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Spring, and the air is filled with promise. The ferry docks to an island bathed in twilight, a precursor to summer days that will last nearly all night. It’s cold and still, the sky expansive like a dome of spattered light. Shining whitewater grumbles over boulders at a nearby reef.
I message Colin Macleod, and we agree to meet early the next morning. “I’ll be up with the sheep anyway,” he says. Ice on the inside of my van windows does little to dampen my spirit.
The Hebrides have always captivated me. This archipelago to the northwest of the Scottish mainland is home to some of the oldest evidence of human occupation in Britain, but remains sparsely populated and wild. The Isle of Lewis, where Macleod lives, is the largest and most northerly island in the Outer Hebrides. Although it’s connected to the Isle of Harris below, the two islands have always been considered distinct and separate. They are exposed on nearly every coastline to the full force of Atlantic swells, and from a surfer’s perspective they tease the potential for an ideal life. I breeze in when wind and swell align, steal a few moments, and wonder if I could make it last. I don’t know if the life I picture is real or imagined.
Macleod seems to have a dream life: a music career without too many commitments, access to quality waves, and land and livestock on the island where he belongs. But it also seems an improbable existence to have one foot in the music industry and the other in the field.
I’d seen him in the water before, in promos for the clothing company Finisterre and as the subject of a BBC documentary. I wasn’t sure what to make of him. I presumed a musician from a small island who had been signed to a major label at an early age and toured with Robert Plant, Van Morrison, and Sheryl Crow would be unavoidably burdened with the big fish, small pond mentality. But he didn’t project like a rock star. He drove a rusting white Toyota HiAce to the beach and wore Wellington boots flecked with sheep shit. His online persona was muted, as if self-promotion were slightly painful. His border collie, Sparky, seemed to provide a useful foil to deflect attention. He posted little about surfing, despite the fact that he surfed well. I felt sure other artists would leverage this in their image.
We meet at a grassy outcrop that teeters on the edge of falling into the sea. Macleod is waiting in a silver VW Transporter, facing east into the rising sun and watching empty right-handers unfold over a reef. He’s dressed as I’ll come to expect: a checked, heavy woolen shirt, tracksuit bottoms tucked into socks, and substantial boots. It’s a look with little need for maintenance. There are no rock-star-like affectations except a pair of Ray-Bans—Wayfarers, all black—or the way he tilts his head to remove unfussy dark hair from his eyes with one hand. In his speech, there’s a quiet balance of cadence and the lilting musicality of the Lewis accent. It makes me feel like I’m shouting unnecessarily, or talking too much. It seems appropriate. This is a place for listening.
We trade glassy, gin-clear waves in the morning sun with no one else around. Macleod remarks that all interviews should be conducted like this. I pitch some questions, but in silent accord we interrupt each other by paddling for waves impossible to ignore. I’m left wondering just how often these moments pass in the islands with no one to appreciate them.
Post-surf, we go back to his croft, a traditional, single-story cottage with white pebble-dashed walls and an agricultural shed of concrete and green-painted steel.
Crofting is an ancient form of subsistence farming in Scotland. Each crofter is the tenant of a portion of land for planting crops or raising livestock. In the Hebrides, this land tends to be long, narrow fields with a broadly uniform width often stretching from the dwelling house to the sea. Macleod’s is the same. Sheep-bitten fields tumble to the beach, spliced by a small stream. On good days he can see swell lines marching toward a scatter of reefs on the other side of the peninsula.
We walk down the field to check his last pregnant ewe. Monitoring the sheep is his main concern this time of year. Music commitments are placed to the side. It’s a precarious time, and not all lambs will survive. Some will die of complications during birth, some will succumb to weather, and some will be rejected by mothers unable to feed them. More might have their eyes pecked out by crows, or, on rare occasions, be taken by sea eagles. But so far this year, Macleod has lost none. The lambs are to be sold after four to five months, fetching a modest 50 to 100 pounds each at market. The majority of the money goes back into caring for them. He’s lucky to break even. Crofting isn’t an aspirational life, unless the pleasure is in the work.
