The light on Islay is truly amazing. I am often struck by how, particularly when there is very little wind, the golden light from the West on the machair and dunes brings objects to life in what I can only think of as their own unique haecceitas. I have only just returned, but looking at these pictures I long to be back there again.
Hiya! It is I, Bruce. I have just returned from a F-U-N time on the island of Islay. This time was particularly fun as I have spent the past few weeks having no fun at all (going back and forth to the place where they put you on a table and poke at you, and are forced to don the humiliating cone.)
Islay is fun because there is a big beach . . .
. . . new walks with interesting smells . . .
. . . and I get to live in the box with the humans, which I really enjoy.
Still, there are things about being in the box that can be very confusing. Such as why it is OK to be wet some times. . .
. . . and not others.
To my mind, the most annoying characteristic of the human-creature is its inconsistency. For example, why is it that these buddies are good to play with . . .
. . . while these are not?
In fact, it is in relation to other creatures that the human-creature is most unpredictable. For example, one evening on Islay we visited this place. . .
I was told that there were otters about, and that I had to be very good. We sat in the box while Kate and Tom stared out of the window, occasionally muttering. After what seemed like an aeon, there was some excitement and animation, and Kate started reaching for her camera. All that had happened was that this had appeared in the water.
. . . which was, of course, not an otter, but a seal.
Now, if they’d have let me out, and into the water, I could have told them right away that there were seals in that place, and not otters. But as well as being inconsistent, human creatures like to think they know best.
But we dogs know better.
See you soon, love Bruce x
We have been away, enjoying a long weekend on Islay. The Islay half marathon is one of Tom’s favourite races (mine too, for that matter) — not only does it take place in a wonderful location, but the local support is tremendous — every year the folk of Bowmore put on a marvelous post-race spread for the runners (whisky included), and the race sponsors, Ardbeg, offer a dizzying number and variety of prizes. Ardbeg also happens to be one of Tom’s favourite tipples — the prize of a bonus dram or two is not to be sniffed at, and he was taking this race quite seriously.
The runners assembled at the start line:
And set off, up the hill and out of Bowmore.
It was a warm day, and I was particularly impressed with the efforts of the chap in the giant pink costume, who was running in support of a Parkinson’s charity.
Bruce and I went for a walk . . .
. . . and timed things to return to the finish line before Tom came in. . .
. . . in a very creditable sixth place!
The pink-costumed chap rolled in, still in good spirits, a bit later.
Being sixth, Tom just made the prizes – the first time he’s done so. There was much whooping and cheering from me later on in the village hall.
He was pleased too . . .
. . . and a few drams went down later in celebration, as you might imagine.
Well done, Tom – Slainte!
I love camping: I suppose there is just something about taking the time to simply be in the outdoors that allows the world to insinuate itself upon you in the most pleasing way. And I find Islay a particularly inspiring landscape. I like to potter about just looking at stuff, and always come home with a head and notebook full of ideas. Good weather helps too, of course: being able to sit outside in the long, light evenings watching hares, and listening to the wark-wark of corncrakes is a delicious kind of treat.
The things I see around me in Scotland, and the photographs I take of them are certainly my principal source of inspiration. Oftentimes it is the “feel” of something in a photograph (or perhaps more accurately the memory the photographs invoke of the feel of a place, thing, or occasion) that sparks off an idea. Here are a few groups of images that may or may not work their way into a thought . . . that later works its way into a design.
We spent last Friday and Saturday on the wonderful island of Jura — one of our very favourite places. The island was as beautiful and warmly-welcoming as ever (though we were very sad to note the closure of the beautiful gardens at Ardfin after their recent purchase by an absentee hedge fund manager). Our pricipal reason for visiting at this time of year is that Tom likes to run the Jura Fell Race (you can read earlier accounts of this race here and here)
To those of you who aren’t hill runners, this event will probably seem pretty bonkers. It involves seven hills, eight thousand feet of ascent, and sixteen miles over some really challenging terrain – bog, boulder fields and rough quartzite scree. But if you have been to Jura, you’ll see why Tom and so many other runners return year after year: the Paps are truly fabulous hills – the sort that demand you to get out and about in them (I climbed them once myself 6 or 7 years ago, but they would definitely be too much for me in my present circumstances). They dominate the landscape of this part of the Hebrides to the extent that it is hard to take a photograph without them looming large and pap-like somewhere on the horizon.
