Once upon a time, the words travel and travail were etymologically linked, so I’m now going to tell you a tale of travel travail.
Some years ago a fisherman named Hector dropped me off on Mingulay, a hilly rock of an island in the southern part of Scotland’s Outer Hebrides.
In 1908, Mingulay’s inhabitants relocated to the more user-friendly islands of Vatersay and Barra, and nobody has lived there since then.
Remote in 1908, the island was even more remote when I was dropped off there, so remote, in fact, that cartographers occasionally forgot to include it on their maps.
Hector had promised to pick me up at six o’clock that evening, but six o’clock rolled by, and there was no sign of him. Nor was there any sign of him at seven, eight or nine o’clock.
I convinced myself that he’d actually told me six o’clock the following morning, and after a relatively sleepless night, I went to the landing place. Again no Hector.
He didn’t show up at six that evening, either. My initial annoyance turned to panic when I realized that I was marooned on what appeared to be a desert island.
I had brought along a few Cadbury’s fruit-and-nut bars, and I figured I could stretch them only so far, eating a small chunk now, another small chunk later, before starvation set in.
Would the experience be painful, or would I simply sink into a stupor?
I imagined the local jackdaws descending on my remains with enthusiasm, as I would provide a welcome change of diet from the carcasses of Mingulay’s near-feral sheep.
Something told me not to give up just yet. After all, I wasn’t even close to starvation.
I was hungry, yes, but I certainly wasn’t dying of hunger. And as I began gathering sorrel and wild celery from the island’s nettled hillsides, my panic subsided.
Here was, if not God’s plenty, at least enough greens to keep my going for quite a while.
I found a rusty skillet in an old midden heap and cooked up some limpets and mussels that I’d harvested from the rocky shore.
I varied this somewhat basic bouillabaisse by adding wild agaricus mushrooms or wild rhubarb to it.
By the third day, my stomach wasn’t growling, but purring contentedly.
I can survive here, I told myself, and with that awareness came a rush of satisfaction.
Meanwhile, I stopped thinking of the island as a desolate and forbidding place.
The only inhabitable structure on Mingulay was a decrepit sheep fank. Inside it, there were several dead ewes, one of which seemed to have died while lambing.
The odour was so rank that I gagged the first few times I went in. But the alternative to sleeping in the fank was sleeping outside in the cold drizzle that seemed to be the only kind of weather on Mingulay.
So I removed the ewes, and although the rank odor remained, I grew more or less accustomed to my new quarters.
I still scanned the sea for Hector’s boat, but now I felt less alarmed when I didn’t see it. Increasingly, the island beckoned to me, and I found myself responding to it.
I investigated a crofter’s house, now little more than a heap of rubble, and discovered the remains of an old hand-loom.
I stood atop a cliff and watched puffins fly off in all directions like tracer bullets. I also found what appeared to be an ancient standing stone in the southern part of the island.
Toward the end of my enforced visit, when I’d probably trekked most of the island’s 14 square kilometres, I came to the realization that there were a lot worse places to which I could bequeath my bones than Mingulay.
On the morning of the sixth day, Hector’s fishing boat arrived with the scent of hot grease coughed up by its antique pistons.
A much younger man than Hector stood at the helm, however. He greeted me with a hug, then handed me a large beaker of Scotch.
“I was almost certain ye’d be dead, laddie,” the man — Hector’s nephew — exclaimed.
It turned out that Hector had gone back to his home in Castlebay, Barra, after he’d dropped me off, and as he was climbing up the town’s steep slipway, he suffered a stroke.
He’d been in a coma for five days and had not regained consciousness until the previous night. His first stricken words were: “I’ve left a man on Mingulay….”
“How is he doing now?” I asked the nephew.
“Except for worryin’ about you, much better.”
As the boat was chugging away from Mingulay, I confess I felt something akin to regret. For I was surrendering a rare privilege, one often experienced by travelers to remote places — the privilege of travail.
Travel writer Lawrence Millman is author of Last Places: A Journey In the North among many other books.