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.