“Reality” tv.

It always seems it ought to be in quotes, doesn’t it; so much of it is every bit as staged and carefully framed as the elaborate fictions that make up our modern-day “Peak TV” landscape.

You have your major sub-genres of it – as far as I can tell, these are “Humans behave very badly to one another,” “Purposefully spectacular transformation,” and “Clash of skills” – though of course these do bleed into one another.

I’ve never had much truck with the first of these – people are quite awful enough to one another without me seeking that out on purpose – but I will confess to a bit of a weakness for a show or two here and there from the latter two categories.

I mean, even as I am aware exactly how choreographed Queer Eye probably is – surely must be, because almost nothing in real life moves through an arc that clear and direct – it’s hard to resist the appeal of the idea.  The super-team of kind and clever folk who sweep in to teach a struggling person how to love themselves and live their truth…who isn’t at least a little into that?

The Great British Bake-Off presents us with an alternate universe in which everything is cheery pavilions lined with bunting and delicious-looking desserts and the very worst thing that can possibly happen to you is that a pleasant grandmotherly British person tells you that perhaps that sponge was a bit too dry.

Masterchef is ostensibly a competition based on pure skill, one where the primary appeal is watching the food being made and the hosts’ by-play.  Watching people cook is enjoyable, of course; as I was once told by a tour guide in Prague “There are three things you can watch forever.  The sea, fire, and other people working.”  It’s true, and watching people at work is as compelling here as it is anywhere else, but unlike a normal cooking show, this one comes haunted by vague uncertainty.

How much of this is true? How much of any of this is real?

That’s just it, of course.  The answer is “none of it”; despite the label we give the genre, this kind of thing isn’t a documentary even in aspiration. Reality only in the sense that what we see has the trappings of reality.  The names may be real, the places.  The products placed just so in the scenario are almost certainly real, whether or not the effects attributed to them are.

It’s an escape, every bit as much as the most grandiose fantasy film or the most elaborately-constructed romance.  Perhaps it’s a little bit more palatable to some folks if their escape hatch of choice looks a little bit more like what they see every day.  We all need the escapes, for sure; the world is dark enough.  Hard enough.

Tuning in, I might feel a sort of perverse delight in the doublethink of it all – it’s real, it’s not real, does it matter whether it’s real? – and also a sort of vague, ill-defined shame.  I’m not supposed to find anything to like there at all; isn’t it a bit like I’ve been caught devouring an entire pint of ice cream on the sofa in my pajamas?  Don’t I have artistic aspirations, however poorly-defined they may be?  Shouldn’t I be queueing up something a bit more challenging?

But there are plenty of days when I feel too exhausted, after the office and the household planning and management and the constant encroachment of day-to-day nonsense on every little corner of my brain, no matter how it craves to do other things.

And sometimes, on days like that, it is pleasant to look at spectacular cake.

The truth about Miss Ellsworth

A little fictional mini-vignette, to make up for the hard time I’ve been having posting.


Okay, so nobody believes me. That’s not my fault. Doesn’t mean I’m not telling the truth about Miss Ellsworth.

It was a great night for a dare. Perfect, really – with the moon all bright and full and turning the leaves on the ground all silvery except for the little pools of lamplight where the gold and the brown and the red still show through.

And the library’s always been one of my favorite places, anyway. I don’t know how it is that a place can be so big and so cozy all at once, but it’s the best place in town to be when you want somewhere to get out of the cold, or to sit and think, or maybe just to get out of the house when Dad’s in one of his moods.

At night sometimes you can see a light in the basement, or in the attic. Some of the other scouts say it’s ghosts. I’ve always figured Miss Ellsworth lived there.

So when Wally told me I was too chicken to sneak in that night…well.

It’s funny, really, how people stop noticing things once they get used to the way things are. All I had to do was settle in behind one of those great big dogs, or whatever they are, outside the front doors and wait. I watched as Mr. Johansen went home for the day, all tidy and brisk in that long tweed coat. I waited as Mrs. Ridley and Derek and whatever the new baby’s name is – was it Lewis? – headed off home to dinner, with Derek asking if they could do corned beef. They were the perfect distraction; I slipped inside just quickly enough that the baby’s fussing helped hide the sound of my shoes on the tile.

From there, all I had to do was duck past the front desk – no janitor, not just yet, not until everybody’s gone home – and down the EMPLOYEES ONLY stairs to the basement.

I’d never been down there, of course. It’s different from the rest of the library; darker, closer, a maze of boxes with labels I could read but not understand and sleek, unlabeled doors. Quieter, too – which seems crazy when you’re talking about a library, but it was, I promise it was. Heavy quiet. Spooky quiet. Quiet in a way that made it all feel a little like a dream.

That’s just it of course. Wally says of course it WAS a dream, that I must have fallen asleep somehow. That I couldn’t really have lost the stairs, that I couldn’t really have walked for hours and hours, until the beam of my flashlight started to fade right out.

I remember that awfully clearly for a dream though. How pale and yellow and flickery the beam was. How I could only just read through it the neat yellowed label on the box in the corner I was facing: 398.469 – Accession 01/17/87. Miss Ellsworth’s handwriting, all perfect, tidy circles and squares and…

And then there was a light up above me all of a sudden. Not an electric light, either; this one was orangey-yellow and flickering and all I could think was how much I wanted to get closer. I climbed up on the box without thinking about it, and then the one after that, and the one after that, and then there was a little window all of a sudden, and the little window looked in on a fine big room, and that seemed a little strange at the time, but I couldn’t really put my finger on why. I know now, of course. It was too big, much too big, so big I think you could have fit the whole first floor of the library inside.

But it was so pretty, you know? There were big leather chairs, and one of those rugs that looks like it ought to be a flying carpet really – maybe it was a flying carpet on vacation, I don’t know – and a grand fireplace that made you just want to stretch out in front of it like Wally’s cat Seamus and sleep for a week.

And the books. It was FULL of books. Shelves and piles and stacks and…buildings of books, old ones and new ones and big ones and small ones; huge leather books with gold lettering on them I couldn’t read, and at least one of those little paperbacks Mama reads, with the pretty ladies and the man without a shirt on the cover. (Always seems to be the same guy. I wonder why he never wears a shirt.)

I was just thinking how funny that paperback looked when I heard a door open, and Miss Ellsworth came in. Her hair was still up in that coppery knot at the back of her neck, but I guess she’d changed clothes for the night: a long white dress I’d never seen her in before, sort of sparkly in the firelight.

And…and then this is the part where everybody says I must’ve been dreaming. Miss Ellsworth walked over to the fireplace – I remember watching her dress sparkling in the light – and then…then she reached up and pulled out the long gold pin she uses to keep her hair up. There was all this shining coppery hair tumbling down everywhere – and as it did she…stretched.

Just like I do when I get up in the morning, arms straight out, all long and lean. But then she kept going. As I watched she seemed to get…longer, taller, broader, bigger: from under that long swirl of hair, still falling, there sprouted wings. The wings stretched up and out and OUT, and where there was hair there were shiny coppery scales.

And the stretch kept going. Kept going until her hands and feet had claws and a long sleek coppery tail was coiled around the base of one of those big leather chairs that suddenly didn’t seem so big any longer. Kept going until the face looking up at that ceiling grew long and coppery, too, framed by horns that swept and curled like music.

