Far North podcast episode 5, season 2

May 2021

There seem to be a lot of private islands in Scotland. Why is that? Pete and Matt dig into the questions of land ownership, the responsibility of island ownership, and the kind of people who take it on. They then get the chance to talk to Vanessa Branson about her experience of buying and owning Eilean Shona, which she is now running as a luxury tourist retreat. We drew heavily on this great article by Patrick Barkham in the Guardian in researching some of the recent history of private and community island ownership.
Listen to the podcast below

On Rocks

by Nick Allen May 2021

on rocks the ottery whiskered
unknowable kelp schlepps
a flat wet jungle
below the castle the water runs blue
pulled by tides pushed by rivers
it cloaks the seeping mudflats
and sandbanks that lurk intent
on their own schemes of treachery
a seabird skims and dips wings
the wind teases and the loch bucks
as a shoal of flashing mackerel boil
and agitate at the thin film keeping
them safe from the suffocating air above a breeze jewels the loch thin lines score
the water with daily traceries the moon
pulls again dragging water ever lower
liquid gums over rock teeth creatures
gather to pick at these fluid margins
afternoon sky bounces off the water
wind drags around the small headland
and somewhere a boat churns the silence
with a gnattish buzzing impossible to deny
a shag and its shadow collide on the flat loch skin
and the otter noses the air
before diving again feral
sleek as a lie Nick Allen © 2020

