By R M Murray
The highest point on North Lewis is Muirneag. At a mere 814 feet it isn’t even a mountain. Yet its flattened, rounded ‘M’ profile is visible from an improbable distance because it rises out of the flat, featureless, loch-riddled moorland that stretches from the Butt of Lewis to the Barvas Hills. To the west the Atlantic vanishes to a horizon line; to the east the Minch stretches till it breaks on the shores of the North West Highlands.
From the top you can see the extent of the island and grasp the emptiness. The straggle of villages that nibble the coast but shun the vacant hinterland of the interior.
Until the post-War years the open moor was a resource. In the seasonal sweep and cycle of subsistence living, cattle would be brought for summer pasture and families would decant to the numerous airidhs (shielings or bothies) on the shores of isolated lochs. A literature of story and song arose from the paradox of community and isolation of this experience.
When poring over Ordnance Survey maps for our next fishing expedition we always noted the miniature communities harboured by remote lochs strewn across this nowhere. But by then we had already learned that, on the ground, there was barely a vestige of human habitation left. Only collapsed, heaped stone overgrown by a skin of peat, rushes, heather, lichen and moss. Mòine, luachair, fraoch, crotal is coinneach. A silent Gaelic mantra from the botanical codex.
The maps were an X-ray that revealed the past. The bones. An anatomical diagram of lost livelihoods and vanished summers.
Muirneag didn’t look that far away out of our scullery window. It was just behind Dolly Weely’s house, whose chimney pots poked over the immediate horizon like a collie’s ears. Years earlier, as small children, provisioned with some sweets and a bottle of lemonade, we set off one morning to climb it. After surmounting fences, crossing streams and heroically arriving at the house, we were dismayed to find that it was no nearer than when we had left home. It had stayed where it was in the distance, a backstop to a tonal exercise of receding horizon lines. Not least, it was now verifiably on the other side of the Gress River.
My younger brother Iain and first-cousin Coinneach had identified a loch at the foot of Muirneag on the Tolsta side and decided that it qualified as excellent. There was no evidence beyond the faintest echo of hearsay. But we were resolutely faithful to a creed that the further away the loch, the better the fishing. Probably from some kind of subconscious Presbyterian logic, based on ratios of suffering-to-reward. No pain no gain. Or, more rationally, that less-fished meant more fish.
We were in our mid-teens. And by that age had evaluated the distance. We now knew we could take the peat road that followed the Gress River as it rose, and continue after the road ran out until we reached the dam, where we could jump the weir and cross the river. Thereafter, the traverse of the open moor. We would go over Muirneag, down the east side and camp by the loch.
It is the summer holidays and we leave early on a still, overcast afternoon. Walk the road and the beaten track, up the river, over the gruelling energy-sucking ground, climb and descend and reach the loch by evening. In the damp, oppressive air, sticky with sweat, we put up the two-person, single-skinned, cotton tent on a flattish, spongey piece of ground by the water’s edge. The faded orange a colour-wheel complement to the muted greens of moss and grass.
The clouds become too heavy for the sky and begin to condense, deliquesce and drip as if from a gentle squeeze on a soaked sponge. The midges track our blood-warmed breath, trail our body-heat and surround us like smoke. We set out a couple of rods with bubble-floats and try to outrun them by taking an otter-board round the loch.
An otter-board is a rectangular plank of wood, a couple of feet wide, lead-weighted along the long edge so that it sits upright in the water. In profile, it is wedge-shaped at both ends and when pulled barge-like along the bank by a long cord, the bladed board will angle away from the shore and trail a fly-cast. No skill required. It’s a basic but effective means of covering a lot of loch.
But not that effective, because we don’t catch anything. On the board or on the rods. The conditions are against us. The perennial, timeless excuse in the fisherman’s repertoire. You need a good ripple on the water.
Now the precipitation becomes a faint drizzle. Smùid, uisge-mìn, braon, ceòthran, drùis ... the Gaelic lexicon for rain begins to riffle ... bùirseach, tuil … The stagnant air stirs and a rising breeze whisks the midges away. With our enthusiasm as yet un-dampened, we meditate on a plan for the next day until the light fades to dusk and we crawl into the tent and our sleeping bags. And quickly fall asleep.
And as quickly - it seems - wake up. The lower half of my bag is soaking wet. The tent is dripping, rain dropping along the ridge-pole, pooling on the groundsheet, the cotton fabric translucent in patches mottling the early daylight. Iain and Coinneach have woken too. There is nothing for it. We have to get up.
Our clothes, stuffed into rucksacks, are at least partially dry. So, constricted between the tapered, narrow wet walls, in the half light, we contort into layers: check shirts, hand-knitted bobbin socks and jumpers, jeans, those cotton cagoules with the large front-pocket and, of course, wellies. It’s decent outdoor kit but not the climate-proof, language-bending technical clobber that now passes as minimum standard: The Goretex-ed, lightweight but hard-wearing, waterproof but breathable, warm but cool...
The rain drops into our mugs of tea and the day stretches ahead over a vague horizon. We orbit the loch with the otter-board once more. In the rain. And make another plan. In the rain. We decide to take the board, leave the tent, the gear and the rods, climb Muirneag again and head for Loch Ghriais at the source of the Gress River. In the rain.
So we haul ourselves up the hill and take a bearing from the Ordnance Survey cairn at the top to a distant hollow of water in a dark blur of moor. And head into a water-logged south-westerly on a diagonal descent along the back of Muirneag.
