on 26 July 2007
Lesley Riddoch was funny on the radio when she cycled up the Western Isles. This book which is the written account is full of the feisty lady's encounters with weavers, holiday makers, thatchers and "characters". It makes me want to cycle and soak up the essence of this beautiful slice of Scotland. Really enjoyable and I wait for the next one.
" ... when my friend of fifteen years Lesley Riddoch phoned to ask if I would accompany her on a journey up the Western Isles, I said yes without checking my diary ... I have an abiding passion for her ... We irritate each other almost constantly ...We also enjoy each other's company. God knows why, but we do ...Lesley is not only a great storyteller, she is also a great story gatherer ... It was my job as her assistant to go ahead and find people prepared to talk to her ...I may have wanted to kill her, but I still love her. Though you mustn't believe everything she says about me. The bitch." - Max MacLeod's tribute to colleague Lesley Riddoch
"There is only one place where the bonds of the clan have any grip: where family loyalty still governs, and where Scotland has left its old values for an indefinite period in cold storage - it's the Gàidhealtachd." - Lesley Riddoch on the Western Isles (a.k.a. Outer Hebrides, a.k.a. Outer Isles, a.k.a. Innse Gall)
I devour travel essays. They represent either a revisiting of places I too have been as seen through another rambler's eyes, or a window on environs I shall, because of time and/or cost limitations, regretfully never observe. Most of these books have been by authors who've focused on nothing in particular but rather sensed and described a wide array of experiences along the path. Conversely, RIDDOCH ON THE OUTER HEBRIDES by Lesley Riddoch is a narrative of purposeful reporting.
Riddoch, a radio journalist in Scotland, herein travels the length of the Outer Hebrides, mostly by bicycle, from the island of Barra in the south to the Butt of Lewis - a headland - in the north, to report on the state of the Gaels and all things Gaelic: the traditional occupations (weaving, fishing, crofting), religion, music, and language - particularly language. Will she find a viable culture? Or, as an unidentified local puts it:
"People would never stand by and watch an animal dying slowly, yet they permit themselves to stand in the midst of their own culture as it draws its last, weak breaths. If Hebridean culture was a dog, I would take it to the back of the barn and put it out of its misery."
What the author discovers, and shares in an engaging and perceptive narrative, is a people - roughly 26,000 people - at a crossroads and possessing as much freedom as never before realized to choose the way forward - towards cultural vibrancy or cultural oblivion.
Personally, I've never made landfall on the Outer Hebrides; the closest I've come is the wildly beautiful, cloud and windswept Isle of Skye in the Inner Hebrides. I long to cross The Little Minch, though, as Lesley observes, the road traveled on the other side by the visiting outlander is often not an easy one.
RIDDOCH ON THE OUTER HEBRIDES is sprinkled with photos. And not just any photos, but COLOR photos! This in itself makes the book a standout among others of the travel genre that more oft than not sadly lack any visual component whatsoever. Each portion of her route is also delineated on a map. My only puzzled observation about this latter element is that, in the two sections ("Scalpay to Uig" and "Uig to Callanish") of her explorations that describe traveling to and from a place called Uig on the Isle of Lewis, Uig isn't identified as such on the relevant maps (9 and 10). Her editor, if she had one, stumbled.
Though Riddoch's focus on Gallic culture and societal affairs may have prevented her from seeing and describing other attributes and sights of the island chain which might be of interest to visitors, her book is a more than useful window on a far-flung place I shall likely never see. As such, it's a gift.
on 13 June 2009
Although written some 20 years before, Bettina Selby's book on cycling in the Western Isles does a much better job that this in describing how the sometimes precarious future of the WI sits with the unique character of the islands and their people. Even though she is sometimes critical. Selby's book rests on a genuine empathy and fondness for the people of the WI. However I suspect that neither book would make a particularly comprehensive travel guide for cyclists.
on 3 July 2008
As someone planning a cycle ride up the Hebrides I bought this book hoping to get an idea of what it would be like, places worth visiting, etc. Disappointly, all I got was a series of [not awfully interesting] interviews and very little description of the journey and overall experience. You're actually barely aware that the bike was Lesley's form of transport as it gets so few mentions.
The book was hard to get into, meandering a lot and with little sense of a direction - in more ways than one. The pics are small and snapshot-ish.
If you like local radio then this book - which amounts to transcripts of local radio interviews - may be for you, though.