Inside all of us is hope
Inside all of us is fear
Inside all of us is Adventure
Inside all of us is…A Wild Thing
Maurice Sendak, Where the Wild Things are
Four Americans, four Brits and a Dutch woman went on a walk. They were prompted by a marker that said something along the lines of “Vikings were here.” Were they hoping to travel back in time? Were they just curious, wanting to find out what it’s like to get in touch with their inner raider? You know, the brawny, bedraggled, bearded type who braved storms, sailed longships over rough seas, drank mead, landed on rocky shores, sacked and lit up a few abbeys and while at it, in the wild confusion of smoke and battle, mistook monks for trees as he planted an ax in one or two trunks. (Hey, now. Don’t be so quick to judge, saying, “Vikings—Bad Boys! Admit it. If you’ve ever been tipsy or drunk, caught up in an out-of-control crazy situation, I’m sure you too would love being forgiven for a blunder or two. Or maybe, you’d just want to forget the whole thing?)
Who knows what my companions were thinking, what fantasies were lurking in the dark corners of their minds when we struck out that morning. By now, after several days of mountain climbing and battling the elements, what was obvious to me about our little group was this: adventure was in our blood; we wouldn’t let much stand in our way of discovery.
Our guide, John, brought us to the Outer Hebrides’ Rubha Aird a’ Mhuile on South Uist. On the surface, it seemed like an easy, straightforward project– find the remains of an ancient Viking settlement. He confessed that, this place was new to him; he wasn’t exactly sure where we’d find it. But, as usual, John was undaunted and eager to explore. The rest of us, by now accustomed to his ways and believing in his instinct, trusted him to lead us in the right direction.
We left the parking lot at St. Mary’s, a Roman Catholic Church that commands attention sitting alone, bordered by shore and fields. The muddy road wound over a gated cattle grate, along fields scattered with cow dung, wheat stalks and wild-flowers. A few hundred yards past the gate, on the left side of the dirt road a historical marker caught our attention. We gathered around it, read the description then scanned the area expecting nearby indicators.
What were we thinking!
Logically, we knew that after hundreds of years there wouldn’t be much to look at. But we did expect to see something unusual in the landscape: a mound or valley, ridges, rocks, ruins, something that said, “one of these things is unlike the other”.
Whoever had decided to place the marker there must have had a wicked sense of humor. We saw nothing that screamed, “Come over here; look; this is the place”.
So, we carried on in best British fashion: calm (but a little disappointed).
We strolled along a concrete breakwater then climbed over millions of rocks in many shapes and striated shades. Signs that man and nature co-existed along this shore were everywhere: fishermen’s boats, rope, discarded lobster baskets and some litter washed on shore. Tiny plants pushed through cracks in the rocks, determined to hang on in a less-than hospitable place.
We came to the end of the road. Waves crested and crashed on the rocky shore. Conversations ebbed away while we paused, looked out over the gray horizon or wandered off alone. Here, where land and North Atlantic meet and nature remains wild, untamed, and at times, shows its power and fury, the wanderer can find peace, sit, dream and reflect.
Turning back, John led us over the coastal meadow (machair), still on the lookout for signs of long-ago raiders from the north. To the left of and below the grassland lay a stretch of beach. The group spread out. Carol, an avid bird watcher, looked for seabirds. Bob, Tami, Debbie and I went weaving across the meadow looking for inspirational scenes worthy of a close-up. I tagged behind, squatted low to the ground to capture close-ups of flowers that refused to stop swaying then wished for a grab bar to help haul me upright.
When I caught up, the rest had gathered around a grass-covered and rock-strewn short mound.
Is this it? It’s awfully small.
John decided they were the remains from the time when harvesting kelp/seaweed was a major island industry. Stone huts were used to dry seaweed and as kilns.
Imagine standing in the cold water up to your chest all day, said John, explaining the harsh conditions men endured while gathering seaweed, a job that paid little while making others rich.
With that depressing image, we moved on.
Here it is, yelled someone.
We stood around a long, rectangular sheared area outlined by small boulders.
No wonder we’d been wandering over the landscape like lost little sheep. On the right side of the track, opposite the historical marker, a field of knee-high wheat hid the subtle signs of the former archeological dig site.
According to The Outer Hebrides: 40 Coast and Country Walks, Rubha Aird a’ Mhuile, “…the most westerly point of South Uist”, is the site of remains of a Viking settlement thought to be “one of the biggest in Scotland.” It appears to be “…a vast 20m [approximately 65 feet] by 60m [@197 yards] bow-shaped hall, possibly home to a Viking Lord and his clan”.
Viking Lord? Why not Lady? I wondered.
Plopping down to rest on a rock, I thought it was possible that a woman like me (bossy), could have ruled the place. According to various sources*, most Viking women were in charge of hearth and household. However, some were powerful high-achievers. One, “The daughter of a Norwegian chieftain in the Hebrides…took charge of the family fortunes, organizing a ship to take her and her granddaughters to Orkney, Faroe and Iceland.”
The fantasy –me sitting on a wood throne, horn-helmet adorning thick wooly braids, my trusty sword, “Neck-scratcher” by my side, gazing over a dark, dank, smoke-filled hall where mead-guzzling men boasted of bravado and battles while children played, and women spun yarn, wove and cooked for the lot –faded.
The wind picked up. It pushed along a scrappy blanket of dark-gray clouds, stirred blood-red poppies, glossy-yellow buttercups and lush green clover, carried whiffs of cool salt air, and brought this dreamer back down to earth.
For more information on the following, check out:
Kelp Industry in the Outer Hebrides: https://www.virtualheb.co.uk/Kelp-Industry-Western-Isles-History/