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My favorite historical picture

My favorite historical picture

First controlled flight
The Wright Brothers, Kitty Hawk, 17th December 1903.

The anniversary of the first controlled flight, on Kitty Hawk beach. Less than 15 years after this, planes were engaging in armed combat over the fields of Europe.

The solstice walk

The solstice walk

The summer solstice is but a few hours away. To be precise, it happens at 00:09 BST, on Thursday June 21st, 2012.

Five years ago, I was living on a small island, some three miles by two, in the Outer Hebrides. With a population that hovered around 130 residents, it was a relaxed place. And also very pretty, with one of the best beaches you’ll find in Britain.

On the summer solstice, and around that time of the year, it remains surprisingly bright at night. The first year there, we discovered it was possible to read a newspaper or a book in the garden. At midnight. Without a torch.

We also discovered that it was a really good idea to invest in some serious wartime blackout curtains, as opposed to the translucent thin stuff that’s prevalent nowadays. When it’s bright, it’s seriously bright. And at 4am, that’s a bit strange. And annoying when you need to sleep.

Back in 2007, it had been a hot and sunny June. Rainfall had been minimal, and the ground was drying and cracking. The island had been, even at the height of this good weather summer, quiet, with the occasional tourist, celebrity and broadsheet newspaper journalist popping up and hanging around for a while. The rumour that Prince Charles was returning for another summers retreat on Berneray proved unfounded.

The good weather also invited long walks on the west and east beaches, and the occasional dip in the sea. Though, even after several weeks of sunshine, the water was still damned cold. (Also, the sphere in this next picture was solid and hurt when you kicked it)

Ball

I spent that summer taking every opportunity to do beach walks, when I wasn’t fiddling around with doing virtual world work for Andy Powell et al in Eduserv, finding and cooking mussels, and sailing on the open sea in a serious boat.

As the summer edged towards the solstice, the idea of a little walk between sunset and sunrise during the shortest night came about. With this time being only a few hours, it wouldn’t make for a long walk. But, the perimeter of Berneray, taking in several beaches, the slopes of various hills, and the single track road for the last part, would do just fine at the right pace.

I mentioned it to Ruth, who was up for it. We mentioned it to a few other people who we thought would be into it and good to come along. Unfortunately, they mentioned it to others, and within a few days, half the island wanted to do it. Doubly unfortunately – this involved the most talkative people; every community seems to have a few people who try and fill every quiet second with their own voices, and the appeal of a walk round the island faded. And people started talking, and phoning me up, about schedules, and supplies, and driving bits of it, and perhaps bringing a radio along(!), and whether it was right to bring alcohol or not, and all manner of other pointless complications.

Rather than having just a quiet walk. Looking at things. Listening to other things. Having the occasional word, and sharing the occasional drink.

I lost interest. Word got around that the walk had been postponed. No bad thing. It was tempting go out in the boat again instead, as we’d been doing that month.

Youth hostel and the north end of Berneray

Then come the day before the solstice, the weather forecast looked good and we thought “Heck, why not.” Leaving it as close to the time as possible, we roped back in a few of the quieter people, and the five of us were set. Ruth, Andrew, Chris, Shonnie and myself.

Chris came to the gate of our house for sunset and we set off, picking up Andrew at his house, and Shonnie at the bottom of the road to his house. Mary, his kind wife, had loaded his pockets with sweets and a flask of something illicit smelling, and gave us a friendly but firm “make sure he comes back” parting.

Up to full strength, we walked past various ruins, up the east beach, and round the north headland.

The magnificent five

As you can see from that, and the next picture, it’s not easy to photograph at night on a cheap camera. The light is strange, and you can watch the bright area western sky slowly move clockwise, north then east, as dawn approaches.

Like hobbits, we stopped (increasingly) for meal breaks. It was a nice group to be in. Small. No-one spoke much, and no-one spoke loudly. All of us had some local and natural knowledge, so between us birds and animal sounds were identified through the night.

