In remembrance



In a clearing
next to the belvedere
on a dark
December day

Shots rang out
and a dozen
lives ended
for what?

It's 1944
they stood up
against
the oppressor

Dared stand up
for what
they believed in
and fight for

They paid
the price
the ultimate price
their lives

So we
could lead
ours
in freedom

were they
prepared
to sacrifice
their future

RIP

Of trees and the sea

Rising straight up
close up
side by side
marching endless

The low December sun
doesn't rise above
their empty
canopies

For trees I can't espy
the distant horizon
the slow meandering
river to the sea

I miss the sea
its open vistas
where unimpeded
the wind blows

It'll be a while yet
before the moorland
feels
my footfall

It'll be a while yet
before the surf
laps
at my feet

It'll be a while yet
before I return
where the lighthouse
lights up my night

Yearning

Where the sea
and the distant mountains
are my horizon
in the islands

The trees
line the boundary
of my line
of sight here

The sea
ripples
glistens
ever moving

The trees
sigh and stir
in the slightest wind
leaves rustling

The lighthouse
now winks
far far away
across a darkened sea

The sun rises
through trees
no mountains
east of here

It'll be a while yet
before my steps
head northwest
to the land on the edge

Home is there
Home is here
I'm like a sailor
always yearning

Always yearning
for where I am not
for the trees
when by the sea

Always yearning
for where I am not
for the sea
when with the trees

Watchnight

The raindrops
tapped
in counterpoint
to the ringing of bells

The wind abated
tapped
the raindrops
off the trees

The lights
reflected
in the shimmering
pools of water

Christ's birth
reflected
in many places
around the world

Merry Christmas

Memories

Motionless
the conifers loom
rising dark
against the wintersky

The barren branches
reaching for the clouds
The last leaves
rustle to the ground

The country park
is deserted
long gone are
the merry visitors

soaked
by the tricky fountain
soaked
by the chained bridge

Memories flood
as the streams murmur
carrying water
down from level to level

Your hand is in mine
but only in spirit
as I stroll down
the treelined paths

Memories remain
as I turn by the castle
its moat shimmering
under the setting sun

Storms

From afar
I watch
as the Atlantic brooms
sweep the islands

Shrieking with glee
flattening
yellowed grass
and blowing away

All that is not
fastened tied down
will be swept away
and discarded unconcerned

Far out at sea
where warm
and cold clash
a storm is born

The warnings fly
The hatches
battened down
We cower

In the face of unbridled force
we marvel
at the beauty
of nature untamed

Force 9

The riders charge
Their steeds fuming
Their caps flash white
in the odd gleam of the sun

Howling with glee
the gale lashes its whips
of whirling spindrift
across the water

Rearing up white
the waves crash
with force
behind the lighthouse

Force 7

Force 7
from the south
steady
unrelenting

Force 7
the riders ride
white caps
frothing at the shore

Force 7
into the night
unrelenting
from the tropics

Force 7
from the south
for the next
few days

Force 7
if you weren't there
I wouldn't
sleep

Abandoned

The pale autumn sun
plays over the
gable ends

where man has left
nature encroaches
walls crumble

Roofs once stood proud
now fallen in
uncovering the homestead

The storm approaches
as the ruins cower
from its boundless wrath

The island stands empty
None are there now
where a community once thrived

Whether it be Hiort or Scarp,
Pabbay, Boreray or North Rona
Only memories remain

Short story IX

An uncustomary calm lay over the islands. Like smoke trailing from a chimney stack, clouds lay over the tops of the hills. Presently, they sank down to sealevel, shrouding all from view. Nothing stirred. The steady beat of a ship's engine pulsated through the murk, its crew monitoring echoes on the radar screen. Even the swell was absent, as the vessel carved a wake across the sea. Visibility was down to only a few dozen yards, fog being so dense that the bow of the ship was barely visible from the bridge. The VHF crackled into life and the accented voice of a local fisherman echoed amidst the static, asking about conditions in the North Minch - but all the responses were: dense fog.

The small boat slowly made its way east under the lee of the island. Visibility was poor, and only the lower parts of the hills could be made out under the pall of low cloud. And it wasn't long before the cloud sank right down to sealevel. No swell came round to rock the craft, and what wind there had been to fill its sail soon vanished. Becalmed, the boatman pulled the cord to start his outboard engine. But that elicited no response. Muttering under his breath, he pulled out his mobile phone, which showed a black screen. He had forgotten to charge it up before going to sea. Cursing his luck, the man put his mobile back in his pocket, gave one half-hearted yank on the starting cord of the outboard (no result), then stood momentarily, as if to consider his options. He presently shrugged and cast out a line with hooks. Might as well take advantage of the opportunity to get some mackerel. A little while later, a noise caught his attention. The persistent throb of a ship's engine. As the minutes ticked by, the sound grew louder, but was always coming from the same direction. The ship was headed straight for his position.

The passengers on the ferry were dozing on the couches in the observation lounge. Some were staring out of the windows, which only showed the whiteness of fog. Even the small flag on the bow of the ship was barely visible. It wasn't busy, and there was only a low murmur of people talking here and there, with the sounds of the cafetaria in the background. Still about half an hour to go till Stornoway. The crossing was as smooth as glass, with no swell worthy of the mention. Although Point should have been visible to starboard, and the Lochs coast to port, both were hidden from view. Only the flag fluttered on the bow. Suddenly, a small boat loomed up out of the fog, a few yards ahead of the ferry. Passengers jumped to the windows in horror as the mast keeled over and the craft was run down under the bow of the ship.

The sound of the engine grew steadily and presently, the sound of a bow wave mingling in. Without any means of getting out of the way, other than that pair of oars, the man was getting increasingly concerned. Worried. Desperate. Panicking. A few moments later, a huge wall of steel loomed up out of the fog and slammed into the small craft. The mast collapsed and struck the hapless sailor a glancing blow across the head. He was thrown into the water, and disappeared under the surface. The cold enveloped him, the darkness followed quickly.

He resurfaced a few moments later - or so it appeared. The fog had disappeared, as had the ship that had run him over. A pale sun hung low in the sky, with mild breezes wafting off the land ahead. The water was not as cold as he had expected it to be. A broad strand of yellow sand stretched ahead of him, with distant mountains appearing to float in the distance above. After a few minutes of swimming , his feet touched the bottom, and he was able to walk through the surf and onto the land. There was but one problem. No sandy beaches of the extent that presented itself in front of the fisherman existed in his home island, or at least not in the vicinity of where his boat had gone down. But it was not a problem for him. He was not aware of that.

Passengers ran onto the outside deck of the ferry, and stared at the wreckage that floated past. “We have run down a boat”, the word was going round. Crew members were hurriedly lowering the fast rescue boat to search for any survivors. However, it had taken a while for the ferry to come to a halt, and the broken remains of the boat had become obscured by the fog. “That fog”, someone added with an expletive. “They won’t be able to send for the chopper now.” A passing crew member overheard the comment and replied that the lifeboat was now en route from Stornoway, and would be there within twenty minutes.

Slowly, the fisherman made his way up through the surf, on his knees, finally standing fully upright. The sun stood high above the beach, and the warm breeze wafted into his face. A line of dunes, crowned with waving grasses, closed the view of the land beyond. Seabirds wheeled overhead, crying mournfully. The beach seemed to stretch interminably in either direction. A group of people made their way down from the top of the dunes and onto the beach. The surf continued its intermittent yet endless song in the background. Yet, the fisherman did not pay much attention to his surroundings. It was the people that were now approaching him. The faces were all familiar, or had been familiar to him. Yet it did not appear odd to the sailor to see them again. He had had to say farewell to them all at differing stages in his life. "We heard you were coming", his father said. "But we weren't expecting you just now."

The black bulk of the ferry rose up from the sea, its superstructure virtually invisible from the surface. Fog continued to wreathe the area of the incident, but the wreckage floated near the ship. A bright orange shape presently materialised from the west, the RNLI lifeboat. They conducted a search of the broken boat, which had almost been snapped in two by the collision. However, its crew was nowhere to be seen. The question whether the boat had adrift empty was quickly answered in the negative when a line with mackerel was discovered as well as a mobile phone in the bottom of the craft. It would not switch on. "I think I know this boat", one of the lifeboatmen said to his coxswain. "And I was talking to him just last night. Said he was going out this morning. Told him that fog was in the offing, but that wouldn't bother him." The coxswain gloomily acknowledged the information, then went on the VHF to thank the ferry for standing by, and to inform the Coastguard of the state of affairs. No, a helicopter was not going to be useful, it was a complete peasouper.

From the right, a shape emerged from the waves crashing ashore. It looked like a woman, but her nakedness elicited no response in the sailor. For where her abdomen would be joined to her legs, her skin became scaly and her legs were in fact a fish's tail. Through some incomprehensible mechanism, she moved across the strand, converging with the man and the people who had crossed over the dunes. "Son," his father said, "it is not yet time. But we can only let you go back on one condition". The sailor looked at the other figures that stood behind his father, actually surrounded by a haze of indistinction. His grandparents were there as well, but those standing further back were beyond his recognition. His father spoke again, but without offering any explanation. "It has been put to us that you should be taken earlier than the appointed time. I have pledged that you are worthy of your allotted time. You must honour my pledge. Do you understand?" The fisherman could not speak, but a movement from the woman to his right appeared to cause the sky to darken behind the group. "For if you don't, we shall all be dishonoured, and your time will end in agony and despair. If you do, you may even be allotted a longer spell. It all depends on your actions." His father turned to the woman. "Take him back. I know he understands." The mermaid smiled at the sailor and took him by the hand. The figures in front of him faded as they retreated across the dunes. The sea behind him rose up as he was taken back, the mermaid taking his hand in an iron grasp. The water washed around his feet, quickly rising up as the mermaid dived into the increasingly icy waves. Darkness enveloped him once more...

The sound of the surf, booming on to the long beach faded, then strengthened into a confused babble of waves and breaking crests. Shouting voices and the movement of boats around, the resumption of life. The man felt himself being hauled out of the water and onto the deck of a boat. It was bright orange, and his brain managed to register that it could only be the RNLI lifeboat. He turned over to empty his stomach of seawater, and as he did so, he thought he could see a movement in the water beside the lifeboat. There were dolphins around in the Minch, but he somehow knew that this was not one of those. Neither was he certain of the female contours that quickly disappeared into the depths.

Remembrance Sunday 2013

The sun shone bright
The clock struck
eleven

For two minutes
all stood still
in contemplation

A boom sounded
an echo of
conflicts past

The two minutes
faded into
history

The trumpets
sound
almost joyfully

We remember
o yes we do
but do we learn?

