When is an island not an island? If it’s connected to a by a bridge mainland, it’s still an island, right? And a tunnel? Yes, fine. And causeways and all that stuff? OK. But surely there has to be some kind of separation from another body of land – there must be some water that keeps it disconnected?
If so, then what the pissing-hell is going on with Lewis and Harris?
Until immediately before this trip began, I had assumed that the Isle of Harris and the Isle of Lewis were, y’know, separate places. Given that their names refer to them AS TWO DIFFERENT ISLANDS, I don’t think that’s unreasonable. But though I can’t pretend to understand the teuchter logic behind it, they aren’t separate at all. No, one huge island is simply called Lewis and Harris, yet the regions – Lewis in the north and Harris in the south – are always talked and written about as though they’re distinct.
Whatever madness started this tradition, today we are most definitely in the Harris region. Yesterday, after the smokehouse, we drove up here and caught another ferry, rather than spend another unwashed, barely sheltered night on North Uist. Conveniently, it also put us in the port town of Lochmaddy – the biggest on/in Harris – in time for Andy Murray’s heroic, if predictable, demise in the Wimbledon final. This being Sunday, and with the church still restricting modernity, virtually everything around town is closed. As a result, villagers start to pour in, filling the bar around us at the Hotel Hebrides. Those who don’t fancy standing have to buy enormous, over-priced carryouts from behind the bar. One teenager walks away with 12 cans and a bottle of rum. How’s that for devotion, clergymen?
Anyway, the atmosphere in the pub is passionate and gentlemanly, as one might expect from a British crowd. Given how increasingly foreign much of life on the Outer Hebrides feels, however, such patriotism almost feels out of place.
By dinner time I realise I’ve spent more than I should have on Guinness, so we decide to grab something from the shop, rather than dump £50 in the restaurant. Except, of course, we can’t because nothing’s open. So we sift through what’s left of the camping supplies and find a half-loaf of stale bread and two cuppa soups, which are just about enough to get us through the night. Mercifully, we’re at least staying at the bloody hotel so, for the first time in too long, we get a decent night’s sleep.
It’s raining the next day, though annoyingly, not quite enough to set the salmon leaping near Amhuinnsuidhe Castle. Having inspected the near-dry streams, brooks and burns, we head back to the hotel to fret over our plans for the future.
While the rest of the UK has been bleating about rain and the wettest April-June on record, the Western Isles have been enduring/enjoying a drought. To me, that’s a real sign of climate change – not that one area would suffer, but that two would experience opposite, abnormal conditions at the same time. Indeed, all the storms and calamity which have so upset people in England are typically blasting the Outer Hebrides at this time of year.
For more reasons that one, that’s given the islanders something to smile about.
Though there are no doubt arguments to be made in favour of other parts of the Hebrides (apart from Benbecula) for our money, Harris is the most beautiful. There are mountains and beaches here that, even after the best part of a week on the islands, are still a glorious surprise.
But things flatten in a hurry once we pass into the region they call Lewis. In fact, the change is so sudden that, in a small way, I understand why people would regard it as altogether separate.
Linguistically, it is. The Gaelic (pronounced “gallick”, when referring to the Scottish version; “gaylick” [fnaar] when talking about the Irish) spoken in the south of Harris is different to that in the north of Lewis, just as it is to that on Barra or over on Skye.
And Ireland itself?
“It really depends what region they’re from,” says Anne Frater, senior Gaelic lecturer at Lews Castle College in Stornoway, before going on to explain that some parts of Scotland correspond to some parts of Ireland, but that, really, the languages have evolved quite distinctly.
|Not our picture|
Maybe it's because I'm used to press trips being filled with insincere bollocks and sales pitches, but I’d expected Anne to give the Scots Gaelic language big licks. Instead, from the start of the 90 minute interview in her office, it’s clear she’s very downbeat about the future of her language.
“You have to be realistic about these things – the Gaelic language is in decline,” she says. As it’s her native language, she sees this as tragic. “If the language goes altogether… Well it’s not just the words, is it? Something important from our culture will disappear.”
She’s taken a hard-line at home to try and get her children learning it. When her daughter was young, Anne wouldn’t answer her if she tried to call her in English. It was tough, but it worked – now her daughter is absolutely fluent in the strange, 18 character language. The problem is that more people need to adopt this kind of approach. As she says: “What’s the use of children learning it at school if they don’t then speak it at home? The rest of the world will teach them English.”
|A picture from Uruguay cause it was pissing it down and I have nothing else.|
When we were travelling in Uruguay last year we met a Welsh couple. The man was from the north of the country and Welsh was his first language – he only learned English when he went to school. As we stood around getting shit faced on fine red wind, eating kilos of delicious asado flesh, he told me about the endless toils of “language activists” to re-propagate their language. Some of the tactics were laughable – they super-glued shut the ATMs of a bank who refused to publish their literature in Welsh – but overall it worked. Now something like a quarter of people in Wales can speak their language. It’s higher in Ireland.
And Scotland? Around 1.2%. Crucially Gaelic isn’t compulsory for school kids outside of the islands – and there's no incentive to learn it voluntarily. The BBC devote a TV channel and radio to keep it alive, but there’s no doubting its ill-health. Anne details all kinds of other travails faced by Gaelic, but she knows just how moribund it is – when I ask if she thinks it’ll still be around in 50 years, she genuinely can’t be sure.
As we wrap up, I ask her what I fear might be an ignorant question – what nationality are you? I'm almost relieved by her answer.
“Well, I can’t speak for everyone, but I’d say I'm a Gael first, then Scottish.”
“How about British?”
“No, not really,” she says. There’s not a hint of bravado in her voice, nor any anti-English sentiment. And, the more I think about it, the less I’m surprised by her response. What do Hebrideans have in common with, say, Londoners? If a black guy walked down the street here he’d likely be strung up; if a city boy was asked to “cut a bit of peat”, he think he was being asked to enter a knife fight with someone called Peter. No, I reckon the Western Islanders have more in common with Icelanders, if anyone.
And the fact that these islands were ruled by Vikings for a few hundred years only lends strength to my amazing, infallible argument.