A ferry with no quay
A port with no pilot boat
You get that sinking feeling
Is this Stornoway?

I couldn't be less certain
I engaged the service of a scout
My native tongue calls a scout
A pathfinder

Yes she sailed the briny main
to Lochmaddy and back
they tied her up that eve
and that's where she went down

Down too went the pontoons
the tide was going out
the pontoons stayed down
when the tide came in again

The Clipper Ranger to her credit
sails to Ullapool for all our goods
but one evening she became
the Clipper Clanger

She must have wanted
to go down the Crit for a pint
rather than stopping at the quay
she wanted to go ashore

Well 2014 has been some year
over in sunny Stornoway
I hope to be on the MV Loch Seaforth
when I come back again

2014 - 2015

The sun has set on 2014
The sky turns a soft pink
before fading into black
clearing the slate

We remember
those who went on ahead
We remember
those lost in war and strife

We remember
the innocents lost
through a war
they had no part in

We remember
the innocents lost
through a war
they wanted no part in

The sun will rise on 2015
A new year
With its own promises
Let's hope for the best


The park is quiet now
The statues wrapped up
Against the frost
Against the cold

A glaze of ice
Deceives the unwary
Neptune sleeps
above the pond

The fountains
surprise none now
where few now go

The castle looms
its red brick tower
squatly in the moat
part frozen

Only the villagers
know the little gate
to take a walk
in the sleeping park

New Year's Eve's nigh

In the stillness
of a winter's day
a drip drops
from melting snow

We slip slide
and curse
in the slush
and snow

We're teased by thaw
which freezes at night
Up above
the clouds speed up

In the far distance
a change is forming
bringing winds
that will break the frost

Where ancient isles
fringe the far northwest
the first feelers
have already come

The year's closing now
when 2015 arrives
it will come on the wings
of an Atlantic storm


is extending
its unseen grip

has arrived
in the guise
of Santa Claus

sneaking south
flurries swirling softly
on the bitter
north wind

Past the curtain of snow
my eye wanders northwest
to where winter's touch
Is but light

My heart is in two places
all at once
Trees - or the sea


A crescent moon
towards the horizon

A bright star
from the horizon

A promise fulfilled
A joyous night
Merry Christmas

The old home

Black branches
reach up
into the
lowering sky

Dark trees
the near

For years
it was home
it's still home
from long ago

Each tree
is a friend
familiar outlines
all around

The town
doesn't much change
draped over
gentle hillsides

Friendly faces
smile behind
lace curtained

The castle smiles
in its ages old moat
for seven centuries
it was a fastness

The blank wall
of the village church
hides unexpected
beauty and comfort

It's good to be back
Where my memories lie
Where those gone ahead
Repose in eternal slumber

I'll return to the northwest
When the time is there
Never forgetting
My roots in the trees

Short story XIX

The fair town, they called it. Translations never work properly, do they. Strung out from high to low, tapering out to sealevel at the end of the loch. Beyond the junction, the one lone house, under the dark hill. Yes, I remember it well. It's all been changed now. The house is, I mean. The landscape never changes, that'll outlive us all. But when I first caught a glimpse of her, when she first joined me walking back along the old road. Ach, that's past history. She's long left. The hills still remember, though. The loch still remembers.

The river lazily meandered towards the sea. It was in no hurry, going in big sweeping bends. Even when salt water was reached, the sea was still miles away. Nobody was paying attention. Their eyes were turned inward, the group in mournful black, high on the hill above the river. A chapter closed, a marker placed, slowly to weather away. Only memories remained. The kindness of the people had helped to soften the loss somewhat. But after the cakes were eaten, the tea poured and tributes paid - that's where the pain resurfaced. It won't do to look back too long. It's not what she would have wanted me to do, and in a while, I shall obey her wishes. But at this closing of a chapter, I will take you back down memory lane. Up the river, the river of the salmon valley, to its source. If source there be, in this country of endless water.

Widening into an expanse of water, lazily reflecting the blue sky up above. The river lost itself into the loch, only to reemerge from the other side. An uncustomary heatwave blanketed the land, leaving the water as an irresistible lure for those perspiring in the heat. Well, by local standards it was hot. It's not often that the eighties are crested on our thermometers, and the school had sent its children home early that afternoon. A group of them had taken off into the moor, and the hills, near and far, shimmered in the heat haze. Innocently, they had shed nearly all garments and lowered themselves into the water. A perfect summer beckoned, school was nearly finished at any rate. Looming on the distant horizon was the prospect of the big school in town, fifteen miles away. I was one of them that gallivanted, splashed and cavorted in the peaty waters. She was another of the half dozen. Her smile was perennial, and although a girl, I did rate her as a close friend. As the sun moved across the skies and started to angle to the southwest, we headed home. Dark clouds had started to billow up over the hills across the loch, and we only just made it to our doors before the downpour started.

Frost glistened on the blades of grass. Brown and yellow, they gently bent in the cold easterly breeze. The sun rode low in the morning sky, mid-winter wasn't far away. The community gathered for the Sabbath service, well wrapped up against the December chill as they filed towards the church. Us youngsters were also expected to attend. Until recently, we just accepted that as part of life. But now, distractions had inexplicably reared their heads, and they were far more alluring than a service in church. We hung back, allowing our elders to enter the church first, and they nodded as they acknowledged the polite gesture. The church building allowed us to disappear beside it, and when the elders at the doors checked that there were no more comers - they couldn't see anybody. When the door slammed shut, a muffled giggling and laughing emerged from the bushes on the other side of the building. We had foxed them - or so we thought. I soon found myself in conversation with her, engrossed to the exclusion of all else. And thus it was that I failed to spot her father, attracted by the rather unexpected sounds of mirth, marching in on our little group. And thus it was that on the Third Sunday of Advent I was unceremoniously frog-marched into our village church, for everybody to behold. Held by one ear by her father, who was holding on to his daughter by her arm. Everybody turned round - and I've never experienced such a red face. No further retribution was necessary. Humiliation was complete. For a second the little three-some stood. I briefly caught a glimpse of her eye, which twinkled with a hint of a smile. The humiliation slid off me like water off a duck's back.

The final semester at university was over. The mortar board had balanced on my head, the robes slung over my shoulders and the scroll placed in my hand. She had passed with even more flying colours than I had, and we were on cloud nine, on the train north. Apart from graduating successfully, there was also the prospect of employment, completely unexpectedly, at home. Usually, people would anticipate a career elsewhere in Scotland, the UK or abroad. Not in their native Hebridean island. But ours had been an exception. Perhaps we had not noticed the smiles of people around us. Perhaps the glow we emanated shielded us from others' comprehension. It was no consequence. A new life beckoned. An idea formed in my head, and I acted on it by impulse. In Inverness, I made the excuse of getting some supplies for the rest of the journey and scooted off into the Eastgate Centre, right beside the railway station. We met up again on the Ullapool bus, and I showed her the foodstuffs I had quickly bought as well. A couple of hours later, we were sailing down Loch Broom, past Achiltibuie, with Scoraig on the port bow. As the boat emerged into the Minch, a gentle swell bore us across the water. We stood out on deck, watching the mainland hills recede behind us, with Skye cloudlike on the southern horizon. As dusk encroached from the east, I scanned for the first sight of the double blink of Tiumpan Head. When I did, by a quarter to eight, I tapped her on the elbow. When she glanced round, I took a deep intake of breath and asked her THAT question. Her answer was in the affirmative.

Three came along, in the end, in the space of six years. All born in the fair town, where the long water stretches east and the hills frown darkly to the south. It was like a rerun of our own youth, as they grew older. Fishing and swimming expeditions to the lochs in the interior, having to be dragged to the village school, where they made their many friends, and forged the bond to the island, a bond for life. Her smile never changed, although the years slowly took a hold. Our bond for life grew stronger, and that was needed that one dark day, twenty years after we came off the ferry, promised to each other. That day, when our number went down by one. When the policeman came into the kitchen with that furtive, lost look in his eye, telling us about a crash on the Soval bends, on the road into town. And we had to support each other, when we looked on the face of the one whose dreams and promises would never come true.

The unblinking eye stared into the endless sky above. The breeze ruffled its surface into wavelets, deepening the reflected blue. We had this last afternoon to ourselves, before the family would come across for that anniversary party in the evening. It would be a busy one. Both of our two offspring still alive would bring their own children along, and then there would be the cousins, nieces and nephews. No, it wasn't the time of year to cavort about in the loch. We had our woolly hats on, as there was still an early spring keenness in the air. But the first lambs had already started to appear in the fair town, and there was a distant promise of summer. Not speaking, we slowly ambled through the dark, seemingly lifeless heather, and rustled through the dead grass. Yellows, browns and blacks still dominated. Slowly, our path veered away from the watery interior and led us towards a small gorge. The river cascaded through this, until we returned to the main road, leading us back to the fair town. By coincidence the service bus came down the hill, and very considerately stopped to give us a lift.

The sun rose in a sea of red over the loch. The hills in front turned from black to dull green. Angry clouds billowed up from the west, soon obscuring what sun there was. The house stood empty beside the road. A lorry, full of possessions and memories, pulled away, heading for the main town to the north. The day had finally come. Oh, they had told me time and time again. After she was gone, I just couldn't cope anymore. My daughter took me in the car, and stopped outside the cemetery in the next village. She opened the gate and drove up the access track, in order that I didn't need to climb the hill. Her grave was not far from the cemetery gate. My sight blurred as I read the inscription, but my emotions were otherwise in check. I straightened up as best I could, glancing round, probably for the last time. Oh, I'd be back here one day, probably not too far in the future. To join her. Memories flooded back as I glanced where the river was meandering into the interior. Memories. I bit back my sorrow, turned around and went to sit in the car. My daughter drove back down to the main road, and turned right. We had left Balallan earlier. We now took only a few moments to turn the corner by the war memorial, to leave Laxay behind. The turn-off at Keose, then the fateful bends at Soval, that had claimed one of my three children. I closed my eyes as my driver skilfully and carefully negotiated the treacherous curves. The sign welcoming folks to Kinloch was left behind. I had left my life behind.

