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.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Clam Diving

Image Above: RAF Helicopter, Taking off from the garden
Location: Isle Of Erraid, Mull, Scotland

There is the clatter as the flat surface of the front door makes contact with the wide granite jambs. I wait as the children fight to remove their wellington boots in the hallway before they rush the lounge waving giant scallop shells and buckets of things dredged from the ocean. Their voices join in a cacophony of questions and stories woven in excitement. From the live scallop Bea is waving in my face I gather they have bumped into the clam divers I had seen earlier in the sheltered waters between the island and its outer reefs and islets. The children, my neighbour’s and one from a little further down the street have been off island visiting school friends on Mull, their return must have coincided with divers unloading their haul.

I am used to them bringing me the things and in honesty as I can seldom interest any of the adults on the island in toads or wasps nests I rely on them to share my enthusiasm for poking sticks down holes and goading creepy crawlies. I have my moments of performing impromptu royal society lectures on natural history subjects and then I remember that kids are only interested it the bits that include pooh, death and eating. Celia, Bea and Isaac’s mother hasn’t made it through the front door, instead we hold a conversation through the living room window. Who is to cook and how? More importantly when and not least who is going to look after the kids?

I grab a cookbook and we head up the street to the last cottage in the row, which houses the communities’ kitchen and dining room. Phil is cooking risotto and luckily the kids have disappeared in search of a DVD player. I quickly knock up a sample of razor clam, fried in a bit of oil and garlic, it is hard to describe the taste and texture, maybe somewhere between squid and scallop and all good. With twelve adults and five children expected at the dinner table it is obvious that despite the generosity of the divers we might have to settle for a side dish, of flash fried scallops with an accompaniment of razor clams.

In the prep sink I am struck by the absurdity of it all, my life seams to be made up of random events that are only connected by my part in them. I suppose that is the nature of the island, its exposed shores welcome the flotsam and jetsam of experience as well as abandoned fishing gear, and plastic bottles.

Earlier in the week a RAF helicopter, shaped like a malformed double-decker bus landed in my front garden. It had come to collect a guest who had broken her arm and was unable to move due to an earlier injury. I told the injured party that despite the obvious pain she was in, her stay had managed to bring some excitement to the community.

On Friday I waved to a power glider on the wild side of the island, the plane tipped its wing back and forth in answer. Circling once it climbed out into the sound of Iona before banking away in the clear sky ahead of the dark thunderclouds marching in from the Atlantic. Last summer the same plane had flown low over the gardens signalling with its wings. A couple of days later its Dutch owner and pilot came on foot to visit the island where he had once stayed in the late seventies.

Occasionally on summer weekends he taxis on to a runway somewhere in Holland and takes off headed for the mountains, lochs and the small islands shooting the gaps in the rolling summer storm fronts. I had never thought to wave at planes until I came here, they had always seemed so far off and remote.

Image Above Right: Bea and the scallop.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Fishing For Free

Image Above: Observatory
Location: Isle of Erraid, Mull, Scotland

The sea is still rough despite the run of fair weather, it doesn’t help that I am fishing amongst the island’s outer reefs and islets. Every wave that strikes the rocks in deep water gets the chance to echo into the following wave, sometimes briefly doubling their height as they merge. I am at the top of the tide and like a thrown ball reaching its apex I am waiting for the pull of gravity to lay claim to its own.

The fish have been small but catching and returning them safely to the sea is reassuring, a bit like inspecting investments for the future. If they come up repeatedly undersized I’ll move and try again, some days this can be a little annoying even though I still find a rod twitching under the strain of a fish mesmerizing. The fish are mostly half pound Coley and Pollock underlings that haunt the island in vast shoals, the relatively shallow margins keep them out of reach of larger predators. Sometimes when the incoming tide coincides with the onset of evening they venture into the sandy bay overlooked by the cottages, filing past the pier in a steady stream. As the tide retreats through the narrow opening to the ocean for a short while it runs as a river; I once looked down into these swirling waters from a drifting boat and saw a shoal overpowered by the current and stirred up like leaves as they were carried back to open water. Despite their size they fight above their weight eager to outpace the rest of the shoal in the frenzy to feed. Often in the process of unhooking them they regurgitate partially digested sand eels onto the deck of the boat. These needle like fish are not true eels but occupy the unfortunate position of being at the top of the menu of most the oceans fish and the birds that share their territory. They are the potato, rice, or wheat of the sea, even their larger cousins, the greater sand eels, prey on them.

