(james benedict brown) on the road

Passing Places

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 5 April, 2009

One of the lasting memories I have of the Isle of Skye is the ubiquity of the English accent. I spoke to more English people on this island in six days than I have in Glasgow in six months. My guidebook warned of a peninsula that was sometimes referred to as ‘Little England’ by native locals, being so full of those southerners who chosen to relocate here in the last twenty years.

I considered this early one morning during our five night stay on the island. A vaguely circular itinerary was taking us around the northern part of Skye, and that morning an hour long ride on a school bus was our only possible form of public transport to make the journey without a longer backtrack through landscapes we had already seen. I had found the bus listed in the island’s timetable, and had checked and re-checked the footnotes to make sure that it was actually running that morning. It was still a relief to see a bus pull up, though. Departing from Dunvegan, in the north-west of Skye, it follows a very leisurely route down the west coast of the island, pulling off the main road on several occasions to follow narrow winding lanes closer to the sea to pick up dejected looking school kids from junctions and driveways. After leaving us at the junction for Carbost (and a fruitless wait for another bus in torrential rain) the schoolbus would head inland and then turn back north towards the High School in Portree. I heard some English accents among the schoolboys and schoolgirls on that bus. I wondered whether their parents had chosen to ‘downshift’ to Skye to escape tedious commutes to and from England’s larger cities, only to commit their offspring to daily journeys of equal length just to get to school.

But what a bus ride. I know that those schoolchildren might disagree, but it’s worth getting up at six-thirty to see (although maybe not every day).

Visiting Skye in late March, we took a big chance on the weather. But then a trip to Skye at any time of the year seems to take a big chance on the weather: the Atlantic is right there; the Western Isles are too small and too tiny to offer any protection. Layer upon layer of clothing beneath a rigourous waterproof outer coat is the only way to maintain your body heat and sanity beneath skies that shift in a matter of minutes.

But when the sun shines, it shines on spectacular scenery. The day before that bus journey we had struck out from Dunvegan towards the relatively remote community on and around the Orbost estate. Not being well experienced or well equipped walkers, we stuck to roads and tracks, rarely being passed by other cars but always receiving a friendly wave when we were. One (a bus driver who had a few days earlier driven us from Sleat to Portree) even offered a lift, presuming that anyone walking at this time of year would appreciate a ride.

Only one day of our visit to Skye was completely lost to rainstorms. But it was also the day we visited the aforementioned Talisker Distillery and found one of the best pubs on the island. Skye supports a year-round tourist industry thanks to its fixed bridge connection to mainland Scotland and busy through traffic for the ferries to the Western Isles. We witnessed several tour buses, including the dreadful looking mini-coaches offering chaperoned backpacker tours of Scotland in 3, 5 or 7 days. But in March we were there on the shoulder between winter and spring, long before the real crowds arrived. During six nights in hostels, only one was in a room with someone else. In Dunvegan a local even professed that we were ‘the first tourists’ of the year and that the lambing season therefore couldn’t be far off.

It was not difficult to escape the English, therefore. We walked miles and breathed deeper than we might normally in Glasgow, and thanks to low off-season prices spent very little for the best part of a week. As a full-stop on a seven month period of unemployment, it was a fitting pause before work begins. More photos here.


Apples and onions

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 24 August, 2008

Imperial unit of length, four letters.

Damned imperial measurement system. I am a metric child, born late enough to have only ever been taught millimetres and metres but early enough to still have bought fresh produce in pounds and ounces. I don’t object so much to the transition to metric or the lingering half-status of the imperial system, but being raised exclusively with one means I’m usually stumped if an older butcher or grocer asks me how much of something I want. And this kind of crossword clue reminds me of one of minor annoyances of the imperial system – a four letter crossword entry with the clue “unit of length” could be “inch”, “foot”, or “yard”. I’m not bothered about the inconsistency of the imperial system (twelve inches to a foot but three feet in a yard… I had to look that last one up), but I am frustrated that the three primary length measurements of the system all have four letters in them. It simply doesn’t help with crosswords.