Short story XVIII

Quietly, the mist wafted around the pinnacles. A deep drop lay beyond, hidden in the fog. Reducing visibility to near-zero, it coalesced into droplets on the winterbrown grass. It lay flat, flattened by a now-melted blanket of snow. It had been early for snow, winter was not yet on the calendar. But fallen it had nonetheless, sending autumn fleeing for the south. Nothing else moved. The last month of the year loomed.

The sun rose, without warmth. Sailing west, low in the southern sky, casting long shadows from the mountains. Like a dark, unvarying ribbon, the road snaked across the landscape. The bracken, green in summer, had yielded to autumn in browns and yellows. The water cascaded down the waterfall, where it had been but a trickle in that dry summer. Some of the water splashed from the rocks onto the roadway, as it snaked and curved down the steep incline. The parapets marking the edges, and lending a false sense of safety and security. As the daylight failed, the moon rose. Slowly, whatever warmth had been around quickly dissipated into the cold, early winter air. In the water on the roadway, the molecules slowed and allowed themselves to be arranged into the hexagonal crystals of ice. Soon, a black sheet of solid ice lay across the tarmac. A trap, unseen, unnoticeable. Waiting to be sprung.

"Nah, don't go out at this hour". The stars twinkled over the top of the nearby cliff. The roadway glistened with false promise, but hidden threat. "It's well past midnight, just stay over". The door slammed shut, shutting out the light from within. No one had come out, and the vehicle remained empty outside the house. From within came noises of the fire being poked up in the grate, another bottle being opened and a CD playing on the stereo. The trap remained unsprung.

A little later than the previous day, the sun pushed the darkness away west. Its rays caressed the hillside, turning the six pointed stars of ice back into glistening drops of water. Dangling from the brown tips of deadened grass, to quietly drop onto the ground below. Soundlessly to be absorbed into the spaghnum moss below. The wind, which had blown up the hillside in the night, imperceptibly lessened and finally dropped altogether. Quietly, the moisture coalesced in mid air, taking the brightness out of the day. Fog. The door of the house opened, and the guest shivered as he made his way to his vehicle. With some trouble, he started the engine and drove down the road. Oblivious, he passed the trap on the hillside. The stream gurgled over the rocks, splattering the road surface. The wheels briefly carried the water in the tyre tracks, then carried on downhill. The sea thundered away west - but the fog shrouded all.

Music throbbed in the air, pulsing out of the windows. Dancing figures, obviously enjoying the occasion of the party, celebrating with wild abandon. Wine, beer and spirits flowed freely, but nobody cared. Freedom was something worth celebrating, and that early December day signified just that. Clouds had long since dissipated and the stars shone brightly. As the midnight hour passed, Orion rose to the southeast, his bright belt ascending the heavens. Stepping outside the hall, the woman lit up her cigarette and filled her lungs with smoke. Her boyfriend shook his head in disapproval, but knew better than to spoil the occasion with a spell of nagging. The air felt bitterly cold, and the stars appeared to be dimming ever so slowly. "I can give you a lift down the road", he suggested. "When you want to go home". She smiled, basking in the warmth of the occasion. The chill of the winter night was lost on the two lovers, caught in each other's embrace. A few hours later, the car stopped at the little house, half a mile short of the winding curves where the trap had once again been set. A sheen of ice, hidden from the light of the rising decrescent moon, covered the roadway. None would pass there that night.

Dawn once more broke, chasing darkness away with arboreal ponderousness. The sun rose over the eastern mountains, but now as if through frosted glass. Wind rose from the same direction and soon, grey replaced red in the morning sky, and soon, large drops of rain began to fall. A few at first, but rapidly increasing in intensity. Through the curtain of falling rain, the familiar shape of the island ferry hove into view. On this early winter's day, not many joined it for its short journey to the mainland. Two figures stood on the quayside, holding close for a minute or two. Their separation would be but for a few days. Or so they thought.

The wetness of the day lessened as dusk loomed, and just as the sun dipped below the horizon, it sent one ray from the west, from under the receding canopy of grey. Darkness fell and so did the mercury. Rolling down the island main road, the car passed the now empty cottage. Its occupant would return at the weekend, but her lover had to return to his own home, for now. The road dipped down into the familiar series of twists and turns. The trap was once more set, glistening beguilingly in the headlights. Suggesting water. Misleading. It was ice.

No car emerged at the bottom of the hill.

The phone rang out at the cottage near the beach. No reply. One of the neighbours, at work in a nearby croft, heard the ringing for about the fifth time in an hour and decided to nip across. The young man who lived there was evidently not at home, also born out by the absence of his small red car. The cold fog swirled around the fields, completely shrouding the scene. The neighbour went inside, but found no evidence that its occupant had returned from his visit the evening before. The fire was out, the stove unlit and the house freezing cold.

The fog hung around all day, a hindrance to search efforts. But nobody spotted the one sign - a missing stretch of fencing where the small stream from the cliff above cascaded under the roadway and down to the sea. The fencing was rickety at any rate, and other bits of it were missing as well. Also, those driving up the road would not notice it, and those coming down had to concentrate on the curve their vehicle had to negotiate. By four o'clock, darkness was falling. The last rays of the sun caught on a smooth surface, lying in the stream, well below the roadway. Out of sight of the searchers.

Amidst bright December sunshine, the little ferry docked at the island pier. In floods of tears, the young woman walked off the ferry ramp and was quickly escorted into a waiting vehicle. "I last heard from him when I reached the mainland", she sobbed. "I know he would stay on at the cafe until the evening. He had promised to call me as soon as he got home, but he never did". Ten minutes later, she was dropped off at her house, and a friend went inside with her. A few moments later, the two walked up the road towards her boyfriends' home, a mile and a half away. "It's been right foggy here yesterday", the friend commented. "You can see all the droplets on the old bracken." The young woman was not interested in the weather, though. After a few minutes, the road dipped down, and entered the winding descent towards the sea, a mile distant. The surf thundered away, a slow, throbbing noise. The familiar vista opened up - but it was lost on the two women who were making their way downhill. "What's happened to the fencing? What are those tracks---"

A day and a half. That's the length of time the car had lain in the little ravine below the road. When a team of rescuers had managed to make their way to the location, no signs of life remained. Gingerly, the body of the driver was extricated from the wreckage. Black ice was blamed for the accident, as it had been frosty that night.

A year went by.

Like an unseeing eye, the loch stared up from its bed among the rocky outcrops surrounding it. A long line of people could be seen, labouring up the hillside, carrying parts of a wooden bench. When it was assembled near the shore of the loch, a small plaque was affixed which read "Honesty". The group shook hands, some hugged and all shared a dram from bottles that some had taken along.


Postscript: this story is loosely based on the account of a real road traffic accident which claimed the life of Eigg islander Brigg Lancaster in 2003.

On Armistice Day

The guns fell silent
all those years ago
They started up again
a few years later

The guns fell silent
as they eventually do
After many people
have fallen silent

We remember
those that fought
those that fell victim
We try to learn

We remember
by old stones
by memorials
all their names

Yet do we learn
We promise to
but always fail
to learn the lesson

The guns fell silent
that day in November
Let's hope one day
It'll be for good

The Wall came down

The Wall came down
with the sound of breaking glass
the roar of fire
consuming reason

is not a first name
It's a German word
meaning * JEW *

The Wall came down
after 70 years
of dictatorship
and human failure

The Star of David
an emblem
of persecution
a harbinger of death

The Wall came down
After a mere three wars
Two hot
one cold

The Swastika
auspicious symbol
for mass murder
on an industrial scale

The Wall came down
on Reichskristallnacht
I cannot celebrate
only commemorate

Remembrance Sunday 2014

There we stood
two hundred strong
the sun smiled
at us in silence

There we stood
to attention - at ease - easy
remembering those
who did just that a century ago

Words do not matter
at a time like that
Just a plaster
on old wounds

I looked around
after the wreaths
were laid
and the prayers said

A rainbow
beyond the estuary
a more potent symbol
than any mortal words

What would they
have given to only
once more
see the hills again

Crowned by
near wintery
grey palls
over the endless moor

For King and Country
A land fit for heroes
They gave their today
Are we worthy of our tomorrow?

There we stood
in a benign November sun
Their names on bronze tablets
as the Last Post rang out

We will remember them

We will remember them

None now remain
who were prepared
but did not need
to lay down their life

Few now remain
who remember
those that fell
as living memories

Many remain
whose mortal remains
have a resting place
known only unto God

In the mud
of Flanders Fields
under the waves
of the seven seas

Some remain
whose resting place is known
but whose name
known only unto God

I stand by the sea
on the sandy dune
or on the crumbling cliff
looking out over waves

The rutted track
The rusty gate
The upright stones
We will remember them


bands of ice
the sun's light

not moving
the water

up is down is up
the lighthouse mirrored

Nothing moves
The other face
of Janus that's

Final farewell

I but knew you
in your dying years
spirit undimmed
until the final days

After caring for many
sacrificing more
than many others
would countenance

You were cared for
for an extra year
by those
close to you

Your smile
kept shining through
however low
you had gone

The sun was cold
the wind blew bitter
in that graveyard
by the shore

The sun had set
darkness was falling
until the breaking of the day
when the shadows flee away

Loch Seaforth

Racing by
on the placid loch
lowering clouds
threatening rain

The ribs of history
showing on the land
long since

Glowering down
the mountains loom
East and west
Opposing shores

Modernity races by
on the western bank
History is static
on the eastern side

Light emerges
to the south
where Loch Seaforth
merges with the sea

Short story XVII

The last light of the day showed the reflection of the sky in the water. The train driver gave a perfunctory hoot as he trundled through a request stop that nobody required that afternoon. Headlights flashed back and forth on the main road, which ran close to the railway line. Presently, after a few tunnels, the train began to slow down and lights from houses moved into view. It was not long after six when the last service of the day pulled up alongside the platform. At the end of the platform lay the sea. Kyle.

