On the island of Harris

I’ve just got back from the island of Harris in the Outer Hebrides. If you live in Scotland, and you love the sea, islands, boats and remoteness, you don’t have to go to the other ends of the world to find one of the most beautiful places on earth. Nor is there anywhere else on earth like it. The mountains in Nepal are higher and more magnificent. The villages in Greece are more beautiful. The skies are bluer in Italy. But the feeling you get in Harris is unique. Nowhere is the landscape more rugged, more craggy, more rocky. Nowhere do you feel that you can travel millions of years back in time, nowhere do you feel so totally insignificant, and that the forces of nature will always prevail. But, most of all, there are few places on earth where you feel you are at the end of something, because here, when you look out to the west, you realise that everything is all behind, the cities, the motorways, the crowds, the skyscrapers of the European landmass, and that in front, where the sun is setting in all its splendour, there is only 3000 miles of the empty ocean stretching to the very curve of the horizon.

And somehow you know that the inhabitants sense this too, because their concerns are not what has happened on the London Stock Exchange, but what the weather’s going to be like tomorrow, the latest shipping forecast, why the ferry from Skye is late and whether Billy is playing in the village hall on Saturday. Not that they are insular, backward and out of touch with the world. Go into many of the crofts or little art galleries that dot the southern part of the island, and you will be astonished, for example, to see the state of the art kitchens.. More, it’s just that their chief concerns are different and, some would say, perhaps more real than those of the teeming millions trapped further south in their consumer lifestyles, and with their celebrity culture and materialistic obsessions. For a breath of fresh air, do yourself a favour and tune into BBC Alba to see what preoccupies people here. Because what does it matter, here on the very edge of the continent, if the Middle East is in flames, terrorists have blown up fifty people in Kabul, the British Prime Minister, with his delusions of grandeur, is issuing yet another warning to President Putin to mend his ways as if he is a naughty schoolboy? Because although such events as who is going to win the sheep-dog trials, the competition of the fiddlers in the village hall, or the singers preparing for the Mod may seem so pathetically parochial as to be fit only for the subject of smug mirth and ridicule, these are real events, which affect everyone’s lives. And here, anyway, you know that you can’t do anything about the state of the world, and that the seasons will come and go, the sun will continue to rise in the east and set in the west, generations will be born and die, and that, although everything will change inexorably, the illusion will persist that everything will always be the same.


On the dangers of forcing things in yoga

Am seriously grounded, physically, as have badly damaged my hip as a result of overdoing hip-opening exercises doing yoga. It was my fault, as I ignored warnings not to force them to open. It’s been so bad that I can hardly walk, and, sure that I was going to need a hip replacement, have had an X-Ray at the Western General and been up to the Royal Infirmary. To my astonishment, the former said that there was only standard wear and tear on the hip-joint – amazing, given that 25 years ago my doctor said that he’d never seen anyone so young with such ‘hammered hip-joints’ – the arthritis that had been diagnosed 25 years ago, and the latter recommended only that I desist from doing the exercises given me by a physiotherapist I went to see, and, at the same time, he would arrange for me to have a steroid injection. So am hoping against hope that I will have yet another ‘get out of jail free’ card, and that once again, my body, which has never failed to do what I asked of it won’t let me down. The result of this has been that I haven’t been able to go anywhere, and instead, am in a curious no-man’s land, where I’m not doing anything other than just waiting to see if things are going to improve.

It’s a curious feeling, as I’ve always felt that I could take off somewhere whenever I wanted – which of course is now out. But that’s not the only reason I’m just sitting things out, and not writing any more; I’m no longer interested in writing travel articles, the freelance market for which has almost disappeared, on top of which there aren’t many places left that I’d really like to go to. And then, finally, am somewhat worn out by all the hard work involved in doing Reports from Beyond and In Search of Landfall, which took nearly seven years to produce.

To pass time, I’m watching a lot of television. Those who say there’s nothing decent on the box are deceived; it just means that they don’t watch BBC 4 or, to a lesser extent, BBC 2. This must surely be the best channel there has ever been, including Channel Four when it first went on air before it went disgracefully downmarket and now simply caters for the lowest of the low. There’s hardly an evening goes by when there isn’t something really worth watching on BBC 4, starting with the excellent World News at 7pm. Then there’s Entarteted Kunst, the fantastic Scandinavian thrillers on Saturday night The Killing, Borgen, Wallander and The Bridge, the Italian Inspector Montalbano, the History of Art in Three Colours, a History of British Art, The Blue Planet, the wonderful programmes of Andrew Graham-Dixon such as The Art of China, Artists of War, The Art of Germany, The Art of Eternity, Lost Cities of the Ancients, The Life of Birds, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Great Scientists in Their Own Words, Treasures of the Anglo-Saxons, Under Milk Wood, The Viking Sagas, History of Greek Theatre, Ancient Greece – The Greatest Show on Earth. What’s not to like?