The Sound of Islay

The Sound of Islay

Introducing the Bodley Head / FT essay competition.

Financial Times | 11 November 2016.


Just before I turned 30 I was homeless for a while. Homeless is the wrong word, an exaggeration. But I was in Edinburgh with little money and nowhere to live – and the days were getting shorter. So I took myself off to the Scottish islands with a bike and two red waterproof panniers. The plan was to stay in bothies – stone cottages that shelter hikers and climbers, remote structures in the hills where you just arrive and take your chances.

I started in Oban on the west coast, then pedalled south to the ferry port on Loch Tarbert – one of the long fingers of ocean that reach deep and diagonally into Argyll. This was a mistake, since there was too much traffic on the mainland. Massive cold fronts broke in off the Atlantic, one after the other. I tried to cycle in the lulls between showers but was soaked through my Gore-Tex by rain and truck spray. I found myself unable not to take the headwind personally. I would burst regularly into tears on the hard shoulder – homeless, jobless, indebted and drenched.

Things improved when I boarded the ferry to Islay (pronounced Eye-La). A couple bought me lunch because I fixed their punctures. All us cyclists rolled off the boat ahead of the vehicles – we would encounter each other at different jetties and pubs and bunkhouses all through the isles: instant camaraderie. I visited distilleries and hiked to a bothy in a remote cove. The cottage was full of other people’s leavings: oatcakes and freshly cut peat in a creel, shiny cutlery and coffee pots all arranged there like the Marie Celeste. I half-expected a party of spectral hill walkers to come back any minute, but no one ever did. It was just me, myself and I – pinned down by (another) frightening Atlantic storm for three days and three nights.

When it subsided, I crossed to Jura: a wilder, emptier place where you must constantly check yourself for ticks, since the island is full of deer. Jura is also (I learned) the place where George Orwell lived in a remote cottage towards the end of his life, where he had written Nineteen Eighty-Four, and worked on the memoir ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’. This triumphantly miserable piece about his schooldays is one of my favourite pieces of non-fictional prose – and I have always taken it as significant that this was the essay he was revising on his deathbed. Orwell would come here to retreat from literary London, and was once almost drowned in the famous whirlpool of Corryvreckan off Jura’s north coast. You could hear its thunderous sound from where I camped – boulders being stirred on the ocean bed, like the long, drawn-out roar of a passing plane.

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Reading Silent Spring from the Global South

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Rachel Carson and the Perils of Simplicity: Reading Silent Spring from the global South. Ariel. Special Issue on Postcolonial Ecologies, 44:4 (2014).

Who made the decision that sets in motion these chains of poisonings . . . ? Who has decided—who has the right to decide—for the countless legions of people who were not consulted . . . ?

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (1962).

Who the hell is the prime minister to decide whose finger will be on the nuclear button? Who the hell is he to reassure us that there will be no accidents? How does he know? Why should we trust him? What has he ever done to make us trust him? What have any of them ever done to make us trust them?

Arundhati Roy, The End of Imagination (1998). 

Gylen Bunkhouse, Kerrera | The Sound of Islay | Part One

The photocopied maps came out too light, so I am tracing the crinkly outlines of the islands with a fine liner as I visit them.  Day three and the rain is pinning me down on this one; it drips off the bracken, streams down the tracks.  Looking south from a bunkhouse byre on the southerly tip, towards where my tent is pitched near the ruins of a castle.  There are horns, skulls and whale bones on the windowsill, a Mongolian yurt in a nearby paddock.  Its occupant is the cook: a Glaswegian homoeopath who grew up in Malawi and has been telling me about the parrot sanctuary just down the road…

In the course of her monologue about the island and its eccentric inhabitants, the Glaswegian/Malawian dropped in the information that there was space in the bunkhouse tonight and that wild parties were often to be had there.  I had the sense that she was looking at me meaningfully here, and when she changed the subject and went on talking about the sheep and how they destroyed the wildflowers, I began daydreaming about what it might be like to spend a rough and tumble night in a Kerreran yurt.  Now she’s gone off to ‘give the bread into second kneading,’ leaving me with my maps, a sketch of a whale vertebra, The Brothers Karamazov and the rain.

The month of September stretches ahead of me, cloud covered, damp, light withdrawing and yet intensely open.  The bread maker with the flirtatious eyes said she used to be in training as a psychotherapist, but got sick of other people’s problems and came away to this pocket of bracken, sodden grass and castle.  It looks south, away from Oban and its light pollution towards the Ross of Mull, Inch, Seil and the other tiny islets which are duly outlined and named on the information board next to the castle, the only object detracting from my otherwise superb camping spot.  That and the sheep, shitting everywhere, squatting down to piss all round my tent so that a slightly more directed gushing joins the million other water sounds as the rain percolates through this green sponge of a landscape.

So: looking to the south while the yeast is doing its occult work, looking through a window (past horns and driftwood) for a window of less grey clouds, an opening moving in from the Outer Hebrides so that I can cycle south to the ferry port and begin the journey during which (Callum assured me as we planned this over ordnance survey mapping software) I would have tailwinds almost all the time, the prevailing south westerlies helping me onward.   [Continue reading...]