From Island to Island, Part 4

There are sheep living on those islands. Salmon farm just in front.

Back to it then, eh?

After my conversation with the folks at the Berneray historical exhibit, our group walked down to the small set of docks in town. We switched places with the other group – jumping onto Andy’s boat for a ride out to see the sheep living out on the islands. But our time on the boat was so much more than a viewing. We did see sheep. They were hanging out on the islands, doing their sheep things. (If you don’t know, that’s mostly eating, sleeping, wandering to a new spot for eating, and occasionally depositing the remainders of what you just ate.) But also saw and heard a lot more. We got to observe the sophisticated navigation equipment on board the ship. We saw cormorants, grey geese, arctic terns, oystercatchers and auks. We skimmed in between islands, dodging rocky bits of land and things lurking beneath the water. We got up close to a couple of fish farms, waving hello to the guys cleaning nets. We got to pepper Andy with questions. Best of all, we got to listen to Andy talk. He told us about coming to the islands as a young couple and then becoming a family there, about long-distance studies until he was sufficiently knowledgeable (and degreed) to begin working on the health of the land and water surrounding his home. Over the years, he has participated in gathering data for both public and private organizations, mostly evaluating the fish farms and putting safer, more ecologically sound practices and equipment in place. Andy and his co-workers have been tracking everything from water quality to wildlife populations. Everyone involved in the governing or economic health of Berneray has a stake in the health of its environment. Decisions about fishing limits, grazing rights, placement of fish farms, what to do with waste and sewage — lots and lots of community discussion goes on. It all requires accurate information. (Hmmm. Scientific inquiry undertaken to provide the public with information necessary for making accurate decisions? Sounds like something we should do here in the States. Wait we DO do that in the States. And then it’s ignored. But I digress…) By the way, the salmon fish farms here are so carefully placed, zealously cleaned and monitored, and subject to so many regulations that they are producing very healthy fish while NOT degrading their surroundings. I will be looking for Scottish salmon from now on.

Cormorants! I saw cormorants!
And then the sun came out. Looking across to the sea from Sunhill croft.

Somehow, we ended up with much more time on the boat and the others ended up with more time with Meg. They went to look at an archaeological site and heard tons of different, equally interesting stuff from Meg. They also got to meet the the two sons, asking them questions about growing up on the islands. On leaving, we all agreed we could have spent hours more with these folks. Wonderful, all the way ’round.

Back to Hammersay House for dinner. Have I told you how outrageously good our food was throughout this trip? It was. Each afternoon and evening brought us beautiful soups, bread, seafood, meat and vegetable dishes. Each morning was started with fresh eggs and other offerings. Luckily, we were hiking. I estimate the hiking done just barely offset the intake of amazingly good food all week. And I do mean just barely. You’ve got to try sticky toffee pudding at all the restaurants, otherwise how would you know when you come across a really outstanding one?

But after dinner, our day still wasn’t finished! (Oh my god. Really? I’m ready for bed. I don’t care if it’s light out until midnight.) We’d been invited to an informal village ceilidh. I was picturing something like the Sunday afternoon pub in Barra, complete with live musicians and rowdy dancers. About half the group set out together for the adventure. We found ourselves in a community hall with a dozen or so locals (maybe more — 20 or so) for local folk dancing.

Ach. Ah foorgoht ta bhreeng mah fooon, sah nae pictures.

I’ll tell you, we had FUN. What is it about folk dancing? You always — well, no, better speak for myself here and not assume everyone else has the same experience… I always start out feeling reluctant and awkward. I don’t want to participate. I feel shy because I don’t know anyone. I think everyone’s looking at me. I’ll make mistakes and people will be mad. But then, once I give in to participating in my first dance, it all comes back to me. NO ONE is watching you. IT DOESN’T MATTER if you don’t know the steps. Dancing is HOW you build rapport with these people you don’t know. And most importantly: it’s very, very FUN. Folk dancing is by definition simple. You usually have a partner, but they can be male or female, doesn’t matter. You’re not going to spend all your time dancing just with them. And people help you. Mistakes are made, everyone giggles and things continue. No worries. No evil looks. You (oops, there I go again – I) feel proud on getting through a round correctly.

And so it was that way in this tiny town on the windswept Isle of Uist (not sure if we were on South Uist or North Uist). I got to join hands and step forwards and backwards, weave past people, duck under, bridge over, twirl and sway through the entire evening. I think at one point I even waltzed. (Though that particular gentleman was about as experienced a dancer as I was. Not sure we actually waltzed at all.) I even got to dance a few rounds with a fellow named John who knew just when to tell me what do do next. It felt like flying. We were sweaty and laughing by the end. We tumbled into our taxi and made our way back to our rooms.

Good thing, because the next day was very full. In fact, the next day was one of my favorite days.

Oh. Do I say that about EVERY day? Well, it was that kind of trip.

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