Rock Of Ages
Continued (page 2 of 2)
As the taxi nears Harris, just beyond its sibling, Lewis, the terrain grows mountainous, moon-like, before the sun, the sea and the horizon crash into each other and light the sky. Norrie, a friend by this time, pulls over before the final turn, just for a minute.
"I go long periods without believing in much of anything," he says softly, "but every time I see Harris from here, I'm renewed. I have a soul again."
It's a nine-hole course in a setting as lovely as—no, lovelier than—Pebble Beach. Except good drives leave only punch shots of maybe 50 yards to shaggy-carpet greens that almost can't be three-putted. Hugh MacLean, a past captain, and Billy Scott, the current superintendent, are genial playing partners for the short round. "Not everyone can live on an island," Billy says, "but I can. I haven't locked my door in 32 years."
The next ferry, Leverburgh to Berneray, is timed perfectly to catch a crowded bus for a two-hour ride the length of North Uist, across Benbecula and finally the length of South Uist, islands connected by small causeways. The finish line is the Borrodale Hotel at Daliburgh junction, near the Askernish Golf Club.
It began as an Old Tom Morris links some 120 years ago, but the Askernish that has evolved is a rawer, rougher, more natural, more majestic, more magical place than even the most famous links on the mainland, Morris' included. Askernish is a Highland cow with hair in its eyes standing next to Herefords and Guernseys.
The club chairman and major domo is an outsized, outgoing man named Ralph Thompson who also answers to Liar-in-Chief "because," as he says, "until they come here and see for themselves, nobody believes a single word I say."
On a breezy afternoon, under a boiling sky, next to a turgid sea, Thompson and another man never make it past the 11th tee, 191 yards. They just stand there all day laughing, hitting 5-wood shots until every one of their golf balls is lost.
Last stop: Barra. The Eriskay ferry terminal hasn't yet opened. "Just lean your golf clubs against the building," Thompson says, "and we'll go get something to drink—I mean, eat. Don't worry. No one will touch them." As Billy Scott had implied at Harris, there are no thieves on islands.
Joe Macleod, owner of the five-room Heathbank Hotel, meets the Barra ferry and, the following morning, conducts a tour of the nine-hole Barra Golf Club. Built on common grazing land, its greens are fitted with wire corrals to fence out the milling cattle and sheep. A rook flies over (a glossy blackbird with a croaky singing voice, like Rod Stewart's) with what appears to be a golf ball lodged in its beak.
"Did you see that?" Macleod asks.
"I'm not going to tell you if you didn't see it," he says, "because you won't believe me."
A few minutes later, the bird returns empty-beaked. Then, a little while after that, it comes sailing back in the original direction with another ball.
OK, what's the story?
"He does that all day long," Macleod says, laughing, "searching for lost golf balls in the rough. If we could follow him home, we'd probably find a Titleist mountain. [As a matter of fact, the 318-yard, par-4 fourth hole is called Cnoc an Fhithich—which means Raven Hill.] The weird part is that my wife's family are The Crows. That's their Gaelic nickname, anyway. Every time I see him scavenging, I wonder if he's related to my brother-in-law."
The airplane that takes off from the Barra beach, bound for Glasgow, is a 19-seater, about the size of the ship Hugh Conway—"Glory" Conway—boarded in Baskul expecting to go to Peshawar but ending up in Shangri-La. The mood is similar, too.
"And if you have to get out in a hurry," says Trudy, the first officer, "pull the lever marked LIFT." Presumably she means while the plane is on the ground. With seashells crackling under the wheels, it starts out slowly on the dry sand, then speeds up gradually on the wet sand where, the night before, children with rakes and pails dug for cockles. Finally the plane springs into the sky over the ocean and the trip is done.