Back at the house, Macleod makes coffee. There are dishes in the sink, a freebie calendar from a Chinese restaurant on the wall, and some kind of animal hair in my mug. Cat, dog, sheep—take your pick. We sit outside in the sunshine, backs against the house wall, Macleod on an upturned fish box. Sparky and a younger collie are tied up in front of the shed. There is a pile of peat, cut and roughly stacked, at the bottom of the garden. Then there’s fields, and then just sparkling sea.
There are no clues that this is the home of an accomplished musician, no instruments lying around or monuments to success. He’ll answer questions about music, but never instigate them. It’s like his identities are kept separate, or perhaps at arm’s length. Life as a crofter is as much of a contradiction to the life of a touring musician as there could possibly be.
His latest album, Hold Fast, is on the way to general release. It’s semi-autobiographical, he tells me. But, in typical islander fashion, it’s a narrative concept he’s not inclined to push. The lyrics reflect the dialogue of Lewis, spoken and unspoken, with the island a fulcrum for a portrait of his experiences. It’s hard to separate the man from the place. He tells me an early review was critical of lyrics that sounded clichéd or plain. “Good,” he says. “This is a plain-speaking place. There’s no point speaking in metaphor; it wouldn’t be an authentic representation of who we are.”
The island is a place of stillness. Macleod seems molded by it. He jokes that his dad recently chastised him for being “such an old man.” His haunting duet with Sheryl Crow, “Old Soul,” seems an ode to this sense that contemplation and quiet have always come more naturally, and perhaps recognition that an urbanized life was never going to suit him.
A jet-black cat with acid-yellow eyes glides around the corner of the house, the kind of cat that doesn’t look altogether tame. Macleod says it killed all his mum’s chickens: “I offered her a lamb as payment, but she wasn’t having it.”
It’s hard not to get wrapped up in this island, in the dream of an uncomplicated life based on the simple pleasures of connection to sea and land. Arriving here you might feel, as I inevitably do, a sense of peace, settling like gossamer on a breeze.
In certain moments, there’s a quality of light and silence that feels ethereal. At night, the darkness is absolute, the skies so immersive it feels like you might be on the edge of the world, tilting into space.
But Lewis is best appreciated in fair weather. Its appeals as a holiday destination—remoteness, isolation, a simplified existence—cast the longest shadows in winter. It’s relatively flat, has almost no trees, and is scoured by gale-force winds. Pristine white beaches and neolithic standing stones are juxtaposed with rusting carcasses of machinery and tumbling bricks of abandoned croft houses. Presbyterianism has held its grip in the Hebrides far longer than other parts of Scotland. There’s an aging population, still with its fair share of religious zealots, and this faith abuts problems common to remote communities in Northern Europe: alcohol dependency, rejection of culture, rates of suicide above the national average, and a general lack of hope.
Hebridean populations are in free-fall. Most young people leave by choice, in search of work, excitement, or just greener grass. Few come back, and those who want to stay find it difficult to buy homes. Today the land is returning to ownership by absentee landlords like the Highland Clearances of the eighteenth century, when people were evicted to make way for livestock. Houses all over the Hebrides have become holiday accomodations, driving prices beyond the reach of most locals.
Macleod remembers being lectured by teachers about the lack of a future on Lewis. Yet these communities are now in the hands of people like him, who make a conscious effort to stay while still young enough to imagine a future they were told wasn’t possible.
Later that day, we surf a wave I’d heard of, but only half-believed. All hint of morning frost is gone. The day is bright and warmed. Before paddling out, I walk my dog, tracing the fence line where the fields end and the beach begins. Huge chunks of the land have fallen to the shore, and a cornice of earth has been carved by pounding seas. The fence tumbles over the edge where the soil that once held the posts has been eaten away. It’s a brutal image of decay and impermanence, made stark by the contrast of promising waves and glittering ocean on the other side.