Here they are from Port Charlotte:
And from below on the Sound of Jura, where you can really get a sense of how these giant quartzite cones seem to rise spontaneously out of the water.
Like many other places in the UK, the Hebrides have recently been enjoying some glorious weather. At 9am on race day, it was already extremely warm. Warnings about dehydration and heatstroke were added to the usual comforting remarks about the dangers of the race.
And then they were OFF!
While Tom was away facing the Paps, I had my own (small) challenge to complete. For the past month or so, I have been practising my tricycling with the aim of being strong (and safe) enough to pootle on the road up to Three-Arch Bridge to see Tom come down from the hills toward the end of the race, and then cycle back with him to the finish line at Craighouse. This is a round trip of six and a half miles on three wheels – nothing in comparison to the task Tom was engaged upon, but certainly an undertaking for someone whose wonky left side is still suffering the after-effects of a stroke and hemiplegia.
I practised my ride the day before the race and reckoned I’d be fine.
On race day, I timed my tricycling to Tom’s predicted finishing time, and happily made it to the bridge just a few minutes before he appeared off the last hill. You’ll have to take my word for it that the tiny dot in the centre of the picture is Tom (the slightly larger figure to the left is a race marshall).
And here he is coming over the stile just before the bridge.
Obviously there are no pictures of our joint journey back into Craighouse, as we were both otherwise engaged (he on foot, me on wheels). The race was really tough in the heat, but Tom completed it in 4 hours 28 minutes – his best time yet! I was also very happy to complete my own mini-challenge, and happily without attendant bog-water, blood, and bruises.
The third element of our Jura triathlon was, of course . . . swimming! It is not often that one gets a chance to do this in the sea off the Hebrides, and for me it was an opportunity not to be missed, even without a proper costume.
This was the first time I’d swum in the sea since my stroke.
And it was my first time ever swimming with a dog.
The water was clean and clear and cold and full of fish. It was really pretty amazing.
To anyone who has survived a stroke, can I say: though we may never be able to undertake a feat of endurance anything like the Jura Fell Race, small physical goals that make our wonky bodies work just a little bit harder are just as important and certainly as satisfying. Try riding a trike! Swim in the sea! I know that I feel a joy at being able to complete these physical challenges that is more intense than any sense of accomplishment I felt before my stroke. These small things — like being able to take to the water, or accompany one’s partner in the final stage of an epic race — remind me just how grateful I am to still be alive.
Hiya, it is I, Bruce. I was born on the 27th May, and now I am two years old. This weekend we celebrated my birthday at some very fun places called Inner Hebrides. To travel there, you have to get on noisyboat.
As everybody knows, I am called Bruce. Yet apparently I have another name that no-one ever calls me. This other name – Finlaggan – was hitherto unknown to me and it belongs to Kennel Club. Now, as far as I know, a kennel is a sort of dog prison, and belonging to a club of kennels does not interest me at all. Also, if this other name is my “proper” name, then why on earth am I known as Bruce? Clearly, being two years old means that the humans can now bother me with these confusing and pointless issues of nomenclature.
This other name – Finlaggan – also belongs to a place on the island of Islay. Kate told me that this place was once the seat of the Lords of the Isles.
Finlaggan is surrounded by water: good. Finlaggan is a Historic Site: bad. What is the point of all this lovely water if you cannot run about and jump in it?
Kate told me that Finlaggan was my spiritual home. Though it is a very nice spot, I think it may actually be more her kind of place than mine.
