Posted by: christinelaennec | May 27, 2015

Travelling Companions

One of the things I particularly enjoyed about my trip to Harris last month was observing and talking to other travellers along the way.  The first leg of my journey there was the train from Glasgow to Inverness, about a three-hour journey.  As we were leaving Glasgow, a mother and about 8-year-old daughter were talking to the train conductor. The mother wasn’t an experienced train traveller and hadn’t reserved seats; the daughter was very tired and grumpy.  I welcomed them to sit across from me, as the people who had reserved the seats hadn’t shown up.  The mother told me her daughter was very tired as they’d just been sleeping on a sofa the last few nights.  The girl glared at me but was also interested in my knitting.  As we went along, the mother relaxed and bit by bit the daughter also unwound.  I asked the girl, had she ever played Treasure Hunt?  I said that was a travel game my own kids had always liked.  This got her attention.

Near Blair Atholl, Perthshire.  April 2014.

Near Blair Atholl, Perthshire. April 2015.

I drew up a list of things we might be likely (or less likely) to see on our way:  sheep, cows, a house, a river, a castle [thinking of Stirling], a crow, a stop sign.  The daughter and her mother played this game for quite a while, and I was really happy when the daughter started smiling and laughing.  At Perth we were joined by a woman who knew a lot about the countryside we were travelling through, and explained to me where the highest points were along the journey.  She and the mother talked for quite a while about living near Inverness, and about musical opportunities for young people, such as the Fèis movement for learning traditional music.

From Inverness I took a bus to Ullapool, a journey of about an hour and a half.  I sat next to a very interesting woman from India.  She told me about her work with children, and asked what I did.  I said I used to be a lecturer, but am now a full-time carer for my teenage daughter.  She then told me a fascinating story:  in her early twenties she became paralysed down one side, and was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.  One doctor told her that she might die from it.  Despite (or because?) of this terrible diagnosis, she and her husband decided to have a child.  And during her pregnancy, she healed completely.  I told her that two separate people have said to me, “The cure for ME is to get pregnant,” which clearly isn’t a realistic option for the Dafter.  This woman told me that in pregnancy, the body heals itself, in order to support the baby.  When we parted ways, she said she would keep me and our family in her prayers.  I think I will never forget her, she was a very special person.

The next leg of my journey was to cross the Minch.  I did so on the new ferry, M V Loch Seaforth. (M V means Motor Vessel – not quite as poetic as “His Majesty’s Ship”!) The crossing time is now down to two and a half hours, instead of three.  As you can see from the photo below, the new ferry is a lot bigger than the old ferry:

The old ferry (Isle of Lewis) on the left; the new ferry (Loch Seaforth) on the right.  Stornoway ferry terminal, April 2015.

The old ferry ( the Isle of Lewis) on the left; the new ferry (Loch Seaforth) on the right. Stornoway ferry terminal, April 2015.

The Loch Seaforth had only been running a few weeks when I travelled on her.  I sat in the dining room, across from a family with a very sweet little baby.  As it so happened, the following Sunday I was present at that baby’s baptism.

In a way, the ferry itself was one of my travelling companions.  Let me show you around:

Dining area, Loch Seaforth, April 2015.

Dining area, M V Loch Seaforth, April 2015.  Foot passengers boarded before vehicles that week, so I had my choice of seats!

I like the retro styling.  Here’s the staircase to go up on deck:

Stairwell, Loch Seaforth.  April 2015.

Stairwell, M V Loch Seaforth. April 2015.

Even the smokestack has that Art Deco streamlined aesthetic:

Smokestack, Loch Seaforth, April 2015.

Smokestack, M V Loch Seaforth, April 2015.

There was a lovely sunset, although let me tell you the breeze coming at me was very stiff!

Sunset over Harris and Lewis, from the ferry between Stornoway and Ullapool.  April 2014.

Sunset over Harris and Lewis, from the ferry between Stornoway and Ullapool. April 2015.

The ferry was about 40 minutes late but the kind car hire man was waiting for me, and showed no sign of impatience.  After an hour and a quarter’s drive, encountering only mist and some sheep, I was in Scalpay at the B&B.

On my return journey, I sat up in the observation lounge.

Observation lounge of the Loch Seaforth, April 2015.

