The Lights of Lewis
A trip to the Outer Hebrides, a collection of islands off Scotland, in search of waves. By Pete Geall.
Every Autumn, ten men from the Port of Ness, a small settlement at the far northern tip of the Isle of Lewis, set sail for the remote and uninhabited rock of Sulasgeir. From here they plan to catch the Guga, the youthful gannet chicks that nest precariously on the craggy promontories above the North Atlantic. For two weeks the hunt tirelessly picks off its prey, the crew hoping to return to their community with a bounty of Guga – salted and pickled, ready to grace the tables through the long dark winter nights.
It’s a testament to the fortitude of the locals, that the Guga hunt continues in earnest despite the opportunity to purchase Pringles and Mars Bars from the spartan community shop. However, potato snacks and chocolate can’t fortify a community. The rutted car park sets the scene. The tattered, once-waxed jacket wearing shopkeeper barely manages a smile as we curtly negotiated the meagre offerings in his shop with a slopping shouldered politeness. We leave with a token can of Irn Bru and some dusty crisps.
The northern extremity of Lewis, an expanse characterised by peaty moorland and a singular B-road dotted with squat houses marks both the entrance and exit of the land; serving as a stark reminder of the difficulties of living at a latitude of 57 degrees north. A different world to that of the southern reaches of the same island which has been bequeathed the different name of ‘Harris’ despite being one of the same. Graced with bountiful lochs, picturesque mountains, sheltered white sand bays and the occasional turf-roofed eco-house suited to a new-world James Bond villain. Perhaps most tellingly, an openness to the modern world abounds with signs proclaiming welcomes, ferry ports, tourist opportunities and the freshest of hand-dived scallops the size of battle-worn medals.
Nordic lights are not that common in Scotland, but if you are lucky the sky might turn green.
I’ve always wanted to travel to the Hebridean Islands for a surf trip. Its not a secret. Scotland exists in me. Ever since my first Scottish surfing experience at the impressionable age of 15, and my first at a reef of consequence at Thurso East, the furthest point north on the mainland. Sheepishly clambering after my dad over the seaweed clad, tombstone slabs of Caithness rock before making my first chilly duck dive through the tea-like brew. I recall how my panting grew as the stiff offshore breeze blew a cloud of hard spray back onto my wetsuit hood upon my arrival to to the air, the set waves stood present. The seed was set. I’ve been back most years since.
The Outer Hebrides with its clear North West exposure loomed as the next probable set of Isles exposed to full brunt of the Atlantic. Like a student advancing through his tables, the Isles seemed like a logic progression. The calm, sheltered ferry journey from the inner Isle of Skye with its formica tables, fried Scottish breakfast and blaring chart music strived to reduce this stretch of water to a formality rather than a journey. It was clear that for the majority of our fellow travellers the process was a perfunctory act of reality, not that of a holiday. But for us, not of this land, a holiday it was. The breakfast became our indulgence and hushed conversations about the current wind and swell forecast were shared with a reverence of the uninitiated.
To understand the Hebridean surf experience one must carefully read between the lines. Abundant swell, convoluted coastline, white sands and uncrowded cobble lined points can easily be reinterpreted into strange swell directions, wind-driven lost opportunities and tidal maladies. The opportunities must be grabbed with two hands, and gorged upon before your graceful interpretation quickly becomes lost in translation.
And thus between the lines, our surfing experiences can be defined by my 60 year old father stroking powerfully beneath the lip of a 4ft right-hand wedge at the Cliff of Machair, his 6’7 pintail, rail engaged, driving into the chasm as I shouted ‘Go!’ repeatedly as a nail being driven into solid wood. The unstrapping of a clutch of surfboards adhered to the roof as we watched a trio of small, clean waves peel gently, somewhat provocatively down a Norse named cobblestone point. These are the times which ride on. The comedic week long escapades of checking and un-checking numerous wind torn sloppy surf spots and the less than beatific process of driving up and down the B-road which ends at the northern Port of Ness doesn’t need to be mentioned. Two moments, distilled to the heart of the spirit, defined our surfing trip.
Yet, even the most dedicated surf trip will almost always be complemented or destroyed by the downtimes, the company and locale. Staying in the small loch-side community of Uig in a simple bunkhouse, we were privy to a view unlike most surf locations. One of calm, sheltered waters; the houses at the other side of the loch providing a full-stop to our vista. The tempestuous North Atlantic, hidden beyond numerous headlands and lochs could only deliver its tide as a reminder of its frequently foul mood. Its bounty filled with stout Mackerel, youthful pollack and a brief visit by an otter unimpressed with our poor casts and lost lures snagged on plentiful seaweed.
The Autumnal nights, which draw in at the remarkable rate of 20 minutes a week at these times present new inward opportunities, in which in to discuss and toast both good and bad fortune. The sweet Guinness expertly poured in the capital of Stornaway, the black-pudding seared scallops and cobbled group-attempts at flirtation with the elvish princess of the local Co-Op. On top of this, if one sits still enough – perhaps fortified by the finest malts, you might be privy to something others don’t often experience.
Glowing white flashlights, shining linear to the clouds far north, thankfully unaccompanied by blitz sirens, herald a new light. A light which impossibly begins in a perfect curve, possessing the truest of magnetic beauty. Dancing lines of mossy, verdant light projects out of its bend with an unbelievable luminosity seldom seen at night. One can only imagine what the ancient people who were part of this land and built numerous, still standing stone circles made of such nocturnal displays. One can only imagine what three simple surfers, not of this land, made of it all.