The platform was deserted. A thin drizzle blew in on the stiff breeze, leaving a strange aura around the yellow lights in the station. Some cars rumbled across the bridge, and the one single passenger who had alighted from the Inverness train could be seen walking down the road towards the old ferry slipway. The village was quiet, nobody stirring abroad in the cold evening air. The man walked past the slipway and disappeared into the darkness of the Skye Bridge beyond.

The lights twinkled on either side of the Kyle, and currents eddied around the island in the middle of the narrow strait. The villages appeared to be tranquil in the late autumn evening. Stars blinked aloft, before mists drew a veil over the sky above. A bus rumbled across the bridge and turned left at the roundabout, into Kyleakin village. The man crossing the bridge stood at the apex, quietly observing the scene before proceeding west himself. He did not notice the gate from the Eilean Ban lighthouse opening, with a furtive figure issuing into the gathering mist onto the bridge. It was too dark.

A cold, blue sky arced over the southern sea. The outline of ragged black mountains marched to the west, blocking out the horizon. More distant hills floated to the east, above low hills closer by. Remains of walls squared off bits of ground where people once lived, eking out an existence. Long ago, they had been marched off their miserable patches. The sheep that took their place remained, as one solitary figure came down the old track from the north. As he entered the area where Boreraig once stood, another walker approached down the hillside from the west. Beyond, another township had lain bereft of its people for many years. The two met in the middle, and a cup of tea was made to warm them both. "Did you bring it?"

The fishing boat dropped anchor a little way offshore from Boreraig, and a small rigid-inflatable was seen speeding ashore. The buzz of the outboard attracted the attention of the two men, who each were retracing their steps, to the north and to the west. Binoculars revealed two others, wading ashore from the RIB. As arranged. They headed for the derelict cottage where the meeting had taken place, and removed the box that had been left there. A few minutes later, the RIB returned to the fishing boat, which quickly weighed anchor and headed south, out of the loch and into the sunshine. Not as arranged, the grey shape of a fishery patrol vessel appeared round the headland, to the southwest, and made straight for the fishing boat.

That was obviously a no-brainer, the two men concluded, sitting in the vehicle. Someone must have tipped off the authorities, and it was just as well it was only a dummy run. A message on their mobile phones confirmed that the fishery cruiser had concluded its checks aboard the fishing boat that had taken the empty box on board. The driver put the small car into first gear, and pulled away from the Kilbride cemetery, heading south. A police vehicle, blue lights flashing, came haring down the single track road from Broadford, further increasing the suspicions of the occupants. "What the heck is going on today?" they wondered, but as they passed through the first village, Torrin, the object of the police quickly became apparent: a vehicle had left the road after skidding through a patch of mud.

An ankle-breaker, that's what it was. And who had suggested you didn't need hiking boots on that trail from Kilmarie? Slowly, the two men threaded their way along the rock-strewn path, finally cresting the hill before starting the descent towards the beach. They weren't interested in the view, particularly. Unlike those mentioned on the memorial cairn, a little way down the hill. Unlike the hillwalker, who was watching proceedings from the summit of Bla Bheinn, some way off to the north. Another hour later, the two reached the little bothy, set a little way inland from the beach. Overshadowed by the craggy mountains of the Cuillins, the edifice looked south out to sea, a different stretch, but not that far from Boreraig. Nothing moved, apart from the swells, languidly running into the shore from the distant ocean.

Gingerly, the little boat inched closer to the shore. Care was certainly needed, the wreck of the fishing boat clear testimony to the hazards around. With the aid of a hook and rope, one crewman managed to gain the wreck. He didn’t find it easy to move around, as the Jack Abry II lay at a 45 degree angle. But that didn’t matter. It was the box, left in the wheelhouse he was after. And find it he did. A few minutes later, the Jack Abry was once more rusting in peace on the Isle of Rum. The Small Isles ferry chugged by, on its way from the island of Canna to Mallaig.

Morning dawned over Elgol. The Cuillins, frowning from under their cloudy canopies, sternly stood sentinel over the breaking day. Little waves lapped at the slipway along which creels were stacked for use by the local fishermen. Odd bits and pieces, bait, ropes and other detritus associated with the fishing industry lay scattered along the seawall. None would notice the yellow box, lying at an angle behind the last creel.

Four miles to the north, the rays of the rising sun were obscured by the cloud which had congregated around the nearby tops of the Cuillins. The splendour of the Skye mountain range was completely lost on the two men in Camusunary Bothy. They were more interested in cooking up their breakfast on the makeshift stove. No mobile phone signal penetrated the valley, but that had been anticipated. Soon, the two had packed up and were heading west to cross the river and proceed to the landing stage at Coruisk. Not an easy walk, even less so with two hefty rucksacks. The path led high above the sea and deteriorated into a precarious scramble along the infamous Bad Step, a slab of rock barely 3 inches wide along one had to balance for a little distance. There was no possible diversion - to the left lay a steep drop into the sea, and to the right was a steep slope up. As the two made their way along the final few hundred yards, a small boat approached the landing stage. Glancing briefly right, the men were relieved to discern the familiar shape of a friend’s craft. “It’s just as well that I realise that we’re risking our hides for this venture”, one of the men grumbled to the skipper. “I did most definitely not enjoy hiking all those miles, sleeping in that awful shack and nearly going in the drink there”. He was sharply told to stop moaning. Furtive glances were cast out to sea as the two rucksacks were put down below. “I’ll drop you two off in Elgol”, the skipper said. “You’ll have to walk back to Kilmarie, but that’s only 3 miles.” As the boat headed south from the jetty, and back into Loch Scavaig, the tourist boat came the other way out of Elgol. Full of daytrippers, out to see the Cuillins at close quarters. Just one of them paid more than average attention to the craft with the three men on board.

The long swell from the Atlantic was perceptible on board the ferry, but was not high enough to cause discomfort. The Lord of the Isles was making its steady way west out of Mallaig, leaving the Small Isles to port, and the lofty peaks of Skye to starboard. Not many were making the crossing to Lochboisdale in South Uist, although it was a perfectly nice day. “This is so funny”, said one of the three men out on deck. “We have them at every turn. Eishort, Scavaig, and - what’s their next planned point?” The ship’s engines droned out the reply, each of them knew what it was. ”Rarely, in all my years in the customs service have I seen such a bunch of inept fools as this lot.” His mobile phone beeped, and the man walked over to starboard, to gaze out into Loch Scavaig. Sure as pie, a small craft emerged from the channel between Skye and Soay. “Why bother?” he mockingly said to the boat. The others, on the other side of the ferry, were looking at the Northern Lighthouse Board’s vessel Polaris, which was tasked to go to the lighthouse at Hyskeir. It carried a small helicopter for accessing otherwise remote and inaccessible lighthouses. Meanwhile, another, larger helicopter appeared above the Cuillins. Its distinctive red and white markings declared it to be the Coastguard chopper, in this case from Stornoway, a hundred miles to the north. “I’m enjoying this”, another of the three customs men said with a wide grin. “Fancy being airlifted off a ferry, it’s almost like James Bond”. “Except that his villains had brains,” retorted another. “This lot would be outsmarted by a louse.”

“He’s on board the Lord of the Isles”, observed the skipper, pocketing his mobile phone. “They’re going to be picked up from the ferry, look!” The brightly coloured Coastguard helicopter could be seen emerging to the west of the Cuillins. Opening the throttle further, the rigid inflatable powered through the slow swell, taking a heading southwest, towards Hyskeir, and towards their own rendez-vous with the Polaris near that island. Glancing to starboard, the three men on the RIB watched as three others were winched up from the Lord of the Isles. “Listen guys, are the boxes ready for transfer?” the skipper presently asked. A few minutes later, one yellow and one white box were wrapped up in ropes, all converging into a large hook. The Coastguard helicopter slowly manoeuvered in the general direction of the Polaris, from where its own chopper took to the skies, and headed for the RIB. A few minutes later, it was overhead - at which time radio-communication from the Coastguard helicopter stopped abruptly. A rope dangled down from the smaller helicopter, and the hook with the boxes was quickly attached to it. Events then unfolded at lightning speed.

The Coastguard chopper veered sharply left, and down, at one point flying under the other helicopter. The rotor-blades of the larger aircraft slammed into the boxes as they were carried on the turbulence around both helicopters. A large white cloud erupted from the boxes, which was carried away on the southwesterly breeze, in the direction of Canna and Rum. The remains of the containers dropped into the water, not far from the RIB. Its occupants stood, mouths agape and ashenfaced, rooted to the spot. The Coastguard helicopter had by that time landed on the helipad of the Polaris. Some sort of commotion appeared to be going on inside, which ended when one man was bundled out of the side door, restrained by the crew. It was at this point that the Customs cutter appeared from the east, having hidden between the islands of Rum and Eigg. Two air force jets came screaming in from the northeast and overflew the area at low altitude.

“So, we have them all?” the captain of the cutter asked. “Aye, cap’n, all four of them in the brig!” The master nodded contentedly. “Nearly had a ruddy accident with the Coastguard helicopter, what on earth did that idiot hope to achieve by hi-jacking it?” The master of the Polaris put his head round the door of the wheelhouse. “Am I free to go? I’m glad to be rid of that pilot, never thought he was implicated in this racket until he took off without authorisation”. The captain of the cutter shook his head. “It isn’t written on their lapels, is it now? Like “I’m involved in a drug smuggling racket, arrest me now”.” The two men laughed. “Did you retrieve those boxes?” The master of the cutter nodded. “Aye, there was sufficient cocaine left in them to make a prosecution. Estimates were about 20 kilos. Nicely done, thank you for your cooperation”. At that point, the captain of the Polaris saluted his counterpart and returned to his vessel.