Short story VIII - Norge


"You and your maritime disasters". I smiled as my friend gently ribbed me. It was true. During my time in the Hebrides, I seemed to be focused on tragedies at sea. What do you expect though, in a community that is so inextricably linked to the sea. This week for instance, it was particularly hard to believe that weather and tides could possibly contrive to endanger life at sea. Autumn is here, however, and the gales are only just around the corner. We took a stroll out to the old graveyard, with the gentle southeasterly breeze taking the edge off the temperature. At the edge of Lower Sandwick, I took him into the Old Cemetery, a jumble of gravestones, obelisks and draped urns right above the sea. And there was a time that the dead were almost delivered into the very cemetery itself, short by only a few feet. That was not the object of this walk though. A solitary, large gravestone by the outer wall. Its inscriptions fading, like so many. The Norge Memorial.

"Norge?" my friend asked. "Doesn't that just mean Norway in Norwegian?" I nodded. I lifted my glance from the memorial to the sea which rippled only a few dozen feet from the cemetery wall. The dark hills behind the Fabrication Yard appeared to ripple as well under the warm September sun, and they led further south to the craggy outlines of the Shiants and the misty outline of Trotternish on the Isle of Skye, 35 miles away. "I've told you about the Iolaire", I continued. "That happened in poor weather. Heavy swell, strong wind - and it's suggested a navigational error. The Norge's tragedy unfolded in good weather." I paused as I turned to my friend, who was following my gaze south. "Almost like today."

Finally, the last outpost of Europe faded in the distance, as the Butt of Lewis lighthouse sank below the horizon. The ship doggedly chugged its way westsouthwest, on the curve that would see it into New York in a number of days. She had done well, in point of fact. Converted from a cattle boat to an emigrant steamer, captain Grendel was proud of her. The hundreds of people below decks were in relative comfortable surroundings, all things considered. Many of those down below were not at all sad to see the back of Europe and its persecution. Many had fled the pogroms of Russia and Poland, against all odds. They were the lucky ones. Or were they?

The Caribbean accents of the Radio 4 announcer were slightly muffled as the longwave carrier took them all the way north from Daventry. "Malin, Rockall, Hebrides, Bailey: southeast 4, rain in west; fair in east, poor in west. Fair Isle..." as the afternoon shipping forecast carried on to its close. The car ran down Oliver's Brae into Stornoway just as the time signal pipped out two in the afternoon. "And there is another connection", I told my friend. "Rockall is the island near to where the Norge came to grief". Two roundabouts later, I pulled the car into the carpark opposite the Town Hall. The ferry was just pulling away from the pier, on its way across to the mainland. I took the pedestrian shortcut into the ferry terminal, which was emptying of people, now that the MV Isle of Lewis had gone. With a cuppa from the caff in hand, I took my friend to the far side of the terminal building.

The emigrants on the Norge were awakening to a bright summer's morning in the North Atlantic. The ship was on its predetermined course, calculated to lose the latitude needed to reach New York in the shortest time possible. However, the islet of Rockall presented a challenge, which Captain Grendel thought he had overcome - but in doing so, had not taken account of a compass deviation. Not long after 7 in the morning, his ship came to a grinding and sudden halt, just north of Rockall.

Running aground is bad enough. Standard procedure is to try to get off with the tide or by putting the engines in full forward or astern. However, captain Gundel was not to know that the grounding of the Norge had ripped the keel out of the ship. So when he engaged his engines full astern, the bottom fell out of his world. Within twenty minutes, his ship had foundered.

My friend looked aghast at the commemorative plaque on the wall of the ferry terminal. The sun shone in, making it very warm behind the glass. But we did not feel warm at all. The hubbub of departure had died down, and only the intermittent voices of the staff behind the ticket desk broke the silence. "Surely some people got off in lifeboats?" he finally managed to utter. "You'd be surprised. In that short space of time, nearly two hundred got off."

The boats bobbed on the North Atlantic swell, slowly drifting away from the site of the sudden shipwreck. The strange outcrop receded into the distance, its based wreathed in the white of the continual waves crashing against it. It was a wreath to the hundreds lost that morning. The Norge was no more. Stunned, soaked, underdressed for the cold conditions, even in that June morning. Water, food and shelter at a premium. Families together at breakfast just an hour earlier were now torn apart, if alive at all. Scattered across more than one boat, their fates in the balance, at the mercy of the elements.

"There is one more place to see in connection with the sinking of the Norge", I told my friend. I steered the car into the traffic on South Beach and passed in front of the Town Hall. We bumped over the speedramp in Castle Street, then followed the line of traffic down North Beach. The warm autumn sun had brought out the shoppers in droves, with kids in tow for the mid term holiday. The pedestrian lights were at red, so we had a few moments to take in the cheerful scene. Such a contrast. To the plight of the families in the lifeboats that had made it away from the Norge, more than a century previously.

Darkness fell over the northeastern Atlantic, for as much as there is darkness at that latitude in June. The sailors in the first boat distributed a mouthful of water to each person, followed by some indescribable emergency ration food. Blankets covered the smallest if only to cover them from the spray that came over every now and again. Fortunately, the nights are but short, and by 4 in the morning, it was fully daylight again. Was that a fishing boat on the horizon? Yes! After about an hour of frantically waving blankets and coats, and even setting old rags on fire, the fishing boat finally changed course. They were all taken on board, and quickly taken down below by the stunned fishermen. The news of the sinking was on its way to British shores. Not all boats were as lucky, that first day. And one was to continue on its northeasterly course, under the pale sky of the northern latitudes, the wind and currents steering it across the open ocean.

Traffic thinned out as we left the centre of town behind us. The trees in the Castle Grounds, still very much in leaf, rose up behind the basin of the Inner Harbour. I briefly pulled into the parking bays past Kenneth Street, to show my friend the mudflats that low tide was revealing. The yachts bobbed at the marina pontoons, with the bright orange of the RNLI lifeboat just moving away from its moorings, presently powering out of the seclusion of the inner harbour. Out on a mission of mercy. But there was no rescue mission for the survivors of the Norge. They had to fend for themselves, and take the hand that fate was dealing them.

The fishing boat passed the lighthouse, and a forest of sails and masts lay in front of a row of grey buildings above a quayside. Large stacks of barrels lined the quays, and groups of people were standing at tables, but it could not be seen clearly from the fishing boat what they were doing. Still in a state of shock after their ordeal, the former passengers of the Norge were helped on to dry land. They had lost everything, apart from the clothes they stood up in, and their lives. Many were missing friends and relatives, and as yet no word of others having been saved. Some of the emigrants were in a very poor state, having been exposed to the elements for some time.

"This is where the sick were taken", I explained. "Or at least, this is where the poorhouse was located back in 1904. It was demolished in 1968." I pointed to where a collection of low-slung buildings now comprised a residential and nursing home on the outskirts of Stornoway. Across the main road running along the northern periphery of town, fields sloped down to a river estuary, with the dark moorlands of central Lewis looming in the distance. "Not all made it, and those nine are commemorated in the Old Cemetery where we were earlier this afternoon. Quite a few were children". The occasional car whizzed by on Perceval Road, but it hardly created a disturbance. "You just can't imagine it, can you", my friend said quietly. "Here they were, bravely going off to a new life in the New World, and they never made it". I turned round to face him. "Some of them did, eventually. But hundreds were lost out there at Rockall. And not all the boats that were known to have been launched were recovered from the ocean". For a moment, we stood at the roadside, in a silence that was emphasised by the absence of traffic.

The sun dipped towards the horizon, casting a swathe of gold over the ceaseless motion of the waves. A gentle southwesterly breeze wafted over the ocean, carrying warmth from the distant tropics. Riding low in the water, no motion was apparent in the small boat. An oar was dangling from an oarlock, dragging beside the boat. Nobody was pulling it, although a hand held it. A foot of water sloshed in the bottom of the craft, which nonetheless remained afloat. The rudder veered left and right at will, although someone appeared to be reclining right beside it. Covered with blankets, smaller forms could be made out in the eerie light, lying against the bulwarks. Another oar just slid away from the boat as the arm holding it slumped inside the boat, relinquishing its hold on the wood. No motion was apparent, and although there were several dozen people on board, their eyes did not behold the pale blue sky of late evening. Their senses no longer perceived the coldness of the air, nor the fact that the sun never dipped below the horizon that night. The Atlantic carried their craft ever further into the polar realms, where the ice loomed on the far horizon, past the islands of the bears. Islands that were owned by the country whose name adorned the bow of their boat. Norge.

End.

Lola

What are you doing here?
the old lady asked
looking at me bemusedly
from round the couch

The black face
and green eyes
half-closed
in a show of friendliness

Slowly ambling
round from
her place
of repose

But sound had long gone
from her world
which became a dark
and painful abode

One sunny day
the choice was made
but she didn't want to
not really

Lola went over the Rainbow Bridge on 9 October 2013

Farewell to the Muirneag

Sailing south on an unfamiliar course
remaining in view
but growing small fast
the familiar blue boat

I'll miss the blue and white
of Muirneag at the quay
the triangle of her sternlights
disappearing after midnight

and her reappearance
at 8 am
the dot's now small
and will soon be gone

A new boat is here
faster, more manoeuverable
The Olympic Flame has gone out
we wish her well

October

Three quarters
the year has gone
the nights
now longer than the day

The eighth month
in the ancient calendar
the stag roars
as will the storm

The clocks fall back
as we remember
those gone on ahead
in years gone by

The Hunter strides forth
in the pre-dawn hour
his faithful hounds
high in the east

The Celtic summer
is closing this month
leaves will fall
as the gales return

Reflections

What's up may well be down
What's down may well be up
The sky's as grey as the water
The water's as grey as the sky

Motionless
trembling waiting
the drips hover
for a sign of wind

Sailing in air
with masts in the water
Sailing in water
with masts in the air

Motionless
the blooms hang
awaiting the fall
of autumn

A breeze sways the blooms
the ripples spread on the water
Up is now up
and down is down

Short story VII

Oblivious crowds of people milled around the concourse of Euston Station. The tannoy echoed around platforms and shops, announcing the imminent departure of services to destinations near and far. "Platform fourteen, for the 21.35 Scotrail Sleeper Service to Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Inverness and Fort William", the woman said in that particular cadence, unique to station announcers. I went to the left luggage department and collected my belongings. On the stroke of 9 o'clock, I had settled into my compartment. I had booked up the two beds, in order to have the cabin all to myself. A long journey lay ahead, and not just in terms of the hundreds of miles of distance.

Beyond the station canopy, the signal changed to green. The lights from the platform reflected dully on the wet surface of the platform as the conductor's whistle sounded shrilly. The locomotive roared into life and, with a jolt, began its long journey north. The steward knocked on the door of my compartment to take my order for breakfast the next morning. I followed him out to take a cup of tea in the restaurant car, but had to steady myself as the train ran over a number of points. It then accelerated gradually while I ensconced myself behind the table with a cup of tea and a slice of cake. Raindrops ran down the window at an angle, refracting the light from the streets around the railway track. People were engrossed in their mobile phones and computer tablets, but I was content to sit and stare out at the wet night. Suburban halts flashed by at regular intervals. "Your tickets please", came the voice of the conductor. He looked at my reservations and travel tickets, briefly nodding to me as he found everything to be in order. Presently, the suburban sprawl of northwest London faded around me, and rural darkness became the norm. I seemed to have nodded off, because the noise of a train travelling in the opposite direction woke me. Or did it.

