Rhenigidale is a village on the east coast of Harris. When I first went there in 1982, it was only accessible by a coastal path, six miles winding precariously close to the ledges and eroded gullies above steep cliffs.
Chronically short of money, perhaps I went because the hostel was notoriously cheap. And remote. I’d had some strange childhood dream of going west, following the sun, living like a monk away from humankind, and I was always drawn to Harris. Something about the remoteness, and the tragic beauty (generations of emigrants, invaders, scorched earth policies, people alienated from the land), and the moving stories of selkies, otters, eagles. Then there was the fact that I was, as an early adolescent, going through a total immersion into Christian purification. Typical enough in Scotland at the time: I knew enough about the old religions to feel regret that they’d been trampled under the dour boot of the ‘wee Frees’, but the latter intrigued me. Total dedication and listening with every fibre to the word of God while stripping away any representation so that no image could form: it was, paradoxically, almost buddhist in its intensity. I read Joyce’s Ullysses – perhaps I felt an exile, even then – and the Aenead, and met an American artist who made sketches of the mountain behind. Two local fishermen kindly took us out in their boats but shot a seal while we were at their salmon cages. We drank too much and you can imagine the rest.
I went back a couple of times, first, in 1986, with a boyfriend, walking along the track where the new road was to come in. I could completely understand that the romance of the place was fine for foreigners but if you lived there, it was a grim price to pay. Poverty is relative, so is happiness, and being locked into a nineteenth century idyll for the sake of a few tourists hardly justified the hardships endured by the villagers. Nevertheless, it was agony to see the deep cut through pristine moorland and the telegraph poles marking with an engineer’s hardnosed analysis an unavoidable slice through the landscape that had, before, been without scale.
Is it possible for people to live in isolation while the world whirls? There are plenty of examples, voluntary and involuntary. Children in Austrian cellars. The Amish. The people of Rhenigidale didn’t choose the geographical anomaly of their village, though. They were accidental remnants (there were only about six people living there when I first went) of a much larger settlement, most of whom had moved to Skye when the government-sponsored programme to offer land there materialised. The original villagers of Rhenigidale had, themselves, been moved from other villages as landlords decided that their original settlements occupied land that could be better used for sheep-grazing, or sport.
The path wound dangerously and the bridge that has since been built to straddle a deep gully didn’t exist on my first visit. I was on my own, in my late teens, fast becoming disillusioned at the rush and waste of humanity’s direction. It was a blessed relief to be in that place that was like a refuge. But it wasn’t particularly safe (I was a young girl, and all my companions were male – it was a vulnerable situation to be in) and nor was the old bond between countryman and the land or sea particularly evident. No doubt it was there – but there was a determination to overcome, rather than live along with, the challenges that the place brought.
Living on the edge now, in a fairly remote place and with minimal income, I’m struck by how easy it is to judge the activities or inactivities of those who occupy these regions. I’m hugely dependent on the internet, on private road transport, on being able to sort out whatever illnesses I or my children have on my own, on growing as much food as we can for the simple reason that we need to save whatever money we can for other essentials, like electricity. It is easy for someone to come here and ask why I have not done more to beautify the place, why the house is not fully painted, why the garden is overgrown, except around the veg patch, but living so close to the edge requires compromises that you would not believe you had to make if you were living more comfortably.
I’ve no regrets about my time in Rhenigidale or in Harris, or in Grimestra, on Lewis, where I worked as a river warden. The landscapes drew me in and embraced me for the inconsequential blip I am, gave me a sense of myself as someone whose ancestors could well have come down through those islands from further north. It’s a resonant place.
I never did find out what Rhenigidale means. I’d love someone to tell me. Names are impositions and at the same time, reveal something of the way that the place has been held symbolically in the local imagination.