Yesterday evening, Denise, Charlie and I went for a tea-time stroll just down the road from our house in Portree and around Scorrybreac headland. That once again we are able to get out and about at such a time is indicative of the fact that we have all but come through our first winter on Skye. Spring is nudging its way towards us. Just then it appeared to be right on the cusp of blooming with the sun sinking in a pale-blue sky and the sea calm and the colour of a fresh bruise. The clocks go forward this coming Sunday, of course and we will then be looking out for puffin, razorbill, guillemot and other open ocean birds to make land for the spring nesting season.
Aptly enough in this time of new beginnings, we are also expectant that next month our building contractors will begin to dig the foundations for our new home. Since we are at present deep into the process of getting the last building warrant signed off by the Highland Council, I have begun to feel as if my moorings are being unpicked and that I'm about to slip out from my comfort zone. Plenty of people who've already had houses built up here have tried to reassure me that I'll adapt in no time to the ebb and flow of the process. However, to date not one of them has seen me try - whilst swearing a lot - and then fail to change a plug or a washer on a tap.
Since we moved up here last August, Denise and I have also been told on several occasions that if remoteness is our thing then we simply must visit Sutherland. So last month we did. For those unfamiliar with the finer details of the geography of Scotland, Sutherland is located around 150-miles upwards from Skye and occupies the very north-western corner of the British mainland. By area, it is Scotland's fifth largest county but also its least populated. Indeed, per square mile there are fewer people in Sutherland than there are anywhere else in all of Western Europe. What there are in abundance instead are soaring mountain ranges [the county is home to the two most northerly Munros - Ben More Assynt and Conival, great slabs of limestone both], ranging lochs, vast swathes of russet-coloured moorland and squelching peat bog, and mile upon mile of dramatic coastline which is characterised by plunging clifftops and brilliant white-sand beaches.
It is very, very beautiful indeed. And utterly wild. We drove the five hours from Portree to Durness [at population 400 a veritable conurbation in these parts] up the A835 coastal road - just recently fabled as the North Coast 500 route. The further north we got, the more the wind howled and the rain lashed down. However, upon arriving in Durness, hunkered at the foot of rolling hills and facing out to an epic expense of battleship-grey sky and turbulent ocean, we parked up and set straight off on foot to investigate Faraid Head. One of the most exposed points of the British mainland, The Head, as I imagine ruddy-faced locals must call it, is a fingertip peninsula that pokes out into the roaring seas of Pentland Firth and wind-blasted year round.
The image above was captured on route, looking back towards Durness and gives some idea of what an ill-tempered day it was - though without the attendant sensation of having one's skin flayed off. Truly, local social services may yet still be fielding calls about the sadistic interlopers who dragged (quite literally) their young offspring out into the teeth of a ferocious gale. But what a walk. The photograph was taken at the mile-mark and from the far end of Balnakiel Beach, a picture-postcard crescent of sand that is one of the best spots for surfing in the British Isles. Not that anyone but us was intrepid/stupid enough to be out in the tempest.
From there, we proceeded on through a second mile of vaulting sand dunes, alien in their hulking aspect, headed across open moorland for still one more and finally reached an ominous clifftop that fell hundreds of feet to the rearing seas below. Crazily, we were stood closer there as the crow flies to Reykjavik than London and as if at the very end of the world.
By the time we battled back to Durness village (imagine if you will having to headbutt a passage through a brick wall and whilst wearing an ill-fitting bobble hat), a blue-painted lorry and trailer had turned up and filled the little public car-park right opposite our bunkhouse. This was the 'Screen Machine', a mobile cinema that throughout the year travels to the most out-of-the-way parts of the Highlands and Islands and brings these communities the twin delights of the Pearl & Dean theme tune and fold-down red-cushioned seats. At 8pm, I joined a fifth of the village in paying £7 to watch La La Land from inside a metal box. Outside the hoolie had got even more formidable and as we watched Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone cooing to each other, we were buffeted from side-to-side. I felt quite discombobulated by the end and nothing to do with the fact of the film being a musical.
In total, I found Durness and its surrounds both intoxicating and inspiring. We went and met Paul Maden, a jovial sort who had moved with his partner up from Edinburgh and on a whim started a gourmet chocolate company. As one does. Eleven years since it was founded, Cocoa Mountain exports its sinfully scrumptious creations around the world and to customers including American senators, Russian oligarchs, Arab sheiks and Yoko Ono.
They're based a mile down the beach road from Durness and within the Balnakiel Craft Village, a square of squat grey buildings built in the '50s by the MoD as a Cold War early warning station but moth-balled. Today, the Craft Village is in more charming use and also home to a couple of wee art galleries and a handful of other artisan businesses. I could have whiled away the day investigating them all, but it was chucking down and unlike the Cocoa Mountain cafe they didn't serve hot chocolate. Cocoa Mountain are tremendously proud of their hot chocolate and rightly so, since it is a rich, velvet-smooth elixir that tastes simply divine. Unfortunately, it also had the knock-on sugar-rush effect of cementing both our boys' teeth together and rendering them deranged. We had no option but to make our apologies and leave.
