Sunday, April 28, 2013

Uig Lodge

Uig Lodge offers 360° views
I can see why Arthur Ransome relished the away-from-everything atmosphere of Uig Lodge. It stands proud above the vast pale sands of Uig Bay, looking westwards to the sea over the remains of a Pictish broch and southwards to a chain of lochs  and rocks through which the Forsa, a notable salmon river, tumbles down to the sea. If he slept in the southwest bedroom in which I’m sipping early morning tea in bed as I write, he could even have seen a small island on one of the upper lochs and fantasised about Great Northern Divers. The weather is wild but wonderful: I have never had a week of faster changing conditions. I began writing in a glorious sunrise with infinite views; I’m now sipping my second cup of morning tea while rain shrouds us and winds lash the magnificently sturdy house. Fortunately, for all the dire forecasts on web and wireless, there is much more sun than rain.
Great Northern?, the last of Ransome’s 12 book saga of adventurous children messing about in boats and tents, had unusual origins. The idea for a story centring on protecting birds and set in the Hebrides was offered by Myles North, an intrepid ornithologist who grew up in the Lake country, but was stationed in Somaliland when his correspondence with Ransome began. The story centred on a pair of Great Northern Divers which Dick discovered breeding on an island in a loch high above the cove in which the Sea Bear, a borrowed pilot cutter in which the Swallows, Amazons and Ds are cruising the Hebrides with Captain Flint, is being scrubbed. Ransome was then 60, a sobering age to reach, and suffering from writer’s block. Someone with as much faith in him as North was just what he needed. The book had rather a faltering start: Ransome found place a primary inspiration, and he had never been to the Hebrides. He and Evgenia were also about to decamp from The Heald, their house on Coniston, in favour of a flat in London, and he was planning a new boat – ‘a kind of marine bath-chair for my old age’ – that he would call Peter Duck. Its name may have been inspired in part by North’s suggestion that Peter Duck made a comeback in Great Northern?
View from my bedroom window: Roger's broch and its causeway
But in May 1945, he and Evgenia went in search of local colour to the Isle of Lewis, staying first in Stornaway, where Ransome fished the Grimersta lochs, then to Uig on the western coast. Uig Lodge was then owned by James Dobson, but Ransome records that he ‘stayed with Mackenzie’. This was just possibly Compton Mackenzie, another Cape author who then lived on Barra, but was probably James Mackenzie, then game-keeper at Uig Lodge. The Fhorsa River has plenty of features suitable for the story, and right below the Lodge are the ruins of a Roger-sized pict house or broch.
They made another visit the next year, this time staying with the Dobsons themselves,  and by the end of the year AR had finished Great Northern? sufficiently well to meet Evgenia’s exacting standards. He also sent a draft to North, who crowed with satisfaction at having been ‘a benefactor to humanity’ by inspiring the book. AR thanked him by dedicating it to 'Myles North, who knowing a great deal of what happened, asked me to write the whole story'.  Peter Duck did not however appear; AR wanted the story to seem as real as possible. Time has made it true, though AR had died three years before a pair of  Great Northern Divers were found breeding in Western Scotland in 1970.
View from my side window: the white froth on the
right below the loch is the waterfall into the Gorge Pool
Ransome returned to Uig many times, finding the Lodge a private refuge from his own fame. A diary kept at Uig Lodge during 1950 and 1951 records picking him up in a horse and trap, accompanying him to the Fhorsa river. I can see its famous Gorge pool, just below a huge fang of rock and foaming waterfall, from here if I sit up and crane my neck. Even though I am no fisherman, after almost a week here, I can see why Ransome loved it. 360° views, some of the sea, some of hulking round-topped hills made of an ancient gneiss unknown anywhere else in the British Isles. I arrived from Skye at Tarbert, and drove around the east coast of Harris to Finsbay, staying very comfortably  in the Old School House and admiring Nickolai Globe’s landscape inspired ceramics at the Mission House. Then on to the remote Rodel Hotel and the miraculously well-preserved St Clement’s Chapel, a stunning beach for a scamper with Leo at Taobh Ancient Lewis and Harris with me; I see now that I missed all sorts of interesting ruins. I should also have diverted west from the Stornaway road in North Lewis to visit the Eagle watching observatory. If you want to know just what is about, go to the North Harris Trust nature watch sight; I see that in mid-April they sighted Great Northern Divers!