This tidy pile is currently on the market for a mere 1.6 million donuts. I think it would suit me down to the ground.
Imagine me, if you will, bounding unconstrained through the twenty four bedrooms, and wreaking happy havoc in the deer larder.
Truly, a hoose for Bruce. Unfortunately for me, my humans’ tastes are a little more modest.
But even so, I think I’m lucky to have them. We always have fun.
. . . though sometimes you do have to question their sanity.
Anyway, despite not even knowing what a birthday was before last week, I had an excellent one. I’m now looking forward to many more with the humans.
Pretty exhausting, really.
See you soon, love Bruce x
After the Finlaggan walk turned out successfully, I decided to attempt some further walking experiments on Islay. While I potter about indoors without a stick or other support, all of my outside walking so far has been with an elbow crutch. Because my balance is now appalling, I am not great at moving about on uneven outdoor surfaces, and am rather hesitant and uncertain when doing so. The crutch corrects my balance; it is helpful when my leg stiffens or becomes tired, and I have to admit that it also acts as a useful visual cue. Fellow humans can really be unbelievably ignorant when it comes to giving me a wide berth, or allowing me more time to get through a doorway. In the street, I am terrified of being knocked to the ground by a youth innocently checking their text messages, and confess that I also harbour some (shallow) concerns about how my strangely lolloping gait is interpreted by passers-by who do not immediately notice the signs of my disability, such as the crutch or leg brace. It is difficult to abandon a walking aid, and I suppose what I am saying is that one has to feel several different kinds of strength to do so.
Anyway, I stepped forth on the shores of Loch Indaal on Sunday morning, and was pleasantly surprised to find that a) my ankle wasn’t giving way b) my foot wasn’t playing up and c) I wasn’t falling over. This was very exciting. Tom then suggested that I try out my new crutchless legs on some different terrain, and we took a lovely walk, following the coast round from Portnahaven. Out at sea, the seals were singing, and the rocks were pink with thrift. With relatively steep inclines, loose stones, uneven surfaces, and narrow pathways, this was the trickiest walk I’d attempted since February, and it was completely thrilling. The picture at the top of this post was taken when I’d climbed to the top of the outcrop, and could take in a wonderful sea view from a high place that I’d actually got to under my own steam. Amazing!
I’m sure you have some idea how important it is to me to be able to walk freely in Scotland’s wild places, and suddenly it seemed as if that was a real possibility – I could actually see myself on a hill again. It really felt as if I’d crossed an enormous hurdle in physical, psychological and emotional terms. The walking was incredibly tiring, and it was by no means easy, but it was possible.
Loving Islay as I do, I find myself strangely emotional when I think that it is now also now somewhere that will forever be associated with this important stage in my recovery: the moment that I first saw myself as a walker again. So to anyone who is toiling away at the lonely work of improving their mobility, I would say this: when you are feeling strong, take heart, go to the places that are special to you, and challenge yourself there. You may be surprised at what you can do. And it can only add to the store of happy memories with which your beloved places are associated by making them spaces of healing and recovery.
And of course, it also helps to have a gorgeous sunny day, and someone to enjoy some coastal tomfoolery with. . . .
. . .someone who will encourage you to walk a little further and suggest that you might take your leg brace and shoes off. Someone who will tell you that yes, you can walk on the beach in your bare feet, you can do it, you should just try it. . .
. . . someone who will carry your abandoned crutch and leg brace for you, while you walk freely, for the first time, in the sea.
