from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Thursday, 9 May 2013

brochs, motorways & a few anxieties

near Dunvegan
Last day on Skye. The day before had been rainy and windy but not too cold. We'd had to take my daughter's car to the garage, out in the sticks near Dunvegan, and I was delighted to see that the garage served also as a charity bookshop: a happy half-hour collecting an armful of secondhand books, from a Prehistoric Sites atlas to some interesting lit-fic. 

In the down-to-earth and unpretentious village itself (where one of the most beautiful car parks in the world exists) – remember this is a Gaelic-speaking sparsely-populated northern edge of a sparsely-populated northern island at the edge of the earth – we discovered the incongruous-seeming Jann's Organic Cake and Chocolate shop: some of the most heavenly hand-made chocolates ever, plus Jann, a soft-voiced big Caribbean woman, makes a mean veggie curry. She's partnered by a man who seemed straight out of Easy Rider got-a-bit-older. I couldn't imagine how they made a living here in this remote and pragmatic farming community (or chose it in the first place) until I realised quite how many tourists, British and international, come by. 

We explored the Duirinish peninsula (the 'nish', or 'ness', suffixes in Scotland come from the Norse from the time of the Viking invasions and mean 'headland; am I repeating myself?). This one, on the west coast, is different from the other two: softer, lush even, wooded in parts, and colonised by lots of artists and craftspeople and small-scale crofters. Yes, I can imagine living there.

And now we're leaving Skye. The Cuillins have taken a thick fresh coat of snow, and the mountains of Harris and Uist ditto. As we leave, I catch sight of a white-tailed sea-eagle – a treat for the journey (later, in the borders, I'll come literally face-to-face with a rare red squirrel at very close quarters – it drops onto a fence just in front of me and the dogs whom it clearly hadn't seen – skitters off in a great flurry and panic, nearly missing its footing).

It's bitterly cold, horizontal rain and sleet or hail on the gale-force winds; the wee new lambs are taking a real battering and some are bound, distressingly, to give up to hypothermia. We've piled on the layers and we're still chilled – and we're hardy countryfolk who live in cold houses.

Having been going on for days about wanting to see Dun Beag ('Little Fort') broch, which is the best-preserved of all the Skye brochs, hardly any of which I've managed to see except at a distance, the weather is such that I'm tempted not to mention it and to slope on by even though it's directly en route; but of course my daughter calls me on it and we stop. 

The photos make it look calm, but believe me I was perching precariously in a very high wind on the tumbledown slippery walls in rain, barely able to see for my hair whipped over my face, with the dog (who is a wimp) whining and pulling to get out of the rain and threatening with the wind to drag me over the edge. I could just about see enough to realise what an amazingly strategic position the broch took with, on a good day, spectacular views.

Archaeologists are still disagreeing over the purpose and function of the many Scottish brochs. The word itself means 'fort', as does 'dun', but it's not certain that they were actually defensive structures, though they may have been in addition to perhaps domestic usage. Many have what has been named a 'guard cell' by the entrance:

Their building is generally agreed upon as being Iron Age, either side of the transition between BCE and AD; and they're still on the whole thought of as having been built by the intriguing and enigmatic Picts, as I said before (of whom we know little, except what we can glean from the treasure hoard found on St Ninian's Isle in the C20th, and the kinglist from which we can conclude that they were matrilineal; and the beautiful and unique scribed stones – or at least that was the state of play when I studied them at university a while back).

They're classified as 'complex Atlantic roundhouses'. The work is exquisite drystone walling, creating a double-skinned tall tower, threaded by a spiral internal staircase and probably wooden galleried floors. Some say that they were topped by a conical roof, which of course would make sense. Below is the artist's impression from the info panel:

I find myself enthused all over again with Pictish history.

