CAROLE JOHNSTONE

British Fantasy Award Winner 2014; 3x British Fantasy Award Nominee

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Moonrocks and Monoliths



Place is so important. I carry around in my head pictures of the places that mean the most to me, so that when I need them, I can immediately access them. It’s an old self-hypnosis trick, and invaluable when I’m writing and need to feel a certain mood or emotion. But I use them when I’m scared or lonely or uncertain too; they’re a talisman, a temporary shield or escape, the most effective method of “try to think of something nice”. Places have an atmosphere, a personality. They provoke a response. And place often, of course, means people. But not always. Sometimes a place is everything all on its own.


Our time in the Highlands was brilliant. We spent the summer in a log cabin at the bottom of the Great Glen, surrounded by Ben Nevis and the Grampians, dense forests of firs and pines. It was beautiful and great fun. Fish restaurants and cocktails, loch cruises, historic towns, and the Harry Potter train.
But islands are my first love. Mountains and forests don’t move me. I don’t just want to see the sky, I want to see the horizon. The sea. I want to be on the edge of things, not the middle. And there’s just something about islands that even the coast can’t match: an atmosphere, a personality, and a unique way of life that has been common to all the islands we’ve stayed in this year, from Cyprus on the middle-eastern edge of the Mediterranean to the Outer Hebrides on the eastern edge of the Atlantic.

Since May, we’ve mostly lived across the Outer Hebrides. Also known as the Long Isle, the Western Isles, or Innse Gall (Islands of the Strangers), this long chain of islands are approximately seventy miles off the west coast of mainland Scotland. Of the sixty-five islands, only fifteen are inhabited. North to south, the main islands are Lewis, Harris, North Uist, Benbecula, South Uist, and Barra: one hundred and thirty miles of sandy beaches and machair pasture, mountains and treeless peat moors, thousands of lochs and lochans. We’ve spent two months on the sandy west coast of Harris, one on the tiny island of Point, joined by a causeway to Lewis at Stornoway, its capital, and the last three months in the settlement of Cliff in the remote coastal area of Uig in northwest Lewis.

What can I write about the Outer Hebrides? What do I think — do I feel — about these islands on the edge of the Atlantic, an almost three hour ferry ride from the Scottish mainland? I’m not sure. Not because I don’t know what I think, or how I feel, but because I’m not sure how to do those thoughts and feelings, or the islands themselves, justice. So I’ve put it off, until today. And after a morning of packing and cleaning, an afternoon of rum, snow, and a three-fifteen sunset on our very own beach, and now, an evening in front of the fire, the Atlantic wind howling down the chimney, with not another soul within half a kilometre, I can put it off no longer.

I’ve been to many other Scottish islands. None are like these islands. We come back again and again, and every time I stand on the CalMac ferry deck and watch as Loch Broom gives way to the Summer Isles and the choppy grey waters of the Minch; as the lights and mountains of Scotland disappear behind great curtains of sea mist, and it makes me feel like a kid at Christmas. I should be bored, I suppose, stuck on the wild edge of nowhere, with only occasional phone signal, broadband, streetlights, pubs, or friends. But I’m not. My heart beats faster here. Not only because of its stark and unique beauty, awesome wildness and inaccessibility, the way it can always make you feel like the last person left alive in the world. But because of the sum of all its parts. There is nowhere like this place any place. I am heartbroken to be leaving.

It feels a little like love or infatuation, probably because it is. I over sentimentalise everything: the views, the storms, the people, the brutal history, and the eerie forgotten roads full of stony ruins and abandoned vehicles, haunted blank-faced sheilings with low rusted corrugated roofs. The low, mean-eyed blackhouses, thatched roofs hung with swinging stones, alongside their successors, the two-storey lime-washed white houses. The rusty fishing boats and swaying Pampas grasses, the ubiquitous sheep who vastly outnumber the people and wander at will wherever they please. The always running out of everything on a Sunday because you’ve forgotten the entire island shuts up shop. The rain, the rain. Even the wind that howls and howls and howls and never ever stops. But I can’t seem to help it. Being here makes me feel closer to something. I don’t know what. Maybe nature: any kind of walk is an adventure, more terrifying than enjoyable until you know for sure you’ve survived it. Whether inching around sheer cliffs above rock and glorious white sand; sinking in boggy mud or splashing across endless beaches before the tide roars back in; pushing back against gale force winds and the intense vast flat howling emptiness of inland peat moors and glassy lochans; avoiding pissed off sheep (or dead ones; skulls and wooly corpses abound), Golden Eagles, and huge-horned, stoically unimpressed Highland cows. Everything is exciting, terrifying, a wee bit bonkers. Here, you are responsible for yourself. And that’s exhilarating; sad but true. But here too is a kind of peace and quiet and sense of solitude that still exists in precious few places. And which is more — far more — than just an absence of the impatience and barely restrained rage that boils inside overgrown places with too many people and not enough houses, amenities, roads, or space.