We carried on, anti-clockwise, and hit the west beach; three miles of unbroken white sand. Never monotonous, and never crowded; the most people I ever counted on it at the same time was eleven, a day that was acknowledged to be “freakishly crowded” and people talked of moving on as the “place is being over-run”.

The beach offers an uninterrupted view of the island of Pabbay, which I spent a heck of a lot of time over half a decade looking at, with its volcanic-like shape, green slope and beaches. We went there by fishing boat on my birthday two years before, wandering over the now-deserted island, posing for photos and watching herds of tame deer run uncomfortably close to us.

But tonight, on the summer solstice, Pabby brooded, darkly, watchfully, sentient, over us from across the few miles of placid north Atlantic.

Pabbay from the west beach

Despite being three miles of sand, we spent two hours on the beach. The sounds of the waves, bird noises, some kind of distant, deep, thudding far out to see, and the occasional startled otter, were pretty much it during that stretch of the walk. I’d gone ahead of the others who’d stopped to look at some unidentifiable dead … thing … washed up on the beach, and had an hour to myself. Recent adventures exploring Finland had given me a lot to think about and a deeper itch, troubling thoughts, to figure out various things (though at the time I wasn’t sure what) were pressing heavily in conscious and unconscious thoughts. That hour of solitude, 2 till 3 in the morning, on the west beach of Berneray, is still really vivid in the mind, staring at the unmovable, silent Pabbay.

The group reassembled and carried on. Rounding the south west corner of Berneray, we were starting to head for home. Or my home where I’d promised breakfast for any of us who completed the circuit. Crossing the cockle bay, at low tide, revealed many otter prints as they slept, hung out and ate their catch here in significant numbers at the time.

Despite some fatigue, the pace picked up. Mary would be waiting for Shonnie (he wasn’t allowed to linger for breakfast). We got back to the house before dawn, realising that we hadn’t passed or seen a single vehicle for the whole walk. I walked Shonnie back to his place, then doubled back to mine. Before tucking into what was left of breakfast (Chris having eaten most of the contents of our fridge), I took a pre-dawn snap of the view from my office:

Dawn

Deeply satisfying, the whole walk, the whole night, every part of it. And possibly the best thing I’ve organised, specifically because it was kept simple in the end. Let’s go for a walk; start after sunset, breakfast before sunrise. And that’s it.

People regularly ask me if I miss the place. Or how could I possibly move away from such a beautiful place to live in. And they’re right about how it looks; there are few places (and I’ve travelled a lot) that compare to the scenery of the Outer Hebrides, all the year round.

But there’s more – a heck of a lot more – to living in a place than just the scenery. And there’s more than a few grains of truth in Local Hero on this, and if you watch the whole film, on living in a rural place on the periphery of northern Europe (not just Scotland). Things to write and publish about, in much greater detail, another day.

Despite having “broadband” there that is unbelievably bad to sign up to, and unbelievably bad to actually try and use, I’m still in touch over the Interwebz with a fair few people on Berneray and the other islands that make up the Outer Hebrides. It’s interesting, the conflict some of them have, the yearn to get away for many and varied reasons, but the pull of the place they feel is home. Some stay. Some leave and eventually come back, need to come back to feel content again. Some leave and never come back. The way it’s always been on the periphery of Europe; the way it’ll probably always be.

But no, I don’t miss living on Berneray; there have been many adventures since (not all of them good, or desired), and I’ve a much better, possibly brutally simple and personal, concept of what ‘home’ is now than five very long years ago. Though, there is one thing I really do miss from those years; being on a boat with a sail in the open sea.

Shooting along

Yeah; my own boat (think I’d name her the Liberty Rose) on the open sea. Something to dream about, and sail, in future years.

Oh, and the solstice walk. It never got repeated. Well, that’s not strictly true. It was never publicly repeated, though I gather some Berneray residents have quietly, with few words and no announcements, done it on their own since {smiles}. Hoping more do it tonight, and in future years.