“Sound is a blow delivered by air, through the ear, on the brain and the blood, and transmitted to the soul” – Robert Macfarlane
That time of year again. The 16th on the trot that I’ve holidayed without flying. I have a minute carbon footprint. Smaller than that of Alfie, our Norfolk Terrier, this year on board to partake in our escapades. Our plans are finely honed: hit the north; bother stones; listen to music; read books. Summon up the energy to face another 12-months in this economic anarchy. The perpetual search for possible escape routes from this most rat-ish of races. Solastalgia for an age yet to come.
The first of my literary companions set the tone for week one: ‘Underland’ (Penguin), Robert Macfarlane – “A journey into the worlds beneath our feet. From the ice-blue depths of Greenland’s glaciers, to the underground networks by which trees communicate, from Bronze Age burial chambers to the rock art of remote Arctic sea-caves, this is a deep-time voyage into the planet’s past and future. Global in its geography, gripping in its voice and haunting in its implications, Underland is a work of huge range and power, and a remarkable new chapter in Macfarlane’s long-term exploration of landscape and the human heart”.
Friday: Le grand depart. We broke out of the Midlands, at a disabled snail’s pace, at rush hour, at the close of a particularly challenging week. Unweather engulfed us. Inclemency prevailed. The so-called summer had thus far failed to materialise. A schoolboy error plonked us amidst a traffic situation. The wrong exit at a roundabout. The M42, a stone’s throw away. At a virtual standstill, inching towards the M6, wasting valuable solstice sunlight. I’d taken my eye off the ball early doors, and now we were drowning in frustration. It felt like a heroic escape from a collapsing system. The irony of salvation through the M6 Toll did not escape us. Socialist principles often evaporate when faced with a five-mile tailback into Coleshill.
Post-toll, the M6 flowed with relative ease. My co-pilot, the gracious Lady Di, took the opportunity to check up on the accommodation she’d booked for the night, in an incident that became known as Kendalgate. Consulting her plastic document wallet, she produced the details of our hotel in Kendal, the gateway to the Lakes. The only drawback being that we’d planned to stay in Keswick. A somewhat flustered Lady Di duly cancelled the Kendal booking in an excruciating conversation with a less-than-pleased Kendal hotel proprietor, who stressed the he was only a family business, and that it really was poor show that he hadn’t been notified earlier. The apologies were profuse, but charming, and thankfully the Kendal hotel owner, a family man, reneged on his documented policy to charge for all cancelations, and we collectively heaved a large sigh of relief. Kendalgate resolved, technology soon booked us a room at the Royal Oak, in Keswick.
By eight PM, we finally reached our solstice destination. Castlerigg is perhaps the most atmospheric and dramatically sited of all British stone circles, with panoramic views and the mountains of Helvellyn and High Seat as a backdrop. It is also among the earliest of British circles, raised in about 3000 BC, during the Neolithic period. The site was buzzing, with around a hundred-or-so solstice revellers. Alfie stretched his paws with glee and left his mark accordingly, as Norfolk Terriers do. He’s always greeted with affection by most everyone he meets, and collected observers of ancient tradition proved no exception. People sat in small groups, a collection of tents surrounded the perimeter. The odd whiff of weed hung in the air, a priestess conducted rituals, intensely (incensely?), and people measured things. As the sun slipped across the blue of time towards its eventual resting place in the western sky, we hugged the stones in this magnificent forever archive, greedily ingesting the energy of our ancestors. We spent an hour or so marvelling at the majesty of the circle, and the genius of the setting, before issuing forth in search of sustenance and the Royal Oak.
Returning to the car, we encountered a sizeable, avuncular gentleman, surveying the site from a bridleway to the east. He was a drone enthusiast, intent on capturing some of the solstice revelry on digital recorder. He was the Lost Dog Man, locally renowned for finding lost dogs on moors with his drone, a fact later corroborated by the corporate identification on his company car. He was indeed a professional. He gave us a (not so) brief run-down on the fine art of locating lost dogs on moors with the aid of drones, including detailed information on the breeds most likely to go missing, and his prowess in the local press. Alfie seemed disinterested, however, but saying ‘goodbye’ to Lost Dog Drone Man wasn’t as easy as you’d think. Finally, we accepted directions to a highly-rated chip shop in Shapp, some 30-miles south, just to end the conversation, before heading the other way, to Keswick. Sustenance consumed, we made our way to the Royal Oak, some 6-miles west. The Royal Oak turned out to be an award winning hotel, unfortunately said award was won in 1957. Essence of moth ball hung evocatively in the air: no wifi, no TV, no phone service, in every room. Crest-fallen, somewhat, it felt like someone would rush in and inform us the NHS had just been founded, and that if we trusted in Aneurin Bevan, everything would be alright. Apparently we’d pitched up in Royston Vassey, and Tubbs (Glenda?) explained they’d soon be getting the internet hard-wired into every room, eventually. Stuck between a bed of rock and a hard place, with a constant red light shining in the corner of the room (Roxanne, turn it off): no sleep till Ullapool.