The rails screeched as the train negotiated some very tight turns. The sea loomed up to the right, and mountains rose up in the middle distance. A steam whistle sounded up ahead as the locomotive plunged into a tunnel. The brakes came on, and when daylight returned, houses appeared near the track. With a jolt, the train came to a halt by a station platform, with a sign saying "Kyle of Lochalsh". The guard walked quickly past the train, shouting "This is Kyle, all change please, all change". A mass of men in Navy uniforms disgorged from the carriages, talking excitedly amongst themselves. I found it impossible to follow their conversations, as it was in a foreign language. I was absorbed into the mass of sailors that thronged down the platform. A small steamship lay moored there and let off a shrill steam whistle.

I awoke with a jolt as the train whistled upon leaving a tunnel. Trying not to look like I had awoken suddenly, I finished my cup of tea, now nearly gone cold. The restaurant car was still full of the people that had gone there after the train had left Euston. I glanced at my watch, and decided that half past ten was as good a time as any to retire for the night.

It was a dream, but at the same time it was not a dream. Overhead gantries and pylons, signals, line side signs flashed by, illuminated by the unnatural yellow of nearby streetlights. Platforms of increasingly deserted stations whooshed by, the clattering of the train's wheels momentarily amplified. The sounds of passengers shuffling up and down the corridors slowly receded, until all had retired for the night. I had long put out the lights in my compartment, but the unfamiliar sounds and movements prevented me from properly dropping off to sleep for a long time. Slowly, the rhythmical noises of the train morphed...

"I can't, I can't!" Roddy screeched. The thundering noise of the guns went on unabated around them, as the bombardment of the enemy lines reached a crescendo. "Come on, Macdonald, stop buggering about!" the sergeant bellowed. The rest of the platoon stood by, glancing at their comrade who would be in no state to go over the top, as they were. When a shell hit the parapet, Roddy dashed off down the trench, elbowing his way past the men who were in readiness for the assault. Roddy's flight was finally stopped by a captain in the next trench who tackled him to the ground. "You bloody idiot", the officer shouted. But Roddy had completely lost control, and it took several men to contain him. A group of men had followed him from his own section, now standing in the background with something of mute embarrassment. "What was that about, Macdonald", the sergeant began, but Roddy Macdonald was no longer capable of coherent speech. The captain took charge and ordered him to be taken behind the lines. Half a dozen of his comrades marched Roddy to HQ. The frenzied activity there, related to the imminent assault, meant that the case of private Roderick Macdonald was dealt with summarily, for malingering. A few hours later, the sound of a single shot at dawn signalled the end. It was drowned out completely by the roar of the assault on the German lines.

I was wakened momentarily when the train jolted through a set of points, with lights flashing by rapidly as we raced through another station. Darkness followed moments later, and the regular clatter of the wheels resumed, to once more lull me to sleep.

The assault was over, the objective not achieved. The enemy remained entrenched a few hundred yards away. Those that had survived the attack were noted in the roll call that afternoon. The fate of their comrade who had died, but not through an enemy bullet, was discussed among the men. Any attempt to do so in front of NCO or officer would quickly be put down as being bad for morale. Roddy had come from the Hebrides, and in fact, two men from his home village were in the same platoon. “If I come out of this ghastly business alive”, Ewen promised, “I’ll go and see his folks. I mean, they only live two doors away.” The other man made the same promise, but not knowing then that he would not be able to keep it. His name was to end up in the Roll of Honour, with a star. A star meant that he did not survive. “What will we say?” Ewen straightened his back. “We can never say he was shot at dawn for malingering”, he started. His comrades bridled. “He wasn’t malingering, Ewen, for god’s sake”, they retorted. Ewen cut them short. “We all know that he wasn’t malingering, don’t we?” he said sharply. “He just lost it. And those idiots” (he dropped his voice right down at this point) “at HQ lost it as well.” A couple of expletives later, he swallowed heavily and cleared his throat. “I’ll say he was shot after we all went over the top. He was killed in action”. Ewen roughly wiped a tear from his eye. “And he goddamn well was.”

I awoke to silence. The train had stopped, and when I looked under the curtain, it became clear that we had reached Carlisle. The last stop before the Scottish border. A door slammed a bit further down the platform before the conductor signalled to the driver that he was ready for the off. The signal was at green and the train moved off. I pulled down the curtain and resumed my berth. When I put my head down again, a feather was blown upwards and gently spiralled down beside my face. The pillows had obviously seen better days. The sleeper accelerated and the increasingly rapid flashing of passing lights soon ceased as we plunged into the darkness of the Dumfriesshire countryside.

The nurse offered me a glass of water. She had told me I had been there for three weeks. I did not remember anything of those three weeks. I suppose it was a miracle I was still alive, after the torpedoing of the Kenmare in the Irish Sea. Captain Blacklock was lost, as were nearly three dozen of his crew. The U-boat had crept up on us after nightfall, and the torpedo had sunk the boat in pretty short order. I had always felt the Kenmare to be a lucky boat, after she had successfully outrun a U-boat a few months before. But when that torpedo hit, nobody had spotted the bubbles and the explosion had sent a length of metal like a javelin past and through me. When the docs came to see me yesterday, they said I could go back on service after I had fully recuperated. The nurse helped me sit upright. She was a pretty young thing, but obviously used to the wreckage of male humanity and their reactions to her femininity. “Listen, cheeky. There’ll be visitors this afternoon, and I want you on your best behaviour, right?” I managed a smile and she giggled. When the plates for lunch were cleared away, two gentlemen in top hats and a lady in a fur stole walked onto the ward. They stopped at every bed, and if its occupant was capable of conversation, they spoke for a few minutes. The gentlemen and the lady shook hands with every man before they moved on. I was the last one. “So, you were torpedoed? In the Mercantile Marine?” Something wasn’t right in the demeanour of the gent who spoke to me. As if being torpedoed in the Merchant Navy was somehow below his standard. The other man had a sneering aspect to his face. I was glad when they finally took their leave and shook me by the hand. After the lady shook my hand, she turned away with a derisory smile on her face. I opened my hand – and found myself looking at the mark of cowardice. A white feather.

Another stop, this time rather lengthy. Occasional jolts, lots of clanging noises, the carriage being shunted back and forth. Another glance out of the window now showed that the train had arrived at Edinburgh Waverley. The station tannoy rang out, but it was impossible to make out the message. Finally, we went on our way, passing through Haymarket station and through the western suburbs of Edinburgh. It was still pitch dark. I could now clearly hear the roar of the diesel engine; at Waverley, the Sleeper train had been split up into its constituent portions, for Aberdeen, Inverness and Fort William. I sank back into slumbers, now more or less accustomed to the train’s motions as it rattled down the track.

“Father, I never agreed with this war.” But the old man shook his head, vehemently. “Look here. If the King says that we go to war, we go to war! You tried to sign off as a conscientious objector, but that didn’t work.” Aye, at least my father had supported me in that. He had been the one to get me to sign up for the merchant service, so I wouldn’t be in the fighting. That was the idea. Until that torpedo sank the poor old Kenmare. “Go back to sea, son”, he urged me. “You did well, coming back from Patagonia. Look, there is more to be done. I don’t want...” I sighed. There was no arguing with the old man. A week later, I was on another tub, manning the guns to fight the U-boats. Not for long though, as it turned out.

Grey clouds hung over the mountain tops as the train headed north through the Highlands. Occasional drips of drizzle stuck to the window panes, and the wind could be seen bending the grasses along the tracks. The watercourses were full after recent rain. I could feel the chill in the air. An orange glow over the mountains to the east showed that the sun had risen, but the winter’s day would be but short.

“Come with me”, the carter said. “You don’t want to go around in your uniform like that. You’ll stand out like a sore thumb”. Finlay was amazed that the man spoke English, but the riddle was soon resolved when it turned out that he had been sailor, but an injury sustained aboard ship meant he could no longer go to sea. “Here is a tarpaulin, cover yourself until we’re at my house”. The tarp smelled horrible, as if it had recently covered a carcass of some description. Fortunately, the journey did not take long, and Finlay soon found himself in a farmhouse. A meal of bread, cheese and warm milk was put in front of him. “You have to excuse the sparseness of our meal”, the carter apologised. “But shortages are terrible in this war, and we’re not even fighting it. So, you came out of that camp in Groningen?” Finlay nodded. “I was given an evening pass to go to the pictures,” he explained, “and I decided not to go back. I hid somewhere through the night, and well, here I am. Can you get me to Flushing”. The carter threw his head back and laughed. “You know how far Flushing is? It’s right the other end of the country.” The man stopped laughing. “Sorry, didn’t mean to ridicule you. I’ll pull a few strings, and we’ll get you out, safe and sound”.

Inverness was grey, wet and busy. After the emptiness of the Highlands, the bustle of its streets came as a culture shock. Cars, people, traffic lights, shops, cafes – I really had to take a double take. In a way, it was as well I only needed to spend a couple of hours there before my onward journey. Mind you, it was nothing in comparison to the metropolitan swirls of people that I had left behind in London. I put my bags into the left luggage department at the bus station, then dashed across the road to spend a couple of hours in the library.

It almost felt like a wasted effort. Going through all that bother to sneak out of Holland, only to be told on arrival at Harwich that an armistice had been called. It had been a laugh, though, dressed up as a farmer, ostensibly a deaf and dumb one – I didn’t speak a word of Dutch, and anyone speaking English at a time of war where England was involved would naturally be suspicious. Celebrations were taking off wherever I looked, but I did feel rather a fraud. The camp in Groningen had not been a picnic, but all the other chaps had actually seen action. Yes, I’d been at Antwerp in October 1914, which was a nasty piece of work. Whenever I spoke to anyone, they had a tale of one of their relatives who had been lost in the trenches, in the desert or through the U-boats. I could see the guys in the streets, missing limbs, or blind through gassing. And here I was. I had done nothing. Been through nothing. Absolutely nothing. Shameful. I made a decision, there and then. I would never speak of my involvement in the war again.

The ferry rode the waves as it headed west northwest through the pitch blackness of the December night. Every now and again, it slammed down through the waves, accompanied by the sound of more crockery breaking in the galley. Glancing out of the windows, I could just espy the double blink of the Tiumpan Head lighthouse on the starboard side. There were not many passengers heading for the island that night. The curtains were drawn in the forward observation lounge, so I went up on deck to monitor progress. The lights of the houses in Point slowly moved by as the ferry approached Stornoway. The swell abated a little as land drew nearer. On the port side of the vessel, the lighthouse at Arnish showed its red sector.

