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.

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