The House of the Rising Sun

I spent much of this winter living in solitude, on an abandoned island in the Outer Hebrides. It is one of the best things I’ve ever done. The island is bordered by rugged cliffs, and a great sweep of beach the colour of moonlight. The hill at the centre is home to a sea-eagle, a crowd of stags, and a humbling sense of perspective. Otters comb the beach, and everywhere are the crumbled ruins of a community of three hundred souls, who once inhabited this spectacular place.

Wonderful as these things were, I had come for the things the island lacked. Accommodation took the form of a cabin, without electricity, central heating, or internet. I wanted a break from traffic, administration, notifications, buffering and queues. I wanted to experiment with solitude, something which has been notably absent from my life so far. I’ve never spent more than 48hrs alone before – how would I react to unbroken weeks of it? I wanted to try writing undistracted. And I wanted to try a life disentangled from the internet, and connected instead with wind, wave and tide; living from deer, kelp, mussels and limpets.

So it was that in small hours of a January morning, I packed the car with all manner of provisions and equipment, and started driving. I kept going, until England’s rolling green became Scotland’s hazy lilac. Then onwards, right to coast where I was at last forced to abandon my car and continue on a small fishing boat.

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It was a glorious day for our crossing, and before long we had reached an old pier where the boatmen deposited me, my gear, and my pile of supplies. They helped me load a quadbike trailer with tinned fruit, flour, coal, rifle, ammunition and quantities of salt and cheese – panoply fit for any self-respecting Victorian expedition. And then they left. They sailed away, and I was alone on the island for the next six weeks.

Well. Almost alone.

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My friend Mufasa had come along for the adventure. Man and dog, we deposited our provisions at the house, and set off together to explore the island. At that moment, after the exhaustion of the journey and the manic rush to prepare for it, it looked very much like paradise.

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The island smells wonderful. There is a unique, fresh fragrance to it: something buttery like yarrow, which is particularly obvious on sunny days. But all of it, from the rotting piles of kelp on the beach (which smell of fart) to the gamey musk of the deer scattered over the mountain, is very sweet to me. It is all associated with unambiguously positive memories of my summer visits here. Smell, memory and emotion are extremely tightly linked, and I wondered if this would prejudice my experiment on solitude, locking me into some kind of early positive feedback loop.

Certainly, it added to the sense of bliss I felt at having arrived. Mufasa felt it too, and we careened the beaches together, he barking, I laughing, both completely insane, as befits the lone inhabitants of an island.

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We stayed out until sun and moon traded perches, when growing awareness of an oppressive quiet pushed us back to our candle-lit cabin. I prepared supper to the background of a crackling fire and the tinny intonation of the radio, feeling slightly as though I was in the Blitz. Lightning silently blasted the horizon like atom bombs, too distant for the thunder to carry. I will admit that when the radio was off, I found that evening a little frightening. It was so dark. And so silent. My dog and I were the only fragment of civilisation for miles of black, heaving ocean, and so we would remain for weeks.

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Though it was too much for me on that first night, the silence was one of the reasons I had come. I brought with me an excellent book: Silence in the Age of Noise, by Erling Kagge. Kagge, a Norwegian explorer who once skied solo to the South Pole, knows a thing or two about quiet. To him it is a great virtue: the ultimate luxury in our crowded world.

His case is compelling. He describes noise as a distraction, used to drown out the eeriness at the heart of your being, and stop you confronting how you feel, and what you could do to change it. The silence, Kagge believes, should speak to you. It should tell you what’s right and what isn’t. By blotting it out, you also distract yourself from the present. Today will probably seem like any other day to you, reading this now. Nothing special, nothing significant: just another day. But for the most part, that is what your life is made up of. A string of days like today, and if you are constantly distracting yourself from them, looking toward the next stage or activity, then your life will pass you by. With silence, you are aware of the moment.

Here, I can manage no more than to brutally paraphrase his arguments. Try it and see what you think for yourself. Many of the concepts had the unmistakable ring of wisdom, but were nonetheless difficult to grasp. Fortunately, I brought with me an authority on silence – Mufasa. For him the radio is the ultimate intrusion. When I turned it on, he departed long before the sense of eeriness that I was trying to drown.

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I retired to bed on that first night, exceedingly grateful for the sweet, wordless companion sleeping against my back. It was he who awoke me at about 0600 with a confiding paw, informing me it was breakfast time. It was still pitch-black, but the timber walls had began to groan and strain. I was grateful to have the memory of that calm first day to sustain me, because a gale had begun during the night which did not abate for the next two weeks. It sounded as though we were on a storm-tossed ship in the Atlantic.

