travelers-tales

By Sue Parman

Eighteenth Annual Solas Awards Grand Prize Gold Winner 

“You can’t get there from here.”

The young woman working in the Tourist Office in Stornoway pointed to the map between us. Stornoway was on the Island of Lewis and Harris, the largest island in a hundred-and-thirty-mile chain of islands called the Scottish Outer Hebrides that lay, like the fossilized skeleton of a giant fish, some forty miles west of the Scottish mainland. Forty-five miles to the south of Stornoway lay the island of Berneray where I wanted to go in order to visit a Danish anthropologist named Susanne Barding.

The Outer Hebrides contained over a hundred islands, only fifteen of which were inhabited. Lewis and Harris, at over 800 square miles, was the largest and northernmost, and Berneray, at less than four square miles, was one of the smallest. This was 1970, and there was no ferry or airline connection. To get to Berneray, I’d have to travel thirty-six miles south to the town of Tarbert, catch a ferry to Uig on the Isle of Skye (thirty miles to the southeast across the Minch), then take another ferry (29 miles back across the Minch) to North Uist, the island just to the south of Berneray. In the town of Lochmaddy on the east coast of North Uist a bus would pick me up and drop me at the northernmost stop across from Berneray, but there was no public transportation over to Berneray itself.

I already knew I couldn’t get there from here. I hadn’t driven my little scooter seventeen miles through rain and wind from the west side of Lewis to be treated as a tourist, but to tap into that cultural level of community knowledge that fueled the engine of Hebridean survival. Only two months into a year and a half of anthropological fieldwork, I was already familiar with the barriers to economic and social mobility in crofting communities.

Crofting was created in the nineteenth century to preserve and invigorate rural communities in the Highlands and Islands by ensuring low rent and security of tenure for small plots of land. Crofters didn’t own their crofts so they couldn’t sell them, and the crofts were too small to provide a living through agriculture alone, so crofters supplemented their income through various means, those means—particularly the weaving of Harris Tweed—being what I had come here to study. During the past two months I had begun to distinguish between above-board, legal strategies for earning a living and those that might best be described as sketchy. I might be told that Murdo earned eight pounds a week from weaving Harris Tweed for Derick’s mill, but I also knew about the three tweeds he was hiding in the loom shed so as not to appear greedy. I knew that Uisdean continued to weave despite disability payments, and that the only reason Shoris had applied for a waterlogged croft was to qualify for a Department of Agriculture loan to build a house; he had no intention of working the croft.

Everyone on the island had been told their entire lives that they couldn’t get there from here. They were shamed for speaking Gaelic, ridiculed for dressing like west-siders rather than townies, criticized for speaking out for their rights (a typical memorial published in the Stornoway Gazette praised a dead person for his voice never being heard in the community), forced to stand in church for minor infractions, and judged harshly in the white-hot fire of gossip. But despite all these barriers, they continued to negotiate the impossible distance between here and there.

The only thing that mattered now was whether the young woman behind the counter was a local girl or a Sasunnach, an English-speaking mainlander. Many island women had dark hair and porcelain white skin, whereas this woman had plump red cheeks and brown hair.

The door opened behind me, and a man entered. He nodded to the girl and said, “Da naidheachd?” to which she answered, “Cha chuala mi.”

What news?

I haven’t heard.

At that, I knew I would be okay. “Tha fluich,” I said. Fluich wasn’t just rain; the Gaelic word was used for heavy downpours and implied Can you believe this weather? Come in and have a cup of tea.

The two exchanged a few words and then he left. The girl looked down at the map and said in a quiet voice, as if she didn’t want anyone else to hear, “This isn’t an official recommendation, but if you were to show up tomorrow morning at 6 a.m., you might be able to catch a lift with Calum MacLean’s bread van. That would take you as far as Rodel at the tip of Harris. How you get across from there—”

Her delicate hands wiped the air clean between us, like a magical gesture to ward off responsibility for suggesting a plan that was sure to fail.

Failure was always the default. Getting off the booze, the dole, the unhappy love affair. Leaving home only to return when a family member became ill. Assigning blame to biology (“That family was always like that”). Seeing my scooter parked at the side of the road and assuming I was dying in a hospital in Stornoway.

There was no guarantee that Calum would show up the next morning. Obligations were complex in the islands. I was often invited for a visit, only to show up and find that no one was home.

At 6 a.m. I waited at the Tourist Office. No Calum. Maybe he had gotten a call to pick up his nephew from the airport; perhaps his wife’s sister asked him to drop her at her mother’s house in Ness. Time flexed to make way for community relationships.