Walk Across the Sea

by Anna Watson (2020 Writing Retreat Scholarship Winner) Oct 2020

The view from the dining room is a lesson in painting perspective. In the foreground, the damp grass and incomplete hedgerow are a brilliant lime flecked with lemon yellow. The towering trees that spread down the hill to the shoreline (whose names I must collect in a list) are a deep, appropriately forest green; a combination of pine needles, moss grey leaves and mint lichen set against the bold brushstrokes of their trunks. The water is grey; a white grey not dissimilar to the sky above. Both are calm today. The trees atop the island in the middle distance are less defined. Their greens, much like their branches, weave together to form a soft brown. Behind them lies the mainland. Were you to take all the colours of the foreground and the mid-ground and combine them on a palette board, you’d surely recreate the marbling of those hills. I know that the purple of the heather, the white of the rocks, the brown of grasses past and the electric green of new growth are all present. For now they merge in a backdrop perfectly coordinated to the scene. I understand why my grandfather liked to write in green ink. A Mediterranean breakfast on a dreich Scottish morning. Crushed feta and not-quite-ripe figs pressed into salted soda bread and drizzled with honey. I would have never thought to pair mozzarella with strawberries. Lashings of olive oil and a twist of black pepper, washed down with hot black coffee. After clearing the table we sit down to write. For the first hour we talk. The chef tempted fate, it seems; as the morning marches on, the Highland smirr gives way to bright sunshine. Through the cafetiere light falls in ripples on my paper. On the way up to the top of the island, just before the stone path gives way to a dirt track bouncy with moisture, a low moan followed by a short grunt has me do a double take. Shona tells me there are deer on this island, so many they have to be ‘managed’. I quickly rule out the possibility of a nearby bear and assume it’s a stag calling, even if it is early in the season. Either way, I quicken my pace. On the way back I hear the same protracted groan. This time I look up to see one of the ancient trunks keeling under its own weight, bending to touch its neighbour and emitting a sigh every time. I smile. On J.M. Barrie’s island I have conjured bears from trees. The raindrops hang heavy from the gutter. They’re larger than the ones that cling to window panes, and it takes me a second to think what they remind me of. Bubblewrap. Even-spaced and irresistible. Just below them is a series of brass eyelets running the length of a wooden curtain pole, like the bangles that decorated our teenage wrists. I follow the folds of fabric down to the edge of the window frame to the right. Pictured, a bright blue sky with cotton wool clouds rolling by like tumbleweed. It’s a shame, really, that when we lie on our backs, more often than not, our eyes are closed. The bath water is brown. Coloured by the peat it passes as it winds its way down the hillside. The plug isn’t 100% effective. Worn down by decades of use, the seal permits the steady escape of a trickle of water; my time here is limited. As the soft water slowly drains, the peaks and valleys of my body rise; I watch as a blurred sepia figure becomes defined, warm pink and glistening. The clawfoot tub is impossibly long. I hadn’t intended on getting my hair wet, but the urge to stretch out completely and submerge every inch is strong. Toes pointed and eyes closed, I hold my breath and deep dive. We’re having dinner up at the Village Hall tonight and so I opt for a sheer black shirt and a spritz of perfume in an attempt at dressing up. A short walk through the rain, boots crunching on stones and arms laden with wine bottles, leads us up and into a wooden chapel. A log fire burns at the far end, framed by a steamy window looking out onto dense green woodland. Along the sides are four pillow-laden daybeds and down the middle stands a long dinner table decorated with moss, brambles and lichen. Tonight, the hall is our haven. We gather around the fire to tell our stories; each one heartfelt, often heavy. Listening to them I feel uplifted, in spite of, or perhaps because of, the weight in each word. Before we sit down and tuck into bowls of steaming mussels I look around the table and wonder at my luck. For the first time in a long time I feel hopeful. The bath water is brown and my future is bright. This morning, the buoy - our usual target - was floating to the right of the pontoon. It usually veers to the left. As we stepped down onto the slate grey wooden boards, rubber shoes careful to grip the yellow sandpaper that counters the slip of the slope, Ness points out the swirling eddies that bubble up between the boat and the jetty. A sign of a strong current. Dark, twisting whirlpools, they’re beautiful, almost hypnotising. Silent but deadly. Shona descends first, back to the water, and in a fit of enthusiasm launches herself into the briny vast. She forgets to keep left, and like a cork is swept fast to the right. Ness and I lunge for the ladder and leap into the water; within seconds we’re with her and have a hold on each arm. With our free hands we stretch and strain against the tide, struggling to bridge the few feet back to the pontoon. On the surface the water is smooth, underneath it's a raging torrent. Time slows, and yet, all of a sudden, we’re there. Trembling hands grip cold metal, Shona is safe. Exhilarated and not a little defiant Ness and I strike out to the left and swim a few fierce laps against the current. This morning, neither one of us feels the cold. ‘In July we pick chanterelle mushrooms. A golden trumpet with firm flesh and tones of golden apricots. Fry until tender in golden oil and serve on stiff pillows of golden pasta. Pair with wine and soak in the glow of a summer sunset, your sun-kissed skin sitting in comfortable silence. All golden.’ So read a few of the lines that paved my way to Eilean Shona. And now I find myself treading the sponge between the silky ferns and fallen pines of the hills behind the house, eyes peeled for bursts of orange and inspiration. We stumble across a bumper crop just below the path that leads to Red Cottage; Peggy wonders if we’re walking on a Mycelium. A mass of branching, thread-like spores that feels its way in the pitch dark beneath forest floors, occasionally surfacing in crowns of atomic tangerine. Ness tells us there’s buried treasure on this island, I think we’ve found it. My trainers are soaking. The path past the Shepherd’s Hut is boggy but I’m determined to reach the end of the road - the old port - before I leave the island; we have just one day more. I leap from one grassy cushion to another in an attempt to avoid the puddles, perhaps better described as rockpools. As I round the corner into the cove at Baramore, I have a clear view through the channel across to Rubha nan Clach Dearga, Sgeirean Dubha Fhiadhach and I think An Glas-eilean. It’s still early, so the sky that meets the horizon is lime-washed pink and lilac. I stop to take a photo when I hear a bird’s call. Below me, between the trees, a flash of white speckled with brown. A juvenile sea eagle, disturbed by my eager steps, has abandoned its post at An Dubh aeonach and is now striking out for the hills to my left. I let my camera rest by my side; fleeting moments like these are best captured in words. On my return journey I make sure to listen; to the pip pip of an oyster catcher, the gush of falling water, the sound of my steady breathing. The air is clean and I drink it in like gin. The night is dark up here, pitch black. Perhaps the most definite dark I’ve ever seen, or cared to notice. Most evenings we spent in the warm artificial glow of the dining or drawing rooms, and so it is only now, driving to the station to catch the train home, that I really see it. Out of the taxi window, only a faint line separates the hill from sky, a slightly lighter shade of ebony. The few houses we pass opt for lamplight, so the frames of their windows are softened, inviting. Every so often roving orbs flicker and shift in the distance - headlights on the road to Kingussie. Their presence adds another layer to the darkness, deepening the black of the woodland between field and hill. Every now and then, one of our phones flashes, piercing the darkness seeping its way into the car, pooling at our feet and between the seats. We’re back on the mainland, the cellular connection to the outside is reinstated and our delicate bubble is burst. I do not want to leave. I know that we must.