The sand eels apart from their incalculable numbers have a trick up their sleeve, when pursued they can literally swim into the sand. It is not unusual to uncover them while raking for cockles in silty sand of the bay. They too haunt the pier and bay through the summer months, hiding in broad daylight and shallow water while making the most of the smaller creatures. Lacking teeth they suck at the court bullion of life that is the ocean, creatures barely visible to the naked eye yet ,dense enough in numbers to colour the water and top the boat’s wake with a phosphorescent glow. The plankton, both plant and animal, larva and adult, seed and tree, swimming whip tailed blind and stupid, kicking, eating, reproducing, dying, developing, absorbing, exchanging.

In the summer giant fish, the basking sharks, come to gorge themselves as the sun powers up the plankton, these barrel mouthed monsters cruise the waters of the sound sieve netting dinner as their fins cut the breeze like sails. If I turn off the boat’s engine, curiosity often brings them within a hand grab and the realisation dawns, that if you stack up enough small parts, you can make an awfully big pile.

The piles I am fishing for today are a little smaller than the sharks but old enough to have spawned in the depths of the ocean. I know its early in the season but hopefully the larger Pollock and Coley have begun to return from deep water having spent their seed. For bait I have sand eels made from wrapping ribbon with hand painted eyes that stare back like those of the corpses scattered on the deck. When the first proper strike comes, it bends the rod down to the gunwale, arching to the tip until it almost touches the water, I pull back and wind in but it has gone. It felt like a good sized Pollock, and I guess it is waiting in ambush on the reef below. I drop the lure again and begin to jig, once the weighted end of the line touches down, bang again, but as I wind the line goes slack. On the third drop the fish runs with the eel snagging the hook firmly into its jaw. The rod is bent double and dancing like a diviner’s willow, I adjust the tension on the real not wishing to hand out any more line and begin to lift the fish from the reef.

When it breaks the surface I reach over the gunwale and lift the fish into a waiting box, there is always a moment when I pause and check myself, as if the events of the last few moments were some other reality. What was once fish needs to become food and with a heavy well honed knife I cut in from behind the pectoral fin, following the line of the gills to the spine which breaks with a crunch. Turning the fish over I cut again from the other side and the head comes away with most of the guts. It only remains to open up the organ cavity, a slit away, the small piece of flesh, where the guts are attached via the anus. I toss the head and guts back into the ocean as gulls slip from the rocks eager for a free meal. With a little rinse back over the side of the boat the fish is laid on icepacks in a cool box.

I have fished here long enough to know that odds on landing another are slim unless I wish to remain out for the evening. Luckily the boat belongs to the community and I have no overheads to pay off with my catch so I can turn tail and head for home. I take the long route out into the sound of Iona and clear water where the swell rides in off the Atlantic, almost undisturbed by contact with land. Amongst the jumble of islands a familiar but reassuring sight greets me, the small cone topped observatory. Its blackened windows stare out to the sea, past the boat and sound, to the lighthouses that lie on the edge of the horizon. Sometimes in the evenings I wander up the winding granite steps and watch the sun return to the ocean.

Image Above Left: Basking Shark in the Sound of Iona

Image Above Right:A Pollock in the box, Sound of Iona

Monday, 25 April 2011

The Shepherd

Image Above: John the Shepherd and his dogs.
Location: Isle of Erraid. Mull, Scotland

The ewe had no intention of being cornered despite the firm tether of briars that anchored her to the ground limiting her movements to a tight radius. I had heard her earlier from the back door of the cottage and assumed she had or was about to lamb. It was Phil who finally grabbed her and I took the horns with both hands as the shepherd had once shown me. With all four legs she bucked and pushed and I felt like I was holding onto the handlebars of a bicycle on unfamiliar terrain. Phil always the gardener took out his pruning knife and cut the briars out of her fleece, I waited until I was sure she was clear and then released her. We were out early to roundup the sheep from the rear of the cottages and meet the shepherd as he brought in the smaller flock that grazed the lower northern shores of the island. While we were waiting for Roger to come down from the quarry the ewe we had just released turned back towards the cottages. I ran and she ran, so I ran faster. There was an inevitability about it and I stopped. She walked on behind the cottages backtracking over our route, we left her and moved on.

