Friday, 6 January 2017

Blowin' in the Wind

Storm Barbara hit Skye like a battering ram just before Christmas. Whilst not as destructive as was initially feared, nevertheless it was a weather front to be reckoned with, unleashing winds of 75mph and causing schools to be closed and ferry crossings to be cancelled. More than enough to prompt us to head off a day earlier than planned to be with family in England over the holiday. I was surprised at the wrench I felt as we drove over the road bridge to Lochalsh on a brooding 22 December morning. It has been just four months since we pitched up here, but already of course we have started to put down roots. With each passing day, I have felt drawn deeper into the ebb and flow of island life, to both its gentle rhythms and wilder beats. And with that exponentially further and more apart from many aspects of the world we left behind.

These twin senses of settlement and remove were sharpened in the weeks leading up to Christmas. To be here then was to feel, well, Christmas-y. What's more this was in the kind of warm, wide-eyed and abundant way of my childhood. The mountain peaks dusted with snow, the crisp, bright mornings when frost twinkled on the ground or each evening when Portree's ring of festive lights blinked and winked in the gloaming, our youngest son Charlie's school Nativity Play - no doubt each encouraged an unfettered festive spirit to well up. Yet it surged through me, I think, mostly on account of how time seemed to have been rolled back to another, more innocent age and when we weren't all bombarded at this time of year with... stuff.

Since there are no chain stores on the island, or HD screen billboards or teeming retail parks, there is also no compulsion from early October on to submit to the orgy of consumption that is the modern Christmas. Frequently, I was bid a happy Christmas by beaming strangers and as if they really meant it, and for all that glory be. Having in recent times spent the season grouching and grumbling, as if begging for a visit from Scrooge's ghosts, this year I instead gaily put together a Yule-some playlist for my weekly radio show and even once caught myself whistling while I walked.

The most Christmas-y day we had on Skye was actually the Saturday before Christmas itself. That afternoon occasioned the inaugural Santa Dash around Portree, and in which the four of us were enthusiastic participants. In this we joined 230 or so other happy souls for a run up, down and around the town and in ill-fitting Father Christmas suits. A wonderful event, it began with our red and white-clad horde being led into the town square by a band of pipers and ended with us all feasting upon mince pies and sponge cakes washed down with piping hot tea, coffee and mulled wine. However, in between times I became as shamefully competitive as it is possible for one in fancy dress to get.

Determinedly, up the stiff opening climb of the two-mile course I streaked passed my wife Denise and Charlie and scores of others, my eyes blazing, arms and legs pumping like pistons, red bobble hat bobbing savagely. Utterly mindless of the fact that most everyone else was out for nothing more than good-natured fun and proceeding merrily along in jolly groups of families and friends, I was like a one-man band playing death metal at a barn dance. The nadir of my manic performance was reached on the ensuing descent. Ahead of me and crossing a muddied field, I spied my other son, Tom and his friend Connor happily bouncing along together. Not for long. In my temporarily deranged sights they were vulnerable young zebra to my predatory lion. I bounded upon and then by them and as I went may even have cackled sadistically.

Not long after and perhaps hastened by appalled looks from my fellow parents, I belatedly jolted to my senses. On the home straight, a hundred yards in front of me and closing was a lad of nine (which does rather put my imagined Mo Farah-like dash into perspective), and who seemed to me to be faltering. Clearly, none of the throng lining the route would cheer me were I to take him down and with the finishing line in sight, since that would make me an idiot. As this rationale flashed across my mind, the youngster turned his head, smiled, somewhat maliciously I must say, and then quickened his pace, leaving me gasping and for dust. And there is no fool quite so sad as a beaten old one.

Afterwards, the four of us drove to a secluded spot four miles up the road and sawed down our own Christmas tree. Syke's byways are peppered with saplings sprung from seeds blown out from its verdant pine farms and the harvesting of them is welcomed, since otherwise they would grow to become obstructive. The kids loved it, though this was as much to do with the fact that in order to claim our prize, I had to wade through a bog and impale myself on pine needles, still attired as Santa, albeit a wet, bedraggled and thoroughly abject looking Claus.

It was Christmas 14 years ago that Denise and I first came to Skye and for our honeymoon. We spent a fortnight nestled in a wee bungalow in Struan on the north-west coast, and the whole time the wind howled like a wounded beast. We had a coal fire for warmth and ate Christmas dinner looking out through our picture window to a broiling sea loch. Doubtless, the pull in us towards the island dates back to that time. Skye is a temptress and she seeps into your bones and soul,

Partly, it's the primal beauty and sheer ruggedness of the place that does it; how it engenders in you a profound sense of being out on the edge of things. As well, there is the strong suggestion here of timelessness, of belonging to place as old as the Earth itself. Its plunging cliffs are comprised of rocks of the blackest basalt which date back 2,800 million years and to when the planet was blast-furnace hot and still being formed from molten magma and poisonous gases. Human beings arrived on Skye some time between 10,000-5,000BC, making our occupation of the island but a rapid eye movement in the grand scheme of things. These were Mesolithic settlers and with a primitive culture, but they established Skye as a homeland and archeologists have unearthed remnants of a subsequent Iron Age fort and Bronze Age settlements on its heath, hill- and moorland.

