On Saturday I attended a Caught by the River event in Hebden Bridge. The writer Tim Dee referred to the 'home scar' that some limpets make - a spot to which they return. He asked a fellow writer - 'Where are you most marked by? Where have you marked?'
It took me no time at all to answer internally - Vatersay. Google tells me it is 419 miles from my home. But I travel there in my mind regularly. When I need to conjure a place of calm - I think of Vatersay. When I try to describe my obsession with the Outer Hebrides - I think of Vatersay. Out of the 27 Hebridean islands I've visited it enchanted me above all others. It could be due to it's small size, but I've visited smaller islands. Maybe the magic of the machair - the grassland that is found on sandy soil between its beaches & supports rare carpet forming flora. Perhaps it is the proximity of 2 very different bays, to each other. Meaning it is possible to experience the sea in two different states within a short walk. Perhaps it is due to what I brought with me to that island - a desperate need to escape from people after living in London, a desire to escape & forget my troubles after an intense & confusing period of study. Perhaps it is due to the cluster of experiences we enjoyed within a few short days during our first stay on the island.
We first visited the island on foot, following the road from Castlebay on Barra. We struck West & headed towards a small bay where the road ran out. It stank (of rotting sea weed) - a smell we would come to find elsewhere & occasionally recorded in Gaelic place names. The mist was down, as we looked across the bay & heard a raw, guttural sound, issuing from the opposite shore. We froze & our town-y minds were blown by the space & silence that this noise boomed out of. As though the soundwaves were travelling to us from another, much earlier time. Mesmerised, we immediately decided to return & camp for a few nights. There was access to a sink & a toilet & the village hall sold fresh coffee & cake (another fundamental human need). During our stay we watched ringed plover scuttling along the shore & terns haphazardly fishing in the shallows, we walked to the abandoned crofts on the southern side of the island & spotted 7 basking shark mowing the stretch of water between Vatersay & its neighbouring island of Pabbay. We were dive bombed by terns, too close to their nests & I photographed a small, tidy pile of translucent, regurgitated fish bones. The water was a glassy black where currents clashed and sucked around rocks that enticed M to their edge. We were closely observed by a seal who monitored our progress as we picked our way across the rocks. I think it was on Vatersay that we were treated to the beautiful musical sounds that seals make. To my mind these explain the origin of stories about mermaids so utterly. You WOULD follow that sound if you were lonely & in need of company.
Does any of this explain the way Vatersay has etched itself into my mind? I've seen equally beautiful beaches, climbed more impressive hills, visited more isolated places. Its a construct, of course, an elaborate narrative, woven in an attempt to relive, hold onto or wrap an identity around the feelings that I experienced on its soil. Who knows if I'll step on Vatersay again, but I'm thankful for the 'home scar' it created in my imagination.
Thanks to Tim Dee for sharing this concept & posing the question.