I’ve been swept off my feet by the island as usual. And, as usual, I’m consumed by questions about whether I could make a life here too.
In the following days, I’m haunted by this idea. I visit the Bridge to Nowhere, built by Lord Leverhulme, the former owner of Lewis. It was an ambitious and expensive project that promised to link up the communities of Tolsta and Ness, bringing work and opportunity for islanders. But the road was never built, and so the grand bridge leads only to pathless, desolate moor, a monument to half-imagined things and unfulfilled promise.
I leave the island with more questions. A dream life might exist here, but I wonder if it’s worth the endurance. I listen to Macleod’s new album. His lyrics are drifting, ambiguous, the ghosts of answers.
I return to Lewis as summer is ending, arriving to a gray, windy island with warmth in the air and a smir of welcome rain. An exceptionally dry summer has left rivers at a trickle and salmon stranded at sea. Macleod’s identity at this time of year is not musician or crofter or surfer, but fisherman and ghillie.
There’s an old green bus parked on the point overlooking the mouth of a stream where the salmon return. It’s used by the owners of Barvas Estate as a watchman’s hut to deter poachers and has been here so long that the wave in front is named after it. Macleod has sat here at summer’s end for 11 years and counting, wide awake through endless nights, watching salmon come back in search of the pools of their birth.
He meets me wearing his standard outfit. I notice him taking a tab off his wetsuit before he gets changed. “New suit?” I ask.
“No, I’ve had it for three years,” he replies, laughing.
He never seems in a hurry. His passions fall in line with this lightness of manner: fly-fishing, songwriting, longboarding, photography. All require slowing down, contemplation, appreciation of detail.
That night, the darkness is silent and thick, the air still and warm. Midges persist, but we sit by my van and drink whisky in spite of them. I’m shocked to hear the lambing took a bad turn after I left in spring. Five lambs were lost and three ewes, including the remaining pregnant one. I ask what happened. “That’s just the way it goes sometimes,” Macleod reasons.
I ask him about the strangeness of traversing two worlds, crofter and musician. How do you go from the barn with lamb’s blood and sheep feed to smiling for the camera thousands of miles away and getting makeup done for The Late Late Show, then back again? It’s easy to look at anyone’s life as weird, he says. He gets that perception of him, but doesn’t really think about it. Anyway, he concludes with typical islander succinctness, “Everyone’s the same after a few drinks, aren’t they?”
We talk about salmon fishing and surfing, about how alike they are. In varying degrees over time, Macleod’s life has been dedicated to both. He can discern details about a salmon’s life just from the look of the fish. He spends whole days tying flies. He even writes a column for a fly-fishing magazine. The prestige element of salmon fishing is antithetical to his self-described “dirtbag fishing.” He talks of the bliss at wading among the kelp at one o’clock in the morning on still summer nights.
He sees surfing and fishing as childlike pursuits, about chasing something for the sheer joy of it. They’re just what you do. “Did you get from A to B? Did you have fun?” he says, shrugging. “You’re surfing.” They’re ephemeral things, and he doesn’t want to overthink them. That’s how they begin to spoil. “My head turns to mush when I try to think about why I fish for salmon. I hate trying to examine what’s good about fishing or surfing,” he says. “Some things are just frivolous and pointless, and that’s okay.”
I wander over to the bus one evening, carrying a whisky bottle in the twilight. Sparky comes to meet me, trotting alongside like an escort. A beat-up truck I don’t recognize is parked askew on the grass, along with Macleod’s van.
Halfway up the bus steps I give a hesitant hello, suddenly uncertain in the gathering darkness. Macleod’s seated with beer in hand, but gives a muted greeting. Another man is between us, a ghillie with an earthy robustness and hard-looking hands, leaning so that he is only half turned toward me. I’m not introduced. The conversation is punctuated by long periods of silence. We fixate on salmon jumping in the deep pool that splices sea and river. I imagine Macleod and this man are used to the silence of each other’s company, and here I am, interloper, non-islander, trapped halfway up the steps of the bus. I sense the conflict, Macleod’s embarrassment at the collision of two worlds. What’s he supposed to say? “This is Jamie, and he’s here to write about me.” There’s no room for hubris in this place, no weight in celebrity.