When Roger caught up we made a spartan line across the heather, enough to push the hand full of sheep that remained towards Christine’s bay, the croft and John the shepherd. He was still a way off waiting with his dogs on a knoll, as we came into view he moved pushing the flock he had already gathered into the gap left between our line and the waters of the bay. The flock passed us and fences took over limiting the options for the sheep under pressure from the dogs. We fell in behind John on the track from the beach. The line of sheep past the bottom of the front gardens until channelled by the walls of the settlement it turned towards the pier and the fank*. When the gate was closed behind them John set off to retrieve our ewe which was now braying on the hill behind the cottages as it looked down on the flock from which it was now separated.

*fank: an enclosure for working with sheep.

Saturday, 16 April 2011


Image above: Reliance on the morring
Location: Isle of Erraid, Mull, Scotland

I should be meditating; the windows of the sanctuary are stiffening like glass sails caught in the same breeze that is pushing the waves in the sound. The structure rocks slightly, creeks and settles back into a steady rhythm that rides out the whispering tone of the singing bowl as my breath falls away.

The sanctuary stands a little apart from the street, up the hill above the wood with a view down over the pier, the bay and sound. It was built as a sun lounge from pine, larch sidings and an expanse of glass. I once found an aerial photograph of the island that dated from the nineteen sixties, the woodland was missing but the building stood rooted in the landscape. The community arrived almost two decades later planting the wood, turning gardens and using the lounge as a meditation space, they christened it the sanctuary. Like everything this far north that is close to the ocean it has not escaped the slow sandpapering applied by the elements that ware at corners and soften the patina of varnish.

In the lower side panel of the doorway the rear of the goose, the island’s longest serving resident and sanctuary guardian, is just visible. He is preening his wings, running a greased bill over his primaries with his neck extended and writhing like a pitch forked snake. For most of the day he occupies the position of doorman, counting in, counting out and occasionally dissuading the half hearted with honks and threats. In the twenty odd years he has enjoyed this roll, there has been much speculation as to his motives and unswerving dedication, some have concluded he is a returned soul. The glass of the sanctuary is low to the ground and the goose may not be contemplating his inner self but a reflection, narcissism or possibly envy of the goose behind the glass to whom many have made pilgrimages.

Inside the glass walls of the sanctuary the candle is flickering and those that kneel have begun to sway as if teetering on the edge. On far side of the bay Jimmy’s quad bike is drawing out a white line of sheep as he moves between pastures. I follow seagulls out into the sound, and oystercatchers back into the bay, the diversions are endless. And then for in a moment I am forgotten and absorbed in the detail and the magnitude.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

The Bird

Image: Three Rocks
Location: Isle of Erraid, Mull, Scotland

The Bird

Finley is watching a bird on the chimney pot of a neighbouring house, he has only just discovered small birds and seems pleased that another part of the world has revealed itself. The bird, a starling is imitating the call of a buzzard although lacking the conviction of a predator. Last year a pair of these tricksters began exploring the nesting possibilities of our bedrooms’ disused fireplace, for a few days the dawn chorus began with a selection of electronic gadget impersonations. Ironically at the time we owned an alarm clock that sounded with a recording of a blackbird, the birds left after a few days maybe the competition was too much.

The starling slips from the pot and swoops into the front garden, Finley follows its line before looking up to see if anyone else has shared in the display, he smiles. I trudge up the street into the mêlée of guests and abandoned footballs all waiting for the dinner bell to sound. I am returning from the island, the island beyond the street and cottages.

Monday, 28 March 2011

The Fire

Image Above And Below: Burning Moorland
Location: View from the Isle Of Erraid, Mull, Scotland

The Fire, Sunday 27th March

By six o’clock the afternoon had lost its depth of colour and evening seemed more of a certainty. Over the bay thin ribbons of smoke trailed from patches of burning moor, rising to become indistinct from the low mass of grey cloud. The burning season is nearly at an end and there have been few days when the air has been still enough to ensure these fires remain a tool rather than a threat. The object of the burn is probably heather, as plants age they become woody and largely unpalatable to sheep, burning effectively prunes out the old growth leaving space for new, more nutritious shoots to regenerate. Maybe this is one of our oldest forms of land management, give a man a stick and he can beat out a piece of land from the jungle, add a flame to the end of it and the job becomes a little easier. It would be easy to congratulate or equally vilify ourselves on having discovered another use for fire if it wasn’t for the fact that the world burnt long before we ever got to strike a match. Some plant species like the American monterey pine are so keyed into fire being a natural part of the environment, their reproduction almost depends on it, with cones opening to release seed in the heat of a forest fire. Mankind does have a habit of overusing its magic tricks.