If Once You Have Slept On An Island

by Rachel Field Jul 2020

If once you have slept on an island
You'll never be quite the same;
You may look as you looked the day before
And go by the same old name,
You may bustle about in street and shop
You may sit at home and sew,
But you'll see blue water and wheeling gulls
Wherever your feet may go.
You may chat with the neighbors of this and that
And close to your fire keep,
But you'll hear ship whistle and lighthouse bell
And tides beat through your sleep.
Oh! you won't know why and you can't say how
Such a change upon you came,
But once you have slept on an island,
You'll never be quite the same.

Time Slips

by Pete Barfoot at The Old School House Aug 2019

One mind finding hidden paths
Three chase form in story-craft
Two hands joining yours to mine
Four fall in step and make the climb
Five echoes catch in windborne laugh
Seven faces smile on life re-draft
Six faint ticks to keep in rhyme
Eight hemispheric re-designs
Nine score lines around the hearth
Eleven repetitions turn the earth
Ten, losing power, recedes in time
Twelve competing heavens align.

Step (walking barefooted across Eilean Shona)

by Pete Barfoot at The Old School House Aug 2019

Without:
the earth works
its way through
another day Within:
the world thinks
of
another way toe from toe
to tell, to know
each slip and grip
and furl and curl without clever cover I feel every
folded leaf and stem
sink in earth’s laboratory
stride on cracking history
skip round spike-thorn botany
scale mini-mountain geology step out, step on
to fall
in step

Lost and Profound

by Pete Barfoot at The Old School House Aug 2019

Whenever you think
you have it you don’t it cannot be had,
held or stored open your hand
ease the grip
forget the grab
and use your
delicate fingers
tipped for touch
to sort and sift
and search find joy in the
infinite unfolding there is always
something more allow a childhood
thrill to fill
the moment
and re-discover
what you already know then like a butterfly from a net let it go

IN SURREAL TIME (Three Highland Haiku)

by Pete Barfoot at The Old School House Aug 2019

seconds stretch ahead
minutes dripping into hours
clock slowly melting
morning winking sun
longing stare to afternoon
flick closed at day’s end
warming summer breath
lift new-rusting autumn leaf
to blow on wintry whisp

Echoes

by Pete Barfoot at The Old School House Aug 2019

if you can stop still
in time enough silence seeps
a shadow creep of thought-caught memory sounds you never heard
of child and wind and burn and bird so history is made a slow cascade from crack-rock slip to peat-rot drip of echoes waves in sea and air the never-ending here and there

