Just had a weekend back at Barra and Vatersay, which was fantastic. (particular thanks to everyone at Buth Bharraigh for making me so welcome at the talk.) Following on from that, thought I'd write a tongue-in-cheek blog about travelling there.
How to get there?
If you take the ferry then it's five hours from Oban: initially sheltered as it threads the channel north of Mull, becoming livelier as it picks up Atlantic swells out past the Isle of Coll. Barra will be clear on the horizon, or a rumour daubed in cloud, or entirely lost in mist. You might see basking sharks, whales, pods of dolphins, seabirds surfing the ship's bows, or perhaps someone losing their Calmac breakfast through their fingers on the way to the toilet if it's stormy.
Prefer to fly? Yes? Fancy landing on a beach? You do? What about when the tide's coming in and the plane kicks up huge plumes of spray either side as it lands? Still fancy it? Yes? The scheduled flight to Barra is spectacularly scenic, but not always easy on the nerves. You'll fly up to Loch Lomond, towards the Firth of Lorne and then Mull, then out over the Atlantic. And in summer I guarantee you that a waving line of tourists will be there beside the terminal to cheer your arrival. Note to newcomers: that’s not a bus shelter, it’s a baggage reclaim. And do not get freaked out by the pilot's desolate humour. Or by the slightly leaking emergency exit you've been placed beside. Or by the lady in seat 12 who's counting her rosary beads. Or by the nerve-shredding bit when the pilot reduces throttle at cruising altitude somewhere over the ocean and pretends to fall asleep and you hear the wind whistle and moan around the fuselage rather than any reassuring twin-prop engine drone…
How many islands?
Loads. Barra and Vatersay, the two main islands, are joined together by a causeway. But there’s a host of (uninhabited) others: Berneray the most southerly; Mingulay, with its jaw-dropping cliffs and the ruins of a township; Pabbay, the priest’s island; then Sandray, Muldoniach, Fuiay, Flodday, Hellisay and Gigha, Fuday and Fiaray, plus countless smaller isles and stacks. Climbing Heaval, Barra’s highest hill, from Castlebay (the main town) affords view of nearly all of them, along with Eriskay and South Uist to the north; and on a clear evening with the sun going down in the west, St Kilda can be seen on the western horizon.
And there’s an amazing hidden lagoon between two of these islands. But I’m not going to tell where it is because I want it to myself.
What’s the weather like?
If someone asks, 'Have you heard there's a storm coming?' The correct response isn’t to talk about isobars: instead you should say, 'Yes, and I've bought extra milk / bread / whatever was left in the shops.' Hurricane force winds can be routine in winter, which means that the ferries will be cancelled and all the shops emptied of produce. The water in the toilet will become lively (tending towards a gentle bidet.) Small children in the outdoors will begin to levitate sideways, so keep them tethered at all times with lengths of string and stodgy home baking.
Of course the weather can be lovely too. It can turn fair for weeks on end in summer. The white beaches will become luminously white, the shoreside shallows the turquoise colour of tropical lagoons. And with the skylarks up, and the machair vivid with flowers, as a Scot it’s hard not to think: Oh but we’ll pay for this.
What are the people like?
Warm, funny, a mixture of incomers and oldstayers, predominantly Catholic (as are all the southernmost Western Isles - Vatersay, Barra, Eriskay, South Uist). Quite a few people have two or three jobs. Gossip is rife (the islanders call this island scrutiny 'the goldfish bowl') but there's a sense of community which is, as you would expect, incredibly strong.
Many of the Barraich (Barra folk) have nicknames. These might relate to jobs, physical appearance, or have a meaning long since forgotten - perhaps even given at school, or birth. This isn’t a major impediment to the occasional visitor or even recent émigré - unless you decide to take part in a pub quiz, like we did, and finds that there’s a nickname round. In which case you will need to pressgang a wise member of said Barraich onto your team. Or lose badly.
Island humour can be surreal, which suited me well. Typical example overheard during lunchtime serving at a pub in Castlebay:
Island man 1: (thoughtful, looking out of the pub window.) See how the bay we live in is called Castlebay?
Island man 2: Hm.
Island man 1: See how it's got a castle in it?
Island man 2: Hm.
Island man 1: Wonder what they called it before the castle was built?
(Pause; me expecting an ancient and mellifluous Gaelic phrase-name)
Island man 2: Bay?
Any wildlife of note?
