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Views From Scalpay

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The view from Scalpay across East Loch Tarbert and towards the distillery.

Despite the global scenes which flood our social media feeds and TV screens each day, the world has never felt so small. Like many of you experiencing the gentle easing of lockdown, life here in the Outer Hebrides remains under a cautious form of quarantine.

For the last 10 weeks, these Journals have been written and sent from a quiet corner of Scalpay, a tiny island joined to Harris by a bridge. Holding around 200 people and just two and a half square miles in size, it's also home to me, the Harris Distillery storyteller, as I try to keep you connected to our work through these difficult times.

It’s proven to be a strangely calm corner of the world while others face hard struggles elsewhere. The annual influx of tourist cars and campervans is absent this year, keeping the roller-coaster, single-tracked roads eerily silent, but the natural world has quickly stepped in to fill the void.

Sunbathing seals keep an eye on those who get too close.

A young seal and a lazy late spring swim.

These new confines have offered a rare chance to watch the seasons unfold at a hyper-local level. With daily exercise restricted to the immediate open spaces around us, repeatedly walking the same routes each day has helped make me more mindful of both self and surroundings as the months have slipped by.

While working from home, the well-trodden sheep tracks which loop around the headlands here have provided an abundance of ever-changing views on these outings away from the desk, creating a slow-paced film full of subtle scene changes amidst the solitude of the daily dog-walks.

Past the empty house with its blackhouse ruins and ramshackle fence, the land ripples in long lines of the old run rig farming system, reminiscent of the ridges found on a bottle of Isle of Harris Gin. No longer a place for growing potatoes, the greening grass is grazed by Blackfaced sheep and their milk-fed lambs which are fattening fast.

'Mara' - It's good to walk.

Keeping their distance by the old ruins.

Over the first hill, with eastward views across the Minch to Skye, one of the local seal colonies can be spied. They sunbathe in the late spring sun, balanced on the rocks before high-tide, backs bent like great, grey bananas. The older ones watch the walkers with a beady and suspicious eye, while their young play in the green sea around the rocks of Stiolamair.

Birdlife abounds, as two terns recently returned from Antarctica to nest express their annoyance at the arrival of interlopers. They’re joined by a pair of greylag geese who add to the noise, honking loudly while circling like angry fighter planes on patrol.

A heron stands idly by, watching the commotion while overhead a buzzard rides high on a thermal breeze. Some days there are white-tailed eagles, usually harassed by brave (or fool-hardy) seagulls eager to warn them off.

Bursting from the heather, multiple snipe take flight when we wander too close. They’ll be heard from again later in the day, ‘drumming’ eerily into the fading light.

Greylag geese on patrol.

A common snipe laying low. Image © Glyn Evans via

Bladderwrack and Sugar Kelp seaweed float lazily in the waters along the coastline as we continue on, and all around are spotted orchids, bog cotton and tiny scatterings of wild yellow tormentil.

Reaching the next hill, the seascape of East Loch Tarbert is peppered by little uninhabited islands, and in the distance lies the harbour village of Tarbert and the Harris Distillery.

Heading for home, the fading path passes overgrown peat banks, untouched for the last few years as locals have grown old or passed on. The long, wooden handle of a tarasgeir protrudes from a deep well of black water, the iron blade submerged, waiting patiently for the moment it might be tasked to cut again.

Fresh langoustines from Scalpay fishermen Finlay Ewen and Donald Macleod

Homeward bound, with Skye on the far horizon.

On a distant hill I spot my nearest neighbours out for their own daily constitutional and we wave to each other from afar, shouting our greetings and a loud “ciamar a tha sibh!” from a safe social-distance.

Wandering down through the first shoots of scented ferns and bracken we’re almost back to the cottage, nestled in the lee-ward side of some old gneiss rocks.

There’s a plastic bag writhing by the mailbox and inside are a dozen fresh langoustines delivered by the local fishermen. On the doorstep a box of half a dozen local eggs from a friend.

I live the most privileged life.

In nature, there's always a reminder that it is important to listen and learn. Although just a small tale told from a hidden Hebridean stage, I hope these views from Scalpay might help give you the space to reflect upon the more powerful stories being told elsewhere.

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