The shock was almost palpable. How many were on the Iolaire? How many on the Sheila? Who had been on the Iolaire, and who on the Sheila? Rumours buzzed around in electrified atmosphere of uncertainty, dread and grief. I had been on the quayside when the Sheila docked, with my friends speaking of a shipwreck on the Beasts of Holm. But now, in the light of the New Year’s morning, a scene of horror revealed itself. From the Battery eastward, along Sandwick Bay, Lower Sandwick, Holm and east to Aignish, the dead of the Iolaire were strewn on the shoreline. The quiet of the morning was a mockery of the gale of the night before. As I went along to my folks’ place, I could see them all at work, retrieving the bodies of those lost from the grasp of the sea.

It was a beautiful morning, although the first footing of the night before had left me slightly dazed. Not a breath of wind, and the sun was beating down. A large group of people had gathered at the Iolaire Memorial, close to the place where the Iolaire had foundered in the early hours of New Year’s Day 1919. At the gate leading from the small carpark, I was pleased to note that one special person was there. Her absence would have taken some of the shine off the occasion. More people streamed out of a coach that had taken them from town and followed us down the path. “My great grandfather went on the Sheila”, she commented. “Initially, he had gone on the Iolaire when she docked, but he changed his mind. Lucky decision.” I nodded. “One of my great uncles was lost. A conscientious objector, he had joined the merchant service. He was torpedoed in the Irish Sea, but he was given the white feather in hospital.” Her face dropped. “That was so unfair!” she exclaimed. “It was a dreadful thing to do, particularly to a man injured in the line of duty.” I could only agree. “Mind you, my mother’s grandfather never spoke of his experiences in the internment camp in the Netherlands. He came back on the Sheila after being released from Holland, and felt undescribably guilty that he had survived where all his contemporaries had not”. The graver crunched under our feet as we proceeded down the hill, momentarily silent. “The worst story was that of my dad’s great uncle”, I presently resumed. “Shot at dawn for cowardice – whereas he was just plain petrified and scared out of his wits.” We had reached the small memorial and the cairn of stones to its side.

Half an hour later, the service of commemoration had come to a conclusion. Wreaths were cast in the water and a moment’s silence observed. I was one of the last to leave the memorial. As the other people walked away, back up the hill to their vehicles, I stood hand in hand with my beloved. Presently, we turned away from the sight of the spike on the Beasts of Holm. I looked her straight in the eye, took her hands in mine and asked: Will you marry me. Yes, she said.

Muirneag

After years
of faithful service
the white and blue
now sit forlorn

Across the water
by the derelict sheds
a distant quayside
where no-one goes

Through sun and wind
Through snow and ice
Sometimes
not at all

She brought our food
for man and beast
She brought our goods
for rich and poor

Much maligned
much underpraised
as the charter expires
I salute - the Muirneag

Wintry message

Winter is tapping on the window
its messengers are early
melting on the pane
the hailstones gently clatter

Mid September
with October temps
and November weather
for what'll follow in December

Officially it's still summer
autumn has yet to come
but the wind has already blown
its first tune in G major

Autumn it is now
Gales and rain
Sharp showers
Blinding sunshine

The sun
dips below the equator
nights outrun the days
Autumn it is soon

Squally day

The windows rattled
under rain
and strong winds
in the night

The sun took over
when it rose
chasing the rain
away to the east

Autumn is here
in its hurried mode
showers hurry by
barely time for rain

The sea is annoyed
its waves aroused
in confused anger
tossing about

Equinox is nigh
we'll have more
of this and soon
while we journey

out of summer
into winter
out of warmth
into cold

Uniformly grey

Uniformly grey
overhead
the sun is there
not to be seen

Uniformly grey
the sea
stretching
as far as visibility allows

Uniformly grey
the slates
that pave our streets
glistening damp

Some brightness
The view widens
the colour reappears
for a brief instance

From Marvig to Nanaimo

"The Iolaire", Donald finally managed to utter. A heavy silence hung in the room as grandfather composed himself. Distant cries of seabirds drifted in through the open windows. Although a heavy seamist had settled in, sounds permeated through it clearly. Boats chugging up and down the channel near the shore, chainsaws at work in nearby forestry plantations. But all that was lost on Donald. "You can't imagine", he continued, haltingly. "Two hundred guys - wiped out at a stroke". A car drove down the lane, headed for the marina at the bottom. "They had lost a thousand since 1914. In the trenches, to the U-boats, in the desert". Donald looked at me. "People were prepared for that. However dreadful and empty those losses appeared to us, it was their duty. And they did their duty." My eye glanced at the small picture of an early 20th century steamship that carried the name Iolaire. "But they were so happy that three hundred and more were on their way back to Stornoway that Hogmanay evening. Never mind that they were a couple of hours later for the Bells." Donald's voice steadied as he continued his narrative. "But... no. Not 200 at a stroke. And my father was one of them."

Donald sat in contemplation on board his small fishing boat. The chill of the January morning was augmented by the even more chilling news that had reached the village from Stornoway, of a shipwreck with major loss of life. As he tied up his boat along the small jetty, a group of men, dress in black could be seen making their way through the village. Donald quickly walked up the path and grew increasingly apprehensive as the men stopped at the door of his home. His mother answered the knock on the door. Even from the distance, the colour could be seen to be draining from her face.

"I need it for fishing", Donald objected. His uncle shook his head. "There is no way we will ever permit you to go out to sea again. We have lost too many to the sea. Cannot afford to lose any others". The young man felt as if his blood drained right down to his feet. After losing his father, Donald felt he needed his time out to sea more than ever. "No discussion, Donald. I'm sorry, but I've already taken steps to prevent you taking to the sea again." With leaden feet, Donald walked down to the water's edge. His boat sat there - with a gaping, jagged hole in the bottom. His uncle had spoken the truth, and there was no way that craft would ever take to the waves again.

The little man alighted from the vehicle, and to Donald's surprise, quickly moved round to the driver's side to open the door. "It's your last day as my driver," Lord Leverhulme mentioned gravely. "You are off to Canada next week, to look for a new life". The proprietor extended his hand. "I have a meeting now," he continued, putting on his hat. "You'll be off on the Metagama on Saturday. Call round on the Thursday, when you're back up from Marvig, and I'll have something to help you on your way". Donald followed Lord Leverhulme into Lews Castle, but emerged a few minutes later in his normal daily attire. Apart from friends and family, Donald's links to the island were gradually falling away in preparation for his departure.

“It felt so strange”, the old man said. “Five years beforehand, I would never have contemplated leaving Marvig. Our family had lived there for a long time”. The penetrating whine of a powerboat whizzed past on the water below the house, mingling with the on-going sounds of logging from the opposite direction. “The Iolaire changed everything. I couldn’t go out in a boat, because the family had forbidden it. In those days, you did as you were told and no ifs or buts. Not like nowadays, with all those cheeky youngsters”. I smiled at Donald, whose face creased into a broad grin. “Aye. So I found myself driving his lordship around. No complaints, he was a fair employer, a good man.” The grin faded. “The right man in the right place – at the wrong time. Had great ideas, but they fell on deaf ears in the island.” Donald sighed. The telephone rang, and he got up to answer it. “Your dad”, he said after a brief exchange. “Wanted to know if you had arrived safely and all that”. I was surprised. “I told him I had come into Vancouver and Victoria no problem”, I told my grandfather. “I haven’t had a chance really to tell him that I’d gotten into Nanaimo, but no matter”.

The steam train juddered along the track, at not a lot faster than walking pace. It whistled at regular intervals, as it had done for innumerable hours, or at least, that's the way it seemed to Donald. Rolling hills stretched all around, endlessly. Not verdant green, but a tired, brown-grey green. When the wind rose, it whipped up clouds of dust. Rolling hills. Like rolling waves. Donald continued to gaze out of the window, but did not see what was passing. He did see the memory of his mother's face when he finally left the croft in Marvig, when they both knew they would never see each other again, although Donald had promised to return. The hundreds of people in Stornoway, many of his friends among them, who had gathered to see off all those who were leaving on board the Metagama. The flaming beacon near the Butt of Lewis, in fact the burning home of one of the emigrants. The smoke of it was the last thing espied of the island, long after the landmass of Lewis has sunk below the horizon. The endless rolling waves of the North Atlantic, day upon day upon day. And now the rolling grasslands of Canada. The train came to a halt. "Here's your station", the conductor said outside his window. Donald picked up his kit and jumped down on the boards that made up the platform. A lone house stood, perhaps a mile away in the distance. The sole habitation for miles around.

“I don’t know who got you to alight here, son”, the farmer said. Donald was shocked at his appearance. “You can sleep in the shed, but you’ll have to go back on the train in the morning. We barely have enough food to feed ourselves.” That was patently obvious from the man’s appearance, gaunt, thin and generally appearing malnourished. “We’ve had a terrible couple of summers down here”, he continued. “See all the sand that’s blowing around? That’s good earth blown away with the wind. We’re left with nothing. We’ll probably have to up sticks this winter”. Donald was horrified to hear this story, but the man beckoned him to come inside. His spouse, looking equally unwell, set an extra plate on the table for Donald to join them. The rations were pitiful, and when he explained that he had come from Scotland to start a new life, the farmer shook his head. “Not in this region, son. Move west. Plenty of plots there, and we’re headed that way before this year is out.”

The gently rolling hills, with mountains on the distant horizon. Like the gently rolling swell of the Minch back home. Only in verdant green, not the gunship metal grey of the northern seas. Donald stood at the fence around his new home, a ranch they called it in these parts. In his hand, a letter from his mother, in reply to the one he had sent An image flashed before Donald’s eyes, of his mother, standing outside the door of his old home in Marvig, as she opened his letter. But just as emotion threatened to get the better of him, Donald caught sight of a horse and cart approaching his farm from the distant main road. Something was not quite right, and that was borne out by the noise of snapping wood and one of the wheels coming off the cart as it approached the fencing around Donald’s homestead. The driver jumped free of the wreckage and rolled head over heels into the grass. Quickly, Donald dashed the few hundred yards to the scene of the accident. When he reached the wreckage of the cart, the figure of the driver rose up from the grass nearby. Shrieking with laughter. It was a girl. “Bloody cart!” she swore. “They have a motorcar at my dad’s place, but will they let me drive it, no!” Donald’s apprehension quickly evaporated as he helped the young woman to her feet. “You ok?” he asked, but he knew the answer before it was given. “Ach yes, it would have been a different story if I hadn’t jumped clear”. Donald looked at the girl more closely. “I’m Anna”, she announced. “I’ve heard about you, well done for getting this place up.” She glanced past Donald. “Nice ranch you have here. What’s your name?”