The islands as a whole feel utterly unchangeable, although of course, they’re not; their history is long and bloody, an endless struggle against injustice and tragedy (it’s ironic that it’s the legacy of such unrelenting misfortune that has made the islands what they are today: beautiful, timeless, and very sparsely populated). Its prehistory is everywhere in remarkably preserved iron age brochs and random coastal circles of five thousand year old Neolithic standing stones. In fields. Not roped off and set behind expensive car parks and souvenir shops and visitor centres, but just there. In windy, muddy, otherwise empty and forgotten spaces, looking out at the sea and waiting for you to find them, touch them.
Rome never came close to the Highlands, never mind the Islands, but the Norsemen did. Towards the end of the 8th century AD, the Outer Hebrides became part of the Norse kingdom of the Suðreyjar. Many of its place names are Gaelicised Old Norse: Uig, Beckrivig, Hủisinis, Sgalpaigh na Hearadh, Losgaintir, Sgarasta Mhor, Meavik. After four hundred years of Norse rule, sovereignty was transferred to Scotland in 1266, and the islands were ruled instead by clans, including the Morrisons of Lewis, MacLeods of Harris, MacNeils of Barra, MacDonalds of the Uists. The Jacobite Rebellion of the 18th century briefly united them under the banner of Bonnie Prince Charlie and his doomed plan to return the Catholic Stuarts to the thrones of England and Scotland. The Highland Clearances of the 19th century — when their Scottish landlords decided there was to be more profit to be had from sheep than tenant crofters — devastated them, scattered them to the ends of the Earth. And the islands have never fully recovered. There are few castles here, no occupying keeps, walled towns, or ostentatious cathedrals. Instead there is a deeply ingrained sense of long history and fierce identity. Hollow towers and wonderful vast stone sculptures line the roads and tracks: monuments to Bonnie Prince Charlie, or to the islanders’ land struggles and riots against the merciless greed of the mainland; memorials to all the sailors and fishermen who perished in as merciless seas, often within sight of their homes.

The Callanish Stones in Lewis are standing stones placed in a cruciform pattern with a central stone circle.
Built in the late Neolithic era, they are older than Stonehenge.

It’s pretty inevitable then that the people who live here as are unique as the islands themselves. Many of the islanders have lived here all their lives, or left for years but then returned. Many are descended from the original ruling clans. Morrisons, MacLeods, MacAuleys, MacNeils, and MacDonalds abound. Every person I spoke to was genuinely baffled as to why anyone would ever want to live anywhere else. No one locks any doors here; everyone knows everyone else. Life is hard, of course, but that’s just the way it is, the way it’s always been. Practical, friendly, and brutally direct, open and generous; here, no one is a stranger, no question is impolite. Never before have I been invited to turn up at someone’s house unannounced and at any time I please within five minutes of meeting them, or been asked more personal questions than acquaintances I’ve known for months would ever dare to. Never ever before have I been made to feel so welcome, so vital, so part of a place I’ve only just begun to know.
Because above all, this is a place of extremes. The weather is schizophrenic or profoundly contrary: winter at the end of your driveway, and summer at your backdoor. The Outer Hebrides are where rainbows were invented. The storms are spectacular and furious, but mostly fleeting and rarely cold. There are palm trees.
A few nights after we first arrived on Harris, a storm raged outside our blackhouse, and it was like none I’d ever heard or felt before. The wind roared against the foot-thick stone walls, whistled through our tiny windows. We could hear the sea thundering into the Sound of Taransay, battering against the beach and rocks. We could smell it. The next day was so still and warm and sunny, we both wondered if we’d had the same dream. When we went down to the beach, the waves had carved great snaking wounds through the sand dunes, and we realised that the sea had roared inland fifty yards or more to the grassy bluffs, while we’d been lying warm and not so faraway in our bed, laughing about it reaching us.

The amazing Uig Sands. A storm rolls in from the Atlantic.

