Thursday, 20 October 2011


Image Above: John the shepherd and dogs
Location: Isle of Erraid, Mull, Scotland

The line will move and I will move with it but for the moment I wait perched on a granite tor watching the shepherd and the dogs move sheep between the valleys that hang below the island’s south east corner. It seems an age since I have just sat with the island and felt the slow rumble of its granite pulse through the wadding of peat and heather. People ask me about the remoteness of the place but I am not entirely sure what they mean. Remote from what? When I look on the map I understand their concerns as I trace a thin spit of land out into the North Atlantic. Still there is a feeling that I am closer to something than I have ever been.

The line has not yet moved, I look back to Ben More as it emerges from the clouds holding a net of snow cover. To the north, south, east and west black squalls are moving over the ocean dappling the waters with both light and dark. Moments pass when the island’s granite shines like teeth and then the curtain is drawn and the shadows fall. Sometimes I feel like there is no sense in investing in the present or the past here everything feels as if it is at that moment of creation like a dream filling sleep.

The line has not yet moved and I am not sure if I am waiting now. This morning we helped pull one of the shepherd’s cows out of a ditch. On route to the animal I thought about the other times I had helped with other cows and other ditches and wondered if history was repeating itself or just my expectations. If I could only stop and forget myself instead of filling the landscape with memories of conversations and plans.

The shepherd has past the line and a hand goes up. I leave the ridge picking a route that will bring me across the valley floor in full view of the sheep on the far side, they will move, my presence already worries them.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Night Fishing

It is dark outside the tool shed, the light from the doorway creates a very solid space as if bounded by glass. A little further up the track pier cottage is putting on a similar display, its rear windows casting light, soft footed into the damp grass of the garden. A breeze is knocking the pier gate against its wooded latch ringing out a tone that would not be out of place in amongst the chants and gongs of a Buddhist temple. Beyond the gate the bay is silent, night has returned to the northern reaches of the hemisphere. The endless light of summer has ended and the oystercatchers now spent, no longer echo their calls into twilight but huddle on rocks in the blackness amongst the kelp.

I lean my fishing rods just out of the light under the whale jaw bones, the arch above the doorway, and set my tackle box down on the tractor’s mud guard. The whale bones came from a small bay on the northwest corner of the island, other parts of the skeleton were scattered around the settlement. One such vertebra lived in the small yard at the rear of my neighbour’s cottage, still holding much of its oil* it sweated a foul odour through the warmth of spring and summer. Eventually we dropped it off the pier back into the sea, it haunted the bay for a week drifting with the tide along the strandlines and then it was gone.

Inside the tool shed the work bench is a mess, things left over from other jobs crowd the surfaces. There is no repetitive production here, every job is new requiring its own compliment of tools its own mess and often experimentation to repair, remould and return into service. The ribbon of water that surrounds us deters waste and the disposal, fixing something often requires less effort than bringing its replacement to the island and disposing of the old.

I clear some space, half-heartedly returning tools to draws, shelves and reuniting others with their shadows painted on the board above the bench. At the rear of the shed a smaller room of shelves holds the island’s collection of things that may be useful; there is no one person to say what these things may be useful for, so it is at best a collection of things thought useful by past and present members of the community. There are the prosaic items common to all tool sheds nails screws, nuts, bolts, wire, old door handles, taps, pipe, paint, plumbing fittings and then there are the other things. I am looking for corks amongst the candles, seat belt webbing, dissected hot water bottles, rings of keys to unspecified locks, bits from a fish finder, bits from a tractor and divan bed legs complete with castors.

I am not entirely sure who began the wine bottle cork collection. One ex-resident of the island told me that when his young son had been unable to sleep through the night the local midwife had advised him to put a couple of corks in the child’s bed. I find the catering sized tin of olives that now hosts the collection of corks, it still holds enough to guarantee a quiet night in an orphanage. So I rifle through the remnants of other peoples evenings sat around the fire drinking wine and talking or eating. I find a large champagne cork that once flew marking some celebration or other perhaps a birthday or the launch of a boat and wonder who would have tracked it down to bring it here.

I fish out four corks that kind of fit together to make two pairs or two fishing floats which is the real reason for my visit to the tool shed. I drill a hole through the length of each cork a little more accurately than those left by the cork screw and then glue the pairs together. A long bolt that used to hold a bed together serves as a spindle and I slip a pairof corks over over it and then fasten the bolt into the chuck of a drill. The drill is clamped to the vice on the bench; I find gloves although not a matching pair, goggles and a mask. When I turn the drill on the corks spin and I have a lathe. Using coarse sandpaper I roughly shape the corks until the body of a fishing float emerges. I stop the drill and check the float for cracks, it is all good. With a change of sand paper to a finer grade I start the drill and begin the process of smoothing, another change of sand paper and the surface looks clean cut again.

