Ripples of turquoise waves, edged with white froth, rolled onto a broad expanse of empty, white sand. Wisps of white clouds streaked a vivid blue sky. In the background, rolling hills lay in gray-green shadow. Long ago, it was this picture that first alerted me to the presence of the Outer Hebrides, islands of the north-west coast of Scotland.
Luskentyre Beach, read the caption. I imagined myself in splendid isolation, wrapped in a cocoon of salt air, with only the sounds of wind, seabirds and waves splashing and retreating on the sand to keep me company. I felt the cool water, my toes gripping soft sand as I wandered along the beach.
Wild. Remote. Rugged. That’s what I must have thought years ago when those images fixed themselves in my mind. I sensed the place held a promise of freedom, the kind I yearned for as a child. On those infrequent days when my mother released me from doing what seemed like endless chores, I was allowed to roam my village with its surrounding forests, to climb trees, walk through meadows and pick wildflowers; exploring on my own, feeling at peace.
The article featured Harris, the southern part of the Outer Hebrides’ most-inhabited island of Lewis and Harris. The name –matching mine, seemed to me a sign. I promised myself
One day, I’m going to make it there.
Last fall one day finally came. High time I planned a visit to “my island.”
The adventure begins
In late July the sky was still bright when the ferry left Ullapool for its two and a half-hour crossing from western Scotland to Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides, also known as the Western Isles. Earlier that Saturday afternoon we’d met our escort, Eilidh, at the Inverness Train Station. She was tasked with bringing our group of eight to our B & B in Stornoway as well as take us on a short walk, our introduction to a week-long walking holiday.
After dinner on board the ferry we followed Eilidh out to the back deck. There we chatted, looked out over the wide, dark water, hoping to glimpse a dolphin or two. Leaving mainland Scotland behind, the sun began to disappear. As the sky darkened the winds picked up, driving some of us indoors. Eilidh had told us that a storm with gale force winds was in the forecast for the night. For now, enjoying the crisp air, Eilidh and I stayed behind to chat.
I first discovered how engaging she was during our afternoon walk. Afterwards, being last to reach the minivan, it was my turn to sit next to the driver. She was friendly and full of stories. A former BBC journalist, not long ago Eilidh had returned to her home on the Island of Lewis and Harris. Now, she told me, she divides her time between working as a Gaelic language broadcaster and guiding Hidden Hebrides tours.
The ferry slowed as we approached Stornoway. I followed Eilidh indoors to gather our group and shepherd us below to the car deck. She delivered us to our lodgings, where next morning our guide, John, would meet us to start the tour. As we said our Goodbyes I wished we’d had more time together.
It really doesn’t look like a storm is coming, I thought.
At 9:30 on a weekend, Stornoway, the largest town and capital in the Outer Hebrides seemed a pleasant and quiet little town, almost deserted; only Eilidh’s parents, waiting for her near our lodgings, the sound of seagulls squawking over the harbor and a pleasant smell of salty sea air greeted us. I looked forward to an early morning stroll before breakfast.
Seagulls crying, raindrops beating on the roof and a roar of wind whistling through the open window woke me. It was 4:30. The sky was light enough to see the forecast had proven right. Outside it was gray, gloomy, wet and windy. Inside, I was cold. I closed the window, pulled down the blinds and rushed back to burrow under the cozy comforter. No early morning walk for me.
Remnants of the storm were still with us when we struck out for our first walk late Sunday morning. Still overcast but the sky no longer looked threatening; Stornoway was enveloped in a cool, gray mist. The heavy downpour had slowed to a light drizzle and the wind only occasionally gusted, making it possible for a walk in the park (literally, a walk in Lews Castle park). It would be an easy walk, “another introduction” for us, according to John. We would discover that, over the next few days, our guide, with his lanky, laid-back, pleasant and patient demeanor would make every walk look like a stroll in the park.
The path led us past Lews Castle, once owned by a wealthy merchant in the 1800s. It’s managed to adjust to ever-changing times having gone through several renditions: home, hospital, college. Befitting a status symbol, today, even in such a remote location as the Western Isles, you can head there to glam it up, get pampered, all while sipping a highly-caffeinated drink by ever-present Starbucks.
Underdressed for the occasion, we strolled on, through woodlands, past a small, tended garden and along brooks. We surprised two gray herons. They seemed used to paparazzi. Not once did they squawk and complain.
Passing a placid cove, a brief wind gust reminded us of the night’s storm; the burst gave us wings to push home and lunch.
That afternoon, on our way to Arnol Black House, we chuckled when John said, “You passed your first test.”
These walks are easy. I can handle this. I thought to myself.
I shouldn’t have been so cocky.