On Wed 5Dec, myself, Andres & Nik, travelled to Lewis, with Row Porty rower and native of Lewis, Murdo Mcleod. The aim of our visit was to share our experiences of setting up a community club and pass on some of our enthusiasm and support. The following is my account of the trip and I’ve actually not even included everything that we managed to cram into just over 48 hrs. The men-folk of the group, Andres, Nik and Murdo, will have tales of their own and I hope they’ll share them too. The photos are courtesy of Murdo.
THE CALM BEFORE THE STORM
After an uneventful drive on quiet roads, Murdo, Nik and myself arrived at a familiar destination, Ullapool Harbour. Our final adventurer, Andres, had been scheduled to join us on the Thursday, but forecasts predicting severe weather had prompted Cal Mac to play safe and cancel all ferries. Instead, Andres made a dash across the country and arrived at Ullapool before us, tyres still smoking!
We boarded the ferry in the dark, blissfully oblivious of the sea state ahead. The ferry cranked up- its engines and purred out of a calm Ullapool. Reassured by this, we ordered lavishly from the restaurant and tucked in. The first sign of what was to come was the occasional banging from the car decks. This was followed by a strong spray against the windows, which quickly graduated into full waves of water battering off the glass. Nice! It was around this stage that plates and bottles started to dance across the table and things got a bit more tricky.
My sea-legs have never been very fine-tuned and with a bellyful of steak pie, which was making it clear that it didn’t want to be there, I had an urge to get out in the fresh air. Standing up, never mind walking, was a whole new challenge. The boat must have been rising and falling quite dramatically as staying upright was pretty difficult.
Once outside, the full force and height of the waves became apparent. We made it to the top deck somehow and the spray from the waves was still crashing several meters above us, which gives you an idea of the Minch’s ferocity. Whilst my fellow sea dogs coped admirably, I opted to remain outside and lose my steak pie with dignity. What a crossing – and you lot want to do it in a rowing boat ??? Crack on!
Stornoway offered us some shelter and we slid off the ferry and headed off across the island to Shawbost. By the time we got there, it was already late, but our hosts were there to greet us. We met various members of Murdo’s family, all lovely people, who welcomed us with a whisky on arrival, following which we were despatched off to our respective hosts for the night.
I stayed with Murdo’s Auntie Annie and Ian, a Harris Tweed weaver and part time fireman, in a toasty wee croft house. Whilst my tea-total household had a sedate cuppa, before bed, over at the neighbouring croft house, Andres and Nik were leading old Uncle Alex astray by emptying several bottles of whisky and indulging in some fine Hebridean story-telling. Murdo and Alex together made for some lively stories which I hope they’ll share with you. Alex, is pictured above, with his implement of choice to keep Andres and Nik in order!
ALL FIRED UP
I awoke with a start at 6.30am to a right old commotion and gasps of ‘Oh no, it’s on fire, look at the flames!!!!’. When I opened my eyes, I realised that my room had a flickering orange glow and I leapt up. In-house fireman, Ian, had already sprung into action. It transpired that the overnight gales had brought the power cables down and we were treated to a Christmas light display courtesy of the cables arcing and producing big white flashes as far as the eye could see. The orange glow was from the flames licking up the telegraph poles. Just to complete our Christmas experience, the snow had arrived. Better still, one of the cables had come down and settled itself right across the driveway of the house Andres and Nik were staying in, trapping Andres’s car. Wow! Anyway, we could deal with that later, there was exploring to be done.
GONE WITH THE WIND
Wearing every available and borrowed piece of clothing, in my case a Coastguard’s jacket(!), we headed in the direction of Rubha na Beirghe, a site of ancient fortification. From here, we had a magnificent view of the cliffs below and the sheer power of the sea crashing up and over them. The gales that followed us up here were strong enough to knock me off my feet on more than one occasion.
Murdo thought it would make a good photo if we gathered on the edge of the cliff, with the raging sea behind us – strange sense of humour that guy! I could barely stand and was pretty confident that if I flapped my arms, I’d have been soaring with the seagulls in no time. Just to add to the growing list of dramas, on the way down, Andres’s knee decided to part company with its socket and we literally had a man down! After a bit of writhing and manipulating, the knee cap and socket were reunited and we continued on our journey. To avoid further drama, we opted for a short drive to the next location.
