‘Surreal’ is an often used word and does its best to convey a moment, usually quite fleeting, in which there is both a heightened sense of ‘being there’ and another feeling of strangeness. The two come together and we feel vaguely uncomfortable that something for which we have no real words envelopes us.
This state of consciousness is described in more detail in the Silent Eye’s consciousness course as being a temporary cessation of the ‘filters’ that cloud our experience of the seemingly ordinary world. A better word for the experience is ‘present’, as in present to what’s real.
In truth, nothing is ordinary, and reality is seeing that…
Our first ‘present’ moment of the day happened when we carefully bypassed Henrietta and entered the sanctuary of the Farmhouse Cafe in Balemartin. My first post in this series, last week, resulted in several offers to adopt Henrietta, the bike guardian, so I reproduce, above, the photograph of her doing her day-job. I don’t think she’s available for adoption…
The impending storm had quickened our minds, in the way that survival does, and, with the first of the rain driving at the windows, we found we had entered an establishment that had just opened. The staff – four quite young people – looked at us as though we had camped outside overnight, falling through the door, in desperation, the minute they unlocked it. I suppose we looked a bit alien in our bright cycling gear.
For a short while, we had the place to ourselves. The interior was plain but functional, as though it were half a farmhouse, which I suspect it was. The staff had the air of close family and riends, with at least three daughters on duty. Life on Tiree revolves around tourism and farming, with everyone helping out for both. Everyone we met on the island was very friendly, though you could detect a certain island manner.
The cafe owners had a proud display of rosettes for their competition cattle. We were about to ask when a group of eight or so people arrived for an early lunch, closely followed by another, even larger group! It was Saturday and restaurants are scarce on Tiree. We could see why all the family were employed, as the place went from empty to full in about five minutes.
We had planned to have a coffee and, perhaps a piece of cake to keep our strength up. But, with the rain lashing at the windows, we consoled ourselves with a longer-lasting choice of some delicious soup and local bread, and wondered if our day’s adventure had ended before it had really begun…
The downpour continued and we were forced to add some cake and a second pot of coffee to the mix before we stepped out into a dripping Balemartine. The saddles were sodden but a few minutes of emergency finger-wiping restored them to a usable condition. Ominously, the sky had not brightened, and we wondered if we were wise to leave the relative safety of the cafe.
That sense of leaving ‘for an uncertain destination’ has always seemed to be at the heart of mysticism, too. The familiar is safe, but the dark skies of the unknown landscape can just as easily brighten to the beauty of the beyond, when the possible storm is observed to be a shallow and passing thing. The ‘inner quietness’ of such a spiritual moment was mirrored in our journey as we crested the next hill.
Before us was a line of beautiful beaches, but that wasn’t what took our eye. Beyond the beaches was what looked like an old military base. We had only a basic map and no idea what the landscape offered, though we knew the island was relatively flat. The little map of the road showed we were travelling into a dead-end, so all we had to do was keep pedalling and we’d get there.
Wild flowers, some of them quite exotic, were abundant by the sea. On the little meadow in front of this beach we even found a few wild orchids.
And then the road came to a fork, with the dark cluster of buildings ahead. We decided to approach by the seaward track, leaving the bikes parked by a wall. We had been told there was no crime on Tiree, so we could leave them as we liked – even without Henrietta to guard.
Wonderful things happen when you choose an unusual path to an envisioned goal. In this case the approach we made for ourselves, along the edge of the sea, brought us to a most dramatic vista.
It was obviously a harbour, with the ability to seal off the flow of the tide so that some kind of vessel could be maintained. The sea was calm on our day, but we could envisage how violent it might be in the depths of winter. But what had been its purpose?
The ‘dark village’, apparently constructed of the same stone, and at the same time, as the dock, seemed quite deserted, yet was, or had been, very important in Tiree’s past. What was this ‘ghost town’ on our tiny island?
We climbed up onto its walls to get a glimpse of the whole complex of buildings from this perspective.
The answer would teach us as much about the city from which our flight had begun, only three hours prior, as the island of Tiree, itself… Despite the ever-threatening weather, it was becoming a very magical day.
Because we had entered from the sea, we still had no idea what the dark village was, nor why it had ever justified such a grand and robust harbour.
The answer was a lesson in Scotland’s history and a revelation of something quite astonishing in its scale and importance. It was also a lesson in how we take for granted the ‘giants’ on whose shoulders we ‘stand’ as Newton said.
To be continued…
Previous posts in this series:
©Copyright Stephen Tanham, text and pictures. Re-use with permission.