It’s September in the Highlands and Autumn has slipped, almost un-noticed into the landscape. The season enters quietly, touching the leaves on the trees, with golden tinges. Outside the window of my flat the sycamore trees are spotted yellow and a shiver of excitement runs through me. For mountain folk, everywhere the arrival of Autumn is exciting for soon on this season’s heels the hills will turn white and the great season, winter, will have begun. Our hills will be transformed from sleeping green mounds to ice sheathed warriors, at least that’s what I hope.
Autumn slinks in, stealthy and gentle, but always before she leaves she shakes this island of ours with the ferocity of a wolf attacking a sheep. By October gales will sweep the land and hurl mountainous seas against our shores. I look forward to these extremes, to nights when I can sit in a bothy and hear the windows shake, feel the roof tremble as wind and rain hurl themselves at the defiant little shelter. I endure the summer, I wait for it to leave, wait for the insects to perish and for the flocks of visitors to desert the hills and to leave the tea shops and hotels to return to their quiet bumbling ways. Tourism is the life blood of the Highlands and without the folk who come to walk the hills and enjoy the scenery the place would wither and die. For me, however, a seeker of solitude, I am always pleased when the seasons turn and the summer is over.
It’s no longer summer but not yet winter. Autumn in the Highlands is always the in between season, characterised by wind and rain and my expeditions are often preceded by carefully studying weather maps, giving up in frustration and deciding to go and see what the weather does. Sometimes I sit in my car watching the rain spattering on to the windscreen, at other times I’m treated to glorious days of sunshine and amazing colours as the seasons change in this northern landscape. Last week, I was passing time when I should have been writing, on Facebook. I read a post from the maintenance organiser of the remoter bothy on Raasay, Taigh Thomoid Dhuibh, asking for information on the condition of the bothy. I realised I’d never been there and decided that I’d make the trip as September was probably a good time, before the October storms and, hopefully, after the summer’s midges. I’m semi-retired these days and have the freedom to make those kind of decisions, I can simply drop everything and go. I have amazing freedom, I am hugely privileged in the ability to simply follow my heart whenever I want to. I haven’t forgotten the hours I spent in meetings during my working days.
Taigh Thomoid Dhuibh, or Black Norman’s House, sits on the northern most tip of the long finger of the Island of Raasay where it points to the Isle of Rona separated from Raasay by a narrow strip of water known as a ‘Kyle’ in the Highlands. It’s Monday afternoon when I drive from my home in Inverness to the Isle of Skye and make my way to where the little ferry shuttles back and forth between Skye and Raasay, a journey of 25 minutes. Less than 200 folk live on Raasay although the island’s population rises in the summer and a new distillery may bring a few more people to this far flung place. The island is long and narrow and most of its population live in the nearest place that approaches a village and are clustered around the ferry terminus. From a far, if the island is not completely shrouded in mist as it often is for months of the year, the extinct volcano, Dun Caan, dominates the view with its distinctive conical shape and flat top. The view from the summit is said to be exceptional although I can’t testify to this myself. If you are looking for fine views on the Isle of Skye I can recommend Bien na Callich, a small hill that sits above the village of Broadford. It’s a relatively short climb to its summit, where legend says a fairy princess is buried. From the summit, there is a fantastic panorama of Skye which is ample reward for the climb.
I head north and, after a few miles, find myself on the famous Callum’s Road. This is not a place to cruise along admiring the scenery, I travel with my eyes glued to the narrow strip of tarmac in front of me as it takes me down alarmingly steep drops and twists around bends that leave me hovering precariously over steep drops to the sea. Calum MacLeod, a resident of North Raasay and the local lighthouse keeper and postman, campaigned for years to get the council to build the road to no avail so, not to be dissuaded, he built the road himself with a pick and a shovel. To be fair he did get a little assistance from some dynamite but the feat took him some ten years, starting in 1964. In the end, the council gave in and adopted the road so it is now a public road, although not one for the faint hearted. The doesn’t go anywhere in particular and certainly not as far as the bothy so, as I laced up my boots, I had some four miles to walk to the tip of Raasay to find the little shelter.
