The Magic of the Outer Hebrides - a Place for Edge Dwellers
We have just returned from an incredible trip to the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides.
It’s funny how things happen and how seeds are sown. A good few year’s ago now a friend gave me a CD of Stornoway’s music and I was rather curious about the name. What was this Stornoway? Well Stornoway happens to be the main town on the Isle of Lewis and that got me thinking, what would life be like living on an island so far North.
Then a few years later I happened upon an episode of Island Parish, which was set on the tiny island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides and it just looked like one of the potentially amazing places on this Earth, what with the runway on the beach and there being so few people and beautiful beaches. I had a look into it, but it seemed rather complicated to access and Elijah was only little at the time.
So it followed that 18 months or so later, I came across Sharon Blackie’s amazing book If Women Rose Rootedand here she writes about the four years she spent living in a remote part of Lewis, and there was something about what she said, about living on an edge, that resonated with me and I thought to myself, I have to visit this place.
So that’s what we did. I’m not sure E knew what to make of my decision to travel up to the Outer Hebrides with the boys being the age they are (2 and 4). He half heartedly looked at some of the accommodation I showed him as I spent hours trawling through this over a year ago now. I’m sure he nodded at all the right times, and tried to show a little bit more interest in the hire car, given that it was a car and he likes those!
But truthfully both of us were a bit blind and it really was an intuitive thing. I emailed about some accommodation but they never got back to me and instead the same cottage kept catching my attention. I took it as a sign eventually, especially when the booking was made easily. Sometimes you just have to flow and trust, even though you have no idea where you might end up.
We ended up in the middle of nowhere, just under an hour’s drive from Stornoway, arriving in the dark, on a Sunday evening (when all shops are shut, the petrol station that is open that day closes at 4pm, al other shops observe Sunday closing), so that we had no real idea of where we were until the following morning. It was a fitful night sleep for me as I was obsessed at that point in seeing the Northern Lights and kept getting up to look at out of the window, not really knowing which direction I was looking, and with no awareness that ahead of me was a huge hill, so I wouldn’t have seen them even if they had been shining that night!
The next morning dawned bright and very cold and windy and what a treat to find that we had a view of the sea from the kitchen window. We wrapped up in our layers, laughing because days ago I’d been wearing flip-flops and swimming easily in the sea back home and now it was utterly freezing and I wasn’t sure that I was going to put a hand in the sea, let alone my entire body!
The pebbly beach below our homely croft, reminded me of Petit Bot, and I had this strange feeling as we arrived that a seal was going to pop up (as keeps happening this last year) and lo and behold a few minutes later and this is exactly what happened. It freaked me out a little because I had been talking to a friend about seals the day before we left Guernsey and she had reminded me of the Selkie story in If Women Rose Rooted, which I had re-read the night before our trip and here again the sign…queue reading up on the spiritual reason for seeing seals…always insightful!
Thus began a magical week of wonderfulness. This is most definitely a place that just keeps giving. We loved its raw and wild nature that had us awestruck time and time again with the changing light – there’s so much light here – and the skies that were utterly mesmerising. This is the land of rainbows and of stunning and empty beaches, of peat and bogs and hills in the distance, and of kind and generous people, and of community and freedom and this overwhelming sense of just letting things be.
What struck me the most though was the fact there was something so ancient about the place. The predominant rock type is Lewisian Gneiss, a metamorphic rock which is astonishingly up to 3 billion years old, making it the oldest rock in Britain – two thirds the age of the Earth – and one of the oldest in the world. It’s stunningly beautiful and I was blown away by the concentric rings on many of the pebbles which looked too perfect to be real.
Furthermore, Lewis is home to the Callanish stones. Now I admit that this was a major draw for me, although I knew nothing about them until I visited, and was certainly not disappointed. Wow! I love stones and stone circles in particular and I hadn’t realised that by visiting Callanish, we were completing the magical four – Callanish, Stonehenge and two we had happened upon quite by chance at Carnac and Avebury.
These ones are something else though, so unassuming, left to just do their own thing without the need for fencing or anything which means the general public have total access. They’re ancient too, believed to have been erected 5,000 years ago (thus predating Stonehenge) and believed to be an important place for ritual activity for at least 2,000 years.
What I also hadn’t realised is that there are actually three stone circles at Callanish all within a mile of one another. We chanced upon Callanish III, which is the medium sized one and has four remarkable stones within the main ring, three of which are thought to represent the ancient Celtic triple goddess. I trekked across the boggy peat in my wellies, a poorly Eben in arms, to have a feel.
I really like to touch stones, to somehow get to know them. I’m not sure whether that makes me weird or not, but there’s something rather lovely about feeling such an ancient energy that has borne witness to thousands of years of life on this beautiful planet. I like to try to get a feel with my pendulum too but I quickly realised that the constant wind wasn’t going to make that very easy, plus Eben was proving a bit of challenge.
You see for some reason he hated the stones and started screaming as soon as we entered the circle, even though I had asked permission to do so (as I feel this is very respectful to the ancient circle keepers and energies), which made me feel a little uneasy because he is usually very good natured. I tried to put my hands on the stones but this made him scream louder, so I took a few photos and retreated to the car to hand him over to E.