With the shaping complete I remove the float body from the drill and spindle and then slide it over the thinnest piece of cane I could find in the garden sheds. The cane tapers, its thickest end is a little larger than the drill used to make the hole ensuring the stretched cork grips the cane. Rolling the cane under a Stanley knife blade scores it deeply enough, so when forced it will snap cleanly. I score a couple of centimetres up from each end of the body and then snap it away. Mixing glue up with cork dust that has gathered in the vice makes up a filler to pack out any gaps left where the cane meets the cork. I repeat the process with the other pair of glued corks.

It is not late when I leave the shed but the darkness out beyond the door well is impenetrable, I turn the lights off and step out into the night. Pier cottage is no longer sharing in the display, leaving the route of track as something to be recalled from memory or discovered under the dim glow of my mobile phone. I clutch the unfinished floats in my pocket and shuffle off into the night.

Image Above Right: Floats drying above the rayburn

Image Below: A mackerel on the line

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

The hind

Image Above: Clouds over Ben More
Location: Viewed from the Isle of Erraid, Mull, Scotland

The hind moved as I entered the field. She had stood, ears pricked, below the cliff and oak wood where a thin rivulet emerges from the clipped grass into patches of wet bog. I watched her accelerate cleanly as if her motion bore no relation to the terrain or obstacles placed to impede the movement of less agile creatures. She crossed the drover’s track below me where the rivulet finds the beach in its own thin cut of a valley. The willows never parted or felt their twigs bowed by her passage but they took her and she was gone. When I caught up there was nothing to see, if the hoof prints where there they were spaced too widely as to make any kind of sense. I waited in the still evening air for the snap of a twig or the sound of hair pushing against bark but the valley was quiet holding its own confidences.

I left the track and the rocky shore for the soft sand of the beach and the route home, the tide was out and water hung low at the entrance to the bay. The rivulet seeped away into the sand, its course marked by a smoothness, as the water, now moving beneath surface undermined the ripples of the beach. A little way off it drained into the larger stream that cuts the bay and meanders to join the sound.
Ahead the island lay in a wide brim of sand with the cottages shouldered below the wide dome of granite. To my left the long arm or narrows reached out to the distant islets that mark the lagoon on its southern edge. I hung back a little, not wishing to intrude on the depth of stillness that had settled as the sun slipped behind Iona.
When I moved, I moved knowing that the sand would be wiped clean of my footprints by the returning tide, the grass of the drover’s track had already sprung back and the air that carried the sound of my breath would eventually muffle it. Everything that has passed would be erased or folded into the white noise of the surf.

A week ago I had stood below the massive bulk of the pier, at low tide fixing a ring into the granite. Working with an ear close to the rock I picked out a distinctive rasping sound, a limpet its shell half- cocked was grazing the thin film of algae that had bloomed on the tide. The sound was only one voice from a chorus and as I leaned away from the rock-face I began to hear them all, a thousand mineral tipped tongues working like masons on the granite. The noise was almost deafening in the same way as a ticking clock that hammers out the passing seconds in the silence of a room.

Looking over the face I spotted individuals moving in slow motion tilting their shells like ladies hooped ball gowns. I ran my fingers into the spaces they had vacated small ovoid impressions in the rock ground out by the shell until the two parts matched each other allowing the limpet to seal itself against the face, should the sun creep around the pier. I snatched a shell before it had a chance to clamp down and placed it over its mark, turning it until the riffles and contours of its edge locked into position with the surface.
I held it there half expecting a doorway to open, but the limpet wouldn’t take hold and I left it on a ledge just below.

The bay is littered with the spent shells of limpets and other molluscs.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The Pint Glass Aquarium

Image above: Shrimps chasing shrimps
Location: Below the pier, Isle of Erraid, Mull, Scotland

The Pint Glass Aquarium

There is a soft edge to the water almost as if it has taken on the sombre mood of the sky. The day is poised on the edge of a raincloud that looms over the bay and island. It adds a thickness or a density to both the air and water, hushing activity like a hand placed on a drum skin. Small wavelets ‘phawp’ and collapse into the sand while the calls of oystercatchers have lost their echo.

