Nobody is more weather-obsessed than the islanders of the Outer Hebrides—of this I am certain.
From the moment I first landed in Barra, every person I have met has first shook my hand, then told me their name and delivered a 48-hour forecast.
“We’re in for a wee blow tomorrow,” said one man in a tweed cap, nodding to the West, versus the white-haired lady at the shop, who pursed her lips and warned me, “Better batten down the hatches tonight. It’s gonna wail tomorrow—like nothing before.”
In the sixty minutes or so that I spent on the Isle of Eriskay, I heard sixty different versions of the coming storm, with wind speeds ranging from 25 to 60 miles per hour, some quoted, and rain—lots of rain.
Every islander had their own weather source, be it a website, the TV, or a family member out on a fishing boat who was checking the radar.
“Gale tomorrow, aye!” they announced to me, then followed with their plans for such a storm as this, which normally involved staying indoors and drinking a cup of something piping warm or vaguely flammable.
Some islanders tried to scare me, shaking their heads and discussing the storm as if the apocalypse was set to kick off on a beach in Scotland. Others argued back, downplaying the weather and reassuring me, the outlander, that we would likely survive.
“Dinna fash yourself,” offered a young lady on South Uist, (I had to Google the phrase to understand her meaning: “Don’t worry”). She patted my hand and told me that as long as I didn’t drive and stayed well away from the sea, I’d be fine. But I already had a car and a ferry to catch the next day.
“Yer ferry’ll be cancelled,” she predicted. Then a stranger stepped in and explained the winds to me—how if the wind was blowing westerly, the ferry would sail—but in any other direction, the wind would work against the boat, and they wouldn’t go.
“All the storms, they come up from America,” said another man, pointing at me, as if I was to blame for the wrath of the North Atlantic, “They blow up and across and then hit us hard.”
I mentally apologized to the Scottish nation for any storms we might have sent their way, then carried on northward through the Isle of South Uist, across barren Benbecula and into North Uist, when the sky turned from happy blue to unhappy grey. All along the way, the islanders told me my fortune—the storm would hit any hour now, the island would be submerged in frothy white waves and my ferry to Skye would be cancelled and I might have to stay out here forever. I began to plan for a monkish existence in the Hebrides, or worse—my untimely drowning in a left-hand drive rental car.
I grew up with hurricanes in the Gulf and tornados in the Midwest, so when people with severe Scottish accents begin mumbling “big storm”, I expect Hurricane Katrina and jackknifed semi-trucks on shopping mall rooftops.
But no such thing happened. That night, at the edge of a swampy loch in North Uist, the sky grew dark and spit a bit of rain down on my hotel—and as I lie in bed, I heard the windows rattle in a spooky way—but the promised gale never showed up.
Instead of meteorological devastation, the morning brought muddled sunshine and a clear western breeze. In fact, it was such a nice clear morning, I went for a run out on the road, braving the wind and enjoy the dancing clouds that zoomed overhead. If this was the worst of Scottish weather, then these islanders were having a laugh with me.
As I ran along a swath of purple heather and enjoyed the warm wind, I began to wonder, what if, just maybe, the Scots are not prone to extreme exaggeration—and if this was the case, then did I perhaps inherit this trait by way of my mother’s family?
Only an hour later, though, the gale did arrive, just as I was leaving my hotel, late for my never-cancelled ferry to Skye, with bags in hand and wearing an unzipped raincoat. This was not the traditional summer thunderstorm that I know so well. This was different.
This was the sky having a temper tantrum and throwing hell at me in a thousand watery punches per second. The rain did not fall—it jumped on me, like horrendous sheets of melting ice, thrashing my face like a row of wet rotating blades.
Then it began to rain . . . up. No exaggeration, the rain was falling upwards, from the ground below and up into my chin. The wind thrashed the rain so hard it jumped up at me and drenched my shirt and bare skin underneath my raincoat. Within seconds I was soaking wet, my glasses fogged and dotted with a thousand little droplets. I dashed to my car and slammed the door, then listened to the water washing over the roof and windows and the puddle forming on the rubber mat beneath me.
So this was the storm—this was the “bit o’ weather” they all kept talking about. This is why I was the only person out on the road, driving to Lochmaddy in the upwards rain, just in time to catch the ferry to the Isle of Skye.
On the CalMac ferry to Uist, I left a track of wet bootprints up the steps and into the shop, where I fetched a cup of tea from a counter lined with ready bottles of whisky.
“What’s your most popular whisky?” I asked the catering agent—Alexander Macpherson.
“Right now, it’s the Black Bottle,” he pointed. “We sell a double for 3 pounds, so it’s the most popular.”
Outside, long white mists of rain fell from the western wall of clouds, touching the ocean like ghostly fingertips. Our ferry rocked forward gently and I admired Alexander’s green tattoos—a giant map of the Isle of Skye painted onto his left forearm.
“Eilean a’ Cheo,” he translated the words for me, “Isle of Mists—that’s the Gaelic name for Skye.”
“I’m so glad I made it,” I mentioned, “I was afraid the ferry would be cancelled.”
“Nah,” he laughed, “This ferry ne’er gits cancelled. We sail in all kinds of weather.”
Then he pulled up his sleeve and showed me his other tattoos, a bagpiper on his upper left arm, and his clan crest on his upper right.
On the opposite side of the ship, a group of English tourists sat around a table, bundled in raincoats and hats and scarves, huddled over a bowl of chips and ketchup, watching the grey sea outside.
“Dolphins! I’ve just seen one there! Oh—and there’s another one—I just saw two!”
“We’ve just seen gannets!” replied one lady.
“Diving?” asked the other. “Ah, lovely.”
“We’ve seen a gannet, but it didn’t dive,” piped in a third.
Soon the whole group was discussing the many merits of gannets, while outside, the Scottish sky performed its magical dance of changing lights and color, from dark to light and back again, the silver sunbeams moving across the sea.
“Gannets are brilliant, aren’t they?” offered one.
They are fantastic, yes,” replied another, and then silence, as the whole lot of them, as well as myself, stared quietly out the window and the immensity of the ocean and the dark land before us, shrouded in white mists, with tiny white cottages on top of the cliffs, like barnacles on a whale’s back.
For a minute or so, we saw the Isle of Skye come into focus, until one of the English ladies broke the silence.
“Now the tide—is it coming up, or is it coming down? I wonder.”
And together, we all wondered out loud about the tides until our ferry docked in Uig, in a storm, on the Isle of Mists.