At 6:30 Calum drove up, opened the door of his small van, and gestured toward the small space on the floor he had created for me, lined with his anorak.  I climbed in and was engulfed by the semi-sour smell of heavy white bread that stood upright on the battered wooden trays like the stones of Callanish.

Once we were outside Stornoway, he pulled over to the side of the road, opened the back, and invited me to join him in the front. I realized that he hadn’t wanted anyone in town to see us together. On the west side every house had binoculars with which they scanned the treeless countryside, and in town people were alert for any action out of the ordinary. Calum driving in town with a woman not his wife would spark rumors that he was having an affair, whereas Calum driving with the same woman on the rural roads would be doing the kindness of giving someone a lift. Since arriving on Lewis, I often dreamed of skies filled with eyes.

A small, wiry man in his forties, Calum drove silently over the treeless moorlands dotted with lochs that led south toward Harris.  As the flat landscape of Lewis’s pocked gneiss gave way to Harris’s mountainous spurs, Calum turned the van deftly into the pull-outs to let other cars go by, climbing steadily along single-track roads where tiny croft houses, almost invisible in the constant mist-rain, clung to stony cliffs.  We passed brackish pools with raised beds where ingenious crofters once cultivated oats, barley, or potatoes.  An occasional bundle of Harris Tweed lay unprotected at the side of the road, waiting for the mill van to pick it up. Harris Tweed was defined as tweed woven by crofters in their own homes in the Outer Hebrides, but every aspect of production except the weaving was now controlled by the mills. Crofters who once sheared their own sheep, spun the yarn, and dyed it with island plants and lichen now did only the weaving, being classified as self-employed and paid eight pounds per twenty-yard tweed using yarn spun and dyed by the mills that used wool shipped in from the mainland. Mill vans delivered the yarn, along with preset patterns, and picked them up a week or two later. Who was given tweeds was a topic of extensive discussion and rumor about favoritism.

Islands began to multiply on the horizon, the tide leaving its mark in dark rings of seaweed hanging from green-crowned cliffs. At noon Calum pulled into a pub in the harbor town of Tarbert, located on a narrow neck of land, less than half a mile wide, that joined south Harris with north Harris and Lewis. Lord Leverhulme of Lever Brothers soap fame and fortune, who bought Lewis in 1918 and Harris in 1919, once planned to excavate the isthmus with a canal that joined the two sea lochs on either side as part of his fishing plans. Seven years later he was dead of pneumonia, his vast schemes in tatters for reasons that still have the islanders at each other’s throats.

In the pub Calum ordered a half-pint of lager for me and a pint and whiskey chaser for himself.  I asked him about his delivery schedule. “Schedule?  I’m my own man, I make my own schedule.”  He had heard I was trying to get to Berneray. “You’ll find a way,” he said.  “Or else you won’t.”

It was almost 3:00 when Calum let me off at the Rodel Hotel, a large rambling structure slouching toward decay that had once been the home of Captain Alexander MacLeod of Berneray who bought Harris in 1779. This was as far as I could go by car.  From here I needed a boat, and hoped to find one in the small harbor outside the hotel that would take me across for a fee. The only boat I could see was a rowboat whose bottom planks had rotted out.

I entered the hotel.  No one was at the reception desk, and as I stood in the chilled, stale air, I wondered if the hotel was closed.

I wandered down the hall and found myself in the dining room.  A young man sat at a table, but there was no sign that the table had been set for tea.  He wore an expensive green tweed suit, blue linen shirt, and hand-made leather boots, looking wealthy enough to own the hotel or possibly the whole island.  Another Lord Leverhulme, perhaps.  Leverhulme bought Harris after pouring hundreds of thousands of pounds into Lewis and being rejected by crofters who wanted land rather than a job run by a colonial industrialist.  When he died in 1925, his son sold the estate for nine hundred pounds.

I sat down at another table, and within minutes the young man plopped noisily into a chair beside me.  “Not another human being in the place,” he said, “And the bloody locals are taking an age over my tea.”  His accent was that of a colonial Englishman swallowing a boiled egg, with a dash of Yankee twang.  I saw that the blue shirt had grime around the collar, the tweed was rumpled, and it looked as though at least a week had passed since the last time he shaved.

The double doors at the end of the dining room swung open, and a young woman staggered in with a load of dishes that she deposited on a sideboard.  Unlike the ruddy-cheeked, brown-haired woman in the Tourist Information Center, she had the pale, translucent skin and thick black hair commonly found on the islands.  I stood up and said, “Excuse me—“

She swung around and marched back into the kitchen, ignoring both of us.

