Life on the Edge

Beyong Luskentye smallLife on the Edge – it’s the strapline for the Outer Hebrides tourism website, and the title of a new BBC Scotland Series which starts this month (May).  The Outer Hebrides is a chain of Islands that sits only 30 or so miles off the coast of Scotland, but is perched in the Atlantic on the very edge of Europe – next stop Canada.

If you search on line for ‘life on the edge’ it returns pictures of people hanging off cliff edges, and leaping buildings, and there is definitely a sense of exhilaration in going to somewhere as wild and exposed, and remarkably still untouched, as the Outer Hebrides.  Interestingly it is the only place in the UK to make the ‘Wanderlust Magazine’ list top 100 travel destinations.

I was fortunate to spend the best part of a week there, exploring some of the islands in a campervan.  I mentioned ‘Out There Campervans’ in my blog post exploring wilderness Scotland last year (A Week Out There), and this time used one of their smaller, but still well equipped, vans.  The Outer Hebrides is definitely no places for a large motorhome!

It’s difficult to find adjectives to describe the Outer Hebrides that aren’t over-used and hackneyed, but ‘amazing’ and ‘wild’ are two that can’t be avoided!  I didn’t feel that a week was sufficient time to ‘island hop’ and concentrated on the main islands of Lewis and Harris, also tagging on Scalpay and Great Bernera, which are attached to the mainland by road bridge.  Even so, a week wasn’t really enough time to do the place justice.

If you visit, and I would urge you to take the opportunity, the beaches are something that will stick in your mind.  The weather was quite cool at the start of the trip, and the wind blustery, but even so, the rugged, almost deserted beaches were heart-stopping.  When the sun decided to shine it was easy to believe you were in some exotic location, or a film set.  In the end we did get a bit ‘beach blasé’ as there were just so many stunning bays, coves and shorelines to explore! Traigh Lar,  Dhail Beag, Bosta,  Mangersta, Horgabost and Luskentyre are a few of the highlights, but there were plenty more we didn’t get to.

The array of wildlife is another key reason to visit the Outer Hebrides.  Although the weather wasn’t good enough for a boat trip (it wasn’t good enough for the container ship to sail, or the fishermen to go out!) there was still plenty of opportunity to spot wildlife, particularly birds.  Although we weren’t lucky enough to spot golden eagles at the hide on North Harris, we did see one one our way back from Bosta beach, a magnificent creature coasting along the ridge.  One of the joys of having the campervan is that it can be taken to some fairly remote locations and parked up overnight.  We had an interesting encounter with a herd of cattle, and whilst they weren’t strictly speaking, wild animals, it was interesting to see them in a natural setting.  When you have a large bull scratching his head on your wing mirror, you had best be engaged!  We didn’t see otters, or even red deer, but you have a better chance of seeing them here than a lot of places, and there is always next time.

The Hebrides offer a rich cultural history, and for those who enjoy exploring, there is plenty to find out.  We visited the Calanais stones, as this felt mandatory, and their brooding ancient presence was worth the trip.  There was plenty we didn’t see, as we felt that trying to pack too much in would dilute what we did get to.

Like Scotland in general, and the Highlands in particular, the islanders were friendly and chatty.  Most people had the time to spend a few minutes blethering, and the islands seem particularly accommodating, welcoming even, to campers who wish to wild camp.  We only stayed on a campsite on the first evening, and thereafter camped where we landed each day.  There were plenty of safe level spaces, many with stunning views.

I’m a bit of a crafter, and enjoyed seeing some of the local craft work and paintings.  As you can imagine there’s no shortage of artists and photographers prepared to share their take on the stunning vistas, and there are a number of very nice independent art galleries which also double up as cafés.   Hebrides Art is a 5-star visitor attraction, and as well as a stunning gallery of local art, has an excellent collection of island crafts.  We didn’t try the café, but the views of Seilebost from there are jaw-dropping, and the smell of homemade soup and bread was enticing.  I sneaked a peek at the cakes too, and they did look yummy!

