The Isle of Eigg, Inverie, and Scottish Independence


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The day began with another charming breakfast, but this time, I didn’t dine alone: I was joined by a Dutch couple. An interesting conversation about health care ensued as they assumed that “Obama Care” would provide the same benefits to Americans that they enjoyed in Holland. I had to educate them about the long reach of capitalism and medical insurance lobbies.

Not long after, I boarded the same ferry as yesterday. The ride to Eigg took longer, but the wait was worth it. The island is even less inhabited with only 20 or so residents. I walked away from the harbor and climbed until I reached a low cliff overlooking the sea. Above me was a hill where a shepherdess directed sheep with the help of a border collie.

My eyes filled with the sea, my ears with the lolling of sheep and the occasional call of the shepherdess.

Isle of Eigg
Isle of Eigg

 

From a knoll surrounded by wildflowers, I looked across to the Isle of Skye, as blue as the heavens above it.  Closing my eyes, I tried to etch the scene on my neurons hoping to carry it back to New Jersey where a flat landscape and subtropical atmosphere would greet me.

When I was 21, I lived in Paris for six months.  Back home, I could conjure up every day of my stay. I wanted the same access to these islands, not just recall but reliving these moments. Yet, I don’t have a narrative of daily activities on this trip as I did in France. Here, I walked, looked, wallowed in beauty. That kind of living is more difficult to recreate. Will I lose the peace, contentment, and exhilaration as well?

The next day, I had another chance to bottle the natural sights of the west coast of Scotland. Instead of going to the last two Inner Hebrides isles, Muck or Canna, I went to Inverie, on Knoydart the most westerly peninsula in these parts and only reached by boat or foot. The ferry drops passengers off at Inverie for several hours and then tours the environs for another hour or so. Strangely my focus seemed more on the inhabited areas both at Inverie and on the boat tour . There was a stand of trees against a blue sky in the village, a garden dominated by Oriental Poppies, and a stone wall stretching along the road.

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Yet, fog circling hills and seals relaxing on rocks penetrated.

On our way to drop passengers off at location close to our destination, we passed a mansion that seemed so unreal as to belong in a snow globe.  Where were they going, where would they stay, would they be joyous?

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My last night in Mallaig included Irish music in the pub below my room.  I got there early and found a seat at the bar next to me to a middle aged woman and her mother.  We soon exchanged information about ourselves. The daughter has a daughter of her own who works in a government office.  Once more, I asked “What do you think about the vote for independence.?” I expected to get the same responses I had heard over the last few days, that is, ambivalence and economic concern.  I did get that answer from the daughter, but her mother spoke up with surprising vehemence. “I hate the British! They’ve done nothing but oppress us.  Kick them out.”  She would have said more, but her daughter intervened. “Mother that is in the past.”  Is it?

 

Settling In and The Isle of Rum

View from The Chlachain Inn, Mallaig
View from The Chlachain Inn, Mallaig

The next day, another Scot charmed me, one of the owners of the Chalchain Inn, who does the breakfast as well. This morning he produced scones and, after serving me, peeked into my soft-boiled eggs making sure they were just right. I assured him they were perfect and the scones were light as a biscuit. He looked at me skeptically and said, “I’m not sure that’s a compliment.” Once I left the breakfast room, I realized our definition of biscuit differed. His biscuit is what I consider a cookie of sorts, mine is a fluffy non-rising bun.

As I made my way to the ferry to Eigg, one of “small isles,” as those islands south of the Isle of Sky are known, I saw him coming down the street. I explained our different notions of biscuits. He asked me if I was an American. I answered in the affirmative. He told me, “I thought you were from Australia. You seem like an Australian.” When I asked him if being an Australian was good or bad, he just smiled.

At the ticket office, I was told the ferry didn’t go to Eigg on Wednesday, so I changed my destination to Rum, the closest of the islands. Waiting in line to board the ferry, the feeling of well-being, of being on the right path returned in spades as it has over and over on this journey. Aloneness is not only embraced but treasured.