“What did I tell you?” said my new table mate.  “My de-ah, I can’t tell you what a trial it’s been, living here with no one to talk to.  It’s the blahsted locals, I’ve come to despise them.”

He held out his hand, and I saw the gleam of a chunky gold watch on his wrist. “Lake Winn,” he said. “I’m based in Milan, but I’m here doing research on heraldry.  It’s my mad passion at the moment.  Have you seen Alistair Crotach MacLeod’s tomb in the church next door?”

I had a sudden vision of sailing into Berneray on a yacht.  He was the kind of person who would have one.  I shook his hand and said, “I just arrived. I’m trying to get to Berneray.”

“Whatever for? Come take a look at the church. MacLeod’s tomb is priceless.” He jumped to his feet and placed a hand on my back.

I got to my feet and moved out from under his hand. “What do you do in Milan?” I asked.

“I own an advertising business.  I’ve just spent five years touring the world with my girlfriend, but that broke up recently, and Mummy thought it would be best if I stayed here awhile.  I’m making shields out of lead, painting them—rather original work, if I do say so.  But the blahsted place spoils my powers of concentration.”

A mad dash through the pouring rain brought us to the jewel of St. Clement’s, a small church constructed in rubble masonry, cruciform in shape, with a square tower four stories high.  I followed him into the dark nave past simple plaques inscribed with Gaelic epitaphs to a large wall tomb that with its hunting scene beside Dunvegan castle could only be the tomb of Alistair Crotach MacLeod, a 16th century clan chief. Lake Winn stood beside the effigy of MacLeod, the two of them surrounded by angels, apostles, the Virgin Mary, and God himself.

“Give us a kiss,” he said suddenly, and made a lunge for me.

The church was very dark and smelled of mildew. “No,” I said, but he pushed me back against the hard stone of the crypt.  Like the crofters, I had been raised to be polite, not to make a fuss.  I thought of Leverhulme pressing down on the crofters, forcing them to keep to his schedule, kicking them out of their houses as he did when he ran the “model community” of Port Sunlight in Merseyside.

I jabbed an elbow into his eye, and he bellowed and staggered back, a look of surprise and outrage on his face.  Perhaps Leverhulme had the same look when the people of Lewis—portrayed as stone-age conservatives who didn’t know what was good for them—refused his philanthropy.

Round one for me and the crofters.

I ran out of the church and slammed through the front door of the hotel—still no one there at the reception desk—and dodged down a dark passageway lined with rooms.  Behind me, the front door crashed open, and I heard the clunk of heavy Italian-made boots running across the old floorboards in the direction of the dining room. I continued down the dark corridor and turned a corner.

More rooms.  The hotel was huge but deserted, except for a large dog that lay sprawled across the corridor in front of an open door. The room beyond the open door was dark.  I wondered if the dog was dead.  I stood and listened for footsteps.

The dog thumped its tail.  I knelt down and touched the dense fur.  The old, fat golden retriever whined and gave me a sloppy kiss.  I plunged my head into its fur, breathing in the scent of damp dog and peat smoke.

From the dark room a voice boomed, “Blondie is ready for her afternoon whisky, and so am I.  Come in and join us.”

The dog struggled to her feet and waddled into the room. I followed her.  She plopped down at the feet of a man sitting in a tweed-covered armchair.  Tall, with a long head connected to his rangy body with taut neck muscles, he looked about 60.  “You must be that American anthropologist living on the west side of Lewis,” he said.  “I’m MacCallum.”

I recognized the name.  “You’re the County Councillor for this area, aren’t you?” I asked.  Also the owner of the hotel.  I sat and he handed me a whisky. I drank it down, the liquid burning its way through my empty stomach. “That man—“ I said.

“I assume you’re talking about Lake Winn.”  MacCallum poured some milk into a saucer and added a drop of whisky, which Blondie lapped up.  “He was born in the U.S., partly educated in an English prep school.  His mother, whom he mentions in every third sentence, brought him here and left him, like a whale stranded on a beach.  I told her to give the address of where to send his remains, he’ll not last the summer.”

I imagined Lake Winn being buried in Rodel and haunting the blahsted locals because they hadn’t buried him in Alistair Crotach MacLeod’s crypt.

“I’m trying to get to Berneray,” I said.

He pulled on an old-fashioned bell-ringer, and the girl with dark hair and fairy-pale skin that I had seen in the dining room entered.  They exchanged a flurry of Gaelic too fast for me to understand.

“Go with Mairi,” he said.  “She’ll give you some tea in the kitchen.”  As we left he cackled and asked Mairi, “Is that damn yank still waiting for his tea?”

