Scotland's idyllic isles
Here's where to go to get away from it all and really relax.
I have never visited South Uist – or North Uist, for that matter.
Actually, I might as well come clean: I haven't been to Lewis or Harris either. Nor have I ever trodden the hallowed earth of Benbecula or Barra. And, I should hasten to say, I haven't made the slightest foray to Scalpay, Grimsay, Eriskay, or Vatersay.
These are all in the chain of islands off the west coast of Scotland known as the Outer Hebrides, and, as such, are really only a hop, skip, and a jump from where I live. Glasgow is also in western Scotland – so why have I been to Crete and Venice and dropped off at several wee islands in the Baltic Sea, but never headed for the Outer Hebrides?
I have been across to two or three inner isles and up to a couple of northern ones (Shetland and Orkney), so I am not completely Scottish-island deprived.
We once went "over the sea to Skye" – although these days you take a bridge, which is OK, but not very romantic.
We spent one memorable weekend on Iona, having driven across the Isle of Mull en route.
Incidentally, the habit of Scots and people with Scottish roots to name their offspring after Scottish islands means that some people go through life called Iona. And just the other day, a friend living in Maine mentioned a grandchild named Skye.
On investigation, however, I find that this particular form of insular name-derivation – a practice I was firmly convinced is widespread – is largely a myth. It turns out that Scots almost never name their children after islands – and to be honest I am not entirely sorry to hear this news when you consider some of the possibilities: Mull, Calf of Flotta, Yell, Muckle Flugga ... not great names to admit on the first day of school.
One day when we were on Iona, we went by boat to Staffa, where Mendelssohn was inspired by the sound of the sea reverberating in Fingal's Cave to write his "Hebrides Overture."
But what sticks in my mind even more was that we were forced to spend an extra day on Iona because the crew of the Sunday ferry to Mull was on strike. I didn't much mind, because by then my urban urgencies were beginning to slow down.
On our eventual way home, we arrived in good time for the second ferry's imminent crossing, only to be told to wait an hour or so for the operator to have his lunch. My Glaswegian wife explained we were encountering the characteristic teuchter. This is a lowlander's title of disapprobation for the "take me as you find me," sometimes unaccommodating nature of Highlanders.
Such attitudes (which may well indicate the prejudices of lowlanders rather than objective fact) are cleverly illustrated by a story. A Spanish nobleman is fishing in a Highland loch, accompanied by a ghillie (fishing guide).
The ghillie asks: "What is this I hear about a Spanish approach to life called mañana?"
The Spaniard replies: "Well, you see, it means you can always put off until tomorrow anything that need not be done today. You surely have something similar in the Highlands?"
The ghillie ponders the question at length as the water laps gently against the boat and no fish disturbs the line. Eventually he says: "Och, no, I think not. Here we have no such emergency."
One heads for the islands in search of tranquillity and remoteness. A friend who recently returned from a spell on South Uist certainly found that.
But at the tourist office, she asked if there was a What's On magazine for South Uist. In Britain, What's On lists current cultural events in different places. She thought that there might be some ceilidhs or Scottish music on South Uist while she was there.
The eyes of the young woman in the tourist office opened round like saucers. "What's On in South Uist?" she exclaimed. A pronounced stillness descended on the office.
Later, the lady who owned the place where my friend was staying explained: "The sun comes up in the morning and the sun goes down in the evening. That is what happens on Uist."
In a typical year, there is only one cultural event on the island – a music and dance summer school – and my friend's visit didn't coincide with it.
So she did what you do on South Uist. She walked and watched a golden eagle and helped rescue a sheep in trouble and gazed in wonder at the flowers.
What could be a better antidote to city life? She loved it. If she had stayed longer, who knows, she might have unwound until she turned into a teuchter.