Saturday: The Royal Oak breakfast experience began amongst a collection of UKIP members, who rustled their Telegraphs loudly, as if they were in the green room at a recording of Question Time. An East-European waiter wasn’t going to take ‘no’ for an answer to the egg question. It took some considerable effort to escape with mere cereals and toast. He seemed genuinely aghast that we wouldn’t be eating any sausage, egg, bacon or black pudding. Leaving the Royal Oak finally felt like an exorcism, and we’d bearly been there 12-hours. A brief interaction with Keswick’s National Trust long-stay-extortion car park was rudely interrupted by a return to Glenda: once more into the Royal Oak breech. Lady Di had forgotten her charger. A brief lakeside dog walk and a Keswick petrol queue later, we hit the wide open road north. Soundtrack: Anthony Naples, Bicep, DJ Nature, Djrum, Loidis, Y U QT:
It’s funny how quickly one can get blasé about stunning scenery. The further North we pushed, the harder the sun tried, the more breathtaking the views. Past Glasgow, Stirling, Perth, and, eventually, Inverness, we pit-stopped at Tore, to take on fuel and water. A mile-or-so up the A835 to Ullapool, we found an ancient woodland walk, to stretch our legs and Alfie’s paws. We’d been on the road for five hours, and our destination was less than an hour away now. We finally rolled into Ullapool, a village of around 1,500 inhabitants in Ross and Cromarty, around 6pm. The sun lit the sky to welcome us. The forecast had looked gloomy from a distance, but our Ullapool joy on arrival was unbounded. We located the Yellow House, our tastefully appointed home-from-home for the next two weeks, possibly a reference to the 1888 oil painting by the 19th-century Dutch Post-Impressionist painter, Vincent van Gogh. Initial village explorations included: sunset on the sea loch of Broom; a so-near-so-spa branch of Tesco; a quayside walk; the Taste Of India; and Kelman Duran‘s ’13th Month’ on the balcony, still light at midnight. Arrivistes, at last.
Sunday: The sun had got its hat on by the time we left the Yellow House. Alfie walked, and ritual hot chocolates consumed, it was time for Ullapool Tourist Information, with John. It turned out to be a fortuitous intervention, had we left it any later we’d have failed to book ferries for our trips to both Orkney and Lewis, jeopardising the pre-booked hotels that awaited us on both islands. Disaster averted, we hit the road to the Summer Isles, exploring the amazing rock formations and landscapes along the Rock Route, as we travelled through the North West Highland’s Geopark. We passed Strathcanaird, carved in ancient times by an immense river of ice, and Stac Pollaidh, the remains of a mountain the weather is gradually eroding. The beach at Achiltibuie provided the first WOW! moment of the holiday. The Coigach peninsula has a superb choice of sandy beaches, but Achiltibuie has it all: rolling downs, leading to acres of dune-flanked golden sands, complete with snaking estuary, the incredible heights of the Geopark in the near distance. Alfie tore across the sands with lightening speed, a recent diet leaving him both trim and agile. He may well be an ATT (All Terrain Terrier), but sandy beaches are fast becoming his preferred surface. Sat beneath the dunes, looking out to sea in blazing sunshine, we could have been just about anywhere in the Mediterranean, except there was no one else in sight.
We moseyed onwards to downtown Achiltibuie, in search of refreshment. After a couple of false starts, we were eventually pointed in the direction of the green Community Hall adjacent to a ‘council estate’ (his words), by a helpful young chap on a bike. We scored ginger bread cake, lemon brownie, oodles of hot chocolate, and sat watching the Summer Ilses for a while, to make sure they didn’t move. The council estate to our left reverberated with the sound of children having fun playing outdoor games, in much the same way Lady Di and I remembered playing as children, 50-odd years previously. It was comforting to feel that little had changed in Achiltibuie since the mid-70s, although I’m sure they didn’t have lemon brownies back then. Returning to Ullapool, a Tesco fishing trip caught our supper of chilli and lime salmon and a spot of extreme salading. Alfie evening-stretched via riverside walks and harbour strolls, we settled down for a double bill of ‘Years And Years’ on BBC iPlayer, followed by a late night rewind with Ossia:
Monday: Awoke to rain. Morning mood: Sarah Davachi‘s ‘Pale Bloom’. Undeterred, we kept things local, and headed upwards. After three days in the car, it was time to stretch some leg muscles, so we made our path by climbing it. Ullapool Hill proved a short but steep ascent, revealing superb views over Loch Broom. At its highest point, the outcrop of Meall Mor revealed stunning views inland to Loch Achall and the surrounding countryside. The rain fell consistently throughout the morning. We met a group of stoic Scottish hillwalking folk on the ascent. Lady Di commented that it was a lovely climb, but wet. The Scots answered: “This isn’t wet”. We found some stray Americans wandering at the summit, they seemed lost: I asked their captain what his name was, an’ how come he didn’t drive a truck. He said his name was Columbus, an’ I just said ‘good luck’.
