Returning to the Spiritual Wellspring of my Childhood

Returning to the Spiritual Wellspring of my Childhood

A cycle through Barra, The Uists, Benbecula and South Harris for the People's Pilgrimage.

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Thursday 30 July 2015 at 12:06
Returning to the Spiritual Wellspring of my Childhood

by Tessa Tennant,

A cycle through Barra, The Uists, Benbecula and South Harris

On 7th June, I boarded the Oban to Barra ferry with my husband Bill and our bikes, to take our People's Pilgrimage up most of the Western Isles of Scotland. I have known these wild lands all my life, my heart sings to be here.

Yet the islands are vulnerable to climate change, especially the probability of more frequent extreme storms, like the one in 2005, which hit the islands full force and left all but one of the MacPherson family dead, as they tried to escape their coastal home. Sea-levels are predicted to rise half a meter this century, which will lead to erosion of the dune belts and salination of the fertile machair they protect. The machair is the farming lifeblood of the islands and an extraordinary wildlife haven, especially for flowers, insects and birds.

I’m a regular cyclist and we took the journey at a gentle pace, riding the south-westerly breezes and thanking our luck at the perfect weather. It’s difficult to escape thoughts of how things were and could be, what land might disappear, and the contrast with the hubbub of mainland life. You can see for miles and there are few trees, so secrets are difficult to hide. The quarries, the roads, the houses – every human construction is visible. So is the past in the ruins, dumped cars and the ancient now unused, ill-named lazy beds where crops used to be grown.

Time seems concertinaed here.

I feel most strongly rooted in my faith when I’m in the wilds. I’ve not run away from the world, far from it, but much of the time the modern world doesn’t set my soul on fire. Here, it does! From the seal songs on the wind in the Sound of Barra, to the standing stone and all its portent in Polochar, to the shorebirds nests, the wafts of dogrose, the curlews, meadow pipits and skylarks singing overhead – if you ignore the trash left by humans, you can believe you’re in heaven! Why are we such vandals?

Two things I reflected on, learned just in the last year. They are connected.

The first is the concept of shifting baselines – what we grow up with, we assume to be the norm. But that norm is only relative, and doesn’t help us understand what was, and what we’ve lost. The second is the understanding that in my lifetime, even in supposedly nature-loving Britain, we’ve moved from an environment of wildlife abundance to one of scarcity for many species.

There are definitely fewer peewits, butterflies and fish out here, and it’s not my mind playing tricks it’s in the records. Langass Lodge has photographs of trout catches from the early 1900s which would make a modern fisher weep. I’ve seen photos taken around the same time of the large red deer herds on Harris. During my childhood, there were none. By chance Bill and I saw two when we rose with the first light one morning. So there’s always hope, the abundance could come again, if we allow it to.

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