Heavenly Harris

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Heavenly Harris

Koala runs wild

Snow Gates

Who knew that there were snow gates on the A9?  Well I did, but I didn’t know that they were literally… gates that closed when it snowed!  We were setting off in the morning, at 4.30am to get to the Calmac ferry to Stornaway from Ullapool.  It was snowing and should be a 3 and a half hour drive, if the A9 was open.   It is closed.  The atmosphere changed, excitement gave way to stress.  Would we have to go via Fort William or Aberdeen??  That’s an extra 2 hours either way!  What does the forecast say?  Where does Google keep snow gate alerts??  No point going to bed then.. I thought.  Perhaps it would be best not to open that bottle of Merlot after all.

We were going to the Isle of Harris for an impromptu midweek photo blitz.  I was looking forward to it.. but then it snowed and the annual British transport chaos ensued at the first flurry.  Usually this is merely a source of amusement as commuters struggle in 4x4s that they can’t drive but this time it was personal.  The A9 was shut! Snow gates!!  Koala checked the weather forecast.  Her trusty MetOffice app gave hope.. it was to warm up overnight!  Maybe the snow would melt!  Maybe the pesky snow gates would open!?  We debated.  Decision made we would stick to the plan.. A9 and risk it!  Bedtime.

4 am

Koala woke me with a cup of tea.  That’s nice.  I’m not at my best in the morning.  Koala knows this.  I hadn’t slept either.  I spent 2am checking the RAC app.. my new go-to journey planner to get snow gate updates and ending up buying roadside rescue.  Just in case.  Tea drunk.. we set off.  It was dark and snowing but the A9 was open.  Hurrah!  It was still dark when we passed the Dalwhinnie Distillery and there indeed was a snow gate!  We cheered as we sped by.  It was a brief interlude.  Koala was checking the weather for Harris and mumbling to herself.  ‘Don’t worry darling I’m sure that there will be pockets of light.. it’s Harris!’  Koala looked at me quizzically, unsure if I was mocking her.  I smiled feebly.  I probably was.  I was tired.  She knew.  ‘Think we should stop at McDonald’s in Inverness’  She was right,  our blood sugar was low a coffee and a McMuffin would settle the mood.  Well in theory.  Unless you’re in Inverness!

6 am

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Tired and irritable trying to get into the Inshes retail carpark with no obvious access to the Golden Arch tempting us beyond Tesco!  Instead we found the delivery yard of B & M.  We parked and jumped the fence to McDonalds.  A hitech 3 storey McDonald’s no less.. with touch screens and zones and no easy way into the feckin place!  My blood sugar was critical.  Koala smiled supportively.  I breathed again.  The A835 to Ullapool is perhaps the most remote trunk road in Britain and as the sun began to rise on the snowy hills so did our excitement.  We were going back to Harris.  That distant island of the Outer Hebrides that we loved so much.  We discovered this place together and the beauty of the turquoise sea and white sands.  The rugged interior and spectacular coast drew us back.  It was paradise, it was winter and the CalMac flagship was empty of tourists!  We would be alone.

We took our pick of the reclining seats on the Observation Deck and settled down with the odd islander speaking Gaelic to the crew, it was a community and it was familiar.  We relaxed and the huge Hebridean ferry left the pier.  Would a cup of tea help?  I asked Koala,  as she breathed heavily and her colour drained.  The Minch was.. choppy.  I smirked to myself at the statement. Koalas balance was suffering and her natural grace left her.. as she sat clinging to the table top.  The Island Bakery Lemon Melts distracted her,  she likes them.  They are ‘moreish’,  which apparently means you want more.. after you’ve had one.  She was jibbering.  A wave hit the ferry and sprayed heavily against the glass.  Maybe this is why the tourists don’t come in winter?

We arrived.. She’s fantasising.  The Airbnb cottage is fantastic and stunningly located on the beach overlooking Luskintyre.  It was still raining but the journey was worth the effort.  Koala was fantasising about how good it would be to stay here,  if you weren’t a photographer!  ‘Drink wine.. sleep in.. read the books.. walk the beaches and eat… and no light chasing.  How good would that be!?’  She was happy and she hadn’t even taken a photo today?! I smiled and unpacked the wine.  Were we on holiday?  Was this a dream??

