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.