I made breakfast for Mufasa and a pot of coffee for myself. I rekindled the fire, and sat huddled into a sleeping bag with my old comrade, as first light, then colour, returned to the world outside. White horses tossed and foamed on the sea, and the wind was moaning down the chimney. A burst of starlings swept by the window, resembling a fireworks display. This was to become a favourite ritual over the following weeks, though on those first days, it was to the accompaniment of the radio.

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Outside, the hail drove hard enough to cut my face when I ventured briefly into it, and rattled vengefully at the windows when I had retreated. Days of extraordinary wind followed, with birds flapping statically outside as though on an aerial treadmill.

I waited for a weather-window to take my rifle out in search of food. My supplies were calculated to last me about two weeks, and I would soon need to supplement them with venison from the herd of deer roaming the island. The gale was relentless, but still Mufasa and I ventured out to walk, to chop firewood, and to run up and down the mountain in training for an expedition to Greenland later this year.

Time inside was spent baking, reading, writing, and generally mastering the art of hygge. Without the internet, my writing progressed apace. I felt able to commit myself far more fully to the narrative, and produce 1500 words within a couple of hours, without obvious effort. Most days, I’d end up with 2000 or more, and they felt like better words than those I produced at home. Outside the window, clouds trailing sinister tendrils of rain swept the island like Portuguese men o’war.

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It was after a few days of this routine that I discovered that I no longer much cared for the radio. Every piece of news being reported was negative, to a degree which I started to find unbelievable. It was repetitive too. It lingered on the disasters of Brexit and sexual scandals with particular pleasure, raking over them again and again in search of some fresh angle to the outrage. It seemed perverse, actually. I was in an exceptionally happy bubble, and every time the news came on, or even an interview, it felt like I’d been joined by a rather aggressive pub-bore. So I started listening to the radio much less, and when I did, stayed on Radio 4 Extra, which to my delight, did not deal in current affairs.

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I managed to get outside for a few hours on one sunny afternoon to go deer-stalking. I’d soon spotted three hinds some way upwind of me, to whom I would have a fairly easy approach. It was the work of less than an hour to get myself into position for a shot, which I took gratefully.

I must confess that though it is not something I take on lightly, I enjoy stalking. Before each shot, my heart is jumping like a caged hare, and I am terrified that I might deal a non-fatal blow. The contrast between that feeling, and the relief of a clean kill, and food for the following month, is enormous. From great stress to euphoria in seconds is a heady arc, and the venison steak, juniper berries and roast potatoes I enjoyed that night made a wonderful change from the pasta of the previous few evenings.

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It was around this time, two weeks into the experiment, that something strange started to happen. My perspective began to change, at first subtly, and then rather dramatically. One morning, I was struck by the particular beauty of the grain on the table next to me. It was old, and worn, and the sunlight falling over its surface was mesmeric.

It was an interesting, and slightly alarming experience to be so captivated by an old oak table. When Mufasa and I braved the gale later that day, I found myself similarly engrossed by tiny fissures on the beach, caused by the retreating tide. Then the neat arcs drawn by marram-grass tips as they were whipped back and forth by the wind. And suddenly, it was everywhere. In Mufasa’s fur, the copper kettle, flakes of cheese, rain running off the windows. Everything acquired texture, symmetry and a sense of the extraordinary. In some profound, energetic and hitherto alien way, the world had come alive.

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I don’t know whether it was because I had no distractions: no demands on my attention to stop me living in the present. Maybe it was the solitude, and the shift of perspective that caused. Maybe it was this life of unbroken cause and effect: every task (hunting, chopping firewood, charging oil lamps) followed by an elemental reward (being fed, being warm, having light). Maybe it was spending a full week without self-consciousness.

Truth be told, I thought I was going mad. It was so different to normal that I found it alarming at first. And after a while, I thought that I didn’t care if this was insanity. It was too good. Back home, I do not feel I am anymore depressed than the next person. Far from it – I think of myself as very happy. But this was like anti-depression, where the most minute things had become a source of great joy. Even – perhaps especially – that previously oppressive silence.

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Toward the end of the third week, the blue super-moon made an appearance. This, the second full-moon of the calendar month, and 10% bigger than usual due to the moon’s elliptical orbit, was extraordinary. The world beyond the cabin was transfigured into silver glass, and so much pale light flooded the windows that for three nights, I needed no candles to read by.

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That night, I created a delicious venison and juniper casserole, with fresh baked crusty bread. For pudding: a sticky toffee island, surrounded by an ocean of custard. I don’t even eat custard at home, but on the island it had become something of an obsession, and that was my last tin. All good things must come to an end, even in that place, and I savoured each mouthful.

