A yellow flag of freedom

It was raining on our first morning on the Hebridean island of Harris. On that same morning – and on each of the following – we ate the most enormous cooked breakfast, which meant that, in spite of the weather, we really had to go for a long walk.

So off we set, to a nearby mountain, where we were told there was a pretty walk which went past a broch (an iron-age structure) and which might be slightly sheltered from the rain.

It was definitely not even a tiny bit sheltered from the rain, or the wind, both of which grew stronger as the walk progressed. We’d just passed the broch when the weather became truly determined and began to drench us in strong gusts, which felt like standing too close to a dog vigorously shaking itself dry.

The fiancé decided that rather than turning back at this point – an hour or so into the walk – we should continue and walk around the entire mountain. ‘We’ve just got to get to there,’ he pointed vaguely into the clouded distance, ‘and then we’ll be able to cross over to the other side.’ This was said in a way that implied years of traversing the land.

We were standing ankle-deep in peat bog, climbing a steep slope, with only sheep for company. My toes were being given a cool bath inside my trainers. I had to go along with the fiancé, or risk betraying my feeble city-born roots, which make me severely anxious when climbing up peaty mountains in pouring rain, with clouds descending, and no sign of a path.

We continued in this fashion – him striding ahead, periodically stopping to wait for me, who was, rather pathetically, lagging behind. After another half hour, during which the weather only worsened, the terrain only grew steeper, and the mountain seemed to go on getting wider and wider, so that it seemed we’d never reach a point at which we could cross to the other side, I stamped my foot and insisted that we turn back.

The fiancé, fittingly sheepish, agreed, and back we went. By this point, my toes no longer felt happily bathed, but rather squelchy and wrinkly; my Barbour, I’d discovered, needed re-waxing as it was certainly not waterproof enough for the Scottish rain, and everything in the pockets – tissues, wallets, phones – was soaked through. I was mildly worried about getting an electric shock from my waterlogged Blackberry. I was more worried about the fiancé twisting an ankle and my somehow having to transport him back down the mountain. Knowing that I would definitely not be able to carry him, that no-one would be stupid enough to come on this walk in the rain, which was now torrential, I began to weigh up the likelihood of my being able to catch a sheep and use it as a mule. Unlikely, I’d just decided, when the fiancé said, ‘Ems, look at that!’

And there was an enormous bird of prey soaring through the air. It circled around us and then swooped down, landing on the mountain. It was incredible. We wondered if it were an eagle, but when we later told people the story, we were told that if one is in any doubt as to whether or not it is an eagle, then it almost certainly isn’t. Eagles are so big, you see – wingspans of two metres – that you would definitely know one if you saw one. But when we went on a (sunnier) walk a few days later, with an eagle expert, who pointed out eagles souring high overhead, the pattern of their flight looked so similar to that of the bird we saw in the rain that we began to think that our unusually close sighting really must have been of an eagle.

I think the fiancé was trying to cheer me up, or perhaps he was feeling rather apologetic for his miscalculation of the length of the walk. In any case, he kept on pointing things out. ‘Look at all those yellow flowers,’ he said.

‘Oh wow,’ I said, looking at the swathes of yellow flowers, their petals drooping open and the rain splashing off, while their leaves poked up sharply, almost like swords. ‘They’re yellow flag irises.’

And that moment was almost more special than seeing the eagle.

You see, while in Harris, I was reading Gavin Maxwell’s nature-writing classic Ring of Bright Water, in which he recounts his life in the remote Scottish highlands, looking after pet otters. It is rather an eccentric book and, at times, a very funny one too. But what he really excels at is describing his home, which he calls ‘Camusfeàrna’, the Bay of the Alders. In his preface he says that his invention of a name is ‘from no desire to create mystery’. He explains:

The name is of little consequence, for such bays and houses, empty and long disused, are scattered throughout the wild sea lochs of the Western Highlands and the Hebrides, and in the description of one the reader may perhaps find the likeness of others of which he has himself been fond, for these places are symbols. Symbols, for me and for many, of freedom.

I was of course aware that his poetic rendering of the landscape was akin to what I would see on Harris. Even the cover of the book looks remarkably similar to the breathtaking view from the beach by the hotel. But this flower, this patch of yellow amidst the rain-soaked bog of green grass and purplish heather, was immediately recognisable as something I’d read about the previous evening:

The leaves of the yellow flag iris that margin the burn and the shore form a forest of broad bayonets

These sharp leaves were indeed like ‘broad bayonets’ and the wide yellow petals formed the familiar shape of the purple iris. I found that I knew exactly what this flower was.

Reading Ring of Bright Water while staying in a place so similar to the one described was truly extraordinary. Sadly I didn’t see an otter – certainly not a tame pet one like those that Gavin Maxwell kept – but I did see seals, dolphins, eagles, ravens, gulls and gannets. And I saw the ‘bright water’ of the title – the way the sea gleamed silver even in the rain, due to the almost unearthly whiteish glare of such northern light.

I’m pleased to say that that was the worst of the weather, and future walks weren’t nearly as gruelling. Not even the one for which we walked through two miles of soaking peat bog before climbing up into a strange crater of a mountain. (The fiancé’s idea, once again.) I loved my stay in Harris, and am already longing to return. It was easy to see how Maxwell’s life amongst nature in a similarly isolated spot was in many ways a kind of paradise.

In any case, once I’d identified those yellow flag irises, and realised that, in spite of the horrid rain, we were actually in the magical place described so well in the book I was reading, the rest of the walk didn’t seem bad at all.


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