Meanwhile, the nearly-700-mile journey down from Skye for self and daughter was – interesting. For complex reasons to do with my being up there for a couple of weeks longer than she could be, plus lack of public transport (should she be able anyway to take care of the needs of two big dogs on such a long distance trip by bus/train while carrying camping stuff, dog-bedding etc) to the wilder reaches of the Hebrides, meant that my daughter came to Skye separately in her sturdy and usually reasonably reliable 28-year-old car. (OK, I know that's dodgy environmentally, but we're so careful so much of the time and she so needed a holiday.) She'd had a rough start in Devon; being environmentally-conscious and also skint she'd taken onboard a load of recycled veg oil, on which she always used to travel instead of diesel, donated by TM. She'd driven about 25 miles when the engine packed up; turned out to be a dodgy load of oil, as TM had suspected from trouble with his own car, but she'd felt her own older car with a simpler Mercedes engine would cope. A few hours later, fuel system cleaned out and a little bit more skint, she set off again and the car behaved impeccably.

Now on Skye, as we set off, her car, despite having been serviced and MOTd before departure, had started a very ominous banging and clanking (nothing to do with the fuel system). The garage at Dunvegan couldn't find anything structurally wrong and felt it was probably safe to drive; this didn't seem entirely probable when I could hear the racket with my own car windows closed, travelling behind her. It seemed less and less probable as it seemed to worsen as we drove through spectacular but now slightly foreboding snowy landscape – the Five Sisters of Kintail, Glencoe, Rannoch Moor, the Great Glen – in blizzard conditions with the mountains looming and a few mountain search-and-rescue vehicles passing us (though that could have been reassuring).

By the time we arrived in the lush borders (very late at night having stopped quite a lot to check undercarriage, ring mechanic, etc, and otherwise crawling along), having decided we were going to treat ourselves to a B&B (the wonderful owners waited up for us) rather than sleeping in the car or camping, the only other options, we were so frazzled with anxiety that sleep was pretty much out the window. (We've always lived lightly on a very small income; it's times like this when the lack of emergency/contingency resources takes its toll, and one realises what a difference not having money makes.) 

The only advantage that I could see to travelling on a motorway at snail's pace – besides not actually being in transit at speed when, my imagination suggested, a wheel flew off – was that I actually got to experience all the changing landscape through which I normally travel too fast, and confronted my prejudices about that patch of England after Cumbria and before Somerset. How beautiful it all was in the lushness, even the service stations. All of it. In between worrying about the noise and my daughter's safety, and reminding myself that worry doesn't change anything and is a waste of energy, I remembered to pick the strawberries of the present moment (all what, 22 driving hours of it?), and enjoyed it, too...


  1. great blog, wonderful descriptions, but most of all do you have a larger image of the broch? that looked splendid. Glad you both got back in one piece. xxxxx

  2. Hi M - ah yes - of course - broch-building would come into your sphere :-). Will send you a higher-res version; but if you google brochs under images there are many better/bigger/more intact ones... Hope you ok. We ought to think about a Branscombe Day again?? - Dominic - remember? - came to Iona (and found me a dolphin vertebra - luckily no longer needed by the dolphin!). xx

  3. A lovely post Roselle. I almost felt I was there with you. I wish I could write but I just can't string the words together any more for some strange reason so I'm concentrating at the moment on practicing my sketching and trying to incorporate it into a journal. I'm hoping you both got home in one piece, cars and all!

  4. I would love to do a Branscombe day again, my diary is pretty free, although off to the scillies today for a week. Wow a dolphin vertebra, did you bring it back with you?
    I found a dead sparrowhawk in my wood the other day, we have a taxidermist in Wivey so I am going to get it stuffed. Seems appropriate that it will live on and be loved by me for years to come. liked the diagram of the broch in particular, I will look online.

  5. Angie, thank you. I know about ebb-tides in writing - mine's out currently, too. I always find using images and colour, or gardening, is a good way to let the well fill up. And I love multi-discipline journalling!

    Michael - oh the Scillies - you lucky man. Yes, of course, have the dolphin vertebra on my shrine-thing - something of the nature of water... Will think on a B Day. Enjoy your time away. With love - Rxx


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