I smiled at my grandfather. The cart crash was a family joke, and it was often portrayed that Anna had literally jumped into his arms at the time of the accident. "We got to see quite a bit of each other and just over a year later, we tied the knot", he went on. A thought entered my head. Never before had my grandfather told the story of the Iolaire, and how it had prompted him to emigrate. "What would you have done if the Iolaire had never happened?" Donald put down the teacup he was drinking from. "I would never have left the island. Would have married an island girl and raised a family at Marvig in all likelihood", he replied. A long silence fell. The logging had stopped and fewer boats were plying in the channel outside Nanaimo. The lazy sound of flies and bees was slowly dying down as the afternoon drew to a close. "Without the Iolaire?" he resumed after a while. "I would never have emigrated." I nodded. "I would never have met Anna". Something of sadness crept into his face. "I would never have met you." An even longer silence fell. "It is quite a thought, you know. But without the Iolaire..." I could see the tears welling up in my grandfather's face. And a lump grew in my own throat. He stood up and so did I. "Without the Iolaire", I took over, barely able to speak, or contain my own emotions. "If it hadn't been for the Iolaire," Donald resumed. "You, my granddaughter... " He had to stop. I completed his phrase. "I would never have been."

Three dimensional weather

Streaming down
the window
in drops
and rivulets

Streaking
across the water
in gusts
and broad sweeps

Colouring
all in shades
of one colour
grey

Our weather is three-dimensional today

Summer has ended

Curtains have come down on summer
They are sweeping the harbour
Winds of change have blown in
as September takes charge

The stage is set
for the descent into winter
the first step is taken
one of many

The orchestra tunes up
Aeolius directs
the key does not matter
neither does major or minor

Green still dominates
but is muted by rain
the west wind paints
white crests on the waves

The sun will return
but sinking
lower and lower
in the midday sky

Orion is marching
his hounds at heel
through the night
in the southern sky

Thursday night

The clock strikes nine
The lights are on
the streets deserted
echoing

Behind windows
humanity moves
whirls on whirling
music

Shadows flit
amongst the buildings
teasing
the unsuspecting

The wind
whistles along
from the open sea
the lighthouse winks

The clock strikes ten
The lights are on
the streets echoing
to those long since gone

Hiort

The birds nest unmolested
on the cliffs
where fowlers
would prowl

The sheep run unfettered
on the cleit filled
fields
around the village

The ship disappears
and none remain
around the curved
bay

The houses stand
a mute testimony
to lives lived
behind their walls

But time caught up
with their little speck
in the wild
north Atlantic

They scattered
like so many seeds
on the uncaring winds
of change

The bible lies open
at Exodus
A pile of grain
on the table

St Kilda was evacuated at the request of its residents on 30 August 1930.

Cuidhsiadar

"I could never believe what happened. No, really. A chance in a million. Life is so quirky at times." Katie looked out over the flat expanse of moorland outside her window. She slowly made her way through the sitting room to the kitchen, where the sun was streaming in. The jaggedy teeth of the mainland mountains rose up from the horizon, with the blue expanse of the Minch stretching in between. I followed her into the kitchen, where she flicked on the kettle for a cuppa. Like brown waves, the moorland fell towards the sea, but a small white edifice stood out in the near distance. An old chapel, long since out of use. "If it had not been for the chapel", Katie presently continued, "we would never have met." I sat down at the kitchen table, and sipped at the tea, still boiling hot. With quick movements, she laid out plates, a platter of scones, butter and jam. "I'm glad you came this week", the old lady smiled at me. "I'm moving out next week. I mean, we could have talked in my place in town, but that's not the same, is it?" I had seen Katie's flat on the outskirts of Stornoway before I headed north. Although functional towards the needs of her advancing years, it was singularly lacking in atmosphere. "It wouldn't have been, no, Katie", I said. After making a scone, I proceeded to enjoy it, washing it down with some tea. The clock presently chimed eleven. A silence fell, and the noise of the sea could be heard in the distance. Sheep bleated in the distance, in the folds of the heather. Other homesteads stood nearby, most of them deserted. For this was Cuidhsiadar, the Homestead of the Cows.

The Atlantic surf thundered continuously against the ancient rocks of northern Lewis. The galeforce winds blew in from the ocean, up the slopes of the machair and past the humble abodes along the main road from Stornoway. The anvil topped clouds that barrelled in from the northwest presently unleashed their cargo of rain and hail, before being whisked onwards, away towards the Scottish mainland. The smooth slopes fronting the ocean held one exception, an walled enclosure full of stones. The last mourners had left the graveyard a while ago, but John remained behind. When the minister left, he had stopped briefly by the huddled figure and spoken words of comfort. It was clear, however, that he wanted to be left alone, so the minister briefly gripped John's arm, and went on his way. At length, the curtain of clouds tore and the sun burst through, now low above the horizon. It reminded John that life went on, and that he still had a long walk ahead of him to get home. With considerable difficulty, he turned round, and away from the sight of the last resting place of his beloved. Another one gone with the consumption. If anyone had to go with it, why her? Tears streamed down his face as John was pushed down the road by the strong winds.

"Dad went to pieces", Katie said softly. "He had only been married for, one or two years, and she got the T B off someone on the ferry". She sighed. The sun continued to stream into the kitchen, but the blue of the sky was beginning to get pencilled in with wisps of white, high cloud. Out in the Minch, a ship was ploughing through the swell, on its way into the open Atlantic to the north. I turned away from the window and looked at John's portrait above the fire place. A dark, handsome young man, smiling beside the portrait photograph of his new wife, who was to be with him for such a cruelly short time. "TB was rife at the time", Katie explained. "Christine was taken to the County Hospital in Stornoway in the end, but she never recovered. They did not have the treatments then that we have now." Rising from the kitchen table, Katie busied herself clearing away the tea things, washing up in the quick movements of decades of experience. I resumed my chair, waiting for her to finish. It did not take long. "Going to pieces doesn't cover it", she presently resumed. "After the funeral, there usually was some sort of communal meal, with tea and sandwiches and cakes provided by people. "He never turned up."

Steadily, the lighthouse's beam swept across the dark waves of the Atlantic, where it merged with the waters of the Minch. Inland, it caught the houses of the village, half a mile away. The chickens clucked in their coop, safe against the vagaries of the wind and rain. The cow in her shed shifted and lowed softly. The oil lamp swayed in the draught as the door opened, letting the young girl in. Her hair was a bit dishevelled on account of the wind, but she swept her long, dark hair out of her face. "All quiet out there" Catherine smiled at her father. He rose out of his chair and knocked the contents of his pipe into the dish on the table. "Time we turned in," he said quietly. Not long after, darkness reigned in the village, as all its people had retired for the night. The beams of the lighthouse swept the waves as the clock ticked in another day.

The animals ambled down the track at a gentle pace, their backs stretching like an undulating wave of brown ahead of Catherine. The morning sun had risen out to her left, over the mainland hills, not visible now due to the glare. A crispness in the air and a crispness underfoot were a reminder of the sharp overnight frost, which was lifting. Down below, a fog bank had settled over an area of marshland, but even that showed signs of dispersing. At the next village, another group of cattle joined in the trek, herded by a contemporary of Catherine. Soon, a large group of cows were mooing their way south, tails swishing, some stopping for a nibble at the grass, others jostling for position in a mute power struggle. But the girls were always in the right place to keep them in check. Finally, the herd reached the end of the last village and an expanse of empty moorland stretched out for miles ahead and to their right. The sea lay some distance away to the east. Going at a steady if slow pace, the young women had plenty of time to catch up with their gossip, who was going out with who, what had happened at the caithris na h-oidche the other day (a subject that tended to elicit a lot of giggles and sniggers). But when Catherine broached the subject of the funeral, all merriment fell away.

“Everybody had been out searching”, Katie sighed. “The funeral finished at three, and when he had still not turned up at half past four, people started to get worried. They scoured the machair, and even got a boat down from Port to have a look round the coastline.” She fell silent with the memory. The sun was starting to fade and now seemed to shine as through frosted glass. “All the villages were out until darkness fell.” A whimsical smile crossed her face. “My dad was also involved in the search. But they all looked in the wrong place”.

The darkness was palpable. Only the blink of the lighthouse was visible, and that was too far away to illuminate anything at this distance. The wind had been dropping and the showers had all but faded when the sun set. It was now two hours later, and the storm had subsided. Not just the windstorm, but also the turmoil in John’s head. He had followed his feet away from the machair, across the main road and into the moor. Away from that place. Away from that memory. But although he could put physical distance between the cemetery and himself, the stark reality of death remained with him. He breathed in deeply as the emotion resurfaced. No time for that now. John looked around at the clear firmament and got his bearings through the constellations that swung up in the sky. He established that he was facing south. Fragments of his frantic trek returned to him, and John knew that the faint trail his feet had been following would lead him to a collection of sheiling huts. He knew them as Cuidhsiadar.

"Don't give up". Was it a dream? It probably was. John awoke and immediately froze in terror. He was sitting crouched - at the edge of a very tall cliff. The voice repeated, a little more urgently: "Don't give up". Slowly, John moved backwards. A shadow cast over him, but when he glanced up, he could only make out the shape of another person standing over him. A hand was extended down to him, and John turned to face the other. "Take my hand", the girl said. He took her hand, and slowly, she helped him to his feet. "Who are you?" John asked. "I'm Catherine", the girl responded. She was not much younger than his wife. "You are John", she continued. "The whole district is out looking for you." He began to explain what had gone through his mind, but she moved a little closer to him. "Come with me. Were you out all night?" And with that, Catherine took John past the ruin of a house to the roofless chapel nearby. "I was going to find shelter at Cuidhsiadar", John said, his voice croaky. "I don't know how I ended up here..."

“I found you”, said Catherine. “Isn’t that all that matters? People thought...” She stopped herself. “You are safe now”. The young man looked the girl in the eye. Her dark hair fringed her face and was strung out over her back by the wind, blowing in from the sea. His nightmare inexplicably receded as she returned the look. A minute or two later, she led him out of the old chapel, into the sunshine of the April day.

“He never looked back,” Katie said. “John was still deeply affected by the death of Mary, but he never plunged to the depths of despair that drove him into the moor that day”. Her now white hair fringed her face, as it had done several decades ago. I could only imagine what she had looked like as a young woman; I didn’t want to start asking for photographs now. The sun had disappeared behind the clouds and the wind was ruffling the grasses outside the window. “I am still missing him”, Katie resumed. “On what was to be his last day, I took him over to the chapel, and we had a wee picnic. The next morning... well, he was no longer with us”. A tear welled up and ran down her cheek. I gently hugged Katie and kissed away the tear. I held her and waited for her to regain her composure. “I have to go now”, I said softly. “The weather is closing in, and the moorland road could become very boggy if it starts to rain really hard”. She nodded. “Off you go, lad. Give my love to your folks.” I went outside, gave Katie a final kiss and stepped into the four-wheel drive. I could see her white hair blowing in the wind as I slowly made my way up the track.