Next day we paid a visit to see Danish ceramic artist Lotte Glob at her 14-acre Sculpture Croft, five miles up the A835 from Durness and around the shores of Loch Eriboll. Perusing the loch apparently inspired JRR Tokien to create his Middle Earth and its easy to see why. Miles long and ringed by snow-dusted peaks, it is all at once imposing, immense and otherworldly. Now 72 but sharp and spry enough to pass for half that age, Lotte arrived in the Scottish north from her native Jutland in the early-'60s and with just £5 to her name. She also set up shop in the then all-but derelict Balnakiel Craft Village and from where she initially went into business as a potter.
Lotte bought her croft in 1999 and since when has transformed a once barren expanse of open heath into a veritable wonderland - planting thousands of trees and peppering the site with her dazzling works in rock. Pebbled pathways wind around the croft and down to the water's edge, but as yet another storm had blown in from off the North Atlantic, Lotte invited us instead to have coffee in her award-winning house. One of the first timber homes built in Scotland, this sleek and altogether striking structure rises from the ground on stilts and tapers out to the loch like the prow of an old sailing ship.
We spent a magical hour there being regaled by the magnificent Lotte. To this day, she hews rock from the hills round about, cooks it at volcanic temperatures in her kiln and then, by way of giving something back to the land, lugs one mighty sculpture after another up into the mountains and then leaves them there for others to enjoy. Lotte's works are dotted about all over Scotland's upper extremities and must be wonders indeed to happen across.
Our return journey to Skye was also made into the teeth of a beastly wind. Out on the moors and slopes, we counted up to 50 Red Deer along the route. Then a cloak of mist descended and we got battered some more by hail and sleet. I was moved yet again to ponder just how much my life has changed in such a relatively short span of time (and as well I was desperate for an excuse to shoe-horn a segue into this narrative). At all events, it was not so very long ago that the only forces of nature I encountered on a daily basis were human and almost exclusively rock or pop stars.
Adele being a case in point, though in nothing but good ways. In October 2010, I went to interview her at the South London flat she was then sharing with her mum and for Q's annual new year curtain-raiser issue. This was still four months before she unveiled her 21 album to the wider world and hard to credit, but she was supposed to be at a career crossroads. One way lay the fulfillment of all the promise she had shown on her first record. The other the grim fate that was then known as 'doing a Duffy.' Not that such thoughts appeared to trouble Adele any.
She welcomed me at her door, dressed head to toe in black, hair scraped back, face unmade-up but porcelain-lovely and with a laugh that could crack cement. In the broadest Cockney, punctuation be damned and in a voice so loud she might have been heard in Watford, she bid me enter: "Cam' on in and 'ere I was going to bake you some chocolate muffins but see I'm on a diet and I'll be fucked if I'm going to sit and watch you stuffing your face ha-ha-ha-HAAAA!!!"
I liked her immediately and very much. Altogether she was loud, rude, warm, funny and disarmingly honest and as such vulnerable seeming. We spoke for what was on my part a tremendously enjoyable hour and then she offered to play me a couple of songs from off her iPod. We sat opposite each other at her dining room table and through a small, single speaker together listened to Rolling in the Deep and then Someone Like You.
No-one outside of her management, record company and closest confidantes had heard either of these tracks before then and I believe I absorbed each with a kind of jaw-flapping, goggle-eyed expression on my face. This being the one and only time I heard something that I knew was going to utterly transform the life of the person who had made it and who was before me right then. I was as sure as I've ever been about anything that very soon nothing for Adele was going to be the same again.
Four weeks later I flew to Madrid to see her play an intimate club gig and to interview her some more. This occasion is etched into my memory for a very different reason. I was at the time in the first throes of gastric flu and as we spoke, I started to sweat profusely. My stomach next began to grumble and moan ominously and soon enough audibly. I was made to squirm in my seat and had to cross and uncross my legs over and again to try and ward off the coming deluge. God knows what Adele thought of these gymnastics, though her PR told me later that she had asked him if I was alright (I never did determine whether she meant physically or mentally).
Anyway, in the end she did at least make it worth my discomfort. As our conversation drew to a close, her face lit up and she recalled for me an appearance she had once made on Dutch television. It was a morning chat show and the host had also brought along Adele's number one fan - a robust woman from Amsterdam who it soon enough became apparent wanted rather more from her pop idol than an autograph. "She could not keep her hands off me!" Adele exclaimed to me.
"Then no word of a lie, at the end of the show she asked me to go home with her. I said to her," she boomed and with another laugh like an express train about to erupt out of the tunnel. "I said to her, 'Thanks and all love... but I like dick.'"
[You can hear my Friday Night Chronicles radio show from 8pm-9pm each Friday and repeated on Mondays from 3pm-4pm at: www.cuillinfm.co.uk/livestream.php].
This Week I Have Mostly Been Listening To:
Ryan Adams - Outbound Train
Effortless-sounding but magical all the same from one-time boy wonder now master craftsman.