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Seasons on Harris
Learning the Land
First we had to find an island home. A good place to live.
"I'm still not exactly sure what it was about Clisham Cottage in the village of Ardhasaig on the west coast of Harris, four miles or so north of Tarbert, that made us impulsively pick up the phone in New York and call the MacAskill family, owners of the place.
In front of us on my studio table we had this colorful brochure of self-catering cottages on the island, each with a photograph and listing of key features. The initial entry for Clisham Cottage read: "A superbly appointed cottage in a beautiful coastal position overshadowed by dramatic mountains."
Appealing, of course, but so were the other fifty or so offering such enticements as "Short drive from the cleanest beaches in Europe; a truly secluded traditional Hebridean retreat; thatched black housestyle cottage in breathtaking scenery; a delightful water's edge escape . . ."
We couldn't even remember the village of Ardhasaig from our first visit. Of course, "village" is more of a legal than aesthetic term here. On the islands they tend to be rather straggly, croft-by-croft affairs with none of the cozy cohesion of English equivalents.
Anyway, we called, lured by some indefinable enticement ghosting behind the brief lines in the brochure.
"Hello, good afternoon. This is Dondy MacAskill speakin'. How may I help ye, please?"
Lovely female voice. Mellow, young, musical, and with an enticing Scottish lilt that possessed the mellifluousness of a Robbie Burns poem coupled with the freshness of ocean breezes.Well—that's perhaps overdoing it a bit. But it was certainly a very friendly voice.
"Hello—did you say 'Dondy'?" I kind of mumbled. "I don't think I've heard that name before . . ."
There was a warm chuckle at the other end. "Well, now—it's really Donalda . . . but everyone calls me Dondy. So, how can I help ye?"
"Ah—Donalda . . . that's a new one for me too."
Anne was sitting beside me, giving me one of those "so what's happening?" looks. She's much better focusing on the nub of things. I tend to get distracted by details. Left to my own devices, I'd possibly be prattling on for ages about the weather, or the latest world political scandals, or anything other than the original reason for the call.
"Er . . . oh, I'm sorry. Listen, I was just calling about that cottage of yours—Clisham—and I wondered . . ."
With Anne prompting me by scribbling questions on the notepad by the phone, I finally managed to get a pretty comprehensive overview of what was on offer, cost, availability, and all those other vital details required for intelligent decision making.
Except I'd already made my decision. As soon as I heard Dondy's voice and name. Of course that's not quite the way I put it to Anne when I finally replaced the receiver. "Well," I began in a tone that I hoped suggested careful research and a rational approach to house selection, "I think generally it seems fine. There are three bedrooms . . ."
Anne watched me with that curiously bemused smile of hers that tells me she's way ahead of me and my ramblings.
"You like her, don't you?"
"This . . . person . . . on the other end of the phone."
"Donalda—well actually her name's Dondy—apparently that's what they call her. And . . . yes, well, she sounds nice . . . but that's not the point. She says the views there are fantastic—way across a loch and the Harris mountains . . . and . . ."
"And you've already decided you want it?"
"Why don't you let me finish? Dondy says her father owns a small shop right across the road and—"
"Sounds fine. Let's do it!"
"But darling, I still haven't finished—"
"It's okay," Anne said impatiently, "just book it!"
It's hopeless trying to deal with this kind of dialogue in a rational manner. My wife had already, as she invariably does, perceived the heart of the matter and made the only possible decision under the circumstances.
"Oh . . . okay. If you really think it'll be what you—"
Anne gave me that bemused smile again, along with a big hug, and went off to make a pot of tea.
And so Clisham Cottage was booked, sight unseen, but with all the intuitions intact. Well—my intuitions, at least. And all Anne's feminine intuitions about my intuitions . . . Ah, isn't marriage wonderful?
Clisham Cottage was perfect for us and our occasionally rather lazy dispositions. Anywhere else on the island we'd have to travel miles for staple groceries, newspapers, wine, or anything else necessary in the course of daily life. But here we had it all at the MacAskill store and gas station directly across the road, brimming with island delights as well as all those oh-so-British oddities: mushy peas, treacle sponges, Marmiteand Bovril, HP Sauce, jars of Colman's delicious mint sauce for the Harris lamb we hoped to enjoy, a tempting array of British and Scottish cheeses, home-cured bacon, Branston pickle and pickled onions, kippers (smoked herring), and even tiny Christmas puddings slowly marinated in rum and brown sugar and ready to be served with golden custard and Devon clotted cream. Plus an array of all those seasonal game specialties too, such as local venison, grouse, partridge, salmon, and shellfish.
The cottage itself was perched on a bluff just below the road and contained three good-sized double bedrooms, two elegant bathrooms, and a large L-shaped living room/dining room/kitchen with a broad sweep of windows overlooking that vista we had hoped and prayed for out across the Atlantic (with our own local salmon farm) and that dramatically wild wall of the North Harris hills. A brief glimpse of the land immediately below the cottage suggested merely an overgrown slope rolling down to the loch of . . .Seasons on Harris. Copyright ? by David Yeadon. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.