Good for Any Time

First there was Skye, then Lewis, and now this...

Even though I’ve been hanging around universities for most of my adult life, part of me still doesn’t feel academic. It isn’t that I haven’t been schooled in the arcane ways of the Jargon and the Text, or had it drummed into me that academic writing avoids words like “isn’t” or “drummed”.

It’s because I haven’t owned any tweed.

Everyone with an M.A. in Obsolete Clichés knows that academics wear tweed. A gown is just for graduation, but a scratchy woollen blazer lasts a lifetime. True, that lifetime ended somewhere in the early 1960s, but who are we to reject an age-old Hollywood tradition?

For a few measly pounds, I could skip the academic rigmarole and go straight to tenure. It’s even easier than sending off for a mail-order Ph.D. in Tantric Theology.

And here I was, in the true home of tweed. Berwick-on-Tweed had been a sad disappointment; the foundations were all concrete, as far as I could tell, and none of the streets were paved with it. As for Tweed Heads in New South Wales, they looked like ordinary skin and bone to me.

Harris Tweed is in fact made all over the Long Isle. Our first sight of it was up in Ness, on the way to the Butt of Lewis. A handmade sign pointed to a small shed, which contained a green-painted 30-year-old loom powered by bicycle pedals fixed between the base and the seat. The shelves held samples of cloth and a few finished items, as well as homemade photo postcards of the woman who made them, sitting at that same loom.

Eventually a man turned up to take our money (clearly no scholar, because he wasn’t wearing any of the goods). I paid five pounds for a scarf that would have cost twenty-five on the Royal Mile. I’m not sure how much I’ll wear it around my itchy neck, but I can always wave it at promotional boards like a bullfighter.

It was good, but it was still one step away from the ultimate: Harris Tweed made in Harris.



Outwith the Inner

Part two of a trip that started in Skye.

The ferry crossing takes an hour and a half by the shortest route possible, from Uig on Skye to Tarbert in Harris. Looking out over the bow, the Minch fills all and then none of the window, as the horizon swings up and down like the edge of a trampoline.

We bounce off at Tarbert, a small town straddling the narrow neck where southern Harris joins north. Walls of rock rise up on either side of the join, and for a moment it’s hard to see where the road could go. Doubly hard, because the rain is now sheeting down.

We salmon-leap up to the crossing through North Harris, a solid march of grey-flecked brown mountains. I pull over in a passing place to let the one-lane traffic past, and wind down the window to photograph a loch, its surface rippling fast. The rain soaks the edge of my seat in the space of ten seconds.

The first surprise about the Isle of Harris is that it isn’t. This “island” is joined to its twin of Lewis, and not at the obvious point of the neck at Tarbert, but here in the forbidding natural barrier of the North Harris mountains. The boundary makes sense even today, when it takes only minutes to cross it by car; it would have made even more when the crossings were by foot, or skirting around the coast. But it would be a couple more days before we’d get a better sense of Harris; on this first day we continued up the coast to Stornoway. Or, as the signs had it, Steornobhagh.



The Skye Experience

Most Australians are bemused by the British obsession with the weather, but as a Tasmanian I never was, much. The line about “four seasons in one day” was an old friend long before the Crowded House song of the same name; a phrase that holds the strongest meaning for temperate islanders, like Tasmanians, Kiwis, and the people of the British Isles. We live at the mercy of vast grey oceans, waiting to see what surprises they’ll throw at us.

When my parents visited in April last year and we travelled around the north and north-west Highlands, we were all surprised by what the Atlantic threw at us: nothing. An overcast day or two in Orkney, and a bit of wind, but basically day after perfect blue day almost to the end. As it was too early for the midges, and too early for most other tourists, the conditions couldn’t have been better.



Black Dogs

You May Already Be a Winner

Congratulations! You have failed
The only available ship has sailed
From the dock, and you’re not on it

You’ve left your future on the bonnet
Of your car, and driven off
You’re worse off than a Romanoff

If you were required now to choose a
Username, I’d go with “loser”
With a password of “u suck”
You’re in the shit
You’re out of luck

There really is no point in going on
You’ve reaped what you were sowing
Just try and get it through your brain
Your dance is done
It’s time for rain




A gap of seventeen days between posts deserves some kind of explanation, even if I did say that things would be pretty quiet here in the first half of ’04.