Albion, ancient sites, Photography, Stuart France and Sue Vincent, travel

Dreaming Stones: Myth and Magic on the Minch…

We were finally leaving Skye. Not, as we had feared, attached to a tow truck or in the wrong direction. We were en route for the Isle of Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides…and that really was a dream come true! Okay, we would have just a single day there, nowhere near enough time to see all that we might have wanted to see… but all being well, we would finally get to Callanish and that, after all, was the main reason for this adventure. We didn’t know it at the time, but as it turned out, we were going to see more than we could have imagined of the islands…

lewis and harris

As the ferry pulled away from the jetty, I felt the all-too familiar queasiness… I had always been horribly sea-sick in the past and was expecting the worst, but I was hoping that time would have worked its magic. And, apparently, it had. It helped that the Minch was as calm as the proverbial mill-pond… and that, in spite of lashing rain for most of the journey, we could spend much of the crossing on deck once we had found a sheltered spot. It helped too that I was so excited at the prospect of finally getting to the Outer Hebrides… and that I love the salt spray and the wind in my face. After that first lurch, I was fine all the way. Mind you, I still won’t be booking a cruise if I ever win that lottery I don’t do…

We watched Skye disappear into the mists, remaining as just a hint of blue on the horizon. We glimpsed some of the islands of the Inner Hebrides peeping through the mist. One of them in particular caught our attention. It has long been uninhabited except by the seals and puffins, and later research revealed that it was called Fladaigh Chùain. Legend has it that the isle was once a sacred place, thought by many to be Tír na nÓg, the land of youth, where death may not enter. It is the Otherworld, inhabited by the Tuatha Dé Danann and ruled by Manannán mac Lir, the deity whose name means ‘son of the sea’. The stories say that people would visit the island after meeting Manannán in his guise as Trickster. Thinking about the antics of the Old Man of Storr, the amount of rain we had been hit with and all the other tiricksterish events, I have to wonder if we had been invited…

Perhaps its reputation as an Otherworldly place was why a chapel was built here in St Columba’s day, the ruins of which still remain, along with the grave of its founder. On its altar, a black stone was placed, known as the Weeping Stone because it was never dry. It was thought to have once been the altar stone of a very much older worship. Fishermen would visit the isle and pour a triple libation of seawater on it in return for favourable weather. But the stone has long since gone and few now visit the inaccessible isle. For the reasons outlined earlier, a boat has never been on my wish list, but I would love to explore these remote islands… and there are so many of them.

As if we were not already having a much better crossing than I had feared, an announcement on the tannoy sent us rushing astern… a pod of porpoises were playing in the ferry’s wake! Camera or presence? I aimed the camera at the sea in the hope it might capture something and clicked without looking… capturing very little, just the odd fin or tail. But it was far more important just to be there and watch them leaping and playing! That was a wonderful gift… something I have never seen before and will not forget in a hurry.

Mind you, although we were told they were porpoises or dolphins, they could have been the legendary Blue Men of the Minch, as they swim in a similar fashion. The Blue Men are storm kelpies and will approach a vessel at sea, shouting two lines of poetry to the captain… and unless he can complete the verse, the ship will drown. They are reputed to be one group of Fallen Angels who split into three tribes on Earth, with the other two becoming the Fae on land and the Merry Dancers of the air… the Aurora Borealis.

But thankfully, we heard no poetic challenge and the journey continued smoothly. It takes around two hours to cover the thirty miles of sea that separate Skye from the little port of Tarbert on Harris. It didn’t take long for the blue smudge of our destination to appear on the horizon.

Not that it stayed there, mind you… the closer we got, the more deeply wreathed in mist it became. As we entered the mists that shrouded the island, there was a real sense of crossing a threshold… and one from which you do not return… or at least not unchanged. It was not until we were just about to come into port that the mists thinned, allowing us our first look at a place that would leave its mark upon us and its presence in our hearts and dreams…