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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From two legs to four wheels

Autumn’s turned since we finished the Cape Wrath Trail. I’m wide-eyed at the colours nature is concocting. Vivid green tussocks of grass are streaked with red. Silver birch trees shudder in the wood, launching a confetti of yellow and rust leaves into the air. The bracken leaves have curled and turned copper, while the heather remains resolutely mauve. It’s all breathtakingly beautiful.

Autumn’s turned since we finished the Cape Wrath Trail. I’m wide-eyed at the colours nature is concocting. Vivid green tussocks of grass are streaked with red. Silver birch trees shudder in the wood, launching a confetti of yellow and rust leaves into the air. The bracken leaves have curled and turned copper, while the heather remains resolutely mauve. It’s all breathtakingly beautiful.

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IMG_3922img_3859.jpgIt’s colder now, too. But we’re travelling by van – not on foot – so we have the luxury of being able to carry more camping gear. When we pitch up I’m grateful for the foam roll mat under my Thermarest and the blanket on top of my sleeping bag – not to mention real milk from the cool box for our hot drinks!

But camping is now a choice, not a necessity. And while that might sound like a positive thing (if it’s a little chilly, why not treat ourselves to a hotel?), the element of decision-making it presents is unwelcome. It’s an illustration of the difference between the hiking life, where your focus is narrowed to a single task, and ‘real’ life, where your attention and desires are pulled in many directions at once, creating conflict that saps your energy.

We drive to Achiltibuie on the remote and sparsely populated Coigach peninsula 20 miles north of Ullapool. It’s a moorland-dominated landscape strewn with lochs and mountains, including the spectacular Stac Pollaidh (pronounced Polly), whose tall jagged peaks are etched against the sky.

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We climb it on a day so windy that I am literally blown off my feet more than once (which doesn’t bode well for the next day’s local half marathon, which we’ve both signed up for). Morris looks otter-like, his ears flattened to his head.

The view from the top is awe-inspiring so we’re glad we went up but I mentally add tired quads to my list of excuses (pre-race sleep in a tent, 40mph wind, post-trail fatigue, fearsome hills) for any forthcoming poor performance in the race!IMG_3879IMG_3876

Jeff needs no such list of excuses, winning the race comfortably in 1hr 19 mins. I hate him. I love him. I run 1.47 – which I think is my second-worst half marathon time ever.

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But I console myself with my list of excuses and a generous share of the selection of sandwiches and cakes being doled out in Achiltibuie village hall. In true Scottish style, the race celebrations also include an evening ceilidh – surprisingly good for loosening up post-race muscles. After Stripping the Willow with vigour (while Morris hides under the table in embarrassment) we’re relieved when we get back to the campsite to find the tent hasn’t blown away. However, there’s much talk of Hurricane Ophelia winging its way towards this part of the west coast and the next stage of our adventure involves a ferry crossing…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Planning a Highland fling

In my job at Runner’s World, I frequently interviewed people who had achieved incredible feats within running. Aleks Kashefi ran the length of Europe from above the Arctic Circle to the southern tip of Spain. Wayne Russell ran around the entire coastline of Britain. Rob Pope followed in Forrest Gump’s fictitious footsteps, crossing America and then turning around and running back again. We considered a running feat of our own but with Morris (that’s him below) in tow, we decided that a long-distance walk would be more achievable.

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With a love for Scotland, our search started there and after dismissing the Great Glen Way and West Highland Way as too brief, we happened upon the Cape Wrath Trail, a 230-mile trek from Fort William to the most northwesterly tip of Scotland (and the British Isles). It’s considered to be the toughest long-distance trail in Britain. Some reasons why:

  1. It isn’t an ‘official’ national trail and is therefore not waymarked.
  2. Much of it is extremely remote, with few options for accommodation other than wild camping or mountain bothies.
  3. It requires good navigation skills.
  4. It crosses trackless, rough and boggy terrain and features many river crossings.
  5. Travelling through the far north west of Scotland, the weather is unpredictable and often wild.

The guidebook warns that this is not a trail to be taken on without extensive hillwalking experience and knowledge of the area. What could possibly go wrong for two southern-dwelling softies with zero walking experience but a few decades’ worth of running fitness? We decided to find out…

 

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…