A swig of beer transports Keshia Glover from Norfolk to the Hebrides.
As I struggle to navigate this new world of lockdown, I am drinking the Isle of Skye Brewing Company’s Red, using it for a kind of escapism through beer. I find it transports me away from Norfolk – where my travelling trajectory has been halted, where I have found myself trapped – back to the Hebrides.
It was last July when I found myself farm-sitting with a friend on the Isle of Harris. We had decided to ‘go on holiday by mistake’, accidentally on purpose. It would be great – just the two of us on a remote farm, on a remote island, with nothing to do, and no-one but chickens for company. We would hike and explore, enjoying the simple life and the wholesome rustic landscape of the coast.
My impression of island life comes from the books of Tove Jansson; her islands were places of vivid light and dreamlike simplicity, where the small and the mundane are crystallised into something that glitters. I had thought I would disembark from the ferry at Tarbert into a land of idyll amid an expressive sea; an Eden ruled by changing tides. Yet the island I found, was altogether grittier, an unforgiving place. Rock, bog, midges.
True remote isolation has strange effects. Much like the lockdown we are all under now, life slowly lost all sense of normality. Yet we settled into a routine which perpetuated purpose – feeding the chickens, letting out the horses, checking on the ducks and the cats. Time had slowed down, and the days were full of empty hours. We fell into new roles, putting on borrowed boots for ‘a stomp around the bog’, to mooch around the headland, squelching through the sphagnum, peat and clouds of midges when it all got too much indoors. I found myself ‘doing rounds’, ticking off the way-markers of our routes: ruined sheilings, washed up boat, wire fence, lobster keep, rowan tree, top of the hill, back down to the house. I patrolled, looking for changes, things washed in with one tide or gone with the next.
In the house, we sat without talking, surrounded by cats. I made jewellery. My friend played guitar.
Occasionally we would face the real world, if Tarbert can be called the real world, detaching ourselves from our strange exaggerated life, cautious, pretending to be normal. We would make the two-mile off-road hike down into town for groceries, often in abysmal weather, like torrential sideways rain and a howling gale, all the while gleefully exclaiming how much of a horrible time we were having. The island was grey rock with a thin rime of bog, furnished with crumbling concrete ruins, rotting boats and abandoned rusting machinery, populated by sad, bedraggled sheep and midges. In a strange way, we loved it. We coined the term ‘horror tourism’ – the enjoyment found in seeking the desolate, the inhospitable, the derelict and decomposing.
When we had grown tired of sitting in the farm kitchen drinking gin and endlessly and pointlessly debating the music of the Incredible String Band, we would trek down the ‘pub’. Unfortunately, there isn’t really anything recognisable in the true sense of a pub on Harris, only hotel bars.
On one side of the Harris Hotel, a bar is tacked in a large open-plan room which also bears some resemblance to a village hall. It is floored with an ancient, garish carpet, equipped with a pool table and a TV streaming endless Scottish traditional music. They served surprisingly good pizzas, but also Skye beer.
Seated at the little table in the bar’s bay window, we would drink Skye Red, gazing out at the hillside of thinly turfed grey rock. Through the rain, we watched runnels of water, shed in white torrents. The ditches were choked with gunnera, which grows wild all around Tarbert, its lush and tropical foliage a strange partner for the wiry heather.
Red has the flowery sweetness of heather, and the tanned peaty-ness of bog. As dark as tarn water, yet as rare and precious as the tiny drosera sundews which grow among the moss. Nothing could be better paired with the imagined idyll of the island – with the wildflowers of the hillsides, the clean lochs, and colours of the gneiss brought out by the rain.
Now, as I drink, I close my eyes and try to capture something fleeting. Although vivid, this nostalgia is, as all good things are, temporary. Like my stay on the island; intense but ephemeral. A sentiment I think Tove Jannson would agree with. In a world turned on its head, the transportive quality of this beer is a touchstone, a link, a reminder, to a place and an experience which mattered, to keep us sane. I feel that normality and sanity are products of a collective consciousness. Without a social context, whether in isolation in lockdown, or in a remote location, we quickly lose out yardstick of what is sane.
When we had finished our beer and gazing out at the rainy hills above Tarbert, we walked back with the gales driving rain down inside our coats, pockets full of ‘takeaway’ bottles. We would stop for breath at the top of the hill but find ourselves captivated as the lights of the ferry came gliding in through the dusk. Or we’d pause in the road, face to face with startled sheep, as we each studied the other, not quite sure who had right of way in this strange, wild place.
There were odd moments of disembodied freedom – wading out into the sea at high tide, the waters still, warm, and clear; hiking out in the true darkness of a starless night to gaze across at the lights of Scalpey; getting a lift to Luskentyre and walking across miles of flat golden sand, then walking eight miles back. Taking the bus to Stornoway and picking up jewels of seaglass in the harbour, or finding cowrie shells at Borve. There were visions which seemed unreal – a hummingbird hawk moth feeding on honeysuckle at last light, cotton-grass, old rope, a hairy caterpillar as long as my hand, unbelievable sunsets, cormorants and seals assembled conspiratorially out on skerries, the perfect pink globe of a sea urchin among the rocks by the old pier.
The island was an island of opposites. The eastern side was rugged, desolate rock, bog, rust and dereliction, while the hillsides and beaches of the western side were sweeps of golden sand scattered with shells set against sparkling azure sea, banks of meadowsweet, harebell, knapweed and buttercup. Without the west, the east would not seem so rugged and desolate; without the east, the west would not seem so bright and idyllic.
I dream through it all now – the freedom, the wildness, the space and wonder. The expansiveness I could disappear into, to know I was truly and totally alone. If I had not ended up here now, stuck indoors, unable to travel, would I have looked back on my experience and revelled in that wild freedom? On the island, I lived in the moment, time distilled into an endless now of poignant experience – yet now I pursue the opposite. I dream of better times, of the endlessness of the journey. The expansiveness, space to explore, space in which to wander through my own mind, alone and uninterrupted.
But for now I am penned in. I drink Skye Red and drink the dreams, knit socks, turn tight circles again and again. My yarn is light heather purple and tawny russet moss, the repetitive motion some kind of replacement for the meditation of walking. I channel the dreams, knitting them into something spacious I can crawl inside. With each stitch I repeat: I have tasted freedom, and I shall taste it again.
Keshia Glover is a semi-nomadic ecologist and artist, who always finds herself returning to the Breckland of East Anglia, which forms the subject for her latest writing project