“He can wait a bit longer,” said Mairi, her cheeks bright with color.

Mairi led me by a circuitous route that skirted the dining room, and in the kitchen picked up the phone.  “My cousin Donald Angus lives on Berneray, and if he’s not out fishing, he may be willing to come across for you.  He’ll charge you, of course.”

“That’s fine,” I said, not even asking how much he might charge.  It didn’t matter, as long as he got me there from here.

Speaking to me in English, Mairi had been soft-spoken and tentative, but when she launched into Gaelic on the telephone, she was a high-pitched hurricane.  After three minutes she hung up the phone and brushed her hands as if wiping off the remains of an unpleasant task.  “He’ll be across to get you when the tide comes in,” she said. I gathered that he had been reluctant. I wondered how much our common dislike of Lake Winn had contributed to her vehemence.

An hour and a half later, floating on the crest of the tide, a flaxen-haired, rosy-cheeked lad in a light-weight jacket drifted into the seaweed-draped harbor on a boat smaller than those I had seen in the Stornoway harbor.  It was also flatter so that when Donald Angus stood at its head and manipulated the motor controls with his feet, he looked as though he were walking on water.

I thanked Mairi, got on board, and we took off.  Several miles from Rodel, the engine coughed and died.  The boat drifted perilously close to seaweed-coated rocks, dipping and turning in the translucent green sea.  Donald Angus, looking unconcerned, whittled some shavings from a piece of board and dribbled them into the motor.  A veil of boiling blackness swept down from the sky, pelting the boat with icy rain, leaving dark dimples on the sea.

The motor coughed, sparked, and roared to life, and the boat surged along the channel markers designed to lead ships safely through the broken landscape.  The boat skimmed past green-lidded islands, and Donald Angus pointed out the cone of Pabbay that was evacuated in 1847 because the crofters were distilling whisky.  Far to the east were the ragged, smoldering cliffs of Skye.

The sky turned the color of prunes dipped in the cold molten color of late twilight in a northern country.  I lay down at the front of the boat so that I was almost nose to nose with the curious seals that dived playfully around golden pillars of stone, their glistening heads merging with the blue-gray skin of the sea.  The landscape tasted of age, of ancient mountains taller than the Alps now eroded to low stumps.  I was almost frozen to the deck when Donald Angus drove the boat into the smooth harbor of Berneray.

I had arrived:  I was here in the there to which I had been told I couldn’t go.

The small community was laid out in a model township:  a single road lined with houses.  An old crofter wearing a brown tweed hat and thin jersey was leaning against a stone pillar as I staggered off the boat.  His face was seamed with creases and as brown as peat.

Ciamar a tha thu?” I greeted him.  How are you?

He spat on the ground, looked up at the sky, lifted his cap and scratched his head.  “You’ll be the American,” he said in English.  “Susanne is staying with Mrs. MacInnon.”

I waited for him to say something else, but he seemed preoccupied with the sky.  Everyone on the west side of Lewis watched the sky. The primary topic of conversation was the weather, which was either rainy or about to rain.

I said tentatively, “Where—”

He pointed to the single road that marched up the hill.  “Just follow the Great Western Road,” he said, as if we were in Glasgow and he was directing me to its major thoroughfare.

I followed the road to a two-story house made of stone and roofed with mossy slate.  Although I had learned that neighbors always entered a house through the back door directly into the kitchen, I was a stranger here and went to the front door.  A woman with a pinched, thin face and stone-gray hair opened the door when I knocked.  “Mrs. MacInnon is ill and Susanne is away,” she said abruptly and shut the door in my face.

At no time since I had arrived in Scotland had a door closed against me.  The Hebrides were synonymous with gracious hospitality.  Had I misunderstood Susanne’s letter?  Had I gotten the date wrong?

As I stood on the cold doorstep, the “here” to which I thought I had gotten began to disintegrate.  My sense of reality thinned.  Perhaps there was no “there” anywhere—only the process of traveling.

A woman scurried up the darkening road below me.  As she came up the steps she removed her head scarf, revealing a plump, ruddy face and dancing dark eyes.  “I’m Mrs. MacInnon’s niece,” she said, pushing open the door.  “Don’t mind Nurse MacLeod.  Susanne’s on the other side of the island but should be back soon.  Come in!  Come in!”

Installed in front of a glowing fire with the requisite glass of whisky, I sat until Susanne returned.  She swept in full of apologies, a long-haired girl who looked sixteen but was really twenty-three.  “You said you were coming but I didn’t really believe you,” she said, and immediately blushed.  “That sounds rude.  What I mean is that often the people here say one thing but do another, depending on the demands placed on them.  You can count on them in general but not in particular.”

