honk of goose or squawk of heron. There’s another sound, too: a distant pulsing; a thudding whir. It takes me a while to work out that it’s the nearby wind turbines stirring the night air.

We quickly impose a rhythm on our days on Luing – days that, ostensibly, are free to do what we want with. It’s strange how routine is one of the things so many of us – me included – yearn to escape, yet without it, we can feel a little lost.

After a few lie-ins, we begin setting the alarm clock to wake up earlier – and are rewarded with sunrises that turn the sky pink and orange, below which the dark shapes of other islands loom out of the sea.

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Sunrise from the back garden

Although we’re not hiking anymore we still walk miles every day. It feels necessary, not least for Morris, who looks disappointed with anything less than a couple of hours at a time. At first, we thought the island limited in its opportunities for exploration, but each day we discover new trails, including one that traces a high ridge, like the backbone of a sleeping dinosaur, all the way back to the ferry port.

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Cullipool to the west

There’s a lot to be said for a small island. Before long, we’ve scaled all Luing’s peaks, circumnavigated it on foot, decided on our favourite paths, views and beaches and even discovered a secret quarry. With this familiarity, it feels like one giant playground. As soon as I come in from walking, I want to get back out there running, or kayaking, or cycling. If I’ve been in the hills, I want to walk on the shore, poring over the rockpools and scouting for otters.

We soon get to know the comings and goings of the locals – human and otherwise. Sometimes, people greet us with such enthusiasm when we pass each other along the road, or in the shop doorway, that we aren’t sure whether we’ve met them before or they’re just this friendly to everyone. We even get to know a friendly seal; he comes to watch us from a safe distance when we kayak in the firth.

Bird names have been coming back to me, the way the lyrics of old songs you’d thought you’d forgotten do. Treecreeper, reed bunting, curlew, cormorant… I haven’t watched birds in decades but the island and surrounding water is teeming with them, and it inspires me to buy a pair of binoculars. There’s a fence post just beyond the village where a male hen harrier routinely perches at dusk to watch for rodents. I’ve never seen one so close up. The local gang of crows harass him, cawing and flying at him. These are hooded crows, with grey backs and shoulders as if they’re wearing little boleros.

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Each day after our morning walk, we have ‘creative hour’ (a misnomer, because it’s actually two hours). This is my writing time – I wanted to carve out a non-negotiable daily period for writing, mainly out of fear that having said I wanted to ‘do some writing’ while I was away I’d go home having not written a single word. So now I’ve written over 30,000 of the buggers, though whether they will ever be readable is yet to be determined. Jeff has been using the time to draw (animals, mostly), and very good he is too.

After creative hour, we go running – setting off together, though we usually go our separate ways. Frequently, the island’s weather isn’t what you’d call conducive to running: if it isn’t raining then it’s blowing a gale, or flinging hailstones at us. But all of it – good and bad – passes quickly and we learn that it makes little difference what it’s like when you set off, as it will probably be very different by the time you turn for home.

When we’re back from running, we have lunch, go online for an hour or so, or visit the village shop (too exciting for such a brief mention!) before doing our daily core workout. Then we get Morris out for another walk before darkness sets in, which by late October, is frighteningly early. It makes the evenings long, but we resist the temptation to slump in front of the TV. We haven’t had a telly or a radio since we left home for the campsite at the start of July, and we’re reluctant to let the outside doom-mongering media into our tranquil bubble. We save the TV for special occasions, and instead we read, talk, cook, eat and indulge in our new obsession, Scrabble!

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One night, there is to be a film shown in the village hall – the start of a new monthly ‘cinema’ night. We learn about it the way everyone on Luing learns about everything: the village noticeboard. We’re not talking online (the island’s Facebook page is rather out of date) but a physical structure. We can actually see it from our front window, and there’s often someone either looking at it, or opening the glass front to put a new notice in it. The film is Whisky Galore – a fitting tale of Scottish island life and the lengths the residents will go to ensure its whisky supply doesn’t run dry. We go to see it, of course. We even take Morris with us, who watches the first few minutes intently before going to sleep on Jeff’s lap.

I said that everyone stays in the loop thanks to the noticeboard, but I’m forgetting the local shop. Here too, you can find out who is doing what, when and why. The shop manager, who is also the postmaster, is the font of all knowledge and, having quizzed us about our extended stay, probably spends much of his time explaining to locals who the weird couple in the bobble hats are who seem to be out running, walking and cycling in all weathers.

Kayaking is more weather-dependent. If the conditions are right, it takes precedence over everything else. We three don our lifejackets at the first signs of a calm sea and paddle along Luing’s shoreline.

