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
though turning

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


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)

the cloud
lifts from
the hills

The sea
the emerging
midday sun

A gentle breeze
of autumn
in the air

the black shadow
brings death
to those unawares

A familiar form
down the hill
long not seen

Bounding up
in boundless joy
the companions

The other shadow
looks on
as light returns
and warmth resumes

For a friend (5)

The moon
over the hill

The wind
has dropped
leaving the waves
to thunder ashore

The last light
of the day
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
by golden sands

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

A fringe of white surf
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.

For a friend

Opening up
is a chance you take
Show your heart
at your peril

Will it
be taken
and cared for

or callously
clinical disinterest?

Look up
the sun still shines
the flowers bloom
the birds still sing

Let the Atlantic
and its winds
blow away
the hurt

You're a better person
in spite of
and better
than what let you down

Short story II

The manager arrived in the village along the dirt track. His arrival was viewed with suspicion and trepidation by the people, who briefly stopped to watch his progress. In turn, the manager scanned his surroundings with barely veiled contempt. The sea breeze blew some of the smoke from the thatched houses past his face. Pushing the hat down on his head, the manager alighted from his carriage and started to call at each of the dozen houses. Although the man of the house was away from a few, that proved no impediment to the delivery of his message. As his wagon trundled back down the dirt track, the villagers gathered by their jetty. News had travelled quickly, even to those who had been out fishing in the sealoch and beyond. Ashen-faced, with many in tears, others shouting in anger, the people of the hamlet discussed the fate that had just been handed down to them. Eviction.

The small fishing boat tacked across the sealoch, trying to make the best of the breezy conditions. The downdrafts off the surrounding hills posed no challenge to the experienced sailor, who, although only a young man, knew these waters like the back of his hand. With a good catch on board, it was time to return home. As he approached the pier of his village, a cloud of dust along the road east indicated the departure of a carriage. An unusual occurrence, certainly at that speed. Our fisherman presently ran his craft ashore, and took his catch out. After pulling the boat above the tideline, he took out his catch and walked into the village - and into a scene of tumult and uproar. "We have to leave the village", was the first hammerblow. "At the start of next month!", was the second. And that was only a week away.

A blustery wind ruffled the heather on the hills above the village. The young woman, herding the black cattle, gathered them from their pasture, a little way beyond. It was time for their milking. Once that was done, she would return down the valley and head for home. And for the arms of her lover. Two fishing boats could be discerned in the sealoch below, and they were headed for shore. Was Calum's one of them? It was difficult to make out at this distance. Having collected the milk in several pails, the young woman and her friends carefully headed downhill. Upon entering the village, they were greeted with news that caused indescribable distress. They were to lose their homes by the next week.

Darkness fell over the village. The seafog wreathed the hovels in a mist of despondency and despair. In a week's time, not much would be left of them, and the little valley would be deserted. The young woman sat with her mother and father, a sheet of paper in her trembling hands. It outlined the terms of the family's departure from the village. "You have proved, by falling into arrears, that you are unable to take care of the land so generously afforded to you by his lordship. As a result, he is now left with no alternative but to remove you from his property. To this effect, transportation will be provided to...". She put down the piece of paper, resisting the temptation to fling it into the fire. Walking outside, she took a deep breath of fresh air whilst watching the moon rise over the sealoch. A hand softly gripped her shoulder from behind. She whipped round, but her alarm vanished when she saw the features of her beloved Calum outlined in the moonlight.