“A major drug smuggling operation was foiled this morning in the Sea of the Hebrides. Intelligence suggested that about 20 kilograms of cocaine had been hidden on board a wrecked trawler, which had run aground on the Isle of Rum in 2011. Planting operatives among Customs and Excise as well as on board the Northern Lighthouse Board vessel Polaris, the gang had hoped to spirit the drugs to users on the mainland. However, swift intervention by Customs & Excise, Coastguards and RAF jets, prevented the successful conclusion of the operation”.

Short story XVI

The trail stretched ahead in gathering darkness. The wind sighed through the blanced grasses of winter, with a few snow flurries hitching a lift. The traveller wearily glanced up, to the south. Snow-capped peaks reared up to his left, slowly disappearing in the gathering gloom. Long since had the comfortable homes by the shore been left behind. A long way yet to shelter. Why had he left his departure so late? It was late November, and he knew the sun would be gone by four o'clock. Ach, it was pretty clear what had delayed him. The glow of the memory kept him warm. A face in front of his mind's eye encouraged him to carry on. Presently, a lowly cairn marked a fork in the road.

Into the gathering gloom, the traveller continued, the little cairn now but a memory behind him. With but a hint of daylight remaining, he was only just in time to reach the walls of the bothy. No light shone out of its window, but quickly, a fire was lit and warmth spread around the room. After heating up a can of baked beans, and brewing up some tea, the bunk in the far corner looked increasingly appealing. It had been a long and trying day, so within an hour or two, the fire slowly died down and the traveller slumbered away. His journey to Harris had only just begun.

Dawn broke late, and with a steely quality to its light. The windows of the bothy faced two ways, one looking back, where the path meandered down the hillside. Others glanced out over the sea, where one island lay nearby, and others strung in the far distance on the horizon. Poking up the embers in the fireplace, the traveller prepared his morning cup of tea, and seeking to regain some warmth. A dusting of snow covered the nearest hilltop, snow that was not likely to disappear in the cold winter sun. Although more driftwood presently helped to revive the fire, the man was not warmed through by it. His journey would really only start today, and he would not be the only one on it.

Was it true then? The story seemed confused. The industrial historian kept leafing through the old papers, related to a now defunct textiles mill. Vast fortunes were made in the industry in the nineteenth century, and more often than not, the proprietors had more money than they knew what to do with. A splurge on a country pile, commissioning their own yachts for sailing the oceans of the world. But their empire came to an end, as did they. What happened to their riches? An image of distant mountains was conjured up by the writing in the papers. The historian himself had never been to the north. But as the daylight faded, and his working week came to a close, he made a decision. Maybe the story was true.

The explosion reverberated around the valley. Few would have heard, apart from those carrying out the demolition. Not good enough. A new edifice would have to be erected. The mountains to the east frowned with disapproval. But there were no people to mount any sort of protest. Their only legacy was the cairn at the fork in the road. And it was from there that the wagon slowly bumped its way downhill. An atrocious track, not even worthy of the description. Some of the workers had, with supreme irony, dubbed it the Golden Road.

Slowly, the procession wound its way up the track, bearing left at the cairn. When the people had left, they had built the cairn, each leaving a stone. Each promising to pick it up one day, when they would return. But return they never did. The stones remained, whilst their bearers went beyond these seas and eventually beyond this life. Others, fewer, had taken their land for entertainment. But taming the wilderness proved impossible, the ruins of these efforts soon passed by the procession. The stern hills of the west reared up over the track, which grew rougher as it wound its way south. It took a long time for the wagons to reach their final destination, the final resting place of the lady whose remains were to be laid to rest. Down what was to be called the Golden Road, in mockery of the state it was in. Down to Harris.

The loose rocks shifted under the traveller's feet. The Golden Road, indeed. Frustrated with his poor rate of progress, he flopped down on a roadside boulder and proceeded to brew up a cup of tea. His wife had pleaded with him not to go on this wild goose chase, certainly not in late November. He could have been warm at home with her. The weather forecast had not been too bad, but the promised change was already moving across the sky, and he would catch some rain before the day was out. Clouds were sinking over the tops of the mountains to the east, wreathing them in mournful grey. Fortified by his refreshment, the walker resumed his travels and after an hour emerged into a plain of green by the sea.

Quietly, the ferry drew into the bay and lowered its ramp onto the slipway. One vehicle disembarked and disappeared along the tree-lined road - if road was the appropriate name for a poorly metalled track. The incongruity was startling when, after a mile, the trees opened out onto a clearing in which a red, sandstone building resembling a castle stood. The historian alighted from his vehicle and took a moment to take in his surroundings. Although it was late autumn, and the leaves had long been blown off the trees, the vista down the loch was still stunning. He proceeded down the road in his vehicle, then spoke to someone who advised him to leave the motorcar at the castle and continue inland on foot. After explaining his reason for visiting, the islander showed the historian into Kinloch Castle.

Was impressive the word? A Grecian temple, and some ruins in the grass, tiles, the letter B. The surrounding landscape was far more impressive. Mountains to the east, the open ocean to the south. Harris Bay was deserted. Whose idea was it to spread the rumour that some of the riches of the Globe Works in Accrington were buried there? What riches there had been, had well and truly been spent, if not squandered. On Kinloch Castle, on the yacht Rhouma. The traveller and the industrial historian had compared notes, and felt like fools. A sentiment that was quickly blown away in the thin, cold wind that blew in from the sea. The two men took in their surroundings, then turned round and started on the eight mile trek back to the castle. The Bulloughs continued to slumber in their mausoleum, a folly in memory of a folly.


in an unending
they roll

Wind capped
white capped
they roll

in an unending
they roll

the quivering beach

The Hebrides

Low the hills cower
under their
green blankets

bog cotton
in the wind

High the ky arcs
Endless blue
dotted with
billowing white

Stories from afar
on the
ocean winds

Speeding along
on the eternal wind
from distant shores
to our old rocks

Fringed by white waves
yellow strands
under blue
rock mountains

The clouds crown the islands
in all hues
from black to white
the Hebrides

Low the hills cower
High the sky arcs
Speeding along
The clouds crown the islands

Sarajevo 1914

Two shots echoed
along the street
two people

The first
of millions
in the four years
that followed

could yet have been grasped
from the jaws
of war

did all those people
have to die

an archduke
was shot

In Sarajevo

The abandoned village

Across the water
new walls proudly
rise from the green

Intersected by
demure grey stone
walls running down
to the sea

Across the water
lives are lived
storms endured
suns enjoyed

Under the stern face
of the hill above
they go hither
and thither

Old walls
on the empty side
of the water
stand dreaming

Enduring the winds
rain and snow
of countless years
in solitude

None go there now
they left long ago
only remembered
by the old stone walls


It's a long time ago
it was a Sunday then
we found you
on the floor

No more jumping
on to chairs
but you had clung on
behind the curtain

The months before
had seen you decline
to a shadow
of your former self

Looking for
to lessen
the darkness to come

The evening came
and yours also drew
to a final
and everlasting close

I was speeding west
when your spirit overtook me
and the message on arrival
was that you had gone

For fifteen years
you were one of us
and never forgotten
although now gone for 26 years.

Thomas, spring 1973 - 29 May 1988

Ever changing

Little is constant
just the lighthouse
the watch house
and the hills

The sun ever moves
or is it just us?
The moon ever changes
through its phases

The sea glistens today
reflecting blue
and a thousand mirrors
under summer skies

The sky smiles
broadly blue
with a few strokes
of distant white

But no two moments
are the same
as the strokes
do move

The mirrors
turn into angry
white riders
galloping on the sea

The moon obscured
by powerful fastnesses
moving across the sky
unleashing their force

The sun oft is hidden
as storms whistle through
under leaden skies
brought in from afar

So you can see
what I can see
ever changing
no two moments the same

Little is constant
just the lighthouse
the watch house
and the hills

Little is constant

Little is constant
just the lighthouse
the watch house
and the hills

The sun ever moves
or is it just us?
The moon ever changes
through its phases

The sea glistens today
reflecting blue
and a thousand mirrors
under summer skies

The sky smiles
broadly blue
with a few strokes
of distant white

But no two moments
are the same
as the strokes
do move

The mirrors
turn into angry
white riders
galloping on the sea

The moon obscured
by powerful fastnesses
moving across the sky
unleashing their force

The sun oft is hidden
as storms whistle through
under leaden skies
brought in from afar

So you can see
what I can see
ever changing
no two moments the same

Little is constant
just the lighthouse
the watch house
and the hills

Yellow eyes

Your eyes reflected
the evening sun
as you gazed
into its eternal light

always pleased
to see someone

To get to talk
to be close to
You would come
when you saw me

You would run
along the street
to the next lot
of friendly faces

You ran across
the street today
across the Rainbow Bridge

I'll miss
your ready affection
your eyes
reflecting the eternal sun

Post script: The cat I saw killed in a road accident on 20 May '14 was NOT the one in the tribute. He turned up alive and well four days later... 

Short story XV

The sea stretched into the distance, dully reflecting the low cloud. The tops of the high ridgeline behind her was obscured by the same low cloud. The low outline of the next island sat like a cowering dog in the near distance, its one low hill standing out like a hat. In the far distance, the edge of the cloud began to move up, and it did not long for the sun to come out. The wind dropped, and it promised to be a very nice afternoon. Or would it.

Nobody wanted to stay inside that afternoon, not after that dreich start to the day. The chores were done, the animals tended to and the villagers decided on an impromptu picnic, a little way down the track to the west. The mountains on the neighbouring island peeked over the ridge, and they were still strangely dark, in spite of the cloudless skies. All were enjoying the food shared by the various households, and by mid afternoon, the sunshine sent most of them into a snooze for a while. Dougal was no exception, but his teenage daughter, always a live wire, could not sit still. With a few pals, she ventured a little way off to the north, where another cliff face cut off the valley. Some of the boys followed them, but nobody noticed another youth, not of the township, who appeared among the bracken.