Observation lounge of M V Loch Seaforth, April 2015.  My trusty blue backpack!

Next to me, in that front row of seats, was a lovely couple.  They were probably in their 70s, and spoke Gaelic to each other.  They didn’t have a Lewis accent, but I couldn’t quite identify what part of the Gaeltacht they were from.  What struck me the most was how loving they were with each other.  They had that easiness with each other that comes after years of jogging along side by side, but also they seemed really to delight in each other’s company.  In their very understated way, they laughed a lot at each other’s jokes.  It was really nice to be in close proximity to that atmosphere of quiet happiness.

Stornoway, seen from the observation deck of the Loch Seaforth.  April 2014.

Stornoway, seen from the observation deck of M V Loch Seaforth. April 2014.

The sea was stirred up from the storms of the previous day, but the new ferry rolled less in the waves than the old ferry would, being so much bigger.  Downstairs, I ran into a former colleague from Aberdeen, and we had a chance to catch up on family news, and exchange email addresses.

A wet but smooth crossing back to Ullapool.  April 2014.

A wet but smooth crossing back to Ullapool. April 2014.

On the bus from Ullapool to Inverness, I sat across from an interesting family.  There was an exhausted mother, a father, and two young children.  They had North American accents but the father also spoke French to the children.  His French didn’t have a French-Canadian accent to it, however, so I was left a bit mystified as to where they were from.  The mother fell into a much-needed sleep and the father managed to keep the children entertained.  He certainly had an extensive French vocabulary, because as we went past forests he played a game with them, looking for various wild animals:  “Tu vois un écureuil? Squirrel?  Do you see a wild boar? Un sanglier?  Any deer? Des cerfs?” and so forth.  In Inverness they told the children it would only be an hour’s wait until the next bus, and they seemed to be upbeat and relaxed.  Very experienced travellers, I thought.

The very last leg of my journey was the train back to Glasgow.  I sat across from a table of extremely entertaining women.  They were in party mode, but very elegantly so.  They set their table with plastic stemware, plates, napkins, and brought out a cheese platter.  They were very funny with the conductor, offering him a Prosecco, “or we have soft drinks if you prefer”.  He kept up amusing banter with them throughout the journey:  “Let me know when you get to the dessert course, I’ll be back then.”  They were obviously old friends, celebrating something or other together.

Their conversation was very witty, and although they made no attempt not to be heard, I wished I could have laughed out loud at some of their quips.  I knitted and kept quiet.  After their meal they brought out a trivia game, and that made it even more challenging for me to keep my mouth shut.  “She’s a singer, North American.  From a fundamentalist Christian family.  Initials A. L.  Her name in French means The Vine”….  I wanted to raise my hand:  I know this one!  I know this one!  (Avril Lavigne)

As with so many of my other travelling companions on that trip, just being nearby their party and the glow of their friendship was a lovely feeling.  Really the world, and all the precious and unique lives here, is extraordinary!




  1. Sounds like you were in good company. I am looking forward to travelling on the new ferry. I am in the process of booking a holiday for September, here’s hoping my travel companions are as good.

  2. I agree! People are good. I love the sea scenes so much and hearing about your click, click, clicking as you travel with your knitting! 🙂

  3. Thanks for sharing your lovely travelogue, Christine. I enjoyed your photos and the story of your encounters.[The woman from India did have a fascinating story!] The last ferry I rode on over to Victoria was much more travel worn than the ferry you showed, but your account brought back pleasant memories for me of my trip. xx

  4. Greetings Christine. You have such a talent as to write and make us feel as though we are with you on your journey. Isn’t it a small world anymore. Your description of your traveling companions sounds delightful. I’m so happy that you took this trip and added to your memories. You really have me wanting to visit this part of Scotland. My best to you and your family. Hugs, Pat

  5. If ever there was an example of the need to “get out more” this is it – there are so many fascinating people out there! Inspiring!

  6. Thanks for the wonderful post. My husband and I recently moved back to our home state, Georgia, after living in the north country of New Hampshire for eight years. I met so many wonderful and special people in our area of NH who welcomed me and taught me many things including how to spin wool. They assure me that they will visit me here in my new home. Makes one realize that there are so many interesting and nice people in the world that we will never meet and we need to cherish all the good encounters that we come across in life.

