Preoccupied with his intention Neil strode
unhurriedly along the stony path which skirted the broad semi-circle of
the bay to terminate as it neared a spread of croft houses on the
opposite shore. Against the background of the moor the cottages loomed
pearly white, their lamplit windows dimmed into insignificance by the
effulgent moonlight. The bay was whisper quiet, the moon-sheened ripples
licking demurely at the shingle. Neil’s own footsteps crunching on the
path were the only other sounds of the night.
Ordinarily he would have rowed across the bay rather
than walk all the way round, but since one would not think of bespeaking
a future wife while wearing one’s working clothes and since one would
not don one’s Sabbath suit and shoes only to risk their being spoiled by
sitting in a workaday and consequently fish-offal-splashed and
tar-sticky dinghy, he had chosen to walk. When he reached the cottage
where Catriona lived with her mother and younger brother he lifted the
sneck of the door and pushed it open, at the same time announcing
himself by calling out a greeting.
In response Catriona’s mother, Lexy, warmly enjoined
him to ‘Come away in!’ Lexy was sitting beside the fire knitting a
complicated pattern of a jersey and as Neil appeared in the doorway of
the kitchen she gave him a broad smile of welcome. ‘Why, it’s yourself,
Neil,’ she exclaimed and immediately began to feel a little flustered.
She herself had had an intuitive suspicion that Neil might be looking
for a wife and that his choice might have fallen on her daughter. For
some months the possibility of a visit from him had been lurking at the
back of her mind and now seeing him dressed in his Sabbath clothes she
had no doubt as to the reason for his visit. She rose quickly from her
chair and, swinging the kettle over the fire, stirred the peats under
it so as to hurry it to the boil. It was unthinkable for her not to
offer Neil a strupak; equally unthinkable for him to refuse it. He sat
down on the bench and, noticing the slight nervousness in her manner, he
knew instantly that only the timing of his visit had come as a surprise
‘You’re on your own?’ he remarked as she put a plate
of scones before him. The degree of surprise in his voice was entirely
assumed. He had overheard the schoolchildren arranging to go over to the
shepherd’s house that evening and he had been certain Catriona and her
brother would not have stayed behind.
‘I am so,’ Lexy replied. ‘Catriona and Alistair are
away with all the other young rascals to Duncan’s to beg fleece for
their Halloween masks,’ she confirmed.
It was as Neil had planned. He had not wished
Catriona to be present when he first broached the subject to her mother.
‘Did you have good fishing today?’ Lexy probed,
busily buttering a scone for him.
‘No bad,’ he acknowledged.
‘I’m after hearing they’re paying good prices for
lobsters,’ she said, modulating her voice so it would not sound
‘Not as high as you would expect,’ Neil said
guardedly. ‘Lobsters are gey scarce just now and they should be bringing
‘That’s true enough,’ she agreed with a rueful sigh.
‘But I daresay Londoners think lobsters are as easy caught as buses in a
city street.’ She rooted under the recess bed and produced a tin of shop
shortbread. Opening it, she set it on the table in front of Neil. He
ignored it. ‘Do you not like shortbread then, Neil?’ she demanded.
‘Well enough, but not when I can choose your own
baked scones,’ he flattered her, and helped himself to another one. He
stirred sugar into his tea and she thought he drank it with unaccustomed
Lexy sat down and took up her knitting and they
continued to talk with apparent ease, yet each knew the other was slowly
and skilfully directing the conversation towards the subject that
hovered between them.
‘Are you thinking of sending any of your beasts to
the cattle sale next month?’ Neil asked with only moderate interest.
‘I’m thinking maybe I’ll send the two stirks,’ she
admitted. ‘For all the price they’re making these days I’m not likely to
profit by keeping them until the spring.’
‘I believe you’d be wise to sell them,’ he allowed.
‘If the winter’s a bad one they’ll lose condition fairly quickly.’ He
politely pushed his empty cup towards her and while she was refilling it
he said, ‘The cailleach’s wanting me to get rid of some of my own
beasts. She reckons they’re getting too much for her to manage when I’m
away on the hill or out fishing.’ His voice took on a slightly jesting
note as if he were seeking confirmation that his mother was indeed
getting too old to cope. ‘Ach, but I don’t know whether to believe her,’
Lexy, knowing him as a man who was hard on himself
yet tender with any sign of weakness or frailty in others, knew how to
follow his lead. ‘Your mother does well for her age,’ she told him. ‘But
right enough folks are saying now and then that she’s not so strong as
she used to be.’ She handed him a second cup of tea, poured one for
herself and set the pot back on the hob. ‘Surely the time will come when
you’ll need to be thinking of getting someone younger about the place.’
She could feel the tension mounting between them.
‘Aye so,’ Neil concurred.
She managed to get a teasing note into her voice. ‘A
wife maybe?’ she suggested.
For Neil the moment had come. ‘I’ve been thinking for
a whiley now that in a few years’ time your own Catriona will be making
a good wife for a man,’ he propounded, eyeing her steadily.
Without looking up from her knitting Lexy inclined
her head in gracious acknowledgement. ‘Indeed I’m sure that’s true
enough.’ Her needles clicked more rapidly before she spoke again. ‘And
would you have in mind such a man, Neil?’