Then there was a sort of long slow rumbling breath out from deep inside her somewhere, and I knew what I was looking at.

Miss Ellsworth the librarian is a dragon.

And she knows I know.

I must have made a noise; shifted on the box or dropped my flashlight, or some damn thing. Darned thing, sorry. Mama says I shouldn’t talk like that.

But suddenly she was looking straight at me, and I knew she saw me.

Her eyes are green. Her real ones, I mean, not the ones she wears every day. Green like the forest in a fairy tale, too green to be real, so green I couldn’t look away, so green I couldn’t breathe.

And then it was morning, and I was on the long couch in the children’s reading room, and Mama was furious with me. And nobody believes me.

Bet they would if I were a boy.

Well. Maybe.

I still don’t know where my flashlight’s got to.

Another first date

So here’s a little project that’s meant to help me break through a bit of…something. I would call it a creative block, if that were fitting – if I had that One Great Story in me, blocked only by an unfortunate convergence of words. Or perhaps a failed convergence. (Would “divergence” be better? No matter.)

A reconnection, maybe. Hopefully. 500 words, semi-regularly, about…anything I can manage to muster 500 words about. To see what happens if I try it. To see if anything happens if I try it.

To see if I can even DO it. I’ve tried before, with less ambitious goals.

And so, blank page, here we are. How is it that we can have had so many first dates and yet it is still as awkward as ever?

Somehow I didn’t get rained on en route home today, despite it being the sort of weather one sees described in books as “leaden.” Thick, gray clouds heaving water down onto earth too lethargic to groan under the weight; damp heat creeping up and in and under your clothes and into your lungs until lying down and choking under it starts to seem like a viable option.

Not that I did; instead I walked home past the squirrels busily ferrying walnuts to parts unknown and the sodden playground and the incongruous, hilarious “Thug Lyfe” someone has written with a stick, or a finger, in the pavement – printed letters in a schoolroom-tidy hand that is about as far removed from said Thug Lyfe as I am from ancient Phoenicia.

Though I guess Phoenicia did give us our alphabet, after a fashion, so perhaps it’s not as far as all that, if you look at it a certain way?

And now we’ve talked about the weather. Might as well tick off all the awkward-date boxes.

…So. How about those sportsball scores?

Somewhere behind me, out in the dark, a little colony of rabbits is getting on about its business. I see one every so often, loping across the garden path in the twilight – though only the one. There must be more, but where? I wonder whose shed they live behind, or under; I wonder if they live a kind of urban Watership Down life, telling and retelling stories of El-ahrairah as burlesque or beat poetry to one another so that the generations of rabbits after them will at least know the tales of those stars the streetlamps are too bright to let them see.

They’re just rabbits, I hear in my head as I write that. It’s a sensible, practical voice, the same one that reminds me that I need to buy milk and that I forgot to finish that thing at the office and didn’t the dryer beep about, oh, thirty minutes ago?

Perhaps that’s where all the creativity has gone – drowned in an ocean of to-do lists and sensible shoes, weighed down by a five-pound bag of flour and old clothes that never fit and yet wore through and about eighteen billion lost pens.

Perhaps this is foolish. It certainly feels that way. Like an excellent way of saying something stupid, of making someone angry with me, of bringing down on my head wrath or scorn or shame.

Maybe there is nothing to find?

If there were, would I know it if I found it?

…Ah, well.

Alea iacta est.

Of sunless things

So some friends of ours have expressed an interest in going to this, perhaps making it into a road trip of a couple of weeks or so. I’m not that much of a hot air balloon person, and I’m really not the kind of morning person I think you’d need to be in order to be feeling gleeful at the prospect of getting up at 3:30 AM for a morning event (ouch), but on the other hand it seems like the sort of thing that might be worth doing at least once in your life…so it looks like I’ve got some trip planning research ahead of me.

In other news, we’ve recently started the sequel to Failbetter Games’s Sunless Sea, Sunless Skies. The first game is gloriously niche – you pilot a tiny ship through a vast underground cavern dotted here and there with islands and heavily populated with menaces ranging from your standard pirates to terrifying Lovecraftian horrors. As you sail, you encounter dozens of weird and entertaining little storylets – mini-plots for all of your officers, and on each island a little thicket of tales to explore that highlight the creativity of the worldbuilding. There’s a range of victory conditions to pursue, too, ranging from the somewhat mundane (become fabulously wealthy!) to the enticingly mysterious (join an adventurer in a quest to pass through the Avid Horizon, a frigid and desolate place containing a gate to…somewhere. We loved it.

And yet we’ve only finished one of its many victory conditions. Why? Because it’s a roguelike, a decision that I still find baffling. Dying and returning to the start of something makes sense for many games, but not for one where a death can easily wipe out twenty hours of gameplay. Moreover, it can be intensely frustrating to have to re-do the first part of all of your quests many many many times before living long enough to see the end of them, setting up a weird dynamic where you find yourself rushing to try to complete things before a horror from below rips your tiny ship in half. (I’ve learned there’s a mod available that can mitigate this somewhat by not re-setting quest progress on death; this might be worth a go if i want to read more of the game’s stories.)

The second game is a roguelike as well, sadly, though they’ve made the wise decision to make the goodies you can pass on to your next captain more generous. (There IS a more merciful game mode that permits save-scumming, but naturally with Mark on the team we couldn’t go for that one.) That said, our only death so far was wiped out by the game’s locking up on us (it seems that there are some growing pains with version 1.0 as it emerges from Early Access.) There’s gamepad support this time, though it feels rather janky – it’s startlingly difficult to keep your vessel moving in a straight line. Hopefully kinks that will be smoothed out as the release progresses.

This installment in the…is it a franchise now?…takes as its premise the notion that someone, at least, was successful in passing through the Avid Horizon as I mentioned above – and as it turned out, what was beyond that was a skyscape full of new wonders. And terrors, because obviously.

Ten years on, control of the skies is a battle between The Establishment and the scrappy colonists who believe this new frontier is rightly theirs. This conflict forms the backdrop for your own story, which begins with you as first officer on a small but scrappy sky-train recently returned from the land of the dead (somehow.) The voyage did not go well for the former captain, who as the game begins is dying of…something, a strange illness that covers her skin in glowing sigils. In exchange for passing the ship on to you, she requests a promise: take the black box in the ship’s hold to New London, and do not open it.

And then she is gone, and the ship is yours, skeleton crew and all. Good luck, captain.

It’s a fairly cracking beginning really, and I’m hopeful that the rest of it will be as divertingly, endearingly weird as its predecessor. Thus far, the skies aren’t quite as oppressively dark and lonely as the Sunless Sea once was – the art’s rather lovely, honestly, and does a good job suggesting layers of possibly-infinite space despite the two dimensional plane your locomotive-ship actually moves in. But the writing’s been as inventively bizarre as ever, thus far, and we’ve got a lot of new lands to discover. Until we die or go irrevocably mad, of course.

So…more of the same, rather, I suppose. But I’m all right with that.

Onward.

Lemmings rushing to the slaughter

Today’s word of the day: “Malaphor.” This is a combination of “metaphor” and “malapropism,” and appears in such forms as:

  • “It’s not rocket surgery.”
  • “I’ll burn that bridge when I come to it.”
  • The title of this post

…and so on.  I use some of these myself quite deliberately, so I suppose I am not precisely helping to maintain the purity of the language.

