Seventeen hours of ferry, foot, train and cab, and I’m back at A.’s flat on Candlemaker Row in the medieval part of Edinburgh. Last night as I climbed the stairs with approximately 60 lbs. of gear on my back, all I could do was think, “bed, bed, bed,” and so after a bath, some toast and peanut butter, a glass of milk, I folded into A’s & E’s delicious bed and fell asleep for a few hours. From habit, I was awake before six and wondering how my fat babies are.
To say that I miss South Uist is an understatement. South Uist really is a state of mind, which I know is a cliche, but true. I remember sitting in a friend’s front room and chatting and thinking to myself, oh yes, I remember now what it is to have time to chat and not have a billion things on one’s mind. There is a rythmn of life on Uist and if one lets oneself give in to it, it’s a really fine thing.
Perhaps the most emblematic signal of Uist life, is the single lane highway that runs the length of the island. With the exception of some of the villages, the road is narrow and single lane with pull offs. Uist etiquette requires drivers to give way, to use a code of flashing the car’s lights, hand signals and nods in order to determine who goes first. It’s easy to detect a ‘foreigner’, by their lack of courtesy or excessive speed. I noticed the increasing number of off islanders since we were last on Uist in 2005. Sadly, as with so many other places in the world, Uist is being infected with the dreaded ‘holiday home’ syndrome – one which pushes house prices out of reach of younger folk (who incidently are the island’s workforce), and which sees villages emptied on weekdays, or worse if the ‘holidayers’ come from England let’s say, then houses and villages are empty for all but a few weeks of the year.
On the train from Oban, I met a man who owns a two hundred year old hunting lodge on Mull. He was born on Skye and is rapidly becoming a fierce nationalist as he sees 60% of Mull empty out from September to April. I’m afraid the same might happen to Uist unless the people there band together, as people have in the North Yorkshire Moors, and legislated manditory residency as a prerequisite to purchasing land. The man from Mull, John, has written a number of articles for the Herald about the subject and draws a parallel between what’s happening now with the local population and the clearances. While that may seem extreme, there is some truth in what he says.
I think the most appealing aspect of my sojourn in South Uist was that I spent most of my time walking or riding a bicycle, read three day old papers, didn’t hear a television, a cd, and had so many interesting conversations with so many different kinds of people. By far my favourite roomies were the hardy Scots who arrived on foot or bike at the hostel. They share a deep love of their land and appreciated the uncomplicated hours that a place like South Uist can offer. I only hope that South Uist can retain some of this in the years to come.