What a strange new year it has been so far...rather than the usual big bang of New Year's Eve followed by a reluctant and grumpy head back to work, this has been more of a slow burner gradually easing our way into 2014.
The storms are gone for now, but it's January alright, with the mountains on both sides of the Minch powdered and in some cases blanketed over with snow and hail. Billy's gang is back bravely mending the turrets in the iciest weather, back from their cosy (we hope) mainland homes and making do instead with a wood fire, endless cups of tea and old copies of the Sun and the Press and Journal in the old hostel in the evenings; when they've gone we raid the common room for newspapers to light our fire and catch up on month-old Scottish news; mostly stories about the independence vote, trouble on the A82 and Gaelic gigs in Aberdeen, not to forget the all-important puzzle page.
While Billy and the guys move from turret to turret on their cherry-pickers and ladders, we move from room to room, seeking out the warmest spots and dragging up heavy bags of coal to keep the fire going, and burning the old Christmas tree to give the room a smell of pine rather than soot. Cries of "are you trying to smoke us out?!" come from the roof where Billy is trying to re-point the chimney and after dark an eery light shines from under the tarpaulins where work carries on until well into the night. But despite the cold, the days feel lighter already, the evenings are starry clear and the skies often blue. The storm clouds have gone and we can see Jupiter and all four of its moons through our telescope, Orion is just above the horizon. It feels like a foretaste of spring, but will another, harder winter kick in after this short reprieve?
People are gradually meandering back to the island after the Christmas break. There must now be around 30 people again, which feels like quite a lot after it was just about 10 over New Year. I have signed up to look after pigs next week when the Goddards go off for nine days to the mainland; my first pig-keeping experience (and possibly my last depending on what happens!). Rivers and burns are running high after our weeks of gales, and there is evidence everywhere of the damage the winds have done.
Stopping to greet Martin "The Deer Man" back from his two-month break (now starting another stint of month-long isolation at the Kilmory research station), we learn that deer have been found dead of the cold, which isn't usual in early January. The sea has come right up over the shore road and dumped bricks and seaweed everywhere; the road to Kilmory and Harris is full of big stones washed or blown down from the mountains, trees have fallen into the river and ground that felt relatively stable is now marshy bog, as I found when I got lost in the wood across the way. That was an experience; on a short trip to feed a neighbour's cat at New Year, I decided to take what I hoped would be a short cut, through the once-Japanese garden (Lady Monica's). From the castle, you can just make out abandoned statues and old rose arbours in the thickets of the wood, but nothing else is visible.
|Into the woods|
To get to it, you cross a short, high wooden bridge painted red and spanning the normally sedate stream that runs down to the sea. At the moment, though, the stream is a torrential flood, crashing over the rocks and heading down to the sea urgently, as if its life depended on it - the bridge is a slippery few steps above it. Nervously, I wonder if it's been damaged by the gales and if it's actually safe to walk on; I've never seen anyone actually cross it before, though Katharina did stand on it. That was in summer, though. Oh well, I'm on it now. Having crossed it with caution, I am on the edge of the secret garden, towering rhododendrons to my left, the river to my right; surely it'll be easy to find the way, if I just keep the river on my right side, Vikki's house will be over...there. No, there. No - wait a minute...By this time I've been making my clumsy way not along the river, as the ground there has become a large, soggy pool, but around the bog, which means going from log to log, tuft of grass to tuft of grass, balancing while holding on to the jutting black branches of fallen trees...and into the wood, where I realise I no longer have any sense of direction. It's raining hard and the rain is freezing cold, making it hard to see, but I get a sense of light over to the north and make for it. Apart from the rain, it's uncannily silent and I can't see the castle, or the sea, or any signs of human habitation whatsoever. I can only have been walking (or jumping) for about ten minutes, but it feels like I've been gone for hours.
The light is deceptive...it's suddenly open fields, which means I've come way too far...I'm on the edge of the fields below Hallival and Askival, where eventually, there must be the pony track to Dibidil...but this is real swamp now, with icy water below the clumps of slippery grass. I'm not mad enough to venture out on that, but where should I make for? Back? Turning around I realise I can't make out which way I came...the tangle of dead trees, huge green rhododendrons and the occasional holly give me no help whatsoever. I try to think clearly; surely if I'm on the edge of the fields, Vikki's house must be back and further inland, and I haven't crossed the river again, so logically it must still be behind me and now to my right, so if I go diagonally right, that must be more or less ok.
