Across the valley from us, a giantess sleeps. She lies on her back with her face to the sky, aware only of the sun and moon, she is oblivious to our gaze and the tread of those who walk upon her. On all sides, smaller giants huddled around us, 'false men' who have stood here for centuries. We stand in the centre of the Callanish Stones, their stark silhouette sits like a jaw bone atop a steep-banked hill. The Hebrides is a land steeped in mysticism and as the early morning light rakes across Cailleach na Mointeach (Sleeping Beauty Mountain), animating great lumps of rock intro striking facial features, we understand why.
Words and photography by Alex Turner | @alexcarlturner
We are here in The Hebrides to walk, to hopscotch between the Inner and Outer Hebrides of Skye, Lewis and Harris. The tramping is tough, but as we walk between mountain passes and navigate exposed cliff edges, we are changed by this landscape. We weave past great shards of rock rearing from the ground at impossible angles, like a snaggle-tooth.
The land enters our imagination and characters awaken with animating stories we didn’t know we had. They play themselves out as we walk.
Stories for thousands of years have accumulated around these Islands - like mists to a peak. This is partly a result of a rich bardic tradition, from well into the 18th century, as well as a response to the beauty and sheer scale of the environment. For many centuries these myths were possessed by a deep cultural power and described a way of perceiving the world - particular to these far-flung Gaelic outliers. As Elizabeth Grant wrote in the eighteen hundreds, "Our mountains were full of fairy legends, old clan tales, forebodings, prophecies, and other superstitions, quite as much beloved as the Bible". Drained of their power by modern discourse, these fables begin to once again echo through the crags and crevices as the road we leave behind is out of sight. Perhaps the stories that conjure themselves are a natural product of the interaction between people and landscape, or perhaps they are whispers from the land, which seeps into us like oak into whisky, only audible when given the space to be heard.
The day's walking is planned around arriving at our place of rest in time for sun-down. Our best nights are spent in stone bothies, perched on cliffs above waves that crash beneath us. Darkness is illuminated only by light from the fire and an odd candle that gives us time to reflect. During the day, whole hours passed without a word between us, idle talk seems a distraction from the sublime that surrounds us. We compare stories that we considered along the way. The same rock formations prompt stories that match for some and differ for others.
These commonalities of our imaginations provoke the question, "to what extent are we creating these stories?", or are we channelling a latent power, like lightning rods in slow motion?
After almost a month here, there is one story about the creation of these islands that (faith aside) is easily possible to see the basis of:
God made the whole of the world in seven days but was dissatisfied to not yet demonstrate the beauty in His mind. On the 8th day, God took up a handful of jewels and cast them through a window in the sky. They landed in the Atlantic sea, separated from the Scottish mainland by a narrow stretch of water, which came to be known as the Hebrides, the most beautiful lands in all the world.
We came here to walk and had no idea that the landscape and its stories would be so affecting. We open ourselves as we stride out into an unknown land, in doing so we open our eyes, ears and imaginations to a culture and history that will forever change the landscape of our comprehension. Who knew such deep thoughts could leave such significant blisters.