  7. Your journey certainly sounds interesting to say the least! It’s very interesting listening to other people’s conversations isn’t it!! x

  8. Fascinating! I tend to bury my head in my knitting when travelling. Maybe next time I’ll have the courage to chat to my travelling companions. 🙂

  9. There are large French speaking communities in Ontario, New Brunswick and Manitoba. Lovely to see a ferry. I so miss the wet coast and the ferries.

  10. One of the joys of public transport, and one of the things I love about Britain and Europe. Long live public transport! (Although there can also be REALLY annoying fellow passengers, but they can be fun in their own way). When I lived in France for a year as a student I kept a notebook in which I wrote fragments of conversations I overheard on trains and in cafes. It really helped my fluency, and the lovely thing is that even now when I look through it, a vibrant memory of the place and person associated with the phrase resurfaces. It was a tip I got from a lady on a train from Dijon to Metz. She pointed out a chimney sweep working on a roof and asked if I knew the French for chimney sweep. As she told me what it was, she suggested I write it down, and that way I would also remember the exact moment I learned it. And now 36 years later, when I look at my notebook and the word ‘ramoneur’, I see that man on the grey slate roof of a little house beside a canal in northern France, and am once more sitting in the train compartment chatting with my travelling companion.

  11. What interested me most about this post was the tiny additional insight into the real Christine Laennec – although I am left slightly bemused. The train trip interactions going from Glasgow to Inverness were what I expected – helping out the tired mother & daughter and then continuing the engagement via the game of Treasure Hunt.

    But I was more than just a little surprised that you held back from talking to the Gaelic speakers, the American-French, and the party women! Maybe there just wasn’t the ‘catch your eye’ opportunity.

    Also, in Sydney where I live, as an white anglo-saxon English speaker, I am often in the minority on public transport and so I hear lots of conversation in Chinese, Thai, etc. Sometimes I wonder whether the speakers look around them and try to evaluate whether their conversation will be private by virtue of their spoken language exclusivity. This wondering leads me to fantasize that it would be fun to be multi-language skilled and to suddenly reveal this by speaking the secret conversants’ language within their hearing.

    Getting back to your post (!), I know that you’re fluent in both Gaelic and French, giving you a perfect opportunity to engage with these people – not in my fantasy way, but in a way that reflects your genuine interest in their accents. I ‘know’ that you’re down the quieter end of the spectrum of personalities, but it surprises me just a little that you didn’t indulge your language interest a little more directly, but chose to stay mum and knit.

  12. Your fascinating post illustrates very well the vast difference in experience between travelling alone by car and going by public transport. The new ferry looks very swish, I enjoyed your photos.

  13. Thanks so much, everyone for your very interesting comments. Yes, people are fascinating, and it’s true that as Lorna says, we can benefit from taking public transport and encountering people we might never be “thrown together with” otherwise. I agree that Most People Are Good – this is what I’ve always said to my children.

    Marjorie, thank you for reminding me about the French speakers in those parts of Canada. I just assumed that they would also speak French with a Quebecois accent but I may be entirely wrong!

    Linda that is a great story and a great tip! How wonderful that you still have the notebook and that it is a portal back to journeys of long ago. And now I know a new word: ramoneur!

    oldblack, yes it is interesting to be amongst people who presume they aren’t understood by others. That’s happened to me both as a speaker and as an eavesdropper! Lesson: never presume. You’ve made me reflect on why I didn’t speak to the couple on the ferry, or to the family on the bus. In the case of the couple, it seemed clear that if I had interrupted them it would have been an intrusion. They avoided eye contact. Trying to practice one’s Gaelic out in public has its own trickiness – generally people revert to speaking English if they don’t know you. This is the legacy of devaluing Gaelic over the generations. It is a private, kitchen-table language in many people’s minds. With the Francophone family, I did interact to some extent, picking up the toys of the younger child for her, and playing peek-a-boo. But the father, who acknowledged my attempts to be helpful, clearly had his hands full and didn’t feel like chatting to me.

    It is also the case that eavesdropping while knitting can be a very restful and satisfying thing to do. (Echoes of Madame Lafarge?!)

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