I am now getting nervous as it seems to be getting even wetter underfoot and I still can't see any houses. The wind is roaring in the trees above and I hear twigs snapping all around me. I begin to get the unpleasant sensation that the trees and bushes are crowding up behind me as I go through, so that I can't go back. Also, my childish fear of being followed or jumped out on is taking over...I know it is stupid, so I try to be braver, then tell myself that is even more stupid as there's no need to be brave when there's no danger. Just, on this island sometimes anything seems possible...there is no reason why people shouldn't be lost for days if they do get lost. Why would anyone look for me here, I think? Tragic visions of myself cold and hungry (although at least not thirsty) come to me and I have to laugh. Surely it can't be long now. Then I come to another stream. Huh? Where did that come from? Well, there's nothing for it; I have to ford it, I'm not going back. Climb every mountain...
|A lone survivor in the secret garden|
I'm embarrassed to admit that at this point I'm close to panic in its truest sense, the trees, darkness, rain and invisibility of anything else - not even birds are around, they're sensibly hiding from the rain - making me feel that I could have stepped out of time. Maybe I have, and I'm lost in the secret garden for ever. The stream is deep and comes to the top of my boots, but it's not too wide and so despite the strength of the water I'm not afraid of being swept away - anyway it's better than staying in the limbo land of the wood. I'm over! Still unsure of where to go, but trying to keep in the same direction, I crash forwards and there, suddenly, as if coming out of nowhere, is Lyon Cottage. I stop to breathe more calmly and look back; I still can't make out how I got here. But my sense of direction obviously wasn't as bad as I feared; I made it, although I'm soaked and covered in mud.
Knowing I've been lost but found my way out has an exhilarating effect. Yes, it has an obvious symbolism for how things are on the island anyway...but being actually lost is quite a bit more scary than being symbolically lost, where you know that at least theoretically, you can symbolically find yourself again as well. When you are actually lost, or think you could be, there's no guarantee of that. Having emerged victorious, like a mini Jennifer Lawrence in the Scottish remake of The Hunger Games (24 Tributes fight over a lone haggis and a bottle of Baileys...the survival kit a pair of wellies and a can of Tennents), I knew it was only a tiny moment of being lost and nothing had really happened. But I still felt strangely proud of myself, and in awe at how strange the island is. Just a few feet away from "normality" (contractors and tractors, Co-op shopping on a ferry, chickens clucking) is a little world where a once-ordered garden is going back to the wild, you can be totally invisible, and the strength of the rivers and the wind can be genuinely frightening (did I mention that the gale was still blowing at this point and any of the trees could have come down...?). But this isn't a bad thing...
|The only way is up!|
This experience had such an impact on me that I wrote a short story about it, and I realised that I think fear, in some circumstances, has often been something that spurs me on, has been a vital experience. Fear is probably the wrong word, though - there's an element of being afraid, but it's more to do with coming up against something bigger and more powerful and feeling totally in awe of it. Similarly the other day when I pushed myself and my bike up a huge hill just to see the scary weather coming in over Harris - the awesome light and the gale pushing through.
I've had experiences here that made me anxious or even upset, as well as ones that are exciting and beautiful, but the two that have affected me the most were situations where I was alone, in situations I sought out but still couldn't anticipate. Firstly when I went up the mountain on my own and my strange encounter with a giant sea eagle circling round me as if I was its next prey. Secondly getting lost in a tiny wood where I had no idea how to get out, or even where I was. In both situations my natural reaction was to run away, but I was also awed by these encounters with the island itself in its raw form - what it's like to be just on the island with no other humans around, no hiding places and to feel my own ridiculous panic in a situation that really doesn't call for panic at all. I mean - I've been walking in the countryside all my life. Nonetheless, I did feel panicky in a way I know some people feel on the Tube, or when faced with an A-Z and asked to find Tottenham Court Road or Wandsworth. Guess it just shows what a town mouse I am, but these are the experiences that oddly, made me start to feel closer to the island; not such a stranger after all. Though I will be back in London and happily clutching my A-Z for a while soon, I know I will keep these experiences close in my memory and draw on them when I'm scared of other, more rational things...