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Beinn Sgorabhaig, Scalpay, Outer Hebrides (Credit: Marg Greenwood)
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Crabhsganach on Scalpay

By Marg Greenwood

I have never been so crabhsganach on a walk before.

Scalpay (Scottish Gaelic: Sgalpaigh na Hearadh) is joined to the 'mainland' (i.e. Harris) by a smart twenty-year-old bridge. The island is small (2.5 square miles) with a population of about 300.

I walked along the only road which looks over to the East Coast of Harris. In front of me was Eilean Glas, which was one of the four lighthouses built by the newly-formed Northern Lighthouse Trust in the late 1780s by Thomas Smith, a Stevenson family member. But my route led me on to a faint path with marker posts.

I scaled the highest point of the island, Beinn Sgorabhaig where I enjoyed a small patch of proper grass. But as I headed downhill, a vast bog asserted itself with attitude. I was reminded of the Buddhist notion of 'The Hungry Ghost,' a being with a small mouth, very needy, always hungry; for me the terrain itself was the hungry ghost, desperate to devour me for the whole of the next four miles.

I was no match for this ghost. The route from the Beinn northwards was a mass of peat hags, puddles, grim black mud; the ghost slurped as I put my tentative foot down; rivulets of water swilled and gurgled around me. Ooze came up higher than my boot laces; my trousers were wet and filthy. I hardly noticed the peaks of Skye (Scottish Gaelic: An t-Eilean Sgitheanach) across The Minch (Scottish Gaelic: A' Mhaoil), or the wonderful cloudscapes contrasting with the deep azure sky. I often missed the marker posts, as I had to zigzag to try and avoid the wettest areas. Even the turf tops squelched.

Robert MacFarlane's book, 'Landmarks', has wondrous Gaelic words which could describe my walk experience. These include; 'brochan' which means soft ground, literally 'porridge.' My favourite is 'crabhsganach' meaning 'awkward on one's feet.' I have never been so crabhsganach on a walk before.

I met no-one. If I'd slipped and fallen awkwardly and broken my leg, I would have been in deep trouble, if not deep bog. Thankfully I got back to my car, and as I'd parked near the only shop in Scalpay, I went in for a cup of tea.