The afternoon wore on, and some cloud was beginning to drift in from the ocean. The sun was slowly dipping away to the west, and the villagers began to drift in from where they had spent the afternoon. Dougal finally returned to his cottage near the cliff edge, and waited for his offspring to return. She did not.

Nobody had seen her. Dougal was beside himself when all the villagers had returned from their impromptu party, except for his daughter. The westering sun now threw shadows, and a veil of cloud was drawing in from the west. Eventually, it was agreed to send search parties out across the area where the afternoon had been spent in so much jollity. One man was despatched to the pier, some miles to the east, and a boat went out to sea to check the bottom of the cliffs below. Nothing was found. The sun had set and darkness was falling when the villagers congregated outside Dougal's house. Nobody had seen her. Or so they thought.

Slowly the fire died to a slumber, leaving just the pulsating glow of embers. Nobody had seen her. But how can you see? The question echoed through Dougal's mind in his dreams. Eyes. Of course, in the name of the wee man, don't ask such a stupid question. You use your eyes for seeing, daftie. The thought kept nagging him as he sank further into sleep and the events of the afternoon drifted in front of his mind. Where did they not look?

The hills to the northeast, where the island's highest pinnacle reared up. They were dotted with small lakes. Like...


Hey, how are you? Aren't you Dougal's daughter? I heard all about you from the other guys, and they haven't exaggerated. Nothing to worry about, I live on the other side of the island, and it's my first time here. Have you ever been - no? Oh you must...

The girl was gently wrapped into the tendrils of sweet words and gentle persuasion. She did not notice what might otherwise have been observed. He positioned himself in such a way that minimised the visibility of the tell-tale signs. His feet were always hidden in the grass. He was quite a tall lad and took care to keep his handsome features turned towards her. And so it was that she allowed herself to be lured away from the other girls. Away from the valley. Up into the hills. The sun did not shine so brightly up there. And empty, featureless eyes looked up at her from amongst the surrounding hills.

The sunlight appeared to fade among the dark hills, and a chilly wind blew up there. Temporarily free of the spell from the handsome youth, the girl glanced around, but could see no escape. Another lochan loomed ahead, with the brown, lumpy hills appearing to close in around it. A sudden movement caused her to sharply turn round, and she now had an unimpeded view of her companion. His hair, which had appeared a dull fair colour was in fact full of sand, with fronds of seaweed. Were those two horns on his head? Surely not - except his feet, as they raced towards her, were unmistakably hooved. The girl made to run, but she tripped over the first tussock of heather and went face down into the growth. He was on top of her in a flash.

Dougal threaded his way into the hills behind the village, and came across the first of the lochans. Not a sign. Gingerly, he made his way through the area, which lay under a thick cover of heather. Sheep had made narrow trails, but it took him time, as he knew by experience, to make his way eastward. One lochan after another passed by, staring blankly at the overcast morning sky. The largest of the lochs presently loomed up ahead, and something caught his attention. Something that should not have been there. The gloomy bulk of one of the hills stood watch over the scene, and as Dougal approached he realised he had found what he came to look for. The lochan rippled under the breeze, and bobbing on its surface appeared to be garments. The man bounded to the bank, and was able to pull them towards him. Something floated underneath. And as he drew it all onto dry land, it was his daughter. Her lifeless eyes stared up at the sky. A sudden movement caught Dougal's eye. Some seaweed hung in the heather. A rapid thudding of hooves made him think it was a sheep, but there were no sheep on the hills at this time of year. A high-pitched cackle drifted in on the wind, just about perceptible. A heavy silence ensued.


The Loch of Dougal's Daughter in fact does exist, in the Isle of Eigg in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland. The story I told in these episodes is part of the island's folklore.

The unblinking eye

The unblinking eye
its colour
from above

Fringed with
the brown and yellow
of winter
the grey of rock

Rippled by
the uncaring wind
blowing from
far away

the heathery knolls
and distant valley
surrounds it

They were
my country
that winter long ago
the lochans of the moor

Short story XIV

Wasn't that eerie? The lady from the guest house in Stornoway who said that you could see eagles in Lewis. She couldn't think of anything else to be seen in the island. Now, I have very, very little Gaelic, but I do know that the Gaelic for eagle is Iolaire. All people from Lewis (and those that have been in touch with me over the years) know about the tragic story surrounding HMY Iolaire, which sank outside Stornoway harbour on 1 January 1919 with the loss of 205 lives. The news item about tourism in the Outer Hebrides only elicited feelings of scorn with me. Sorry. But I'm sure that the eagles were mentioned for a reason - and not for the reason that the lady had in mind.

The wind howled up the Minch, that dark night. It whipped up a heavy swell, which broke on the ancient rocks of the island. Only a mast protruded from the turbulent waters, as yet unseen in the winter's night. As dawn broke, a dark shadow passed over the scene. The shadow could not be seen by ordinary eyes. But it was to remain, cast over the sunken ship, over the island and its people. It is now 95 years later - and the shadow remains. Its name? Eagle. Perhaps the Gaelic will be more evocative, and will clarify my story. Iolaire.
Long had the mast sunk below the waves when the steamer dropper her anchor. Too large to come into port proper, she had to rely on smaller craft to bring her passengers on board. Hundreds made the short hop from the quay to the ship after an emotional farewell. It took a long time for all to take their leave, and the steamer could finally weigh anchor and head north. Headed north was also the course of the Iolaire before her crew heard the crashing of waves - and before the ship became stuck fast on the Beasts of Holm. In distress, her crew fired flares, but these were not interpreted properly; one boat sailed past, but could not render assistance due to the poor conditions. No flares accompanied the departure of the Metagama, that day 91 years ago. Just a pall of smoke, rising from the home of one of the emigrants, set alight at his request. It was seen from the steamer as she veered round the Butt of Lewis. A signal, not to the ship, but to those on board.

No way. Absolutely no way.
Can't you see? We've been slogging our guts out in the trenches, or out at sea in the war, dodging torpedoes. And now they want us in some daft factory in Stornoway, or that whaling plant in Harris. I don't think so.

Don't give me that. A land fit for heroes.
What land? Nothing has changed here, it's the same old story. Nearly got in trouble at Coll, when we went to take some land for our own. I'm not interested in that man from down south who is wanting to, well god, I don't know and I don't want to know. I'm sorry.

I'm still not getting through to you, am I? I was there at Mol Shanndabhaig, when they dragged the boy up from the bottom of his home croft. What's the use of King and Country, when they send a boat to take you home, manned by guys who don't know these waters. Each and every man could have taken the Iolaire in that night, however bad the weather was.

Yes, I know I'm crying. I want to stay in this island, it's where my roots lie, and where my ancestors rest. Nobody cares that I want to resume a life here, and live it to the full. Because I can't do it. No work. No land. No boat. No nothing.


Arnish, Tiumpan, Rubha Robhanais, Flannan. These lights receded behind the Metagama as it crossed into the Atlantic, that day in 1923. Not all those on board stayed in North America, some did come back.

Gleaming white, the copula shimmers amidst the dark woodlands overlooking the harbour. Demurely, the angel under its canopy glances down as if in mourning. In its plinth, the bust of a man, long since deceased. Although his mortal remains are not there, in fact far away in France, his long arm still casts a shadow from the past. Is the magnificent building, not far from the copula, a shadow? His shadow? For long years, it has stood crumbling, overlooking the meadow, overlooking the harbour. From its grand rooms, the fate of many would be determined. By him, or in his name. Ignominy surrounds the name of his minion who performed a juggling act by wearing three dozen different hats. Glacial was the regard in which people were held by a manager, a little earlier, on a stroke of whose pen dozens would be required to depart their native shores. Just because they couldn't pay - an inability caused by the policies enacted from underneath the towers and from behind the narrow windows.
Many now sail into the harbour and espy the little copula, and marvel at what is called a castle. Does it have a moat? Not a physical one. But it is in evidence spiritually.

Turning off the main road, the hire car thumped across speed humps. The road wound up through trees, finally ending near the castle. The driver slowed down, and stopped his vehicle a little way beyond. He stepped out onto the crumbling pavement, and walked back. The midday sun made the castle look black. Workmen were sprawling all over it, busy restoring it to a vestige of its former glory. The man turned round and invited his lady wife to join him for a walk into woods. He came out by the copula, and looked out across the harbour below. "And that is the route my great-grandfather took", he presently said. "Out past the lighthouse."

In the gathering gloom of the winter's afternoon, the man walked along the main road. He looked ill at ease, dragging a case behind him. He seemed oblivious to the traffic passing him by as he left the town of Stornoway behind and headed into the darkness of the Barvas Moor.

When I stopped the car to offer the man a lift, he seemed hesitant to accept. There was a haunted look in his eyes, and I almost had second thoughts about my offer. However, he put his case on the empty back seat and made himself comfortable in the passenger seat. "Seat belt please", I said to him before I was prepared to move off. After a moment's hesitation, he reached round and clipped the buckle into place. "You can drop me off at the Barvas Inn", the man said. His face was gaunt, and his dark blue great coat stained with faint, white blotches. "I'm going up towards Ness", I said. "It's OK," he replied politely. "I know people in the village there that will put me up". For a minute or two, we continued in silence, whilst I coasted the car along the road at a steady 50 mph. "I'm just going to join friends for Hogmanay", I remarked casually. The man did not reply, other than to briefly nod when I glanced to my left. I was glad when we finally reached the crossroads at Barvas and the man left my vehicle. The day had been dry, but his coat left nice, wet stains on the back of the chair he had been sitting on. As I pulled round the corner to head up the road through Barvas, something attracted my attention. I pulled into the dark precinct of the Barvas Inn, and switched on the light above the rear-view mirror. A couple of fronds of seaweed lay on the footwell where my passenger had just been sitting. My hand touched the seatback, which was wet, and it was salty dampness. The man was still standing at the fork in the road, and I alighted from my vehicle. As I approached him, he was illuminated in the light of the streetlamp. Seaweed was draped round his shoulders, and round his feet, something I had not noticed when he stepped into the vehicle on the moor. Another car came down the road from the direction of Stornoway, but it no longer illuminated the man. He had disappeared.