The real joy of the Outer Hebrides is of course outside – the space, the peace, the rugged landscape, scoured by the Atlantic Ocean.  Even the Highlands seemed a noisy and busy place by comparison.  This is definitely life on the edge, people shaped by living on the edge, and every bit wonderful because of that.


 Outer Hebrides Visitor Website

Fifty Random Acts of Kindness

A RaceI read something, a blog somewhere probably; someone had made a pact to perform a number of kind deeds on their birthday.  It struck me as a bit cheesy initially – were they American? I can’t remember, but it sounds very un-British anyway!  After a bit of consideration I thought it might be a good idea.  I was 50 on the 21st of April, and when sending out party invites, specifically asked people not to buy presents.  I don’t need them.  I don’t want more ‘stuff’ to think about and look after, I wasn’t being polite, but genuinely feel that people coming to celebrate with me is a great ‘gift’ in itself, especially given that I live hundreds of miles from most of my friends and family!  I’d toyed with the idea of asking for donations to a particular charitable cause, but in the end didn’t feel I should tell people what they should be doing with their money!  So, this doing something myself, to celebrate life, I suppose, seems like a positive alternative.

It has not been an auspicious beginning!  Maybe I’m not disposed to being kind, randomly or otherwise, but it’s proving surprisingly difficult to act in a kindly and random way. I did make a point of thanking a chef for taking the trouble to make me a vegetarian meal option, which turned out to be very good, but that strikes me as common courtesy for a job well done, and not an act of kindness at all.  Perhaps I’m just so kind and thoughtful normally that it’s hard to see how I improve on this, but to be honest, I doubt it!  I can have quite a critical and self-righteous nature (although conversely, I am also pretty non-judgemental).

I think part of the problem is the lack of opportunity.  Naively, I thought that somehow universal karmic forces would present me with the circumstances whereby I could do something good, kind or helpful on a routine basis, but this has not been the case.  Perhaps I’m too wrapped up in my own thoughts and concerns to notice the chances that life is throwing me, or perhaps I’m just completely unobservant, I’m not sure.  What I do know is that a brief light-bulb moment of ‘wouldn’t that be nice’ has turned into a longer term project.  Hats off to the lady who achieved her 20 or 30 ‘random acts’ in one day; I think this is going to take me a bit longer!

The Murder of Crows

P4237306On a recent trip to the Outer Hebrides, I inadvertently spent the night in a campervan with a captured crow for company. The bird was not in the van, lest you’re wondering, but trapped in a cage on the edge of the moor.  The wild bird, or Larsen trap, is quite legal, and supposedly humane – the trapped bird must have shelter, water, food and a perch.  But there was nothing humane in seeing a caged bird die.

The traps are supposed to be checked at least every 24 hours, and I have no reason to suppose that the person who set the trap did not do so.  I wonder as to the efficacy of such interventions in the course of the natural world.  Sometimes members of the corvine clan are caught for research, sometimes to avoid decimation of the songbird population, and sometimes because they affect the livelihood of estates.  I don’t know why this particular bird was caught, but it was scared and alone.  One moment it was cawing in the dawn, and the next it was dead.

Larsen Traps were designed by a Danish gamekeeper (Larsen) in the 1950s, but are now banned in that country because the traps are viewed as inhumane for trapping magpies and crows.  Recent research has indicated that corvines are particularly intelligent, and for any intelligent animal being caged can never be humane.

I know people will always have arguments to support such activity, and rural poverty will always get my sympathy, but I can’t help feeling that this poor animal was a victim of the profit principle – protecting game bird young from the natural predation by crows and magpies.  I suppose that crows are not in decline, and need no protection, but they have young too; maybe a crow family has starved to death whilst its parent died of terror in the bottom of a cage.

I can’t help feeling that there’s not much humanity in murdering a crow, indeed, any creature, and that with artificially high numbers of game birds in the countryside the odd captured crow isn’t really going to make much difference.  As usual our interventions upset the balance of nature, whether we support or decry her.

I toyed with the idea of releasing the bird and risking ‘mischief with intent’ but decided that I did not know enough about why it was there to intervene.  I wish now I had let it go.