Eventually, his friend says I “might as well sit down,” warms a bit, then leaves shortly after. The inside of the bus is basic. A camping stove is used to heat water that comes from a white plastic container. There is a portable gas heater that does its job. A section at the back has been partitioned with thin wooden sheeting where some bedding materials are strewn. Sparky slinks by at some point before disappearing into the dark recess and not coming out again.
We sit watching moonlight glance on leaping fish. I can barely see Macleod anymore, even though he’s just 5 feet away. It feels strikingly peaceful. It’s easy to see how he wrote an entire album here alone. Whether it’s the darkness or the place, or both, he opens up about the origins of his music career.
In the brazenness of youth, he never considered that he wouldn’t make it, despite the million-to-one shot of emerging from this place. He was signed to Universal Publishing when he was just 20, part of a core group of new artists on the label that included Adele and were charged with high expectations. Except he never realized this, or recognized the pressures that might come with it. He moved to London overnight, staying for three years before coming home to Lewis. Burnt out by the scene, he didn’t pick up a guitar for two years. Ironically, this distance led to a more successful reiteration of his music career. Today he has a manager, an agent (who signed Black Sabbath and is still responsible for Led Zeppelin, Lenny Kravitz, and Rage Against the Machine), people who handle radio and TV commitments, and a social-media team. Yet he’s still sitting in an old bus with his dog, watching salmon.
“I bet Lenny Kravitz isn’t doing this,” he says, laughing quietly.
Maybe he’s found something in the dark contemplation of this bus, watching the seasons and the life cycles of fish, learning the value in periodic isolation, the silence. He’s tuned into the ebb and flow of nature in a way most of us never stop long enough to get close to.
He sits back and puts his hands behind his head, tilting it toward the blackness of the roof.
“I haven’t talked about any of that in years. In fact, I haven’t really thought about it.”
I don’t see Macleod again after this, understanding that the remaining questions I have about this place are mine to answer, not his. I spend my final two days camped out on a cliff, watching the tide and swell rise and fall, studying the sandbanks. Marram grass tips gently away from light offshores, and diving gannets are made luminous by morning sun. A steel-edged horizon is unscathed by even passing ships. A small creel boat occasionally pootles by, and I wonder what a life that would be. Rain showers come, as rain showers do, but they are light and warm. I shuttle between the sea and the van and feel like I could stay forever.
But then a walk along the coast is halted by rusting remains rising from graven earth as if gasping for air. Another walk over serene, endless dunes is ambushed by bright-edged metal and ragged glass poking through the sand. The detritus of people once cocooned by pristine sand, wildflowers, and rabbit-bitten cliff tops, now exposed by raw, clean swells. Nothing is perfect forever, and everything comes back to the surface.
It’s not all wildflowers on the machair and gin-clear waves at sunset. I know that, but still I’m drawn to wonder. I tell myself I could stand the long, dark winters and brutal winds, that I wouldn’t miss the connections to friends and relatives on the mainland. I tell myself my family would feel the same. I dream that waves will be as consistent and of such quality as the time I’d have to enjoy them. But I know it can’t all be true. This is a living island, and where there is life, there is tension. Everyone has their own struggles. I don’t see Macleod’s. But one message mentions “a strange time,” then never elaborates. A question about the most difficult aspect of living on Lewis hangs in the air, unanswered.
The pull to Lewis is something intangible to me, something known yet unknown. I don’t feel I’ve unearthed the full picture, but perhaps nothing is hidden. And so I must leave again, just as Macleod will soon to fulfill his musical commitments. Both of us will be back, him to return home, me to wonder what home means. I’ll board the ferry no more or less certain about the departure or the destination.