I returned on my own and settled against one of the stones, and felt peaceful, resting up there on my own with the incredible view ahead of Cailleach na Mòintich, a group of hills that resemble the sleeping woman. I then traipsed 200 metres or so over the boggy land to a smaller circle. I felt safe here too, and had a sense that this was a very special place affording views of the main stone circle in front of me – I had no idea of its vastness, it’s rather extraordinary.
It was a treat to be here on my own. That’s the beauty of Lewis, it is wild and free and raw. The wind was howling and the skies were cloudy, threatening rain that never came and so the light kept shifting. Here I sat totally on my own. On my own. Totally on my own at ancient stone circles. That’s just so unusual, you certainly don’t get that opportunity at Stonehenge and actually the time I got to touch those stones was mid-summer sunrise when there were thousands of other people there too. It was a treat I can tell you.
We drove a little further up the road and E and I carried the two boys up to the main circle, but this was slightly challenged by their indifference to the stones and their desire to be looking at the mower at the visitor’s centre instead! Queue sighing from me. We’d come all this way and all Eben could say was “mower, mower, mower”, while Elijah moaned about wanting to see the decrepit tractor in a nearby field again. It’s comical really!
Still we persevered and having asked for permission again and with Eben still in arms I stepped into the circle only for him to start screaming again. I put my hand on one of the stones and he literally peeled my hand off it. I was so surprised I did it again. Same reaction. I couldn’t believe it. There was something that he absolutely didn’t like about these stones. So we walked back down to the visitor centre and the mower and the views of the rusting tractor, and I had to laugh at how children put a totally different spin on things!
Still I then got to go back to the circle on my own and I happened to arrive at the same time as two guys, one of whom was educating the other one into the history of the stones and I heard for the first time that this is believed to be a moon circle. Of course! It suddenly made sense and I almost laughed out loud because that very morning on the seal beach, and for the first time ever, Eben (in arms again, won’t walk - my arms got super strong this week!), pushed my head and pointed up to “moo….”. Ah yes, a half moon was visible in the sky. And that very morning I had a strange urge to wear moonstone, which I had brought on holiday with me but haven’t worn for a while.
And here now in the circle, I realised there are 13 stones, presumably representing the 13 moons in the year. The stone circle is actually contained within a Celtic cross, which makes it even more extraordinary. The guess is that the standing stones were erected as a kind of astronomical observatory. Patrick Ashmore, who excavated the site in the early 1980s writes,“The most attractive explanation…is that every 18.6 years, the moon skims especially low over the southern hills. It seems to dance along them, like a great god visiting the earth. Knowledge and prediction of this heavenly event gave earthly authority to those who watched the skies”.
It’s certainly a very special site even without the moon skimming! There’s just something about its energy and its ancientness (is that even a word?!). I walked around a little bit and touched some stones and tried to do some dowsing. However, I started to feel a little unease and I crouched against one of the stones out of the wind and it felt to me that someone was saying, “please leave us in peace now and go to your family”. So that’s what I did. It felt the right thing to do.
That same afternoon we headed up to the very north of the island to Ness, stopping at a lovely beach at Shawbost on the way. The weather had improved throughout the day and the further north we drove the brighter and clearer it got, so I had a feeling that if we were going to see the Northern Lights then this would be that night. However, while I may have had in mind that we would camp out at a carpark in Ness awaiting this magical light display, I had forgotten that of course we had two young boys in tow.
The two young boys were struggling a little with the amount of time spent in a car (in Guernsey journeys are so short!) and the fact we had skipped dinner time, and that it was pitch black and unknown to them. After ten minutes of moaning and E and I unsuccessfully trying to turn it into a bit of an adventure I think we both realised that our quest for the lights of Aurora Borealis was going to have to wait until another time. So with that we drove the hour and a quarter back to the cottage, both boys falling asleep in the process!
The week just got better and better from then on and we concluded that it is the island that just keeps giving and giving. The rainbows were sublime, the deserted beaches a dream, the sea very cold to swim in but energising all the same, the ever changing skies enchanting and entrancing so that I was constantly reaching for my phone to try to capture it, and then of course the people who seemed so lovely and genuine.
Then there was the joy of the remoteness and slower paced living that appeals on some deep level, so entwined with the elements and the Celtic land, rooted in the moment to moment changing weather patterns that have influenced the way of life, as wind blows and blows and the rain falls, and yet the rainbows come as the sun shines once more. It’s heaven on earth, a gift all of itself. It’s also, I now realise, the edge that it offers us edge dwellers.
Sharon Blackie talks about this in her book, If Women Rose Rooted, where she writes, “We are all edge-dwellers, those of us who inhabit this long Atlantic fringe in the far west of the continent of Europe. I have always been drawn to the edges of things, the places where two things collide. Where bog borders riverbank, where meadow merges into forest. Where you stand in the margins of what is behind you and look out across the threshold of the future. The brink of possibilities – will you cross? Edges are transitional places; they are also the best places from which to create something new…
…The Shore is the greatest edge of all. Sometimes it seems gentle, on a still summer’s day when the sun warms the shallows and the soft sand cradles you. But you must also be prepared to face the storm…Those of us who live here [on Lewis] must be comfortable with storms and with change, for it is on these unsettled, unsettling edges that we will hear the Call which launches us on our journey. And though we can never quite be sure what that journey will involve, we know that new possibilities may be created only if we surrender to uncertainty.
