Tuesday, 16 February 2010

The Outer Hebrides

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.


  1. I wanted to move to Benbecula rather than bloody Dorset because dad said I could have a pony!

    I'd really like to go there. I knew a few people from the Outer Hebrides at university and it sounded to me like it was a right laugh (when I could understand what they were saying)- all heavy drinking and buggering siblings...Kevin got a job there for a while and loved it xxx

  2. The 'saying nasty things about you in the local patois' form of xenophbia is a global phenomenon, it seems. My brother's girlfriend is a native welsh speaker from Anglesey and has matched your story almost verbatum. Petty minded and sad, really, the tabloid mind writ small.

  3. You triggered me further...in the shower again...I remembered that when I stayed at Kevin's there were primary school girls from O.H. lodging there during the week. They'd get the boat over on a Monday morning and go home for the weekend on a Friday night. At the time this all seemed pretty exciting and famous five to me (going to school on a boat!!!) and made me wish that we'd lived in Benbecula. Now I think they had pretty sad lives. Especially as Kevin's mum made them sleep in beds with carpet on the headboards xxx

  4. I hate to say it, but we've had similar rudeness in France, mainly Paris, the assumption is you can't understand, but Jen is quite fluent, and Keith is so assimilated his French is almost accentless after 15 years. It comes as a bit of a shock, when someone discusses the English and their unruly children (who were sitting reading comics). Mind you for every action there is an opposite and equal action, some of the nicest friendliest people I've met are just random people in Normandy/Britanny. If you ever want to feel the love as an Englishman or a Brit generally, go to Western Belgium, they reserve their vitriol for the French speakers apparently, Cultural and historical reasons I believe.

  5. For a few years now, I've been wanting to charter a sailboat for a few weeks there from Skye Yachts, but other things keep getting in the way. Someone said a Three Chimney place around Skye was nice?

  6. The British are a pretty bloody xenophobic people. From hearing local people in Folkestone where I taught saying about our schoolboy Japanese students, "They're alright I suppose, but I just can't stand listening to their gobbledygook" to listening to my mum's husband moaning about the Polish NHS doctor who buggered up his son's hernia operation...because he is Polish, obviously. It's endless.

  7. What a great post. Shame that Ben rounding up the sheep wasn't in our Youtube age - it would instantly become one of those mega-virals.

    I know nothing about the Outer Hebrides but it does make me think that perhaps this backwater that I live in is not such a dull place. People do pack the church on a Sunday but plenty don't go. Sunday is a family day here - no shops are open, or very few - it took a long while to get used to it.

  8. "not all Brits are xenophobic - just some of the ignorant ones!"
    You have condemned the vast majority of Brits,for they seem to dislike every country.

  9. Okay, I'm back from looking the word up. An annoying thing about dictionaries is that unless you can spell the word to begin with, you have no hope of finding it...so thanks for showing me it doesn't begin with 'Z'.

    I have come across it in one particular builders merchants in Brittany when I used to turn up as scruffy as you like and complaining (in English) about the stupidity of closing for a few hours just as you arrive. Perhaps they understood more English than I thought.

    Fortunately, they are very friendly now and no longer sneer and I'm more understanding and better organised.

    I enjoyed reading about this experience of yours Molly P

  10. The Dutch appear to love us too. When Andy and I cycled around northern Europe, a chap on a ferry could not do enough for us because we, apparently, had been so helpful in the war. (Must have been Andy -I don't remember being helpful - ever - let alone in the war).

    I think I told this story before (when I was tagged) but one night at the Cambridge Folk Festival, my brother, Claire and brother-in-law pretended to be Russian (surprisingly convincingly - James speaks Serbo-Croat for a start) - as inspired by the amazing band Loyko that we had watched that evening. We kept it up all evening and it entertained 'our style' humour for hours. We arrived at a 'campfire' and James played his accordion and Mikey (brother) joined in on guitar. (This was just pre-Andy). The people we had joined, instead of being intrigued and enjoying this 'unusual' and musical company started making really xenophobic comments...bugger off, bring back the cold war...etc and when we used heavily accented English pretending to try and communicate, they got nastier. There was a feeling of genuine hostility. So much so that we lost our nerve and eventually came clean and I said something like, 'you are probably the most xenophobic people I have ever encountered' and we left. The next day, one of them walked past our tents and said, 'about as funny as piles.'

    There's more work to be done!!!

  11. people don't like to be made to feel foolish, particular xenophobes obviously.

  12. I am not sure where the Brits are in the xenopobic hierarchy and I wouldn't like to hazard a guess. All I know is that in my little circle of friends there is certainly a re-freshing liberalism. This is not to say that I, for one minute think there is not racism or xenophobia in Britain but I would guess it's present in some individuals in all countries (dark side projection!)

  13. Mr T. yes - we made them look foolish and nasty. They weren't going to be our number one fans!

    KD - thank you. I spelt cynical with an s and thought albeit was a name for years. Know won lernt me.

    FF - thank you. There probably is a 'Ben' on youtube somewhere. I remember Sundays like that here. Slow Sundays....for long walks.

    Eric - sounds highly adventurous and a little chilly!

    Heron - people can't help their ignorance! Most people don't know what they don't know. I love all countries that I have visted...each with its uniqueness....and love the adventure of diversity. I would say this was true of most people I know.

    Jonathan...all as a result of people's insecurities isn't it....sad!


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