The Dinner Party

by Stephen Navin Jan 2018

On the last night of the creative writing course, the Moydart Maidens* organised a very special dinner. I am not sure how they managed it but the guest list was quite extraordinary and even now I cannot believe it but dear readers I was there and you will have to trust me. The food was excellent albeit we were constricted by the continuing power cut. In the flickering candlelight the faces of the guests often made them look like ghosts, fading in and out of the light. The guests were ferried across the sound in two parties arriving before dusk. I was intrigued to see that the more ancient or older guests travelled together. In the case of Julius Caesar and the playwright Aeschylus I am not surprised they wanted to get the journey over as quickly as possible as they were so ill clad for the Scottish Highlands in Winter. Caesar had a toga top on top of his military skirt, actually quite similar to a Scottish kilt. Aeschylus, having just come from the first night of his latest play, Agamemnon in Halicarnassus, was dressed in the traditional loose cloth gown of the patrician Greek. Their companions were, believe me, Adolf Hitler, and Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov (that is what it said on the guest list but we know him as Lenin). They were much better prepared for the Winter. Hitler was in his great coat, having just arrived from his bunker in East Prussia and Lenin was wearing a fur lined coat which had been presented to him in 1917 by the young socialists of Helsinki just before he set off for his fateful journey to St Petersburg in 1917. I was no less surprised by the passengers on the second boat – there was the playwright and poet Federico Garcia Lorca, looking remarkably chic, his black hair gleaming (with hair gel) I assume, but he was also not accustomed to the cold weather. He was chatting to, imagine, George Orwell or Eric as I now call him. Eric was probably explaining to Federico his close connection to the Inner Hebrides and that he had just finished writing 1984 on Jura. Sitting at the back of the boat, staring fixedly ahead with a pained expression, no doubt because the salty sea spray was misting up his glasses, was the great Irish writer, James Joyce. Well, given that he was now living in Switzerland, he must be accustomed to vicissitudes of winter, but he was undoubtedly looking frail. One person who was not looking frail was the energetic man, gyrating at the bow of the boat and playing air guitar and singing at the top of his voice into the rain and the wind – ladies and gentlemen let me introduce to you to Mr Bruce Springsteen. How come Bruce had made the cut, I wondered; his fans may call him the boss but was he a literary giant like Joyce. After all, he had only really just published his autobiography, and as we know, memoirs don’t sell. Well anyway there we all were in the drawing room in the big house. We handed round the canapés and the prosecco. Hitler refused everything. He did seem very interested in Caesar (as he insisted on being called) and I overheard them discussing or rather whispering about loyalty and treachery in high places, or at least I thought I did as my school boy Latin was about as good as Hitler’s. I was surprised that Caesar was prepared to talk to a German given the pasting that the 9th legion had been given in AD9 . I noticed that Lorca was giving Hitler a wide berth but Bruce was a revelation. He had a nice easy manner and was very eloquent as indeed he had shown during his recent one man show in New York. Aeschylus had obviously heard that Joyce had just published Ulysses and was keen to know whether the book covered events in Argos following Agamemnon’s return from Troy at about the same time as Ulysses/Odysseus must have left. Again I am surmising as they were both talking Greek and ancient Greek at that and unfortunately, as the saying goes, that was all Greek to me! Eric was on the sofa looking at his notes talking to the Moydart Maidens I heard Vanessa, one of the Maidens say to Eric” Good idea, Eric, let’s plan on doing that before Yoga” at which point she stood up and proposed a toast to the guests and thanked them for coming to what she called a Writer’s symposium (I thought I saw Aeschylus’ hand go up at the mention of the word symposium as of course that was Plato’s party piece. ) She then introduced Eric and he proposed that the format of the symposium should be structured around what he perceived as being the four motives for writing which he elucidated as follows: 1 Sheer egoism 2 Aesthetic enthusiasm 3 Historical impulse 4 Political purpose Well you can imagine some of these went down like a lead balloon, but no question as far as I was concerned that, as they all started arguing about point 1 and its inapplicability to them, I was convinced that Eric was absolutely spot on. Hitler was suddenly screaming at the top of his voice that only he and only he, in Mein Kampf, could portray the suffering and betrayal of the German people at the end of the First World War. Eric said to him (quoting David Cameron I suppose) “Calm down dear” at which point Hitler turned on his heels and left the room, slamming the door behind him. Eric shrugged and carried on: “Well I am sure we can all agree that we are all inspired by aesthetic enthusiasm” Lorca nodded enthusiastically and stood up and in front of everybody and prepared to dance a paso doble, explaining in halting English that the spirit of Flamenco, the Duende of the gypsy people as it is called in Andalucia, suffused his latest book of poetry – the Romancero Gitano. Bruce, meanwhile, had grabbed his guitar and was furiously working on some flamenco chord structures and started singing in his gravelly baritone (more New Jersey than Jerez) : (sing) Born In Andalucia. Lenin, who had being listening and watching but was clearly getting agitated suddenly banged the drinks trolley and shouted that aestheticism was a construct of bourgeois imperialism which would be banished from Soviet Russia He was also about to storm out when Eric reached out to calm him and suggested that surely he must concur with the last two motives, that of historical impulse and political purpose – and indeed he was right because Lenin (or Vlad as Vanessa insisted on calling him) pulled out some copies of his April 1917 Theses and explained partly in German and partly in Russian that all his writings were politically driven and historical dialectical materialism is his guiding philosophy – history. Caesar explained that he had a strong sense of historical destiny as he invited us to admire not only his monograph on the conquest of Gaul but also that he had led the campaign – and he was particularly pleased with his alliterative triptych of Latin verbs – Veni, vidi, vici, saying that this clever use of language gave him special aesthetic joy and hoped that generations of young Latin scholars would learn and rejoice in this grammatical artifice. Aeschylus was fuming at all this posturing narcissism and eventually interrupted to say that such hubris could only end in calamity (and let’s face it Aeschylus’ tragic heroes never live happily after) and that a Roman acquaintance of Aeschylus had specifically said that Caesar should beware the Ides of March. During all this time , I could not help but notice that James Joyce had been mumbling to himself non stop, without pause or punctuation, pausing only to draw breath and recite a hail Mary and an our father. Vanessa, the skilful hostess, perceiving that the Symposium was running out of steam thanked Eric for his propositions which had been, she opined, so fruitfully explored and wondered if the party might like to relax and do a bit of Yoga. Hitler, who had crept back in to the room, exploded again and said he would only do a Downward Dog if the biggest dog in the room (“that Bolshevik bastard Lenin”) were beneath him and he could piss on him. This furious outburst extinguished any further interest in Yoga from the rest of the party except strangely for James Joyce, who said that he was prepared to do his party piece which is to stand on one leg in the tree position, whilst drinking a glass of Guinness and singing Galway Bay between slurps. JJ as we now call him put on a great show and even did an encore (although he was a bit tired). What a great symposium and so unexpected. I can hardly believe it.