The full moon has rolled up the ocean like a rug, draining all but the lowest fingers of the bay. I am waist deep, pushing a shrimp net and small wave through what remains. I look back at the island and see it as if through the eyes of a seal and draw breath from that same film of air that sits over water, still and damp. The surface has begun to dimple as the rain moves in. I am mesmerised by ripples that move within ripples and the shortened perspective my viewpoint affords. If I was to chose the life of a seal, the surface world would be always for-shortened by the next wave, beach, cliff face or the curvature of the blue earth; maybe unlike a seal I would miss hillsides.

The net is heavy now. At the far end of the long pole I am pushing, a wide board planes over the seabed disturbing the top few millimetres of sand and the life held therein. Behind, the net gapes inflated by its drag and content, mainly of loose weed fronds that have drifted into the bay, shrimp and a cross section of life too large to pass through the mesh or find a route out of the tangle. I push leaning into the pole until the weeds bring me to a stop and then turn the net over sealing its contents in until I return to the beach.

In the long reach of the shallows where the wavelets race each other I roll the net back over and it opens like a purse or the crop of a giant bird displaying its contents. I work my way through what is immediately visible, picking the larger shrimps for the bucket and releasing smaller. Amongst the haul immature flatfish lie upturned their translucent undersides clearly displaying their small pouch of organs. Righted and placed outside the net they skitter away leaving puffs of sand in their wake like badly aimed rockets. I inspect old winkle shells and find the striped clown legs and claws of hermit crabs tucked neatly out of harm. They retreat from every experience whether it is my touch or contact with the sand as I return them to the sea.
Tugging at the netting rolls the seaweed mass up like sushi in bamboo leaving me to unpick what remains. Peeler crabs soft bodied like kid leather flop motionless still waiting for their skeleton to harden. A larger shore crab raises its pinchers in threat fixing its eyes on me it weaves from side to side ready to lay one on me if the opportunity should present itself. Not looking for a fight I toss it back into the sea and it scuttles off to tell its friends that it could have had me. The strands of kelp slowly unwind revealing the flicking tails and twitching antenna of the shrimp. Some I loose in transit to the bucket as they summersault out of my hands under their own propulsion and quickly bury themselves in the sand.

As the weed thins out I find a small member of the cuttlefish family and place it in the shrimp bucket, it hovers gently above the shrimps undulating its ghostly fins. When the net is empty I am done for the afternoon and make my way back up to the street. The cuttlefish finds a temporary home in a pint glass on the windowsill. In the cottage’s small kitchen I drop the shrimps into a pan of boiling water for a couple of minutes, drain them and return to the windowsill to peel them under a watch-full gaze. The cuttlefish changes colour eventually blending with satin white finish of the woodwork. When I am done with the shrimps I provoke it by introducing a black towel to the background and it responds with browns and blues.

When the school-boat returns I carry the pint glass aquarium down to the pier and show it to my neighbour’s kids; they are unimpressed and tell me they had found their own when they were shrimping at the weekend. Back in the sea in changes its colour almost instantly taking its cue from the reds and browns in the granite pebbles.

Image above right: Orlando shrimping

Image Below: Cuttlefish

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Mackerel Evenings

Image Above: Rainbow Amongst The Mackerel
Location: Isle Of Erraid, Mull, Scotland
Mackerel Evenings

The lines stretch away either side of the stern, weighted and rigged with feathered hooks that swim like sand eels as they are pulled through the waters of the sound. The sun has set beyond Iona but there is still light enough, if it is only the half-light of a summer’s evening in these northern latitudes. The nights no longer darken to a blackness that properly separates or measures out the days, instead summer’s shell-sand light fades into dusk as the sun briefly skirts below the horizon. Sometimes it is hard not to believe that the island doesn’t lie at the centre of this orbit, the sun moves around that hoof print of land as if held within reach and the tilted axis of a discus throwers spin.

I am running the outboard engine at its lowest speed, the boat is gently pushing through the flat water and the ebbing tide. Orlando has the bow seat, nodding his fishing rod with a rhythmic motion that pulls at his trailing line and the lures. I hold the other rod and stare into the wake, watching jellyfish undulate as they pass like the ghost of drowned ballerinas.

I am following a course between Easter island and the channel-marker buoy in the hopes that we will pass over a small knoll that rises five or six metre from the sea bed. Shoals of fish often congregate here drawn from the featureless plains of the ocean floor. If the tide is running fast enough water is often pushed up from the depths breaking the surface in a slow boil untouched by the breeze that ripples the surrounding water. Most often it is the line weights touching down or snagging in the weed that signals a change in depth.