This is courtesy of the very-delightful podcast The Allusionist, which I recommend to anyone else who enjoys wordy goodness; host Helen Zaltzman is whimsical and nerdy in proportions I very much enjoy.  Link there goes to the episode I listened to this morning; recommended for a listen if you have a spare twenty minutes or so.

As often seems to happen, nature appears to have suddenly remembered mid-January that it is supposed to be winter, and dumped an alarmingly huge pile of snow on our heads; as I walked to meet everyone for ramen last night the wind was constantly sweeping fistful after fistful of vicious glitter into my face. 

Today: piles everywhere of blinding white, some nearly as tall as I am.  (Miracle of miracles: the TTC ran like a dream this morning, and I secured a seat within a single stop.  I can only guess that perhaps most folk stayed home today.)

I’m not looking forward to the shoveling, but it IS rather lovely to look at…

An old travel diary, day 9: To the outer Hebrides

Another travel day today, this one with an especially early beginning, as we had to be at the harbour for our 9:30 scheduled departure a full 45 minutes early.  This one departs from Uig, near where we split from the road for the fairy glen yesterday.
Porridge with honey for breakfast this morning – not much of an anniversary meal, but nicer than I would have thought; not slimy as I usually fear with porridge.  It rained heavily as we got into the car to leave – that “unsettled” weather again – but as a nice little trade off, we got to see a rather magnificent rainbow, a full, sky-spanning arch with the complete spectrum brightly represented.  (I hope it’s a sign.  Perhaps it’s an anniversary sign.)
I think this is easily the biggest of the ferries we’ve ridden yet, and the longest crossing so far: disturbingly, before getting on board we had to hand in a little card with our names, sex, and ages.  What is that for?  In case we sink?
Be that as it may, we had a few minutes before boarding to check out the tiny pottery next to the pier.  It’s known for its whimsical designs – puffins, chickens, and whatnot – and there’s a little workspace where you can watch the potter – a cute young girl with a ponytail, in this case – work on new pots.  We bought a little something here – a “quaich,” a kind of drinking cup that was typically filled with whiskey or brandy and shared communally as a mark of hospitality.  This one’s blue and white, like our other tableware, and has a simple knotwork design that should, I think, suit its purpose well.
This morning’s sailing is packed to the gills with…runners and their families; it seems there’s a half marathon on Lewis today.  And now, half an hour into the crossing, I am the only member of my party not asleep, and I am watching blue-gray sea meld with blue-gray sky, the horizon only briefly disturbed by misty ripples of rock that must be various other isles of the Outer Hebrides.  There is something incongruous about knowing that out there somewhere in all that slate-colored wildness there are seals and dolphins and sharks and all manner of creatures, living as they have for always, while here we are inside on a boat full of dogs and long-distance runners, with some sort of home auction program flickering bland enthusiasm and faded flowered wallpaper on a screen at the fore of the cabin.
Perhaps it’s just a sign I need some coffee.
— Some time later —
I spent the rest of the ferry ride sitting in the canteen having a coffee and a bit of shortbread and watching the seas drift past.  When at last we emerged, it was into the tiny town of Tarbert, on the Isle of Harris.  The first thing one notices out here is that English starts to take second place to Gaelic on the signs; there are more Gaelic speakers here than in most other places.
Lewis and Harris are actually a single island connected by an isthmus on which Tarbert sits, though their landscapes are quite different.  The isles are, I’m told, very strong in their culture yet, including the fairly rigorous observance of the Sabbath; we discovered very quickly that we’d have a hard time getting into anything on Sunday as the sidewalks would essentially be rolling right up during that time.
Very well, then: we set up a plan to take in most of the isle’s interior attractions, though there aren’t many.  For a start we set off on a loop road round Harris, the southernmost portion.
The guide refers to this part of the world as “an inhospitable moonscape,” and that’s not far off.  In some parts of the world nature bothers to cover up the rock beneath our feet with, say, dirt or grass or trees or something; not so here.  Admittedly Magnus Barelegs is supposedly to blame for the trees; lore says he burnt them all down and left the island bare.  But there is precious little else in the way of vegetation: heather and coarse grasses in amongst the rocks, but that’s about it.
There are sheep, though.  Of course.  Here they provide the most important of raw materials for the famous Harris Tweed, the only fabric with an Act of Parliament dictating what qualities a textile must have before it can bear the name or the orb trademark: dyed and hand-woven on the outer Hebrides, much as only a small subset of the cheeses calling themselves Parmesan are true Parmigiano-Reggiano.  Traditionally many of the dyes come from the isle as well: green from nettles, purple from iris roots, and so on.
We learned all this at a tiny visitor centre in the middle of nowhere; the cheery proprietress informed us that she’d been to Petrolia in the past.  Afterward, we took a brief pause at a beach.  The Outer Hebrides is known for its beaches, apparently, and are popular for kayaking and surfing (!), though I doubt very much I’d have the stamina to swim in water that cold.  It’s also extremely windy, or was during our visit.  Personally I don’t think of a proper beach as somewhere you have to wear a jacket to go to, but the Brits apparently disagree.
Our path wound in and out along a pretty steeply-slanted one lane road through this weird moon-landscape until we reached St. Cuthbert’s, a tiny, tiny medieval church on the isle’s far southern tip.  A pair of female bards are buried here; one, at her own request, was buried face-down, to keep her “lying mouth” – her own words – from causing further trouble.  (There’s a story there, I’m sure.) Nearby, a hotel offered food and drink; we stopped in at the nearly empty restaurant for some excellent fish chowder before winding our way back north and west onto Lewis.
Most of the weaving industry has been relocated here, and there are some 600 weavers still on the island; we drove past several houses that seemed to have sunrooms to one side with big looms ready to be worked.  It’s also marginally less inhospitable, though instead of steep rocky hillsides like Harris, Lewis looks very much like wild moorland. A little deceptively so, honestly; most of that stuff that looks like rolling grassland is in fact peat bog.
Peat happens when there’s especially poor drainage in soil; plants sprout and die but then cannot fully rot, as there’s not enough oxygen getting in down there.  This suffocating plant mass eventually sort of merges with the soil to produce a substance that the locals slice off in brick-sized chunks, resulting in what looks like a pile of the world’s least appetizing brownies. These are dried out and then carefully stored until it gets cold, at which point they’ll be burnt for fuel, resulting in that distinctive smelling smoke we can taste in whiskey.  Peat-cutting is a summer activity in the isles, so here and there we were able to see people slicing off the bricks, or piling them up to dry.
Our first stop was the visitor centre for the Callanish standing stones, which we’ll be making a proper visit to tomorrow.  Like Stonehenge, this stone circle was erected approximately forever ago by people nobody really knows much about for reasons that are largely unknown but are (say it with me) probably of religious significance.  More on these tomorrow.
It was already getting a bit late by this time, and we hadn’t yet checked into our B&B, but we thought perhaps we might just have time to pop round to Argol Blackhouse on our way to Stornoway.  A “Blackhouse” is a type of construct that was the done thing in the isles many years ago and which had two primary features: one, your animals lived in the same house as you and two, everything was warmed by a central peat-burning hearth.  On the upside, this meant you could keep everyone warm a lot more easily, and the rising smoke killed bugs that might otherwise have been lurking in the thatch.  On the downside, I expect people had a pretty strong tendency to die of lung cancer back in the day.
Sadly, as we arrived the little one-room centre was just closing down, but we had a chance to roam the site and investigate the nearby ruined blackhouse, which helpfully labeled all the rooms.  I don’t know about you, but I think I would be…reluctant…to have my kitchen quite so directly across from my cowshed. (The smell must have been astonishing.)
Our B&B in Stornoway is…interesting.  Weirdly sparse furnishings, no art on the walls at all, and the general feel about it of a staged house.  (Which it may well be given that there is a big for sale sign out front.) In comparison with some of the prior places we’ve been it just doesn’t quite seem like they’re trying as hard, though the person on hand to help out (not the owner) seems kind.  Stornoway itself didn’t make much of a good first impression, either; gray and dark in the rain, with a number of shops that seemed to be going out of business.
As in Skye, it turns out that restaurants and other such establishments book up very, very quickly on a Saturday evening when everyone and their dog wants to go out; the only place in town we could get a spot was this crazily expensive place at a local hotel.  And…true, it had local lamb on the menu (and Lewis lamb is apparently particularly unusual in flavor; the huge amount of heather in their diet means their meat is sweeter than the norm).  But…
We were tired.  And hungry.  And even though it was our anniversary, did we really want to eat out at a pricey place because it was the only thing available?…
In the end, we ended up going to “Golden Ocean” – a cheap Chinese takeaway with a vivid turquoise shopfront, an equally vivid purple interior, and a seating area equipped with abundant IKEA.  The cider was a bit bland and tasteless, the fried rice bore no resemblance to anything I’ve had before…but it was inexpensive, and different from all the pub food we’ve eaten lately.
Afterward, we spent some quality time together watching a British mystery show and wished each other happy anniversary and a good next year.  Starting from a bare little white room at the end of the world, it seems sort of symbolic.  May it all be up from here.

