Thursday, 25 July 2013

Things to do in the Hebrides when it’s raining...

I have often gazed with bemusement at friends’ holiday snaps posted on facebook of bikini clad folk sipping drinks in the Mediterranean sunshine by a pool while the deep blue Mediterranean  sea glimmers in the background. Why do my summer holidays so often seem to involve full water proof body cover, welly boots and frantically sought out places to shelter from the weather?

Things to do – Number 1 - Go cycling!!!

The Golden Road - a great cycle route
But its a bit hilly...
 The Golden Road weaves its way along the east coast of the Isle of Harris passing peatland, lochans, rocks, and isolated cottages looking out to the waters of the Minch. It is so called the Golden Road due to the disproportionately high cost of its construction, the terrain and the undulations comprising to make its construction a tricky task. As it is a spectacular route we decided that a little cycle ride would be the best way to appreciate its beautiful setting and its challenging hills and so much the better if there was a tea room involved somewhere on the way. The group reduced in size proportionately according to the length of time it took to find a tea room but eventually we found one and not a moment too soon as the heavens opened as soon as we sat down, it was already pretty windy so the horizontal rain was not really tempting us away from our tea and cakes and we stayed for “seconds”.  Every so often we stuck our noses out of the door to check on the progress of the rain and once the rain flurry had passed overhead we were on our way once more. Clearly the break in the rain had lulled us into a false sense of security as we hadn’t been pedalling for more than 5 minutes before the rain was once again coming in horizontally and so, bored with waiting and clearly fearing hypothermia, Simon took off. Bert, displaying a cadence that Chris Froome would be proud of, followed in hot pursuit whilst John and I pedalled slowly home completely drenched. No doubt John was cursing yet another ”great idea” of mine. 

Things to do - number 2 – Cookery!!

Feeding time!
The Hebrides. Surrounded by seas, famous for its fishing  and fantastic sea food….now go figure out where to buy fresh fish in Tarbert because we sure as ‘eck couldn’t. Other than being able to get great seafood in the hotels and restaurants there was not much to be bought in the village. Fortunately we had stocked up with scallops during our drive up through the islands and our one optimistic trip into the village to buy fresh fish resulted in a large purchase of….tinned tuna. One of our party was vegetarian and so that pretty much informed our cookery options for the week as Cath and I worked as a little team to keep them all fed and happy with large bowls of stir frys and pasta dishes.  Scallops were the catch of the day and Cath and I we felt we needed some expert advice to prepare them and so another member of the group, who shall remain nameless, was added to the kitchen team intent on producing a starter of black pudding, scallops and poached egg – a sort of Hebridean surf and turf. However he cracked under the pressure of preparing our treasured scallops. Anyone would have thought it was an episode of masterchef he’d been asked to compete in and, in a scene reminiscent of Ramsay’s kitchen nightmares, he shouted and crashed around as Cath and I stared on in total bemusement. Suffice to say Cath and I did the rest of the cooking for the week without any further“assistance”.

Things to do – number 3 - Run a half marathon!!

A glimpse out of the window didn’t do much to lift my spirits on race morning. We slowly packed up and said goodbye to the lovely house that we had been staying in for the past week and its perfect coastal setting and packed up the cars while the rain battered down yet again in true Hebridean style –  ie horizontally. Pre race tea and cakes with Rob, Cath,  John and Bert in the little tea room lifted my spirits a bit and the arrival of trotters en masse lifted my spirits a lot so by the time the buses departed for the start line in the mist and gloom there was a lot of the usual merry banter. Simon hadn’t recovered from the injury he had sustained on the Barrathon and retreated to the pub to watch the rugby just emerging in time to watch the last 3 miles of the race on his bike.

Dean and his trusty steed
It was a tail wind and so many people were describing the conditions as ideal but I was less than convinced of this as I stood on the start line shivering in my thermal top. When you have a bad race it’s tempting to go on at length about what went wrong. So guess what I’m going to do….. well, ok I will spare you that as I think it can be neatly summed up by saying that for 13.1miles I wished I was elsewhere and only finished because of that bloody Heb 3 t shirt (my 6th consecutive Heb 3 t shirt). Dean cheered me up with his support as he zipped up and down the course on his bike and needless to say Bert was perched at the top of the hill poised with his camera to capture in full glorious technicolour the extent of my cold, slow agony. Git. 

I really wasn't having much fun
 I have never experienced quite the same cramping like symptoms before, first of all my quads seized completely swiftly followed by my back and backs of my legs and the muscle spasms and shooting pains down my legs and lower back continued during any exercise for the next 10 days or so – anyone got any ideas as to what could cause that? 