I found a seat on the deck where food is served and placed myself next to a window in a booth seating six.  In front of me was a large group of all ages and one asked if some could sit with me. I was joined by a nice group of Scots who welcomed me into their flock. We got friendly enough so that I felt comfortable asking how they felt about the Scotland’s vote for independence.  Just as my train companion from Glasgow to Scotland had mixed reactions to the question, these folks also were unsure about what to vote.  However, they did seem to lean towards the idea of “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”  Their concerns were economic, that is, whether Scotland’s economy would flounder without it’s ties to England.  One fellow believed that mostly young people would be voting for independence.  He said, “They’ve seen too much Braveheart.  They aren’t thinking with their heads.”

After disembarking on Rum, we passengers were greeted by a Ranger offering a 2 hour guided tour for a fiver. I almost walked away but quickly changed my mind and joined the group, thinking I should be more social and that, most likely, I would learn more about the island than if I just wandered around by myself. I definitely did learn more about flora, fauna, and lore.

The Isle of Rum
The Isle of Rum

Rum had been owned by one family that had used it for hunting vacations given the abundance of red deer that inhabit this part of Scotland. They built a Victorian monstrosity made of local sandstone known as Kinloch Castle. When the last member of the family died, the island was purchased by the Scottish National Trust; as the island had never been developed, Rum remains as it was, wild and naturally beautiful.

Kinlock Castle
Kinlock Castle

Many of the birds sighted on the island were the same species I’ve found in New Jersey except with slight variation: instead of a great blue heron, I saw a great “grey” heron as well as oyster catchers, a female eiderdown with her chicks, and a family of willow warblers. The parents stayed in the tree while the fledglings searched for insects in the grass, the parents calling out to them so they would know where the adults were located. We were also introduced to local fauna: marsh orchids, yellow broom just finishing blooming, their dripping seed pods resembling snow peas.

Marsh Orchid
Marsh Orchid

I began fantasizing of living the life of the ranger, being on this island of 41 people all year round. She said she wasn’t too worried about the winter as she likes to read and write. Would work for me. After an hour into the walk, I longed to be alone, exploring as I had on Inish Mor. I was impatient to be moving at my own pace. There was too much nattering on about subjects unrelated to Rum. Perhaps, I’m becoming a cantankerous hermit of sorts. I bid good-bye and struck out on my own.

My first stop was the village. There are several whitewashed cottages with wood shingled roofs and even a schoolhouse for the two elementary school students living on Rum. Afterwards, they go to Mallaig for their education, staying the week and returning for the weekend, a bit of a hardship; however, the arrangement appeals to me. As a 10 year old, I desperately wanted to go to boarding school, all my clothes neatly marked with my name. One of the buildings in the village is a community center, a large room with a piano, pool table, internet hookup, a table offering local crafts, comfortable seating, and a café with tables inside and outside on a small porch.  It resembles a camp building from the fifties with the craft table reminiscent of home made goods of hippie origin. Outside a small shack attached to the building functions as the local convenience store but this one sells venison from the herds of red deer.

Although the castle had been used for a time as hostel, it seems, except for the tours, abandoned, all its formal gardens allowed to return to a meadow of grasses and wildflowers. The sight excites and frightens me. After a peek in the windows of the castle, I take a walk through the meadows with grasses hip high, pleasure and peace fill me up as I walk towards the sea.

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On Inish Mor and now here, the notion that humans are unsuited for living on earth returns. Keeping us alive requires so many resources and our arrogance and ignorance create places like the castle which once abandoned are sores on the landscape. We don’t seem to know how to be one with our environment. Yet, Rum is trying to do this, it’s residents attempting a sustainable existence where architect and nature fit well together, quite different from the folly at Kinlock Castle.

 

Kinlock Castle Folly
Kinlock Castle Folly
Housing on Rum
Housing on Rum