An old travel diary, day 8: Skye sightseeing

The Isle of Skye has quite a lot to see.
That’s the short version.  Here’s the slightly longer version:
Rolled out of bed to find that Mark hadn’t really slept at all thanks to a combination of my illness (?), his inability to sleep without something covering him, and the regrettable lack of top sheets.  (In his defense, a duvet IS much too heavy.). Still, there was – is – nothing for it; our time is limited and we want to see and explore as much as we can…so off we go.
Our very first act was to book a table that evening at one of the local restaurants.  We had cause to be glad we did, I think: even phoning first thing in the morning, we couldn’t get a table within the prime dinner range.  9:00 for dinner it was; this in mind we dropped by a grocery to collect picnic ingredients for lunch.
The Isle of Skye is sort of an assemblage of peninsulas – three of them to be precise.  We came in along the southernmost, and today planned a circular route that would take us up and around the upper two.  As you leave Portree to the north to head up and around the northeastern peninsula, you wind along the edge of the Cullin range (those mountains supposedly carved out and thrown up by the great battle between Cu Chulainn and Scathach) and come almost immediately to the first of the notable landmarks of our journey: the Old Man of Storr.
This is a spire of rock, perhaps one of the giants – legend has it some of them fell to earth and became stone.  A path winds up to it, rocky and very steep; especially rainy as it was, it’s a strenuous climb, such that your calves burn in protest on the way up and your knees shiver with strain on the way down. We did a bit of it anyway, eventually scrambling winded (in my case anyway) to a point where we could see the Old Man from a bit closer than the road.  It looks lonely there, standing all by itself, though lonely in a proud sort of way.  Perhaps nobody fucks with him and gets away with it, either.
The rain continued, off and on, as we peered over the overlook onto Kilt Rock and its accompanying falls.  The Rock is so named because its vertical “folds” resemble those on a kilt.  Impressive, but we were being rained on pretty hard, so we didn’t stay long.
At least the rain slowed a bit as we rounded the northern tip of the peninsula, our path meandering along sometimes-precipitous drops, through and over rocky moorland.  It isn’t the high season yet – not for a couple of weeks – but already the number of visitors we’re seeing is quite surprisingly large.  Plenty of Europeans – Germans, French, Dutch – but also a surprising number of explorers from Asia.  The Chinese folk I’ve seen tend to move in packs, on big buses, as we saw in Glencoe; Koreans and Japanese folk have been in smaller bunches.  (Cat hats are plentiful.)
Our next main stop was the Skye Museum of Island Life, a collection of small thatched huts situated on a slightly bleak hillside.  These were actual crofters’ huts, and inside were collections of artifacts and stories telling more about the lives of those on the isles before the days of, say, electricity, or plentiful ferry crossings.
It’s hard to imagine what it must have been like living with up to fourteen people out of three rooms in a little thatched hut that, to this day, smells strongly of peat – a dense, smoky, earthy smell that you can often pick up, in somewhat reduced strength, from a good whiskey.  At least it keeps the wind out, I suppose.  Harder still to imagine rising so early in the morning that there was time to scythe a sheaf or two of grain, thresh it, and turn it into oatmeal for everyone to eat before the children went to school.  (No thanks; I’m not a morning person.).
Crofters’ wives often had the toughest of the work to do – field work AND cleaning AND cooking AND shopping, like as not; one of the items on display was an interesting contraption that would allow a crofter’s wife to carry eggs safely to market to be traded for other goods, a common practice.  (One that still seems to be carried on on the island: as we drove around I saw a number of signs advertising fresh eggs, sometimes with essentially a little egg box and a place to deposit cash for them next to it.  The honor system?)
Overall, I’m happy to live in an age where I don’t need to devote quite so much of my energy to obtaining sustenance; certainly I’m pleased that I have never had to bleed a cow, mix the blood with oats and whip up a “black pudding” to avoid starvation.  (This was indeed a common practice; the family milk cow was so prized she was often kept in her own byre in the winter, to keep her warm and producing milk.  Eating her would doubtless have been just about unthinkable.)
We also got a potential answer to why it is that we’ve seen so few pubs out here on the islands.  In England there seems to be a pub about every ten feet or so; since it was pretty typical not to have much space for socializing in one’s house, pubs served as a kind of communal living room.  On the island, though, it was more typical to co-opt one of someone’s buildings as “the ceilidh house” and have social gatherings there; this explains the absence of pubs to at least some degree, though it does make it a bit frustrating to find somewhere for lunch.
Ah well.  We had other lunch plans anyway: to locate and picnic in the “fairy glen” on the island.  This isn’t signposted really much of anywhere, despite being one of the isle’s notable sights; we had to ask a local which road to take.  A sharp left, just past the Uig Hotel (Uig is the rather bizarre name of the port town from which our ferry will leave on Day 9.). This takes you up a steep and winding one-lane road – and then down an equally steep and winding one-lane road that looks very much as though it’s meant to be someone’s driveway: we stopped and asked directions from a local gentleman just to confirm we were on the right path.  I couldn’t really make head or tail of directions like “It’s just down the brae”, but the answer seemed to be affirmative, so on we went…
And then, there we were.
It is instantly obvious why the islanders might believe fairies lived here.  The glen is a rich, emerald green that almost glowed from within in the sunlight as we entered, and the rounded hills – almost conical in places – bear a startling resemblance to some of the cairns and mounds we’ve seen elsewhere on our journey, constructed by humans.  One of them is crowned with a rock that looks for all the world like a tiny, turreted castle, and the sides of the hills have formed natural terraces through some quirk of erosion.  A tiny picture-perfect mini-loch fills one part, and the trees and ferns and wildflowers seem more delicate here.  An open area with a partially-ruined wall contains a soft carpet of green grass that would be ideal for dancing, and one of the rock faces nearby had exposed a patch of brilliant white shaped very much like a harp.
