Tourist or Pilgrim?

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I have been challenged to articulate more clearly the difference between the pilgrim and the tourist.

I think I articulated some of the yearning that I see as part of pilgrimage in my last blog: There is something about the mountains and rocks of northwest Scotland, seen from the sea, which pulled me strongly. I wanted, at least for a while, to bathe in their presence (‘dwell’, that good Heideggerian word, also comes to mind). I had the same kind of feeling with the mountains of Connemara rising out of the bogland last year. The mountains resonate with a sense of eternity, and evoke that good deep ecology maxim, “thinking like a mountain’.

I had a truly wonderful night in Loch Awe. The water was deep and calm, rising to a very high spring tide late in the evening. The seals lay on the rocks looking at me from time to time until the high water drove them away. In the far distance the Quinage ridge showed its different faces with the changing light. Late in the evening, the evening sunlight lit up the rocks so that they shone a deep gold, finally leaving black sillouettes against the twilight sky.

Next morning I left for Stornaway, 30 miles west across the North Minch. The wind was disappointingly patchy, despite the forecast. I arrived in heavy rain with poor visibility, got a bit lost at the entrance because I couldn’t see the markers but soon settled on a pontoon in the marina. Everything was soaked, the rain had even penetrated right through my waterproof trousers.

The following day, after dropping off two bags at the laundry I picked up a little hire car and made my way to the west coast. I wanted to see the Atlantic, I wanted to see the standing stones at Callanish, I wanted to see the golden sands at Uig. And so I did!

Elizabeth and I have always visited stone circles when we can, especially since were were introduced to the Merry Maidens near the tip of Cornwall. These circles carry a reminder, both physically and spiritually, of the ancient ways of being on these islands. We have participated in moving ceremonies at stone circles where we feel we have touched the Earth in a special way. Yet stone circles, especially the famous ones like Stonehenge and Averbury, are also magnets for tourism, so that any sense of the numinous buried, just as in an over-visited cathedral.

I found the Callanish stones particularly strange. The pictures I had seen showed tall, gaunt stones standing lonely against the sky, and I imagined them as being in a wild and remote place. Actually, they are set almost in the middle of a Hebridean settlement, modern houses of no particular beauty straggling across the landscape.

My visit was definitely a tourist experience. Go and see the stones, and marvel at them in a rather superficial way. Take some pictures. If you are with family, take pictures of your family against stone background. Otherwise, try not to get strangers into your pictures, try to take pictures that make the stones look appropriately lonely and wild. Wonder, again rather superficially, why they were put there. Then go to visitor centre for coffee and rather dry cake, wander round the shop and decide there is nothing you could possibly want to buy. Return to car and drive on to next place. This kind of visit doesn’t honour the old stones and it doesn’t honour oneself.

That is a slight exaggeration. I did spend time touching some of the stones, taking in the crystalline qualities of the gneiss rock; I did visit the other two, smaller, circles nearby and spend some quiet time. But there was nothing in the experience that ‘caught me’, and so I moved on, driving my tiny Nissan car like a rolling skate along the single track roads. I drove to the end of Great Bernera–done that; I drove to the Uig Sands–done that!

What I did see, and what I don’t think one would get a sense of without actually being there, was the extraordinary quality of this island, especially of the mountains rising in the south. I am tempted to use the term ‘bleak’ to describe them, but that feels to pejorative; ‘forbidding’ might be a better word–and indeed they do lie across between Lewis and Harris to the south traditionally preventing contact between the two communities. And yet, when I picked up a fragment to take home with me, I was delighted to see the contrasting bands of pink, grey, and white, and the glistening golden glow of embedded mica or quartz.

On the way back, just as I was fretting about too much driving, needing a cup of tea, feeling that my visit had left a sour taste in my mouth, I was struck by the enormous difference between such fragile, short-term, almost pathetic human sentiments and the immense endurance of these rocks, among the oldest anywhere in the world. I had to pull off the road and scribble something in my notebook in case I lost that fleeting insight–again, maybe, into a sense of eternity.