By seven o’clock an amber glow had just become visible as evening descended, at eight we worried a little. Before nine the rim of fire shone like a crack in the earth and I phoned a neighbour on the mainland. She asked about the baby, my youngest son, three weeks old and offered her congratulations. I asked about the fire and she said her husband was away up the hill to retrieve his tractor and help to get the blaze under control along with other volunteers.

By now headlights were moving around the bay as vehicles navigated the pitted road from Fionnphort. It became obvious that tying up the phone wasn’t the cleverest of ideas and I quickly thanked her and said goodbye. I walked the street back to the house feeling a little like Nero as the moor burnt.

By ten the glow had gone from the bay and with it the fire.

Friday, 25 March 2011

The Return

Image Above: Reliance retuning to Erraid in the mist.
Location: Isle Of Erraid, Mull, Scotland

24th March

The Return

The cable is humming or buzzing or possibly vibrating on the edge audibility like the whining noise of an old television set. I wonder if it’s the breeze or the billions of electrons charged and crackling their way down the line. If it wasn’t for the high voltage I would be tempted to climb the post and place my ear against the wire to listen in on the world. If my hearing was better I could separate out the strands of noise into the conversations of power plant workers at the furthest reach of this piece of string.

Maybe the grid spans the country like a wed or metal brace on wayward teeth, soaking up waves as sounds cycle; snatched conversations, barking dogs, a school yard at break time, car alarm, ring tone, a gate on rusted hinges, a child muttering beneath his breath, or sheep pushing through tall moor land grasses. Every bird that lands or springs into flight from a line no matter how remote plucks a chord. Everything that vibrates adds something be it wave or particle even the last bolt of light from a dying star. Here, as the line crosses high over the sand onto the island the fog is condensing into droplets that tap like tiny glass hammers, the rattle of a cough escapes my chest but not the high wire.

I am stopped weighted to the spot with feet sunk into the soft sand listening to the cacophony. I have come home and in the silence of a drawn breath the wire and world are one.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Off Island

Image Above: Looking from the Island to Iona
Location: Isle of Erraid, Mull, Scotland

Off Island

There seems little point in ignoring the pull of the tide after all I am mostly water separated by membrane, a bubble wrap of cells hung on an unfortunate frame. Below me the Mersey basin is filling under a roar of water that tugs at the navigation buoys while the sandbanks slip beneath the waves like the long arching backs of whales. So I have made it far from the island and feel the disconnection keenly. Each movement here seems to fold up my memories and sense of the island like a piece of origami until I am left with something I could slip into my pocket.

As the tidal race subsides the roar begins to dissipate and the buoys relax against their chains like scrap yard dogs in the warmth of the afternoon sun. Although far from the island I am still within the reach of the sea but the separation of promenade, railings and green baizes of grassland are too much for me to out imagine, if I could only touch or wade in water.

There are no gaps here, the world has been improved, the paving slabs, back garden walls, street corners and factory roofs all meet up as individual visions in a collective consciousness. Even the river has been corseted its spine a little distorted by the contact. I suppose it is pointless to rail against it all, yesterday I realised that the green spaces in the shopping complex’s car park were the result of Astroturf rather than grass. I know I lack the faith to live here, I would have to believe in ready meals, fashion, television, pvc fascias and all the voices that tell me this is a reality. More importantly I lack the stories that could make it all work, so this is not my place, the stories I tell are of another place, they are no better or worse, just different.

Image above right: Doll’s House, Sudley House, Liverpool

Tuesday, 15 February 2011


Image Left: A stray sunbeam on the Street
Location: Isle of Erraid, Mull, Scotland

The Sparrowhawk

I step out onto the street dodging the collection of footwear that has accumulated on the doorstep; ,Wellingtons, sandals, clogs, different shoes, different jobs. A little way down the street, perched below the railings of the garden wall, a female sparrowhawk is waiting. She is close enough for me to see the detail in her eye stripe and the olive green plumage that extends like a cape from her crown to her tail feathers. There is a pause, as if in the moment before a car crash, when the inevitability of an impact dawns. First the crouch and then she pushes low into the air, extending her wings and breaking the connection with the ground. Her legs trail, useless and ungainly, their weight swinging as her body arches through the wing beats that bring her to flight speed. Now the glide, the broadness in her wing allows her to draw out a cushion of air. Three more wing beats and another glide, she runs below the copping hidden from the finches chattering in the neighbouring garden. Three more wing beats, she swings over the wall sending up a cloud of small birds. I am left in the wake and already the details have begun to fade, I try and hold on to the colour of the plumage re-sampling my memory but the image that comes is out of a guide book, generic.