Here we stopped and had our picnic, though the light didn’t cooperate by lingering, and the rain meant we spent most of our dining time in the car.  Still…”It’s not polite to visit someone’s house and eat without sharing,” I said to Mark, and tore off a bit of my sandwich, tossing it out into the glen for any, er, “locals” that might be there. (A few moments later I saw a kind of silvery flash dart through the greenery near where it landed.  A bird with rain-slick feathers?  Something else? Who can say? ;))
As we made our way out of the glen, the rain cleared, eventually brightening to a warm sunshine that would linger for the rest of the day (and indeed long into the evening; we’re far enough north here that it scarcely gets dark at all in the summertime.  I expect in the winter the opposite is true; the idea of spending days and days and days barely seeing the sun makes rather a good ground for understanding why so many people, especially in historical sources, called Scotland a bleak country.
At any rate, our next stop was Dunvegan, seat of the clan MacLeod.  Dunvegan is a good example of what I have christened “Clanstanding,” the apparent effort each clan makes to demonstrate their awesomeness in front of all the other clans.  Dunvegan isn’t all that LARGE a castle, but it’s got huge, dramatic gardens: a Victorian-era round garden, an older walled garden, a water garden with carefully planned falls…
Two odd things registered for me.  One: how remarkably luxurious, decadent even, it felt to walk across a soft, well-manicured lawn after days and days of hiking over rough Scottish countryside.  Even through my shoes, the difference was palpable.  Two: how starved I suddenly realized I had been for color.  Oh, there IS color in the Highlands, right enough, but most of it is shades of green and brown and gray, with the occasional splash of pinkish-purple.  To see red, or orange, or those bright deep blues, or pink…to see them all at once!  So much color in one place!  All of a sudden it makes complete sense that castle gardens like these are such attractions in themselves.
Within the castle, of course, other points of interest: the fairy flag, of course, wherever you believe it comes from – there it is, the once-golden fabric faded to a pale yellow-gray, mended here and there with vivid red thread.  The MacLeods are firm believers in its power, though: according to the castle staff, the chieftain offered its power to Winston Churchill during WWII. (Churchill declined politely.). We also learned of a chieftain who murdered his first wife by tossing her into the dungeon (which, disconcertingly, is literally right next to the drawing-room; more of an oubliette than a dungeon as we normally think of it, with a rather cruel slit in the wall that would allow the prisoners to smell the food from the kitchens.) There was also a drinking horn that formed part of the initiation rite for new chieftains: it would be filled with claret and had to be emptied in one go, without flinching, choking, or stopping.  (Since it holds a litre and a half that’s no small feat.)
We also learned a bit about St. Kilda, a tiny, TINY island in the middle of nowhere that is part of the MacLeod holdings.  So remote is it that there was no mail service: instead, the islanders would literally toss a waterproof bag full of it into the ocean attached to a boat-shaped float that read “please open.”  Astonishingly, this actually WORKED most of the time, even if it did mean that mail was often picked up in Norway to start its journey to the eventual recipient.  No man of St. Kilda could marry without having first created a horsehair rope; this would be used to hunt puffins and such, and demonstrated that he could feed a family.
As we headed back toward Portree for the evening, we passed by a tiny little building that was marked “Giant Angus MacAskill Museum.”  Curious, we took a look; though the sign said “OPEN,” the building didn’t appear to be inhabited.  There was a bell, though, with instructions to ring it, so this we did – and a short time later an elderly gentleman came down out of the house next to the building to let us in.
He was a MacAskill as well, as it turned out, and had established this little place to…well, presumably to make a little coin out of the tale of his ancestor, who was a bona fide giant at something like 7 feet 9 inches (and apparently he spent some time in Nova Scotia.) The museum was little, but full of artifacts (a giant sweater, for instance, or a chair so big I felt like a five year old sitting in it) and stories of his feats of strength.  There was even a replica of a coffin he’d have fit in, which was completely massive.
At this point it was still a long time before our 9:00 dinner reservation, so we headed out to Neist Point, the farthest west one can go on the Isle of Skye.  It is a long way out there, and consists mainly of one of Scotland’s trademark super twisty roads with passing places that goes past farms…and fields…and hills…and fields…and farms…and, eventually, The Three Chimneys, the only restaurant in the isles with a Michelin Star.  We weren’t wealthy enough to eat there (and anyway bookings are long LONG in advance) but it was still interesting to see, situated in a little white cottage so like all the others, very deliberately in the middle of nowhere.  (It’s a little too bad, really; I hear the food’s amazing.)
The Point itself sees visitors park in a little lot at the top of a very long, very steep cliff.  Stairs (with a fortuitous handrail) lead all the way down to the bottom, where one can stroll through what looks like the remains of a long-disused croft…and then all the way back UP on the other side, where a lighthouse overlooks the ocean amid picturesque rocks.  The adventurous (or the mad) can climb up farther, off to the side, where a very very tall cliff provides amazing views.  I know this because we climbed it.  It was quite a haul; very steep up and very steep down.  By the time we got back to the car my calves were shaking and my knees ached – but I’m not sorry I did it.  It was a hell of a view.
This little side trip completed, we returned to Portree for a dinner of sea scallops over risotto, with a cider on the side that was easily one of the best I’ve ever tasted.  (Thistly Cross, made in Dunbar over on the mainland.  The packaging claims its secret is that it’s exposed to the elements during fermentation.).
From there, back to the B&B at last, for a hard crash after a long day’s Explore.