In the ninth century, Viking invaders from Scandinavia crossed the sea, shed blood and gave the island a name, Skuy, Norse for 'misty isle'. After their occupation, the next hundreds of years belonged to the clans. Clan MacLeod ruled to the north, Clan Macdonald in the south. In 1745, a daughter of the Macdonalds, Flora, achieved lasting fame by helping Bonnie Prince Charlie to flee to Skye from the mainland, escaping from the dashing of the Jacobite rebellion and the clutches of the victorious English forces at the decisive Battle of Culloden. Seventeen years later, a scion of the MacLeods, John Ross, a Royal Navy officer and sometime MP, secured his infamy by beginning the Clearances, the enforced eviction of thousands of small-hold farmers that for more than a century bedeviled the islands and highlands. A venally cruel act meant to free up the land for livestock, it served to reduce Skye's population alone by two-thirds, the dispossessed and destitute shipped off to uncertain new lives in North America, Australia and New Zealand.

I was all but ignorant of this history when we left Skye for London in the new year of 2003, but I was bound for another maelstrom and one partly of my own making. I had not long been made Editor of the venerable monthly music magazine Q and one of my first tasks had been to secure an attention-grabbing cover star for its looming 200th issue. I wanted someone who was steeped in rock and roll tradition, but who might also prick the stuffy air of blokeishness which permeated on the title. So it was that I alighted upon Courtney Love, just then attempting to recover her music career from years of self-inflicted carnage.

Love was residing in London over that Christmas and I arranged to have her respectively photographed and interviewed for the cover by the estimable team of Rankin and John Harris. I returned to find the office in a rare state of excitement. Rankin's session had gone better, more extraordinarily than any of us could have anticipated. For Love, who appeared scarily decadent and unhinged, had during the course of an eventful, shambolic night set fire to the racks of clothes hired for her for the occasion, stripped down instead to her knickers and led Rankin a not-so-merry and topless dance down Park Lane at 11pm. This concluded with her flagging down a black cab and to the bemusement of its driver, prostrating herself across the vehicle's back seat. And consummate pro that he is, Rankin had recorded the entire episode for posterity.

Alas, there was also an all-too-significant hitch. Love had not yet sat for the interview and wanted to speak to me before she would. Consequently, on the first Monday evening of that year the two of us had a two-hour phone conversation, me in our poky north London flat, she in her West End hotel room. What she made of I cannot possibly say, but even now I shudder at the memory. Mostly, I recall how she ranted and raved at me and in a way that made her sound quite insane. "Hey!" she barked when I was first put through to her. "I'm just having my anus waxed."

Impossibly, things only got progressively more surreal from there. With the full horror of the photo session having evidently dawned on her, Love had formed a damage limitation strategy. She told me that now she wanted to design our cover herself and for it to also include a motley assortment of her friends and contemporaries. Otherwise, she said, there would be no interview. I refused and she railed at me. She tried again and once more I said no, and she shouted at me a whole lot more. Round and round we went in this seemingly endless circle. At one point, she broke off to instruct a nanny to put her daughter, poor Frances Bean to bed. At another and as I slipped into a catatonic state, she seethed: "Fucker, I just told you who my real father was and you missed it, didn't you?" Indeed I had, but I could have cared less.

Eventually, I was able to squeeze more than a word in edge-ways and to bring matters to a head. "Let me ask you Courtney," I said, though by no means assertively, "would you allow me to write a song for your next record?" "God, no," she shot back. "Then whatever makes you think I'm going to let you do my job for me?" And at which point the phone line went dead.

In the event, we didn't get our interview but put a photograph of a dishevelled, half-naked Courtney on our cover anyway. Predictably, she exploded with rage, firing off a statement in which she claimed I had arranged to have someone break into her hotel room and steal from her private pictures. For good measure, she added that I was an 'asshole'. Over the next ten years and through many other situations, I grew used to having a gnawing feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach and of living my life in monthly increments of panic as I waited on each issue's sales report or found out the latest economy I would be required to make.

At such times, I yearned to run away from it all, to isolate myself and always to the misty isle. We would  holiday on Skye each summer and it would be as if I could breath again. Eventually, the job and my own inability to turn the magazine's sales and fortunes around burned me out and I left. It took another four years for me to depressurise and be de-institutionalised and only then was I ready to go off and seek a sanctuary on Skye.

Ever since we returned home here the day before New Year's Eve, it has felt that much to me at least. For days we have endured the tail-end of a second storm, Connor; its winds frigid and hostile, rain lashing from foreboding skies. In the teeth of such conditions Skye retains its splendour but in darker hues. On two of our now regular walks, one around the Scorrybreac promontory at Portree, the other out to the tip of the Braes headland, we have the sea for company and at present it chops and churns in various shades of moody blues, greens and blacks. Yet it also teems with life. Common and Grey Seals regularly surface and dive; Great Black-Backed, Common and Herring Gulls skim the waves whilst doughty Shag, Divers and Red-Breasted Merganser huddle closer to the shoreline. And when the rain abates, you might be lucky enough to see Sea Eagles riding the thermals.

For us, the year ahead will be one of further and accelerated changes. As I write, the proposal for our house build is passing through the various planning stages required by the Highland Council. We hope to break ground on our plot in the spring and move into our new home by the summer. At the same time, we will have a virgin business to tend to and will no doubt be encouraged into other experiences that will be fresh and unique to us. Though I don't in any eventuality foresee myself having my bum waxed.

[You can hear my Friday Night Chronicles radio show from 8pm-9pm each Friday and repeated on Mondays from 3pm-4pm at:].  

This Week I Have Mostly Been Listening To:

Trail West - Close to Home.

Hailing from another West Scottish island, Tiree, but entirely evocative of Skye as well.

No comments:

Post a Comment