The eastern coastline is rocky and stark, studded with glassy lochs and lochans, low slow clouds pierced by dark gold shafts of light. Empty single-track roads wind between stony bens and purple glens. But there are different degrees of aloneness on the islands (to call it loneliness or isolation implies a weight, a gloomy quality of desolation that simply isn’t there); further inland there are vast, flat expanses of moorland inhabited only by herds of red deer and those haunted stone sheilings with corrugated shutters for eyes. The Coffin Road links both coasts, along which the dead were once carried from the rocky east to the fertile west. Swathes of headstones sit high on the grassy Atlantic cliffs, sharing the same view as all those standing stones: always outward, always seaward. Coffinless, we barely managed to walk the distance on a gloriously sunny day.

Most of Lewis is flat, but Harris is mountainous. Both landscapes feel ancient and alien. Stanley Kubrick filmed parts of the islands for 2001 A Space Odyssey. Harris was Jupiter; maybe not so surprising as the island’s bedrock is anorthosite, a rare composition almost identical to that of the rocks found in the mountains of the Moon. Some are more than three thousand million years old.

Just one beautiful beach among dozens.
This one at Port of Ness, on the north coast of Lewis

The western coastline is mostly machair, a Gaelic word meaning fertile, low-lying dune pastureland of glorious wildflowers and crushed sea shells. Its purple ling heather, grassy bluffs, shell-white sand dunes, and rolling, white-frilled Atlantic waves are world-renowned and rare — machair only occurs along the coastline and islands of north-west Scotland and north-west Ireland. The sand on the beaches is often so deep that it’s tricky to navigate: no wet, hard-packed ridges that hurt the soles of your feet; no low tides that retreat for endless featureless miles. The sea is warm and turquoise clear, the waves always high and unpredictable — paddle only if you’re not set against swimming too.

Machair in May

Hebridean sunrises are as fantastically eerie as their full moon silverscapes. Hebridean sunsets are as spectacular as the sight of a dark storm rolling in from the sea or down from the bens and headlands, sparing you no time at all to escape either a soaking or a sandblasting. All on the islands is an arrival, never a promise or a warning. The day after that first storm on Harris, we sat on the beach for hours, marvelling at the calm and sunny carnage. And after dark we stayed a little longer, facing nothing but a thin black horizon and three thousand miles of flat ocean until Canada, almost completely blind except for the kind of stars I’d last seen stuck to my bedroom ceiling, and the sounds of the waves, the high grass, the wooden echo of the wind blowing against the gate to our blackhouse more than a hundred yards away. It was as awe-inspiring as it was frightening; wondrous as it was ordinary. Even now, I struggle to put it into worthy words. By the next day, all trace had gone as if the storm had never happened at all.

Sunrise in Lewis

Sunset in Harris

We’ve spent hours on these beaches, and in all weathers. And like the islands’ ferocious storms, even their peace and beauty cannot hide their wildness; a few days before our arrival in Cliff, the body of a missing surfer washed up on our beach. But what there is to fear here makes you feel small and big. Its rawness stands apart in a western world that mostly anaesthetises and gives false comfort. It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it. Not any more. Death is here and all around: in all those memorials and monuments and cairns, animal carcasses, abandoned houses that still have cars in their drives and curtains in their broken windows. But it is death as we should prefer to see it: honest and implacable. Just another struggle we must all face. The last murder here was in 2011. The last one before that was in 1968.

Me on our beach. I'm not saying where because it's ours.

From Cliff in Uig, our once a week one hundred mile round trip to Stornoway feels like an expedition. We write our shopping list, put on our walking boots and waterproofs just in case, pack the car with everything we might need to survive being stranded in the middle of nowhere with neither phone signal nor people. We wave hello to Mo the Shetland Pony, the piping and accordion playing scarecrows in hi vis. We drive down through the cattle grids of Miavaig, past the churches, the harbour where you can buy scallops direct from the fishing boats, the little grey shore-side house with its colourful FOR SALE painted buoys. We play bad music at top volume as we slalom around single track roads and their diamond white passing places, as the flat vast plains and lochs and endless miles and skies of inland Lewis open up around us. And every time, there’s a lump in my throat. Rain, or glorious sunshine, or miserable impenetrable fog. Most often, all three. Every single fucking time. And — very unusually for me — I know what it means, that lump. I know exactly what it is I’m thinking when I look left at those snowcapped bens, low long sparkling lochs, autumn brown and green moors turning winter purple and orange, and then right at the only person I want to be looking at them with. I’m happy. I’ve been happy before. I’ve been happy with a lump in my throat before. I just don’t think it’s ever been this easy. This cheap. This certain. This simple. And — I can say this for absolute certain — never before have I been in a Tesco where everyone stops what they’re doing because of a sunset too beautiful to do anything else. Never before have I stood outside in the absolute dark and freezing cold just to stare up at the silver stardust of the Milky Way. And never before have I sat in a car and felt my chest swell just because I’m in it. Just because I feel something like freedom. Just because I can wind a window down and feel a strange warm wind against my face, close my eyes and think not just that I’m happy, but that I’m home. I’m here. And not give even the smallest of shits about how naff that might sound to anyone else; how naff it sounds to me. How silly or twee or cheesy. It’s inconvenient certainly — because if it was even remotely practical for us to live here forever, I’d do it in a heartbeat.