With the rain still falling, we returned to the Yellow House, drenched, for sustenance, showers and shelter. We spent the afternoon with the finale to ‘Years And Years’. We’d both become extremely fond of the show over the previous week, one of the most compelling series in recent memory. A crescendo of emotion welled up inside me in response to the denouement, nothing short of acute. I was literarily shaking, holding on to Lady Di’s hand for grim death: tears in my eyes; fear in my heart; a keening suggestion that this was possibly more premonition than mere fiction. They say impending truths are normalised as art prior to their execution, a trailer for the inevitable. Though there were holes in the surround sound, technologically, lets call them inconsistencies in the fine art of progress, the whole hung together with suspended belief. I forgave it its foibles, and instead harvested the possibility: good will transcend. I wonder what happens next? PM soundtrack: Pessimist, Kelman Duran, bblisss comp, Loods:
Tuesday: AM soundtrack: Burial, exael, Ghostride The Drift, Sam Binga & Marcus Visionary. We set off back down the A835 towards Inverness under grey skies, to where the River Ness meets the Moray Firth. It’s the largest city in the North, the cultural capital of the Scottish Highlands. We took on reasonably priced fuel, hot chocolate, and wandered the austere streets of the Old Town in search of the Harris Tweed shop, before heading out to Clava Cairns, three 4,000-year-old tombs surrounded by standing stones. Clava is a type of Bronze Age circular chamber cairn, named after the group of three cairns at Balnuaran of Clava, 8-miles east of Inverness. There are about 50-cairns of this type in the Inverness area. The cemetery has remained a sacred place in the landscape for millennia, renowned amongst stone bothering communities for its energy levels. The site provides many clues to the funerary belief systems of Bronze Age society. What remains today would have once been part of a larger complex. The site itself is surrounded by trees, planted by Victorians in an attempt to enhance the site’s Druidic vibe. It’s a unique setting, a truly magical place. We wandered from cairn to cairn, hugging stones, soaking up energy, before striking out on foot for a mile or so to a forth cairn, Milton Of Clava, and the remains of a medieval chapel.
We headed back through Inverness on the A82 to skirt Loch Ness. It’s difficult not to be overawed by this massive body of water. Every time I return, it just seems to get bigger. We abandoned a visit to Urquhart Castle when we saw the number of coaches in the car park, and returned to Drumnadrochit for a pitstop and cafe lunch. Considerable interest in Alfie from a group of fellow small dog enthusiasts resulted in a kerfuffle as we left, leading to the loss of our hallowed road atlas: an incident that would come to be known as Atlasgate. We walked off lunch with a climb through dense woodland to the impressive Divach Falls, before a short drive to Corrimony Cairn: a ‘Clava type’ cairn in a remarkable state of preservation. The site itself demonstrates the impressive skills and insightful planning of its builders. Considerable resources went into its construction, and unlike at Clava, much of the passage’s roof survives. The cairn is situated in a secluded glen, surrounded by birch woods and cultivated farm land. The reemergence of the sun blessed our visit. With no one around, Alfie ran wild, clambering up the cairn to join us on top in locating cup marks on the now-dislodged capstone.
The return leg to Ullapool allowed us to plan the next day’s route to Skye. Kamikaze Space Programme‘s newly captured ‘Dead Skin Cells’ (Osiris Music) twisted and bent the Toyota’s speaker system. Powerful rays refracted around mountains to cast shadows across the glens. Vast bodies of water shimmering and glinting with this crisp golden wonder. The hubble bubble of the rushing burns. White frothing crowns on the brown water beneath. The journey punctuated by photo calls to capture this unprecedneted beauty. PM sound-system bangers: Anthony Naples, Kelman Duran, Manonmars:
Wednesday: Early start on the road to Skye. Finally overcoming my antipathy towards Rupert Murdoch, and taking the plunge. You can never get complacent with the scenery in the North West Highlands. Every route, every direction, every climb, every bend, every dramatic descent: differing perspectives, stunning views. The sun was high in the sky. Eileen Donan Castle literally shone, reflecting sunlight, nestled atop its island setting. The site was overrun with tourists, coaches rammed the carpark. We walked back across the road bridge to stretch Aflie’s paws, snapping the castle and the village of Dornie from across the water. The castle itself sits upon the Isle of Donan, most likely named after the 6th century Irish Saint, Bishop Donan, who came to Scotland around 580 AD. The first fortified structure was built here in the early 13th century, protecting the lands of Kintail against the Vikings who raided, settled and controlled much of the North of Scotland and the Western Isles, between 800 AD and 1266. From the mid 13th century, this area was the quite seperate ‘Sea Kingdom’ of the Lord of the Isles. The sea was the main highway, the power of feuding clan chiefs measured by the number of men and birlinns at their disposal. Eilean Donan offered the perfect defensive position. Although impressive externally, the massively reconstructed castle we see today offered little of interest to us internally. We fought our way through the hordes of American, Japanese and European visitors, past the drab Victoriana and mock medievalism, both keen to press onwards on our journey, and mindful of Alfred, dutifully sulking in the car. He doesn’t like being left alone. He does like: sniffing other dogs trails; leaving his mark according; and chasing cats, for whom he reserves a pathological hatred.
