Balnakeil was built in the 50s to serve as an early warning station in the event of a nuclear attack. It consisted of 20 or so modest huts; soldiers’ barracks, each with its own small water tower. The military abandoned it in 1964. There was no attack, but it was at risk of destruction until a community of artists moved in and settled there. The artists survived by selling artefacts to visitors who sometimes came by the coachload. So it became a post-Cold War craft village.
I wanted to tell Rupa about my groundless fear of the dark, damp hole the previous day. Rupa was covering for the artist Ishbel McDonald. I found her place but there was nobody home. So I popped next door to a hut with reflective mosaic tiles stuck like crazy paving on the walls. There was an older lady spinning yarn. I wandered in. It was her front room not an open studio. And although I’d rudely interrupted her at work, and intruded into her space, she smiled kindly and beckoned me in.
I’d stumbled in on the past. Her name was Noelle Bosa. She was like a character from an old fairy tale: weaving her magic, turning loose strands into rugs and jumpers on a wonderful old wooden loom. We had a nice long chat. She’d settled there years ago, ‘up from England’. My English accent was the first she’d heard in some time. After a while I thought I’d better let her get on with her work. I looked back after closing the front door. Her was head bent low; she was totally engrossed in her work, a benign queen spider spinning her web. I envied her calm, simple life. But I was sure she’d experienced a good few interesting twists and turns in her younger days.
There was still no sign of Rupa. But a young woman was looking after the hut. She showed me around. Ishbel’s work was strong and expressive. I loved an original of crashing surf, a seabird gliding elegantly just above the waves almost disappearing in the swell. You could feel the ocean spray against your skin. I resisted the temptation to dive in and buy it. Instead I dipped in my pocket and bought the postcard version for £2.50.
That evening I headed back down to the Sango Oasis with Colin, a cyclist I’d met that morning at breakfast. We’d had a good long chat comparing stories and sharing travel tips. He was also heading to Cape Wrath, on a break from work and writing up his trip for simonseeks.com, a travel review website. He was earnest and thoughtful; good company – younger, fitter and smarter than me.
On the way back, I stopped off to get web access in a tiny self-contained room in someone’s house. I felt like I was intruding for the second time that day. I popped my money in the slot and started writing about the day before I forgot the nitty gritty details.
When I left it was after 11pm but still quite light. I felt exuberant. It’d been another great day. Perhaps simple pleasures don’t make a great story: but the beach was special and unexpected, the walk was bracing, life-affirming even, and Balnakeil was truly inspiring. The next day, Colin and I were going to try and get over to Cape Wrath again. The wind would decide whether we’d make it or not.
Cape Wrath, 21/24