We have been travelling for over seven weeks now, winding through the craggy peaks and heather wrapped slopes of the Highlands and the Inner Hebrides. My eye has become so accustomed to the wide open skies and the lonely mountain vistas of this land that memories of my London home seem distant in the extreme. Our next stop is the Outer Hebrides, so as our ferry arrives late one evening in Tarbert on the Isle of Harris, I am expecting a familiar landscape, but I quickly realise everything has changed.
The forestries, shrubs and pastures have gone, along with all semblance of softness. Everywhere is grey gneiss rock with a thin layer of soil and scrub grass. As we drive along the main road south from Tarbert, small lochs, edged by heather and bog cotton, appear one after the other in quick succession until we speed through an alien land strobing grey and silver in the evening half light. Eventually the road opens out onto a causeway and we drive across a vast estuary of pale golden sand and mirrors of light so arresting we decide we have to stay. I thought my eye was filled with the beauty of this land at the edge of the western world, but as we set up the van and settle down for the night, I am drawn constantly to the edge of the sand, simply to stand and stare. The size of the landscape, the rock peaks and this endless beach with its gleaming tidal pools imparts an immense sense of loneliness, at once both thrilling and terrifying.
…I realise with delight that it’s a deer, wreathed in lilac and dancing in the midnight twilight.
Eventually we move inside and continue to quietly watch the beach while clutching steaming mugs of hot chocolate. A sudden movement catches my eye and I watch in apprehension as a flickering wraith moves across the sands, running, pausing, leaping. After a couple of tense moments I realise with delight that it’s a deer, wreathed in lilac and dancing in the midnight twilight.
The following day is a Sunday, and with all businesses on the island closed for the day, we decide to explore our beach front spot, cycling, reading and watching the tide slowly cover the pale sands at our feet. The map tells us we are on Luskentyre beach, a vast stretch of sand, salt marsh and machair grassland on the western edge of Harris, looking out to Taransay island. This area is virtually uninhabited, with a population of just 1916, but it has a long history of occupation. The land is scattered with standing stones and cairns, iron-age brochs, Viking hoards, clan castles, simple crofts and twentieth century war memorials. Despite its isolation, there is not much in British history that hasn’t reached here.