"Oh, you haven't heard about that?" The grandfather sat by the peatfire, quietly filling his pipe. The television played in the background, sound almost fully turned down. "Every Hogmanay, this ghost image of a sailor is seen on the Barvas Moor, just after dusk. Somebody always gives him a lift, and finds only seaweed after the journey. They say it is one of the men of the Iolaire".

Shiney Row

I was waiting
by the old stone cottage
where men had lived
working in stone

I was waiting
that summer's eve
after walking
up from the valley

You came up the road
at a healthy pace
pleasantly surprised
to find me there

A year later
I came again
after walking
up from another valley

Now not on foot
you were still enjoying
the beauty
of nature around you

We watched the owl
and the pheasants
the goldfinches
and the silence

Five more years passed
I was back
following a trail
of memories now

The silence remained
deeper than before
you were no longer there
no longer with us

The cottage remains
behind the tall escarpment
in a landscape of stone
where few now come

Shiney Row was its name
and shining are the memories
of you
and what we shared

If they came back today

If the men from the Iolaire
came back today
what would they see?

A land fit for heroes
Land for the heroes
or land stymied in greed

The fish fished away
no sgadan at dusk
not a sail left in port

Sails are now flying
over their shieling huts
keeping the lights on elsewhere

The sea still gives
and the sea still takes
that has not changed

If the men from the Iolaire
came back today
what would they think?

People still leave
they can't make a living
in the isle of their birth

They still work at sea
but for oil
not for fish

They would be proud
to see we still remember
their sacrifice

They would be sad
to see greed
overshadowing humanity

If the men from the Iolaire
came back today
they would see

That although much has changed
nothing has changed
since the sea took them

Tall stands the tower

Lewis War Memorial

Tall stands the tower
Looking out
over the town
and the ring of stones

they number
each carrying
a plaque

More than a thousand
they number
of those that did not return

Tall stands the tower
Looking out
over the sea
to the marker

Two hundred
they number
who were lost
that New Year's morn

After fifty-one months
of senseless slaughter
they were lost
within sight of home

Tall stands the tower
tears welling under the door
for those that did
not return

Short story XIII

Utter silence. Not even the wind was sighing in the grass. Utter silence.

The blue sky appeared to stretch endlessly from horizon to horizon, from mountain ridge to the rim of the sea. The sun beamed down, unleashing unseen updrafts from the hills. The crafty eagle knew they could carry him aloft, without too much effort on his part. His piercing eye roved the empty countryside below, sloping down from the mountaintops to the sea. Nothing moved. Soundlessly, the eagle drifted west, across the water. There, he would find prey. The empty quarter was no longer the source of rich pickings. Oh, for sure there would be the ubiquitous rabbits. His broad wings carried him away. None were there to see him and wonder - or dread. The empty quarter was just that. Empty.

The stream flowed down from the high moors above, in between thickets of rowan, bracken and grass. Pooling in pockets of spaghnum moss in the shade, finally issuing in the flat meadows above the sea. A small waterfall, and the waters lost their identity in the endless expanse of the sea below. Rowan trees rustled in the west wind, sheltering what were now only low, lonely ruins. Looking out over what looked like ribbed fields, to where the people of the township once grew their barley, potatoes and other food crops. Rabbits had burrowed into the field edges and were nibbling away at the grass on the furrows. A dark shadow sped down with a keen eye, bringing death to the one rabbit that had strayed too far away from safety. Its broken body was swiftly carried aloft and across the water. The sun over the empty quarter was briefly tempered as a thin cloud moved across. Only the sound of running water remained.

No, that wasn't the spot. Heavily, she lumbered down the hill, the setting sun in her eye. Although unaware of it, the seasons had turned and her time was nigh. As her mother before her, she was now headed for the spot where life had started one or two summers ago. The stream babbled by her side, but more of concern was the gleeful croaking of the crows up aloft. The keen eye from across the water was a threat that she was unaware of. Time was now pressing, but fortunately, the thicket of rowan trees near the waterfall beckoned. Wracked by pain, she collapsed by the ruined wall, pitching her head back until it looked straight up at the sky. But all that was forgotten moments later, when she first caught sight of her young. It was soon ready to join her on foot, and the lamb quickly gained steadiness. They left the ruins behind and went up the hill to rejoin the rest of the flock. The crows descended, but could not come near due to a forest of horns. A shadow passed overhead as the sun dipped towards the horizon, and the emotionless eyes of the eagle roved over the group of sheep. His talons would not touch meat that day again.

Lights twinkled across the water as night fell. None were left in the empty quarter.

Dawn painted the eastern sky a stunning red. The hills of the empty quarter receded into blackness in the foreground. On their outline stood a lonely figure, casting his head back and roaring loudly. His challenge did not go unanswered. The two adversaries locked antlers and pushed and shoved, trying to inflict injury and preferably death on the other. None succeeded in either aim, and the two galloped down the slope, scattering their possy of females before their anger. Roaring out once more, engrossed in their hormone fuelled frenzy, the two stags continued mortal combat, edging closer and closer to the thicket of rowans. Ignoring the low walls of ruined houses, they leapt and bounded along the banks of the stream, neither prepared to give way. What finally did give way was the edge of the cliff over which the waterfall fell. The challenger lost his footing and fell the fifty feet to the shingle shore below. The victor roared out his triumph and trotted back to his hinds, ready to mate. The antlers of the vanquished stag sagged down as life seeped away into the beach. The tide, rising slowly, lapped around his body, and presently took it away.

The impassionate eye roved back and forth across the empty quarter, espying it from an unimaginable height. It registered each walled enclosure, long since devoid of roof, if roof ever did exist. Each runrig was noted and marked, even though the land had not been actively worked for two centuries. No permanent habitations were left to be discerned, although when England expected each man to do his duty, there were many hamlets scattered along its long, indented coastline. Their people didn't know about Nelson, Napoleon or the grand politics of state. But when Napoleon was living out his last days in the South Atlantic, the people of the empty quarter were no longer needed to gather the seaweed of its shores. Sheep took their place. Deer took their place in turn. Men of great wealth came to shoot the deer, just for fun. The empty quarter stands empty today. We remember the three dozen names of its townships, from Brunigil in the west to Kinloch Shell in the east, via Loch Claidh, Loch Brollum and past Mol Truisg. Three-armed men may come to tower over its hills, making more wealth for men already rich. The people of the empty quarter will not come back.


I saw you last
in that northern town
standing on that platform
as the train slid away

It whisked me away
south, but eventually north
away from you

I saw you last
in that northern village
amidst the remains
of ancient industry

The year before
you walked the hills there
Now you could only
look on as I disappeared

I saw you last
in that remote cottage
watching the owl at dusk
the pheasants at dawn

Slowly the decline
was gripping hold of you
dragging you down
but you knew we'd not meet again

You returned one more time
to that corner of the lonely hills
hoping I would come
as I had come the years before

I saw you last
after you had gone beyond this life
on that sunlight morning in May
I had gone - before you were gone


A long long beach
an undulating line
of pale yellow
sand dunes

A sward of green
in summer
blazing colour

Dotted along
old rock built
houses and farms
ringed by hills

Looking east
the fishers launch
into the Sound
sandbanks and skerries

No longer an island
a causeway
to another island


Surrounded by mountains
with a gleam of blue sea
just at the bottom of the road
a lone sheep grazing

A road angles steeply
down from the hill
and up from the sea
where no road was before

A small graveyard
where two rest
that were lost
in war, a century back

Across the fjord
more mountains loom
towering tall and stark
over the empty country

There, a few eked out
their bare bones existence
until sheep and deer
replaced them in Pairc

The sun dips down
behind the Clisham
bronzing the austere face
of Sgaoth Aird and Iosal

A little corner
off the main road
down by the sea
that's Maraig

Ghost story from the railways

In the years before World War II, signalboxes were manned and lived in. One such stood near a railway junction in the west of England; there were also a number of sidings. In the 1920s, a family lived in the box who had a beautiful young daughter. She had caught the eye of a young man, living in the stationmaster's house, on the other side of the tracks. Although her father forebade the love, well, nothing stands in the way of love, will it now? So, the young woman sneaked out every evening to be with her young man. Her father found out one evening, and there was an unholy row in the signalbox. As the row went on over the signals, the father had to change them for the approaching express from London. His daughter took the chance, dashed down the steps and started to cross the lines. The express was early, and before she knew what has happening it was upon her. The driver was too late in seeing her, her white face and billowing hair in the headlights. He braked hard, but could not avoid a collision. The young woman was dead.

Twenty years passed. It was now in the years after World War II, and to alleviate the shortage of rolling stock, an old engine stood sighing in the sidings at the station. An express train came roaring up from London through the dark evening and passed the green signal ahead of the station. As the locomotive drew level with the signal box, the driver caught sight of a ghostly white face dashing up across the lines, jumping in front of his train, trying to cross ahead of the engine. He harshly applied the brakes, and the express juddered to a stop at the top end of the sidings. The driver jumped out of his cab and ran towards the rear carriages, which were level with the signalbox. Nothing to be seen. There was no body. What was standing in the siding next to the mainline was the old engine. The signalman, who was still there after twenty years, leaned outside to see what the commotion was about. He climbed down to the tracks and glanced past the back of the carriages - and recognised the engine. It was the very locomotive that had mowed down his own daughter, all those years ago.