Orlando feels the tug of fish first and is already reeling in his line, my feathers cut through the shoal seconds later and I am in, hooked. I put the engine in neutral and wind, four mackerel a piece, we unhook the fish and return the feathers to the water as quickly as possibly, it is all about speed. The boat, the tide and the shoal are all moving and it is largely guesswork as to which route will bring us into contact again. We drop our lines vertically into the depths and bring up three stragglers that had probably followed the other hooked fish towards the boat. We unhook and return our lines to the water but there are no more takers and I slip the engine into forward and let the lines trail from the stern as I make a wide circle.

With the excitement over, we count our catch and the total stands at fourteen. We then count up the population of the island which including guests, residents, children, friends and visiting family members stands at somewhere round twenty-four. We knock off two, one vegan and one vegetarian, twenty-two and only fourteen fish. A fillet each and we can pad it out with some rice or potato salad. Orlando suggests a barbeque and we discuss recipes and whether to smoke them or not. Our lines find another five mackerel but it is late now and even the rainbow glow, that shimmers along the flanks of the silver bolts of lightening can not keep me from longing for a good night’s sleep. With the engine and boat idling near the buoy I gut and toss the heads of the fish to a herring gull who as if performing a side show swallows four and still floats, maybe a little lower in the water. We tidy the boat and then set off for home, watching the lights of houses on the island’s small street sway in the half-light.

Saturday, 28 May 2011


Image Above: The bay from under the boat

Location: Isle Of Erraid, Mull, Scotland

There are warnings of gales in Malin, ……………

The storm was beyond merely waves, gusts of wind and rain; it had taken everything for its own. Ocean and air mixed in equal parts with spray and rainwater moved as if a single solid entity bending what could be bent and beating the unresponsive. We had made what preparations we could, clearing debris, weighting gates and taking our boat out of the water, but still there was an expectancy that something would give.

In the bay a single boat tugged violently at its mooring like an unbroken horse plagued by the unfamiliarity of captivity. I watched it from the cottage doorway, through windows, from the street, the pier and as I moved about the settlement. In truth I was waiting, but to some extent we were all waiting, all those who had seen the boat, and stepped out or in from the storm. Our concerns had become common currency, we asked or informed those we met about the boat in the bay until it became a greeting of sorts.

I know little about storms, for the most part I find them unfathomable, they lack the curve of sanity. To unpick their crime scenes is often senseless, who would take a block of granite weighed in the tonnes and shift it like a child’s toy while leaving the fragile heads of daisies un-cropped. To some extent nothing matters, faced with these odds, everything becomes at best just a guess or superstition, people have tied gates only to lose a shed or the bonnet of a tractor. Trawler men, out in the north Atlantic have rules for these days, and they tell their wives not run washing machines or stare soup, everything can be counted in or equally disregarded. I like the idea of hanging washing out as if it could prevent the felling of a tree, but all bets are off, and still the boat pulls at its anchor.

By mid afternoon the tide, which had been pushed by the wind until it had passed far beyond the chart predications, had begun to ebb. The swell from the sound no longer passed as cleanly into the bay as it had, as the shallow water kicked up waves into breakers. It didn’t help that the wind was following or that the boat was moored in the channel where the confused waters of the bay empty back into the sound. The boat no longer had the chance to recompose itself between crests and cut its bow cap through the top of every fifth or sixth wave scattering spray horizontally. This would be the hardest time.

The power cut came as the storm reached its peak, a few moments later the bars on my mobile phone disappeared and then the voices on the battery operated radio turned to hisses as the signal was lost. The world was shrinking back from the island we had broken our mooring cables and drifted into the eye of the storm. Phil came to find me and we headed into the garden to retrieve the doors from the poly-tunnel which had somehow spun their frame, ripping the plastic cover in the process and leaving them flapping in the grass. We wrestled them back into position and I left Phil hanging on to them while I went to find a hand drill and some screws in the darkness of the tool shed. We fixed the doors, Phil tapped over the gash and then we added fish boxes filled with soil to weight the frames.

When the dinner bell finally sounded on the street its tone was almost lost to the storm or maybe it was just someplace further off. I watched people braced themselves against the wind holding on to hoods that ballooned like spinnakers as they made their way up the street to the community’s dinning room. Despite the lengthening daylight and the room’s large windows, candles had been lit along with a fire in the grate, winter had returned. We ate and talked about the storm, other storms from the past, the swell in the sound, the cows who had spent the afternoon pushing their weight into the granite walls for shelter or to lend support, and then we talked about the boat.

