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.