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

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

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.


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
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
the sun is there
not to be seen

Uniformly grey
the sea
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

across the water
in gusts
and broad sweeps

all in shades
of one colour

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

Behind windows
humanity moves
whirls on whirling

Shadows flit
amongst the buildings
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


The birds nest unmolested
on the cliffs
where fowlers
would prowl

The sheep run unfettered
on the cleit filled
around the village

The ship disappears
and none remain
around the curved

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.


"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.