By Terence Smith
February 15, 2015
“High Water” reads the yellow, diamond-shaped sign frequently posted outside the Annapolis Harbormaster’s office at City Dock. It’s a temporary sign, bolstered by sandbags, but given the frequency of “nuisance flooding” around City Dock, the harbormaster might well leave it up all the time.
Interesting phrase, “nuisance flooding.” I guess it means you get your feet wet, but don’t actually drown or get washed away. Anyway, Annapolis had 39 of these watery events in 2014. According to a study conducted by The Union of Concerned Scientists, which lists Annapolis as a prime target for sea-level rise, we can expect up to 150 of these fun floods a year. If that happens, Compromise Street will be awash every few days.
These same concerned scientists say we should anticipate several feet of sea-level rise in our not-so-rosy future as well as more “named storms,” like Isabel in 2003. (I have my own name for Isabel, which destroyed my dock on the West River and cost me an uninsured bundle, but I can’t print it in the paper.)
That sounds like a serious problem, so I checked with my friend Don Boesch, the president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, who also chairs the Maryland Climate Change Commission. And guess what? He said we have a serious problem.
His commission forecasts a sea-level rise in Annapolis of 3.7 feet, and possibly more, by 2100. Sitting at a window table in the City Dock café, which would be among the first to be submerged, Don gestured at the harbor and said that every time scientists review sea-level rise forecasts, they revise them upward.
To find out what the city is doing to cope with this problem, I attended a public meeting on sea-level rise held by the City Council on Jan. 15. It was “public” only because I was there. No one else from the public made it, suggesting that flooding is not topic No. 1 among Annapolitans.
Two of the eight aldermen, Joe Budge from Ward 1 and Ross Arnett from Ward 8, who represent the two most vulnerable areas of the city, were there, along with a dozen representatives from city and state departments and the Naval Academy. The other six aldermen didn’t make it. Mayor Mike Pantelides apparently didn’t consider sea-level rise enough of a threat to attend.
If he had, he would have heard Carla Quinn of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers describe a new survey conducted for the city that surveyed 147 residential and commercial structures of historical significance in the heart of Annapolis that are vulnerable to devastating flooding.
If the mayor had been there, he would have listened as Quinn described some of the steps that could be taken to protect at least some of the buildings. He would have heard speaker after speaker stress the city has to galvanize its people and marshal its resources to deal with impending, inevitable sea-level rise that threatens the cultural and commercial heart of Annapolis. He would have heard talk of costly sea walls and sea gates and other devices that might hold high water at bay.
But the mayor wasn’t there, so he didn’t hear the representatives of the Naval Academy say that they are moving ahead with their own flood mitigation plans because they have no choice. Everyone agreed that the city and the academy have to work together, but the mayor didn’t hear that because he wasn’t there.
To his credit, the mayor did appear that evening before the Eastport Civic Association and listed flood mitigation as one of his top priorities. He said it would cost $8 million to $ 10 million to protect Annapolis against rising waters and that he hoped to get $3 million to $4 million from the state toward that goal this year.
The key, the mayor said, would be to reconstitute the Capital City Commission and assemble all the major players — the governor, the county executive, the mayor, the House speaker, the Senate president and the superintendent of the Naval Academy — to discuss the threat posed by sea-level rise and flooding.
“Once you get the leadership to sit down together,” he said, “the pieces will fall into place.”
Let’s hope he is right. Because, in our case, a rising tide not only floats all boats, it will flood all of us.
Terence Smith is a journalist who moved recently to Eastport. His website is terencefsmith.com and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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By Terence Smith
Where is the line between satire and hate speech?
Who gets to define it? What should be the consequences of crossing it?
One is legal, one is not. The first is often brilliant commentary, the other is just hate.
The massacre – there is no other word for it – at the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris has forced editors all around the world to confront the question as they covered the story and chose to either publish the cartoons that were so incendiary to Muslims or not. That choice arose again today as the new issue of Charlie Hebdo hit the stands in France with another apparent depiction of the Prophet Muhammed on the cover.