When I considered the Islay walks I’d be capable of doing, the first place I thought of was Finlaggan. On the boat over from Kennacraig, I was longing to go, and we drove there as soon as we made landfall. During the Middle Ages, Western Scotland retained a strongly independent Gaelic culture whose political centre was Finlaggan – the ancient seat of the Lords of the Isles. Here, on the tiny Eilean Na Comhairle (council island), under the governance of the MacDonalds, the representatives of the dispersed clans of the Hebrides and Kintyre retired for debate and decision making. Angus Og and his descendants developed well-respected methods of political administration, and under the Lordship, a distinctive West Highland culture flourished. The centrepieces of that culture – Finlaggan’s Great Hall and council chamber – were once impressive features of two islands that float above the water of a small inland loch, now connected to the mainland by a causeway. Lying under the shadow of the Paps of Jura, and sheltered by a low-rising wooded landscape, Finlaggan is a place that feels incredibly remote, both in space and time.
City-dwelling land-lubbers such as you or I might wonder why the Lords chose to situate their equivalent of a parliament here. Galleys are a feature of many of Islay’s medieval tombstones, as well as its great seal (shown left), and Finlaggan makes sense when you think like an islander of this period: someone who gets about on water rather than over land, and who regards the sea as something that connects rather than divides.
There are accessible harbours close to Finlaggan where boats from surrounding islands might be drawn ashore. After landing, the delegates would have had a short overland journey to their feast or council meeting, perhaps finding their way by the position of the Paps and the curious egg-shaped standing stone that sits above Finlaggan’s sloping shores.
(right, The Paps of Jura from Finlaggan)
Today, you make your way through the reeds to Eilean Mor (large island) over the path and wooden causeway maintained by the Finlaggan Trust. Wildflowers flourish along the shoreline: kingcup, shilasdair, and lady’s smock, also known as cuckoo flower, which is echoed by its namesake’s mocking call from the surrounding woods.
On Eilean Mor, one treads over centuries of archeological history from St. Findlugan’s chapel to the Lords’ Great Hall. In the remains of the chapel, some fine medieval tombstones are preserved under glass. (They are, because of this, impossible to photograph, but the Trust has kindly placed squeegees by the stones with which you can clear the glass in wet weather for a good view). MacGilleasbuig’s stone is particularly beautiful — the warrior’s features and the folds of his aketon are still clearly defined, and remind me of a Hanne Falkenberg design.
For me, this was a wonderful walk. Since I put my Seven Hills plan on hold, I’ve not been getting about much on rough ground, but I was pleasantly surprised to find it manageable. I have found that however tired or stiff or unreliable my leg becomes, once one gets over one’s fear of falling over and strides forth with confidence, things are generally much easier. I happily limped about the island and the ruins with no trouble at all. And you simply cannot argue with the atmosphere of Finlaggan – the silent stones, the shivering reeds, the water plashing against the shoreline, and all under a spectacular Islay sky that can shift in seconds from bright to brooding. I am not really one for being spooked by places and their associations, but there is certainly something compelling about the council isle – an artificial mound (apparently) formed from the ruins of more ancient structures; its causeway long gone, and no longer accessible on foot. It is, effectively, an island within an island within an island: the political heart of the Hebrides and, as such, more impressive to me than any castle or throne.
If you are going for a walk to Finlaggan, I recommend making the trip twice: once during the day when the visitor centre is open, and once at dusk when there is no-one else around. If the latter, you can leave a donation in the box by the causeway to support the admirable but woefully underfunded work of the Finlaggan Trust.
It is a wonderful place.
It was probably inevitable that I would return wanting a campervan. . .
. . . unfortunately, my only prospect of owning one right now is winning the one currently on offer over at Dorset Cereals. But who can argue with the luxury and convenience of van camping, especially when this is what you see when you look out of the window?
The van is a VW T5 and it was brilliant – comfortable and really well equipped. I particularly like the fact that its exterior is so unassuming — it just looks like a common or garden van, but then you open the door and find a whole bloody house in there: stove, sink, tiny fridge, roomy cupboards, table, seating, comfortable sleeping options, and all so niftily designed. (We slept on the fold-out sofa which was fine — no clambering about in the extended roof space for me!) Given the wild camping purists that we ordinarily are, so much about the experience felt almost decadent: imagine being able to just drive away if you don’t like a pitch; to stand rather than crouch while cooking; to fire up the stove wherever you like, and to drink a proper cup of tea with fresh milk and everything. . .
