I used to live on an island. What I loved most about that temporary home was the very particular geography. The Outer Hebrides are flat and relatively barren, save for a few dark hills squatting on the horizon. There’s a real mood to the place, and an uninterrupted horizon – somehow the sky appears bigger than anywhere else in the world. Probably because of the lack of trees. Everytime my grandad arrived at the airport from the mainland, he’d make the same comment on this absence – “It’s quite bleak, isn’t it?” It was hard to argue the point. Also unique to these Scottish isles (and the west coast of Ireland) is the “machair”, which is Gaelic for a type of low lying grassy plains. Because of how exposed the land is there, sand continually blows ashore – swept up by great Atlantic gales – and so you get this habitat of flower blooms and abundantly rich insect and bird life, stretching up and behind the island’s long coastlines.
And it’s those great coasts and beaches that the isles are best known for. You could spend hours scouring the sands for lost treasures. One moment you would discover the venerable carcass of a dolphin or whale, hauled up onto the land by wild waves. Just along from that the ocean has spat out a different kind of carcass… some rusted ship engine, hoisted up onto a group of jagged rocks. It’s a striking contrast. Decomposing machinery crashing against raw wilderness. The sublime sitting besides the mundane.
The Outer Hebrides are full of these little juxtapositions, and I’m not the only one to notice. Jonathan Meades toured Scotland in his 2011 documentary, Off Kilter, and fell in love with the “unsurpassable strangeness” of the islands. Last year, he collaborated with photographer Alex Boyd on a book – “The Isle of Rust“. Based on Meades’ episode on the isles of Lewes and Harris, the glossy tome is filled with images that set our rusty leftovers against an impressive backdrop of austere landscapes. Old farming equipment withering away on a wind-blasted hill.
My favourite genre of island scrap is re-used vehicles. When I lived there it seemed to me as though almost every house and croft on the island had a rusty van or old bus transformed into a makeshift shed (regular sheds would blow away with one stiff storm blast)! There was this old man who lived down from my house called “The Major”. He lived just off the road, so he’d parked – or perhaps it was always there? – this old Reliant Robin at the end of the line for the postman to drop his letters and packages off in. The world’s most elaborate post-box. The car looked ancient, as the weather is so harsh there – constant winds and rain and no trees for shelter meant everything rusted and decayed at a faster rate. I often wondered what secrets might’ve laid within the archaic bowels of that Reliant. What does someone with a name like “The Major” order off Amazon? Does someone write to him?
The Outer Hebrides is filled with these little mysteries. Fragments of the past. The archaeology is so tangible and visible there, like it is with so many of the best games. Neolithic standing stones, ruined cottages, abandoned machinery, rotting fishing vessels, bog bodies, even a bronze age wheelhouse with mummified corpses entombed within. What isn’t already on the isles may well wash up on the shores one day. What a great place to just scrounge, root, sift and comb. To poke about and explore in. Big landscapes and ruins that tell a story, side by side – I can’t think of anything more video gamey than that.