Jonathan: It’s been a long, intense, and tiring day – my first day away from the islands for six years! A trip to the mainland – to Appin and back – to take our Hebridean ram to start a new life with another flock, and to return with another ram in exchange. All pre-arranged of course, after some research and exchanges of emails and photos and so on. The rams are not greatly different in age or character, so as is customary in such circumstances, it’s a straight swap without real money changing hands ; but even if a notional value is put on the animals, the cost of the journey – in terms of ferries and fuel – is so much greater. An overnight stay would add greatly to the cost and – clearly – to the time, so we were fortunate to find a good exchange within reach of a there-and-back day out. Just within reach. Only just!
Getting up at 5am to catch an early ferry was, for several years – managing building projects in Harris, something I did two or three times a week … but not with a van loaded with straw, feed and water and the trailer with sheep! Thankfully, the drive to Lochboisdale takes less than 15mins (it was 90mins to Berneray!), so it wasn’t long before I was on board Lord of The Isles, checking – once again! – I’d got all the paperwork needed. Outside, it was overcast and drizzly, so I found a quiet corner and settled down to read.
Engrossed in a book, time passes by so quickly! When a shaft of sunshine unexpectedly lit up the page of my book, I looked up – and discovered we’d already reached The Small Isles. For a short while it was good to be out on deck, my attention alternating between words and pictures.
Mallaig has much in common with Lochboisdale – they’re both small fishing and ferry ports, but Mallaig is more like a small town than a village – and it’s much busier with holiday-makers than its Uist cousin. It’s also the terminus of not only a significant arterial road (the A830), but also the world-famous West Highland Line (think Harry Potter). In summer, Mallaig is thick with people mulling around with no-where to go and not very much to do. I had no wish to join them, or the time to do so even if I had, so I set off immediately along the A830 to Fort William. The last time I was on this road was during the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak. Back then, most of the road was still single track with passing places, an extraordinary anachronism for a road with an exceptionally high proportion of HGVs (about 45%, if I recall – even higher than is typical for most roads serving ports). I recall it being reported, perhaps ten or so years ago, that upgrading of the A830 to ‘normal’ standards (twin-track, we in the islands call it) was complete, and so I was expecting to find long straights, easy gradients, wide carriageways and fast interrupted flows of traffic, allowing me a short break somewhere along the way.
The reality? Struggling up crawler lanes in third gear, and no sooner having changed up to 5th gear over the summit, having to change back down again, using the engine as a brake to prevent a headlong rush – pushed along by the weight of the trailer and load – down long and steep descents. At the foot of one especially twisting downhill I found myself confronted with the red lights of traffic signals – and a remnant of single-track through an arch of one of the many photogenic railway viaducts. East of Arisaig, the road was upgraded some decades ago – but to a standard that now falls well short of present-day requirements ; and even then some of the original bridges were not widened or replaced – to save money. Unfortunately for me that omission was now being addressed: I encountered four major roadworks, each involving a long delay. Not the leisurely break from driving I was hoping for, but the enforced pauses did at least that gave me time to take in the scenery – which even under the cloudy skies was picturesque and dramatic.
It’s just 39 miles from Mallaig to Fort William, but that leg of the journey took a full 90mins, thanks to roadworks, speed limits, and traffic congestion on the approach to Fort William. Since my last time here – about ten years ago, just passing through – the town seems to have changed only in two respects – urban sprawl and traffic crawl, both extending ever further out from the centre. Whilst my arms and legs were busy propelling forward the van and trailer, in fits and starts, by vigorous and repeated use of the clutch, accelarator, gear stick and hand-brake, my brain was occupied with the salient points of the upcoming visit itself. Better late than never? Well another hundred metres or so and it would have been too late ; and never would have been the better alternative! In a flash of inspiration it suddenly dawned on me that, as I was intending to come home witih some ewes as well as the exchange ram, I was in need of some cash to pay for them – and I mean banknotes. I was so well prepared for everything else – the van was stashed with emergency rations and bedding for not just myself, but for the sheep as well. But this one rather more obvious requirement? I’d forgotten it entirely!
Just in the nick of time I lurched across the lanes on the approach to the roundabout (shrugging off a barrage of horns!) to turn right instead of left, to where, I recollected hopefully, there should be a large supermarket … and yes, thank heavens, it was still there – and with a queue of customers using the cash machine outside the main doors. Next problem: finding two parking spaces end to end, safely accessible with van and trailer, on a very busy mid-week summer’s day. Yes, it’s true that after prowling systematically every aisle of the car park, without luck, I turned back out onto the public road and around the aforementioned roundabout to repeat the search – but I only had to do this twice! Prowling the aisles for a third time – I saw my chance, and pounced.