Next Morning

The wind and hailstones battered the bedroom window and woke us.  The MetOffice was right. ‘We don’t have to rush’  Koala whispered. ‘Let’s just stay here and have bacon for breakfast.. it might clear up later.’  Koala was in no hurry.  This threw me a little.  Maybe she was losing her edge.  Maybe we actually were on…. holiday.  Maybe we were a normal couple after all?  I got the frying pan out and smiled, relaxing into a day of reading books on a Harris Tweed be-cushioned couch.  I relaxed briefly.    Then I looked out of the kitchen window across the bay to Luskintyre beach as the frying pan sizzled.  The rain had stopped, the weather was clearing!  Should I mention it?  The bacon was just about crispy.  I buttered the roll feeling my desperate tension rise.  She’ll panic if she sees the light and we’re still here.  She’ll want to rush!  I deflected.  ‘Do you want tomato sauce darling?’  Too late.  ‘Look!!!’  She shouted, eyes wide.  Uh oh.. she’s seen the clearing in the cloud.  Koala has a unique knack of accelerating from a slumber into a frenzy of activity as light appears.  ‘We’ve got to go.. look!’  I handed her the bacon roll as an appeasement.  I’m going to need an antacid.  I thought, as we set off to the beach at Horgabost.  Indigestion strikes more often these days.  I was unnerved, the light had gone just as we rounded the coast road.  Even so, Koala was upbeat.

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‘I need to be creative…’

She mused as we drove on.  Uh oh.. that usually means a video.. one of Koalas legendary instastories!  Embarrassment factor is normally quite high but I’m buoyed by the fact that Harris is pretty much deserted so no one will see.  ‘I’ve got an idea..!’ She exclaims.  A video perhaps? I guess quietly.  ‘A video!! Yes an 80s pop video!! On the beach!! I’ve got it!’  She was animated again.  I worried.  I’d been here before.  Fortunately the beach at Horgabost was indeed deserted,  in fact we were alone.  How prophetic.  ‘That Heart song!!? Alone.. how do I get you alone!’  She broke into song.  She has a good voice but sometimes I question her sanity.  I videoed dutifully as she sang and filled the beach with 80s angst and sank to her knees clutching handfuls of sand.  It was raining and freezing but the song went on.  And on.  Surreally repetitive.  My fingers numbed as I recorded Koala reenact the Heart singer, while I wished that I was carrying the tripod on a different beach.  Long exposures we’re actually appealing.  The waves crashed dramatically in the background…. I never really cared until I met you!!  I sang in my head.  I was lost in the drama until..  ‘Could you do a guitar solo… With the tripod?!’  What?  The sun saved me as it broke through the cloud.  Koala stopped cavorting in the surf… ‘..look at Luskintyre Beach!’  There was light.. a pocket no less.  Running back to the car I looked skyward to my saviour and thanked it.. as I clutched the tripod and sang..  How do I get you alone!

Luskintyre

This beach is one of the largest and most spectacular beaches on Harris.  It boasts miles of white sand and stunning green-blue water and has been named one of the UK’s best beaches in the TripAdvisor Travellers’ Choice Awards.  I never tire of driving here and Koala always gets a shot.  The conditions were constantly changing but were typically wild.  Koala struggled with her camera in the sand and rain.  I tried to support as best I could but perhaps I shouldn’t have mentioned my iPhone was picking up the light… I’ve got a decent silhouette? ‘Richard… it is imperative that I get a picture!’  Oh.  Think she could be stressed.  I smiled sympathetically and drew ALONE in the sand.  She laughed.

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‘Light has gone.. let’s go.’  I relaxed back into a thought of Harris Tweed cushions and my book.  Was it too early for wine?  Well if you are sure darling?  It was raining now.  I was sure.  We set off back to the cottage.  She was quiet.  She wasn’t satisfied. ‘We only have 2 days…’  Yes I know,  it is imperative.  I replied… silently.. in my head.  ‘Could we just drive round the coast.. it could be moody?  We could look for tomorrow?’  Look for tomorrow?  Tomorrow is tomorrow.. it will be different?  What about that lovely bottle of Merlot? She wasn’t listening, perhaps I wasn’t convincing?  Or maybe I didn’t actually speak my protestation.

There was a storm looming, but I saw it too, a break in the cloud and rays of light in the gloom.  The beach lit up with golden light.  ‘Stop in this Passing Place!’ I can’t…  But Koala was out of the car and vaulting the wire fence!  Her bobble hat disappeared out of view.  A local car pulled up behind me waiting for the non existent traffic to pass.  I smiled and waved apologetically.  By the time I had safely parked, navigated the rocky shore and found her.. Koala was animated!  Comically running in chaotic circles trying to position herself on the dunes.  I briefly laughed at the comedy.  ‘Ok you need to be in the shot! Too many clothes.. I need a silhouette. Take your coat off!’  What?  Like I’m a client?  I pondered.  The Merlot seemed a distant fantasy.  I was going to be cold.  But I was going to be in a shot!  I did my best whimsical stance but apparently my feet were ‘pointing wrong’ Really?  I thought I was being dramatic.  I was starting to rain again.. the window had closed.  I was cold.  ‘See how the weather changes here!?’  Yes.. Harris.. it’s not over ’til the fat lady sings.  The Heart song played in my head. ‘How do I get you alone!?’