Reposted from my former blog Northern Trip, September 2006

Not reached the end

the hills
above the sea

The lone trail
steeply up
the slope

the loch
to the sea

over mountaintops

Walking the path
skirting the water's edge
the end
was never reached

A walker went missing in the Harris hills, but was found deceased

Lews Castle

Home of a drugs baron
Home of a soap baron
Seat of learning
Seat of division

Built on opium
Built on sunlight soap
Built on expulsion
Built on expansion

Owned by the rich
Owned by the magnate
Owned by the people
Echoing to the past

Abject poverty
Around opulent riches
Tropical trees
near barren croftland

The wheel of fortune
turns once more
from neglectful decay
to five stardom?

The Castle remains,
a prominent landmark,
as much as
a sign of division

Short story XII

Short story XII

Not a breeze stirred the air. The sun sank to the western horizon in a blaze of gold, painting streaks of vermillion on an almost waveless sea. Demure waves flopped onto the yellow strand, with the foam spreading out soundlessly over the sand. The grass on the dunes beyond stood to attention, seeming to listen. The very land itself seemed to hold its breath, with only the sea continuing its endless breathing motion in the surf. Darkly, the mountains marched along the northern horizon. Like a lonely dog, the island loomed up a mile or so offshore, near, yet so far. The sun touched, then seemed to meld with the horizon. On the very moment that it disappeared from view, a green flash of light sprung up above the point of setting. "That's where Tir nan Og lies", I said to my friend. He laughed. "Such rubbish", he scoffed. But I shook my head. Could there be truth in such tales? However, I didn't want to spoil the beauty of the evening with an argument, so I beckoned to John to follow me back to where the canoes lay by the dunes. The temperature was starting to drop now that the sun had gone, and a chill began to pervade the air. As we prepared to launch the crafts, the foot of mountains on the horizon began to be covered in a slight haze, something that seemed to emanate from the sea itself. I glanced over at John, but he was not too concerned. "The wind will come up", he stated. We weren't going on a long trip at any rate, just the mile or two across the water to Taransay, and the long summer dusk meant that it would not become completely dark. We carried the canoes to the tideline, then into the low surf before we climbed into our canoes and started to paddle. As the minutes ticked by, the outline of Taransay seemed to become inexorably less distinct. After half an hour, it had disappeared from view. As had the shoreline at Horgabost from where we had set out. "Right, where is the compass?" John demanded to know. A sinking feeling preceded my embarrassed silence. "You're not telling me that you forgot?!" I had to admit my mistake. The compass was still in the car. "No problem," he grated out between clenched teeth. "At least you didn't forget to take the stars", and he glanced at the heavens. Not a star to be seen. Although the fog appeared to be shallow, it completely obscured the sky. We had no means of navigation. John did bring his GPS, but he discovered that the batteries had run flat. "We're both bleeding idiots" he said. "No point not rowing, this current will take us where it wants. It is an outgoing tide, so it would takes us parallel to the shore and hopefully towards Toe Head". But Toe Head was not going to be where we would end up, neither would it be Taransay.

Carried on the long, low swell of the Atlantic, the canoe bobbed on barely perceptible waves. The sky slowly turned dark - but not completely so. The sun kept a presence below the horizon, but in the foggy conditions that night, it was not much more than a hint of light. No land was sighted, no land was visible - no land was near. Gradually, daylight crept up the sky, and the fog lessened to a mist. The sky was now blue overhead, although horizontal visibility remained poor. The canoe seemed to be almost stationary as the light of the rising sun suffused the mist with a golden hue. The greyness of the Atlantic appeared to lighten, and although there was no known land in the vicinity, the waters appeared to shallow out. As the mist thinned, the canoe gradually ground to a halt. It was stuck on a sandbar. Ahead, out of the rising wisps of fog, a beach rose up to dunes - but no hills beyond. There were no hills in sight anywhere. The canoe of my friend John was nowhere to be seen either.

I awoke from deep slumbers to find my craft motionless. The tide appeared to be ebbing, and I had been left high and dry. I stepped ashore, unsure of my location. There was no place, facing east, anywhere near my point of departure. But, that too, did not bother me unduly. I pulled the canoe higher up the beach and decided to explore the vicinity - when a figure appeared from the dunes. I waved, and she walked towards me. "Ah, you have come", she said. "We have been waiting for you."

"We saw you coming out of the mist", the young woman said. "You must have travelled far. Come and join us, my father has the kettle on". We walked across the firm sand of the strand, our shadows projecting ahead of us. Upon crossing the dunes, an old building could be seen at their foot, with a square tower, almost like a church. Grass took over from sand, and a sward of flowers of all colours spread to the walls of the edifice, and all around it. Beyond it, a line of pine trees screened off the prevailing winds from the ocean, which would blow in unimpeded. No wind was blowing this morning though. The thunderous voice of the Atlantic spoke from the far side, a couple of miles away. The sky was that infinite blue that can only be found at the higher latitudes, but the western horizon was fringed with dark grey. "Welcome, friend", an older gentleman in a white suit spoke when I entered the building. "My daughter, Mary, spotted you coming in from the east. Our table is set for breakfast, and we would like you to join us". I sat at the table, which was set with a rich spread of breads, fruit, meats, milk and cheeses. Hot drinks were not offered, and I did not think to ask. "My name is Calum", the gentleman continued after briefly saying grace. "I'm known as Calum the Church here. However, Mary and I are currently the only people here. You have come to join us this morning".

After Mary had cleared the table of breakfast, Calum motioned me to follow him into the body of the church proper. A staircase, made up out of the same rocks that had built the church, wound up into the tower and that is where he took me. At the top, the wind wafted in from the Atlantic. It now became clear that I had landed on an island, but a niggling memory told me that no sandy islands existed in the immediate vicinity of south Harris, and no islands with a church. It bore a fleeting resemblance to the old church at Rodel, in the far south of Harris. The island was not very large, and seemed to be mainly covered in grass or machair. "I came here", Calum presently said, "after I left my home town some years ago. My wife had died and although I did not want to go far, I did not want to be reminded." He did not specify where he had come from. "Mary joined me at the time, but she is seeking to leave". He sighed deeply. "The only thing is, she can't". Calum walked over to the west facing side of the tower. The breeze, coming in straight from the Atlantic, appeared to be strengthening. The strength of the sun was no longer sufficient to abate its chill. "Who would look after things here? Only she can take over from me." I saw a few houses near the dunes on the western shore of the island, and asked Calum about the other islanders. He shook his head. "They are very loyal folk, and quite happy to maintain their existence here. But they cannot take over from me. Neither am I in a position to hand over to anybody else - other than Mary." A strange chill passed down my spine. High cloud was now spilling in from the ocean, and a bank of dark grey loomed in the west. I followed Calum down the staircase. Back in the church, he briefly stopped to acknowledge the statues that loomed in darkened recesses, and the altar at the front. My uneasiness continued to grow, but as yet, I was not able to put my finger on its exact cause. Was it the apparent possessiveness of Calum, perhaps as a father, towards his daughter? Was it the empty horizons, all round? It was a very bright and clear morning, but no land had appeared in any direction.

I left Calum in the church, and went in search of Mary. An attractive woman of about thirty, with a ready smile. She was outside, tending to some livestock and poultry behind the residential part of the building. “I’ll show you round the island,” she offered. The place looked fertile enough, with some cultivated patches near the houses that stood by the dunes in the west. Mary spoke lovingly of the good works that her father had initiated in the island, encouraging the residents to tend to the soil as well as the animals. However, she could not, or would not, shed light on past family history. “Have you ever been away from here?” I asked. It did not occur to me to ask for the name of the island. Mary shook her head. “But surely, it is not that far to go to...” She interrupted me. “I cannot go. I cannot abandon my father. His works will die with him if I’m not around”. That sounded preposterous to me. “Surely, one of the other islanders could take over?” Mary became agitated. “You do not understand. Only I can take over!” I completely did not understand that, but also realised that I should not press the point. “Is it possible for you to go away for a little while?” Mary did not immediately respond to my question. Her eye strayed east, the direction from where I had come. “You could come back after a few hours, or days...” Her agitation faded, and she stood still. Forlornly, Mary turned round, away from me and glanced round the island. Its greenness glowed around us, made all the more conspicuous by the rising wall of grey from the Atlantic. “I never thought of it like that. But even that is not possible...” Her voice trailed off in the distance, and her eyes seemed to mist over. “Ach, come on,” I insisted. Ill advisedly.

Mary accompanied me to the eastern beach. I had spoken insistently to her, and she was still hesitating as I jumped in the craft. “I cannot...”, she once more said. “Don’t be silly”, I cajoled. A gust of wind helped to push the canoe away into the surf, and Mary sat immediately in front of me. “You don’t know...” she was still saying, but clear water had opened between the canoe and the island. It slowly disappeared into the veil of rain that had drifted in off the Atlantic. As the light faded, the wind gradually picked up and pushed us further east. Mary began to be very uncomfortable, but that was the least of my concerns. When I met her, earlier that day, she had appeared to me to be a woman of about thirty years of age. Her rounded features seemed to undergo a disconcerting transformation, and after about half an hour, with the rain streaming down and the wind howling, her hair had turned grey and straggly, her face haggard, wrinkled – and tears were running down her cheeks. “I warned you”, she cried, sobbing disconsolately. “Turn back, please. I’ll die...” An icy hand gripped my heart as the realisation dawned on me. “Tir nan Og”, she whispered. The Island of Eternal Youth. “Take me back. You must...” With considerable difficulty, I turned the canoe around. I had to paddle hard against the wind, but fortunately, the tide was now with me. The rainy squall passed and the clouds tore open, allowing the setting sun to shine down on us. I had to work very hard to make progress to the west, and I did not have an opportunity to look at my passenger. But when we ran aground on the eastern shore again, I saw that Mary had regained her youth. Calum was standing on the beach, arms folded. “Friend, that was not a good thing to do”, he said, but refrained from further admonition. The look on my face probably said enough. “Come back to the church, dry off and warm up”.