We hired our van from Andy at Open Road Scotland whom I heartily recommend. Under my present circumstances, it was a great option and meant that we had a wonderful time away. The weather was, at times, superb; Islay is a truly magical place; and I have come back thoroughly refreshed and enlivened. It is so reassuring to know that, within significant limitations, I can actually still do some of the things that I love in the great Scottish outdoors. This Thursday, I’m off to the cardiologist: he is going to stick a tube down my throat to get a good look at the hole in my heart. If it is the right sort of hole, he can then make arrangements to cover it with a tiny umbrella, which will be fed in through a vein in my groin. With such things on the horizon, it is good to feel strong and (relatively) capable, which is certainly the effect of our fun island jaunt. (Um, did I mention that I really want a campervan?)
As you can imagine, I have a few posts planned, and 9483574579 photographs to process, but here’s a few to be getting on with . . .
Many thanks, by the way, for your comments regarding the blog’s appearance. I’ve still to make up my mind completely about some things, and keep tinkering away. Further comments and suggestions are always welcome. Also, entries are now closed in the Mini Manu draw – when Tom returns from work this evening he will pick the winner by randomly selecting a number between 1 and 283. More soon!
PS I heart campervans.
A few weeks ago, something rather unpleasant happened while we were camping on Islay. I’ve not talked about this much. I found it quite disturbing at the time, and — because it happened in a place I am very fond of, while engaged in an activity that I love — I’ve not really wanted to mention it here either. I didn’t want to put anyone off either Islay, or camping. But, thinking about it, I realise that anyone who likes either the place or the activity isn’t likely to be put off.
We were camping here.
It is a great spot. We camp here every year. We occasionally see other tents, and it is a familiar and accepted place for wild camping. We are always quiet and considerate of the wonderful environment we camp in. But on our last night on the island, three local lads saw fit to hurl stones at us from the top of the outcrop that you can see on the left.
Here is one of the many stones they threw. As you can see, it is not a small stone, and if it had hit either of us it would have caused serious injury. We were lucky that the only injury was to our tent.
While Tom went to find the police, and to stop what was going on, the lads continued to hurl rocks at the tent and me. I could hear stones thudding, and fabric ripping about me. I’m sure you can understand why I found the whole thing quite disturbing.
Now, being predictably geeky types when it comes to outdoor equipment, we have decent gear, and our tent was a decent one. It was badly torn in many places. We are waiting for our insurers to replace it. Meanwhile, we have a trip planned. I had to fix it. To be frank, I have been putting this off — I didn’t really want to examine the holes those stones had made too closely. But this afternoon, I steeled myself for the task, and repaired it.
I cut out patches from the bag that holds the tent (made of the same waterproof rip-stop fabric as the tent itself) stitched them securely behind each tear with a double seam, and then carefully oversewed the sides of each tear to its corresponding patch. I found myself in immense sympathy with anyone who has to stitch textiles in any sort of industrial quantity for for a living. Feeding something this size through the machine is no fun at all. I had radio 3 on, and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra were playing Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The whole thing felt a bit manaical.
But after a couple of hours, several broken needles, a lot of swearing, and some sticky wrestling with a tube of seam sealant, I have managed to recreate an eminently serviceable tent. Hoo-fookin-rah! I honestly feel appreciably better. I was never angry at the stone throwers — what they did was silly, it was senseless, and it was quite dangerous too — but all one can say about that is that the young are often senseless. However, I did feel bad on the tent’s behalf. Perhaps it was doing some of my hurting for me. In any case, repairing it has certainly had a restorative effect on me too. As in many other situations, there is a lot to be said for the therapeutic powers of stitching. So we’ll be off again in a few days time for some walking, and some wild camping. I’ll see you in a week or so.