Birds on Eilean Shona in Winter

by Peter Cowdrey Jan 2018

I'm cosily installed by the fire in a cottage on Eilean Shona off Ardnamurchan, a 2000 acre island where I am on a winter retreat. I look out over the waters of the South Channel of Loch Moidart towards the imposing 14th century ruin of Castle Tioram. This panorama is the backdrop for a steady stream of avian comings and goings; through binoculars I sometimes see a flock of rock doves, wild cousins of the feral pigeons found in cities, wheeling around the ramparts of the castle; on the water are small parties of red breasted-mergansers, raffish males leading dowdy females, sometimes a solitary goldeneye, once a male eider; occasionally a peregrine dashes across, hoping to surprise a dove or a duck. Jet-black shags dive, then fly off to dry their wings on the rocks. One afternoon a handsome great northern diver worked its way along the channel, spending almost as much time under water as on it. In the evenings the imposing form of the resident juvenile sea eagle (they are sometimes known as flying barn doors) wings its way across on its way to roost. The constantly changing wave patterns occasionally break to reveal the rounded head of a passing otter. Angular herons from a nearby heronry stalk the shallows, keeping an eye open for sea eagles, who regard them as both food and competition. The magnificent 19th century plantations provide refuge for many of the island's small birds. Blue tits are concentrated in a single mobile flock of 100 or so, frequently joined by great tits, goldcrests, coal tits (already breaking occasionally into their see-saw song); a variety of other birds seem to tag along loosely for security, chaffinches, blackbirds, song thrushes, a few redwings from Scandinavia. Inquisitive robins fly over to investigate you, dunnocks and wrens skulk in the undergrowth; jays announce your arrival with raucous screeches in the gnarled oaks. There are other, more elusive flocks around-it is worth getting to know the wheezing call of siskins and the rattling of redpolls if you want to see them. Once over the wind I heard the "chup-chup-chup"s of a group of crossbills, but could not locate them. The island's resident pairs of great-spotted woodpeckers are most easily found by following their their far-carrying "tchick". On walks there have been periods of sunlit stillness, the air full of the exuberant piping of oystercatchers and the mournful song of curlews, punctuated by the deep croaking of ravens; at other times the wind blows up and it is hard to imagine how birds can survive-we almost tripped over an unfortunate heron which seemed to be giving up the struggle. At this time of year there are few birds on the windswept tops, just a few wisps of meadow pipits and the odd woodcock, for whom even when it blows a gale the west coast is mild compared to their frozen breeding grounds in Russia. Large numbers fly over the North Sea on full moons in November and December, and slowly work their way westwards in search of milder air. There has been a big freeze inland while I am here, and today on a path through boggy woodland I put up a dozen woodcock, where last week there were none. When I emerged into the open the young sea eagle flew straight over my head, checking me out and causing the hinds on the hill to freeze. Eilean Shona's birds do not always give themselves up easily; however, over time the island gives up its secrets, and after almost two weeks I am still adding a new bird or two to my list nearly every day.