‘I would so,’ he said.
She could feel his eyes on her but she would not look
up to meet them. ‘But you’ll not be wishing to say who it might be, is
that it, Neil?’ she fenced delicately.
‘It is myself,’ Neil admitted. Lexy looked up and
there was an interchange of glances that lasted a few seconds. The
flushed patches which touched his cheekbones belied the air of
imperturbability he was at pains to assume. ‘Would you say Catriona
might come to thinking that way herself when she’s older?’
‘She is gey young yet to be thinking that way at
all,’ Lexy said. ‘Though she is older than her years in her sense,’ she
added. The thought flicked through her mind that he was nearer her own
age than Catriona’s.
‘But you would do nothing to dissuade her?’
‘When the time comes for her to marry she will not
find herself a better husband,’ Lexy granted. When the time came: she
recalled her own marriage at the age of thirty-four to a man
twenty-three years her senior. He had been a good man and theirs had
been a good marriage. In, say, five years’ time Catriona would be
eighteen and of marriageable age. Neil would be forty-five… The
disparity in their ages would not be too great for Neil and Catriona to
make a good marriage.
‘It is proud I would be to make Catriona my wife,’
Neil assured her earnestly.
She looked up at him and her mouth curved itself into
an approving smile. ‘Catriona will be a proud lassie when she hears of
it and I a proud mother,’ she declared.
They shook hands. She produced a bottle of whisky and
two glasses from the dresser cupboard and they sealed their pledge in
the time-honoured way.
When Neil rose to go he said, ‘It is best that I
myself do not speak to Catriona of this. Not until she is older and it
is nearer the time. But you will tell her yourself what we have been
speaking of tonight?’
‘I will tell her the day after Halloween,’ she
promised. ‘Until then her mind will be too full of mischief to take in
Catriona was dazed by the excitement of Neil’s
proposal. It was breathtaking! It was a wonderful, wonderful thing to
have happened! To think that she Catriona McRae now had the distinction
of having been spoken for when she was only just thirteen years old.
Moreover she had been spoken for by the man everyone agreed was the most
handsome, the most respected, the most eligible man on the island! What
other girl had ever been able to boast of being paid such a compliment?
For days she felt almost dizzy with delight. She had so much to look
forward to. She would soon learn to love Neil as a wife should love a
prospective husband. And then when she reached the age of eighteen or
thereabouts he would claim her and she would share his home, his croft
and his prosperity. She would share his bed and she would bear his
children. What happiness they would be able to look forward to!
Much to her disappointment her mother made her
promise to continue to treat Neil as she and all the children had always
treated him. Neither by action nor expression must she reveal any sign
of their betrothment. Until Neil had decided the time had come to
publicly proclaim his intention she must keep the secret to herself.
Dismayed by the stipulation, Catriona was too well conditioned to
obedience to have attempted to defy it. She contented herself by piously
thanking her God for having so blest her, and praying that the
intervening years would pass quickly.
Five years went by and during that time Neil’s
attitude to Catriona had remained uncompromising. He had made no attempt
to see her alone and the recognition of their commitment to each other
was confined to an occasional proprietorial glance from Neil
reciprocated by a coy and, at times, daringly coquettish glance from the
mischievous Catriona. Then, one evening shortly before her eighteenth
birthday, Neil, once more dressed in his Sabbath suit, walked the
shingle path in the direction of Catriona’s home.
Catriona was expecting him. Indeed she had been
eagerly anticipating his visit ever since her seventeenth birthday, by
which time she had considered herself quite old enough to marry.
Following the usual polite exchange of comment and inquiries and the
inevitable cup of tea, Neil turned his attention to her mother.
‘I will be away to Glasgow very soon,’ he announced.
‘Is that so?’ murmured Lexy. ‘And will you be staying
‘For a week just,’ he said. He shot a glance at
Catriona who was intent on darning one of her brother’s stockings. ‘I
was thinking maybe Catriona would care to come along with me, if she has
a mind that way.’
Catriona felt her heart begin to pound with
excitement. She and Neil could not go anywhere together unless they were
married, surely? And now he was saying he was going ‘very soon’. And to
Glasgow! She had never been further than the tiny village on the
mainland and a trip to Glasgow had been a long-cherished dream.
Reminding herself of her mother’s injunction to assume an air of
aloofness rather than eagerness, she shook her long dark hair over her
face to hide her burning cheeks.
‘Well, Catriona? What have you to say to Neil?’ Her
mother was looking at her fixedly, compelling her to make her own
Catriona’s heart was racing, so it was a moment
before she could speak. ‘I would dearly like to go to Glasgow with
Neil,’ she said, and lifting her head managed to give him a prim smile.
Neil rose, his grim mouth relaxed a little. ‘Do you
wish I should speak to the minister about us then, Catriona?’
Catriona looked anxiously at her mother, who was
regarding her with an expression of gentle encouragement. As her lips
framed the words of her reply Catriona’s stomach tautened with gladness.