Equinox

Equinox approaches
Night and day
nearing equality
in length

Summer is closing
autumn is opening
flowers are fading
clouds speeding up

Seas are fast rising
the warmth now receding
the long days of summer
a long lost memory

Moorland no more

Where emptiness once ruled
The towers now stand
where inertia lay
mills now rotate

The hills stand bemused
at the intruders
in their ancient
bogbound realm

A fast roadway is carved
where moorland once lay
in my slow ascent
of Meannan

Two dozen years
they'll stand there
idle
though turning

The wilderness's gone
reduced to tussocks
beside the roadway
to the windfarm

Donnan

The phone line went dead. Although it made no difference at the other end, Linzey violently pressed the red button on her mobile phone, then slammed the device down on her desk. The air turned blue in her office while she let off steam. How dare they. That's not what they were there for at all. Linzey got up out of her chair and strode imperiously to the window. The weather matched her mood. Hail clattered down in amongst downpour of rain, and squalls of wind bent the sparse trees in her garden. Presently, the air cleared and the April shower drew away east. The western horizon widened to reveal the usual vista of islands. The object of her anger sat a dozen miles out at sea. The outline of the island concerned resembled a notch.

Calum eased his vehicle onto the ferry at Fionnphort. One more ferry trip, and he'd be at his final destination. After applying the handbrake, he switched off the engine and left the car. The blustery southwesterly wind carried a few droplets of rain along from the approaching shower. As the ferry approached the slipway, visibility was reduced to zero as a violent squall blew in from the Atlantic. Unabashed, Calum drove onto the island and finally stopped outside the church. Once the shower had passed onto the mainland of Mull behind him, he stepped outside and walked up to the crest of the hill behind the church. Calum glanced to the south. Now that the rain was gone, the air was crisp and clear as glass. No distant coastline could be discerned on the horizon that was not part of the coastline of Argyll. Ireland was no longer visible. He was home.

Donald sat opposite Calum in the dining hall at the Iona Church. A buzz of conversation hung in the hall, and their voices mingled indistinguishably with the others. The lunchtime hour proved to be another focal point for the day, and the two men found it likewise. A group of Americans sat in quiet contemplation in one corner, with a number of people who sounded eastern European occupying the other. A babble of languages echoed off the walls of the ancient church, but Calum was only listening to Donald at this time. “So you want to set up this group on one of the islands”, Calum resumed. The younger man nodded, his eyes fixed intently on his superior. “I am not so sure that your choice will go down very well” he continued, but Donald cut him short. “Calum, I am determined”. His fierce eyes flashed beneath his heavy brow. “That is my place. It is my calling.” Calum tried to persuade the other with various arguments, but none of them seemed to take root in Donald’s mind. “Have you thought of Skye? I am going there next week, and if you join me...” Once more, he was interrupted. “The group in Skye are well underway, and I know that you have done a lot of groundwork there”, Donald said. “It is more appropriate for you to continue what you started there. This new location will be wholly mine, like Skye was to you”. A smile broke out on Calum’s face, and he reached across the table to Donald. “I can see your mind is made up, Donald. You go, and I am in no position to stop you. If you wish, I’ll even endorse you where necessary. Just bear in mind the warning I gave you.” The smile faded. “You are making a sacrifice, although you cannot see it.” The other shrugged, but out of friendship and respect did not answer directly. “Thank you Calum. I’m leaving tomorrow morning. Bit of a journey, all those ferries and what not. But I’ll be in touch.”

The drizzle hung like a fine mist around the cliffs and promontories of the islands. A moderate breeze did nothing to move it on. In fact, it was the sort of drizzle that makes you wetter than through a downpour. The ferry doggedly chugged its way from Mallaig, and after an hour and a half, the grey, misty shapes of the first island emerged. Donald, finishing his cup of tea, prepared to disembark. The ferry's ramp scraped the slipway, and one or two vehicles drove off. The foot passengers followed suit, with about a dozen waiting to join the ferry to leave the island. Walking down the causeway, Donald squinted against the fine rain which blew into his face. He quickly dived into the tearoom at the end of the causeway.

Ephemeral, ghostlike. The impression that the island made on Donald as he walked up the main, single-track road. It wound its way through an area of woodland, through which wisps of mist drifted. Nothing else was visible beyond a range of perhaps a hundred yards. Trees came and went, materialising out of the cloud, only to fade again behind him. A slight twinge of unease crossed Donald's mind, as he remember the words of Calum, back in Iona a few days ago, cautioning him about this journey. However, there was no point speculating about the sacrifice that might be required of him, so Donald carried on regardless. The roadway presently left the trees, and became surrounded by rough moorland - as far as was discernible in the poor visibility. A vehicle could be heard coming up behind him, and Donald stepped aside to let it past. However, it pulled up beside him and the offside door swung open. "Want a lift?" He did not have to be asked twice.

As the car rounded the descending curves, it emerged from under the cloud and the landscape opened out in its pale greens of early spring. The yellow grasses bent in the wind and a high precipice slowly materialised to the right. It frowned dark over the demure homesteads that looked out across the sea. The foundations of the next island were only just visible under the low cloud. The vehicle turned off down a rough track and came to a halt outside a large farmhouse. A chilly wind blew in as the two occupants stepped out. "We've been waiting for you, Donald", the man said. "Calum got in touch with us on Wednesday to say you would be here, and I'm sorry I didn't catch you at the ferry terminal". Donald smiled. "Duncan, I'm only too pleased to be here". With that, the two entered the house.

Linzey stood at her window fuming. Low cloud, again. The spits of drizzle sat on the window, dissolving the sea salt that the sea spray from last week's gales had left there. The project manager stood there, waiting sheepishly for the woman's ire to subside. "The forecast for early next week is much better", he finally managed to intercede. "I have a helicopter and we'll take a whizz over the water to take a look at things." That did little to placate Linzey. "I am also hearing that the people on that island don't like my scheme. Don't like!" Her voice briefly reached a crescendo on that last exclamation. "Jobs during the building, and jobs when it's all complete. Are they daft? Don't they know what's good for them?"

"More money than sense". The phrase rang around the room, where Donald was being briefed. "Here is this woman, Linzey whats-her-face, and she bought herself an island", with scathing sarcasm lacing the latter part of the sentence. "She hasn't got a clue. Not a frigging clue, what this island is actually all about. People have gone to war from it, for King and country. People have left it, because they couldn't make a living. Not because they wanted to, at heart. And after the last nutcase of a laird, here comes this city high-flyer with a nine-figure bank balance, who thinks it's all the rage to own an island". Donald patiently listened as Duncan expressed his anger at the landowner's insensitivity. "Has she, or her representative, spoken to you all about this, I mean, discussed her plans?" Donald braced himself for the storm that promptly erupted in reply, which could best be summarised as a negative. "Has the local council said anything about the planning application?" More mutedly, it was explained to Donald that a planning application had not yet been submitted. "It sounds to me that you have your protest campaign pretty well organised," he finally said. "I'm totally behind you, as is our organisation. Calum is backing me, as you know. This island is for its people, for those that choose to make a living here. Not for playboys or playgirls, as in this instance, to make it their playground." He strode to the window. The fog was slowly lifting, giving tantalising glimpses of the mountains on neighbouring islands. Donald pointed to the one closest to him. "A castle was built there a century ago, and it was only occupied for six weeks in the year. It stood empty the rest of the time." A tinge of sadness crept into his voice. "But there were no other people living there, other than those associated with the castle. The original population had been removed seventy years before the castle was built." Donald turned away from the window and gratefully accepted the offer of a cup of tea. He buttered a scone, added a good dollop of strawberry jam and thanked his host for the refreshments. Just as he was about to resume his discourse, the door opened and a woman put her head round the corner. “Donald?” she asked. “Phone call for you”.

The clouds had now fully lifted from the top of the escarpment, which rose up ahead of Donald. A thousand feet of cliff face ran for about a mile or so in a huge amphitheatre in front of him. The houses in the foreground seemed to cower under it. But the sheets drying on the clothes¬lines were fluttering unconcerned in the breeze that was now picking up from the sea. Duncan pointed out what Linzey had in mind. “There will be some sort of cliff top development, over there, to the left. Not sure how they will work it with water, sewerage and all that, but, like I said in the house, those are minor details. In her mind”, the latter three words were pronounced with heavy emphasis. Donald pursed his mouth. “Pumping station?” Duncan scoffed. “Pumping my good right foot. A thousand feet, I’m telling you.” Donald shrugged. “More money than sense?” he gently teased. Duncan grinned. “It gets worse. You may think, that’s a bit of a climb to the top of the cliff, even along that slope at the end. She wants to stick a cable car to the top on there. Do you have any idea what sort of winds we get here?” Donald shook his head, in disbelief. “Apart from the cable car, there will also be a road from the old churchyard on the east coast. Across from the ferry terminal.” Donald looked at his host. “I’ll be devil’s advocate”, he presently said. “Do you need jobs?” Duncan kicked the stones in the road. “That’s a poor excuse, Donald. Of course we need jobs, I mean, this is a remote island, and people need money like everywhere else. But not at any cost”. Donald nodded. “Will this benefit you in any way?” Duncan slowly walked up the road, towards the cliff. “Tourism benefits us”, he slowly said. “But this development will not benefit us at all. The jobs will go to outside contractors, who’ll bring in their own skilled labour. If and when it’s complete, everything will be brought in from the mainland. We will not benefit, Donald.” The latter nodded gravely.

“It’s my island”, Linzey snapped at the telephone. “I’ll do with it as I see fit. I have spoken to the developers, and they say it is a perfect opportunity for a cliff-top hide-away. Away from the people on the island, who will not be bothered by it at all”. The voice at the other end crackled, but was summarily cut off by the proprietrix. “They have no say in the matter. It’s my island. How many times do I have to repeat that, Calum?” Her temper rose again, but Linzey managed to keep it under control. “People feel that they are not going to benefit from your scheme at all”, came Calum’s reply. “That it’s just some plaything of yours. Forgive me.” The last two words were not transmitted down the phoneline, as Linzey had terminated the call.

Slowly, the sun sank towards the western horizon, now unobscured by any cloud, mist or fog. Donald stood on the beach near the farmhouse where he had met the islanders upon his arrival, earlier in the day. The weather had changed markedly through the afternoon, with the fog lifting from the mountains, and the clouds breaking up. The last of these had drifted away to the east, and the sun shone unimpeded. As it sank towards the distant shapes of Barra and Uist to the west, its rays bathed the precipice behind Donald in deep, blood red. Donald’s unease resurfaced. The temperature was plummeting, and although it was mid April, a frost was definitely on the cards. The swell was running ashore in front of him, but the tide was going out. Donald was lost in thought. The sun disappeared behind the islands in the distance. The lighthouse of Hyskeir, closer by, began to blink its warning. A feeling of dread threaded its way round Donald, although he could not pinpoint its cause.