You know it’s true isn’t it. We talk about edges in yoga, always flirting with the edge, never pushing into it, just being curious about it, that edge between one way of being and another (some will argue that we are boundary-less and maybe that too is true, but I believe that on some level we are always creating our own boundaries and at times these are essential for our health and energetic and mental wellbeing), nudging it almost, not too tight, not too loose, breath in and breathe out.
I joke in class about this and how much it might or might not change someone’s life to all of a sudden touch their toes in a forward bend, to have moved from one edge to another. But the reality is, that every shift on our yoga mat brings with it the potential for transformation, for things to shift, for life to start looking and feeling a little bit differently. Edges are huge. This is the place where we learn the most about ourselves…how are we on an edge? How does that edge make us feel? What is that edge trying to tell us about ourselves and the way that we’re living? Too fast, too slow, mind too hectic, too chaotic and scattered, or rooted clearly in the moment, on the breath, in the body, here grounded and present on Planet Earth?
Lewis brought me back to Earth and slowed my mind to a gentler pace. I noticed this most when I attended the weekly evening yoga class at Uig community centre with Julie who inspired greatly with her authenticity and passion for both yoga and the Outer Hebrides. It was a gift truly, not only to attend on the Thursday with one other student, but to return again on the Friday morning (E seeing how much the previous class has positively affected and effected me) and have a one-to-one as no one else turned up to the class (their loss) and a yoga nidra just for me, I truly thought I had died and gone to Heaven.
The children were waiting for me following the class and it was straight back to reality, a calmer reality perhaps, or maybe not, because I am human and it a challenge going straight from chilled out post-yoga-bliss-state to the next minute finding yourself in the car with two screaming children because Eben was hungry and screamed to make me aware of it, which made Elijah scream as he hates the sound of Eben screaming and so I tried to maintain my peacefulness and smile on face on the short journey back to our cosy croft. And I laughed because I was also re-reading the Yoga Sutras at the time, which touch on obstacles on the spiritual path. Not that my children are obstacles, only that they do add another element, certainly making me even more grateful for the peaceful three hours I spent at class while on a family holiday (thank you E)!
But actually this whole experience is a reality, this is life! We can’t expect to walk around in post-yoga-bliss the whole time. I mean that’s be nice, but where’s the fun in that! But what yoga does is it helps us to notice what happens when we reach our edge – it helps us to recognise when we’re approaching an edge so that we have a moment to consider whether we might just fall over it or retreat from it, or smile through it. [Btw, Eben doesn’t always scream, he just doesn’t like standing stones or being hungry!).
I like what Sharon writes about edges and islands, “Edges define an island…and yet an island’s edges are not strictly defined. They shift with the tides, in an ongoing, fluid, co-creative partnership between land and sea. They are in an unending state of becoming, and we are like them: we ebb and we flow; we soften sometimes, merge into ecosystems of others, then retreat into the safety of our own sharply defined boundaries. We are gentle, and warm, and then we are storm. Perhaps this is why islands fascinate us so; perhaps this is why, at certain times in our lives, they draw us to them”.
Any of you who have lived on islands will know this to be true. I am certainly drawn to islands because they are always changing and yet there is a defined edge to them too - the cliffs! Standing on the cliff at Ness by the lighthouse in the north of Lewis I struggled with the very defined and yet undefined edge. There was no boundary between the edge of the cliff and the 30m fall below. It made me feel desperately uncomfortable and Elijah’s running was put on hold, “keep away from the edge”, I shouted at no one in particular. I had found my edge. Cliffs.
I noticed this later as we drove around Uig and I could see the cliffs and I was keen to walk to them but desperately uncomfortable with them being so raw and real. There’s no coming back from that edge. No edging into that edge. That’s the thing about edges. We have to have a sense of them. They bring up the fear with their uncertainty and they encourage us to go deep within. To listen clearly. Awareness heightens. Present moment. Standing on the edge of a cliff (only recently in the news three people died from taking selfies on cliff edges…).
Lewis cast a spell over me (and over E too, even Elijah was sad to leave). It took me to an edge of freedom, there was just so much freedom, no rules or regulations, so much space. This was an edge I liked. It made me edgy because it was boundless. It was for me to create my own boundaries. And that is when it dawned on me, the message that Lewis was conveying to me (it had been my Sankalpa…never underestimate a naturally arising Sankalpa). Because it’s true what Sharon says about islands drawing us to them. They have a habit of doing this. Pay attention!
There are a few special places in this world that I have been fortunate to visit and Lewis is one of them. There is still so much we have yet to see and Barra now to finally visit, so I’ve now doubt that the seed that was sown all those years ago will continue growing - there’s always another edge to investigate Thank you Lewis!