Saturday, August 20, 2016

isle of islay, continued

Who said you can't predict island weather? The forecast said rain and rain it does! A morning look outside confirms it. Wet slate roofs, wet streets, wet skies.


I linger over breakfast. I read tales from an oral history book from Islay. Here's my own retelling of one such tale:

There was a Mac(something or other), he worked the land, tended his herd. One day a Department of Education official came by (making distributions). "How many children do you have?" "Aye, I have seven sons." "And daughters?" "Aye, each son has a sister!" "There you go then!" The official leaves. the farmer laughs -- "I didn't tell him it's the same sister!"

You could while away many an hour watching people come and go and reading the local press, the whisky books, Islay lore.


But by noon, I want to go out. The pull of the outdoors is too great.

Even though it's raining hard.

I drive back to the area of the Loch Gruinart. I'm told I can find an RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) Center there. 

No one is staffing the informational tables when I arrive, but I help myself to some literature on the Islay birds that are frequent visitors to the bay.

Two birding trails are maintained by the Society and despite the rain, I decide I'm game for at least one of them. As I step outside I revise that to "just part of one." It's really raining. I have my rain jacket and I borrowed a bigger umbrella from my hosts, but the wind is too strong for it and it quickly flips itself into small and useless fragments.

Still, there is a forest. It's calmer in the lush grove of mosses, trees and shrubbery.

I make my way along the trail.


I see no birds, no wildlife, nothing at all. Just rain. Plenty of it. And very wet trees.


In two places, the trail leads to viewing areas. One is closed off to walkers. They've sent a herd of cows onto it to chomp down the grasses so that new shoots and buds would be ready for the 50 000 wild geese that come to winter over here between October and April.

I look at the cows. Does the rain matter less when you are huddled next to your next of kin?  I've rarely seen cows bunched together like this.


The rain messes with my lens. Each time I use it, I have to wipe it down with the corner of my shirt underneath my rain jacket. Speed is essential. Don't look, just click and study your result later.

I know I'm in for a gray series of photos.

Oh! The foxglove offers a hope of color!


I'd walked the other side of Loch Gruinart my second day here. The photos were full of pastels and sunshine. It's quite different on this day!


I come to a small hut, somewhat hidden in the bushes and grasses. I go inside. There are windows which you can swing open to look at the wetlands before you. A guy is sitting, gazing outside at the wet terrain. Clearly a birder.

See anything?
Not really

He continues to sit and gaze. Could I do that? Spend long periods of time just looking at the same wet landscape in the hope of hearing a corncrake or spotting the hen harrier flying low in search of prey?

I couldn't. I would want to walk.


And I want to walk now, the wind, the rain notwithstanding.

But is there anything to see?  Ah, the reliable rosebay willowherb. Thank you for coloring the hills and vales with your purple fire.


I'm out of the woods now. I finish that trail and the rain still continues to pound on me, wetting my trousers and hiking shoes completely. Squish, squish. Isn't it lovely when your shoes let out gurgles and squishy noises?

But in walking back to my car, I see the arrow pointing to the second trail over the moorlands. I'm wet anyway. Maybe that trail is even better? Can I really leave Islay without walking this bit of turf that possibly may be the trail of all trail?

I know I wont encounter the terrible markings of yesterday's hike. The Society has done a wonderful job of maintaining the trails. People come here mainly for the birds. I suppose they bring with them a variety of walking skills.

There is a sign that says there are some mud issues on this second trail and that wellies are recommended. Well, I don't have wellies, but I'm wet wet wet. What could it matter?

And it doesn't matter. I can side step the worst stretches. And the views are grand, if only the rain would quit slanting in from the bay, hitting my face, my camera, making it nearly impossible to see. Camera out, quick lens wipe, snap, hide inside the jacket with the sticking zipper.


And here's a delightful surprise: the heather. It's lovely and I don't have to brush against it (besides, do ticks work full force on rainy days? ).

I take in a deep, satisfying breath. This I can stare at.


And I'm going to post one more photo of the moors -- one that has meaning for me. Because I know that if I look exactly in the middle of it, I'll see the speck of white that is the tail of a romping deer. My guess is that it's a roe, but I cannot be sure. It disappears as quickly as it comes. My camera routine (out, wipe, shoot, hide) barely catches its last leap out of the heathered field.


And now I am content.

A bleet from behind me. What about me? Have you forgotten about us sheep?

Oh, that's not possible:

How do you keep
wet sheep
from being cold?


Sheep stare.
Rain everywhere.
Sheep graze
Sheep gaze.


I'm back in the car, jacket dripping alongside the dysfunctional umbrella in the back seat.

And as if I wasn't already on a remote stretch of a fairly remote island in Europe's more remote country, I want to push this even further: at one of the northern tips of the island, after following a road seemingly endlessly to no identifiable destination, you can eventually find your way to the very remote Outback Cafe and Art Gallery.

Alison tells me: turn right at the telephone booth.

It seems surreal: there's nothing here, absolutely nothing. And there stands this phone booth, with an operational phone inside. Though I suppose it makes sense: in the past it would be accessible to farmers who lived up either of the forking roads.

Or sheep use it to phone friends.

Sheep stroll
To make a call...


The road is really less and less of a road, but I keep going. (A quick photo in between the wipe of the windshield blades.)


But when I eventually come to the gallery, I find it to be very warm and lovely. It's ironic that in this dry space I take no photos, but I am in a hurry. I make a wee purchase of something for my Warsaw apartment and then hurry back...

Past sheep, who are clearly asking someone to open the door for them...


Past sheep who stare.


I'm in a hurry because I have a FaceTime date with my granddaughter. It's wonderful to catch her liveliness even here, on Islay. I show her sea shells I found for her. And a toy sheep that I picked up in the Borders. And when we say good bye, I hurry off to the Celtic Shop for one last shopping adventure. The shop keeper brings me my macchiato to where I'm selecting books...


... and a plate for Warsaw...


Small things with big meaning.

I walk over to a restaurant to pick up a gift for my Bowmore hosts and as I wait to be helped, I watch a multigenerational family at table. I smile. It reminds me of family dinners at the farmette.


In my room now, looking out. The skies are constantly in motion. They are navy blue, they are puffy white. Sometimes, there'll be a silver streak of sun on the water even as there are sheets of rain over the hills.


Islay's weather -- it's nothing you worry about, because there is never a promise of anything at all. You make do with what the hour brings for you.

I'm back at the Harbor Inn -- one of the nicer island restaurants, even as I order the classic simple meal of fish and chips and mashed peas. The fish is fresh, the peas are wonderful, the salad reminds me of home.


This is my final Islay evening. Did I miss the sunset? Was there a break in the sky? I don't know -- I was talking to Ed back home.

I look out now -- one flickering light in the window across the street. A car on the opposite shore leaves a ribbon of gold as it moves along the road. The last lights of Islay.


I'll be leaving the island in the morning. Lights go out, night takes hold. Tomorrow, I'll be in Edinburgh.