r2vyln3rdioj14u-rld0ska where mountains meet the sea: island exile

island exile

Where does a journey begin and end? On the road? In the imagination? There are evenings in the Cumbrian fells, when I’m far inland, watching the slow shadows of night creep across the calm surface of the lakes, when I suddenly hear sea-birds calling, returning to their nesting ledges on the cliffs above the dark beach at Ness or Dalmore.

This particular journey began with one of the most treasured images I have ever had the good fortune of capturing on camera – the 2003 annular eclipse. The beginning of a journey, I realise, is so much easier to pinpoint than the end. Perhaps this is true for all island exiles. I’ve met islanders who talk about ‘home’ as though they’ve only just left the week or the month before, so it’s a surprise to find out it’s been twenty or thirty years since they last lived there.

There are others who have yet to travel to the Outer Hebrides who are connected by threads of history, by a deep sense of belonging through something so simple as a surname or a place. They come ‘home’ from Canada, America or Australia to find the land of their ancestors; to a croft in a township they feel they know but have never seen.

Sometimes, as is the case for me, instead of a family connection, it’s the landscape itself that creates the bond. I’ll be back. I know that much. Treading the fragrant heather at dusk, looking for the blue plume of peat-smoke rising over the croft, listening for the calls of summer birds out on the machair. I find myself repeating place names over and over again like a mantra: Skye and the Cuillins; St Kilda and the Shiant Isles; Plocrapool, Lackalee, Luskentyre, Brue. Each name a catalyst for memory, working its own particular magic.

I don’t know that I will ever be able to say I’ve truly left the Outer Hebrides. Perhaps it’s because the islands have never really left me. The physical journey becomes subsumed in a more complex exploration of what it means to belong to any landscape or culture. I don’t live here, but the Outer Hebrides live within me now. A place of serenity, and storms; a far away land, close as a heartbeat.

Ian Dawson, Island Exile, an extract from his book From The Land Comes The Cloth

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