The stars came out when dusk faded into night, continuing their eternal circle around the seeming centre of the north sky. The wind went to bed early, prompting an even faster fall of the mercury. Slowly, a sheen of ice formed on the lakes at the top of the cliff. Water in the fissures of rocks also froze, expanding as it solidified, exerting an incredible force. One rock cracked in the night. It was located quite near the edge of the precipice, below which lights twinkled in the homes of the island. The lowest overnight temperature of April 17th there was recorded at minus five Celsius.

Dawn broke. The sun rose over the mainland mountains, and began its daily journey along the blue skies of the Scottish northwest. Donald stood at the dizzying height of a thousand feet, not all that far from the top of the precipice. A large group of people had climbed the steep incline to the location of the proposed cliff-top development. To the northeast, the whirr of a small helicopter came within earshot.

Linzey glanced out of the small windows of the private helicopter that was heading southwest towards her island property. “It’ll only be a few minutes now”, the pilot announced, his voice distorted through the intercom. “What the ---“, Linzey began as she scanned the top of the large cliff face. The northern end was thronged with people. “I’ll have to drop down away from those folks”, the pilot announced. When Linzey began to upbraid, he cut her short. “I am not taking any risks. I’m already taking enough as it is.” Finally, the aircraft touched down on a level piece of ground. Linzey jumped out of the helicopter.

A man with fierce, dark eyebrows stood in front of the crowd of islanders, his arms crossed in front of his chest. Linzey waited for her backup to make it to her position before she headed for the confrontation. She was determined to ignore the pleas for cool and calm heads. Presently, she stood in front of Donald, her angry eyes meeting his calm, almost resigned expression.
“You can demonstrate all you want”, she said. “But this will come about, whether you like it or not”. Something of a growl arose from the group of islanders, but a gesture from Donald cut that short. “The people are entitled to make their views known. They live here”. Linzey snapped. “Oh, do they now?” With biting sarcasm, she continued. “I don’t see any houses up here.” Once more, the anger of the islanders was audible, but Donald held it in check with a gesture. “Of course they are happy to welcome anything that will benefit them as well as yourself”. Once more, the proprietrix interrupted. “I am not interested in your softly softly garbage”,Linzey announced. “I had that from your boss in Iona, I had that from your friend Duncan over there, and I’ve had it up to here with you all.” Donald grew concerned at the uncompromising attitude of his adversary. Linzey carried on regardless. “This project will get the go ahead. The islanders can work on it. If they don’t want to work on it, they can leave the island. For good.” A gasp arose from the two dozen people behind Donald. They now surged forward, taking their spokesman with them. Linzey stepped back, a look of concern in her face.

Her concern was justified. The entire exchange had taken place within feet of the top of a tall precipice, and Donald was the one standing closest to it. Linzey turned round and splashed through the bogs at the top of the precipice, heading back for her helicopter. “Get her!” came the cries from one or two. Raising his voice, Donald pleaded for calm. “This won’t help our cause”, he shouted above the uproar. Stepping back, his weight landed on top of the rock that had succumbed to the force of freezing water in the night. It gave way.

This is a 21st century take on the 7th century legend of St Donnan. He was a follower of St Columba and felt called to go to the Isle of Eigg to spread the Word there. He established a monastery there, and made good progress with the local people. However, the queen of Moidart, across the water on the mainland, was annoyed with him and sent a band of her corsairs across. They fell upon the monks and murdered them all.

For a friend (6)

Slowly
the cloud
lifts from
the hills

The sea
mirrors
the emerging
midday sun

A gentle breeze
whispers
of autumn
in the air

Oblivious
the black shadow
brings death
to those unawares

A familiar form
strides
down the hill
long not seen

Bounding up
in boundless joy
the companions
reunite

The other shadow
looks on
as light returns
and warmth resumes

For a friend (5)

The moon
rises
serenely
over the hill

The wind
has dropped
leaving the waves
to thunder ashore

The last light
of the day
reflects
in calm waters

A call
as yet unanswered
A present
left wrapped

A few more days
and the light
and affection
will return

For a friend (4)

The wind howls
along an empty shore
the rain clatters
on vacant windows

The wind sighs
through the wires
the rain patters
on the rooftiles

The wind whistles
through the fencing
a shadow flits
among the fading growth

Out of wind and rain
the shadow sleeps
awaiting the companion's return
from distant shores

For a friend (3)

Crouching in the fading growth
Waiting for a meal to hop by
The window is open
But darkness will remain

Here is another
Let's go and show off
But strange eyes meet yours
However friendly and kind

The true companion
Is far away
In the alien land
of the multitudes

Longing for the
unconditional love
that you hold
which speaks from your eyes

The seashore is empty
The hills stand forlorn
The roadway is deserted
But you await in oblivious patience

[A friend of mine, who also lives in the Outer Hebrides, is away to the mainland for a week. Her cat has had to stay behind, but is being cared for by a neighbour. My friend cannot really bear to be away from her cat... ]

For a friend (2)

From the open rolling hills
overlooking the endless ocean
from the now fading flowers
lining the shores

Your companion
oblivious to your absence
feeds herself
doesn't need to be fed

The huntress
will find an empty house
in darkness
but winked at from the sea

The Hunter
now rises at dawn
his magnificent belt
on the eastern horizon

from where
you'll soon return
to be welcomed back
by your adoring companion

to the open rolling hills
overlooking the endless ocean
the flowers faded
along the grass lined shores

A drowning

Under the twin peaks
of Ceapabhal
overlooked by the rolling hills
of Na Hearadh

The isle of St Taran
closes the horizon
beyond which the Clisham
towers over all

The primordial grey
of the sullen rocks
offset
by golden sands

The green sward
of machair
in the summer's
golden evening glow

A fringe of white surf
breaks
on the South Harris coastline
a wreath

[A holidaymaker was drowned, swimming off the coast at Borve, Harris, last night]

Callanish Stones

The circle of stones
the aisle running north
two arms either way
never changing

The seasons turn
the winds blow
the rains fall
the sun shines

The circle of stones
a tomb in their midst
aligned to the moon
at its lowest point

The seasons turn
the snow falls
the clouds scud
darkness shrouds

The aisle running north
two parallel rows
parallel to the sea
parallel to the hills

The seasons turn
The gales howl
None are around
as the sun rises

Two arms either way
a row of stones
running towards the loch
another running towards the hills

The seasons turn
the sun brings back life
as lambs gambol
and flowers bloom

Never changing
we may come
we may go
but they will abide

The Callanish Stones

Short story III

Wearily, the man trudged up the dusty road. He felt slightly dizzy after the celebrations in town, but that was actually just a dim memory. A memory quickly eclipsed by the living nightmares that flashed in front of his mind's eye unbidden, unwanted but also unstoppable. Another bridge, and then he'd be in plain sight of the Atlantic. As if he hadn't seen enough of the sea during all those years. But this was different. Briefly snapping out of his dark musings, he had to step aside to let a horse and cart past. A motorcar followed shortly afterwards. The unrelenting wind blew in straight from the sea, carrying occasional bursts of freezing cold rain. Dark grey clouds scudded overhead, but he did not mind. He was home.

Another half dozen miles would do it. The distant roar of the Atlantic surf brought a faint smile to his face, a different roar than what he had been accustomed to since the war started, four years before. The first year of peace was only a day or so away, and many of the lads were on their way up home as well. The familiar line of four hills that had kept him company from town now reappeared some distance to his left, fronted by some lochs. Their colour was gunship metal grey.

The grenade slammed into the gunners’ position, exploded and lifted the gun bodily off its mountings. The gunners manning it were reduced to an undescribable pulp. With the ship heaving heavily in the swell, a wave carried them off to their watery graves. Saving him the job of clearing up. Five of them had been boys from neighbouring villages. No time to think about it, he ran to the next gun and fired a shell at the opposing German vessel. It scored a direct hit on the magazine, and the warship disintegrated in front of him...

He heaved a shuddering sigh as he dispelled the memory. So many others haunted him, day and night. Villagers in the next township looked at him with curiosity as they toiled in the driving rain, but he barely saw let alone acknowledged them.

Thoughts now turned to home, some three miles ahead, where he hoped his bride would be welcoming him with open arms. Oh, it had been a long, long four years. But they appeared to fade at the memory of their wedding day, only a few months before the war started. She had been so proud, gorgeous in pristine white, and the two families beaming. One of those photographers had been there, and heavens, what a chore to sit still while he took a picture. He smiled at the memory of his bride’s youngest brother, a little brat of six years of age, who could not sit still and was now a smudge on the wedding photograph.

Another river, another village, another loch. The afternoon was wearing on, and sunset only an hour away. A cart pulled up beside him, and the grinning face of a childhood friend in the driver’s box. “Well, what have we here. Angus, by the name of the wee man. Can’t have you walking all the way, c’mon man, jump on, I’ll drop you right at your door”. Angus gave his pal a wan smile but took the offer of a ride, even though it was only another mile to home. A cheerful sort, the carter proceeded to give all the news from the village, mainly names of those who had been lost in the war. Angus did not need to be told. He had been there when some of them were lost. He asked a few questions about some of the lassies that they had both been to school with, but he was glad when the blackhouse that was his home finally came into view.

“Thanks Ian, that took a good bit off the journey”, Angus said. His friend handed down his case, and turned his cart round to resume his own trip. “Have you got any idea what you are going to encounter in there”, the carter muttered under his breath. He waved at Angus, but shook his head when the other’s gaze was turned away.

The darkening clouds raced overhead, but at least the rain had stopped for now. The blackhouses almost seemed to want to burrow into the ground to escape the relentless wind. Devoid of colour, they appeared to be moulded into the landscape. A disconsolate cow stood next to his own blackhouse, facing away from the wind. “Mary?” Angus called as he opened the door. “Are you there? It’s me.” A lump formed in his throat as the fair features of his beloved materialised in the light of the fire.

The old lady looked across at her granddaughter, tears welling to her eyes. The television on the kitchen dresser was playing, showing the customary faces of Margaret Thatcher and Arthur Scargill, locked in battle over the miners’ strike. Their mouths moved on the blueish screen, but the sound had been turned off. “He came back the day before Hogmanay”, Mary finally managed to say once she had regained her composure. “A horrible, dreich afternoon. He had walked nearly all the way from town, just Ian the Carter took him the last mile from the Dun. And did I recognise him?” She wiped a tear from her face, as it rolled down, out of her control.

“Who are you?” Angus was taken aback. Surely, she hadn’t forgotten him? “I know it’s been a long time”, he began. “Angus...”, Mary said, her voice trailing off, her face an unexpected picture of surprise, slowly changing to anger. “A long time?” she resumed presently. “You’ve been gone four years, and all you can say is ‘It’s been a long time’”, her voice pitching higher and more shrilly. “Have you got any idea what I’ve been through, with you gone from the house?” Mary carried on. “A woman on her own, with no idea whether you were dead or alive?” Angus’s mouth fell open.