So it was a funny day. I was really pleased with myself when I got back to Stornaway and picked up my two bags of clean laundry.

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Rocks and Mountainsm

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It took all morning to get round the Point of Stoer. I foolishly congratulated myself, as Coral worked to windward at over 5 knots coming out of the Eddrachallis Bay, thinking we would be round in no time. But the wind dropped and soon we were scarcely moving, and when it did pick up again it had backed and headed us, so all the hard work we had put in getting to windward of the point was to no avail. In the end we passed closer inshore than I intended, so Coral had to fight her way through the choppy waters that swirled round the headland.

Once we were south of Stoer it was evident that my plans for a long leg south were over-ambitious: it was now late, and the wind was against us. I didn’t really want to go into the fishing port in Loch Inver again, convenient though that might be. But I remembered that the sailing directions mentioned a ‘small loch’, Loch Roe, just a mile north of the entrance to Loch Inver. There was a sheltered pool there where we might anchor. I checked the chart and turned Coral inshore.

The sailing directions refer to a high bluff which distinguishes the entrance; as far as I could see, the coast was full of high bluffs, and it is almost impossible to distinguish the entrance to a small loch against the background of grey rocks, which all merge into each other until you are really close in. I sailed past the entrance, nearly into Loch Inver, before I realized my mistake. Turning Coral round, and with the sails down approaching closer to the shore, I saw what I thought must be the entrance. There was the bluff of rock; there were the offshore rocks marked on the chart. Closer in, carefully motoring ahead ready to turn around at a moment’s notice, a little bay ahead opened up, a dead end, then a narrow gap opened to starboard between a tidal island and floating seaweed showing where there was an underwater reef; and, of course, a litter of fishing buoys in the way across the surface.

So here we are, anchored in a deep pool with an almost vertical cliff rising above the cockpit to one side, and a line of rocks and islands sheltering on the other. But most important for me is that the ridge of mountains called Quinag is clearly visible across the top of the loch.

I have for the past few days been on a quest to get a good view of these mountains. I could see them in the distance from the Summer Islands; they loomed closer when I entered Enard Bay; I could clearly see Stac Pollaidh from Polly Bay; I got a good look at the cone of Suilven when I entered Lock Inver, but once I was on the pontoon the high pilings of the fish harbour got in the way of my view. I think I really sailed north around the Point of Stoer to get a closer look at Quinag, but by the time I got there they were covered in low cloud.

So here I am now, watching the pattern of clouds pass across Quinag as the sun drops down behind me. They are quite clear for a while; then, as the shadows lengthen, dark cloud obscures the line of the ridge. This range is of Torridonean sandstone, billions of years old and resting on Lewisian gneiss that is even older. I think I have got it right that the gneiss is along the foreshore, the tortured and bent grey cliffs, the lower rocks where the seals are resting polished by the passing of ice. The sandstone in the distance is clearly different, holding a distinct red tone.

Just what is it about these rocks and mountains that I find it so satisfying to see, to be in the presence of? Is it their size, their shape, rising as they do so directly from the basement rock? Is it that I know something of their age, how they were formed? Does this put me in touch with some notion of eternity? Are these mountains representations of archetypes in the same way I felt the Skellig Rocks of County Kerry carried an archetypal quality (although the Skellig Rocks are so much ‘younger’?). And if so, what do I really mean by archetype?

Beyond all that, is there something simply inconceivable about their age, their origins, their history. Maybe witnessing these mountains gives me some sense of eternity in the same way as looking at the stars takes me back to the origins of the universe? Or maybe I make too much of all this, and should be content to look at a beautiful landscape.

After a wonderful night in this wild place, I have crossed the North Minch to Stornaway on Lewis. I got very wet on the way across. Now on a pontoon, enjoying the prospect of civilization and fish and chips again!

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