“Je suis Charlie,” or “I am Charlie,” the Prophet says on the cover, beneath the headline “All is forgiven.” The cover was certainly gentler than many of the previously published Charlie Hebdo cartoons satirizing Muslim extremism, but it will doubtless provoke many fundamentalist Muslims nevertheless.
The New York Times, which had declined to publish most of the earlier cartoons, did not print the cover. The Washington Post withheld the inflammatory cartoons from its pages but ran the cover image to illustrate a Paul Farhi story examining the editorial decisions of The Post and others.
The Post’s reasoning, said the newspaper’s executive editor, Martin Baron, was not to publish images that are “deliberately, pointedly, needlessly” offensive.
The Times’s executive editor, Dean Baquet, told the paper’s public editor, Margaret Sullivan, that he wrestled with the question of whether to publish the most offensive Charlie Hebdo cartoons, worrying that to do so could expose its foreign correspondents to danger. He ultimately decided against running the cartoons and the cover with the explanation: “We do not normally publish images or other material deliberately intended to offend religious sensibilities.”
Meanwhile, several online publications, including The Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, Gawker and Vox, reproduced a sampling of Charlie Hebdo cartoons, while the television networks and CNN declined to do so.
Different organizations, different decisions.
Among the editors and producers who declined to run the cartoons, the red line seemed to be images that gratuitously, unnecessarily offend. On the other hand, many cartoonists argue that their satire is toothless and even pointless if it does not offend somebody’s sensibilities. The late, great Herb Block argued that his job was to draw blood with his pen, and he often did. Can today’s reader really understand the Charlie Hebdo controversy without seeing the most offensive cartoons?
So, again, where is the line between acceptable satire and unacceptable hate speech? Is it in the eye of the viewer or reader? Was the infamous picture, “Piss Christ,” depicting a plastic crucifix submerged in a jar of the artist Andres Serrano’s urine that caused such a controversy in 1987, over the line? Was it hate when a Danish publication ignited an international furor in 2005 by publishing satirical images of the Prophet?
What is free speech and what is needless provocation? Should religious sensibilities be more protected than racial, ethnic or national feelings?
These are thorny, difficult questions that today’s editors are grappling with this week and will again in the future.
We should all celebrate today with Don Edwards, the gifted, passionate liberal beacon in Congress for three-plus decades, who is celebrating his 100th birthday at his home in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, surrounded by family and friends. He’ll be fielding phone calls from all over the country and enjoying cake with several generations of children and grand and great grand children. If he looks out the french doors at the end of his living room, he’ll see the blue Pacific rolling onto Carmel Beach.
His has been a remarkable life of accomplishment, commitment, adventure, romance, travel, friendship and love. Born on January 6, 1915 to a solidly Republican family in San Jose, California, he became one of the leading Democrats in Congress and American life. At various times, he was a champion golfer, Naval officer, FBI agent, successful businessman, distinguished member of Congress for 34 years, husband, father, mentor and friend. He was a much-married man, but the great love of his life, Edie Wilkie, preceded him in death, despite being 30 years his junior. They were great together.
Don appreciated the irony in life. When, fresh out of Stanford, he won the California Amateur golf title, he went to his father and told him he wanted to turn pro and play golf for a living. His father said: ”Don’t be ridiculous, there will never be any money in golf. Go to law school.”
And Don did.
That, and more.
Happy Birthday, Don.
I moved recently to Annapolis, settling into a house on the Left Bank of Spa Creek, in the heart of the Maritime Republic of Eastport, on the seditious side of the self-declared “Sailing Capital of the U.S.”
I couldn’t be happier: I took the water taxi to the U.S. Boatshows, walked to the victorious end of the annual Slaughter-across-the-Water Tug of War (final score MRE: 5, Old-Line Annapolis, 2,) and look forward to enjoying the annual Eastport Yacht Club Christmas Lights Parade outside my window. I even lucked into a window table at Joss on a Saturday night after a Navy home game.