An old travel diary, day 7: Over the sea to Skye

The night was a rough one: I woke at 4 am from a nightmare of bugs crawling all over me and it was hours before the psychosomatic itchiness subsided.
Once more unto the breach: we opened the day’s travel with a drive into Glen Nevis, home of the Nevis Range and the mighty Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest peak.  It’s also one of the wettest parts of Scotland, unfortunately, meaning that the rain and low-hanging clouds were veiling the whole thing pretty heavily in mist.  We drove for a time, occasionally driving sloooooooowly up to the sheep standing in the middle of the road and waiting until they took the hint and ambled casually out of our path.  As the road gradually got narrower, we had time to appreciate the differences between this glen and Glencoe; they’re both steep-sided and heavily verdant, but here the slides of sharp gravel are replaced by heavier, craggier stones nearer the road, dense trees covered with lichen.
We’d come to view the falls known as “the spout” in Gaelic, which lie about a kilometre from the end of the road, which gradually opens into a parking lot after spending some time as the now-familiar “one lane with passing places” model.  Here, a sign warned “danger of death” and encouraged proper footwear; but we’d come to see at least part of the prettiest short walk in Scotland, so on we went.
Spoiler: we didn’t make it all the way to the spout.  However, we did get to see a number of other rather beautiful waterfalls even though we did have to clamber over some nasty-sharp-looking rocks to do so.  Some hardy soul had pitched a small campsite by the trail-side, and there were a few shirts hung out to dry on a line; optimistic, I think, given the omnipresent damp.
Eventually it was back to the car for us, and onward to Mallaig for our ferry crossing.  As we drove, we noticed some great gouts of steam coming up in places; a steam train, most likely, very possibly the Hogwarts Express, which lives here.  This is Harry Potter film country, apparently a boon to the tourist market.  (It’s interesting to see just how much of Scotland seems to subsist on tourism; big chunks of this part of the country seem to make all their money in summer and then…I don’t know what they do in the off season.)
The ferry ride was brief – fortunate in more ways than one, as a large number of the passengers hadn’t bothered to turn off their car alarms.  As the ferry pitched and rolled in the choppy crossing, a chorus of alarms accompanied every heave; it began as funny, then annoying and eventually warped round to being funny again.  The waters below us were an interesting, shifting blue-green even in the rainy gray light; at one point we passed just above a…flock? school?…of jellyfish, watching them waver and swirl.  (I scanned the rocks for seals, but haven’t seen any yet…though this is certainly selkie country.)
I suppose when Flora McDonald brought Prince Charlie over here it was a much worse crossing; if the song is to be believed it was outright stormy then, instead of just intermittently coming down.
The intermittent rain’s been fairly constant all day, unfortunately, making today an awkward day for sightseeing.  It certainly makes the isle of Skye impressively atmospheric though.   From our landing point at Armadale we soon found ourselves driving through miles of rolling, moorlike ground (with still more sheep!) as we made our way to an attraction with a bit more indoor facilities to tour: Eilean Donan castle.  Every so often the moors were dotted with tiny little cottages that looked a bit like the way young children draw houses: window, door, window, pointy roof, chimney.  Or in this case two chimneys, one at either end.
Eilean Donan is That Castle On The Island With The Little Bridge Going To It; I guarantee you’ve seen it before.  Highlander?  Yeah.  That one.  It’s the seat of Clan MacRae, strategically situated at the meeting of three waters, and for hundreds of years it was just a ruin, after the English captured the teeny pro-Jacobite Spanish garrison here and blew the castle to smithereens with its own gunpowder.   Finally, in the 1920s, the then-clan-chief decided he really wanted his castle back up and running, so he teamed up with some colleagues to build himself one of the most romantic of the castles in the Highlands.  And it is,  I have to admit, rather charming, even a little coy as it poses for visitors, all daintily poised on its little island.
The interior’s all done up in Romantic Scottish Countryside, too; lots of little coats of arms and carven oak details.
Amusing aside: carved over the door in Gaelic is the date and “As long as a MacRae is inside this castle, a Fraser shall never be outside it.”  Apparently the MacRaes and the Frasers were BFFs.
Arrived in Portree, a cute little seaside town, and checked into our lodgings; I haven’t been feeling fantastic, I must admit.  Perhaps it’s tiredness, or perhaps I am flirting with being ill, or perhaps it’s the vague dread that’s been bugging me the last few hours, much to my irritation.   It’s meant to be a vacation.
Things continued somewhat exasperating as we scoured Portree’s tiny “downtown” looking for somewhere to eat that actually had room for us.  This was a surprisingly tough quest; we eventually ended up getting a place in line at a place called “The Antlers” which the Whitings held for us while Mark and I asked around at four or five other spots.  Nothing available before 8:30…
…which was a problem, because we’d spotted a sign in the square advertising a storytelling/music event starting at 9.
In the end we did indeed manage to get a table at The Antlers – and despite Mark’s “It looks like a Kelsey’s” misgivings it actually turned out to be a pretty nice little place.  I had a venison and apricot burger, which doesn’t sound as though it should work but did.
The real highlight of the evening, however, was the storytelling event.  This was held in a little pub just off the town square, and was hosted with tremendous enthusiasm by an assortment of locals: Daniel, who appeared to be the ringleader, his second (whose name I forget – let’s call him Howard), Katrine, who played all the female parts, and their musical accompanist Minna, who provided very capable backing on her guitar.
It’s the first year the event has run, apparently; a medley of Skye island lore and traditional Scottish music they’re calling “The Misty Isle” after Skye itself.  They’ve had some pretty small crowds up to now, but perhaps we formed a turning point: so many came to the show we went to that they had to pull out extra chairs.
They opened by telling of the Giants, beings as superior to men in virtue as they were in size and strength – and of the giant hero Fingal, who has left signs of his passing all over Scotland, including here.  The tale of his marriage to – and loss of, spoiler alert – his wife Sadbh was interwoven with an assortment of fishing legends (including the last leviathan and the “blue men of the Minch”), the famous Fairy Flag of Dunvegan, the real-life story of Flora McDonald (unsurprisingly this was set to “Skye Boat Song”), and the creation of the Cuillin mountains due to a weeks-long battle between Cu Chulainn and the warrior woman Scathach.
It was rather community-theatre in production values – an assortment of costumes, props, and wigs and a single guitar before a painted backdrop – but it was weirdly endearing, and I think all of us found ourselves with warm feelings toward the motley crew of misfits storytelling their hearts out.  It was actually a pretty good show – well constructed and with good singing/performances – and I sincerely wish them well with it.
Afterward I went home and passed straight out, still feeling vaguely feverish.  Another rough night lay ahead as it turned out, but not just for me this time (unfortunately.)