We could see Skye Bridge in the distance as we honed in on the Kyle Of Lochalsh. It’s an impressive structure, spanning the 1.5-miles across Lochalsh, at a height of 30m. Built in 1992, it was initially a toll bridge. Construction brought much controversy back in the day. John Major’s government allowed it to be privately funded, granting a licence for the private company to charge tolls. It was said to be the most expensive road bridge in Europe. Locals on Skye set up a campaign group called SKAT (Skye and Kyle Against Tolls). After years of campaigning, legal challenges, and the establishment of the Scottish parliament in 1999, cross-party agreement soon made it a priority to abolish the tolls. On the 21st of December 2004, the bridge was purchased by the Scottish Government, and has been toll-free ever since.
After grabbing some scran and a quick wander around Portree, we headed out for the Old Man Of Storr. The Storr is a rocky hill on the Trotternish peninsula, some 8-miles west of Portree. The hill presents a steep rocky eastern face overlooking the Sound of Raasay, contrasted by gentler grassy slopes to the west. We arrived to find cars parked haphazardly on both sides of the road. A gleeful traffic warden was having a field day, issuing tickets akimbo to all cars parked on the Raasay side of the road. We luckily conformed by parking Storr side, and began the 674-metre climb to say hello to the old man. As we climbed, the clouds began to break up. The sun that has drenched our approach to Skye was burning through, even in this most stubborn of environments. At a plateau around 500-meters, Lady Di and Alfie elected to rest up, whilst I forged onwards and upwards, in search of that iconic shot that would prove I’d made the climb. Gazing down from this height, back across the Sound of Raasay, the enormity of the Western Highlands is mind-blowing.
With the sun now back in full force, we made our way across the midriff of Skye, towards the Fairy Pools at foot of the Black Cuillin hills, near Glenbrittle. The Black Cuillins were absolutely mesmerising as we approached, their colour flitting from every angle in the evening sunlight. I was picking out purples, silvers, pinks, whites, stopping every couple of miles in lay-bys to capture their brilliance in differing combinations. We’d heard a lot of hype about the Fairy Pools, thus our anticipation and excitement duly grew as we closed down those last few miles. The beautifully crystal clear blue pools of the River Brittle are genuinely stunning. We were blessed with perfect weather conditions, t-shirts and shorts, walking alongside French, Spanish, Italian and Japanese families, in idyllic surroundings. A group of teenagers Wild Swimming reminded me of my own forays into the art, on the Ardèche at Pont d’Arc, back in 1978. The blue of time, the speed at which it passes: the blink of an eye. The hours we spent at Glenbrittle will stay with me till the end of my days, rarely have I felt the all-encompassing perfection of this planet’s natural infrastructure engulf me so totally. The return journey to Ullapool sped by, dwarfing the duration of the outbound in our perceptions, which is often the way. The outbound is all about the wonder of the new, the homebound the return to sender. We arrived back at the Yellow House at 10.30pm, it was still light. Lady Di knocked up some scran, and we ate with the buzz of satisfaction that we’d achieved another milestone. We’d covered over 10-miles on foot during the day. Just time for some Burial before interring bed-wards, shattered:
Thursday: We arose early, once again, and hit the A835 north, in search of our ferry to Orkney. Sat-nav confusion approaching Lairg created the illusion of an ever-expanding journey. Our ETA just got later and later. I drove with growing ferry-related stress. I’d forgotten to take my CBD capsule at breakfast, and my brain was working overtime to quell the ensuing waves of anxiety. By the time we joined the A9 on the east coast, Lady Di was requesting a pit stop. I was striving to snatch back precious minutes from the ETA, and she needed convenience. I shouldn’t have worried, we eventually made port at Gill’s Bay, near Wick, with ten minutes to spare. The crossing was set to take an hour, as opposed to the 90-minutes I’d sailed in 2016, from Scrabster to Stromness. The ferry set sail at a clip. The sea was choppy, we pitched and yawed. By the time we entered Scarpa Flow, sheltered by the islands of Mainland, Graemsay, Burray, South Ronaldsay and Hoy, the sea had calmed, and the sun had broken through. We docked at St Margaret’s Hope at 2.30pm, and made for Kirkwall. We stopped off for a beach walk behind the first blockade we crossed. Alfie charged across the sands, every bit as gleeful as he had been at Achiltibuie. Pit-stopping in Kirkwall to browse and refresh, it felt incredible to be back on Orkney again.