There are many birds, and several of them will cause you no trouble. But if you visit from April onwards then there is one bird to avoid: the corncrake. The Gaelic word for corncrake is trèan-ri-trèan, which roughly translates as: Dear God make it Shut Up. The male's call has been likened (by me) to a chair being scraped across a patio over and over by someone intent on destroying your mind with sound alone.
In addition, his favourite time to call is four am, which closely corresponds with your body clock's maximal desire to wring his neck. They are a protected species, unfortunately.
Why should I go there?
Beaches, culture, scenery, fantastic people, fresh seafood, pubs, kayaking, windsurfing, wildlife, and great curries just about sums it up for me. Mainly because there's nowhere else like it.
This short story is set on Shetland, and was the first I ever got published. There are early hints of The Last of Us: the unnamed boy and girl's walk reminds me of Rona and Elizabeth and Alex on their coastline scramble to Message Rock.
Northern dialect words to look out for: Tirl (wheel of a Shetland mill); Tammie Norrie (Puffin); Bonxie (Great Skua); Voe (narrow sea inlet) and Böd (bothy, fisherman's shelter.)
The children take a grass path skirting the edge of the voe, kicking through summer flowers as they approach the turning click mill.
The boy, following behind, watches the girl's bare feet: admires their shape, their sure grip on the stones. She has a basket on her shoulder and a headscarf tied at her chin. At the underhus of the mill they stop – to watch the tirl turning, gasping as the sharp cold burn water runs over their feet. The boy puts an arm in - letting the feathers of the water wheel rap on his hand.
The girl puts a finger to her mouth, gestures for him to be quiet. In a huddle they listen over the water's noise for the mill-wife inside - throwing in her barleycorn handfuls and singing or whistling, but there is no sign of her.
They climb over a low wall, sun in their faces. Further on the grasses and wild flowers are bright around them: cream-pink of meadow fescue, deeper pink of ragged robin. Purples of standing thistle and clover, red of common sorrel. Yellows of ragwort and bird's foot trefoil, and blues of thyme and milkwort and sheepsbit.
The boy collects a posy of flowers for the girl. He presents it to her with an uncertain, bashful smile.
Here ye are, he says.
Fur what? she demands.
The girl takes the flowers. She makes a contemptuous noise.
The boy explains in a hurry, Ah like flooers, when ye see am da gither.
The girl turns and goes on ahead, carrying herself like the lady of the house on Vaila. She cannot think of how to reply. She's not used to the idea of thanking other children. Thank you, she understands, is for the elders of her family, or the laird, or the minister.
The boy follows the girl for a while - until she turns on him and presses the flowers back to his chest.
But don't ye like them? he asks.
She sighs. Ah like them scaittert, grawin wild.
Aye. All about the place.
A pair of Arctic terns chase by, turning around each other with paper wings, calling in thin rasps.
The girl goes on again, sending up clouds of white moths as she strides over the flower field.
They sit together by a small rocky bay.
The day goes. The sun turns high over them. They listen to the sucking and draining sound of the ebb tide on the nearby pebble beach, and the crackling sound of drying seaweed. Strewn around, the empty shells and blue arms of crabs.
The boy sniffs, and throws his posy down to the water.
He says, Tell ye what. Ah'd be a Tammie Norrie.
Ach! Why a daft birdie like dat?
He answers, Dey look grand, so they do! Dar wings are funny, and dar beaks as weel.
The girl looks away, shaking her head. Ah'd be a bonxie dan, she says, And steal awa me da Tammie's fish, ah wad.
They sit in silence.
The girl asks, Whit else dan?
A selkie, the boy ventures.
A selkie! Whit far?
The boy shrugs. Dan ah could swim in the sea.
Oh, right well.
The answer seems reasonable enough.
The girl feels a tickle at her elbow. She finds an earwig squirming there. Jumping up, she throws the insect at the boy and says,
Du is mair like a forkietail!
And then she runs off, laughing.
The boy hesitates. He wants to follow her, but fears that he will seem too eager or stupid. He swats at the earwig instead.
The voe: flat, deep indigo, only breeze rippled. A red throated diver on the water calls mournfully to a pair in flight, turning in circles at the head of the voe. Oystercatchers, piping from the dark intertidal belt of a small island.
The boy counts to twenty, then follows, as the girl walks around the headland to the Voe's Atlantic mouth.