An old travel diary, day 6: Oban to Fort William

It’s another travel day here.  This one opened with a trip out to McCaig’s Tower one last time for some morning shots of the Oban skyline, and then (after bidding our hosts farewell) we set off for the day’s first stop.  It was a bright enough morning, but as we’ve learned during our stay so far the usual state of the weather in Scotland is “unsettled.”  Based on my experience with weather reports in this country so far this means literally “we have no goddamn idea what the weather will be like; just wear like three layers and do your best.”
In practice, this seems about right.  So far we’ve been pretty lucky, the rain holding off or letting up altogether when we step out to visit one of the local sights.  The damp is in everything, though: it’s great for skin, I suppose, but it’s disconcerting to open a suitcase and find that everything inside feels just that bit moist.
Anyway, our luck continued to hold as we reached Dunstaffnage, our first stop for the day.  This tiny castle is largely a picturesque ruin today, but has a claim to fame as the prison, for a time, of Flora MacDonald.  (If you’re like me and going “who?” at that, she’s the person responsible for eventually escorting Bonnie Prince Charlie to Skye dressed as her maid.  This action eventually allowed Charlie to escape to France, where he apparently went on to let everyone down by idling away his remaining days in drinking and such.)
We also found our first geocache of Scotland here at last.  Huzzah!  This one was a nice hide.
From Dunstaffnage, it was a short drive to our next stop, Bonawe Iron Works.  This wasn’t a forge, but rather a smelting operation – a charcoal-burning smelter that had run for a surprisingly long time.  Here the smiths made some clever use of the landscape, placing the storage sheds for raw materials up at the top of the hills so that as the process moved along everything was gradually ferried downhill to the water, where a boat would carry the finished iron onward to be forged and wrought into useful things.  Quite a production, though: it took two tons EACH of charcoal and iron ore to make one ton of smelted iron.
The smelting apparatus is gone now, but the buildings are well preserved, and the exhibitions inside give a pretty good impression of what life must have been like back then.  The town was all crofters and fishermen until the ironworks showed up, though.  Industry must have really blown up the place (so to speak.)
It was only just late morning at this point, so as the trip to Fort William (our stop for the night) was quite short we made another detour, this time to Glencoe.  This is…well…a really beautiful spot; epic mountains, remnants of Scotland’s volcanic prehistory, rake steeply up either side of the glen, broken up here and there by huge boulders or entire hillsides covered with sharp, spiky gravel that sometimes shatters away from the mountains above due to ice or heavy rains.  As with most of the glens, sharp little ribbons of water constantly run down the mountainsides, cutting them a little deeper, eventually pooling to make wider rivers or lochs at the bottom.  Patches of sunlight drift across the landscape, moving with the gaps in the clouds, and patches of snow and ice still cling to the highest of the peaks.
This area (along with much of the highlands) is a haven for hikers, cyclists, climbers, and outdoorsmen of all sorts, including the truly batshit-insane: the ice climbers.  (The notion of trying to scramble up a sheer face of ice using just an axe and some spiky shoes and such seems like madness to me.  I’ll stick to snapping photos from here, thanks.)
After a quick lunch we resolved it was a good idea to get into the spirit of the place ourselves and do a bit of walking, so we left the car behind for a hike up to Signal Rock, where according to lore a fire was lit on the night of the massacre.
…and oh, yes, about that.  This is the place, all right, and here we got to learn more about the massacre itself.  It’s often presented as the Campbells being assholes, but at the place itself we learnt a bit more.  It was, as with so many atrocities, political: what we had was a king who needed to bring the unruly highland clans under control.  Fine: let’s establish an amnesty – any clan lord who comes in and swears fealty will be forgiven past crimes.  However, anyone who doesn’t will be treated as traitors and punished accordingly.
Not being complete idiots, most clans seem to have said basically “oh, fine, very well” and sworn fealty within the deadline.  However, the MacDonalds weren’t so lucky: a series of miscommunications and the wrong people being out of town led to their oath being rather late.  (There were some pretty sickening quotes from people being like “Yes!  Score!  Someone we can make an example of!” at this.)
Accordingly, troops of soldiers were sent out to Glencoe, very likely with no idea what it was they were actually there to do; as was the highland custom they were received with all hospitality.  For twelve days they hung out as visitors, while other troops moved into position…
And then the leader, a Roy Campbell, finally received his real orders.  (I can only imagine how that must have felt.) Thirty-eight were killed, with more driven out into the snow.  Interestingly, there are stories that some of the MacDonalds were warned and given a chance to flee.  Perhaps some of the soldiers had a bit of a crisis of conscience, in the end.
Today there’s not really much to indicate that awful things once happened there; in the parts that we saw there’s scarcely so much as a foundation to show where the MacDonalds lived.  Just the glen, all forbidding and majestic, and the deer and the eagles…and, naturally, the sheep.  (It looked as though a croft or two have been grandfathered in, and sit serenely in the middle of all that dramatic landscape.)
The hike up to Signal Rock was pretty and densely forested.  I looked as hard as I could for signs of wildlife but couldn’t find any, unfortunately.  (We were a rather noisy group, what with all the conversation.) Still, it was good to take in some of the wilderness and its atmosphere: ferns and lichen-covered trees and the distant sounds of wind and water. A bit restorative, even.
A quick stop in town netted us a second geocache, this one hidden in a fake rock near a war memorial.  Returning it was a bit problematic, as a car with a couple of people in it sat for some time just staring down the end of the street near the memorial.  I had to hang about for some time pretending to read signs before I could return it.
By this time it was getting late, so we made our way to Fort William to settle in at our next B&B.  The rooms were massive and had some interesting restrictions (like “no hanging things to dry in rooms”) that suggested Fort William’s status as jumping-off point for all sorts of outdoorsman-ly activator in the Highlands.  (And our hosts had easily the broadest Scots accents we’d heard all this trip.  Perhaps they become more pronounced the farther north you go.)
Settling in, we made a brief jaunt to the nearby hotel for some venison stew for dinner, then picked up one last cache on the way back to our rooms.  This one was at an old bridge between the hotel and our B&B, and even with the hint it was a very tricky find.  I doubt we’d have come across it at all if a pleasant middle-aged lady hadn’t eyed us curiously and asked “Are ye lookin’ fer somethin’ hidden?”
Ashamed to be caught out by a Muggle, we admitted we were, and she nudged us toward the  cache: an elaborately-rigged beer can hanging by some kind of stout fishing line from the side of the bridge.  The line it hung from was green, making it all but invisible.
Cache logged, we returned to our room to have a wash up.