Voices of Shona

by Florence Devereux Oct 2017

In the summer of 2016, the stars aligned and I was lucky enough to stay on Eilean Shona for two and a half months. As anyone who has visited Shona could imagine, my time during holidays and study periods that I had spent on the island while growing up, seeped into my soul and the magical ‘look out’ isle stole my heart. Spending time on Shona as the daughter of the temporary guardians in the long line of eccentrics that have taken helm of the island, has been the greatest joy of my life. My love of nature lead me to write my masters thesis on environmental philosophy and I developed a strong sense that the island could help humanity during this period of alienation and reconnect with the earth. Her gentle wilderness seemed to speak through me and say, ‘I can help here'. With this sense reverberating through me, I headed to Schumacher College, a center of ecological studies in Devon to learn with indigenous teachers from around the world. I felt the responsibility of being a guardian of wilderness and wanted to learn from cultures that lived symbiotically with Nature for countless generations. During my time at the college, I learnt some of the magic ways of living with the natural cycles. My North American teachers told of a culture where the women on their period sleep in circles, with head touching head, and their collective dreams inform the future of the community. Where the grandmas decide when they go to war, as only they are wise enough to know. My Botswanan Bone throwing teacher sent us out in the forest for a night alone, with our spirit animals, the woods and the stars, to listen the forest and hear our vulnerability. I learnt the way of ceremony from Ecuadorian teachers, to communicate gratitude and thanksgiving for the abundance of life. I listened and listen to these ways of humans showing their humbleness to the land that sustains them and heard, ‘the land speak slowly. Before making changes, ask for permission. Show your commitment and listen deeply.’ So it was clear what I was to do! I set my intention and was lucky enough to find a friend, Maria, a Brazilian activist , to join me on this adventure of asking questions and listening to Eilean Shona. And yes, in case your wondering, my siblings and friends thought I had gone loopy, and still to this day it’s hard to put words to the mystery of what happened on the island, but right now, I will try and share some with you. Maria and I set off on our adventure on May the 1st, Beltane, the first day of summer. We arrived to the island as the sun was setting and had our first fire in the woods and pissing rain. As the wind and water wiped about us and we sat under the mighty pines, I suddenly thought, ‘what the bleeding hell are we doing here?’ I felt overwhelmed with the majesty of Shona and very small and foolish saying out loud to the dark, ‘I am here to listen.’ Could I, a gal born in the middle of the metropolis London really hear the sounds of this mighty wilderness? But Maria kept her hands pressed to the earth and we made our prayers and I knew that I was in for the ride. The next morning when we woke, the island was pregnant with summer, the green shoots not yet fully unraveled and you could feel the hard lick of winter that had spread itself across the island the previous months. Every morning we would walk to the east of the island, down by the water side and welcome in the new day. I introduced Maria to my favorite nooks and crannies of the island and we got busy making our art and counting our blessings to be there. Our first guest was Eve, a fellow student on our course at Schumacher. Eve was our elder, a gentle yet strong community builder from South Africa, who has the gift of hearing the river beneath the river and laughing when we got overwhelmed with ‘nature just showing off now!’ Eve stayed with us for a magical 10 golden May days, with the sun hot and shinning, calling the buds forth and heating up the chilly loch and peaty earth. Each morning we would wake at 6, sit in the kitchen of the main house with a candle burning and tell each other our dreams. Many of our indigenous teachers had spoken of the importance of dreams and how you can receive messages from the land, so we paid attention and each morning we wove a communal cloth of the night workings around a single flickering flame. As the weeks passed Maria and I moved from cottage to cottage, experiencing the different tones of the island. It clouded over while we were in Sawmill and we snugged next to the fire and read stories to one another and carried on with our art making. We were finding our special spots on the island, where the veil felt thin and the silence of Shona thickened around us in mystical blankets. I was drawn to Beach trees, with their vibrant summer leaves and stoic presences. I found place for mediation amongst the silver birch and explored the island with a freedom I had never experienced before. While staying in the blissful spot by the water and old sawmill, Big Change, a charity group came onto the island and we got involved with their workshops on social change for disadvantaged young people in the UK. The sun came out and enjoyed the social activity that mingled with the trees. Another friend came to help us with our mission; Azul dropped onto the island and we moved to the newly renovated Old School House. This is a spot that I had been visiting all my life, in its old and dilapidated guise. My brothers and I had always spooked each other with stories of the old teacher haunting the rooms and I have to say, these old tales whispered in my ears and the darkness of North side of the island brought with it harder times. Azul introduced us to an old North American Indian teaching of taking three days of silence a month over each new moon. Each month there was a different teaching to focus on and while you could cook, paint, sing and express yourself, you were not to read, talk or consume any information. I was lucky enough to do two of these ‘retreats’ while on the island and I loved what the lack of words did for my art and engagement with the land. Over the months we got to know John and Lynn, a couple that had been living on the island for three years, in the remote yet romantic West End spot of Shepherds Cottage. Their isolated location looks directly out over the small isles and every clear night you can see the sun setting behind Eigg and Rhum. On our walks we would drop in for tea and Lynn would have the most delicious cake on the go and John would tell us tales of his climbing adventures. They taught us their ways of knowing the island and seeing the West end being so well taken care of gives me warmth and seeing their beautiful life, a dream for the future! For our final few weeks we were nestled amongst the larches in Red cottage, looking out over the northeast channel, and could watch the sun rise over the molten loch each morning out of the window of our cabin. Another wave of people hit the island for my younger brothers festival, Island Festival. It was amazing to see the island pulsing with a new sound and once again the tempo changed. And then they were gone. And Maria and I had our last few weeks together with the island. By this point we were full of ideas of projects that could happen, but the strongest message from the island was to take things slow. The overwhelming gravitas of such a place requires a patience to work with and I was left feeling humbled and yet empowered by my time there. On the last day I circumnavigated the island alone, visiting my special spots. I ripped pieces of canvas in half, half to take home and half to burry in the ground. Now these cloths rest next to my bed in London. Shona taught me many lessons, with a warm and gentle strength. I left proud of what my parents have achieved there and with a more intimate knowledge of the workings on the island. Projects are developing, but slowly! I feel deeply that she can help heal and inspire and I hope to share the joy she has given to me with those who need it. I so deeply want to spread the love, but have been given the most precious gift of all; wherever I am when I close my eyes I am on the top of the mountain at sunset. I sit on our craggily elegant Shona, her breasts facing out over the Atlantic, taking any winds it might hurl and look out at the inky small Isles and feel the whole world in my heart.