The daylight had faded by the time I had warmed up in a bath, and my clothes were sufficiently dry for me to put them back on again. “You could not know,” Calum said when I rejoined him and his daughter in the dining area. “However, Mary, I’m sure, will have warned you against taking her away.” I had to admit that. “You were able to come”, the older man continued. “And you will be able to leave, if you so wish. Neither of us will hold you from departing – the time is not yet - but we cannot leave.” The wind ruffled against the windows, although the night stars were shining brightly. “Ours is the mission to tend to those that come here, not to leave again. In order to do that, we have been granted to privilege of being above age. It is restricted, however, to this place.” My face must have been a picture of incredulity. “I’m sure you have heard of Tir nan Og”, Mary joined the conversation. There was no reproach in either her voice or her manner. “You are there today. If such is your wish, you can leave, and you’ll find yourself coming back to the point where you started your journey. One day, you will return, but you will not going away again that time.” The concept went way above my comprehension, but one question did arise with me. “Why did I come here – why did you know I was coming?”

A hand on my shoulder woke me from deep slumbers. Calum stood beside my bed with a candle and beckoned for me to follow him. I put on my clothing and went with him. The early morning chill became a little more pronounced outside, but the eastern horizon was already showing a hint of dawn. “Do not speak”, Calum cautioned. “Look on and listen.” As the light grew, a strange craft approached from the east. “Only about two dozen people live here permanently”, the older man spoke quietly. “Those that pass through here, come between night and dawn.” A chill descended, but not what you expect first thing in the morning. The craft faded into a wisp of fog that blew ashore, briefly shrouding the island, before disappearing into the west. I had not paid attention to Calum, but as I turned to him, he was standing head bowed down, arms spread out into a majestic gesture of what could be seen as welcome, or perhaps blessing. “Only Mary and I can perform this duty,” he quietly explained as the eastern horizon reddened, then turned orange, then gold. As the sun appeared above the horizon, the easterly breeze subsided. An all encompassing silence ensued, even the swell on the beach made no sound. “We are of the Island of Eternal Youth. We pass it on to those whose youth is spent, so they can revive and live in perpetuity, beyond the waves,” Calum explained. It was a deeply religious context, which rather went over my head. However, deep down, it did affirm the one certainty – the one nobody cares to think about. The golden disc of the sun had now risen fully over the horizon, and as the chill faded, a westerly breeze rose. “Join us for breakfast,” Calum said, now smiling in the light of dawn. “Then you may decide to stay with us, or return east”.

A tender, soft whiteness wreathed itself along the west coast of Harris, enveloping beaches, rocks and sea. As the sun rose, so did the mist. The indistinct outline of Taransay materialised to the west, and gradually rose up out at sea. As the first rays of the sun touched the east coast of the island, it also touched a small tent pitched above the tideline. Tucked up beside it was a one man canoe. Upon glancing outside, John was mightily relieved to finally find the fog had lifted. But he was gravely concerned for his friend, who had disappeared the evening before, as they were crossing from Horgabost to Taransay. Only a mile or two, but John had been the only one to land on the island. Quickly, he stowed his gear in the craft and pushed it into the water, anxious to get to Horgabost - and to a phone. The tidal current pulled his canoe off to the right, forcing him into clear water southwest of Taransay. The mist was still hanging on there, but it was gradually thinning. As John glanced to his right, a ghostly image materialised in the fog. Not a ghostly image. A canoe, with a man in it. Paddling slowly, as if every stroke was almost too much. Upon approaching the craft, John realised with a shock he recognised the occupant.

We stood on the beach at Horgabost, watching the last vestiges of fog lift from the sea, and the surrounding coastline. Taransay emerged last, its double hill slowly taking shape as the seafog dissipated. A westerly breeze sprung up, but out to the west, beyond Taransay, nothing was visible. Only the pale blue of the northern sky, which was paling further as a screen of high level cloud moved up from the Atlantic. "That is the strangest tale I have ever heard", John finally said. I had expected him to laugh out loud, but he had assumed an unusually pensive episode. I turned to pull my canoe further up the strand and up to our vehicle. As I turned it, a rattling sound came from the inside. With a bit of movement, the object inside came into view. It looked familiar. I had seen it, the night before. It was a broach. The one that had tied Mary's hair.


Outline only
no colour
just hues
of grey

The familiar view
to a misty

The wind
draws away
colour by
rapid brushstrokes

Until dusk
fills in the blanks
reducing all to


As ancient
as earth itself
the buttress
holds fast

In the face
of countless
winter gales

The hordes
of white riders
galloping up
from far away

the fastness
which does not
give way

We but pass by
for a short while
the rocks remain

The rocks themselves
slowly inexorably
worn down
to sand

seems to stand still
on the clock
of the earth

As ancient
as earth itself
our islands remain
as we hold fast


Rush back to port
mother nature
is not best pleased
force seven today

Brollies not needed
unless you're flying
you'll get wet

There is light
at the end of the week
summer is coming
oh aye, we'll get it yet

Maybe not just yet
but the days are
much longer
longer to see the rain?

The lion is roaring
oh sure, it has come in
wait a few days
and you'll hear the lamb

Short story XI

The loch stretched out in front of the carpenter, surrounded by hills on either side. The setting sun painted it gold, even more so now that the wind had died down. The eastfacing slopes of the hills were hidden in shadow, as he walked down the last few hundred yards of the track. A few houses, that was all the settlement comprised of. The people had sent for him to make repairs to their abodes, after a month of storms. It was not his first time to Luachair, in fact it had been there that he had met his wife. He smiled as he remembered their final embrace, earlier that day, as they parted company for a day or two. Tomorrow, he would be working on the houses and the day after, he would retrace his steps the dozen miles or so across the hills to Bogha Ghlas. The sun dipped behind the horizon as he stepped through the door of his father-in-law's house. A roaring fire and a pan of stew over it awaited him, as did the equally warm welcome of his relatives.

Shadows lengthened over the hamlet of Bogha Ghlas, as night stretched its velvet fingers from across Loch Seaforth. A little later, the lights in one of the cottages were extinguished for the end of the day, the mountains across the water having dissolved into darkness. No further sound was to be heard from the cottage. Not that night. Nor the next.

"Now, that should stop that roof from leaking", the carpenter said to his father-in-law. "I wasn't surprised that things had started to shift, what with all those storms." The older man nodded. "I wonder if you could come out with me in the boat this afternoon", he continued. "Catch some fish down the loch, and you could join us for supper again tonight. It's now too late return?" The carpenter agreed. "I told her that I'd be back in two days, so I'll be quite happy to come along". Not long after, the wee boat was bobbing on the waters of the loch, a couple of miles to the west. The southeasterly breeze had driven them a bit further down Loch Reasort than usual, but the older man had reassured the carpenter that it would soon veer southwest, and they could tack for home. What he did not realise was that the windshift would also herald a very sudden shift in weather.

Dark clouds raced up from the Atlantic and fell over the precipice of Taran Mor into Loch Reasort, past Lamadail and into the bay of Diriscal. The southeasterly wind veered sharply southwest and rose a rapid crescendo to galeforce. The small craft was tacking round to return to Luachair, a few miles to the east, but it proved impossible to lower the sail before it pulled the boat over. Hidden by the bluff to the east of their village, the people in the houses of Diriscal did not see what was happening out in the loch. The light had become quite dull, and squalls of heavy rain limited visibility.

The family in one of the cottages at Dirascal was commenting on the bad squall that had struck earlier that afternoon, when there was a knock at the door. An older man, clothing soaked, held on to the boulders that made up the blackhouse. "Help", he rasped. "My boat overturned in the loch. My son-in-law..." and he broke down. The family helped him inside, put a blanket round his shoulder and sat him close to the fire. Others rushed down to the shore, where they found another man, lying face down and motionless. He too was carried into the house, but the spirits of life had already departed his sodden frame. Wracked by sobs, the old man managed to tell the story of their disastrous fishing trip. Darkness had by now fallen, and conditions were deemed to be too severe to venture the two mile trip over the hill to Luachair. That night, lights remained on in that house. They never come on in the cottage at Bogha Ghlas.

"Take his planks with you." The words echoed in the mind of the carpenter's brother-in-law, at midday the next day. "I can't begin to imagine how my sister is going to take this", the man was thinking. His footsteps on the rough track came regularly, but what was that strange echo? Intermittent echoes of the footfalls? No, couldn't be. A double take on each footstep? Not either. Tap tap. Tap tap. The man shifted the planks on his shoulder to adjust for balance and continued. The dark face of Stulabhal reared up ever closer, and he thought the tapping sound was an echo of his footsteps from that great rockface. He had not experienced that before, having made the journey many times before. But his mind was in such turmoil that he could not remember that. The great empty valley of Langadale stretched before him, but his descent to the river, nor the crossing, nor the ascent to Vigadale remained with him. All he heard was tap-tap, tap-tap.

The sun was once more setting by the time the carpenter's brother-in-law reached the bridge at Bogha Ghlas. He saw his sister's cottage ahead, but there was no light inside, nor any sign of motion outside. The approach of any passer-by was usually sufficient to bring his sister outside, but not that day. The 'tap-tap' that had been haunting the man since leaving Luachair had gradually ceased. He threw the planks off his shoulder, and they fell to the ground in a loudly clattering heap. He called for his sister, but heard nothing. Opening the door, the cottage was dark, the fire cold. The bed was occupied, but there was not a living soul about.

Tap tap. Tap tap. The next morning, the carpenter's brother-in-law was hammering a coffin for his sister. And he suddenly remembered what the noise was he had been hearing all the way from Luachair the day before. Tap tap. Tap tap. The noise of his hammer, building a coffin. The noise of the carpenter's hammer, over in Luachair, as it too built a coffin for its master.