Looking up from my paper (crossword doomed to be no more than eighty percent completed, I can feel it) I observe the scene. I’m in Broadford, one of the less defined, less attractive and frankly straggly towns of Skye, and I’m waiting for a bus. Beneath grey skies, light rain is falling, and I’ve retreated to a Beinn Na Cailligh, a café on the outskirts of the village. There are three buses a day from the principal towns and villages of Skye to Glasgow, and I tried to catch the first one. Although the ticket I bought was flexible, the driver refused to let me board the earliest serviceon a technicality. Flexible ticket or not, mobile tickets have to be checked against the driver’s manifest, so they’re actually only valid on the booked bus.

The driver did give me a lift though, picking me up from the cloud of midges beside the road where I hailed the bus and bringing me a few kilometers down the road to Broadford. There was, at least, more chance of me passing two and a half hours here than where I’d tried to board the bus.

My walking tour of Broadford was concluded in about five minutes. The main road from the Skye Bridge up to the island’s de facto “capital” of Portree passes through it, and there are a handful of minor streets on either side. For a brief stretch the road passes alongside what could have once been an attractive harbour, but just to cement the town’s aesthetic mediocrity, a petrol station and aircraft-hangar of a supermarket were built between the road and the water. A handful of attempts at town beautification have produced some delicately designed parks, but the town’s entire density is too low and the buildings are notable only for the functionality and weather resistance. Of all the towns to be stranded in the Hebredes, Broadford is not my choice destination.

But there are at least some retail opportunities, so I buy a paper and send a postcard, and once Beinn Na Cailligh has opened at nine o’clock, I saunter in for a cooked breakfast. I’m already damp and shivering, and the prospect of a meaty breakfast (black and white pudding included) cheers me. The coffee isn’t bad either. There’s an actual espresso machine, which probably tells you all about the expectations of modern holiday makers who visit Skye. I’d previously be told by a resident that amongst English tourists, Skye is a firm favourite with lower income groups (my interpretation of his words), a fact that seemed to be born out by the conversations I overheard in the café and the types of cars parked outside. There were others, however, with bemused Spaniards peering at the desert cabinet and an American woman flying in to get three cappucinos “to go”.

Outside I spy some middle aged men who’ve pulled up in a silver car and who have stepped out to photograph a pair of buses that have pulled up at the stop outside. They snap a few pictures and then drive off, perhaps to catch the same bus further down the line. During the hour and a half that I spend in the café, I count almost twenty buses coming and going. Skye is phenomenally well served by public transport. Locals rub shoulders with tourists on most of the routes that connect the towns and villages of the island with the railway station at the other end of the Skye Bridge in Kyle of Localsh, and the ferry terminal at Armadale.

I clear my plate, finding black pudding much more digestable with brown sauce. The sauces come in small plastic sachets that are kept in little bowls on the table. I remember that it was around this time last year, on a Caledonian Macbrayne ferry not far from Skye, that I noticed something on the very same design of sauce sachets.

Each sauce packet was a little double sided envelope. One side, in white against the appropriate colour, was the written name of the contents. On the back was a photograph of the principal ingredient. So on the back of the tomato ketchup sachet were tomatoes. On the back of the mayoinnaise sachet were hard boiled eggs, de-shelled and cut in halves. What surprised me a year before, and what I remembered again that day, was the illustration on the back of the brown sauce sachet.

What would you expect to see on the brown sauce sachet? What are the primary ingredients of brown sauce?

When I first picked up one of these little brown packets, I was quite surprised by the illustration. I may be devoted consumer of brown sauce, but only because I find tomato sauce a little too tart and dull. I’d never really thought about what might actually give brown sauce its flavour.

According to these packets, the primary ingredients of brown sauce are apples and onions.