I suppose it ought to mean something in the scheme of things but not everything is a harbinger and neither should every second be pressed into the service of announcing the next. I walk the island this afternoon with a jumble of feathers and other minutia for company.

Later in the boatshed I brush up sawdust until it gathers in the slots of sunlight and the cupped hands of empty swallows’ nests.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Arandora Star

Image Left: Enterprise awaiting a fresh coat of paint
Location: Boatshed, Isle Of Erraid
The Arandora Star, 2nd February 2011

We looked back and in the time it took to watch the sky darken to within a shade of night the fronds of the storm slid over the wall of the island. The lightening came first, strikes barely drew breath before claps of thunder echoed between the granite faces eventually muffled amongst the backwash of sound. We watched the sky and talked of glass fused from grains of sand and the heat of a lightening strike and all the time a little nervous of the flatness of the beach and our little group. The wind followed pushing ahead of the cloud and raging through the low trees, out across the sand to meet the waves, spray trailing as it danced amongst the breakers. The first of the hail stones burst like popcorn kernels or ping pong balls from the hands of a magician. Our enchantment was short lived as the seemingly benign hail gathered strength in the wind and began pelting the landscape and anyone unlucky enough to be abroad. We retreated to the rocks turning our backs to the storm, at its height everything became hail or a surface to impact; the ridges in the sand filled, even the ocean was beaten flat by a million tiny hammers until it looked like a sheet of worked metal. And then in a moment it was gone, the sky cleared and hail petered out and I was left feeling as if I had watched the events of a whole afternoon compressed by time lapse.

We left the beach following the sandy track through the tightly clipped grass of the low headland. The path ran through a small corridor in the granite. I picked out a thin fault in the rock that had been in-filled with a rose hued quartz, what had once been a crisp line now sagged a swayed as the rock had been jumbled by time. The passageway opened onto to the upper section of Knockvologan Beach where it emerges between low wooded hillsides of oak with stands of hazel, the reason for our little excursion.

Ahead near the top of the sand what looks like a disused gateway is marketed out by two posts backed by giant hooks. These are all the bones that remain from a lifeboat that once hung like a Christmas bauble above the shear sided Atlantic liner the Arandora Star. The ship commandeered into war time service was on route to Canada with a human cargo, mainly Italian and German internees who were viewed as a risk by Churchill should Germany launch an invasion. Coincidentally if such a thing could be said about war she was sunk by a German u-boat 75 miles off the aptly name Bloody Foreland, a stretch of Ireland’s Atlantic coastline A little less than half of the prisoners and crew survived, the lifeboat was probably emptied of its survivors by the shipping that responded to the SOS. Those men that were lost like the empty lifeboats drifted with the Gulf Stream and the prevailing winds until the sea began to give up its dead. Bodies that failed to make landfall in Ireland journeyed on to the Hebrides washing up on remote beaches and like returning sons buried amongst the family graves in the small hilltop cemeteries common in these islands.

On the beach I wrapped my hand around the hook that had once been used to lower away the lifeboat, it was still smooth and untarnished by its encounter with the ocean or the salt winds that scour beach. We moved on to the trees.

Thursday, 27 January 2011


Image Above: Bringing Home The Hazel.
Location: The Narrows, Erraid
\Hazel, 26th January 2011

The tide is ebbing and draining a rivulet from the sands of the narrows; the strip of sand that keeps us anchored to Mull. I wade through, shuffling my feet to avoid a bow wave topping my Wellingtons. Despite the expanse of sand this is a trench cut between faces of rock, it is here Erraid lays claim to its island status, emerging from the sand to present a toothy grin to its larger brother. The sea only makes good on the bargain for a few days a month when spring tides race to fill the gap. Between times it becomes a highway of sorts for cows, sheep, otters, deer and on rare occasions wild goats. I place my own prints into the wet cement and join the list of other stars.

As I walk my eyes follow the contours of the low cliffs, here stunted oaks, birch and aspens hide out from the herbivores. I am looking for hazel to make some low hurdles for the garden, but it is not until I am about to run out of island that I find a small stand of bushes above a rough hewn wall of boulders. The pruning saw slips easily through the thin sheath of life and bites into the bone whiteness of the wood. I cut three or four poles from each bush, trimming out the crown ends to release them from the tangle of other branches and then throw them to the sand. The cuts will sprout again and the limbs re-grow in profusion like the split brooms of the magician’s apprentice.

