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Open Features: What About Gigha?

Linda McLean tells of a wonderful New Year’s Eve and Day experienced on a quiet Scottish isle.

It had been November when her husband, Steve, said one night “What about Gigha?”

“Gigha!” Liz responded, slightly horrified. “It will be freezing there. It’s bad enough on the mainland at this time of year, without going a hundred miles to experience everything the weather can chuck at us.”

Steve merely laughed. “Don’t be silly. It’s dark now at 4 pm, so we’re inside after that. It’s not a big island. We should be able to explore it on our bikes during the day. And now that there’s really no family to consider…..” He trailed off, leaving the loss unspoken.

The more she thought about it, the more she realised that he was right. Everybody complained about New Year now. You couldn’t First Foot the same way. It had almost died out as a Scottish tradition. Well, you could First Foot, but most people had their friends too far away for them to be able to walk home again. And driving and drinking was not allowed.

So, a small island, where the traditions had been maintained might be interesting. An island where the islanders had been forced raise the funds to buy it to make a Community that was all their own. Even the profit from the hotel went to the island’s Trust Fund.

Not anybody could go and live on Gigha. There were very strict entry rules. If you had a key job, you were allowed residential status. If you could prove you had a good business idea, were prepared to write it down, be interviewed and leave the room while you were discussed – you might be accepted. Some folk had gone through this procedure three times, she was to discover.

So they set off for Gigha on the 30th of December, 2008, with two dogs and a car full of supplies. The route was beautiful, past Loch Lomond, Arrochar, over the Rest and be Thankful to Inveraray. A quick stop there for the bank and Liz was amused to note that it was conveniently positioned next to the jail. After that there was time for a brief stop at Tarbert to see the Castle and walk the dogs high above Loch Fyne.

Going through a gate which led to the castle, there was a sign which read: “Please keep all dogs under control – the lambs have arrived.”

Liz laughed. “A bit early for lambing isn’t it?” she asked mischievously, her eyes sparkling up at Steve’s face. He shrugged.

“I don’t know why people do these things. That sign has obviously been there since last year. I once knew a road near Stirling which proclaimed itself to be shut for months on end. There was nothing wrong with it. It was never closed or impassable. That’s why, when I see a “Road Closed” sign, I always drive down it to check that it is accurate information.”
Steve was different from the ordinary. If Liz had seen a Road Closed sign she would have believed and obeyed it. Steve thought that was a very innocent way of thinking.

The two energetic dogs had a wonderful time and the humans marvelled at beautiful views over the loch. Dogs eventually tired out Steve and Liz returned for the last leg of the journey.
The sailing was from Tayinloan, about thirty miles south of Tarbert on the Mull of Kintyre. The drive was beautiful, and, as they neared their ferry terminal, the Paps of Jura were quite visible in the clear frosty light. The Jura boat was on its way to that island as they passed, its red and black form churning up a pure white wake as it ploughed through the waves.

Neither had been to Tayinloan, or to Gigha before. The ferry terminal was deserted. There was a toilet block and places for cars to park. The display board gave out information in little red dotted lines, like you see at the cinema. There was a traffic light which displayed red, with the advice to move when it changed to green.

The ferry was at the dock and was due to sail in fifteen minutes. They waited patiently. A white van arrived, and reversed the hundred yards to the boat, red light or not. They watched. It blocked the entrance, so presumably it would be coming back again. Then a bus arrived, disgorging its passengers alongside their car. They were a happy bunch, some clutching full holdalls which proclaimed to be “The best little green bag”.

The bus passengers meandered towards the ferry. The light remained at red for the car. There was less than five minutes to go. The boat could see them, Liz supposed. Eventually the van came roaring back onto the mainland, and the light changed to green. Their car was the only one for the crossing.
Badger and Bracken became excited when they heard the unusual rumbling that accompanies a car being driven up a ramp onto a ferry. Bracken, the young white and tan sheep dog, had her ears as erect as they would go, and she looked most surprised at this turn of events. Badger the older dog, was slightly unsettled, but she had heard it all before.
Fares paid, they exited the car. Yes, dogs were allowed out – and the crossing took twenty minutes. Across the water another world waited for them – a world they would never forget.