Filled with hot chocolate and cake, with new jumpers, t-shirts and gifts to boot, we drove out to Stenness in deteriorating light. The Stones of Stenness today consist of four upright stones up to 6m in height, in a circle that originally held 12-stones. The focus of the interior is a large hearth. The stones were once encircled by a large ditch and bank, the form of which has been lost over time to ploughing. I mapped out the landscape for Lady Di from this vantage point with excitement, the Ness Of Brodgar being one of my most favourite ritual landscapes in the world. We walked down to the nearby neolithic settlement of Barnhouse, a village ostensibly as important as Skara Brae, but markedly less impressive, in terms of remaining archaeology.
With a 6pm-visit booked to view the 5,000-year-old Maeshowe, one of Europe’s finest chambered tombs, we drove the short distance to the visitor centre. All was quiet, too quiet. The last time I’d been here the carpark had been rammed, consistently. We soon discovered the visitor centre had been moved since my previous visit, due to concerns over traffic access to the site. The new visitor centre was a mile-or-so back down the road, in the village of Stenness. Ironically, from there, we caught a bus back up to the site of the original visitor centre to begin our guided tour. From the outside, Maeshowe looks just like a large grassy mound. The word ‘howe’ comes from the Old Norse for ‘hill’. Each wall of the 10m-long passage is formed mostly of a single, gigantic sandstone slab, up to three tonnes in weight. At each corner of the central chamber is a magnificent upright standing stone. The floors, back walls and ceilings of the three side cells are each made of single stone slabs. Fighting off midges, flailing our arms wildly, we wandered up to the Ring Of Brodgar, an enormous ceremonial site dating back to the 3rd millennium BC. Originally consisting of 60-stones, only 36 survive today. At least 13-prehistoric burial mounds can be found in the vicinity of the site. A large rock-cut ditch surrounds the stone circle.
Back in Kirkwall, full of fish and chips, we checked into the Kirkwall Hotel. Once ensconced, I logged on to Boomkat to grab a copy of Mister Water Wet‘s much anticipated ‘Bought The Farm’ (West Mineral Ltd.), one of our most treasured labels. We hunkered down on our surprisingly comfortable hotel bed for that all-important-first-listen, albeit on the puny speakers of my MacBook. We were not disappointed, but I’ll explore this release, along with Pontiac Streator and Ulla Straus’ ’11 Items’ (West Mineral Ltd.), in more detail next month:
Friday: We awoke to sunlight, with blue skies dominating the horizon. It had been a disturbed night’s sleep for me, with Orcadian revelry emitting from the public bar of the hotel until the wee hours, an observation I found repeated man times on the Kirkwall Hotel’s Trip Advisor profile. Lady Di had slept through it all, largely due to the industrial ear plugs she employs to drown out my horrendous snoring on a nightly basis. We breakfasted heartily, before engineering Aflie’s stay at the Kirkwall for free due to my interrupted sleep. Orkney’s a different place with the lights on, and our return to the Ring of Brodgar enjoyed perfect conditions. We parked up roadside, just past the Ness Of Brodgar, an archaeological site covering 2.5-hectares between the Ring of Brodgar and the Stones of Stenness, thought to be up to 7,000-years-old. The site is open for further excavation through July and August every year. I’d managed a guided tour of the dig on my last visit, but this time we’d missed out by a matter of days. As we approached the Brodgar stones, coaches began to pour across the Ness causeway. We’d soon be swarmed by hordes of Danish, Norwegian and American tourists. We circled the stones twice, snapping away furiously. I got some excellent shots, the light was perfect. The site is swamped in heather and gorse, and the purple of the flowering heather adds another dimension to the palate of colour on show in bright sunlight. The spirits of the ancestors were with us today.
Skaill Bay, our next destination, provided another glorious beach walk for Alfie to practice his (by now) trademark sand shuffle. He was getting faster and faster, and slowly learning not to drink the seawater. Above Skaill beach, nestled within the dunes, lies Skara Brae. Long before Stonehenge or even the Egyptian pyramids were built, Skara Brae was a thriving village. First uncovered by a storm in 1850, Skara Brae is the best-preserved Neolithic settlement in Western Europe. The site includes a replica Neolithic house, showing how its interior might have looked 5,000-years ago. A pathway leads down to the ancient buildings, the prehistoric houses still contain stone dressers and box-beds. We chatted with one of the guides, originally from Nottingham. He’d moved to Orkney eight years ago, and lucked out with employment here at Skara Brae. We chatted about the pros and cons of emigrating to Orkney, it’s something Lady Di and I have been considering. He talked of a complete change of life style, a slowing of the blue of time. Apparently, we’d hit pay dirt with the weather. On Orkney, you can bank on sunshine for about seven days per year.
