Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Hermit’s Hut

Take a simple cottage on its own on a west-facing Hebridean beach. Make the beach the open end of a valley that plunges from a long mountain ridge enclosing it behind. Give the cottage a window onto the sea. Scent it with drying kelp. Surround it with the lash and snarl of gale-force winds. But above this noise, allow the shingle to ring out as it slips back with the retreat of each wave.

Bring in night. Throw into the skies behind the cottage a bright full moon that pours window-shapes onto bare walls and floors. From the long crenulated ridge of the mountain behind, release white clouds to sail along the glen, over the roof of the cottage and out to sea.

Put a woman inside, a woman menstruating. To one side of the cottage, thrust up a towering escarpment. Call it ‘Bloodstone Hill’. To the front of the cottage, just within the crisp moon-shadow cast by the cottage and its two chimneys, seat a stag. Give him tall antlers. Have him roar and bellow to another stag unseen on the hillside. Let their exchange drift in through the gaps between stone and window-frame, keeping the cottage rocked on the edge of sleep throughout the night.

Myth? Fairy-tale? Poetic image? Or all three bound up in a real experience and a psychic state?

If you walk from place to place in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, it’s not long before you come across a simple bothy with an unlocked door, a couple of near-empty rooms, a notice asking you to keep it tidy, and a spade. This is simple shelter – refuge.

I find bothies echo oddly with the transience of lives that pass through them. People leave strange markers of their lives – a single sock, a copy of Private Eye, a piece of bone or horn found nearby. Perhaps these things seemed meaningful at the time, but they can take on an uncomfortable quality. And then there’s the sense lying quietly beneath the use of these cottages now- that they were once homes for shepherds, crofters, families.

In the last few weeks I have stayed overnight in three bothies and I was very glad of the shelter – to dry out, get out of a storm, wake up in a beautiful place. In these three cases I was alone, but one of the odd things about settling into a bothy is that you can never be sure what company you will have – human, rodent, or conjured by your own terrifying imagination.

To spend a night alone in an unlit bothy can be a primal experience. At Guirdil bothy on Rum’s red-cragged west coast last week, I read in the failing daylight by the window as the sun glanced through mackerel clouds and then succumbed into grey haze just south of Canna. The sense of archetype in my experience was highlighted to me by reading Chapter 1 of Gaston Bachelard’s ‘Poetics of Space’.

In it he speaks of the poetic image of the house, and in particular he goes on to explore the ‘hermit’s hut’ – isolated, redolent of simple poverty, and of legend. The image, he says, ‘leads us on towards extreme solitude. The hermit is alone before God.’ I began to see myself as a hermit, unconsciously making a pilgrimage towards solitude, pitting myself against comfort and the lavish opulence that my main residence of the week, Kinloch Castle, on the other side of the island, represented a century ago.

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