Arriving in Steòrnabhagh (Stornoway)

21B water 10096 600p14 June 2013

The train rumbles north. Layers of questions that tugged at me in the build up to my journey, peel away like snake skins, left to flutter in the breeze. With every familiar station name: Newtonmore, Kingussie, Aviemore, the air is changing to Highland air; startling yellow Whin is streaking past, and my body relaxes into the rhythm of the train and the dark murky purple of rocks and bracken, carved into the hillsides.

I have changed train at Perth, and again at Inverness. I have caught a bus west to Ullapool, and now, at the end of a long day’s journey from the Isle of Bute, I sit nestled into the ferry, gliding across a silent sea to Steòrnabhagh (Stornoway) on the Isle of Lewis.

Steòrnabhagh settles prettily around the sheltered harbour, with her castle keeping watch across the bay. Though the fishing fleet is not what it was in its heyday, boats still clank and thud against each other, and the soft plop, plop of water at their sides mixes with a rich, salty sea smell which emanates from wood and decks, and from rope and creels piled high on the wharf.

It is, I believe, a 9th Century town, founded by Vikings under the name of Stjórnavágr. But I welcome correction from those who know more about this than me. It is the largest town in Na h-Eileanan Siar (The Western Isles), with a population of just over 6,000 – about a third of the Isle of Lewis’ population.

The population of the Western Isles is around 27,500 and Gaelic is the first language spoken by most of the islands’ population. This is one reason for my journey here, to Na h-Eileanan Siar, on the first stage of my two artist residencies. Following this, the residencies take me in a sweeping arc across the world to the desert regions of Central Australia.

I hope you can join me on these journeys.