Woodwind

by Nick Hunt Apr 2016

In this era of climate change, we tend to think of the wind solely as resource – just one type of renewable energy that must be harnessed if we are to succeed in transforming our fossil fuel dependent economies into something a little more benign. As with every pragmatic, and technocentric approach to addressing the climate crisis, the natural processes of this planet have little to offer modern humans beyond their utilitarian value. The wind, the source of myths and legends, the muse for countless artists, poets, musicians, and writers is nothing more than a source of energy to be used to power an economic system that must grow, even if nature dies. It is the notion of ‘harnessing’ or ‘capturing’ the energy of the wind that speaks volumes about the way we view the nonhuman world in this age of transcending natural limits. The wind has no independent value or existence outside what we, the human race, determine for it. It is there for us to exploit for our own selfish ends. We are modern humans and, as such, we no longer worship the wind or its gods. Aeolus, Amun, Boreas, Notus, Njord, Bieggolmai, Vayu all died long ago when our modern minds began to rationalise the wonders of a wholly animate world into a dead, clockwork world. In the dominant culture – the one that is globalising norms about how we should see and hear the world – there is nothing sacred about the wind. It is no longer storyteller with an independent existence. There is no spirit that resides in the wind; we know why it blows and western science has little time for stories that involve ways of perceiving that defy the rational mind. Science has rendered the nonhuman world dead and inert – it is there for us to use, and abuse, as we see fit. The wind is so much more than a source of energy – the unremarkable result of differences in atmospheric pressure. It is the teller of tales; the creator of new worlds; the bringer, and taker, of life; the cause of our greatest fears and anxieties; the soother of tired minds; the link between wakeful agitation and somnolent dreams. The wind can expose our greatest vulnerabilities yet, at the same time, force us to find sanctuary in uncharted spaces, both inner and outer. The wind is of the wild and, as such, connects us to that which is desperately in need of our love and respect – the nonhuman world. On Eilean Shona, the wind is a wonderfully fickle component of the island’s ever changing beauty. Even on those days when the forest glades are still, the wind still dances above the trees and caresses the lofty peaks, just enough to make its presence known. It was on such a day that we were able to experience the sound of the wind in the absence of any human generated noise – the anthrophony. Just below the highest point of the island, Beinn a’ Bhàillidh, is a larch forest and it was here that we rested on comfortable moss covered boulders and, actively listened. The wind stirred the forest canopy whilst we sat in calm, stable air. The separation between us, the subject, and the wind, the object of our fascination, created space for reflection. Our reflections were telling. It took us some time to become one with the sound of the wind. The unique structure of the larch tree, a deciduous conifer with many branches and, in this case, late fall needles and cones, creates a highly disturbed air flow which produces a sound that can be likened to ‘white noise.’ The many frequencies of white noise, with equal intensities, can have a powerful effect on the mind of the listener. It can create space for thoughts to rise, flow, and disappear in a meditative series of peaks and troughs. It was in this semi-meditative state that we both experienced the upwelling of memories from distant childhoods. With little attachment we watched memories form, linger, and disappear. These memories were of lazy days spent existing in wild spaces of limited spatial significance. The beauty of being a child is that wilderness is rarely constrained spatially or temporally; children have limitless imaginations providing they have the chance to escape to an untended part of a garden, a small copse, or a derelict piece of land in a city. The essence of what we were remembering was freedom – freedom to exist outside any system that required conformity, or adherence, to a set of beliefs. The wind in the larch trees was taking us back to a time before worries descended as part of adult responsibility. There is a message in the sound of the wind and, in this case, the sound of the wind through trees on Eilean Shona, that needs to be heeded. The message is this. The wind is free and, if listened to, can teach us how to be free – listening to the wind can help us levitate above the modern myths we live by – the myths that tell us to live according to rules that have no place in the natural world. The wind can teach us to meander; to flow; to move according to natural laws, not the arbitrary rules that are dictated to us by those in power. The wind has an independent spirit and, like us, it needs to be allowed to roam, to dwell, to discover, to move at different speeds, to dissipate, and to have days of frenetic activity and long periods of rest. In addition to messages of freedom, the wind reminds us of the interconnection between the animate and inanimate world, for all is part of the dance of life. It is impossible to find the beginning and ending of wind for it is everywhere; like a god, it is omnipotent and omnipresent. The wind, like the mind, and the universe it creates, is a continuum – it is linked to everything and everything is linked to it. Perhaps the most important message the wind can teach us is that in order to address the myriad environmental problems we face, the challenge is not to simply harness the energy of the wind, rather it is to view the wind as a metaphor for the future we have to create – a future where we recognise the connection, and intimacy, between everything on Earth, our only home. With reverence to the wind – the free spirit, not the resource – we have created a piece of music based on the sound of wind recorded on Eilean Shona.