But with winter approaching, when only the certifiably lunatic frostbiters will be out on the water, I began to think about whether Annapolis deserves its self-annointed “Sailing Capital” status. After all, Newport, R.I. makes the same claim, as do other, larger eastern seaports.
Annapolis clearly has a lot going for it beyond its rich history and beauty: a robust sailing and boating community, an active racing and cruising calendar, The U.S. Naval Academy, fine yacht clubs, a busy maritime industry, some world-famous sailors and yacht designers, the selected site of the National Sailing Hall of Fame and all the egos cruising up and down Ego Alley. No surprise that sailors are drawn here.
But having sailed my boat up and down the east coast for years, I have found many more welcoming harbors. Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard greets the visiting yachtsman with a sprawling anchorage and a floating water barge where, at no cost, you can replenish your tanks and wash your decks after a long sail.
Drop a hook in Cuttyhunk in the Elizabeth Islands and a floating raw bar will come alongside to tempt you with local oysters, clams and lobster. In Great Salt Pond on Block Island, an operatic gentleman with a fine baritone voice has been known to sing Italian arias as he passes through the anchorage in a launch named Andiamo selling fresh baked goods, orange juice and on Sundays, The New York Times.
Annapolis, on the other hand, charges visitors up to $35 per night for a mooring, more for a slip, and prohibits any dingy above 12 feet from tying up at the public landings at the foot of city streets. No seafood vendors, with or without operatic accompaniment, are permitted without a specific agreement with the city. There are limited transient slips in the commercial marinas and a handful more at the yacht clubs for members of reciprocal clubs. But if you are hoping to get a slip during the boat shows, forgetaboutit.
The restaurants are excellent, but precious few offer any dock space. Fortunately, the water taxi is prompt and cheerful, but with Fawcetts moved away and Stevens Hardware gone, there are no chandleries within walking distance of Ego Alley.
A true sailing capital ought to open its arms more to visiting sailors and boaters, to say nothing of hungry locals who might want to cruise to dinner in a runabout over 12 feet.
“There’s no real welcome mat for visiting yachtsmen,” says former Delegate Dick D’Amato, a board member of Historic Annapolis. “You pick up a mooring, get in your dingy and it is catch-as-catch-can.” The closest grocery, he pointed out, is a taxi ride away.
Space is clearly at a premium in Annapolis harbor, so this is not an easy problem to solve. But perhaps the city planners can come up with something creative to attract and accommodate more sailors – and their dollars — as they redesign the city dock and the heart of the nation’s “sailing capital” for the 21st century.
Jon Stewart and W. Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, respectively, were both right. The biggest debate in the wake of Tuesday’s Republican victory was what to call it: a wave, a sweep, a tsunami, whatever.
Call it what you will, it was impressive: seven, possibly eight Senate seats, (twice the post-WorldWar II average for a President’s party in the sixth year of a second term,) up to 15 House seats, a working majority in both houses for the first time sine 2,006. Divided government, here we come!
Throw in gubernatorial victories in certifiably blue states like Maryland, and there is a whole lot of shakin’ going on.
What was behind it? Republicans, shrewdly, spent tens of millions on ads demonizing President Obama and tying Democratic candidates to him. News organizations bought into the depiction of Obama’s unpopularity, repeated it again and again, and presto! His poll numbers plummeted and Democratic candidates ran for the exits.
Inexplicably, Democrats failed to fight back, failed to embrace Obama’s accomplishments in the economy and healthcare, failed to stress the things that have gone right in contrast to those that have not. There are two sides to every story but only one was featured on the airwaves.
Instead, many Democratic candidates distanced themselves from the President, floating in a neutral ether that was self-defeating on election day.
What now? In dueling news conferences yesterday, the soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the President laid out their priorities for the next two years. McConnell’s list included energy legislation, trade agreements and corporate tax reform. Obama: jobs, raising the minimum wage, rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure and early childhood education.
Not identical lists to be sure, but there is significant overlap and real possibilities of progress if House Speaker John Boehner can use his enhanced majority to keep his own caucus in line. Stay tuned on that one.