TAKE ME TO THE WATER
We arrived intact at the proposed skiff location and what a spot it is. On one side, is the Atlantic Ocean and the beautiful beach of Traigh Shiaboist, and on the other is a loch, Loch a Bhaille. Standing looking over at both of them, you can see for miles, across a landscape, speckled only with crofts.
The two areas are separated by a wide path, with a steep, rocky shore ensuring that the 2 waters never meet. With a stiff wind, there was some movement on the loch, but nothing that would bother a skiff and the snow made for a very picturesque moment.
WEAVING OUR WAY
Back at base camp, we were met by Ian, a Harris Tweed weaver, who weaves from a shed next to the croft. He has been weaving since he was a lad and clearly loves it. He explained that there are 550 base colours, from which every shade thereafter is composed, by mixing combinations of colours. The resulting thread is surprisingly fine. To get the cloth started, the individual threads have to be tied onto the loom hooks – all 1500 of them. That is a lot of knots. The digital era has bypassed the looms and they are a mechanical wonder to behold, with a fascinating array of cogs, chains and weights. Ian’s machine is considered advanced because you operate it by cycling it – so we did! There is no room for ’10 hard ones’ as the loom relies on an even, steady pace…and certainly no reversing, as I found out.
With only camping stoves for company, we headed off in search of ingredients for a hearty meal. We were saved from the prospect of pasta by ’40 North’, a proper, gourmet take-away, seemingly dropped down from the sky, Dr Who style, in the middle of nowhere. It turns out that this ‘nowhere’ was a place called Bragar. Here, we had the unbelievable choice of lamb tagine, beef goulash, hot smoked salmon and apricot chicken. Andres even found Chilean wine in stock. With feeding time over, we turned our attention to the public meeting that evening.
Would anyone dare brave the driving snow to come to a school hall, plunged into darkness, to hear a few mainlanders talk about a plywood boat? Well, by the Power of Murdo, they certainly would and not alone either. The first brought a generator, the second a standard lamp from their livingroom, complete with flowery shade, then boxes of candles and more lights. In a matter of minutes we had illuminations to rival Blackpool.
Between us, we gave the audience of 10, an overview of how the whole idea of the SCRA came about, how Row Porty got started, what a boat build looked like from start to finish, some of the places we had been and lastly each of our impressions of the benefits rowing had brought to our community. It was really helpful that we’d witnessed the sea conditions earlier in the day because it meant we could take that on board. People spoke of being brought up with a ‘fear of the sea’ and it wasn’t difficult to understand why that might have been. The highlight of the presentation, however, has got to be when Andres stunned the room into silence by delivering a speech in his finest Gaelic !!! Top marks to him. A Scottish person would never have got away with that ;-p No one is really sure what he said, but whatever it was, the group voted unanimously to take the idea of a skiff build forward and also to have us back in May.
THAT FRIDAY FEELING
Friday morning started as it begn, with no power and that potentially live cable to deal with. Whilst Fireman Ian set about making calls from early morning, reminding Scottish Hydro we were ferry bound in a matter of hours, Nik and Andres had other ideas. With a brick dropped on top of the end of the cable, Andres simply drove over it, beating Scottish Hydro, who arrived a few hours later.
A few hours goes a surprisingly long way in Lewis. So, before we headed for the lunchtime ferry, there was time for Ian to take us on a personal tour of the Harris Tweed Mill, where he excelled himself, not only in turning up unannounced , but interrupting an entire workforce and their tea break, just for our benefit. This stretched to him rummaging through the off cuts to present us with bundles of cloth and despite the protestations of the shipping organiser, Wendy, he also gave us a wee handful of coveted labels to sew on. We saw the looms on a larger scale, but the one being operated in the picture below operated on alternating foot plates rather than a cycling motion. It also looked like it had been in service a very long time. Again, the mechanics of it were fascinating.
STONED AT CALLANISH
We said our goodbyes and then it was off to see the Callanish Stones which date back to 3000BC and loosely form a Celtic cross formation. We had the site to ourselves and overlooking the site, we gazed out onto stunning views of sea lochs and inlets which would be perfect skiffing territory.
We managed a quick stroll around Stornoway, before watching it disappear into the distance as we crossed a far friendlier Minch than we’d been on before, complete with dolphins.
One of the impacts skiffing has made on my life is that it has taken me to some beautiful parts of my own country, given me the most wonderful opportunities and experiences and put me in touch with some amazing people. Thanks to Murdo, his family and the people of Shawbost for once again, demonstrating what this coastal rowing thing can bring to us all.