Strangely enough, Calum was smiling, and she swallowed the litany of complaints about the imminent eviction. "Aren't they nice", he began, "offering us land from amongst the folks ten miles away up the coast. It won't be Calum depriving them of any more of their poor soil." The seamist had drawn away, and their faces were lit up in the moonlight. Her face was lit up by more than the moonlight. An unspoken understanding between them appeared to be crystallising into a promise. "I'm not going to eek a living off a postage stamp", he continued. The swell from the Atlantic, beyond the sealoch, prompted waves to break on the shore in the distance. "My folks are all for the move up", she replied. "They are preparing, and will make the flit on Tuesday". Calum shrugged. "Yours are good people", he reassured her. "But there is no future on this coast. Not here, not 10 miles away." Apprehension clouded her eyes. Talk from other villages in the district had been of summary evictions, with people not just leaving for somewhere else nearby, but overseas. Calum moved closer and took her hands into his, looking straight into her eyes. "A ship is coming on Monday, and will anchor in the loch for the people in the next valley", he whispered. "I'm going to be on it. Come with me".

A wisp of high cloud drew in from the west, gradually obscuring the bright light of the moon. It continued to cast a faint light on the couple by the shore, who were too engrossed in each other to notice the imperceptible changes. When they finally turned to return to their respective homes, the moon was all but obscured.

On the last evening before the village was to be cleared of its permanent residents, a sailing ship entered the bay and dropped anchor. It framed the sunset in a stunning backdrop of gold, orange and red - but the beauty of it was seen through a shroud of tears from the villagers on both sides of the bay. Their next sunset would be seen from a different place. As darkness fell, two hearts started beating faster.

It was late at night when Calum bade farewell to his folk, having explained to them what he was going to do. He would not relocate to another desolate part of the coast. After a difficult and emotional time, he walked outside and waved good-bye to his family, outlined against the light of the fire in the doorway of their home. A home which would not be their home anymore very soon. By the light of the moon, he slowly made his way to the shore. Calum's beloved was not yet there. It would be more difficult for her to slip away from her home, as her parents had actually forbidden her from joining the ship. And, knowing that, she was also forbidden from seeing Calum. So, just before dawn, they would meet at the next village, also due for clearance but by emigrant ship. A last boat from that village would go out to the ship at daybreak, after which it was to depart these shores.

All aglow in the glow of the decrescent moon, the young woman watched her beloved sail north across the bay. A wisp of seamist appeared from the glen ahead of her and shrouded his boat from view. The mist also rolled down the slope that lay across her path. Pressing ahead, she entered the area of fog, and ... lost all sense of direction. The path was fairly distinct, and easy to follow in daytime, but it cut through an area of country that was dissected by animal trails, varying from rabbits to sheep, running every which way.

The fog blanketed the hillside, and the young woman had no option but to stop, as she had no idea where she was, or whether she was going in the right direction. Waiting for daylight was not an option, as the ship would be gone at dawn. But when daylight started to filter through the mist, it was as dense as ever. She did make headway downhill, and presently emerged from under the cloud. Moorland stretched in all directions. The sun rose directly ahead of her, in the east, briefly peeping from under the cloud, before it was obscured. Turning round, the young woman espied the sealoch, some distance away west. She dropped the bag with her possessions, and clasped her hand in front of her mouth. She dropped to her knees and stretched her hands out to the west. Her wail of despair was carried away by the uncaring wind.

The sealoch was empty. The ship had departed. With her beloved Calum on board.

She stumbed blindly along the contour of the moorland, crossing trail after trail, with the sealoch some distance to her right. The young woman, wreathed in a fog of despair, was making for home - but a home that, later that day, would no longer exist. The fog on the hill slowly lifted and as her composure returned, she recognised the familiar trail that led down from the now deserted sheilings. Approaching the village, she found the people busy loading their belongings onto carts and the like. As she passed through the belt of rowan trees that sheltered the hamlet, she did not notice the shadow loosening itself from the wall of the first house. A hand took hold of her shoulder. With a yelp, she whipped round. "You didn't think I'd just leave you here, would you?" Calum said, with an impish smile on his face. "But the ship was gone!" came the reply. "Aye, and I did not get on when you weren't there." The smile disappeared from his face. "I couldn't leave you behind. I couldn't".

The mist lifted off the tops of the surrounding hills, and the sun shone down on the township. Its people took one final look back as they filed through the rowan trees and headed up the moorland trail for a new existence on even less land.