Last week, I returned to the Isle of Harris and to Lingerbay, on the south-eastern edge of this austerely beautiful island. South Harris seems to exert a strong magnetic pull and draw me back across the Minch again and again – I’ve been coming here since 1986. Some friends think it odd, given that I see this island through my windows on the mainland every day, but I can’t explain it.
Harris is an island of dramatic contrasts and extremes, its west side comprising dunes, machair, sweeping beaches of white sand fronting turquoise seas and long, sweeping rollers from the Atlantic.
As breathtakingly beautiful as the Harris west coast beaches are, what has always resonated most with me is their striking contrast with the more unnerving and unsettling eastern side of the island.
The coastline veers north-east at Rodel and the island reveals a barren and bleak shoreline, with rocky fists of islets thrusting their way up through the waves, like enormous, silent grey seals. As the road curves left and climbs up and away from St. Clement’s Church, it always seems as if we’ve suddenly been transported into a lunar landscape.
Nothing but rock and boulders, some the size of a small car, strewn as far as the eye can see, the bare bones of Lewisian gneiss and the scrubby windswept arms of heather that have been tough enough to survive in this alien place. Carved by millennia of the elements inflicted on this wild, remote isle, nearer to its Canadian neighbour Newfoundland in its character, than anywhere else in the British Isles.
The coastline is dotted with abandoned croft houses, shells of what once must have been much loved homes at one time, before life there became unsustainable. Harris is an unforgiving place and the people who have populated it have had, of necessity, to be resilient in the face of this wild, rain- and wind-battered environment. Their existence was hard won from scraps of land, leaving little time for sentiment, I’d imagine. Over the years, there became fewer and fewer opportunities for younger people on the islands and many would leave for work or education and never return.
We fell in love with this ruin at the extreme edge of the bay and its haunting, harsh beauty. Its sense of eerie melancholy drew us again and again to it. Goodness knows what love and effort went into building it, as it is more or less only accessible by sea.
Each time I’ve stayed in Lingerbay, I’ve been drawn to this house (below), which is right next door to “Mol Ban“, the one we stayed in… perhaps by its stunning outlook and the sense of what a much-loved home it must once have been and the aura of sadness it now conveys. Perhaps by the mystery of how it could have been left to become so ruinous, with the sense that the inhabitants had just stepped out to visit a neighbour and had never returned.
It was fascinating to learn of its history and the lovely family connected with it, who so generously shared their feelings and wonderful memories on a Facebook post of mine about it, last year.
Again, I was reminded of the beautiful Gaelic word: ‘Cianalas’ – kʲiənəLəs – ke-en-alas. I think it is very apt here: “a combination of homesickness, melancholy, and general longing for the place of one’s roots”. The sense of loss and decay in this place which was once a dearly-loved home, was even more overwhelming this year, as the storms continue to take their toll and the bones of the building return to nature.
The experience of this side of Harris is unsettling, unnerving. It has always seemed a place which embodies the unforgiving nature of the planet and its indifference to our presence here and to our survival as a species. We have a huge impact on the natural world and yet are utterly dependent on it for our own survival. We can’t afford to be indifferent to its thriving, or our days here are numbered.
It’s already looking that way.