We haven’t ventured to any other islands because the tides and currents can be fierce around here – it’s within a stone’s throw of the famous Corryveckan whirlpool, where George Orwell nearly drowned and which has taken the lives of a few less fortunate. Morris – still finding his sea legs – topples in on our first few outings (he’s attached to Jeff with a bungee lead) but on our final paddle before we leave the island, he managed to stay in the boat the whole time. Go Morris!

The history of Luing lies in slate – it was a thriving quarry centre at one time, and now the beaches are lined with fine black sand and sea-smoothed pieces of slate, the hinterland punctuated by huge water-filled quarries and abandoned stone buildings, some containing giant rusted machinery.

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The domed grassy hills are clipped short by roaming sheep and cattle – the island has its own breed: the rust-coloured long-haired Luing cow. They give a good stare but they’re the most placid cows we’ve ever encountered. Between the hills, there are swathes of marsh and tough long grass, alive with ground-nesting birds, frogs, roe deer and hares, which we inadvertently send fleeing with our off-road explorations.

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A couple of days before we leave, in mid-November, I see my first otter. I’ve been looking every day and I am finally rewarded when I catch a small movement in the sea and track it with my binoculars. A small, neat head appears above the waterline for a few moments, before the graceful narrow body arches and dives under, its tail the last thing to disappear.

Leaving Luing feels like a wrench. I’ve been wondering if we could make a life here. Live in this cottage – or one like it – and spend our days doing…. what? There are just 195 people living here – the majority are retired and many of those that aren’t have to travel off the island daily for work. I can’t see much scope for a town planner and a journalist, nor a running club. Anyway, it’s time to move on. This was never meant to be the real thing, it’s The Crazy Thing.

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Hunger, midges and the ‘vicar walk’

There are two ways to start the Cape Wrath Trail: you can catch a ferry from Fort William across to the immediately wild and remote Ardgour peninsula, or you can ease yourself in by following the Great Glen Way (a 79-mile national trail) for a couple of days, which travels along the Caledonian Canal (ie. pancake flat!) before encountering more challenging terrain. The two routes converge a few days’ north.

After much consideration during the planning stage (will people think we’re lightweights? Will we miss some of the best bits?), we opted for the Great Glen route, and just hours into day one, we are glad we did. Simply carrying 15-20kg for the best part of a working day is enough of a challenge for two inexperienced hikers.

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We have to keep adjusting our rucksacks: cinching in the waist a bit more, loosening or tightening the chest strap… and we sometimes find we don’t know what to do with our hands. We catch each other doing the ‘vicar walk,’ with hands clasped at chest height. And then there’s the dance of the waterproofs: stopping to fish out our jackets and step into our trousers as the first few spots of rain appear and then becoming unbearably hot not 15 minutes later when it’s stopped and the sky has brightened.

While Morris seems to have no problem coping with seven-hour walkies,  me and Jeff are ready to call it a day when we reach the banks of the imaginatively named Loch Lochy, where the guidebook assures us we’ll find a good wild camping spot. We’ve covered 14-15 miles. We pitch our two-man tent just off the trail, crawl inside to wait out a sudden shower and fall sound asleep. It’s not even 5pm.

Luckily, there’s just enough light left to cook dinner by when we wake up, and time to wash up and refill our water bottles from a nearby stream, which we can hear tumbling down the hillside all night.

I wake up on day 2 feeling stiff – and ravenous. We have porridge with dried fruit and nuts and get packed up, which, despite our best intentions, takes ages again.

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We’ve devised a routine that involves two-hourly stops. The morning and afternoon stops are shorter than the lunch break but we still take off our packs, sit down and dig into the snacks. Our haul includes Pepperami, Babybel cheese, salted peanuts (protein and sodium) along with mini Soreen loaves, oatcakes and Haribo Tang-Fastics (carbs). All of them become utterly delicious in our perpetually-hungry state – but are strictly rationed, as we have to carry enough food with us to last five days, which is when we’ll next encounter a shop.

It’s only just after our morning break on day 2 when we come across a moored boat on the canal called the Eagle Barge. ‘Tea, coffee, sandwiches, soup, cakes’ reads the signboard on the towpath, and – oh joy! – a little sign hangs in the window saying ‘open.’ We don’t even debate whether or not we should stop – we make a beeline for one of the tables on deck and soon we’re drinking mugs of coffee and eating doorstep sandwiches.

Up to this point, we’ve still been following the reassuring blue waymarkers for the Great Glen Way but the unexpected feast gives us enough energy to press on past Invergarry, where the CWT veers off and where we’d thought we’d be making camp.