The President even offered to drink a little Kentucky bourbon with McConnell and lose, again, to Beohner in golf, if that is what it takes to “get stuff done.”
Looking further ahead to 2016: the only real message to presumed candidates like Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush or Rand Paul was a cautionary one. The political waters are roiled and dangerous. You’d best get an early start, probably earlier than you would choose, raise vast sums of money and pay attention to a public mood that is grumpy at best. As Tuesday showed, it is not going to be a cakewalk for anyone
Mid-term elections are the constitutionally-mandated pause that refreshes in our political system.
Voters get a chance in the middle of a President’s first or second term to either ratify the status-quo or change it, sometimes dramatically. The 1994 Mid-terms were a classic example of the second type, a seismic political event: Republicans took the House for the first time in 40 years and Newt Gingrich gave us the famous Contract with America. It didn’t last: very little of the famous “Contract” was ever put in force, but it shook up the political establishment.
This year could be equally dramatic. With less than three weeks to go, look at what hangs in balance:
–Majority control of the Senate.
–The struggle for the heart of the Republican party, between the centrist establishment, which is more right than ever, and the Tea Party Right, which is more aggressive than ever.
–The fate of President Obama’s final two years in office and his prospects for appointing a new Attorney General and possibly, a Supreme Court Justice.
–Progress – or the lack of it – on major issues like immigration reform, health care implementation, corporate tax reform, just to name three.
–The agenda for a lame-duck session of Congress after the election and, of course, the mid-terms will set the stage for the Presidential election in 2016.
When you consider all that, it is no surprise that the PACs and Super PACs, the so-called “dark money,” have spent record amounts: more than a quarter-billion dollars so far, and still counting. That’s on the right and left combined. That does not count the amounts that the campaigns have raised and spent directly for their candidates.
Some commentators have compared this mid-term election to a Seinfeld episode, that is, about nothing. I don’t think people would be spending all that money if it was about nothing.
Look briefly at what is at stake: Republicans need to pick up six seats to gain a single-vote majority in the Senate. Focusing on the marquee races in key states, like Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Iowa, Louisiana, Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina, the Republicans have a better-than-even chance of picking up four or five. Six will be a stretch, but it is possible, maybe even likely at this point.
There is a broad, anti-Washington sentiment among the public today that endangers incumbents generally. Congress is down to single digits in the public opinion polls. Little has been accomplished on Capitol Hill and the public knows it.
If the Republicans control both houses, they are going to move to roll back corporate taxes, EPA regulations, defund Obamacare, etc. The President will get out his veto pen and the gridlock will continue.
On the other hand, gridlock is what we have now. We are a divided country these days, so we have divided government.
The House seems certain to stay Republican, very possibly with an increased GOP majority. Earlier in the election season, John Boehner appeared to be in trouble, but his job seems safe now.
The Tea Party has largely failed to dislodge the more centrist establishment candidates in primaries in Mississippi and other states. But in the process, they have moved the whole Republican Party to the right, so the middle isn’t the middle in the GOP anymore, it is to the right of center.
President Obama has already said he would like to pursue immigration reform and other priorities in his remaining two years in office. At this point, it looks as though he will have to fall back on executive orders and actions that don’t require Congressional approval even more than he has in the last two years.
On foreign policy, he may be pushed by a more conservative congress to harden his line against Vladimir Putin in Ukraine and ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But he and Congress are probably closer together on these issues than on domestic topics.
Looking ahead to 2016, the outcome of the midterms will give us a temperature check on the mood of the country and could influence the choice of the Republican candidate. At the moment, Jeb Bush seems to be the choice of establishment republicans, but Marco Rubio represents a younger generation and Rand Paul is a wild card in the GOP picture.
Hillary Clinton seems to be the prohibitive favorite at this point for the Democratic nomination, assuming her health holds up. Imagine: another Bush-Clinton race. Seems odd in a country of 330 million, that we can’t come up with some other names.
Jimmy Ellis let his fists do the talking.
