(first published in Dodging the Rain June 1, 2018)
CastlebayCottage ,Shore Rd
Thousand Islands Bay
December 15th, 2016
School of Scottish Studies
University of Edinburgh.
I would be most grateful if you would accept the gift of the enclosed manuscript.
Captain Alan Padraig MacNeil (retired)
Summer vacation, Isle of Barra, 1954.
‘… Càc a’choin! Another empty creel, Alan. Ach, time we were heading back anyhow. Best that you are coming into the wheelhouse with me, it’s getting a bitty choppy.’
Heading back to Castlebay, after lifting the last of the creels – that was always my favourite part of the trip. That was when Uncle Ruairidh, Ruairidh Mòr oil-skinned colossus, would tell his sea stories. Coaxing him was part of the game: he would feign reluctance, claiming he couldn’t tell a story properly in English, protesting that I’d heard all his stories a thousand-million times, that the wild geese could tell me a better story. At length, the clamoured-for narrative would begin: maybe the story of the storm that beached the great whale, in testimony of which the whale-bone stool stood in Ruairidh Mòr’s croft-house; maybe that of the storm that wrecked the Norwegian tramp-steamer and brought a dozen dripping, silent, blond giants in to warm themselves at Katie Ann’s fire, scaring that old lady half out of her remaining wits; and most marvellous of all, perhaps the story of the storm that stranded my great-uncle, Padraig Neill, on ‘the Last Isle,’ when he was just nineteen years old. This is my poor re-telling of Ruaridh Mòr’s luminous tale of the stranding…
The Barra boats were all fishing off Berneray when that storm broke with sudden violence — the very same storm that capsized the Isle of Pabbay boat and drowned the only five able-bodied men left on that small, green, holy island. The storms thereabouts can be as loud as cannon-fire and fierce enough to deposit small fish at the top of the cliffs, a mocking offering to the fishermen in their fragile open boats. My great-uncle, Padraig Neill, was in a boat with three other Barra men, helpless in the blast and fury of the storm. After one enormous wave broke over them, he was alone in the boat. He guessed the boat was being driven towards the 700-foot cliff of Builacraig on the west coast of the Isle of Mingulay. He expected, any moment, to be dashed against the foot of Builacraig, but instead, the great sea-stack of Gunamul suddenly loomed over the boat.
Now, Gunamul is that rare thing, a sea-stack that is also a sea-arch. The arch is narrow, yet passable by a small boat. But it’s passable only in very favourable conditions, rare enough in the seas around Mingulay, where there is nearly always a heavy swell. Strange chance: the tiny boat was lifted up, as if to be dashed on Gunamul, but instead was carried straight through that tower of rock. Padraig Neill, in his disordered mind, could not understand what had happened – it was only subsequently that he reasoned that the storm must have borne him through the sea-arch, like a bullet through a gun barrel.
Soon after, exhausted, deafened and disorientated, he apparently lost consciousness. At any rate, he had no memory of the rest of the storm, nor of how long he must have drifted before the storm blew itself out. His next memory was of lying face-upwards in the boat, his left wrist still roped for safety to a brass rowlock. There was still a swell; the seas were slopping into the swamped boat. He was chilled, very thirsty, bruised and bloodied. It was dark, but he could tell he was close to land, not by the sound of the breaking of the waves (he was still deaf from the storm), but by the dark mass of hills on his right hand. He began to bail out the boat, but the effort was beyond his strength. Now there was moon enough to see the waves breaking in a regular line, not on cliffs or rocks, but on a beach. He loosed the rope that held him to the rowlock, kicked off his sea-boots, and swam for the shore. He could only swim a short distance before he had to desist and float upon his back. With a last effort, he rolled over to swim again and was surprised to find himself in shallow water. He crawled up the beach to the high-tide mark.
Sometime later, Padraig Neill awoke to feel the hot sun on his back. He rolled over in the sand to see a young woman kneeling beside him. When Padraig told the tale, a thing he did only rarely and privately, he said that he thought at first that he had died and he was now in Paradise. But then his reason told him that, in Paradise, he would surely be freed from his thirst, cuts and bruises. The woman silently offered him a blue-edged, white enamel cup of water. He drank and asked no questions. It was the best water that he had ever tasted. It was the best drink he had ever tasted: better even than the whisky from the famous still at Clachtol on the mainland. He looked again at the woman and saw that she was very beautiful – brown-eyed and white-skinned, clad in a simple grey dress.
‘Was she a seal woman, Uncle Ruairidh?’ I had asked.
‘Perhaps, who is knowing?’ Ruairidh Mòr had replied, ‘Your great-uncle never said. I’m thinking that he never knew.’
The woman spoke with a smile in her voice. She said to Padraig Neill: ‘You are a fisherman. My father was a fisherman. You are welcome on this island’. She helped him to his feet and they walked off the beach onto the sweet machair turf, grazed short by nearby sheep with their leggy lambs. At the far edge of the machair ground was a spring-fed pool with a cabin beside it. Here, the woman bathed Padraig Neill’s wounds and fed him crowdie cheese and bannocks.