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Timeless is the word which seems to best encapsulate this experience. The smells were of coal, baking bread, butchered venison and woodsmoke. The sounds were the wind moaning at the window, the gentle tinkle and tick of smouldering embers, and beat of my own heart. The sights were all gentle, and changed with the weather. Greys to greens, or to blues or whites. Moonlight. Candlelight. Starlight. My hands blistered from firewood duties (I was hoping to develop those enormous sausagey outdoorsman fingers, but alas, they elude me for another year), my face burned by wind and sun, and my limbs always weary from this physical existence.

I did have some sense that my grip on sanity wasn’t quite as strong as it had been, suspicions which were confirmed when I discovered two battered and unexpected tins of custard in the cupboard. I spent the next ten minutes in hysterical cackles. Less than halfway through, and it had come to this.

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There were some alarming moments too, like when a sea-eagle attempted to abduct Mufasa (fortunately I was able to dissuade it). And two weeks away from the end of my time, the freeze set in and the snows came down. Margins of safety on the island, already finer than at home, grew finer still.

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Just as the cold was forcing me inside the cabin, the gas-freezer, in which I had been storing my remaining venison, broke. It began giving off puffs of unburnt hydrocarbons, the back regularly whooshing with little fireballs. I knew this meant the gas was likely only partially combusted, and that carbon monoxide poisoning had become a much more significant risk. I shouldn’t have let it run as long as I did, but I was reluctant to abandon the food which it was preserving, and on which I was relying. The only measure I took was to keep Mufasa out of the room with the freezer. He would have been affected far more quickly than me, and I thought it was safer to keep a window open (despite the cold) and gauge my own reaction. It was only a few days later,  labouring up the hill, that I became aware of the insidious tiredness against which I had been struggling. At the top, I nearly vomited. Both symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning. After a moment at the top to recover myself, I went straight back to the cabin and cut off the gas supply.

Fine margins indeed. Fortunately, it was cold enough that I was able to store the venison outside until I’d had time to cut it into strips for marinading and drying (very fine jerky it was too).

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Despite the hardship and the scares, the experience was more than worth it for the extreme peace it offered. For six weeks, I lived without administration, traffic, buffering, notifications, roadworks, deadlines, queues, pollution, technology which doesn’t work (I’m looking at you, Humax) and endless media negativity, just as a sample. None of those are big in isolation. Each is a micro-stress, but when combined, they acquire power. That was only obvious to me when I left them behind. The world we have constructed makes sense in isolation: email is a great thing, until it’s combined with a thousand other systems demanding your attention, each of which might also be fine individually.

Contrast that to my early morning ritual, huddled next to the fire, cradling some coffee and watching the world revealed beyond the windows. Evenings lit by the fire and candles; the only human voice the radio’s increasingly rare appearances. The little treats of tinned fruit for pudding, a cup of tea and a chocolate digestive, or a still day. Custard. Custard. Custard. Snow. My splendid companion, and his obvious joy in walks and fruitlessly chasing the deer. The shifting light on the landscape outside. The atmosphere at the ruined church. The security of a huge pile of fresh firewood. That amazing beach. The waves. Being so productive with my book. Feeling lean, fit and strong from my exertions. Curling up in that dark bed, back to back with my old comrade Mufasa, and hearing the wind roar outside. Singing my heart out on walks.

It was wonderful. More so than I can really describe.

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I am now back home, and have carried with me a new, and slightly inspiring thought, which keeps resurfacing.

The euphoria that came from that timeless life. Perhaps that is how we’re supposed to feel about existence. Maybe it is something we lost without realising, with the insidious creep of negative media, the micro-stresses of the internet and administration; the obfuscation between what we do, and what keeps us physically comfortable and alive. I often hear that this is the happiest age to be alive, but that claim is usually stated without supporting evidence. It is certainly the healthiest and longest-lived. It is the safest. But is it the happiest? That seems to me to misunderstand what makes people happy. The thought that keeps resurfacing is that life is great. But maybe it’s supposed to be transcendent.

I wake up in the mornings now, and look back at my breakfast routine, both utterly content in the moment, and unable to wait for what was to come. Out there, thoughts became trapped in my head without much external stimulus to flush them out. Repeatedly, I found these words, set to Alt-J’s cover of House of the Rising Sun, circling my brain like a trapped bat:

There is a house in the Hebrides,

They call ‘The Rising Sun,’

And it’s been the lure of many poor souls,

And Lord, I know, I’m one.

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