A couple of weeks ago, I boarded the Cal-Mac ferry at Ullapool, my car packed full to the gunwhales with good friends, food, wine, painting materials and my Chesapeake Bay Retriever.
We crossed the Minch to Stornoway, as a smirr of drizzle descended and headed south through the Isle of Lewis to the southernmost tip of Harris (which, if you don’t know the Hebrides, essentially joins the northern part of the Island via the narrow isthmus at Tarbert).
I hadn’t visited Harris for 25 years and felt I really needed to return, to see if, or how it had changed and let its ‘Northern spirit’ wash over me. I’m still processing the experience and think I will be for some time…. as well as trying to understand its impact on my work.
The island, the skies, seemed much bigger than I remembered, the light far more extraordinary – clear, glowing, pure, otherworldly – the colours and textures much more vivid and lively. It may have had something to do with it being November; I’d spent a few months living on Harris during a spring and summer in the mid- ’80’s, but hadn’t been there in the autumn.
During those earlier visits, I’d found the place daunting, the landscape unsettling, unnerving, intimidating, and yet something kept drawing me back to it.
This time, however, it seemed simply to embody the spirit of “North” for me: huge skies, endless beaches, vast expanses of tundra-like ’emptiness’ – utterly compelling.
We were unbelievably lucky with the weather, which was still balmy for November. Our first day there was glorious and we were able to eat lunch outside, ‘al fresco’, after exploring the rest of Lingerbay and the headland, wearing only light sweaters!
I discovered that the decaying croft-house next-door to the splendid house we rented was one which featured in the “Leaving Home” exhibition in 2013, a project by photographers Ian Paterson and John Maher, documenting and reflecting upon the abandonment of croft houses in the Outer Hebrides.
This was an unexpected ‘treat’ for me, if I can call it that, as I helped support the exhibition through their Kickstarter campaign and had followed it closely, becoming familiar with their poignant images. I was able to capture my own impressions of its sense of desolation on my iPhone…
Adjacent to the croft house lay the remains of a traditional black house, its metre-thick walls now covered with turf.
My visit didn’t induce any yearning to record its landscape literally, in paint, in its starkness, its staggeringly lunar, other-worldly qualities… despite the breathtaking drama which unfolded beyond the windows of our ‘home-for-a-week’ in Lingerbay (below). That’s not how I work anymore.
The impact of this place goes much deeper than that: the extraordinary quality of light here, the sense of emptiness, of simplicity, of space; the endless expanse of tundra-like scrub and rock and the infinite repetition of pattern and texture; the muted, yet potent palette of colours, with nothing and yet everything to stop the eye’s gaze in its tracks…
The ever-present and ever-changing elements and sense of movement as they shape-shift the land they collide with or skate across… all these things resonate with me and I’m sure will inform my work for a long time to come.
So no, there won’t be any Harris ‘scenes’ to come from this trip. Just a deeper understanding of what it is to be North.
On the west side of Harris, the landscape takes on an entirely different character.
The horizon smoothly widens before you, revealing vast, open expanses of pristine white sand and cerulean blue seas.
We crossed through the less-populated middle of the island near the south and saw the many areas of peat-cutting, with the sturdy stacks still drying, waiting to be taken away for winter fuel.
The small harbour at Rodel, below, on the southern-most tip of Harris.
Looking back across Loch Tarbert – a sea loch, crossed daily by the Skye ferry, on its way to Tarbert with passengers and the island’s provisions.
The island does seem to have changed in the 25 years since I stayed in Leverburgh. It is now much more populated and generally feels to be more prosperous, with less of the sense of struggle and decay which prevailed in the 1980’s.
I’d say it’s thriving, even, with a regenerated Harris Tweed industry, the fabulous new Isle of Harris Distillery at Tarbert, numerous fish and wind farms, galleries and other tourism-related businesses. This was great to see!
The lighthouse at Stornoway, above, a headland seen as we sailed out of the harbour, below.
As we headed back to the mainland and Ullapool at dusk, we sailed past the Summer Isles, with breathtaking views beyond Achiltibuie to the Assynt Hills – Suilven, Canisp, Stack Pollaidh and Cul Mor.