As he ate, Padraig stared alternately at the woman and out of the open cabin door, across the short stretch of machair grassland and out to sea. He saw no familiar landmarks, not the high cliffs of the Isle of Mingulay, nor the Berneray lighthouse, nor the dazzling white beaches of his native Barra. But this caused him no uneasiness as he listened to the woman with the smile in her voice. She told him that his boat had been carried away on the ebb-tide, but her half-brother, Lachlan Luspardan, was searching for it. Padraig simply listened to the smile in her voice and looked long into her shining brown eyes. Never had he been so content. And then he slept.
When he awoke the woman was gone. For the first time on that strange shore, thoughts of Barra assailed him. He thought of his mother waiting in vain at the harbour for his boat to return out of the storm. He thought of the widows of his lost companions, with no knowledge of what had become of their husbands. He realised he must go home, if only briefly, before he could return to the beautiful woman with the smile in her voice and to the fortunate shore where she lived. Then he saw the woman making her way towards him across the machair, her grey dress swaying about her as she walked. A step behind her was another figure, dwarfish, with an ungainly shuffle.
‘Greetings fisherman,’ she said simply. ‘This is my brother, Lachlan.’ The dwarf remained silent, hands on hips. ‘Lachlan has not found your boat. I’m afraid the tide and the currents have borne it away from our island.’
‘But I must go home,’ blurted Padraig. ‘I mean, I must put my mother’s mind at rest and tell the village what has happened. And then…’ He paused and blushed. ‘I would wish… if I may… if you would allow… to return here to you. I cannot…’ And then he could say no more.
The woman nodded. ‘Of course, you must see your mother. Lachlan here will take you in his boat. And if you wish it,’ she smiled, ‘you may return to us here on the Last Isle.’
‘How shall I find you?’ said Padraig. ‘I’ve never heard of the Last Isle. Does it lie far from Barra?’
‘Not far, no. But still, it is not easily found. You must pass through the Great Arch and then sail westward. But I will give you a chart. You will be very welcome, should you choose to return.’ At this, the dwarf turned abruptly on his heel, and shuffled quickly away. Padraig saw that he was making for a skiff that was anchored off-shore at the far end of the bay. Padraig and the woman were left alone at the cabin: Padraig never said what they spoke of, but the woman handed Padraig a rolled parchment that she said would serve for a chart. At length, they followed Lachlan Luspardan down to the skiff, which was now ready to depart and Padraig waded through the surf to clamber aboard. As the dwarf weighed anchor, Padraig turned to the shore: the woman stood still and grave at the water’s edge, and remained there as the vessel drew away and she dwindled to a distant speck, seen intermittently between the heaving waves.
Padraig observed that the dwarf was a skilful sailor and used to handling the skiff. But he was unresponsive to Padraig’s eager questions, answering reluctantly in few words and in a strange, high-pitched, hoarse voice. After half an hour or so, the dwarf pulled a corked bottle and a satchel of bannocks from a locker, and offered them to Padraig. The liquid within the bottle surprised Padraig: it was not the spring water he’d drunk earlier with so much relish, but a thick, sweet, opaque liquid. Some minutes later, he began to feel drowsy – whether from the strange liquid, or simply from the continuing after-effects of his previous ordeal, he could not say. The dwarf indicated that he could curl up in the bows of the skiff and he did so, falling asleep almost immediately.
He awoke sometime later among some sheep-skins the dwarf must have drawn over him. It was dusk and the dwarf was making use of the evening wind to sail close into a deserted beach that Padraig immediately recognised as a beach close to his Barra home. The dwarf smiled and bobbed his head: ‘Yes fisherman, it is time for us to part company. Show me my sister’s chart, that I may guide you back to us’.
Padraig automatically rose to hand over the rolled parchment. At the same time as he took the parchment, the dwarf deftly and fiercely shoved Padraig overboard. By the time Padraig had surfaced and recovered his wits, the wind had carried the skiff well out of reach and the dwarf had already changed tack, away from the shore. Padraig struck out for the skiff, but quickly realised the effort was futile. As he trod water, he watched the dwarf cackle and shred the parchment into fragments.
Padraig could do nothing but turn about and swim for the beach. Though afterwards he often sought for the Last Isle, once even taking a rowing boat through the narrow Gunamul sea-arch on a rare day of absolute calm, he never found the isle nor the woman ever again. He died while still in his twenties – a drowning – his body was never found.
All through my childhood and adolescence, the strange tale of Great-Uncle Padraig Neill’s stranding stayed with me like an old song: a tale of longing and loss, sweetness and sadness, a world glimpsed and then forever beyond reach.
Some forty years passed by: Ruairidh Mòr was crippled with arthritis; his boat was sold; I was away in the Philippines; and Padraig Neill’s tale was starting to fade along with all my other Barra memories. Then I chanced to come upon a similar story (‘Le Grand Meaulnes’) written by a young Frenchman, Alain-Fournier, who had gone on to die in the slaughter of the First World War. As I read on, that old tale of my uncle’s came surging back to me like a high tide among the rock pools. That story was like a scene glimpsed through the wrong end of a telescope: a tiny, bright, treasured fragment of a world I’ve long lost. Now it’s a taken-for-granted part of me, like my left-handedness or my long stride.
I’ve no nephew to pass this manuscript onto. I hope the University’s School of Scottish Studies will be able to find a place for it in their oral history archive. The whale-bone stool is going to the Barra Heritage and Cultural Centre.