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.