*

It was the warmest of welcomes. Everyone took time to speak and to say hello. “Is it your first time?” was frequently asked.
Folk who had been on the island for years but had not been born there were known as “blow-ins”. People who lived on the island merely lived on the island. They would not have said nor did they consider themselves “from Gigha”.

There was a Post Office, a hotel, a church. There was a primary school. There were beautiful gardens. But the most amazing sight was the beach with its pure white sand and green blue water like the Caribbean. It had to be admitted, it was considerably less warm, but it was not freezing.

The daffodils were beginning to push through the soil, and it was only December.

This was when they found out that it was a full three degrees warmer on the island than on the mainland.

The island is only seven miles long and about two miles wide. Steve helpfully explained that it was about half the size of the Gaza strip. Never having been to Gaza, she didn’t know, but she did know that this was very sparsely populated compared to the Palestine area.

One hundred and fifty six people lived on the island. Everyone worked together in a way that would seem strange in larger communities. Everybody had a talent, and that talent was put to use. If you had several talents, you would be a busy person.
On the last day of the year they cycled to the north end of the island. Badger rushed along beside them, but Bracken was always out in front, with the occasional look back which said quite clearly, “What’s the hold up?”

The hotel was three quarters of the way down the island towards the south end, so it was about a five mile ride to reach the northern shore. They had to stop at one point to get their bearings, and the silence was all encompassing. The stillness, the lack of movement, the total calm deeply affected them.

“Do you hear that?” Steve asked.

“What?” Liz responded, puzzled.

“That’s the sound of silence,” said Steve.

They stood in wonder at the peace and tranquillity that surrounded this land.

The church was open, so they looked inside. It was a beautiful little Kirk, and at the end of every pew was a little laminated verse or text. It was obviously meaningful to those who rested there. Badger and Bracken stayed outside, making the most of their short respite.

Heading back to the hotel, Steve mentioned that he would like to play his mandolin if there was live music at the hotel. He didn’t really need to tell her. Wherever there was music, Steve would be also.

And so the band started up that New Year’s Eve. Led by an eighty year old accordion player. There were mandolins and guitars. There was one fiddle missing, but everyone coped in style. But what happened to the fiddler?

He had gone to his hotel room after tea, to fetch his instrument before the Bells. It was then he discovered that his wee dog didn’t come to greet him. It was lying quite still beside the bed. Concerned, he went over to Jack, whose cold unresponsive body told the story.

It was unbelievable. Jack was his best pal and had seen him through all the hard times, sharing enthusiastically in the happy ones.

Fiddle in hand, he played “Be Still My Soul”. It was heartbreaking to those who heard.

**

And so the New Year started, some together and happy, others alone in their grief. There were rich and poor, drunk and sober.

It was no different here from anywhere else really. It was real life, apart from the awareness of those who needed that little bit of extra attention.

The tragedies and the rejoicings all had their place. What differed was the level of support received. Everybody was quite willing to be your friend. Everyone reached out automatically. There was no withdrawal into oneself, no ipods as there are in the busy city streets. There was time to care about one another.

**

On New Year’s Day they cycled to the south of the island, past the three wind turbines that the islanders had bought second hand. They called these power manufacturers Faith, Hope and Charity. Between them, they generated not only enough power for the island but extra to sell to the mainland at a profit of £80,000 per year. This all went into maintaining or improving the Island. The turbines were not too big, nor did they spoil the scenery. Almost everyone thought of them as a blessing.
The extensive garden was off the beaten track. Here the signage that was different: “Please do walk on the grass. Please do touch and smell the flowers.”

Please enjoy all the garden has to offer, in other words. It was strange being told to do where usually you are told what you cannot do. It was yet another difference to be appreciated.

The care taken with the grounds was obvious.

They cycled slowly back to the hotel enjoying the beautiful blue skies and sea views.

In the bar of the hotel, some amateur musicians had gathered. The night went in happily, with everyone contributing a tune or song.

It was like stepping back into another time.

It was quite an experience.

It left you invigorated and sustained.

It left you with hope in your heart.

©Linda McLean

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