How do we maintain connections within our communities, and create new opportunities to come together, particularly in these times? I have been pondering this over and over these past few weeks, whilst travelling back and forth on the busy road from Plockton to Portree.
It is a journey I have done lots since I was a boy: going to swimming lessons in the old swimming pool in Portree before the Kyle one was built; travelling to college daily back in 2013; and even last year when I decided to row there, in my boat the Taeping. It feels to me there has always been a connection in my life between Portree/Skye and Plockton/Mainland. When I was a wee boy, there was even a rowing race. The Plockton to Portree, or Portree to Plockton row. I think it only happened a few times – my dad, who rowed in the Plockton boat, claiming it stopped because Portree kept losing. Regardless of who won, in my mind it was legendary, and connected the mainland and the island in a way which feels harder to imagine now that we have a bridge.
Perhaps recently, I have been feeling less connected in general. Maybe because I am getting older, or perhaps the feeling that we do a lot of our celebration and coming together via social media. Or is it, that a night with Netflix is now in direct competition for time spent with friends and each other. Or maybe there are less people about? Perhaps Covid and two years of lockdowns and isolation simply exaggerated all these feelings. Perhaps, and possibly, it could just be me feeling this way, in which case all is well. But… I suspect some of what I am feeling may be felt by others too.
Last year, I responded to an open call from ATLAS Arts and SEALL, which asked that very question. In these times, how would you bring folk together? The answer to me felt obvious, we could build coastal rowing skiffs, one in Portree and one in Plockton, and we would race them. Great, job done, application sent. Fast forward half a year, and the task doesn’t feel so simple.
I had decided if I was going to do this project, I would need to know what it was like to row from Plockton to Portree. I set off last September from Plockton, in my wooden rowing boat. But not 50 metres from the mooring, I turned back. I had everything I needed; decent weather window, tent, flares, radio, phone, extra clothing, Navionics, food, even my cousin Ashley as ballast! My mum and uncle Ian were on the shore, and when I told them I was having second thoughts Uncle Ian said “ ach just go, you will be fine, we used to go round Crowlin as rowing practice”. So off I set, and after a night on Scalpay on the way, made it to Portree the following day. Perhaps I have become too aware of the potential risks, and afraid of failing – sometimes stopping before I start.
Now I am saying “Coastal Rowing Skiffs are being built and enjoyed by communities all over the world including here in our very own communities, so what is so different about this project?” Is it a chance just to come together and do something together? And what will happen once they are built? And who will build them? Who will row them?
The writer and activist Alastair McIntosh said last summer; “… when rowing you have to look backwards to move forwards”. This made me think of my Uncle Ian, inspiring me to carry on with my adventure. What can we learn about the past which will allow us to move forwards in a world that feels so uncertain? How can we learn from being uncertain by learning from each other, and allowing ourselves the permission not to know all the answers?
So with more questions, how can we do this project together? An opportunity to learn new skills and recognise the value of learning from what and who is already here, and those still to arrive. A chance to add two more skiffs to the West Coast fleet, and perhaps even recreate that Plockton to Portree row, with more teams than just Plockton & Portree. And most importantly how can we inspire members of our communities from all over Lochalsh and Skye to get together on and off the water, go on an adventure, learn new skills and find new spaces where we can ask our own questions, share stories and start new conversations?