The new view from my al fresco writing desk in Cliff, Uig.
Some distractions are better than others.

So, no. My heaven isn’t Highland bens and glens and Christmas tree forests. My heaven is full of empty howling treeless moors of gold and green and purple. Of lochans so still you could climb down their slopes of scree to a stony low summit and another cloudless blue sky. Of seas so wild and deep their turquoise bellies foam wide and white and warm against your toes and the long miles of untouched sand. Of a vast blue bowl of endless sky; a dome of silverlight and moon and stardust. Quicksand and Golden Eagles. Guillemots, Puffins, Cuckoos, Corncrakes, and Arctic Terns. Sunshine and storms and walking through rainbows. Silence and howling wind. Pungent peat fires and bright small lights in the long black dark. Stones that remember, that stand sentinel over people who are hard and strange and warm and tough.

Perhaps that’s why it’s here that I’ve made huge decisions about my life in a matter of days. Decisions that I’ve successfully managed to avoid for decades. The islands let you think — make you think — about everything you’ve either forgotten or dismissed. That, I think, has been their biggest gift to me. There’s no hiding here, there’s no escaping anything at all. My life is not and has never been hard. It’s privileged and safe and mostly untroubled. But I have never ever felt at peace. At home. Here, on this alien and remote planet of moonrock and monoliths, I do. In this home that has never been my home and yet somehow still is. Maybe it’s that simple.


"Next summer, I’ll come back again. I’ll cross this narrow strait into the narrower isthmus of Tarbert. I’ll take the high road west above the harbour, winding between all those purple stony bens and glens and glassy lochs, through heavy clouds and peat farms and rock quarries, across flat lonely grazing plains and moorland.
I’ll walk along the causeway above a blanket of bright pink sea thrift, and crest the last hill at Seilebost, just as the sun rises up over the Teampall. I’ll run down through the machair beyond the coastal road at Borve. I’ll cross the little wooden bridge, climb over the stile, clamber down the grassy sand bluff towards the beach, grabbing for flailing waves of grass, my feet sinking into the sand to my ankles. I’ll look across to Taransay and the northern headland, and out at the rolling white-frilled waves and the flat miles of Atlantic beneath a vast blue bowl of sky.
And there is where I’ll finally stop moving. There is where I’ll stop and stand and look. I’ll take off my coat, my bag, my camera; I’ll stretch my shoulders free of their hunch. And I’ll watch all those others crawling their way out of the sea and onto the sand. I’ll watch them trying to shed their own armour; trying to stop, to stand, to look. To believe that they’re home again.
And last, I’ll look west towards that high plateau of sand sheltered by the bluff, but boasting the best views of the ocean, a smile stretching my mouth wide.
And there you’ll be. Standing and waving and waiting. 
No matter where we go. No matter what either of us become.
There you’ll always be."

[Extract from There You’ll Be (Terror Tales of the Scottish Highlands; Gray Friar Press) © Carole Johnstone, 2015
Link to buy here]

One of many abandoned houses; this one in west Lewis, not far from the Dun Carloway broch.
Often, when an elderly islander dies, the families can't bear to sell the house, and so they're left to slowly become a ruin.

MacLeod's Stone on the west coast of Harris.
4,500 years old, in later times it became a rallying point for the Clan MacLeod.

The beautiful harbour of Stornoway, as viewed from the stunning Lews Castle Grounds that face the town across the water.
Pubs!

The Lews Castle Grounds. Amazingly picturesque walks.
Trees!

Mo, the friendliest cowgirl in the west.

Not so friendly.

Shug and Jock.
Shug began his music career playing the bagpipes, but then his arms fell off.




Postscript: Recently, I found out that the grandmother I’d always thought was as Lanarkshire as I am, as my dad is, was in fact a MacNeil from Barra. Her family, just like so many other Hebrideans, had been forced to leave to survive. So maybe a place really can be in your blood. Or maybe some of those happy places exist in your head before you see them, before you know them.
Perhaps they know you instead.





[All photos © Iain Black & Carole Johnstone]
(and without even the whiff of a filter!)


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