Whether or not this commercially prepared and packed brown sauce had ever come into contact with an apple or onion is open to debate. For all I know, it is quite possible it was just “red” sauce with extra vinegar and colourings. But the idea that once upon a time, brown sauce was freshly prepared with green apples and brown onions amused me, because it’s only when I’m in the Scottish islands that I consider the origins of brown sauce.

Watching Sky on Skye

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 6 August, 2008

On Sunday night I took a walk along a short stretch of the A87 between Dunan and Luib on the Isle of Skye. I had only a fleeting overnight visit to Skye this time, although I hope that I continue to have the opportunity to go there to attend to the business that took me there this weekend. With the sun beginning to dip to the west, I plodded along the verge of the reasonably busy road to get a longer view of the sea loch between Skye and Scalpay and to get a stronger mobile phone signal. It was with some modest shame that I even turned on my phone; somehow it didn’t seem right to go to the trouble of travelling six hours and almost 200 miles without sacrificing some contact with the outside world. That cellular contact was comforting though. And it wasn’t exactly cheating. The modest accommodation provided for me on Sunday night was cunningly disguised as a shed at the back of a builder’s yard, but it had a Sky satellite dish hooked up to the TV.

Britain may appear to be a tiny little island to those who see it from a distance, but like most British people, I do not consider myself to be an islander. After all, the British Isles consist of two large islands and about six thousand smaller ones. It’s only in the second half of my life that I’ve really begun to appreciate some of the Hebridean Islands. Although by the standards of my island experiences, Skye is almost too big an island for me, being more than 1,600 square kilometres in area and almost 100km from north to south. It’s status as an independent land mass has also been unromantically eroded by the utilitarian Skye Bridge, over which I was able to float on board one of the thrice-daily buses that connect Glasgow and Fort William with Skye. The first time I came to Skye, I was killing time on a day trip from Mallaig on the mainland before I crossed the sea to the significantly smaller (and suitably named) Small Isles. I felt then, as I did this weekend, that Skye was just too big for me. It was hard to grasp the concept or emotion of an island I couldn’t walk across in an hour or two. And while Skye can be crossed on foot, it’s best not attempted in my shoes.

That short stretch of the A87 is not Skye’s finest walk. But in addition to only spending a brief period of time on the island, I also arrived completely unprepared for its true landscape. The smooth asphalt of the road was about the only surface on Skye that my city dwelling shoes were good for.

I look forward to my next trip to Skye. I may not be able to grasp the island, or its spirit, but any excuse to leave the city behind for this landscape and space is to be relished.

Taking photographs from a bus

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 6 August, 2008

Taking photographs (or making photographs, as you would say more satisfyingly if translating literally from German) through the windows of a bus or train is something I normally look down on. I suspect I have some kind of patronising opinion about those who think that they can get a decent exposure when they press their lens up against the grubby laminated windows (especially if they expect a flashbulb to improve the brightness of a Scottish mountain in broad daylight). But then, during a six hour bus journey from Glasgow to the Inner Hebrides, the monstrously beautiful landscapes of the Highlands won me over, and I found myself unwrapping by digital camera to grab pictures of what we were surrounded by.

This naturally lead to a number of “imperfect” shots. I have no idea what this gantry structure might be, or what that small grey roadside box conceals. But more annoyingly, I have no idea why they might have been situated along a stretch of unpopulated A-road, with no traffic signals or speed cameras to control. This picture is also notable for the reflection of the no-smoking sign fixed to the back of the seat in front, and the hideous orange/brown/red pattern of fabric that the seats were trimmed with. All in all, a horrid picture, but nonetheless a gorgeous amalgam of components, an abstract composition impossible to replicate because of the exact factors of light, movement, angle and location.

Some of these imperfections – when apparently alien objects puncture the natural landscape – seem to help the photographs immensely. After all, without that sign warning of a sharp bend, I’d probably never remember in twenty years time that I took this picture from a moving vehicle. I imagine that it would be a badly composed shot of moorland and distant mountains that is neither balanced nor particularly interesting.

Who are these people? And is that really someone in full Scottish regalia playing the bag pipes at a roadside viewing spot?