Sleeping Beauty and her prince:
Uig Lodge in background
Sunset from Uig Lodge: Roger's broch?

Looking back a few days later: I can’t praise Uig Lodge enough.
 Blazing peat fires and heaps of puzzles and games for rainy days; vast sofas to collapse on after fine ones. The deal is that you rent the whole place for around £4/5000 a week. Sounds a lot, but it sleeps 15 in comfort, and could accommodate a good number of kids on camp beds and mattresses. That works out at only £300 a head. You can also have all your meals cooked for you, if you opt for full board. Of course, most of the people who come here are fishermen, but what a marvellous annual holiday it would make for two or three families.  Or, of course, a group of Ransomaniacs like the gang whose company I enjoyed hugely. A few days ago we explored the Fhorsa River and the Gorge Pool, Ransome’s favourite fishing spot, and walked up above it to find two lochs – one complete with a fine island for nesting divers. Yesterday we walked across the sands to the ruined broch visible from the Lodge, and I posed as ‘Sleeping Beauty’ Roger.

We also drove an hour north to four excellent historic sites: Carloway Broch (where two rams took an undue liking to Leo), the Callanish Stones, eerily slim and commanding, Gearrannan Blackhouse Village, where you can see how life used to be lived as recently as the 1970s, and even rent one of the massive low stone houses as self-catering accommodation, and an impressively well-restored Viking Corn Mill which would make the perfect home from home.
Now I am on my way home via the Isle of Luing, one of the legendary Slate Isles, but now that all the quarries are closed, as peaceful a little place as you could wsh to find. Birds galore, and flowers just starting. The population (c.180)  has a real sense of community, and thanks to the Cadzow family's famous red Luing cattle, is still viable economically without needing to stoop to tricks of the tourist trade.

Friday, January 4, 2013

New Year Prospects

The World of Arthur Ransome
It's six months since I last posted, so a brief summary: World of Arthur Ransome was launched with a jolly party here for all the people who helped, and I've had some wonderful feedback. Now for the return to serious work: at the minute the medieval story I most want to write but keep failing to, but it may be put aside  in favour of another author-in-his/her setting book. Or, and it keeps nudging in on me, a celebration of home. My common-pace book is just about writing this itself.

The danger is that time gets eaten away in the most agreeable way at present with walks with Leo, a dangerous new fascination with bridge, and fun with the grandchildren. There are now seven, with no 8 expected in March [FYI: Tilly and Tom have Ben (6) and Meg (3), Daisy and James have Fox (4) and Woody (8mths), Ellie and Jamie have Sam (7) and Olivia (5), and Susie and Joe have Lenny (1) and a nicely rounded tum. This year their Christmas quilts diversified into tiny ones for Meg's BABY and Olivia's TED as well as cot-sized ones for Lenny and Woody.

Christmas was a fullscale celebration, with both my own friends and all four girls, to say nothing of several in-laws. The twelve day aftermath much needed; it has also been an opportunity for refining the delights of the North Pole, a hut halfway down the garden which is proving to have all the magical atmosphere of the dear old hut at Chalfont Road. You can see what it looks like if you check out Rowlinson's soi-disant 'corner potting store'; any fool can see that it is in fact, once thickly insulated, an ideal light-drenched place to work. Martin supplied a carpet; Brian and Mary an apple-cheeked clock, Gillian and Phil a lloyd room chair. I have resisted my old delightful distraction of a real woodburning stove [to great relief of sons-in-law] in favour of bringing down the cod one I've had in the attic. So far the mornings are too dank and dark for early sorties, but I'm already feeling better for marooning myself out of reach of man or beast [expect for Leo and the hens) every morning. I'm such an inveterate domesticator that being anywhere in the house offers irresistible distractions. Down there there are no books, no music, no wi-fi, no phones, just space to think and write. We'll see.