It seems like half a lifetime since I left my home in Yorkshire to come to Skerray in Sutherland.Yet its only been a few short months.
Though hundreds of miles away from all I have known and all those I love, from the moment I arrived in Skerray I felt I had come to a place where I belonged.Skerray was where I had always wanted to live without knowing it.
Skerray is on the coast of Sutherland,Sutherland has been called Europes last great wilderness and it is also a place where the so called old fashioned values of community ,of trust ,of caring for your neighbour still endure,a place I will always remember for the kindness extended to me from my very first hours among them and until my very last.
I started out from one of the norths biggest cities ,on a rush hour train ,with my wee dog Tilly and my not so wee cat Izzy and as train succeed train the crowds dwindled .Many hours later as I boarded the Caladonian sleeper I finally felt I was beginning my new life ,the next morning,I woke to see the highlands appearing out of the weak dawn light of autumn .I drank my coffee in bed watching the highlands passing my window ,saw a brief glimpse of deer and a more lingering view of mountains and heath.
,I was in Scotland ,my new country.From the restrained bustle of Inverness I boarded my final train to Thurso,a route that with each passing station becomes more and more rural and stations become sentinels in what sometimes seems an empty land.I watched the coast disappear and reappear ,I saw wild goats and more deer ambling across inner flat land of Caithness before the land yet again became green and undulating..As I was driven from Thurso across a landscape less populated and wilder than its possible to imagine unless you have been to Sutherland. The roads all single track,some and where sheep as a common and often far more common than cars.Skerray is a crofting community I got used to finding sheep outside the house .Along the road where were occasional glimpses of incredibly beautiful coves and impossibly blue green seas,while in the valley a small thatched restored croft with its post office sign slightly askew and a small tree of incredibly red Rowen berries sat on a road that quite literatly ended at the sea this was Skerray .
My own house was in Clashbuie ,a place composed of just two houses a pretty stone one and mine .Mo Dhaichadh ,which is gaelic and means my home,clashbuie means golden or or yellow hollow ,I loved the idea of my home being called Mo Dhaichadh it seemed a good omen ,,though after a few weeks of trying to pronounce it I started to wish it was called number 10 or anything but its (to me at least) impossible to pronounce gaelic name.
As the car dropped me off and drove away I turned to see for the first time Island Niamh ,it would be the most defining sight of my time in Skerray the first thing I saw every morning and often in the evenings I would have coffee outside and listen to the noise of the unseen waves hitting the rocks below and see the dark shape of Niamh ,I would watch seabirds swirl around its cliffs and in my last few days here I saw the northern lights,swirl and flare above .
This my new home was without the usual “comforts ” of modern life ,no heating other than an open fire in the living room and Solid fuel Rayburn.My bathroom heater for most of my stay was candles in ever increasing numbers as the year and advanced and temperatures dropped .
later I was given a calor gas heater but for now my bedroom heating was also candles supplemented by a tiny oil filled radiator ,which I suspect gave out considerably less heat at considerable more cost.
To stay warm in Mo dhachaidh required concentration and pre planning ,I had ordered logs and coal and anthracite and kindling ,so I lit my first log fire for several years and then my first ever Rayburn ,The Rayburn was my housemate almost as much as my pets ,it,cooked ,my food ,heated the kitchen ,dried my clothes and gave me hot water enough to have had baths ,morning noon and night had I wanted,it made the house a home.The pets quite liked the Rayburn too,you cant really snuggle next to a central heating boiler.
I found it surprisingly easy to settle into my Rayburn and living room fire slavery,for unlike a central heating boiler they are needy and demanding ,they required feeding logs or peat or coal at frequent intervals to stay in and all,these needed bringing in and in enough quantities to avoid trips to the woodshed in the dark or in gales.
When ever a storm was forecast I would scuttle about stacking logs in my porch and shoving anthracite into buckets hoping to see out the storm without venturing outside .The gales are a common feature of winters here and though my house was sheltered from most set as it was into the dip in the hillside ,if you opened the door it sounded as thought the house was surrounded by banshees ,if gales came from the north the banshees were joined by thundering gusts that tore the gate out of my hand if I didn’t wait for one to pass before hurriddly oening or closing them .My wee dog developed a sideways walk on such days and the big dog a wolf like ears back squint.
Living in any remote place can be difficult ,living in one where the only bus to the nearest “town” Tongue was weekly required a certain amount of forward planning.But a place is only remote if you want to leave it and I rarely wanted to leave Skerray,Walking the dogs around its varied landscapes was a revelation ,walk for a few minutes above the house and cliffs and coves,beautiful blue seas and rugged Islands appeared ,the most beguiling being Na Ron with its deserted village.Walk a few minutes inland towards tongue and the mountains apparead Tongue Ben Loyal and Ben hope ,a longer walk would take you to the vast expanse of golden sands and famous surf of Torrisdale beach.