We returned to the Stones of Stenness to photograph them in sunshine. Sheep lazed in the shade of the stones. With Maeshowe behind us, Stenness in front of us, the Ness and the Ring Of Brodgar to the right, the entire ritual landscape came alive with sunlight, framed in blue. We ventured down into Stromness, the second most populous town on Mainland. I’d not spent time wandering its streets before, and I came to the conclusion that I’d prefer it to Kirkwall in terms of a possible relocation option. We even found an impressive, recently renovated, 4-bedroom, 3-floored town house for sale. By the time we’d driven back through Kirkwall on our way to St Margaret’s Hope for the return ferry, our attempt to see the Italian Chapel built by POWs in WW2 was foiled by deteriorating weather. Mist and fog had descended on Scarpa Flow, and we literally couldn’t have seen the Chapel clearly had we been standing directly in front of it. The return crossing was smooth and uneventful. An hour later we were back on the road to Ullapool in bright sunlight, it had been the hottest day of the year thus far in Scotland. Sound-system bangers: Kamikaze Space Programme, Rainer Veil, Anthony Naples:
Saturday: Designated no-driving day, stipulated following the previous two days exertions behind the wheel. My left arm had picked up some kind of RSI from all the gear changing. The day commenced with Mister Water Wet pouring from the beatbox we’d rigged to the MacBook in the Yellow House. We spent the day reading, wallowing in the sun, wandering Ullapool market, raiding Tesco, cooking, and relaxing. Sound-system bangers: Nammy Wams, Idealist, Kamikaze Space Programme, Pessimist, Ulla Straus, Sir Hiss:
Sunday: A lazy morning amidst weather front deterioration. Return of the unweather. The blue of time rescinded behind ominous cloud formations. Clinging to the glen’s sides. Hangers-on. Scruffy, fluffy, sticky plasters, slowly peeling themselves away from the gorse skin of the surrounding hillsides. exael on the sound-system AM: chased down by Hank Jackson, Galya Bisengalieva, Funky Doodle. With ‘Underland’ nailed and in the can, Macfarlane’s most complete and satisfying work to date, we broke out of the Yellow House post-meridian: a 6-mile river walk, with supporting gorge and falls, through Auchindrean, Cuileig and Inverbroom. As we stood watching the power of water crashing down at speed from heights of thirty feet, a large dark object sprung from the foot of the falls to the top like an Excocet missile. I’d just seen my first salmon, on its way back to its spawning grounds. Incredible, an experience of serious jealousy on the part of Lady Di, who’d missed it. The evening was spent cooking, eating and reading. I’d been awaiting my next book since 2014’s ‘Perfidia’, the first novel in James Ellroy‘s second L.A. Quartet. Time for a change of pace and style. Sound-system PM: Sam Binga & Marcus Visionary, Helm, Loidis, Demdike Stare, Dead Boy, Xyn Cabal, HXE, Sam Binga & Marcus Visionary, K-Lone, Huerco S, Skeptical:
“January, ’42. L.A. reels behind the shock of Pearl Harbor. Local Japanese are rounded up and slammed behind bars. Massive thunderstorms hit the city. A body is unearthed in Griffith Park.The cops tag it a routine dead-man job. They’re wrong. It’s an early-warning signal of Chaos. There’s a murderous fire and a gold heist exploding out of the past. There’s Fifth Column treason – at this moment, on American soil. There are homegrown Nazis, commies and race racketeers. There’s two dead cops in a dive off the jazz-club strip. And three men and one woman have a hot date with History. Elmer Jackson is a corrupt Vice cop. He’s a flesh peddler and a bagman for the L.A. Chief of Police. Hideo Ashida is a crime-lab whiz, lashed by anti-Japanese rage. Dudley Smith is a PD hardnose working Army Intelligence. He’s gone rogue and gone all-the-way fascist. Joan Conville was born rogue. She’s a defrocked Navy lieutenant and a war profiteer to her core. L.A., ’42. Homefront madness ascendant. Early-wartime inferno – ‘This Storm’ (Penguin) is James Ellroy’s most audacious novel yet. It is by turns savage, tender, elegiac. It lays bare and celebrates crazed Americans of all stripes”.
Monday: Lazy days. Lazy ways. Steps, rivers, wagging tails. Dodging showers. Lewis-bound on the evening tide. AM sound system: Batu, Burial, Al Wooten, Abul Mogard, Bengal Sound, Finlay Shakespeare. Steps, stock-up, pack and roll. Load the sled and slide dock-wards: 5.30pm sailing to Stornaway. Kwells necked, high seas: rough crossing. Parents guide children toilet-wards at haste. The sounds of mewling and puking. My head in ‘This Storm’. My stomach calm in my lap. Alfie distraught in Lady Di’s lap. Braver dogs nearby, seemingly très nonchalant. Dock, Stornaway: 8.oopm. Dusk town walk and fish supper. The light is ‘un’-real. A purple hue. Purple haze. Converse with a reasonably drunk local whilst waiting for scran. This just in: the legendary Stornaway Black Pudding industry is a scam. No abattoirs left on the island. No pigs on the island. Puddings imported from Holland. Packed on Lewis. Shhh. Keep it strictly shtum. Caladh Inn check-in. First TV in weeks. Frank Lloyd Wright documentary: “Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you”.