Heaving a sigh of relief, I locked up the van, checked if Baghasdal needed anything (he suggested a can or two of Black Sheep Ale, as he couldn’t get it at all in Eriskay), and made my way over to the cash machine. This proved more difficult than I remember it being in the past. I found myself having to navigate a path through a blizzard of moving objects, adults, children, dogs, cycles, cars, wild birds, litter both ground-dwelling and airborne … my brain having to process, simultaneously for each such object, its position, direction, speed and predictability … and plot and continuously update a course by which I could most likely reach the cash machine without colliding with anything! No wonder some people find modern life so stressful as to make them long to live on a remote Hebridean island!
I got the money, and returned to the van as if still connected to it by bungee cord. Having informed Baghasdal that Morrison’s were out of Black Sheep Ale and he’d have to make do with some Uist water from the plastic barrel, I sat down to eat the sandwiches and fruit that were supposed to be for the ferry home, and steeled my nerve for the next leg of the journey.
South of Fort William, the A830 coastal road through Appin was just as it was at this time of year fifteen – even twenty years ago: nose to tail with cars, trucks and coaches. Less open road, more like an industrial conveyor belt. Very difficult to slow down, let alone stop, and I only recognized the left turn I needed to take when it was too late – with a coach far too close to my trailer to make an abrupt stop. I turned off at the next minor road on the right – and then found I could turn the van and trailer only with great difficulty – I couldn’t unhitch the trailer because of the steep slopes. Very stressful!
Despite the hiccups, I arrived at North Acharn Farm five minutes or so before the 1pm I’d said to expect me, and just as the clouds thinned enough to allow the sun to warm and dry the ground for an hour or two – and certainly long enough for my visit! Rob and Becky were very welcoming, but time was of the essence, so we got straight on with the business of unloading Baghasdal and walking him over to his new home in the farm’s ‘ram park’. That done, I checked over their ram Foss Scott and confirmed I’d take him home with me in exchange. Next we walked through the ‘cross-breed park’ – where there was a good number of Hebridean ewes grazing with their white Texel-cross lambs at foot. When Rob and Becky had bought the farm, 18 months or so ago, the grass in this field was yellow and sparse, the result of acidification over the course of years of abuse. After heavy liming, the field had returned to herb-rich permanent pasture with a dense, healthy and productive sward. Rob and Becky can’t justify the cost and administrative burden of organic certification, but like us they work the land according to the principles of organic farming, simply because nothing else really makes sense – certainly not in the longer term.
Next, the field on the other side of the cycle track to see the registered pedigree Hebridean ewes and their lambs born this year. For black sheep, the Hebrideans were a surprisingly colourful sight, their horns adorned with electrical tape in various colour combinations to aid quick recognition of individuals: it certainly works for Rob and Becky! The sheep were driven into a pen for me to select the ewes I’d choose to take home ; though ‘drive’ is a bit strong for what seemed more like a gentle country walk with sheep, not dogs!
Discussing the attributes and merits of the various two-shear ewes – unrelated to the ram Scott, it was clear that Rob and Becky’s values – certainly as far as their Hebrideans are concerned, but also in other ways too – are similar to ours, and that gave me so much more confidence in making a choice and agreeing a price. Three ewes, all of the ‘historical’ type of Hebridean, with a large frame, longer legs, smaller feet, and a primitive two-layer fleece that is blue-black rather than brown-black, the wool less susceptible to bleaching but more likely to silver with age. (And yet the shearling lambs of these are richly dark and lustrous, with long crimped locks that look absolutely irresistable!) I would have taken more, but with a divider needed between the ram and the ewes, and limited options for positioning it, I couldn’t take more than three without leaving insufficient room for the ram to turn around.
We returned to the farmhouse and loaded Scott into the front half of the trailer, and then I drove along the cycle track to the field gate, and we loaded up the ewes into the back half. Finally, a walk up to the farmhouse for a light working lunch of paperwork and conversation … and then it was already 3pm and I was already late in leaving!
All the way back to Fort William, and as far as Corpach, the traffic was intense, and I was increasingly concerned I might not be back at Mallaig the required 45mins before sailing. The additional weight of the trailer – the three ewes – resulted in uphills being even more of a crawl, so as I descended the last big downhill before Mallaig, with a number of motorhomes in front of me, I took the chance to overtake them and got the best of the flatter, straighter lengths from Morar to Mallaig, checking in for the ferry at 44mins before sailing time. Relax!
The sailing back to Lochboisdale was dreich and depressing, with nothing visible outside and nothing to do inside. I was too tired to read, and so I slept almost the entire journey. I got home just as it was getting dark, but just light enough to unload the sheep into a holding enclosure ready for tomorrow morning.
I’d gladly have taken more photos to include in this post, but time, traffic and weather were all against it.