By Marg Greenwood
Scalpay is joined to Harris by a smart 20 year old bridge. The island is small, just 2.5 square miles, with a population of about 300. It was my second visit and I’d remembered the notice outside the play park: Closed on Sundays. It's still there, an emblem to the strict observance of the Sabbath.
Parking near the old school, I walked for what seemed like hours along the only road. I took note of the houses, playing the game of which one I’d buy if I had the money. Finally, I reached the point of either: to return the way I came on the firm road surface, or take the footpath to complete the circuit on the north side of the island. I chose the latter.
They’d spruced up the path to the lighthouse Eilean Glas, which has spectacular views of the Minch. It was one of the first four such structures built by the newly-formed Northern Lighthouse Trust in the late 1780s by Thomas Smith, the step-father of Robert Stevenson. My route led me on to a faint path to my left. The walk book encouraged me to keep the marker posts in view, and the sea to my right, and all would be well.
The bog was no joke. It started in earnest once I scaled the highest point of the island, Beinn Scoravaig, which had given me a few seconds of reprieve, as at the summit there was a small patch of proper grass to enjoy. But as I headed downhill again, the bog reasserted itself. I was reminded of the Buddhists’ notion of The Hungry Ghost, a being with a small mouth, very needy, always needing fed; for me the terrain itself was the hungry ghost, desperate to devour me for the whole of the next four miles.
I was no match for the spectre. The route from Beinn Scorovaig northwards was like a 3D jigsaw with missing pieces, peat hags, puddles, grim black mud; a slough of unsatisfied hunger for my booted feet and walking-pole. The ghost slurped as I put my tentative foot down; he swigged and swallowed; and rivulets of black water swilled, gargled and guzzled all around me.
Black ooze came up higher than my boot laces; my trousers were wet and filthy. I hardly noticed the peaks of Skye across the Minch, or the wonderful cloudscapes contrasting with the deep azure sky. I often missed the marker posts, as I had to zigzag to try and avoid the wettest areas. Even the turf tops squelched. I was probably walking less than a mile an hour.
Robert MacFarlane’s book Landmarks has wondrous Gaelic words which could describe some of my walk experience. Bruach - natural peat bank. Creagan - knoll. Brochan - soft ground, literally “porridge”. And how about this one: leig-chruthaich, meaning “a quivering bog with water trapped beneath it and an intact surface”. My favourite is crabbsganach - awkward on one’s feet. I have never been so crabbsganach on a walk before.
Somehow I got back to my starting point in one piece. I was somewhat nervous for the last three miles or so, as I met absolutely no-one, and there was of course no mobile reception, so if I’d slipped and fallen awkwardly and broken my arm or leg I would have been in deep trouble, if not bog. Thankfully I got back to my car, and as I’d parked near the only shop in Scalpay, I went in for a take-away cup of tea.
Marg Greenwood has been writing short stories, travel pieces, memoirs and poems for about 15 years, gaining success in local and national competitions. She has travelled widely in Scotland and the Scottish Islands; and subsequent travel pieces have been published in magazines such as The Scottish Island Explorer, the SYHA magazine and The Oldie. She is now working towards a book about her personal ‘take’ on a few of the smaller islands. Her musical and teaching background is currently tempting her to compose songs based on folk legends of the isles which she hopes to share with island schools. Marg is a very keen walker.
Visit Marg's website at margstravelinscottishislands.wordpress.com.