On the sand I bundle up the rods with the belt from my trousers, twisting it as a Spanish windlass to add tension. Lifting one end, it seems bearable but I am aware, looking back over the sand, that distance adds its own weight. I move off covering my tracks Indian style as the trailing branches scratch out my foot prints. Behind in the lagoon the seals have gathered to watch, extending their heads, clear of the water, as the strange half man half tree shrinks into the distance.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

The lie

Image above: Fog moves through the narrows

The Lie

The snow that had remained clung to the shadows or was scattered over ground less popular with cars and foot traffic. I wandered into the ferry terminal and bought a cup of tea from a kiosk that would of worked equally well at the end of a dole queue. Conscious that silence had marked my entrance and feeling a little uneasy I retreated to the gallery to watch for the ferry.

His grandfather spoke first, the story was about the snow plough that keeps Mull’s central glen open; over the last few days the plough had packed the roadside snow so tightly that the route had begun to look like a bob sledge run. His grandfathers friend relayed another story about a local youth known for pushing the speed limit who had ditched his car and abandoned it to the snow.

Sat between the grandfather and company the grandson had been waiting for his turn in the conversation and when a natural lull presented itself he began with his own tale. I knew he was lying from the onset, and so the story of a friend of a friend who had crashed in some place a while ago filled the small waiting room. The grandfather played devils advocate asking those awkward questions that made the lies more obvious to the rest of the room. Answers were given that became even more dubious but none the less he pushed on until he had used up all the available words.

The snow has long gone but I am still haunted by that story. I like that he tried; the story was never about cars and snow or the truth but about fitting in. Recently, when out walking the island I have found myself turning it over in mind, not so much the lies but whether the truth is any better or distinguished only by its commonality.

Image Above right: Running Mooring

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Miracles On The Sand

Image above: Orlando collecting mussels from the bay.

Miracles On The Sand

Wednesday January 19th

Out of the breeze the bay has warmed, I follow Orlando who has equipped himself with a bucket and a staff borrowed from a biblical epic. The waters have already parted and the retreating tide has left a deep mat of kelp. I pad through to meet my wife and our neighbour who are returning over the sands from a trip to the doctor’s. In the haste to check the post and any news they are carrying I forget to ask about the new doctor.

Orlando has been slowed by the kelp and I wait. He catches up and we walk on fording the stream and checking rocks for mussels as we go. In amongst the stonewalled fish traps he answers his mobile and is away in conversation as I walk on towards the corner of the bay. I make exploratory kicks at empty shells hindered in my movements by youngest son who is perched in a carry frame on my back. When Orlando returns we are in the thick of mussel territory, the bucket takes only a few minutes to fill.

As we walk back he talks about the phone call; news of an operation that he has been waiting for to correct the vision in one of his eyes. Later he jokes that the operation should miraculously halve the island’s population ; at least through his eyes.

Image Below: Orlando collecting mussels from the bay.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Images: Candles shine along the street as we bring in the light.

New Year’s Eve, New Year’s day

The health centre’s waiting room was almost full, we took the final spaces joining the ranks of those looking for a cure before the turn of the year. The locum boomed out the name of the next patient as if he had worked all his career in a much larger practice, I looked to see if the waiting room had somehow been extended while my attention had wandered.

With the doctor returned to his consulting room and a respectful pause given, those who remained felt compelled to share their view of the temporary doctor or more importantly his manner. Briefly I felt like a local as this proxy parliament swung into debate. Our ‘old doctor’ who is still confusingly referred to as the ‘new doctor’ by those who can still remember the previous occupant of the position has retired due to ill health. And so we await the arrival of another ‘new doctor‘, who shall carry this title until he or she faces their retirement. Every initial greeting will be prefixed with , “you must be the new doctor,” as if somehow those of us who still qualify as tourists having not been born on the island of Mull will have gained some history with the place. Conversations beyond the health centre will begin with “have you seen the new doctor?” and answered with, “do you remember the old doctor?” Older residents will of course secure their positions as community elders by correcting their youngers and referring to the old doctor as the new doctor and the latest arrival as just the ‘latest doctor’.

There is a weighty duty on all of us to practice our appraisal skills. Undoubtedly our opinions will be sought in pubs, on fishing boats, in the local shops, over fences and fields, in the huddle of parents that haunt the home time bell, and when all is said and done in a crowded waiting room.