Cath on her way to a seasons best
Whatever the cause I saw Ellis and Eilidh disappear into the distance closely followed by John. I tried to stay with Hamish (my Heb half nemesis) for as long as possible but he too scampered away and by the time I had reached the point of complete sense of humour failure Carrie and Anna had left me to trail in slowly to the finish. 
My Heb Half Nemesis
He's having way too much fun!!
I often think it’s a shame when I do this race and barely notice the stunning scenery as we race alongside one of the most beautiful beaches in the world but a glimpse at Bert and Simons photos confirmed that the bleak Hebridean landscape had indeed been shrouded in a damp claggy mist for the duration of the race and we were not to witness the usual sparkle of the golden sands and azure blue sea of Luskentyre as has characterised the Harris half marathon in previous years and I did feel it was a shame for the “first timers” to the island. But hey, that’s the Hebrides for you but when the sun shines on the Hebrides there is nowhere better. 

My prize!
and the sunshine appears...

does it smell ok..??

Perfect recovery food
 By the prize giving I was feeling better and glad that I had hung on enough to win the prize for the first old lady in the Heb 3. Trotters had won first team in the Heb 3 and the usual suspects, Gillian and Megan picked up prizes and there was even a prize for a little Mowbray in the fun run. By the time we all descended on the pub I was much happier and the change in my spirits was matched by the change in the weather and it turned into a glorious afternoon followed by a glorious sunset witnessed from the decks of the Calmac “booze cruise”.
Enjoying the sea air
Yet another glorious Hebridean sunset
Bye for another year!

Things to do – number 4 – Archaeology!!

All across the Hebrides the echo of times long past can be witnessed in the land, the architecture, folklore, traditions and archaeology. Maybe it’s because of the hostile environment as people now, as they have for two millennia, make a living from the land, cutting the peat since time immemorial and providing a living link with the past. 
Carloway Broch
The fascinating archaeological remains include a norsk mill and chambered cairns that I have visited on previous trips to the Hebrides. This time I was acting as tour guide and so I thought that my little gang of tourists would all appreciate the magnificent Broch of Dun Carloway which dates from 1st century BC (Iron age, I think) and apparently was last occupied in 1300AD. An imposing fortress designed to protect against both invaders and the weather, it stands some 9m tall and in places its walls are 3m thick. We huddled in the shelter of the walls making use of its well designed  protection against the wind and rain.

Staircase within the outer wall
Many theories have been put forward for the construction of standing stones especially to do with the timing of solar and lunar astronomical events, equinoxes ect but I don’t think anyone really knows for sure why these monoliths were erected. What is certain however is that they are beautiful landmarks and the Callanish stones are no exception and create of a landscape full of mystery.  The guide book states that “Evocative times to visit include dawn and dusk, when the moon is full or when this mist rolls in from the sea” and I’ve even seen equally evocative photos of the stones during rare snowy winter days.
Callanish Stones

An ancient mystery
The guide book makes no mention of visiting the stones in horizontal rain and gale force winds. Still, it was atmospheric. In fact wildly so, an ancient structure built by ancient peoples for reasons long lost in the mists of time in a wild untamed environment viewed in  inhospitable hebridean  weather – what more atmosphere could you want?
Some ancient ruins...and the Callanish Stones
Considering the weather it was just as well there is a nice tea room at the visitor centre along with an interesting shop selling all manner of interesting touristy stuff so we took shelter from the wind and rain in there. All except Bert. Bert had spotted a pig in a field, a rather magnificent specimen it has to be said, and he was determined to photograph it no matter that the rain was lashing down. However even the pig had, unlike Bert, the good sense to run for cover from the rain so no photo for Bert.

Black house village
 Our final stop on our history tour was the Blackhouse village of Gerrannan, a cluster of traditional Hebridean blackhouses by the sea now turned into a working museum, self catering accommodation, a youth hostel and the ubiquitous tea room and gift shop. The weaving on Harris on a traditional loom had us all fascinated but the man was not forthcoming with an answer to Bert’s question “ why isn’t it Lewis tweed if it is weaved on Lewis” and he looked at us all as if we were stupid. Can’t think why…
Weaving Harris Tweed
The Blackhouse museum was kitted out as it would have been when it was inhabited and was very interesting, transporting you back in time, and was surprisingly cosy.  I am very tempted to book a Blackhouse cottage for a week sometime. Anyone want to join me…? 
The village was last occupied in 1974
 A Blackhouse is a traditional type of single storey, thick dry stone Hebridean house with a thatched roof. There was a central fire but no chimney for smoke to escape from and the smoke just went up through the roof. The people occupied one side of the house and lived cheek by jowl with their livestock in the same house with a partition between the living quarters of the people and the area where the animals were kept. This type of house was ideally suited as protection against the fierce Hebridean weather and Gearrannan was occupied until the 1970s. 

