Tuesday
Jun062017

Strata

For Lady Snoutingdingle and I, the perfect holiday is in a remote spot which is all but impossible to arrive at. It should be almost – but not quite – beyond the reach of the modern world and with a bit of weather to shut us off from the rest of the humanity. Well, most of humanity less the one person who knows how to turn the power back on and then leaves us alone, in the nicest possible sense. One year, we spent a week in a lighthouse keeper's cottage on an island off the north coast of Newfoundland and sat side by side reading The Perfect Storm for three days with the mournful sound of the foghorn in our ears. The horn rattled windows as grey outside as a witches cloak. Imagine our pleasure then, to find among the books on the bookshelves in this new place The Perfect Storm sitting right alongside The Shipping News. It must surely be a sign. 

Our latest hideaway is on another island off another island in the Hebrides. The south of the island is more gentle with smoother hills and sheep-filled pastures. A great fault across the top of the island renders the north virtually uninhabitable which is why, perhaps, the landlords pushed all the people to the north built a two metre high stone wall to keep them there and left the south to their precious sheep and deer. The cottage is at a point in the road where the road doesn't so much end but hauls itself over the final rocks panting and gasping, wheezing its last breath and falling down stone dead in its own passing place. The rocks here do not have strata. Strata are bands in the rock, occasionally gently folded and waved. The layers in these rocks have knots like some demented Celtic design and those twisted layers are run through again and again with dykes as though nature took such a thorough dislike to this land that it slashed it mercilessly to pieces and then pushed lava up through the remains. These end-lands break up into smaller islands, some connected by tide-washed stone at low tide. Ruined cottages lie in every sheltered nook, ripped about by ruthless landlords and tough little beech and birch trees. Old paths wind the cliffs. Built to allow children to walk miles to school in all weathers they are lovingly laid and look like the scars on the face of some faded warrior found asleep in the bracken.  In Timberland and Mountain Warehouse it is easy to be seduced. It's easy to think that the daily toil in this place would have been compensated by the sudden bursts of lovely golden light, the sweep of the Highlands across one stretch of water and the mountains of Skye across the other water on the other horizon, the sight of a deer in the trees, or the call of an eagle. It's easy to believe that. I want to believe that. But I don't. The life here would have been so hard that all the beauty in the world would signal no more than a moment's guilty rest. Add to that the cruelty of the landlords and the face of the deer among the birches would be an oppressor and a threat. People's lives lie on these paths like tired butterflies, crushed by Leki poles and Vibram soles. The restored cottages show signs of their previous lives. Bits of old boat, engines, bottles, peep in and out of the walls or rise from flower beds. Rust is as evident as old stone. Or is it blood. It would be fairer, I think, to replace every tenth stone with a human skull.

 

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