Locked in on an Outer Hebridean Island

Sweet Cicely

Coronavirus (Covid-19) hit my Outer Hebridean Isle at a time when the days were lengthening, and skylark song had returned. Primroses were popping up in sheltered rock crevices and in few weeks, Islanders might have dared to whisper, ‘Summer is coming.’ Indeed, the heat from the the sun increased, but so did harsh travel restrictions and a whole new concept that of social distancing and wearing masks. Did I really need to drive to my favourite seaweed foraging beach? Hand on heart answer. No, of course not. My local beach ticked the fresh air box, but it didn’t provide the species of seaweed that I like to forage. A conundrum. On an Outer Hebridean Island where everyone knows the strange car on a single-track road, it would have been wrong on so many levels for the local doctor’s wife to drive to take exercise. After a Covid spike on the Isle, last autumn, I’m delighted that Nicola Sturgeon Scotland’s First Minister continues to restrict travel in Scotland. Access to the Outer Hebrides is via ferry so it’s relatively easy to regulate, albeit by requesting that the ferryman acts as a policeman.

The shellfish caught off Uist and Skye in ‘normal times’, is shipped to Europe. To Spain in particular. Lockdown presented a distribution problem. Buying shellfish locally had for me, not been easy. Gifted shellfish is in abundant supply, but if one wants to pay for lobster, langoustine (called prawns on Uist) or crab it isn’t easy. Lockdown opened up a new local market. I was delighted. My foray into experimenting with foraged ingredients and shellfish began. Sweet Cicely is a powerful herb, reminiscent of aniseed but scallops can take a strong hit. The flavours marry well. My seaweed and shellfish culinary adventures were of varied success, from strong green species to mild dried laver (think nori). There are seaweed recipes a plenty here: https://www.amazon.com/Seaweed-Kitchen-English-Fiona-Bird/dp/1909248398 or for more general foraging recipes https://www.amazon.com/Foragers-Kitchen-recipes-savoury-sweet/dp/1908862610

Lobster Watercolour by Freya Petty

I enjoy foraging and use it as an opportunity to slow down and breathe. Foraged ingredients are seasonal by nature and the provenance of an ingredient is assured. I label harvested and dried seaweeds by date and beach. When I open a jar of dried seaweed a host of seaside memories is assured.

I’ve developed a relationship with a fisherman who is happy to sell me shellfish in socially distanced fashion, in the medical practice car park. The fact that we do most of our wheeling and dealing on a Friday seems appropriate on a predominately Catholic Isle. Fish on Friday has became a thing. As the weeks have gone by my Fisherman’s list of customers has dwindled. Indeed, seasonal limitation aside, I now have to pester the fisherman by text, to ensure a delivery.

Isle of South Uist Western Isles

The sea is captivating. For me, it my happy place come rain or shine. There is no such thing as bad weather just a poorly clad forager. A cup of warm tea and tingling face is the forager’s reward when they reach home. An added benefit is that head space equilibrium is restored. When the time is right, the eb and flow of the waves reveals its collection of ocean flowers. Epiphytic, dulse palms glisten red in the sunset, as they hang epiphytically from brown kelp stipes. These seaweeds are only exposed for an hour or two before the tide turns. At this point, the kelp stipes stand to attention with blades afloat and then the seaweed forest submerges underwater, once more.

Sunrise, Isle of South Uist, Western Isles

On a pleasant evening, the sunset sky of my Isle is a myriad of cerulean and azure blues mingled with peach, tangerine, marmalade, cantaloupe orange and violet as it sweeps towards the crystal, clear aquamarines of the sea. Far out at sea the shell fishermen continue the orange theme as they trawl past blushing coral Maerl beds. It’s tempting to choreograph arms and legs to the beat of the waves. Privacy is assured. Anyone can mimic a dancing mermaid. There are no rules.

Lockdown has kept the tourists away and left the Islanders alone with nature. Do I miss the camper van holidaymakers that infuriate as their juggernaut vans grind to a halt on a single-track road, only to take a photograph of a collection of road bound sheep. There are a lot of sheep on my Isle because orchards don’t grow on its rugged, windswept terrain. Sheep multiply and fare better than apple trees. I rarely miss the selfish cyclists who ride four abreast or indeed, wild campers who leave litter evidence of their passing. However, lockdown has prohibited sharing. In spite of being infuriated at times, by the leisurely pace of the tourist, I know that our beautiful Hebridean Islands deserved to be shared. Likewise, its shellfish. The contents of creels should be eaten and enjoyed locally as well as exported to Europe. Hebrideans, like the Spaniards, can appreciate the delicacy of Hebridean velvet crab, but will they?