Jonathan. Stornoway is the ‘capital’ of the Outer Hebrides, but being so far north is really a part of Lewis, and whatever it might have to offer is to all intents and purposes beyond the reach of us poor country cousins here in South Uist and Eriskay. These islands are a land of two nations: down north in Lewis and Harris with a Gaelic that sounds like the folk there migrated from Wales in ancient times, and the kind of weather that requires a masculine gender. And at the other end in Uist and Barra where it’s much quieter and more peaceful and with feminine weather – sunnier and drier and softer. And we just don’t take ourselves anything like as seriously as them down north! It’s the first time I’ve been across the Sound of Harris for six years. What have Lewis and Harris got to offer that we don’t have, other than Stornoway, with its Council offices, hanging flower baskets on street lights (for that matter street lights!), double yellow lines, traffic signals, and a host of rules and social expectations we’re thankfully free of here. Like being on the mainland but pettier (no there isn’t an ‘r’ missing). Anyway it is nice to know that our council tax gets spent on worthwhile facilities that make the life of Stornowegians at least bearable.
The occasion for yesterday’s journey was a job interview! The job I applied for is home-based, part-time and temporary, and definitely not as well paid as engineering, but the way things are it would nonetheless be a welcome regular income. It’s working on a project to promote tourism in the Outer Hebrides – and let’s face it that’s something that D and I have a material interest in. The work would involve travel throughout the islands, and no doubt occasional visits to Stornoway for meetings. Anyway, it was a very long day, leaving home at 5:30am for the 0730 ferry at Berneray, and not getting back until 8pm having covered 230 miles! Unfortunately the day was not one for appreciating the scenery – with low cloud and if not a fine drizzle then flies inundating the car if I stopped for a break and opened the door or window. The landscape in Harris is awesome, but the traffic was surprisingly heavy compared to Uist and I had to concentrate on the driving – especially with the road constantly changing from single track to two-track. Once across the boundary into Lewis, the landscape is less dramatic, the main feature of interest being the old Ross-shire concrete bus shelters, which I stopped to photo: a local passing by stopped and clearly proud of the unique transport heritage of Lewis, offered to photograph me with aforesaid bus-shelter, and the hills of Harris in the distance. (Too awful to show – here’s one with me behind the camera, and the snow-covered peaks and glaciers of Lewis prominent in the distance. No, my mistake – those are just clouds).
At Stornoway – my goodness it has tall old trees and neat suburban gardens! – I parked up at Co-op and made that my base for the day, buying some stuff for lunch and venturing out for a walk. And here’s something you can do in Stornoway you can’t do anywhere else in the Outer Hebrides – get lost amidst a maze of residential streets! My geographical knowledge of the area is rudimentary, but when I saw the radar and control towers of the airport looming up over the housetops I realized I was heading in the wrong direction, but turning about I couldn’t find my way back to the car or to the town centre, and after passing a church three times (or with so many churches it might have been three churches of the same design in different streets), I offered myself up to the local knowledge of mums walking with pushchairs and holding the hands of toddlers. A short cut was pointed out and suddenly instead of being late I was too early, so had to find something to calm my nerves – and take my mind off worrying about missing Tabatha. I confess that that something was a dram of whisky!
The interview went well: I’ve done so many over the years, I’ve learnt just to be myself, but I do worry that – compared to most applicants – that makes me seem that most obnoxious of things – over-confident. The fact is though that I’m more than qualified and resourced to do the work, and it’s a subject I have a good understanding of and have some useful insights into. Or maybe it was just the whisky.
The interview over, all the tension drained away and with it all enthusiasm and energy. I had no interest in looking at the shops. These days we can afford only necesssities, and we certainly don’t rely on trips to Stornoway for those, so what can Stornoway offer us? I’ve never been one for shopping for its own sake, and without Denise there was no incentive to explore say the grounds of Lews Castle or around the harbour, or go the swanky new arts centre that we’ve helped pay for but would have to spend around £250 in travel and accommodation to make any use of (free to Stornowegians, of course). So I went back to the car, tipped back the seat and went to sleep.
I woke with a start, panicking that I might be too late for the ferry, but in fact I had plenty of time for a stop in Tarbert to buy paracetomol and water to stave off a migraine, and in a layby near Luskentyre on the west coast of Harris, where the scenery is awe-inspiring and I was sick, though I suddenly felt a lot better for it. After that I would have enjoyed the journey more, but for the fact the clouds closed in and there was all but nothing to see but the road ahead.
Across the water in Uist the skies lifted, and the evening was soft and beautiful, but already I was so tired from the journey that all I could think of was getting home, and hoping that Tabatha was there to greet me. Alas, she wasn’t.