As a result, Ellis was little known and barely remembered when he died Tuesday in his hometown of Louisville at age 74. He had been treated for Alzheimer’s disease.
His teenaged friend and sparring partner, Muhammad Ali, talked all the time and grew into an icon. His wit and charisma spread his reputation far beyond the shrunken world of boxing.
They both had talent as young amateurs in Louisville, where they split two bouts. They were both, at different times, heavyweight champions. But one became a legend, the other a modest, reticent man who volunteered at his church and sang in the choir.
When the poobahs of boxing stripped Ali of his heavyweight title when he refused induction into the armed forces in protest over the war in Vietnam in 1967, the World Boxing Association conceived an eight-man elimination tournament to crown a successor to Ali.
My father, the sports columnist, Red Smith, dismissed the tournament as a “series promoted by the World Boxing Association and Roone Arledge of the American Broadcasting Company to keep Howard Cosell busy.” (He rarely passed up an opportunity to needle his neighbor, Cosell.)
Nevertheless, Ellis emerged on top and successfully defended his title against the estimable Floyd Patterson in Stockholm in 1968. He lost it later to Smokin’ Joe Frazier.
Finally, in 1971, Ellis got a match against Ali after the Supreme Court remembered the First Amendment and overturned the champ’s conviction for draft evasion. Again, Ali grabbed all the headlines, promoting Ellis as one of the best fighters in the world. “To be my sparring partner, you got to be good,” he bragged, building the purse. Ali took the fight in the 12th round.
Ellis lived a quiet life after retiring from boxing in 1975. His time in the ring cost him the sight in his left eye and rattled his brains.
“All I wanted to be was a good fighter,” he was quoted as saying, “and a good person.”
He was both
Some of the fun ebbed out of politics and public life yesterday with the death of Bob Strauss. And some of the harmony, too.
Lawyer, diplomat, negotiator, political insider, consummate fund-raiser, silver-tongued devil – all the titles and descriptions fit Bob Strauss, who died in Washington, his adopted home town, at 95 on March 19.
I knew him best as Democratic National Chairman, special trade representative and Middle East negotiator during the Carter Administration. When he was raising money, big money, for Carter’s 1980 re-election campaign, I accompanied him on a cross-country swing to report a New York Times Magazine cover story.
It was a marvel to see how effortlessly he could talk captains of industry out of their cash, always with a twinkle in his eye. “Gentlemen,” he began before a gathering of heavy hitters at the exclusive Los Angeles Club, “I am out here for cold-blooded political reasons…”
Strauss had been born in a tiny, Last Picture Show sort of town in Texas, spent his 30’s and 40’s practicing law and making millions in Dallas, his 50’s raising money for the Democratic National Committee and his early 60’s as an all-purpose Mr. Fix-it for President Carter. Later, he advised President Reagan and in his 70’s, went to Moscow as U.S. Ambassador immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union representing President George H.W. Bush.
He loved money and the luxuries it could provide. He told me that he made more money in Dallas as a lawyer and banker than he could ever spend, but he gave it a try with his fancy suits, Watergate penthouse and personal limousine and driver. Strauss caused a minor scandal during the famously cheap Carter Administration by always flying first class, in violation of government regulations. Asked at a White House briefing if he was going to continue booking himself into the front of the plane, he smiled and said: “Yes, until they invent something better.”
Bob and Helen Strauss kept a large home in Dallas and would fly there most weekends from Washington. Neither one of them liked to swim, but he built a large pool behind the house. “I like to mix a martini, go outside in the evening, turn on the lights” he explained, “and say to myself, ‘Strauss, you one rich sombitch.’”
Strauss prided himself as the ultimate conciliator, and indeed he could sweet-talk the most combative politicians into his point of view. He wasn’t always successful, of course, Carter lost his re-election bid, the Middle East is still a mess and Russia is not very cooperative these days, but he always enjoyed the game.
No regrets, he told me, “none at all.”
