SO there I was, eating breakfast, looking out over a turquoise sea and empty, sun-kissed, golden sands, when four men in a dinghy set out from a nearby harbour. Suddenly, they came – a family of dolphins, who continued to play around the men, and the dinghy, for about 40 minutes until a sizable ferry hove into view and scared them off.
I’ve never been one for recession-conscious staycations. Fine in theory but mix in the Scottish weather, the often expensive and unimpressive service, and the fact that you never really feel you have been “away”, and a week or two off work in your own home catching up on the laundry begins to look appealing.
The idyllic situation for this year’s holiday was in Scotland. But it was certainly “away”; 11 hours away by car and ferry to be precise, longer than it takes me to get to the remote family farm in the deep south of Ireland and longer than it takes to get to Cape Town (though, to be fair, the long route was selected to be dog-friendly rather than expedient).
Eriskay, in the Outer Hebrides, is nothing short of magnificent; a different culture laden with history, fabulous scenery, restful, with wonderful seafood (hardly any of which we paid for, being acquainted with a couple of local fishermen), and a weather pattern all of its own that varies from blazing sunshine and blue sky to overcast storm and tempest. But it has one major advantage over most UK or foreign holiday destinations: the mobile phone reception is pants.
The crofting museum was fascinating, hearing Gaelic spoken as a proper, working language was an eye-opener. But when it comes to a step back in time with true impact, you just can’t beat a world without mobiles and laptops.
Apparently Orange works sometimes, if you position yourself at the appropriate height above sea level and pray. But on O2, as we are, you might as well be holding a lobster rather than a phone. At least you’d get some reaction from a lobster.
For me, it was bliss. For Himself it was a constant irritant to start with. He would disappear for an hour at a time, being spotted intermittently on a distant rock facing out to sea and waving his device around in search of a signal. Since there was nothing between us and Canada, it wasn’t a very fruitful exercise.
No “beep-beep-de-beep-beep” text alerts. No pointless calls from tennis or golf mates, who didn’t know he was away, asking if he could fit in a game that night. No work-related calls. Nothing – except, curiously, texts from O2 reminding me to top up my old pay-as-you-go!
He had, as he always does, carted along his laptop which works with the aid of something called a “dongle”. Not on Eriskay, it doesn’t. No phone signal equals no broadband. If I reveal that on every holiday he religiously checks his e-mails every day, seeking out internet cafes if necessary, you will understand my joy at being completely incommunicado. There was an internet cafe about 40 minutes away across the causeway on South Uist but he only made that trip once.
We did get the occasional rogue message, but it usually took six attempts, each one involving an outing to a windswept hilltop, to send off a two-word reply before the erratic and fleeting signal disappeared. So eventually we gave up.
All in all, it was a proper holiday, the likes of which we remember very well before the late 1980s when the infernal mobile phone started to become available to the masses. In those days the only interruption to a holiday, delivered by a hotel manager, a tour rep or an Embassy official, was to tell you someone had died or your house had burned down. The purpose of getting away was, well . . . to get away.
I understand that the island communities want the same mod cons as folk on the mainland. For instance, the causeways between islands mean hospital patients no longer have to be protected by a tarpaulin, transported in a rowing boat and hoisted vertically up a harbour wall!
Modern island houses have dishwashers, freezers, microwaves, central heating and satellite TV – and good on them. There are, of course landlines. The local telephone directory is a few pages of A5 containing 57 numbers, often specifying Christian or nicknames to differentiate between a mere handful of island surnames.
With the fishing industry being hammered, tourism is becoming ever more important to the local economy. But I hope they don’t do anything to improve mobile reception in the name of progress. It’s a bit of God’s own country right here in Scotland that should be marketed to discerning tourists with the slogan “sometimes it’s good not to talk – especially on holiday”.