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We climb up a good track through a forest of spindly pine trees – and emerge into much more open, less peopled surroundings. Farewell, flat, gravelly trail! Hello, small, slightly boggy, undulating path. My bag – not to mention my legs – are feeling heavy by early evening and with the light fading, we search anxiously for a non-marshy spot in the long grass beside Loch Garry. Finally, we find a place to pitch beside a slightly eerie burned-out ruin of a house. As soon as we stop and start unloading our gear, we find ourselves in a cloud of midges and have to put up the tent and cook dinner wearing our midge hoods. We look like bank robbers. But after nine hours and around 20 miles of walking, we’re far too tired to contemplate a life of crime and have an(other) early night.

And we’re off! The Cape Wrath Trail begins

We leave Edinburgh for Fort William (the start of the Cape Wrath Trail, from now on referred to as the CWT) on September 12th, after what seems like weeks of planning and waiting for the adventure to start. I’ve been eating with abandon the last few days – telling myself it won’t matter because I’ll be burning so much energy on the trail, so I’m actually looking forward to the discipline of rations!

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The last leg of the train journey west is spectacular – a panorama of lochs, rivers, forests and hills rushes by (well, trundles by – it’s not a very fast train) the window. Morris, as you can see, is transfixed.

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It’s 4.15pm when we arrive in Fort William, and by 4.19pm it’s raining heavily. We were heading for the campsite, but we retreat to a pub for dinner and a drink instead, in the hope of avoiding having to put the tent up in pouring rain on our first night. It works! By the time we pitch the tent, it’s nearly dusk and we go straight to bed in preparation for the big day.

It takes an astonishing 90 minutes to ‘break camp’ the following morning. I’d imagined it would be a simple matter of whipping up a quick bowl of porridge and tea, taking down and packing up the tent and getting going but I discover there are considerably more tasks to do: deflate the inflatable pillows, roll up the sleep mats, squeeze the sleeping bags back in their stuff sacks, feed Morris, prepare accessible snacks/lunch for the day, fill up water bottles, wash up the breakfast things and finally, repack the rucksacks in the right order.

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It’s a slightly embarrassing 9.30 by the time we take our first steps on the CWT. But it’s a relief to be on the move, on foot, on the trail and heading north. I take the photograph below of Jeff, because I suspect it’s a sight I’m going to see a lot of over the coming weeks!

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Hitting the road

After a summer of camping, we leave East Sussex at the start of September. ‘I’m homeless and jobless,’ I think, as we drive north, the van straining under the weight of kayaks, bikes, wetsuits, hiking gear and an immense amount of reading material. My stomach does a little dip; it’s thrilling, but such wantonness feels naughty, too. When my job was advertised, 140 people applied. Will I live to regret quitting?

On the other hand, I’ve met lots of people over the last few months who, on hearing our plan, have revealed their own or others’ Crazy Things. Sometimes their plans are already in motion, other times, they’re still at the planning stage – or even just dreaming. My physio tells me about his intention to drive from home to South Africa in a custom-built Land Rover, when the kids are old enough. My hairdresser confides that she’s quitting the salon and moving to Devon to start a new life. Then there’s a couple touring around Europe in a converted horse lorry; a city high flyer who’s jacked it in to become a baker; and the editor of a highly successful magazine who resigned to retrain as a nutritionist. All these stories show that while much of what we do in our lives is aimed at creating stability, striving for success and fitting in, we also have a thirst for adventure, and a need for change too. I reflect on the fact that the change I’ve created for myself has put paid to two of the strongest ways in which I identify myself – as a journalist and as a runner. When we set off on the Cape Wrath Trail in a few days time, I’ll be neither.

 

 

How the crazy thing was born

Just do something, anything…

You reach your late forties. You’re happily married without kids, you have a great job, a nice house, a consuming hobby (running) and a busy social life. But something’s gnawing at you. Life’s become a bit routine. You sense there’s more out there – more to learn, attempt, explore and experience. Luckily, the man you are happily married to feels the same. The urge to DO something. A Crazy Thing. What Crazy Thing? At first, you don’t know, but you start to talk about it. (All the time). Start a fermenting business? Rear goats in Crete? Open a running store? Run the length of Britain? You don’t know yet, but you’re sure about one thing. You don’t want to stand still. A plan begins to form. You start to clear space in your life for The Crazy Thing (whatever it may be) to happen. A few months later, you hand in your notice at the great job, rent out the nice house and go and live in a tent.

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OK, so it’s not as exotic as island hopping in the Andaman Sea, as glamorous as renting a house in the Catskills to write a novel or as admirable as devoting a year to charity work in Africa. But it’s a way of busting the routine, flexing the adventure muscles and exploring a new way of living. And it’s where our story begins…