It was around 8 p.m. on one of the last days of the 1973 Yom Kippur War when the phone rang in my room at the Tel Aviv Hilton. The caller was an Israeli Army major who introduced himself as an aide de camp to General Ariel Sharon. Would I like to interview the General, whose armored units had crossed the Suez Canal and encircled the Egyptian Third Army on the western bank? I would. Good, said the major, I’ll pick you up at 4 a.m.
I was the Israel bureau chief for The New York Times at the time, and Sharon had a message he wanted to get across to the Israeli military command in Tel Aviv. They weren’t listening, so Sharon, whose death at 85 was announced over the weekend, was pulling a classic end run.
It was late morning when we arrived at the General’s command trailer on the bank of the Canal. I and a couple of other journalists were about to get the Gospel according to Arik, as he was universally known. But first, he played the perfect host, setting out tins of smoked oysters and grasses of brandy, and gossiping about some of the other commanders. He wore a bloodied bandage wrapped theatrically around his head, the result not of a bullet, but a tank turret that turned at the wrong moment. He was charming, animated, funny, irreverent, pleased with himself and his men, and crystal clear.
The gospel from Arik was simple: he had trapped the Egyptian Third Army, he should be allowed to finish them off. And take the town of Suez. Then his tanks could roll on to the gates of Cairo. The problem, he said, lay with the commanders back in Tel Aviv. They had told him to stand still. The government was worried about the Americans, who were negotiating a ceasefire at the United Nations. He didn’t use the word “wimps” when describing his superiors, but that was the message.
It was vintage Sharon. He didn’t win that argument, but he employed every maneuver he could think of. When the war was over, Sharon was one of the few Israeli commanders to emerge with his reputation enhanced.
Later, he accumulated political capital with the Israeli right as Agriculture Minister, building and expanding settlements in the occupied territories; and as a tough and uncompromising Defense Minister. His brutal and controversial prosecution of the 1982 war in Lebanon damaged his standing with some Israelis and enhanced it with others.
As Prime Minister in the early 2,000’s, he first shocked his right wing supporters by conceding the inevitability of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel and then, famously withdrawing unilaterally from the Gaza Strip in 2004, destroying the settlements he had originally authorized and pulling out altogether. In 2005, he fractured the Israeli right and formed a new, more centrist party, Kadima, dedicated to further territorial withdrawal.
Was this a great reversal, a Nixon-to-China moment? Had the man who spent his entire career punishing the Palestinians, gone soft? Not really. He had simply decided, as prime ministers before and after him, that Israel could only survive as a Jewish state if it disentangled itself from the Palestinians, by negotiation if possible, unilaterally if not. He was changing tactics, not his strategic objective.
Sharon was planning more disengagement from the occupied West Bank in 2006 when a mild stroke, followed by a massive one 17 days later, silenced his voice. To save his life, the doctors put him into a deep coma from which he never emerged.
His death brings the Sharon legacy back into the forefront of the Israeli national consciousness and confronts the current Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, with an awkward dilemma. Bibi has publicly endorsed the concept of a Palestinian state, but done little to enable it. On the contrary, he is the master of the status-quo, with none of the decisiveness that was the Sharon brand, nor the flexibility that Yitzhak Rabin displayed at the end of his life.
Sharon’s passing brings the contrast into sharp relief.
Where They Drink Whiskey in the Morning
A cruise around the Hebrides, the Scottish islands that inspired Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, and Robert Louis Stevenson.
In 1773, Samuel Johnson—poet, essayist, and London’s literary light—and his biographer, James Boswell, passed through the rugged, starkly beautiful Hebridean Islands just off Scotland’s western coast. Their famous tour produced not one but two waspish journals that remain in print today.
Dr. Johnson, who was 64 and had completed his monumental Dictionary of the English Language, was a bit of a whiner, complaining occasionally of bad food and uncomfortable lodgings. No such suffering for us aboard the Glen Massan, one of two luxuriously converted 82-foot wooden-hulled, double-ended trawlers that originally fished the western coast of Ireland and now take passengers on cruises through the Hebrides.