Tuesday: Up and atom. Sled parked quayside. Walk and load. Risen and shining. Chasing down holes in the cloud. 12m-west of Stornoway off the A859, Calanais: an extraordinary cross-shaped set of standing stones. Erected some 5,000 years ago. Patrick Ashmore, who excavated at Calanais in the early 1980s knew the score: “The most attractive explanation is that every 18.6-years, the moon skims especially low over the southern hills. It seems to dance along them, like a great god visiting the earth. Knowledge and prediction of this heavenly event gave earthly authority to those who watched the skies”. The stones were originally set sometime between 2900 and 2600 BC. A 4.8m-tall monolith stands at the heart of the monument. Lines of smaller stones radiate out to the east, west and south. An 83m-long avenue runs to the north, formed by two lines of stones that narrow as they approach the circle. A small chambered tomb lies within the circle. There are at least 11-smaller stone circles surrounding Calanais. Lady Di is blown away. We hug stones. We snap. We hug. The energy at Calanais is palpable. The sun emerges. Burning off patches of cloud. Revealing the blue of time behind the curtains. The heat is intermittent. But when it hits you it sears. Coats on. Coats off.
Back on board the sled, we cruise the short distance to Gearrannan Blackhouse Village. This coastal crofting community is situated in a secluded bay, within the district of Carloway. Traditional methods have been used to recreate the drystone masonry and thatched roofing of the original croft houses, with the discreet integration of modern conveniences. We amble through the village. Down to the pebble-dominated beach. No sand for Alfred. No scampering. The terrain is tough going. Even for an ATT. On the road out of Gearrannan we are beckoned by a local brandishing an Eagle Owl. We idled the sled and partook. Lady Di became an Owlstress. Alfie remained in the sled. Eagle Owls can take out ATTs. One final Stornaway stroll. Late for 2pm return ferry, so we opened the gate and let ourselves in. Admonished by dock-based ferry professional. Sternly. Kwells necked. Books out. Porpoises stage-right. Bring on the dancing horses. Dock, Ullapool: 4.30pm. PM soundtrack: Anthony Naples, Helm (Beatrice Dillon remix), Jabu, Tilliander, Sophia Loizou, 4 6 2 5, Kulør 001, 154, Manonmars, Logos, exael:
Wednesday: Pea-souper. Zero visibility. Hilltops missing from vista. AM livener: Augustus Pablo – ‘King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown’. Late strike out on a costal 6-miler in search of Rhue lighthouse. Ship wreck alley. Graffiti on an abandoned hulls states: ‘Repent’, ‘Rust’, ‘Fuck CID’, ‘Fat’. We run out of path, forced to hill hike north in search of tarmac. We encounter a local codger and engage in bin chat. Easy enough to start, more difficult to end. We eventually see him three times in total on our walk back into to town. He waves each time. We’ve bonded. PM soundtrack: Demdike Stare, E.B.U., Eli Keszler, Bristol Pirates, Logos, LKJ In Dub, Ghostride The Drift, Hiroshi Yoshimura, Jay Glass Dubs, John T Gast:
Thursday: Pissing down. Wind-raised choppy sea loch. Campers below us fight their tents. We sympathise from a safe distance. Snug in our Yellow House. A lazy AM Twitter purge scythes followers akimbo. Block and roll. Strictly upbeat tempo sound system, infusing insurgent spirit against inclemency: DJ Nature, Sam Binga & Marcus Visionary. PM road to Gairloch amidst frequent showers. Big laughs as we encounter Laide Bay. The Love Croft, sung to the tune of ‘Love Shack’ by the B52s. We hole up a while at Achnasheen and beach walk in the drizzle. Alfie scoots across the sodden sand. The river water feeding the bay temporarily confuses him. Is this OK? Back on the road, the view down from Achnasheen pass to the beach is one to treasure. In Gairloch we dry out and consume at Hillbillies Coffee, Bookstore and Trading Post. We score a duo of hiker’s vegetable soup and homemade fresh bread combos, avec le grand chaud chocolate. Included in the deal: the finest cheesecake ever made. On the back nine, we take a brisk Lael Garden forest walk, before a final visit to the Taste Of India. Back at the Yellow House its refresh browser time: repeat. Eventually I score a copy of Ossia’s live cassette on Tape Echo from Rewind Forward, a live recording from the ‘Devil’s Dance’ album launch in Bristol earlier this year. A gig Lady Di and I attended. A copy for posterity was obviously de rigeur. PM sound system: Ossia, Rainer Veil, Sarah Davachi, Shinichi Atobe, Pendant, Pontiac Streator & Ulla Straus, Crump:
Friday: Awake to no rain, but rain awakes soon enough. AM download of the Félicia Atkinson‘s long-awaited ‘The Flower And The Vessel’ (Shelter Press). First play: vast. This motherload is going to take mucho appraisal, baby. Constitutional AM walk. Swollen rivers, raging flows. People and small dogs, persistently sodden. Only partially downtrodden. Lady Di departs for emergency vet visit: suspected tick invasion. Possible faulty tick collar and subsequent action against homeland vets. Lady Di returns with placatory cake. False tick alarm. We eat cake. We drink tea. We wonder why anyone in their right mind would go camping. We ask the big questions one asks at the close of a holiday: are the skies crying because we’re leaving? Or are we bringing the atmosphere down because we have to leave? PM soundtrack: Félicia Atkinson:
Saturday: Reluctant farewells. Goodbye Yellow House. The long and winding road south. Past those local scenes that have become our own. Torn from situations that have become comfortable. Alfie’s supplies are low, so a pit stop at Pets At Inverness is required. We take on reasonably-priced fuel at Morrison’s, and point the sled south. The hundred-or-so miles from Inverness to Perth is slow-going. The sun’s back, though, and reports are coming in of blue skies south of Perth. We pit stop for croissant and chocolate chaud, and Alfie leaves his mark in Perth. Dumfries bound, expectation mounts for our neolithic pièce de résistance. Skirting Dumfries, we hit the road to Cairn Holy. The skies are by now electric blue. We pick up glimpses of the coast ahead, the sea shimmering above the green of the coastal downs. The two cairns of Cairn Holy are impressive survivals, particularly Cairn Holy I, with its concave façade of tall pillar stones. Their landscape position is equally impressive, situated on a hill offering fine views over Wigtown Bay. The site is frequented by a legendary figure known as Cairn Holy Joe – one Joseph Proskauer (from Westbury, New York), who “lives with his wife and many other creatures, slightly below the surface of earth, toward the point where the sun sets in the dark days of winter – as seen from Cairn Holy”. Joe describes the site itself as “three instruments, each resonating with their environment: cairn; world; participating observer – the sophistication of the site in relation to cosmic activity: near perfect alignments of sun/shade – not a single stone seemingly set without a specific significance, in alignment, shape or quality of stone”. We arrive in perfect conditions at around 5.30pm. We soon spot a figure flitting between the stones, measuring, photographing intently, jumping fences, gathering angles. As I made my own photographic journey around the stones, the figure commented to Lady Di that I seemed to know what I was doing, engaging us in conversation. Before long, I asked: “Is your name by any chance, Joe?”
Indeed, it was. Joe asked us many questions. How we felt looking at the stones, and the surrounding area. He asked us what we thought the shapes, the spaces, and the placement of the stones might mean. What they may have been used for by the people who put them there. He was interested in how we interpreted the site; how it made us feel; what we noticed. A Welsh chap called Andrew was also present. We borrowed his orange twine to mark out positions on the forecourt floor. Joe held the twine in line with markings inside the right-hand flanking upright, guiding me to mark positions on the floor with stones. From these positions we photographed, we clicked (subsequently capturing some incredible unexplained phenomenon in the form of ‘green energy arcs’ in several shots). Intense experience. Energy incarnate, energy abundant. We walked a few hundred yards up to Cairn Holy 2, a slighter but none-the-less impressive cairn, iconic from certain angles, before returning for a few final words with Joe and Andrew. Joe gave me his e-mail address for future correspondence, and I’ve since located him on social media. A conversation has begun about the possible meaning of the photographic anomalies. I remain enchanted at this prospect.
We bade our good byes, and boarded the sled. South, down to Wigtown Bay, for a final beach walk. You could say we left the best till last. The Solway Firth lapping against acres of expansive sand. Flanked by dunes, ships and yachts akimbo. Alfred scampered his best scamper yet. An ATT with a beach fetish. They call this place Secret Scotland, we learnt later. They are not wrong. We will be back. Within the hour, a Dumfries fish supper. We ate in in the sled, accompanied by blaring four-to-the-floor bass drum boogie, issuing from the riverside Dumfries hostelries. Only slightly alarmed, we retreated to the altogether more refined ambience of the Holiday Inn, Dumfries University.
Sunday: Sunrise sunshine. Campus stroll and full Scottish breakfast. 8-miles due south, our final historical interface: Caerlaverock Castle. Moated, two-towered, triangular. Caerlaverock Castle positively glowed in the urgent morning sun. Besieged and captured on numerous occasions, two sieges stand out: the first, July 1300, involved Edward I himself. The small garrison surrendered within two days of facing the full might of the English king’s army. The second, in 1640, was the castle’s last. It was brought about by Lord Maxwell’s loyalty to Charles I during his struggles with the Covenanters. The garrison held out for 13-weeks before surrendering. We walked the grounds, down to the site of the original castle, once served by a costal inlet and dock. The sea some miles away these days, but for how long?
Those final miles across the border lands were our last of relative sanity for six hours. We hit the M6 with 180-miles left to travel. We ground to a halt. The collapsing system we’d escaped two weeks ago was waiting here for us now: M6 hell. The journey went on, and on, and on. So much so, that by the time we reached home, all three of us had M6-lag. It felt strange to be back. Adrift from the dramatis personae we’d become so accustomed to over 16-days. The leafy Warwickshire lanes felt somehow drab by comparison. It was going to take a while to re-adjust.