An old travel diary, day 5: Pilgrimage to Iona

Day 5 dawned bright and early and a little crankily as the two of us, tired from a night of little sleep, scrambled downstairs for breakfast.  Here we learned something else about our hosts, as in one corner of the dining room a television showed what appeared to be something like the interior of an aviary or rabbit hutch.  Sure enough, after a few moments a plump, fluffy chick wandered by on the screen – not a chicken, though.
These were mottled and brownish and vaguely familiar…quail chicks, as our hostess informed us a few minutes later.  Quail almost never hatch their own eggs in captivity, it seems, since generations of incubated chicks have dulled the instinct, but somehow this particular batch did so.  (Taped below the television were a pair of cards congratulating our hosts, baby-shower style, on the fluffy arrivals.)
We paused for a moment to purchase some cold Scotch pies and sausage rolls for lunch before heading to the ferry for the first leg of our journey today: a ride to the Isle of Mull.  Mull is the third-largest of the Hebrides, and a popular spot for vacationers; certainly this morning’s ferry trip appeared to be full of them.   The ferry itself had a few interesting features, including a coffee shop, bar and cafe (all separate facilities) and an array of gambling machines.  There was also a bit of a clue as to the remoteness of the places we were about to visit – one of the vans was some sort of mobile branch of the Bank of Scotland, something I’ve never seen before anywhere, while another seemed to be the Royal Mail.
The crossing took about as long as my daily commute, and for a while there was little else to do except watch the landscape drift by and do our best to stay out of the rain.
The ferry from Oban lands in Craignure, and as far as I can tell there’s almost nothing there save the docks themselves – a visitor centre, a cafe, a petrol station, and a convenience store make up pretty much all the rest of the amenities.  From there, you have a momentous choice to make: go right to colorful Tobermory, unofficial capital of the island, or go left toward a second ferry trip that takes you to Iona.  There’s not really any way to do both in a day, and Mull’s most major road forms a “U” that essentially runs along one curve of the island, from one to the other.
We went left.
Here is the thing about the roads on Mull: even the most major of them is a single lane.  A single narrow lane, one that is often literally just wide enough for the car; every so often there are “passing places” into which, by some strange etiquette, one car will ease so that others may pass.  Even so, sometimes the passing places are so narrow themselves that I caught myself holding my breath a bit as a car pulled by.  Especially terrifying: passing, or being passed by, a bus on these super-narrow roads.  (It happened.  Several times.  Doesn’t get any less scary basically ever, let me tell you.)
This said, here is the OTHER thing about the roads on Mull: the countryside they pass through is gorgeous.  In the rain the craggy hills, green and implausibly steep, are cut here and there by these savage little silver ribbons which, close up, reveal themselves as rushing water.  Here and there a little farm or crofter’s house will suddenly manifest, white and gleaming even in the dimmer rainy light.  This is a place for the very, very deepest of introverts.
Every so often, a stone bridge of unknowable vintage would appear in or near our path, reminding us that humans do still have some impact in this place.  Or, perhaps, a ruin or old foundation, some long-ago person’s attempt at enduring change.  (Something has endured, but perhaps not what they believed.)
Other than that…sheep, of course.  There are sheep everywhere.  And cows, this time the shaggy, long-haired highland variety.  There are other animals too, of course: the sign that read “Slow Chickens” did indeed mean “hey, there are chickens wandering around loose in front of this cafe, please don’t run over them,” and “Otter Crossing 6 Miles” presumably meant just that, though to my sadness I didn’t see any.
As we approached Fionnphort and the ferry the rain gradually let up, though the sky did not lighten past a pale silver gray.  The ferry landing has even less going on than that at Craignure: a (closed) ticket office, a tiny shop, and an even tinier booth selling food called “The Creel.”  A house or two, and…that’s it.  Across the water the abbey we’ve come to see is visible.
This ferry, unlike the one from Oban, is tiny and mainly for foot passengers; it pitches and rolls with every heave of the sea, and though the ride is short I was glad to step off and be on land again.  Even in the gray light the sea looked greener here; a row of little buildings – one or two bearing signs indicating their status as guest houses, shops, or a pub – stretched out toward the abbey, and that was about it.  No great surprise, really; the entire island is only about one mile across and three miles long.
Perhaps it was my imagination or suggestion at work, but it felt a little different, somehow.  Perhaps it was the remoteness.  Perhaps it was the pilgrimage-like quality of the trek out there.  Or perhaps there is something to the story of a visitor who asked what made Iona special and was told that it was a “thin” place.  Somewhere that veils are readily pierced and an otherness closer to our everyday reach.
(Certainly it did a number on Mark’s phone, which mysteriously lost all battery power shortly after landing on the island.  I had to take over photography duties for a time.)
The island has been a place of worship for over 1400 years, and is still a place of worship today.  Long ago pilgrims would land there, as we did, and pause at huge stone crosses erected alongside the “road of the dead” to pray and contemplate as they approached the abbey.  This was founded by St. Columba, who came over from Ireland a preposterously long time ago and brought Christianity with him; the abbey he founded became a powerful pilgrimage site with a legendary scriptorium.  The Book of Kells was actually…written? Drawn? Composed? I’m not sure what word to use, but it came from here.
Pilgrimage sites were wealthy, of course, and that was bad.  Not because of the temptations of avarice for the Christians, unfortunately…in this case it was bad for the monks because Iona is pretty far north. And a certain people famous for raiding and ransacking places aren’t too far away.
Yep.  Vikings.  They raided the hell out of the place for what wealth it had, slaughtering many monks in the process.  It’s because of them that artifacts like the Book of Kells were taken to Ireland in the first place.  (An interesting aside, though: when the oddly named Magnus Barelegs came to raid the abbey he opened the chapel that contained the relics of St. Columba and, the story goes, stopped short and ordered his men not to touch it.  What power could make the man who supposedly burnt every tree on the Isle of Lewis check his swing, I don’t know, but I can see how the legend makes for a potent retelling.)
For a long time, the abbey was just a picturesque ruin.  It was one of the Earls of Argyll who rescued it, restoring the abbey to a workable state while retaining much of its ancient and historical properties.  Today, it’s still a working church and still conducts services; those seeking a deeper sense of communion can even come out and spend a week or two in retreat here, exchanging room and board and the chance at study for daily chores and such.
It’s not a large abbey, but it is weirdly lovely.  An artisan laboured for thirty years to carve the capstones for all the columns in the new cloister; the chapel that formerly housed Columba’s relics has been restored and now is a place for quiet prayer.  Saints of particular interest to the Celtic peoples (like Brigit, who shares a name with one of their great goddesses) are depicted in its tiny stained glass windows…though most windows are clear, letting in a clean, bright light that made my photographs look a bit as though I were trying too hard.  And what is, we were told, officially the very first Celtic cross ever carved – St. Martin’s cross – stands just outside St. Columba’s chapel, situated so that the light from the sun will cast its shadow to the chapel door.
In the nave, little clusters of quartz pebbles mark the graves of men who died so long ago their names are lost; they were found during the restoration.  The baptismal font is carved with Celtic designs that mimic the crosses outside; a plain silver cross sits atop the altar.  Stairs lead up to a tiny room barely large enough to sit in that holds a chair, a window, and a niche for prayer books – and nothing else; on the door is carved “Stand Fast.”
There are, here and there, elements that make me think as much of pagan acts of faith as Christian ones.  Seashells and stones and little trinkets are left in a window in St. Columba’s chapel.  Ferns sprout incongruously from the walls both within the abbey and without; these are, I’m told, a rare kind of fern that really shouldn’t be able to grow here.
As we explore, a service begins; as if on cue the sky brightens and sunlight spills over everything.  The wind outside the cloister is no less sharp or harsh or cold, but the change in the light underscores the point. Iona is a thin place, and good for contemplation.  Everyone seemed to feel something of the power of the place; Mark says there’s something about the austerity and the quality of the light that brings with it a sense of deep sacredness.
I obtain a trinket for my mother as thanks for her contribution to my funds for the trip: a tiny Celtic cross that echoes the ones outside, wrought in silver.  For myself, a different sort of trinket: a fragment of Iona greenstone, a weird combination of nephrite and marble that is reputed to have nebulously mystical properties.
The ferry ride back is even rougher than before as the wind picks up farther, but it is at least blessedly short; the sunlight stays with us as we return to Craignure, dappling the vivid green of the hills and making our next stop, Duart Castle, look impressive even with its unwieldy armor of scaffolding.
Duart Castle is the ancient home of the MacLeans, and is still owned by them; we were really just there to have a quick look round, as the place was about to close to the public any minute.  Had an unsuccessful attempt to geocache despite, I think, standing right next to it, though both of us accidentally discovered that stinging nettles are a thing in looking for it.  (I think I got off rather lightly, overall.)
A long ferry ride to Oban later we went for dinner at Oban Fish and Chips, centre of a local controversy some years ago when a BBC celebrity I’ve never heard of proclaimed their fish and chips “the best I’ve ever tasted.”  Good for them!  Less good: a second fish and chip shop apparently tried to sneakily suggest he’d said it about THEM instead.  It was written up in the local paper some time ago.  (Drama!)
Be that as it may, they were indeed excellent fish and chips, and the portions were MASSIVE; my “fish tea” would easily have been enough food for two people, really.  It was with very full stomachs indeed that we made our way up to the day’s final stop, as evening set in over Oban: “McCaig’s Tower,” a curious structure at the very peak of the Oban hills that vaguely resembles the colosseum, except all the arches are pointed.
Mr. McCaig was apparently a local banker who also fancied himself an art critic and philosophical essayist; his grand plan was to build a great tower in the middle of this construct and fill it with statues and portraits of his ancestors. It was to be a grand monument to his greatness – and if it provided some extra work for unemployed stonemasons, so much the better.
Unfortunately, he died before the grand project could be completed.  Oh, he left enough money to finish it, right enough – but, you see, his sister rather wanted all that delicious cash.  So it was that a deal was struck with the city: they could have the tower if she got the cash.
And so it was. Now “the crown of Oban” has worked its way into much of the city’s branding.  I wonder how Mr. McCaig would feel about that?