I really want to stay in one of these!!
Amazingly we gave the tea room a miss and opted to go to Stornoway in search of one in which to end our tour.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Its Barra Time!

Yet another Kisimul Castle photo!

Its Barra time. The same routine every year – Ferry from Oban, dinner at the Craigard, race, magnificent post race tea and prize giving, curry at the Kisimul curry place, celidh, castlebay bar, corn crake chasing, pass out, hangover, some entertainment on Sunday. The same but yet always different. You would think after the number of times I have been to Barra there would be nothing left to see, after all it is a fairly small hebridean island, but every visit throws up something new. 

This time it was the Sunday cycle ride out to the point at Borve where the ancient graveyard sits out on the promontory exposed to the gales and the waves lashing the shore during the worst that the hebridean winter can muster. After the struggle that was the very short cycle ride to get there - you only truly appreciate how hilly the Barrathon course is when you attempt to cycle it - it was pleasant to stroll amongst the grave stones in the sunshine on a not too windy day with the flowering machair stretching as far as the eye could see. There are archaeological features around here that stretch back to Viking times and even the name of the place, Borve, is Viking in origin but the majority of the gravestones were far more recent than that. 

See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil....
In the little guide book that I found at our accommodation it hinted at the location of a new distillery on Barra and so I thought it might be a good idea to attempt to find it. The guide book however gave no clue as to where other than in the village of Borve, so a bit more cycling later we came to the conclusion that only the site had been earmarked as being for a distillery and no construction had yet taken place. A quick chat with a local man confirmed this and it wouldn’t be for the last time this holiday that I was hoping folk wouldn’t be wanting to kill me for having a “good idea”. 
I led them on a wild goose chase...
 After tea and cake at the Isles of Barra hotel everybody seemed to be happy enough and I was pleased that I had finally had the chance to visit this part of the island after having run or cycled past it so often.

The Machair
Bert had never been to Barra airport and so that was our entertainment for the afternoon and we were lucky enough to get there just in time to see a plane taking off from what must be one of the most unusual runways in the world. 

The Windsock
and its off
I hope he remembered to take off the lens cap...
I have recently established that the Barrathon has more climbing in it than either the Skye half marathon or the Harris half marathon (yup, its official) both of which are pretty hilly as far as road half marathons go. After my rapid disintegration between miles 5 and 7 in Skye, slow and steady was to be the order of the day and I went for a very conservative start. I was glad of this as the latter part of the race was into a headwind and also where the dreaded “hill” is located and so my slow start meant I had plenty of energy to attack the hill and resulted in a far more pleasant race experience than was the Skye half marathon although I was only a minute quicker in Barra.

Geoff won a prize
I think we all felt like that!

My Heb Half Nemesis...

Gillian looking focussed
There were mixed fortunes amongst us that day, Bert didn’t make it to the start line due to his broken foot so was on photographer duties. Predictably enough he positioned himself at the top of "The Hill" with his camera to capture the suffering. Simon and Dean Carr pulled up injured and Simon managed to jog to the finish but unfortunately Dean was unable to continue. Cath didn’t appear to have really enjoyed the race either suffering from a bit of a sugar low. In contrast Innes made it round and seemed to be pretty fresh at the finish and Geoff picked up a prize, Gillian carried on her winning ways and Robin seemed to be flying. To top off a great day HBT won the first team prize with Megan as a counter. My own lowly ambitions involved beating Eilis – purely on the basis that I really didn’t want to be beaten by yet another pregnant HBT runner!

The Celidh and the Castlebay Bar always help you to forget a bad race experience!

But some people just take things too far
Waaaay too far...

Instead of going back to Oban on the Monday a group of us headed north through the islands and so I thought they might appreciate a wee visit to “The Politician” en route, the pub on Eriskay, the island of Whisky Galore fame. They even have a few bottles of the treasured stuff which was salvaged from the ship along with other artifacts and they bring these out for viewing on request.

Whisky Galore
Robin suggested mile reps as a good warm down....
The famous whisky
After tea and cakes it was onwards through South Uist, Benbecula and North Uist before crossing the sound of Harris taking in the glorious scenery in  glorious weather……which unfortunately was not to last.
Harris beaches!

Clouds gathering ominously