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".