It begins in what people from more elevated backgrounds than your own might name a ‘boot room’, what estate agents term a ‘utility room’, but which you call Wegg’s Garage, after a real-live garage owned by Wegg, a famously eccentric former ghillie and B&B operator in South Uist. Your Wegg’s Garage is a kind of ‘dirty kitchen’ – the place where you feed the dogs; the repository for dripping bog-laden outdoor clothes and shit-covered wellies (you do, after all, live on a croft: shit is entirely de rigeur). Oh – and, like the original Wegg’s garage, it provides occasional storage for the odd fishing rod, waders and net in-season.
In Wegg’s Garage you listen to the howling wind and violent hailstones outside and begin to pull on a ridiculous amount of clothing. By the time you’ve finished, as well as your underwear, you have on approximately five layers: a thermal vest, a thin sweater, a thicker cardigan, a fleece waistcoat (well, let’s not exaggerate – the latter only occasionally) and a raincoat. You prefer Paramo because it doesn’t rattle like Goretex or turn to cardboard in salty rainy windy conditions, and it’s soft and light and flexible. It’s dark brown so you don’t stick out like some ridiculous beacon (or tourist) on the headland. The overtrousers (dark green) are Paramo too, though after a mere year of use they’re already beginning to come apart at the inner seams around the knee due to salty friction around the top of your wellies. You put on wellies rather than boots because there are bogs and streams where you’re going, and you want to be able to step in them without fear of a boot full of wet peat which, whatever you do to remove it, will inevitably set like concrete. You put a fleecy hat on to keep the hood of your jacket tight so it won’t blow off in the wind, and a pair of waterproof gloves.
When you open the door even the dogs think twice. But they’re croft dogs, and after a brief moment of hesitation they leap over the threshold and lead you through the morning routine: first you feed the cow, then you check on the hens, then you battle your way out of the front gate, which is a large galvanised farm gate with an extra bit on top to bring it up to a level with the deer fence, and so requires every bit of your strength to open, hold and then close it against the strong westerly wind.
The wind is full in your face as you fight your way down the track towards the headland. You stagger, you’re knocked back, but you’ve learned a few tricks about walking into wind over the years; the most important of them is to walk like an old country gentleman, with your hands clasped behind your back: it streamlines you. The dogs, inherently streamlined, think little of it. When the hail shower comes you turn and walk slowly backwards until it has passed; you know the track well enough by now – where the potholes are, where the hard core has given way to pure mud.
On the wide open headland you fight to stay upright. The dogs are running round in circles – the stronger the wind, the more fun they seem to have. A couple of seagulls, determined to make it to the shore, are hard-pressed to make any progress at all; something which looks likely to be the first golden plover of the year flaps past you at an astonishing speed, the wind at its tail.
You plod through mud, flailing around like a mad woman. Two steps forward, one back. The black plastic toggle on the end of the cord that keeps your hood pulled tight around your face whips into your eye and almost takes it out. Eventually you make it to your favourite spot – the gently raised ground right by the rocky shore from which you have a panoramic view of the surrounding landscape. To the east, Mealasbhal, Lewis’s highest mountain, has scatterings of white on its upper slopes. South, the mountains of Harris are half-hidden in the mist of the sea-spray; Scarp is black and ominous. Out west, the idea that there is a St Kilda or anything remotely resembling it in the depths of that Payne’s-Gray gloom is gloriously laughable. The sea is pounding onto the rocks, splitting open the geos, having a wonderful time. To the north, the slowly rising headland, the cairn that marks the highest point silhouetted against the sky. And back to the east, the place from which we came, full circle.
The dogs have done their rounds; that’s as far as you’ll get this morning. You turn back for home, wind at your back, trying not to run as it pushes you along – the ground is too slippery for that, after four months of rain. No sign yet of life out here, though the crocuses in the sheltered spots of your garden are blooming and the ever-present starlings are unperturbed by the weather. Out here, it’s different; out here, there’s nowhere to hide. Even the thuggish gang of stags that normally patrols the headland at this time of year is sheltering somewhere else right now, and your sheep are tucked in the lee of a hill back over to the east.
And so, onwards: home, through another hail shower, face stinging with cold and salt. By the time you get back to the gate you have removed at least one layer, the hat is stuffed in your pocket, the jacket is unzipped, and the cardigan swings open (you are, after all, gloriously menopausal). In a final moment of madness you shrug off your hood and your hair whips in Medusa strands around your face as you struggle for the second time to open and close the gate without it knocking you off your feet. Latch in place, dogs inside, you stagger round the corner to the back door.
It ends as it began, in Wegg’s Garage, towelling off peaty dogs and draping your soaking wet outdoor gear over the sheila-maid. It ends when your husband asks you, without a drop of irony, because he too knows, Was that nice? It ends when you laugh out loud and say Yes.
Breathe; you are alive.