Jean-Jacques Rousseau, my new mentor, wrote –
“Sometimes I have thought quite profoundly, but this has rarely given me any pleasure and has almost always been done against my will and under duress as it were; reverie amuses and distracts me, thought wearies and depresses me; thinking has always been for me a disagreeable and thankless occupation. Sometimes my reveries end in meditation, but more often my meditation ends in reverie, and during these wanderings my soul roams and soars through the universe on the wings of imagination, in ecstasies which surpass all other pleasures.” So, here we go again, with reveries of remote places.
Return to St. Kilda
Only in memory, only in imagination. On the last day in May 2009 John and I presented ourselves at the slipway in Leverburgh on the west coast of Harris, where the motor launch Orca was to leave for the crossing to St. Kilda. The Skipper was rather scathing. Had we not looked at the website? There was a south-easterly that ruled out any sailing that day. We had to try again the next day. As we boarded, John asked ‘How is it looking?”. Skipper Angus shook his head. “Not verra good” he said, encouragingly. “There’s a force 4.4 blowing.” We took our seats in the cabin with 10 other adventurers who, by the look of them, were working on their bucket lists. In no time at all we were being tossed about in tousy turbulent waters. I gripped the rail in front of me so hard my knuckles were as white as the wild surf, spray and spume that engulfed Orca. John’s complexion matched his yellow lifejacket.
Time refused to pass. After four hours at the mercy of wild waves something quite amazing-the sight of Boreray, a huge stac soaring out of the ocean, like an enormous rough-hewn axe head, stained not with blood but with guano. And the sky belonged to birds, wheeling around, fulmars and kittiwakes, gannets and razorbills. An empire of birds.
We walked up to the iconic main street (the only street) on St Kilda.
At long last Orca was able to enter Hirta Bay. We were ferried ashore in a little dinghy. John sank down on the pier. There was a wreck resting on the shore. We airbrushed the satellite station out of the scene. After a briefing by the NTS ranger we walked up to the iconic main street (the only street). At the far end of the row of black hooses John, still yellow, set himself to paint a watercolour of Dun. I walked up past the stone cleits into the mist that capped the high ground above the cliffs. Something unearthly about this edge of the earth. An aura of wonderment and awe in the desolate beauty and all the hard impossible lives spent there.
The wind eased. The voyage back took half the time of the outward. We relaxed over dinner overlooking the harbour, the islands, the suggestion of the infinite, and we knew that this was a day that we would remember for as long as we could remember.
There is little or no chance of reveries when granddaughters grace the house. Mischief and mayhem are the delightful disorder of the day. Sometimes the shenanigans (another good word) leave me akin to a super-tanker stuck in the Suez Canal, unable to move here or there. One day their uncle proposed a Great Ice Cream Robbery, which involved one creating a diversion and the other driving the getaway scooter. I am a bit hazy on details because they could not stop laughing while attempting to explain the plan. Laughter, especially on such lips, is extremely transmissible (not such a good word). The girls returned from the Tadpole Hunt without tadpoles. Their parents had failed to take jam jars in which to carry their prey. After Easter we lost their presence on Mondays. What we gained in time we lost in laughter.
Return to Rackwick
Nowhere is as remote as it once was. (St. Kildans did not think Hirta was remote. It was Edinburgh that was remote.) I remember Rackwick on the Isle of Hoy, half a century ago. Only Jack Rendall lived there. A few of the surviving houses were holiday homes for the mainland’s bourgeoisie. It was, I remember being told, ‘a place of the summer idyll’.
Jack still worked the farm. I have mentioned before that in three summers between 1969 and 1972 we helped bring in the harvest, making golden stooks out of the shorn hay and discovering muscles which we did not know we had.
Making golden stooks out of the hay and discovering muscles we didn’t know we had.
Rackwick was – and is – one of the beautiful places of the earth. The bay held in the arms of the two headlands, the burn meandering through rough pastures to the sea, huge smooth boulders on the western end of the crescent bay, great white waves rolling in and breaking into surf, strong enough to tug swimming gear off a buddy’s body.
In the summer of 1970, staying in the Youth Hostel (warden J. Rendall), we met an entrepreneur who had undertaken to thatch the ruin of the Burnmooth for a BBC production of G.M. Brown’s short story ‘Celia’. He promised us fortunes if we helped. Which we did, for no reward as it turned out. He was a little bemused by the scent of marijuana that drifted round the hostel.
The Glen had the same kind of aura later found on Hirta; absences, a lost way of life. To the south west, the northern coast of Scotland (an offshore island) stretched away over Ben Loyal and Ben Hope. Today the Burnmooth is a bothy. There is – or used to be – a visitors’ book, the pages of which are soft with damp. In it I have written words in memory of the Roxburgh Street Rogues, all of whom visited Rackwick at one time or another. I look forward to returning there.
(By the by it was one of the Quoyloo Quixotics who advised me that ‘smashing’ has its origins in the Gaelic ‘is-math-sin’ which means fine or good.)