The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday
The wild island where tragedy gave me hope
Directionless and isolated, actress Morven Christie escaped to the Isle of Lewis and found her perspective on life changed forever
Like many people, I went through a bit of a weird time at the start of lockdown – but then I realised that this sudden pause might be a good thing. I needed a chance to re-evaluate what I was doing. Somewhere along the way a lot of the meaning behind my acting work had got lost – for so long, I had been doing what I was told to do and “what was smart”, but now I was questioning its purpose, asking what this work was contributing to the world.
I decided to make some big changes and re-engage with the things that felt important. It was a full-on existential evaluation of the sort that the pandemic brought out in so many of us.
After a great deal of thought, I eventually signed with new agents. One of the first scripts they gave me to read was The Road Dance, about a young girl living in the Outer Hebrides before the First World War. The production team was filming (when hardly anyone anywhere was) on the Isle of Lewis, which I had always wanted to visit.
It felt serendipitous. I was in lockdown in Glasgow, craving nature and space, and the thought of spending six weeks on a remote island with a small population, where I could swim and see deer and eagles, be surrounded by the wild sea and the elements – all that solitude and freedom – felt like a gift. So, too, did the chance to work in Scotland, in my own accent – something I have rarely done, despite being a born and bred Glaswegian. Because of the roles I have played, most people think I’m from Lancashire.
So I drove from Glasgow to Ullapool, where I caught the ferry to Stornoway, the capital of Lewis, a four-hour journey across the Minch, a notoriously bumpy body of water. The waves crashed and the ferry pitched and rolled, but I kept my eyes fixed on the shoals of porpoises jumping in front of us, so serene and beautiful.
The ferry lurched into Stornoway, where I had arranged to stay in a cottage nearby for the first night, and it was then that I first encountered the awful tragedy that still hangs over Lewis.
The cottage sat close to a memorial for HMY Iolaire, an Admiralty Yacht which, in January 1919, had been carrying 280 sailors home to the island from the First World War. The boat was overcrowded and the weather wild. As it attempted to negotiate the route into port, it crashed against a rocky outcrop only yards from the shore, sinking quickly and killing 200 of its passengers. The island lost so many of its men that night and it remains the
UK’s worst peacetime maritime disaster.
I had read about how profoundly affected the islanders still are by the tragedy and how close they hold it to their hearts. Our film dealt with the same period, when young boys were called up to go to war, so it felt right to spend my first morning visiting the memorial. I stood beside it, looking out at the very same rocks that had cruelly prevented the Lewis soldiers – who had given so much – from returning home.
It was powerful. Standing there, I understood profoundly why the tragedy is still so potent for the people of Lewis, and felt more keenly than ever the need to reevaluate what I wanted from life, to understand what my purpose was.
Much of the cast opted to stay in Stornoway, but I knew that if I was going to do this properly, I needed to go further. Instead, I stayed in one of the two Moorpark cottages, perched on top of the moor in Barvas, owned by Marlene and Angus Macleod. They were so wonderful and kind to me, bringing banana bread and, once the laws relaxed a little, inviting me for Sunday lunch.
Other than those visits, and filming two or three days a week, I was utterly solitary – just being with myself, visiting places, watching eagles, reading and writing a lot. Though it had been a few years since I had done any coldwater swimming, I’d reacquainted myself with it during lockdown and had come to Lewis armed with a wetsuit.
I began to research which shorelines were sufficiently sheltered, with friendlier tides, and eventually settled on Reef Beach. I steeled my nerves and donned the wetsuit, then walked down to the water’s edge, across the soft deserted sand, and gently eased into the water – finding, to my surprise, that the sea was astonishingly, deliciously warm.
I started to notice the moon phases and season changes more acutely, too – and to feel the palpable change in the atmosphere. Filming coincided with the beginning of autumn and the leaves on the trees were transforming from a verdant green to a golden hue. By the time we finished the shoot, winter had arrived – the island freezing cold, beset with pelting rain and icy winds.
On Hallowe’en, there was a crazy storm and the full moon made the tide wild. I drove to Ness on the northern tip of the island, where the sea seemed to be crashing in from two different directions. It was blowing a hooley, with gale-force winds and sideways rain: feral and incredible. I went onto the beach and walked out towards the shoreline, but the wind rose and sucked the water backwards, away from me, then sent it rushing back towards me, soaking me to the knee then spilling out of my wellington boots.
I was terrified and ran, but there was a life-affirming adrenaline rush, too – it was good to be reminded of nature’s power over us. I drove back to the cottage through the storm and ran a bath. I turned off all the lights and lit a candle, listening to the wind rattling outside and feeling its magic and madness.
The past few years have been traumatic for all of us and those six weeks on Lewis were the extension of the soulsearching journey that began for me in the first lockdown. There are so many places on that island where you can’t possibly think about anything other than the elements you are faced with, because the sea and wind are so powerful. It was an immense privilege: the sky is huge and the views are incredible, and I was in awe of – and completely humbled by – the raw beauty of it all.
Eventually, I returned home, straight into a stringent tier-four lockdown. But this time I wasn’t struggling. I had spent so much time drinking in the air, the golden eagles, the sea, the freedom, the kindness of the local community – absorbing this wonderful, wholesome, healing experience – and it fuelled me for the months ahead.
The sky is huge and the views are incredible, and I was in awe of the beauty of it all