Next day

Early morning light failed to wake us.  It was dark.  A huge Atlantic storm had battered the cottage all night.  The buildings here are made of sterner stuff.. luckily!  I pondered this from under the duvet.  How the island life differs from the mainland.  I bet the snow gates stay open here!! Koala brought me tea.  I like that in a morning.  ‘I’ve no expectations..’  Oh?… of me?  Was this a ‘chat’?  ‘But today I can be creative in other ways…’ Oh… this sounds interesting.  I plumped the pillows.  ‘I need to finish the video’  Ah.. the dramatic video.  I’d forgotten that in my slumber.  Don’t mention the tripod air guitar I never did.

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The wind and rain was torrential as we set off from the safety of the cottage.  The car shook violently in the gusts.  Was this a good idea?  But the waves were immense and that familiar sense of shared adventure brought a somewhat nervous smile to our faces.  I gripped the steering wheel. Maybe it was a grimace?  The North Atlantic battered the island.  The coastal drive was spectacular.  Despite being some of the most remote in Britain, the main roads in Harris are amongst the best surfaces that I have driven on anywhere in the world!  Perhaps this is because they are not heavily trafficked that they remain in good condition but also I think that the maintenance of the roadways is vital to the communities and townships that exist here.  I imagined a Jaguar or an Aston Martin advert being filmed here.. from a helicopter.  Maybe a Range Rover.. I’ve always fancied a Range Rover.  I pondered a storyboard for the advert, the excellent drainage and lack of potholes as we drove south toward Leverburgh.  Here in 1919, Lord Leverhulme bought Obbe, a remote cluster of buildings and renamed it, with a plan to develop the area into a major fishing centre.  Unfortunately his death from pneumonia in 1925 ended his vision but not before a new harbour and improved homes for the residents had been built.  I was distracted by the history and missed Koala asking me to stop.

The beach from yesterday was awash with a crashing turquoise sea.  ‘Stop..! We can do the video here again.’ My filming commission for a luxury car ad was extinguished and I was brought back to Earth.  We were soaked to the skin.  I tried to video Koala as the waves climbed and fell dramatically behind her.  She continued to sing to the soundtrack.  I hope this is worth the effort I thought. That feckin song is in my head now.  I never did like Heart. The sea rushed up the beach as a rather unenthusiastic Koala sang the chorus.  She was swamped.  We sat wet in the car, laughed and retreated.

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The cottage was a sanctuary.  I made tea.  A rather un-PC Frank Sinatra film distracted us briefly.. but we soon became restless being indoors. We were on Harris!!  Let’s go to that church at Rodel we missed last year.  I heard myself say.  The wind was even stronger.. the car shook with the same familiarity. The rain had stopped though. We headed south.

St Clement’s Church was built from about 1520 for the Chiefs of the McLeods of Harris.  It is generally thought to be the grandest medieval building anywhere in the Western Isles. I’d say Scotland.  It is easy to see why.  The church sits dramatically above the sea on a rocky hill above an abandoned stone harbour.  I like my history and retreated into the castle like atmosphere of the cold interior.  It was dry and an escape for Koala from the biting wind.. so she indulged me while I had a look around outside.  I like a good graveyard… maybe it is my age? I think even Koala was impressed, as I returned she was recording herself singing that song.. again.  We headed back northwards to the cottage as a group of photographers on a tour walked drenched by the roadside.. that didn’t look fun.

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As we approached the Isle of Harris Golf Club,  a spectacularly located coastal links course,  the failing sun broke through the storm and lit the white sands.  Here we go again. Koala ran.. cursing herself for not adjusting her camera settings in the car!  I wasn’t really sure what that meant. I set off in pursuit over the 10 tee. I was no golfer but this course was challenging. A rainbow appeared majestically over the beach.  She vaulted the tussocky grass.  It was a shot!  I caught her up by the 12 green.  She was cursing the rain on the lens.. the Canon was struggling in the conditions..but she was happy again.  The light burst through the cloud and the waves crashed. ‘Could you just take off your jacket and walk down there on the beach!?’  She asked with a smile..  I panted… and sighed.  ‘Oh and you need to take off your hat and gloves.’  I turned and clambered down the rocks resigned to myself as a silhouette.

Whimsically yours,

Richard


About the Author

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Richard Jackson

Richard was born in Leeds and grew up in the Military. Which thankfully has put me in good stead to 'look after' the Koala. I carry the tripod, hold the reflector, drive the truck, make the sandwiches and ensure that the clients have everything they need. So basically I do everything apart from press the button... sorry.. shutter! Apparently I am a hidden literary gem so I get to write the blog and provide creative input when asked!