Baptised in bleakness, the sodden, saturated, shelterless Lewis moorland is a psychological as much as a physical landscape. We have endured such days before, huddled under the banks of a loch, watching a bubble-float, on the verge of hallucination as the amber water laps and wears away the stones. The rain infiltrating each fold and crevice of clothing and skin. Nowhere dry enough to sit-on. Breathing rain. Morale diluting by osmosis.
If we cannot ignore it we must accept it, even as it commands our attention and the cold attempts to clutch us in its clammy hand. It trickles down the back of our necks, our trousers wallpapered to our thighs. Only walking keeps the damp chill at bay. Sweat and rain intermingle on the flood plain of our bodies.
The terrain is defiant: unforgiving, harsh, broken moorland. It isn’t a linear transit over-land; it is three dimensional. Through, over and around. Lochans, sunken bogs, hags (peat escarpments), knee-high heather. Like some ponderous slow suicide. One foot in front of the other. Getting nearer. One further step away. From some kind of weather sanctuary. Keep going though. To the end. What end?
Absorbed within ourselves, imprisoned in our chosen mission, we ignore wider issues. None of us thinks to ask: what the fuck are we doing? We have had to get up because the tent is flooded. We can’t sleep there. We have no refuge to return to. We are exposed on a barren, desolate expanse of bog miles from anywhere. And instead of packing up and going home, we are heading deeper into the moor because there might be a better chance of fish on another loch.
God knows when we reach Loch Ghriais. Grimly we set off round the swollen, rain bloated expanse with the otter-board. We do not have a watch. Time can only be measured by hunch. The sun is lost. There is not a trace of it. Daylight is almost continuous in summer so it could be late morning or mid-afternoon.
I catch a small trout and throw it back into the rain swept loch.
And then about two thirds of the way round, an unusual rounded geographical feature like a small hillock comes into view on the bank. As we approach, it assumes basic architectural proportions and becomes an airidh. A windowless, drystone beehive construction with a domed, densely sprouted turf roof and a wooden door. Which isn’t locked. Inside are two recessed bunk-beds with heather mattresses and the crumbling, desiccated, rusted remnants of old provisions. Impossible to say when it had been last occupied. Possibly years.
Most importantly, unbelievably, it is dry.
For a moment relief and despair collide. We know we have been saved and can simultaneously acknowledge openly the desperate situation we’ve been in. We can stay here. It is the only thing we can do. But we realise too that now we have to go back over the moor, over Muirneag, collect the tent, sleeping bags, food and gear and come all the way back to this airidh. In the rain.
Energy, commitment and concentration are harnessed when you have no choice. The body as a vehicle mechanically functions without the inconvenience and intrusion of thought, of decision. It’s a pure state. We are resolved and resilient.
Painstakingly we head back through the hours, climb Muirneag, descend the other side and at last approach the loch and the tent. At which point I experience a shaking, unstoppable, violent hunger. It borders on rage. I feel as if I have been hollowed out. That I am about to implode around an interior vacuum.
I tear frantically, desperately at the rucksack in the tent and fumble for the extra-large tin of Spam I know is there. With trembling fingers I turn the attached key, spiral the tin ribbon to take the top off, pull out the entire gelatinous, greasy pink oblong with my bare hands, sink my teeth into it and gulp half of it down in large gobbets. I pass it round and it is gone.
Then we pack up the gear and the tent like so much wet laundry and for the fourth time in twenty-four hours, with the additional burden of rucksacks, climb Muirneag and head once more, step by laborious step, into the rain and wind. At least this time there is a point. We have a destination. A motive. An end.
It must be well into the evening when we stagger along the bank of Loch Ghriais to the airidh. Using the gas stove, we make a fire from some dry heather and peats that are inside and even to a degree dry-out in the dim smokehouse we have created. The sense of achievement is towering. The self-congratulation colossal. The self-delusion epic. Our good fortune masquerading as survival skills, aptitude, fortitude and endurance, obliterates the idiocy of the escapade.
Sleep closes in like instant nightfall. Oblivion.
The following morning the rain has stopped. Overnight, deep blue chasms have been excavated in the sky. There is a fresh, drying wind, occasional startling bursts of bright sunshine, clarity and airiness. Visibility has extended, distance expanded. All we have to do is follow the course of the Gress River downstream until we reach the dam, cross that and we are back on the beaten track.
Along the side of the loch we come across the remnants of a weather balloon, downed overnight. The apparatus is all geometry, engineering, cantilevered aluminium angles. Like the broken bones of an ambitious kite or a small biplane it drags shredded latex and a tangle of cords. A pathetic, busted, puppet-Icarus. Incongruous. Alien. Ridiculous. Somehow symbolic.
Coinneach Maclennan 1959 -1977
Muirneag, 1973 is extracted from the author's current work in progress, Bleak: a memoir of mishap, mistake and misadventure.
R M Murray is from the Isle of Lewis. A native Gaelic speaker, he is a graduate of Glasgow School of Art. He is Founding Director and Head of Visual Arts & Literature at An Lanntair, Stornoway, where he also curates Faclan: The Hebridean Book Festival.
- Iain and Coinneach on top of Muirneag, 1973. (Taken on the first climb, before it began raining!)
- OS Map of North Lewis. (Section shows the terrain and the airidhs)
- Muirneag, by Rude Health CC. 2.0.