I once hitch-hiked from Oxford to the Isle of Skye and then to the West Coast of Ireland. That adventure changed the course of my life, or so the story goes….
One day I was playing my penny whistle in one of those rather undesirable (depending on your perspective) studenty squat type houses, you know the ones where every one smokes too much and lives off sweet tea and spinach samosas (which is another story), when a man turned up and said he was going to the Isle of Skye because a bridge was being built from the mainland and something needed to be done about it! I had nothing better to do (at age eighteen I think this is more respectable than it sounds at forty two!) so I gathered together my very few posessions, which at the time consisted of what I was wearing, a very thin and rather pretty blue blanket and a penny whistle and we set off to hitch-hike to the Isle of Skye.
I had never been to the Isle of Skye, or to Scotland for that matter and had no idea of the distance, mass midge attacks and subzero temperatures involved. Well ok perhaps not sub zero, but it was April.
It is six hundred and fifteen miles from Oxford to The Isle of Skye!!! Skye is in the Highlands of Scotland. Of course I had no idea, in those wonderful pre-internet and pre-mobile phone days, when it was possible to actually have an adventure without leaving the British Isles, I really do think life was way more fun before half of the mystery was taken away by they ‘information super highway’ bring back the misinformation super byways, I would if I could have my way…..
Off we went, I don’t remember the majority of the journey up, except that we stopped somewhere in the North of England to go to a meeting full of earnest and serious young people who actually cared about the Otters on the Island of Eileanban, which the bridge was to cross, famous for the work done there by the late great naturalist Gavin Maxwell. I think there were also economic reasons less interesting to me against the building of the bridge.
Our journey to Skye was funded by busking; me on the penny whistle playing traditional didley dee (folk music) and said gentleman (no I’m not telling you his real name, we’ll call him Bob) Bob juggled fire. Needless to say we didn’t make very much money, just about enough to not starve and to sleep in motorway service station corridors and under the underpass next to the Eilean Donan castle from Highlander! Which was stunningly beautiful and VERY cold, who goes to northern Scotland with only a thin blanket?
Photograph by Tony Hisgett, source:Flikr
I must have slept despite the cold and the very thin blanket, because I remember waking up early the next morning and looking out at the mist over Eilean Donan and being stunned by the beauty of the place. That day we travelled on to the Isle of Skye and went to the protest site, which I remember only because of two things, firstly the midges were so bad that whenever I left the tent where we camped my face was literally covered in a moving carpet of midges which was as bad as it sounds and the next day my face was swollen and sore, just in time to go to a very exciting protest which included a speedboat chase and concluded with a large group of bewildered people, myself included being taken to court and being banned from the Isle of Skye for a year!
At this point in the story my friend ‘Bob’ told me about Galway in Southern Ireland, and the traditional music scene there, I was amazed to discover that there was a live and kicking folk music scene in Ireland and of course jumped at the chance to go there. He said it wasn’t far, seven hundred and seventy five miles as it turns out, there seems to be a bit of a theme here, and so off we hitched. I don’t remember that journey at all, (and really think that I ought to as one could actually hitch onto the ferry back in those days), except for our arrival in Galway where we walked from Galway train station down the tracks, (which was such an ordinary occurrence there that there was a large number of other people doing the same), to Bob’s friends’ house who were away, and there we slept in their extremely cold house, still with my ridiculous thin and pretty blanket. This house would have been fairly unremarkable except for the fact that at night the kitchen literally filled up with huge slugs! So many that you could not walk across the floor without treading on them, they were everywhere, on the table, in the sink and on the walls. I do not like slugs at the best of times, and I certainly do not wish to share a kitchen or a cup of tea with them again.
Galway was very exciting, once I had got over the slug exploits, we did a lot of busking and thoroughly explored the pubs, which to my utter delight were pretty much wall to wall Irish music day and night, there were quite a few nights in fact when we were locked in and woken early the next morning by irritable cleaners with beautiful accents who literally swept us out of the doors.
From Galway we hitched on to the tiny town of Dingle in Kerry, Bob had told me about a Dolphin called Fungie that came into the beach and swam with you. Our lodgings in Dingle were a delightful concrete cow shed in a farmers field, complete with cows and cow shit, and yes, still with my thin and rather useless but pretty blanket. I went swimming with Fungie, which was an incredible experience; I walked onto the beach in my undies and got straight in the sea which is rather cold in April and was rewarded by Fungie who came right up to me and leaned against me. I was the luckiest person there that morning as he stayed away from all the folks in their posh wetsuits, and when I came out of the sea it only took about four hours for me to warm up (still using my rather thin and now not so useless pretty blanket as a towel!).
Fungie the Dolphin by Jodie Halstead (source: Flikr)
Later that day I was busking outside a pub in the village only to discover that Christy Moore was playing a small unpublicized gig there that evening, which we had the very great pleasure of watching through a tiny window around the back.
This little adventure was completed by the amazing good fortune of being offered a lift whilst busking the next day to Wexford. The driver was postering an event around the whole Ring of Kerry and wanted some interesting company, but he got us instead! It was a beautiful drive, the scenery was stunning, his music collection was a feast of traditional folk, he fed us for the entire day and finished it off by putting us up for the night in his rather lovely house and driving us to the ferry port the next day!
From there we hitched on to and strangely into Glastonbury festival, where we met up with our friends from Oxford and I played my penny whistle morning and night and dreamed of that beautiful green Isle.
My most lasting memory of that particular Glastonbury festival, which was in 1993, was of standing outside St Johns church on Glastonbury high street, back when the town was heaving with all the crazy leftover folk from the festival, the church yard filled with music and laughter and I was waiting for my grandma; she pulled up outside St Johns church in a big black car with my Uncle Ernest, they were both wearing their dark glasses and I hopped in and went back to her house for tea and cake and a proper warm bed, I don’t know what happened to that blanket in the end.
I went to live in Galway at the end of that summer. Ah, those were the days when you could travel hundreds of miles without a home, without a phone, without the internet, without a bank account, or any money for that matter, just a tin whistle an heart full of music and adventure and a thin but rather pretty blanket!
I am very glad to say that the Otters of Eileanban are still thriving despite the bridge.
(Penny whistle image by Ishikawa Ken, Flikr).