During my second night in the tiny tent I was physically very tired, but mentally alert. The night was light and snipe were drumming all over the vast plain. Well I imagined it as a vast plain; my tiny tent spinning in space as I struggled to remember which way I was orientated, with snipe drumming both close by and far away.
When I conjure up a light summer night in the Hebrides, snatches of snipe drumming play in my mind; impossible to grasp and describe. It is such an 'other worldly' sound; not a song or a call at all. The snipe generates the sound by thrumming its tail feathers together for a few seconds at a time, the vibrations causing sound waves of a mysterious pitch unfamiliar to our ears. Fascinating to listen to, but eerie to have interrupting my dreams. I never once forgot that I was in the Lewisian wilderness that night!
July nights grow dim, almost dark, between about 1.30am and 2.30am, then they start to lighten. Dozing in my gradually brightening cocoon, I heard grass being snatched and chewed only a few feet from my head. Otherwise totally silent, the red deer were all around me. The same deer whose numerous paths had helped to guide me through the hills, but who had kept themselves hidden from me during the whole of my first day.
I was pleased that my presence in the tent was not bothering them, and it was comforting to hear them grazing close by.
An hour or two later I wriggled to my elbows and unzipped the tent to see what kind of day it was. Very still; a much higher cloud base than yesterday, but still some morning mist, only partially obscuring a silhouette horizon made up of my familiar Harris Hills.
I had pitched my tent very close to a convenient flat bedrock with a handy cooking nook. I was careful to use this to pile everything onto rather than leaving my kit on the grass while packing the tent away and cooking breakfast. No doubt the vegetation would be crawling with ticks, but it was the midges that were giving me the most bother right now!
I love the challenge to wild camp without leaving any trace at all. I use a trowel to dig myself a small hole for morning ablutions, and a nappy sack or dog poo bag works very well to pack away toilet paper or sanitary items until you get home. I can't say it was fun digging out a turf with a plastic trowel while thousands of midges crowded around, clouding my already net-shrouded vision, plus I really didn't want to bare my behind for long! As soon as possible the turf was replaced and, apart from a little patch of flattened grass where my tent had been, no-one would ever have known I had been there.
I was starting my journey today from the old sheiling marked on the OS Explorer 458 at the grid ref NB 046223. Facing south and scanning over the flat moorland, I could see a loch. My map told me it should be 700m away. It looked closer, so I needed to check that I really was at the sheiling marked on the map. There are plenty of sheilings, some of which may even have complete or semi-complete beehive huts, that are not marked on the OS maps. Even the Ordinance Survey missed things when they surveyed this lonely expanse of rocks and bog.
I set my stopwatch and headed off towards the loch. Using a combination of timing and pacing I confirmed for myself that the loch was indeed 700m south of my sheiling. Distances were deceiving in this featureless landscape. The loch in front of me was exactly the same shape as it is shown on the map, Loch na Mulne, complete with a tiny island.
As I stood on the turf at its edge watching the bright morning sun reflect off the peaty brown ripples, a sleek black head followed by an elegant dark neck suddenly and silently emerged through the surface of the water only a couple of metres away from me. A dark red eye fixed on me as water beaded and poured down the smooth neoprene textured shape, soundlessly refilling the space displaced as this beautiful black throated diver surfaced. The sun was glancing off the water, dazzling me so that I had to squint. I moved slightly, putting the sun behind me so as to see the intricate black and white stripes at the base of his neck and the fantastic chequerboard patterns on his low riding back, which only just broke the surface of the water. The bird was unperturbed, but I moved away carefully anyway in case there was a mate and chick that might be more disturbed than he was by the unusual sight of a human woman at this early hour.
When I looked behind me, there were only circles of concentric ripples emanating from the spot where he had been.
This area of Lewis is known as Coilleigear, which certainly indicates forest. But there is not a tree to be seen anywhere, just bog lined with lush green grasses and mosses and dotted with outbreaks of exposed tortured gneiss. Large eratics, like the amazing rocky cube in the photo above, have been lightly deposited on their edges, suspended by the laws of gravity in ways that I found awe inspiring. I wondered whether the people who walked this way over the centuries before me were similarly affected.
I know (or am led to believe) that these boulders were suspended in the glacier, and were gently let down into place as the ice receded. Many of them have been set down on top of collections of much smaller rocks, which now appear to have been 'put there' to hold a giant boulder clear off the ground. To our ancestors this must have seemed like the work of giants, and I am sure they would have been given significance; each with it's own name and story. The youngsters would have been out here with the goats or cow in the spring and summer and the exact location of each could have become part of a mind map for them. I can imagine weird eratics like this one looming out of the mist or snow like well known friends for the disorientated traveller who would have then instantly known exactly where he or she was in relation to the nearest shelter or settlement.
I loch hopped through Coilleigear until I reached the river; Abhainn Tamnabhaigh. I was very interested to see a real river! Harris, where I live, is so small that a river doesn't really get the chance to mature before it finds itself emptying into the sea. This river is wide and relatively slow moving. It has carved itself a meandering path with a flood plain on either side. I slithered down a steep slope onto the flood plain, and started to follow the river west towards the lodge at Tamnabhaigh. I was actually on a path! Obviously the estate staff, owners and guests have reason to follow the river this way, and a boggy track reinforced with some very slippery planks here and there, led me to the footbridge I needed. As soon as I was on the path, I stopped concentrating on every step I took, and quickly ended up losing half my leg into a boggy hole. Paths are definitely over rated!
At the footbridge I could see the lodge house, and they could see me. I didn't want to linger, so hiding under the bridge I refilled my water and then started up the steep hill on the south side of the river towards Tealasbhaigh, a completely secluded bay and deserted settlement peeping out west with a long view to the Atlantic horizon. I had often studied it longingly on Google Earth. Today I was going to visit it for the first time, and I wanted to be there for lunch.