Later when it felt as if the storm had began to ease I walked down to the pier to check on our own boat. The tide had not dropped as it should and I was concerned that as it turned and came back in it would rise and continue to do so until our boat, which had been pulled far above the high tide mark, would re-float. The electric winch, moaned a little as the last few yards of steel rope were wound onto the drum, pulling our boat further from harm. I walked to the end of the wide pier as if it was a tightrope making sure each step held contact and grip. The boat still out in the bay had made it through the worst of it and now it was just a case of hanging on. I watched out of compulsion and then in a brief moment its anchor rope went slack and it drifted with the wind and waves. I waited, unsure if it had just pulled its anchor a little, but the rope continued to sag and the boat gathered pace. I waited a little longer.

Collecting myself I ran back up to the street along the track watching the boat move like a balloon freed from its handhold and then the wind and tide took it from view. I found Steve on the street and he grabbed his wellingtons and followed. We half ran down the track to the bay. The boat was rocking gently on its keel in safety of sandy shallows. We bailed and then tethered the boat once again as a small group arrived from the street. Some had just come out for a walk others had seen the boat was missing from the bay and followed the wind and waves. It was safe now, and the watching was over.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

An atlas of remote islands

Image Above: An evening storm clears from Iona

Location: Viewed from the Isle of Erraid, Isle of Mull, Scotland

The boatshed has almost emptied, as guests retrieve walking sticks and dogs that had been left bedded down for the afternoon in the sheep-clipped grass of the pier. I hold Finley, propping him on my hip as he attempts to bury his head in my open jacket. Below, a shoal of sand eels are sheltering in the lee of the pier, holding position with bursts of activity, that look more like synchronised wriggling than true swimming. They are sandwiched in the shallow water between the bright shell-sand and the sky. But still, the ocean holds a dullness for all fish, it surrounds them as the distance scatters light to a uniform, faint green glow like a far off driftnet, hanging.

I look back to the boatshed, there is little movement in the doorway and only a few of our guests remain ambling individually or in small groups around the pier. An hour earlier they had been dancing, traditional English folk dances on the varnished boards of the large boatshed. A group of about thirty devotees exile themselves every year, for a long weekend on the Isle of Mull with the promise of afternoon’s dance in Erraid’s boatshed. We lay on tea and scones afterwards, sell a few candles and some veg from the garden.
As usual I had missed the main event and managed to arrive as the crowd dispersed.

The eels haven’t moved, my neighbour, who is waiting to take the band, which consists of a guitarist and a fiddle player, back to Mull by boat, asks me about my leaving the island long term. I had mentioned earlier that I had been thinking about the possibilities of life after Erraid. Caught off guard I am a little vague with my replies and my attention has returned to the eels. Another shoal is moving in from deep water, they are larger greater sand eels as opposed to the lesser sand eels below the pier. I understand the inevitability of the situation. The larger eels rise with the sharp slope of the beach and accelerate bursting in amongst their smaller cousins, now prey, there are flashes of silver, some large and some small. The shoals regroup and the dance begins again amongst flickers of silver light and delicate splashes as the preyed upon break the surface and fall back like soft rain. It is soon over and the larger eels return into the green glow, leaving the shoal of lesser eels a little depleted by the experience.

A guest joins us and asks if I live here with my son, I confirm the answer and he tells me he once lived on the island, when his children were young and they loved it. I ask which island, not thinking much beyond the horizon and he answers, Ascension isle. So we talk about Ascension island and his children running wild, and I tell him I have always wanted to go there, maybe after St. Kilda. He says the landscape was dark, barren, but beautiful and that some mountain slopes have patches of green, but when you get close, they are just green stems pushing through volcanic ash. I think of the horsetails I had seen growing in the tarmac wastelands of a supermarket car park. As he talks, I can see he is back there far out in the Atlantic. As if breaking the spell I ask where they went after they left and answer jokingly for him, “Swindon”, but half expecting him to answer St Lucia, Dubai or somewhere else on the Ex-pat trial. He seems to shrink back and sag a little before answering.

I am left wondering how it feels to lose or leave an island, how it would be to live without that weight of ocean. I once left a mountain and that was an island of sorts, if only in the clouds or as a haven from the mill towns and industry that clung to its slopes.