Hermit’s holiday part 2 – the visitor’s book

by Ros Anderson Apr 2015

When I was young, on holiday in a French gite with my family, I remember asking my Dad if he and Mum would be writing in the visitor’s book. I must have been able to write at this time, but unauthorised writing in the visitor’s book by me was obviously unthinkable. ‘No,’ my Dad said. ‘It’s rather pretentious.’ Despite the fact that I’ve grown up to LOVE pretension, and have even been known to disagree with my Dad from time to time, this verdict on the visitor’s book has stuck. They are a guilty pleasure, a little like those round-robin Christmas letters – I relish the peep into other guests’ Pooterish prose, their documenting of every meal, every disappointment of the holiday, and marvel especially at the people moved to a spot of holiday poetry. But I wouldn’t dream of writing in one myself. Sadly I only noticed the visitors’ books for Shore Cottage on the second to last day. 4 hard-backed A4 books on the shelf, each dated with the year. I picked one up expecting to get 10 minutes cheap enjoyment out of sneering, to be honest. But though there was a bit of that (and yes, a lot of poetry to ‘enjoy’), the books were a revelation. I was hooked, and spent the remaining hours reading each entry from the start. Perhaps it is the solitude and lack of evening entertainment that has made people holidaying on the island write in great depth. Each book was full, with a typical entry being around 5 pages long. There were, of course, lots of blow-by-blow accounts of the weather and animals spotted. And an amazing amount of people who’d come without any wet weather gear. But there was so much else besides. I was touched by stories of why people were there – a father and young son on a (post divorce, I assumed) bonding trip. A woman there to grieve the death of her husband (‘Don’t be sorry’ she started her entry). A self-confessed Dalston hipster in Aztec-print leggings styling it out for a week totally on her own in the wilds. And most striking of all, a couple making the trip from Australia to visit the home of their ancestors. They detailed how a family of 11 had left the island in 1852, to sail for 4 months from Tobermoray to Sydney to start a new life, and how they were finally here to see the homeland in person. The books were a wonderful way to discover the history of the island too. Someone mentioned an archeological survey of the island that found it had supported over 100 crofters up until the 1900s. Others were obviously repeat visitors who offered a more recent perspective on how the island had changed over the last 30 years – debates raged between visitors over the addition of a deer fence, and details of the bush fire that swept across the island in 2013 also appear. And we also had the vicarious excitement of reading the testimony of the couple who stayed the week before us. While we basked like seals in the Scottish sun, they had slept on the sofa in front of the fire to keep warm and suffered a wind and hail-lashed boat trip culminating in a midnight trek back across the island with their shopping. Thanks to these wonderful books I discovered so much about the island I wouldn’t have known, found out that the ‘adder’ we recoiled from was in fact a slow worm, and what to do if the water stopped running (answer, go to the stream and check for blockages). Even better, we discovered that the full set of visitors’ books from all the cottages – plus the afore-mentioned archeological survey – are available to read in the ‘Village Hall’ (pictured above and above) on the other side of the island. If I ever go again this is where I’ll spend every rainy day, reading. And as for me… I still didn’t leave a comment in the visitors’ book. I wanted to feel as invisible as I had during the rest of this magical week. But to the other writers in the books – I salute you. Even the poets.