He finds her sitting on a point of shattered rock. She's taken off her basket and her headscarf. Her face on the sea horizon, eyes bright with the sun. Foula in the distance, wearing a cap of cloud.
The boy sits beside her again. Her smell: earth, peat smoke, carbolic, sun warmed skin.
Ah love thee, he says in a hurry.
The girl laughs, delighted. She turns and smiles at the boy: then throws back her head and laughs more harshly, surprising herself, roaring at the idea of romantic fancy like one of the fisherwomen on the wharf.
She doesn’t want to laughter, but finds it hard to stop now that she has started.
The boy's eyes shine. He runs back the way he has come, past the wall and the flower field and the turning click mill.
The girl knows that he will not come back to her.
A tin box.
A tin box in his hands.
Picking through the objects inside. Hands: clumsy.
Unwrapping the cloth lining, taking them out one by one.
Christmas cigarettes. Not smoked. A keepsake. Cigarettes made for the whole battalion. Bright red box, and a drawing of a smiling officer. Wishing them all a Happy Christmas. For what that was worth over any of the Christmases gone.
He reads the lettering on the front of the packet. The words: bright, hopeful, meaningless. Reading them over.
He looks up from the recess, the narrow space that he's backed into. Dirt walls. That cloying smell of mud and rotten sandbags. Sweat running on his face. A pain in his foot. His hearing starting to return. Someone running past - someone falling past – the last man's kit and gun spilling on the duckboards.
He begins to hear all of the noise again. Swelling to drown out the dull earthquake sounds: all of the other noise. The boom of artillery. The crack of machine gun fire, distant, then louder replies on his side. Shouts heard in between the volleys of gunfire. Machine noise, strangely unrecognised. Air pressure shifts of explosions, with that twin feeling in the pit of his stomach, and the usual encore of dust falling from the wet planks over his head.
It occurs to him, dumbly, in this moment, how little of it he generally hears.
His hands, disconnected. They fumble through the items in the box. A rat streaks past. An old rotten glove across the way, not salvageable. He can see in his mind's eye the corpses outside the recess: fallen into the ditch, pink and torn like the whales turned up on the wharf back home… How fascinating these large creatures were to him as a boy: how improbably large and hopeless they appeared. He would look into their foul-smelling mouths, to the yellow bristles there, and worry that the animal would reawaken, and he would be sucked in like Jonah, swallowed and gone.
This act of remembering, of being elsewhere, is a customary relief.
His hearing starts to come back. A ringing sound remaining. He's had this ringing in his ears before. He knows that it's usually temporary, and sure enough: everything is there and too loud again, and he retreats, falls back to the box in his shaking hands.
His fingers turn over the objects inside. The cigarettes. A sheaf of letters. Woodcarving of a small bird with wings outstretched in flight. A penknife, with ivory handle. Pen and ink. Cards.
And a slim soldier's bible. The pages marked by his hands, his dirty fingerprints. Pressed flowers spread through the pages of the bible. All of them turned to dry, flattened husks, ghosts only of the long summer light. Now as brittle and sun-starved as he was.
She'd given him the flowers before he left her.
Sees her still: standing on the pier.
Her expression, warm and defiant.
Dese flooers are for you, she'd said.
They'd looked at each other for a long time.
Then she'd said, nearly smiling: Ah like them less weel scaittert, now.
His ship drifting away. Looking back on the pier, with the elbows of his friends jagging into his ribs.
The home folk waving until they rounded the voe, and then the sea-swells beyond Papa Stour.
The flowers had kept their colour on the journey; but were dry and flat by the time they reached France.
Turning over the tin box. His reflection underneath.
A hand waving at his face.
An officer - standing over him. His mouth opening.
The sense of the man's words lost. The officer putting a rifle in his hands. Get up, Jock. Then grabbing him by his lapels, pulling him to his feet. Your ear's bleeding.
Answering, Is it?
Consternation on the face of the officer. Who's line are you on?
Answering: Twelfth, Highland. Heavy artillery.
Get in back with the others, then.
The officer's hands shaking. His smile a thin grimace; the very same drawn out fear there on his face.
Three summers later.
Drinking at the Böd, long hours in the company of the friends that had returned. The voe under cloud: flat and grey as if filled by oil, the wind sharpening its surface as the evening goes.
They drink and sing to the roof and shout for the fiddler at the window to play for them, which he does until he falls drunk.
