I have so many stories, anecdotes and tales about our holidays spent in the Outer Hebrides that I could probably write a book about them. My eulogy of the island alone, would take up at least half of the book, describing the rich wildflower machair, the white sands, the giant Atlantic waves, the smell of peat smoke curling from the chimneys, crofting life…. Evenings cooking herrings in oatmeal with mustard sauce, a glass of Talisker whisky to hand.
Our first visit to the Isle of Lewis did not have what could be described as an auspicious start. At the time we had 4 children (Theo was still in the pipe-line so to speak) aged 7, 3, 2, and a 6 week-old baby. Add to that genetic mix, two exhausted parents, an ancient wheezing long-wheel base Landover, an 8 hr drive, a 3hr ferry crossing and all the other little incidentals that make family life what it is, and it was always bound to be something of an adventure.
When at last the Caledonian MacBrayne ferry sailed into picturesque Stornoway harbour we were relieved and excited to have finally arrived. Bags, children and various bits of miscellanea where carted down from the passenger deck to the car deck below. Engines started to rev up from the lorries and cars and soon the great ferry doors were opened and we were out on the open road once more. I was driving and my husband was endeavouring to map read us out of Stornoway and onto the road that headed southwest down to Bragar on the western side of the Island. We’d probably been driving for around 20 minutes when one of the children asked us where Georgia was? I slammed my foot hard on the brake, forcing the car into an emergency stop, and did a quick head count. GEORGIA! Where the hell is Georgia? I screamed at my husband, and he in turn screamed at me and then everyone screamed in unison ‘GEORGIA’S still on the boat!!’
How any Mother could be so utterly hopeless that they leave their tiny infant on a boat, I just don’t know but the fact is that I did, I’d left my darling 6 week old baby on a boat and had gone off without her. I don’t believe I have ever driven so fast in my life. We flew through Stornoway, narrowly missing pedestrians by inches, drove down one way streets the wrong way and finally screeched to a halt on the quayside in a cloud of dust and a smell of burning rubber just as the last of the cars, lorries and passengers where being waved on board the boat for the next trip back to the mainland.
I found my cherub exactly where I had left her. Sound asleep in her Moses basket up in the cabin on the passenger deck, blissfully unaware of her Mother’s negligence.
The second faux pas that I made was on the following day, Sunday. After breakfast, I put on a laundry wash and taking full advantage of the perfect drying conditions, sunny weather and fresh hebridean breeze, I pegged it out to dry on the line outside before heading off with the family to enjoy our first day exploring Lewis.
It did occur to me as we were driving around the island that it was very quiet. We saw the odd crofter tending to his haystack in the fields, a procession of villagers all dressed in black on their way to church, but there were no shops open, which was fine as we had our sandwiches, our flask of tomato soup and everything that our hearts desired for a perfect day out, safe in the knowledge that we had at least this time remembered to bring all of our children.
Later that evening when the children had been bathed and put to bed, I poured myself a large whisky and sat down in front of the fire with the ‘Guest Book’. I opened it and there on the first page was a reminder of the Do’s and Don’t’s when staying at the cottage. Rule Number One: Never hang your washing out on the line to dry on a Sunday. You will upset and offend the neighbours. Sunday observance is very important here in Lewis and we ask that you respect it, thank you.*
Oh dear, not only was I a terrible mother, but I’d now become a terrible neighbour as well.
There is much to do and see on the islands, especially if you love nature and wildlife and our first two weeks there went all to quickly. I was determined that we should see otters and it became a standing joke with the children and my husband, every time I pulled off the road and ran down to the shore hoping to spot one. This fanaticism did pay off as early one morning on a subsequent trip after I dragged everyone out of bed at sunrise and we drove down to the shoreline a mile from the croft and watched and waited. You can imagine our excitement when a family of otters and their babies suddenly appeared and then spent the next half and hour or so playing and swimming. Baby Otters are quite enchanting and very playful – I could have watched them for hours.
Our Moby Dick trip was not quite such a success. I’d read somewhere that occasionally whales and dolphins can be spotted from the top of the island at the Butt of Lewis (Interestingly this famous lighthouse was built by the Stevenson family as of Robert Louis fame) so I had a fancy to go and check out the lighthouse and throw in some whale watching while we were there. The weather that day was changeable, one minute sun, the next rain but undeterred I made a stack of sandwiches, pulled together a picnic of sorts and we headed off on the 40 minute journey up to the top of the island. By the time we arrived at the Butt, a gale was blowing and the sea was looking very grey and rough. Rather than risk losing a child to the perils of the sea, I decided it best that we stay in the car so, there we sat, eating our sandwiches, windscreen wipers on at full pelt and the car windows all steamed up.
‘Don’t worry darlings, I’m sure we will see a whale very soon’ I said through mouthfuls of sandwich and swigs of molten hot tomato soup, trying to convince them that I wasn’t a total nutter and determined to keep family morale up. With visibility not much further than the tips of our noses, they knew, and I knew that even with the best will in the world this was just not going to happen.
There was one particularly memorable evening when, after we’d all eaten supper at 9pm, we decided to make the most of the late daylight and take a walk down to the shore. (Due to the proximity of the islands to the north, daylight hours are long in the summer months with only 2 hours of darkness during the night) It was a still, almost balmy evening as we made our way down to the shore and picked our way along the rocks. I should add at this point that however white the sands are, and as azure as the sea may be, the water is not warm. Hell no! It’s cold, bitter in fact, but despite this, and because I may have over dosed on whisky earlier in the evening, I suddenly felt a burning desire to go skinny-dipping. Stripping off I then launched myself into the water and swam away from the shore. The water was so freezing that I had no option other than to swim as fast as I could. I waved back at the children who were standing on the rocks watching my madness when all of a sudden a huge creature loomed up right in front of me – it was a Bull Grey Seal. I was so shocked and surprised at the sight of this magnificent creature that I remember first feeling elation then absolute terror. This 400kg, 3 metre hunk must have been quite surprised by me too, as he let out a loud and deep ‘oink oink’ sound. We eye-balled each other one last time before he dived then swam one way, and I swam as fast as my frozen legs could take me back to the shore.
Over the course of our family visits to the Outer Hebrides we had some wonderfully happy times and great experiences. We never did get to see the whales but we did see porpoises and I know from talking to folk and doing my research that it’s not unheard of to see Minke Whale, Killer Whale, Basking Sharks, Pilot Whales and Dolphins if you are lucky.
The Outer Hebrides is certainly not a place to visit if you like your entertainments laid on for you, myriad bars, blazing sunshine and heat. However if like us, you enjoy beauty and peace, nature, the joy of walking along a beach with no one else on it save yourselves, the sound of the wind whispering through the machair, watching sea birds dive, otters playing, and eagles soar, then this place will touch your soul forever. I haven’t yet even mentioned the culture, the first Mesolithic settlers, the pre-historic sites, the extraordinary Callinish standing stones that pre-date the Egyptian Pyramids, the beautiful Gaelic singing – that’s for you to find for yourselves, to explore and hopefully delight in.