There are times when walking to a bothy, I begin to despair, and this walk on Raasay is one of them. I think I should be there by now as my feet sink in to the bog for the thousandth time and my pack, with its supply of coal, grows heavier every step. Highland bothies have a way of toying with the unsuspecting traveller, they hide from him, make him doubt his bearings, wonder if he has walked past the place. I’m heading north and I am beginning to run out of island when, at last, the bothy pops up from behind a hillock jeering at me like and errant schoolboy playing hide and seek. It was here all the time.
The bothy is a simple, one-room affair with a sleeping platform at one end and a ramshackle hearth at the other. I’m grateful for its shelter as I unpack my sleeping back and prepare a meal which I devour in minutes. The fire lights with little difficulty but, in minutes, smoke belches from the hearth and fills the bothy. Now my eyes smart and I can’t see the far end of the room. Every few minutes I open the door to release the smoke until the chimney heats up enough to draw the smoke out and I can relax before the fire.
As night falls, small pin pricks of light begin to emerge against the dark hills of the Isle of Skye across the Sound of Raasay. The Vikings called Skye, ‘The Winged Isle,’ reflecting its shape of large peninsular jutting into the Atlantic.
I lived on Skye for seven years where I worked as a social worker and my time there was an education. Islands are very different places from anywhere on the mainland of Scotland, they all have their personalities. Orkney is vastly different from the Western Isles, and Skye differs from the others. There is an attitude on the island, a philosophy of life, that the newcomer has to adjust to. My first education in this attitude came when I needed a tradesman to fix our garage door, the local joiner informed me he would be round ‘next Tuesday’ to do the job. Tuesday came but no joiner. I phoned him again, on several occasions, he promised he would come but never did. I realised I had made an elementary mistake, I had assumed that next Tuesday was date, a point in time, it is not, it is a concept. ‘Next Tuesday,’ means that that the joiner may come at some undetermined date in the future, or he may never come at all. ‘Next Tuesday’ means that everything and anything may, and probably will be, put off to some-time in the future when it won’t need to be done at all. If you wait long enough, nothing matters, empires fall, mountains crumble, garage doors rattle on broken hinges until they eventually fall off and blow away.
On another occasion, the lock on our office door refused to function. I called out the council joiner who, presumably having nothing better to do, showed up. He worked for an hour on the door, then packed up his tools and was about to leave.
I tried the door and the lock didn’t function. ‘This door still doesn’t lock.’
He looked at me with an expression of infinite sadness, as if I were a poor lost soul burdened with irrelevant worries. ‘Ah, yes. Yes, yes, you’re right there. But you see, it’s not as bad as it was before.’
For years, the café in the square of Portree, Skye’s main town, closed at lunch time so the staff could enjoy their meals leaving tourists and locals alike hungry in the rain. It is a life style dictated by the need to bring everything from the mainland, a place where delays are not frustrations but simply opportunities to enjoy life, perhaps a philosophy we could all learn from.
In the morning, I packed up my smoke infused sleeping bag and gear and took some photos so that the Maintenance Organiser of the bothy would be able to plan the next work party. Priority number one for the little remote shelter has to be a better fire place.
I walked out through drizzle and mist and drove back, along Calum’s twisty road, to the Ferry terminal. After an hour, the ferry came into view and disgorged its cars and passengers on to the slipway. I started my car and prepared to board when, to my surprise, the vehicle ramp was raised and the ferry shut down.
‘What’s going on?’ I asked a local, smoking against the terminal wall.
He belched smoke into the breeze. ‘Oh, the ferry isn’t leaving now. Yes, yes, yes. The crew are having their lunch hour.’
Well, of course they are, what’s the hurry.