The trawlers make up the entire fleet of Majestic Cruises, a small-ship line that is at the opposite end of the cruising universe from Carnival or Royal Caribbean. Not unlike the gulets that ply Turkey’s Turquoise Coast, the boats include six comfortable cabins, each with a private bath; a roomy main saloon for meals and lounging; outdoor decks fore and aft; and a spacious wheelhouse where all are welcome. The crew consists of a skipper, an engineer, a boatswain, and a chef.
Our floating house party consisted of six couples, all longtime sailing friends. We split the cost of 17,000 pounds ($27,300) for the week, which included superb meals and wines with dinner—not cheap, but nothing in Scotland is these days.
As Dr. Johnson noted, there is no such thing as bad weather in the Hebrides, only inadequate clothing. So we brought our fleece and foul-weather jackets, and we used them every day. We also had periods of warm sun, and in late May, beautiful sunsets that lingered past 9 p.m.
To find the history, mythology, and literary legend that are around every corner in the Hebrides, we anchored just off Erraid Island, where the shipwrecked teenage hero of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 18th-century adventure story Kidnapped washed ashore. We stopped at Iona, the soft, green island where an Irish scholar and monk, Saint Columba, arrived in the sixth century to Christianize the pagan Scots; the abbey he established is still extant and well worth a visit.
The chief attraction on the Isle of Staffa is Fingal’s Cave, dark and dramatic, on the southeastern face of the steep island. Water rushes in and out of the cathedral-size opening—a sound that inspired Felix Mendelssohn to compose his Hebrides overture. The cave, named for a mythical Irish warrior and giant, has been an adventure destination for years, attracting notable visitors, including Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Sir Walter Scott, John Keats, and, of course, Robert Louis Stevenson.
Tradition holds that good fortune comes to those who touch the back wall of the deep cave. Johnson and Boswell approached Staffa by boat, but, as Boswell noted, they “could not land upon it, the surge was so high on its rocky coast.” We had better luck. With relatively smooth water and a low tide, we could take the tender—the crew called it the “jolly boat”—inside the towering cave, motor carefully up to the back wall, and, one by one and gingerly, put a hand on it.
Climbing Staffa is a great experience. Over the centuries, wind and rain have eroded basalt formations into intricate columned and stepped perches that make perfect nesting niches for a large colony of seagulls. The view from the windblown, grassy summit, looking across the smaller islands scattered off Mull, is stunning. (A set of steep steps has been carved into the cliffs by the National Trust, which, being Scottish, invites donations to be dropped into a hole in a rock.)
Not surprisingly, the weather dictates the itinerary in the Hebrides. Dr. Johnson and Boswell had to change their route when the weather turned, and so did we. One morning the marine forecast included gale-force northwesterlies, so instead of heading north to the island of Skye, we stayed in the more protected waters around Muck and Mull.
When Dr. Johnson visited Muck 240 years ago, he took precise notes in what became his Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland:
This little island, however it be named, is of considerable value … Half of this little dominion the laird [lord] retains in his own hand, and on the other half, live one hundred and sixty persons, who pay their rent by exported corn. What rent they pay, we were not told and could not decently inquire.
Today, the population is 27, plus hundreds of woolly sheep. The MacEwen family, which owns the island now, is placing advertisements asking young couples to move to Muck to help keep the island school open. We were not told and could not decently inquire about the rent, but the welcome package includes beautiful open spaces and all the peace and quiet you could ask for.
Honesty seems to be the prevailing policy on Muck. The one shop, which features handmade tea cozies, coasters, and beautiful wool rugs that sell for 97 pounds ($150) each, is open all day in the summer months, untended. Drop your money in the honor box.
We had several more days of cruising and hiking and refining our collective taste for single-malt scotch, which seems to be the principal product of the Hebrides. In Journey, first published in 1775, Dr. Johnson notes the local custom:
A man of the Hebrides … as soon as he appears in the morning, swallows a glass of whiskey. Yet they are not a drunken race, at least I never was present at much intemperance; but no man is so abstemious as to refuse the morning dram.
Perhaps that’s the magic of the Hebrides, just as Dr. Johnson said.