Getting to Benbecula

Trials and tribulations on the road to the Outer Hebrides.

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1. Essay

I had never heard of the Megabus before.

It turns out to be the cheapest way to get between the big cities in the UK. My ticket fare from London to Edinburgh was £9.00. My coach fare from Bournemouth to London had been double that.

The Megabus is cheap because the Megabus does not stop. A brief haul into some lonely car park to change drivers is the only interruption in ten straight hours sitting upright on a crowded, noisy and very smelly coach, with a stranger snoring on your shoulder and a feeling that Sartre was right and hell really is other people. Or rather, hell is you and other people stuffed into a rank tin box on wheels for longer than it takes to fly from London to New York. The Megabus is how students travel, and those non-students who are increasingly feeling the bite of the recession.

 

I missed my car. My lovely car, which had failed its MOT and consequently set me adrift in the world of public transport. But it was pointless moping about it – even if I still had my own transport, there was nowhere at the airport to park a car for a month without incurring huge cost.

Courtesy of the St Kilda Mouse Project, I had a ‘plane ticket from Edinburgh to Benbecula (which I had also never heard of (Benbecula that is, not Edinburgh)) and from there I was going on by helicopter to St Kilda (of which I had heard a lot). The prospect of not only visiting one of the remotest places in Britain, but actually living there for a month doing field research, was my beacon of light that kept me going through the sleepless night hours. I was even thankful to be awake as we passed Newcastle because I saw for the first time, Antony Gormley’s sculpture, the Angel of the North. Billows of mist faintly illuminated by streetlights swirled around its knees, and its outstretched wings were a dense black against the night sky.

 

The Megabus finally sighed to a halt and disgorged us into the crisp cold early hours of an Edinburgh morning. It felt like emerging from a chrysalis; like finding the way out of a dark, dank cave; like finally breathing again.

Sitting in a taxi bound for the airport, I could still smell the Megabus. A stale sourness clung to my clothes like smoke: that all-pervading aroma encountered in seedy pubs and council block stairwells. A coach has to stand still to be cleaned, so I presume the Megabuses only make money when they are moving. The smell however, was soon to be driven from my mind (if not my body) by more sudden and pressing matters.

 

As the sun rose over Edinburgh Airport, I trotted out across the apron to scramble aboard the small jet that was to take me to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis. From there, I would get a connecting flight down to Benbecula, a small, flat island positioned like a boxing referee between North and South Uist.

The air steward was Martine McCutcheon but she inexplicably introduced herself as Kirsty. However, there was no time to ask why because the moment everyone was seated the enthusiastic pilot gunned the engines, caned the aircraft down the runway and flung it into the sky like a stone from a catapult, where it bounced about like a cocktail shaker.

Not a good flyer at the best of times, I frantically worked my jaw up and down to relieve pressure in my ears, certain that if I let my ears pop amidst the thunderous noise and vibrations, my entire head would explode. I must have looked like a gasping goldfish, especially as my eyes were locked open in shock, as if I had botoxed my forehead.

 

The connecting flight was even more entertaining. This time the air steward was Julianne Moore (seriously! Red hair, fine bone structure, everything!), but she inexplicably introduced herself as Libby.

I had the front seat on this flight, which meant I was practically knee-to-knee with Juilanne/Libby but there was too much noise during the furious ascent to ask about upcoming film projects. I was also worried that if I tried to speak I would deposit all my internal organs in her lap, which would be a terrible faux pas.

We popped out of the clouds and levelled out for a few smooth, glorious seconds, in which I noticed duct tape on the wing and then shrieked as white-hot sunlight seared my eyeballs. Oh my god, oh my god, I can’t see anything! There’s duct tape holding the plane together and the pilot is playing Icarus with the sun!

A moment later we dropped like a stone towards Benbecula and I recovered enough vision in my gritty, bloodshot eyes, to see peat bogs stretching out below us, flayed from peat cutting, like some crazed serial killer had set about them.

 

Retrieving my rucksack from baggage claim, after finally unclenching my hands enough to let go of the armrests and disembark the ‘plane, I noticed it was more than a little damp and wondered if they had left the cargo hold door open. I shrugged and decided to be thankful it was there at all and not sinking into the Little Minch with puzzled fish nibbling at it.

 

Iain, the taxi driver, obviously thought I had not been thrown around inside enough vehicles yet and was anxious to remedy that.  We shot out of Ballivanich down the narrow lanes at what felt like Mach 10.

Benbecula is very flat, with no hedges. Drivers can always see what’s coming so they travel at breakneck speeds and slam on the brakes at the last moment. Oncoming drivers wave with jollity, unfazed by the narrow misses.

Iain gestured at Lews Castle College on our right, weaving all over the wet road as he proudly told me about the swimming pool and library that are open till 9pm for anyone to use.

Once checked in at the B&B in Liniclate, I fell on the bed like a wind-flattened scarecrow and woke up two hours later in a puddle of drool.

Hauling myself out in the afternoon, in search of food, I walked down to the Dark Island Hotel by the college. A mammoth wind turbine stood behind it near the dunes. I walked over and stood beneath it to take a photo, hoping the monster blades thumping the air like a Norse god above my head, weren’t also held together with duct tape.

 

I climbed the dunes to look out in the direction of St Kilda and felt the full force of the gale pounding in off the North Atlantic.

Grubby, exhausted and still smelling of the Megabus, I raised my arms like the Angel of the North and let the furious wind scour me clean.

 

Trudi Clarke, 2013

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