After a day, sheltering for the endless rain, we decide to explore the town a bit further and find ourselves a nice dinner. Dressed in our dark green rain ponchos we wander around Castlebay. We are desperate for a hot and spicy meal and walk into the Kisimul café, a small Indian restaurant with views over the castle. Unfortunately, all the empty tables are reserved for the night and we leave disappointed.
We ramble on, looking for an alternative restaurant. The choice is limited, in a tiny town like this. The desolate streets end quickly into the hills, so we return and climb the stairs to the Craigard Hotel. Hotels are not really our thing, especially after four weeks of peddling, a handful of showers in a cold creek, some crusty streaks of seaweed on the bottom of your trouser legs and wearing our most elegant rain gear. Indecisive, if we would like to eat there, we loiter around. Looking for a menu and some glimpses of the food being served.
“The food is good”, a smoky voice declares. We turn around and in a cloud of smoke we see an elderly chap wearing a shabby blue sweater and jeans, he is standing on his socks just inside the hotel door. With his friendly, but glassy blue eyes it’s hard to tell if the man is tired or just enjoyed a whiskey or two. We start chatting and learn that he rented the “Boy James”. For two weeks he makes boat trips around the Barra head isles with his family and friends. So we tell him that he must have passed us this morning while we were getting on the water near the deserted village on Vatersay with our kayaks.
This triggers his interest, he used to kayak himself when he was young. Now he is still fascinated by the outer edges of the British Isles formed by this chain of rocks, skerries and little islands. He has been close to a lot of them. For every remote island, we mention there appears a new twinkle in his eyes. The more we exchange about our sea journeys, the more exuberance and vitality inhabits the man. It’s funny how a love of remote little islands, the sea and an obsession for the ever-changing light, can turn a meeting into an instant connection. A connection based on shared experience of the solitude shared in the screaming of the seabirds, of this deep longing for this aesthetic enchantment in the architecture of the land and the isolation of being on the edge of everything. We enter the building together, and while we wait for a table we chat about our kayak trip. He is clearly impressed, telling his companions enthusiastically about what we talked about outside.
When the waitress comes, to tells us that our table is ready, we say goodbye. For starters, we choose the local cockles, harvested on the Barra beach that doubles as an airfield. We really enjoy the seafood. One of the fears of eating in hotels is that I’m still hungry after the last bite. Fortunately, this is definitely not the case today. By the time we are on our last few bits, the man and his entourage are seated by the waitress at a table close to ours. We recommend the cockles. When I spot a sort of sketchbook in the man’s hands. It showed signs ruffled pages like it is used for watercolours.
As the main course, we are served on a large and full plate and the salmon comes with a good dose of potatoes. A habitual smoker, as the man is, he walks to the hotel doorway again for a quick cigarette.
The conversation starts going back and forth again. I become more and more intrigued and curious by the big stack of paper he is carrying around. It looks like a home-made holy book, a precious volume that needs to be guarded. Being an enthusiastic watercolourist myself, I recognise that behaviour and bluntly ask if he is drawing and painting. He confirms my question, but the stack of drawings stays firmly by his side. I do not push on, understanding that it can be quite difficult to show someone else your fresh work. Only at the end of our dinner, when we leave and say goodbye I ask if I can find his work on the World Wide Web. One of the men in the group quickly respond and writes a name down followed by “.com”. I read slowly, “normanackroyd.com”, it does ring a bell, but I can not remember where I have seen it before.
Only a couple of days later, on the ferry back to Mallaig, I can use my phone to access the Wi-Fi and check out his website. I am very surprised, the watercolours are familiar. Half a dozen of his paintings are already on my phone. I had downloaded them a long time ago. I studied them, to learn from his incredible capacity to capture this beautiful Hebridean sea light in watercolour. And there I was thinking this man was a fisherman when we met at the doorway of a Castlebay hotel.
Later, at home, I learn that Norman Ackroyd is a very accomplished artist, his work in the collection of the Tate Gallery. I copied some of his watercolours to acquire a bit of his skill. If you would like to see some of his work check out the Eames Fine Art Gallery.
At the time of our meeting, he is 78 years old. But with this vitality, both in his work and life, the sea must be his elixir of life.