I felt like hugging her.  For the first time in two months, I had someone I could speak freely with.  “They’ll give you the shirt off their backs if you need it, but if you’re expecting someone to always be there when they say they’ll be there—”

“Good luck,” she finished my thoughts.

We stayed up late, sharing the mutual topics of our anthropological agenda—joking relationships, sex at the midnight dances, the decline in population.  In the morning Mrs. MacInnon brought milk in a whisky bottle still warm from the cow, and Donald Angus brought fish so fresh that when Nurse MacLeod twisted their heads off, their hearts lay beating on the cutting board.

Donald Angus asked if he could speak with me, and I stepped outside where a gale-force wind almost blew me over.  We moved to the lea of the house where we looked down at the small harbor.  “I’ll have to take you back today,” he said.  “I can’t be operating my boat on Sunday.”

I knew about the strict Sabbatarian rules in the Protestant northern isles and had been prepared for a short visit.  “How much do I owe you?”

He didn’t look at me as he said, “Twenty-five pounds.”

If he had been looking, he would have seen the shock on my face.  Twenty-five pounds was more than six weeks’ rent.  According to my stunned calculations, it was costing me as much to go fifteen miles through the Harris channel to Berneray as to fly between Edinburgh and London.

I took out my wallet and counted out the notes, which left me with exactly one pound until I could get back to my bank in Edinburgh.  I didn’t want to begin to think about the gap between the here and there of my budget.  He pocketed the notes and told me to be down at the harbor at 1:00 that afternoon.

Susanne and I spent the morning on the machair, a vast region of white sand dunes riotous with small purple flowers.  I lay spreadeagled on the soft sand, relaxing for the first time since I arrived in Scotland.  Shedding the armor of our professional personae, we talked like long-lost friends sharing thoughts about home, future plans, and the professional barriers faced by women.

At 12:45 we said goodbye and I walked down the Great Western Road to the harbor to meet Donald Angus.

The old crofter with the peat-stained corduroy face was there leaning against the stone pillar, looking up at the sky.  There was no sign of Donald Angus.

I thought about the trip and wondered if it had been a mistake.  I hadn’t learned a thing about crofting that I didn’t know already, and had driven my limited resources to a new, perhaps disastrous, low. And yet I felt thunderously, furiously happy, my blood warm and refusing to cool in the freezing wind.  I felt a surge of pride and vindication. Take that, Mr. Lahart, for always calling on the boys in fifth grade and never recognizing my raised hand. Take that, George in Music Theory class, for betting me a dollar I couldn’t write a hundred variations on “Greenslaves” and then refusing to pay up. And to my father who said it was a shame I was a girl or I might have accomplished something. I realized now why I had come: to experience the joy of being lost and knowing I could always somehow find my way.

A twist of purple rain appeared and then vanished.  For a few minutes the sun coated the green sea with gold leaf, but a gray veil of light rain soon dimmed the light.  The crofter took a tin from his pocket, selected a thin paper and dumped a small portion of tobacco onto the paper.  His tongue stuck out between his stained teeth as he concentrated on rolling the cigarette, but his hands were stiff, the knuckles thick with arthritis, and it took him a while to accomplish the task.

When the cigarette was finally clamped between his teeth, and he had lit it with a match protected by his cupped hand, he said, “You’ll be waiting for Donald Angus.”

I stood in the rain looking out at the empty sea.  It was customary here for people conversing to look almost everywhere except at each other.

After a few minutes he said, “He’s having trouble with the motor.  He’s taken it off to fix.”

“Did he say when he’d be here?”

“It depends,” he said, “On whether it can be fixed.”

I thought it more probable that Donald Angus had gotten a call that the herring were running, or that his aunt or sister or neighbor needed a lift to South Uist.  I thought of the fact that tomorrow was Sunday, and Monday I needed to be in Edinburgh.  “I have to get back to Rodel,” I said.

A broad grin stretched across his face—the grin of an aging, pitiless god who has seen too many things to care about anything in particular.  “That’s too bad,” he said, “Because you can’t get there from here.”

~ ~ ~

Sue Parman is an anthropologist and award-winning author who writes in a number of genres, from poetry and anthropological travel memoirs to horror, science fiction, and fairy tales. Her work has been published in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, The Antioch Review, Lumina, Slant, The Hiram Poetry Review, VoiceCatcher, Journeys, Bewildering Stories, and other journals and anthologies. She is the author of Scottish Crofters, based on a year and a half of fieldwork in the Scottish Outer Hebrides in 1970-71.