I have never been to the Outer Hebrides but somehow have still managed to feel a (very) mild affiliation to them on account of the following.
When I was about eleven our dad returned from work one day with the weighty speculation that we might move to Benbecular so that my dad could run the airport there. Apparently the airport traffic amounted to about one aeroplane a day. The move was carefully and seriously considered over the following few weeks. I remember feeling extremely unsettled by this idea and the more I learned about the Outer Hebrides, the more resistance I felt. Aside from being told most island children go to boarding schools on mainland Scotland for their education and that its young residents usually do very well academically because there's nothing to do but study (this really scared me) my main fear was centred around the fact that devout religion on the islands meant people were not allowed to actually do anything on the day of rest: Sundays. I can hear my eleven year old voice saying, what nothing? No walks, no TV, no playing, (no falsely collecting jumble, no trespassing, no starting forest fires) - nothing - not on a Sunday. My dad exasperated my fear by telling me stories of bricks being thrown through people's windows because they had been seen doing something on the Sabbath. I think I cried several times. And I definitely did a lot of begging.
In the end, we didn't move there and I got to do things other than study. Instead we moved from Gatwick to East Dorset and I was relieved. Perhaps it was dad's crafty way of lessening the blow of the news that we were moving - whatever!
A few years later, in my first year at university, I met a chap who was eventually to become a long term boyfriend - all six foot three of him: Roy Macarthur. His father was from the Isle of Lewis and Roy was a little freaked out to find I had a little knowledge of the islands - based on my earlier sniffing out of information about the place they-were-going-to-make-me-go-to-heals-a-dragging. He'd never met anyone that knew anything about the Outer Hebrides and it might have helped me score. A bit. He had been there several times to visit his gran who lived in a tiny not-really-a-place called Crossbost south of Stornoway and he verified the indigestible details about Sundays.
He also told me a story from one of his visits. His family had arrived in Stornoway (via the Ullapool to Stornoway ferry. I have been to Ullapool - another thing to freak Roy out - few venture there - and all I remember was white cottages, fishing boats and Russians). They went into a pub for some food and for the duration of their visit the locals in the pub stopped speaking English and continued in Gaelic. Roy's father, having been brought up on the island, could understand every word but he didn't let them know this. Those in the pub had lots to say about tourists and their terrible ways, so much in fact, that was all they spoke about while Roy's family ate. It was as his father was paying and as they were leaving, that he said in perfect Gaelic,
"The food was fine but your attitude towards tourists is appalling." If I had been there, I would have savoured that moment. Actually, I can savour it from here.
And my Outer Hebrides connection does not stop there. Not quite. What I hadn't realised was, because we didn't move to Benbecular a friend of our family (and a colleague of my dad) went instead for six months. I believe it became a secondment opportunity for Gatwick's air traffic controllers! Lucky them. And this man, Pete, told me this story......
The tiny plane that took him from the mainland to the island was an event in itself. Word got out (he said it wasn't hard - he was the only 'unknown' on the plane) that he was the new controller. He was called up to the cockpit, kids wanted to speak to him and he felt like he had celebrity status.
After a day or so of settling in he arrived at his new 'control tower' and was shown around by a local. This local said, 'we have a terrible problem with sheep on the runway. You will need to be vigilant. If you see some sheep when a plane is due, you will need to ring this number and ask for Ben. Ben will sort it out.'
Several days went by without the problem of sheep on the runway. Eventually, however, sheep did turn up, scattered all over the place just before the day's plane was due in. So Pete did as he was told: picked up the phone and asked for Ben,
'Oh right' said the voice at the other end and put the phone immediately down. Pete started to worry. What did that mean? Was Ben not available? Had that been Ben he had spoken to? If so, he gave no indication of how or indeed, if, he was going to sort out the sheep. He was bewildered and not a little worried. That was until Ben, a border collie, appeared from out of nowhere all on his own and cleared every last sheep off the runway in time for the plane to land. Very 'Local Hero.'
Maybe one day I'll go to the Outer Hebrides if I lose my mind a bit but definitely not on a Sunday. The deep scarring won't allow it.