His uniform beer-stained and trampled by the time he sets back for home, and then with the light coming again in the northeast.
On the next day: all of the islands are there, under a blue sky. High streaks of clouds and a cooling wind.
He walks along a winding road, following the sun. Solitary bees patrolling the hedgerows, nettle-fed butterflies swimming around.
He visits the girl in her resting place, by the edge of a white sand beach. Sweet high stands of cow parsley in the fields surrounding. He has a warm coal still in his chest for the girl with the harsh laughter. The girl who was gone with Spanish Flu before he could come back to Shetland to claim her.
Clouds, dropping on the western slopes of Ronas Hill.
He gathers a posy of flowers, again, and stands before her bright stone.
Sees a collection of flowers nearby, wilting in a small glass jar.
Then lifts up his hands, scatters his gathered flowers to the wind.
Barra and its sister island Vatersay are five hours by ferry from Oban, or forty minutes by ferry from the nearest inhabited island, Eriskay. Take a plane there and you land on a beach: allowing for tide and weather, strand-walkers, cockle-pickers. Climb Heaval (Barra’s highest hill) on a clear evening and you can see the faraway isles of St Kilda; also the nearer uninhabited islands south of Barra itself: Maldoanich, Sandray, Pabbay, Mingulay, Berneray. There are ruins of houses on some of these islands: the people long gone, the townships that once were just shells of stone infilled with nettles and brambles and docken.
In cities we feel the push of thousands, millions, even tens of millions. But with Scottish islands, it’s the opposite. The land and the emptiness crowd in, and you notice the elements: sea, sky, wind, rain, the summer sun. Drive home through fierce weather in the middle of the night and you're on your own: seeing just a few metres ahead, wipers tugged by gusts of wind, tinny-sounding longwave sometimes the only station available on the car radio, the only sign of life beyond yourself.
You can begin to understand, perhaps even ask the questions that the people of St Kilda and Mingulay once asked. How many are we? Are there enough of us? If someone becomes unwell, can we get them to the mainland on time?
My wife and I worked as GPs on the Hebridean islands of Barra and Vatersay for two years, between 2008 and 2010. When we arrived in early January the weather was benign - but just days later there were hurricane force winds. The ferries and flights were cancelled, and so supplies began to dwindle: no milk, no newspapers, no fresh produce. It felt like the end of the world to us, but everyone else just laughed at our lack of know-how. Canny islanders are used to stockpiling beforehand, shrugging and weathering out. Generators run on oil to power fridges, chest freezers. The shelves empty in the supermarket, but stockpiles are good for a while after that. Still, you wonder: what if the weather doesn’t break? What about next week? Ten weeks? Six months, a year?
When islanders became unwell they occasionally had to be sent to hospital on the mainland: to Glasgow, or to Inverness. The scheduled flights or ambulance helicopter wouldn’t fly if there was a bad storm, but the RAF Sea King helicopter might… unless there were hurricane force winds, that is, which could mean they were stuck until it blew over.
A year after our arrival on the island there were reports of a new strain of influenza in Mexico. Swine Flu reached the UK in April 2009, with the first two cases arriving, as it happens, on a flight to Scotland. It turned out to be a mild illness for the vast majority, with the chief medical officer describing it as ‘considerably less lethal’ than feared. We had many meetings with the local health board – videolink, face-to-face – first relating to the policy of containment, then to the treatment phase. We had antivirals, though it was unclear how much they would help; facemasks, the same.
Spent a lot of time beachcombing with my children. One Spring morning we were walking the shore beside our home in Eoligarry – looking for crab-moults, cowrie shells, that one stone more perfectly-shaped than all the rest – and they got ahead of me, and out of sight. I ran after them, but they were gone, too quick. But then I saw them: down in a huddle at the edge of a rockpool, looking at a single piece of green glass smoothed into roundedness.
All the way back home I wondered what would happen if they were left on their own. Would they go on with life: forage, find food, make a new home in someone's house, try to learn, teach each other, hope to make everything normal by going to school even though there was no-one left to teach? Would they cope? Survive? Thrive?
The weather presses in: and the land begins to as well. Bones of sheep in the dunes, wishbones of gulls. Bones of whales. Bones of houses.
Islands force you to think of abandonment: of how the tides will still come twice a day to rub smooth those stones when we are gone.
My novel The Last of us was published by The Borough Press in April 2016.