His wife’s diatribe continued, but the shrillness of her voice slowly morphed into the sounds of the aftermath of a ship being torpedoed. The torpedo had struck the engine room. The screams of the engine room crew who had caught the full impact of the escaped high pressure steam from the ruptured boiler echoed in his mind. Angus had jumped overboard but was quickly pulled on board a lifeboat that had been launched. He himself looked around and saw another survivor nearby. The lifeboat was rowed to him, and just as the ship went down, the man was pulled from the water. Angus recognised him, a grandson of the island proprietor that he had been to school with.

“I sent you a telegram from Dover”, Angus managed to interrupt. “Yes, but they said the war would be over soon”, Mary rebutted. “And I never had another message from you, or from the Admiralty.” “I was called up”, Angus tried again. “I had to go at once, and I didn’t have a chance to go back home, or to get word out. Only at Dover, we had to wait there”. But there was nothing that would placate his wife. “Aren’t you pleased to have me back?” Angus said at last. And that did the trick.

“Want another cuppa, gran”, the girl asked. Mary awoke from her musings and nodded. “You know, Liz, I honestly did not recognise him when he came through that door”. Liz poured hot water into the mug, squeezed the teabag and added milk. Stirring in sugar, she handed her grandmother the fresh cup of tea. “Angus had aged, and not just by the four years on the calendar. He was in his mid twenties when we got married.” Mary took a sip of the tea. “He looked like a man of fifty. It wasn’t until I heard the sound of his voice that I recognised him”. She shook her head. “I didn’t have a clue what he had been through. I wouldn’t listen. Who’d want to hear those stories, I thought. He tried once or twice, but, it’s too horrible...”

Angus was outside the house at daybreak, attempting to do the household chores. But for some reason or other, he was unable to concentrate. Shreds of memories from his years in the war kept disturbing him, and when Mary came out a little while later, nothing had been done. Castigating him sharply, she sent Angus inside the house to make a cup of tea. “There is a lot of guys coming home tonight”, he said to Mary when she had followed him indoors. “I might go into town to welcome them”. His spouse took a sharp look at him. “I’m not having you walking all that distance again”, she said. “I’ve done without a husband for four years, and we have time to make up”. A smile crossed Angus’s face, a rare occurrence. “Not just for that”, she rebuffed him, but without the sharpness in her voice.

Mary rose to switch off the television set, where the news bulletin had just ended. She had not heard a word of it, but she held fast to her daily routine. “I’m going to bed, Liz”, Mary told her grand daughter. “You go off home now, I’ll be all right”. The young woman took the cups to the sink and proceeded to wash them. Hugging her grandmother tightly, she left the bungalow into the gathering darkness.

Hogmanay passed in a haze for Angus, his first day home after the long journey that had been the war, and the leaving of the services. Neighbours came to call in a steady procession, but Mary, sensing he was not up to much, took care of proceedings. Several of the village sailors, who had returned home before Angus, tried to entice him to join them in a journey to town, to welcome their comrades who were due on the ferry that midnight. But by that time, early afternoon, Angus himself had decided to stay put for the night. He watched the merry bunch bouncing down the dirt track and turning off at the main road to head for the bright lights. Their return would be a sharp contrast to their departure.

Not long after the cart had disappeared from sight, the unfamiliar shape of a motorcar came into view. Its appointments gleaming in the wan light of a December dusk, a chauffeur hopped out smartly and opened the door to its passenger. Dressed in naval uniform, the young man jumped out and told his driver to wait. Energetically, he strode up to the blackhouse that Mary and Angus called home, tapped perfunctorily on the front door and stepped inside. “Angus, I heard you had come home”. Rising from his chair, Angus recognised the smart figure of his contemporary. “Donald, I’m pleased to see you safe and sound”, and he tipped his cap at his superior. “Yes, and good riddance to a ghastly business”, came the quick reply.

Liz pulled her car into the bungalow’s parking space and lifted her grandmother’s shopping bags out of the boot. Mary opened the door to her house and kissed the girl’s cheek as she came past. Without her granddaughter, Mary would have to go on the bus to town to do her shopping, but at her time of life that was getting quite a lot to take on. The kettle was boiling by the time Liz had put all the messages away, and Mary made her sit down for another cuppa. She opened the oven and lifted out a freshly baked cake. “It’s still warm, but why not try a slice”. Liz gratefully accepted the offer and sat down at the kitchen table. “That last day of the last year of the war”, Mary resumed where she had left off the night before. “It never stopped for Angus. The neighbours, his mates, and to top it all, the man from the Castle”. She shook her head. “I may have been oblivious to his experiences in the war, but that man had actually been through it himself and showed not the slightest regard to the state Angus was in. Not the slightest.”

“Look, Angus, I owe you something”. Donald was not one for beating about the bush. “You pulled me out of the water when that tub was sunk off Ireland, and without you I would not have been alive today”. Angus winced at the memory. “I was flung off the bridge when that torpedo hit, else I would have gone straight to Davey Jones’s locker”. Donald’s flippant manner of speech grated with Angus, and he wished the man would make his point and leave. “Anything you want, I can get you. Name it”. Mary looked at her husband, a pitiful, cowering figure in a rocking chair. He looked back at her. She did not indicate any response. Donald grew a little impatient. “OK, I know what you people go on about. And you were promised a land fit for heroes after you did your duty. Excuse me for a minute, I’ll be right back.” Donald flounced out of the door and returned a minute later with a large ledger. “So, where are we. Right, I have it. Oh, I see. The neighbours haven’t kept up with their rent very well, have they?” Looking positively delighted at the solution to his feelings of guilt, Donald wrote a few lines in the ledger book. “You can have a third of your neighbour’s croft to add to your own.” He shook Angus’s hands, repeated his expressions of gratitude and left. The sound of the motorcar quickly receded into the distance.

“A staggering experience, Liz, one of many that week.” Mary sipped her tea as the morning sun streamed in through the kitchen window. “You may think we were pleased with the extra land.” She shook her head. “Not at that price. Don’t mistake me, it was given for free. But our neighbours were already struggling at the time, and having even less land to play with made it even harder for them. But an even more cruel blow was waiting for them.” The radio quietly played in the background, punctuating the silence that fell in the kitchen. A summer’s breeze wafted outside, bending the grass with long sweeps. The sound of the Atlantic swell, breaking on the cliffs, could be heard in the distance. To the southwest, a line of rocky hills reared up. Above them, the large wingspan of a golden eagle could be seen hovering on the air currents.

A mass of men milled round the station concourse at Inverness. An excited low roar hung over them. Hogmanay was upon them, the end of a year of horror, the last ever of years of horror. Or so they thought. Locomotives stood hissing at the platform, spewing smoke and soot into the station canopy. Finally, a train was announced for Kyle, and the mass of uniformed humanity swung for that platform. When it chugged out of the station, many were left behind. In the end, three trains were required to move all the servicemen to the coast.

A mass of men milled round the quayside at Kyle. Darkness had long fallen after three trains had disgorged their human cargo. The wee ferry to Stornoway was moored alongside, but was in no way sufficient to take the hundreds back to Lewis. Finally, Stornoway was wired and the Admiralty decided to despatch another ship to Kyle. She was called the Iolaire, named after the Royal Naval Reserve base at Stornoway. The Gaelic name meant Eagle.

Radio Four jingled out of the radio. It was just after lunch, and Liz had not left her grand¬mother, who seemed to want to talk. It was Liz’s day off work at any rate, and she always enjoyed listening to Mary’s talk of the old days. However sad some of the stories were. “Oh, there were huge parties in Stornoway after the Armistice, particularly when the lads came back. Some had been in a camp in Holland since the start of the war. Others had been in the trenches on the Western Front. Yet more had been at sea, dodging the constant threat of torpedoes. All had been to hell, and had made it back.” Mary arose and looked out of the window, where the eagle continued to quarter the hills in the distance.

The near gale force wind whistled in the rigging of the two ships that were bringing more survivors of the war north to Stornoway. Visibility was poor, but the lighthouses that marked the way home could still be made out. North Rona, Milaid, Arnish, Tiumpan Head. But were they espied correctly in relation to each other? Midnight struck and the year of 1919 commenced. Squalls of rain continued to sweep the Minch and the adjacent landmass of Lewis, and a heavy swell was running in the channel east of the island. It broke against the protruding landmass of Holm Point, at the entrance to the harbour of Stornoway. It broke against Arnish Point, on the other side of the harbour entrance. But it was too late when those breakers were spotted by the crew of the Iolaire.

The new year celebrations in Stornoway were muted, but well underway when rockets were spotted being launched a few miles to the south at the harbour entrance. Nobody paid attention, as it was thought they were launched in celebration by the crew of a ship out there. People quickly changed their mind when a fishing boat arrived, mentioning emergency rockets being fired by a ship aground at Holm Point. Nobody, the fishermen said, would be able to approach the casualty from the sea.

Dawn broke.

A mast protruded from the sea. The sea had taken. The sea now proceeded to give back. Those that had survived the horrors of war now lay scattered, broken and drowned, like so much flotsam on the shorelines at Sandwick, Holm, Melbost and as far east as Aignish. For the Iolaire had sunk on the Beasts of Holm; some seventy five had been rescued, but more than two hundred had not made it ashore alive. A hundred and forty were returned to their loved ones to be returned to their home soil. Sixty were claimed by the sea for its own, never to be retrieved.

Angus awoke to a bright, nearly windless morning after a rough night. The wind had roared in the chimney, and disturbing dreams had kept him from sleeping properly. But the new year was opening with sunshine, a promise of new life after years of darkness. A knock on the door announced a visitor. Mary was expecting a first footer, but it turned out to be their neighbour, who was anything but in the mood for first footing. The words ‘happy new year’ never left the mouth of any of the three present there. “John...”, Mary said, seeing the devastated look on the man’s face. “What on earth...”. His face crumpled and he collapsed against the kitchen table, on his knees. After a minute, he arose and apologised. “I’ve had news. Our boys, you know, the two that went out in the Naval Reserves?” Angus and Mary acknowledged. “There was a shipwreck in the night, at the Beasts of Holm. Three hundred on board, all lads from the island. Most of them lost...”

No year had ever seen such a terrible start. Beds made with fresh linen were never slept in by the person that was to have occupied them. Pots of tea were left undrunk, cooling through the night as those that were to enjoy them upon their return did not come back. Personal possessions, washed up on the shoreline by the uncaring sea, were gathered up by the villagers who found them. The remains of those that drowned were taken to the Naval Reserve base in Stornoway for identification by their relatives, to be subsequently released for burial.

The pale winter sky arced over the austere landscape. A sombre procession slowly wound its way into the cemetery by the seashore. A scene repeated many times over in the island those first days of the year 1919. Nine burials from Angus’s village were carried into the cemetery in the adjacent township. The unending roar of the Atlantic was to be their everlasting lullaby. Cowed by the shattering blow that had hit them, the villagers finally returned to their homes.