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