At last, after all the preparations, it’s Monday 11 May. Day one of my allotted twelve of pilgrimage. The bus is pulling away from its terminus on the pier, pulling away from Stjorn-Vagr as the Old Norse had it. Stornoway, as the Bay of Steering or Governing. Equally, it can be translated as the Bay of Stars. After all, steering is what stars were for in olden maritime cultures. They governed our passage and guarded our lives through cosmological connection. This sheltered inlet of the sea – this little port with its two-for-the-price-of-one inner and outer harbours, its fishing boats and its ferries – this is the centre of the island’s governance, here in the Bay of Steering by the Stars.
The heart of Stornoway is a few criss-crossed streets of small-town shops, fix-anything garages and light industries. There’s a library, a museum and a university college where you can study an enormous range of courses from marine engineering to Celtic languages, theology and hairdressing. There’s the High Church on one hill. A castle on the other. Carry-out chip shops. Chinese, Thai, Indian and even Hebridean eateries. And bars. About ten of them. Nearly a pub for every church. No wonder Heaven can’t be far away. No wonder, here’s the place to ‘leave the world behind’, or perhaps to enter, with its lilting old-time motto, God’s Providence is Our Inheritance.
These days, about nine thousand souls, a little less than half the island’s population, live in or around the town. At this time of the morning, just at the back of ten on a gloriously sunny day, the bus is almost empty. Within minutes, we’ve reached the leafy outskirts, and at Willowglen slip past Uncle Jim’s old house that stands, in faded glory, on the corner. Here pebble-dashed terraces of council houses yield to the prosperous villas of Stornoway’s business and professional classes; their garages and their patios, their gardens and perhaps a boat outside. Next, we’re into the crofting township of Marybank. Here it’s rural but with signs of modest urban prosperity. The homes sit on several acres meant for the arable production of anybody who can be bothered these days, and out on the open moor, there’s a much bigger share of common grazings for the sheep and cattle.
Another mile [out of Stornoway past Marybank], we’ve sped past Tawse’s quarry, and the road dips down to cross the River Creed. From here we come up into the moorland of a very different type of country. Now it’s plain to see why a fond name for the island, popular in poetry and song, is Eilean Fraoich, the Isle of Heather. This is the road that leads to my home parish of Lochs, and from there, on down into Harris. All around, both visibly and dipped away in hollows, are shining lochs and smaller lochans. Each is threaded to a necklace by tiny burns that, according to their season’s wont, trickle or churn a passage to the sea. And this is such a remarkably sunny day! Although I know the place so well, although I’ve crossed this Arnish moor so many times, I’m drinking it all in once more. Here, the rocky fortress of a cnoc or little hill. There, a pulled-out drifting sugar-candy cloud. Everywhere, these long and rusty heather ridges, that slouch to kiss their own reflections dipped in pools of liquid amethyst.
The change that’s flipped since Marybank is geological. We shifted out of Stornoway’s soft lime-rich and relatively fertile conglomerate, into the island’s anchoring mass of hard, crystalline Lewisian gneiss. We’re now bouncing over archaic beds of worn-down mountain stumps, these ground down to a low rumpled plateau over the aeons of the ice ages. Seen through the telescope of deepening time, glacial ice sheets are the default norm in these latitudes. Plant life is just a passing bloom of summer, one that flashes past in a blink, every hundred thousand years or so. In back-of-an-envelope terms, the last ice age ended ten thousand years ago. Since then, only thin peat soils have built up; these, from the remains of vegetation that wouldn’t rot under such lime-impoverished acid-saturated conditions. These oozing beds of peat, resting on a spread of glacial boulder clay, are pretty much all that sustains the slender skin of life.
Poacher’s Pilgrimage: An Island Journey by Alastair McIntosh is published by Birlinn (£20, hardback) www.birlinn.co.uk