‘You will be right to do that, Neil,’ she said, and glancing up at him
caught the glint of happiness in his eyes. Looking at Lexy, Neil
received her nod of confirmation of the arrangement.
When the announcement of the forthcoming wedding was
made no one questioned the disparity in the age between the prospective
bride and groom since by island reckoning Catriona was now a fully
mature and sensible young woman while Neil, at forty-five, was regarded
as being still a young man. It was natural that an active and pretty
young woman should wish to marry a man with so much to commend him as
Neil. It was just as natural for such a man to want a strong young wife
who had plenty of childbearing years ahead of her.
Two weeks later they were married in the little
church and everyone in the island came to the wedding: the young and the
aged; the lusty and the infirm; and for three days afterwards there was
such a feasting and drinking that every house opened its doors to the
revelry, there being no one house large enough to hold all the guests.
There was much praise of Neil’s liberality in providing such abundance
and when at last the newly married couple boarded Tearlach’s boat which
was to take them to the mainland where they would catch the train for
Glasgow the jetty was thronged with high-spirited neighbours. Catriona,
proud of the gold ring which custom decreed she should wear only on the
Sabbath, could recall no time in her life when she had been so
After a week’s stay with relatives in Glasgow – no
one spoke of it as being a honeymoon since honeymoons had never been
part of the marriage ritual – they returned to the island, to their home
and to the querulousness of Neil’s mother. Catriona, conditioned to a
matriarchal environment and knowing that the old woman’s bouts of
crotchetiness were merely her way of asserting her intention of
remaining mistress of the house for as long as she was able, accepted
her inferior position with equanimity. After all, she reasoned, there
was plenty of croft work to keep her occupied and when their bairns
began to come along, as they surely would, she would be glad to have the
old woman’s help with looking after them. Catriona gloried in her new
A year went by and towards the end of it she was
conscious of a shadow creeping over her happiness. Brought up in a
community which regarded the begetting of children as the first joy of
marriage, she had confidently expected that by now she would have borne
Neil a child or at least have been pregnant, but despite frequent and
ever more fervent prayers she had so far detected not the slightest sign
of pregnancy. She longed to have a child to nurse, longed to make Neil a
father. As the months went by the fear that she might be unable to
conceive began to nag at her.
Meantime, now that she had taken over much of the
outside work, Neil had felt able to buy in more cattle and sheep; to
make more lobster creels and to stay out fishing for longer periods than
hitherto. As a result they had prospered to the extent that Neil had
suggested they enlarge the cottage by adding a couple of extra rooms.
Catriona, reacting eagerly to his suggestion, hugged to herself the
reason she surmised was behind it.
‘I’m thinking you must be meaning to take in
tourists,’ Neil’s mother had probed when building had begun.
‘Maybe so,’ Catriona had responded lightly. Certainly
the extra rooms would be useful for accommodating the occasional
tourists should they ever wish to do so, but privately she scoffed at
the idea of their being used for that purpose.
A second year passed. And then a third and when
Catriona still showed no sign of bearing a child the good-natured
chaffing and bawdy innuendo to which all newly married couples were
subjected by the neighbours had run its course. Now all she was
conscious of were looks of puzzled scrutiny or silent pity. Shamed by
her failure to conceive, she became over-sensitive, imagining she saw
despair in Neil’s attitude and censure in her mother-in-law’s occasional
Her own mother had taxed her outright. ‘Why no bairns
yet, Catriona?’ She had sounded disapproving as if she suspected her
daughter was wilfully delaying conception, but seeing the dumb bleakness
of Catriona’s expression her tone had changed immediately to compassion.
‘Ach, there’s plenty of time yet, lassie. Plenty of time,’ she had
consoled her daughter, but Catriona knew that she too was puzzled.
When the time came for Neil’s next trip to Glasgow
Catriona, much to his surprise, stated her intention of remaining at
home. When he questioned her she gave as her reason that his mother was
now too frail to be left alone to cope with even the minimal amount of
croft work which would require attention during their absence. He argued
and coaxed, reminding her of how much she had always looked forward to
the annual trip, but she became so testy and tight-lipped he gave up,
and if he ever suspected that her true reason for not accompanying him
was that she had come to dread the raised eyebrows and the flippant but
still hurtful insinuations of the numerous relatives which convention
demanded they must visit, he did not voice his suspicions.
While Neil was absent in Glasgow Catriona carried on
with the necessary croft work. The spring work had been completed: the
peats cut and stacked, the potatoes planted and the corn sown, so apart
from regularly attending to the animals she had only to bring home the
twice daily creel full of peats. Then, if the weather was sufficiently
calm and if she felt so inclined, she could indulge in her favourite
pastime which was to drag the small dinghy down to the water and row out
into the bay for the purpose of catching a fry of fish for their evening
She was thus indulging herself in the late evening of
what had been a day full of sunshine when she heard the distant throb of
an engine, and screening her eyes from the still-bright sun she
perceived a small yacht rounding the spur of rock which like a thin
black finger pointed to the entrance to the bay. She was a little
surprised. In high summer it was not too unusual for small boats to put
into the bay seeking a safe anchorage for the night but the tourist
season had not yet begun and though the weather was mild, even warm, it
was still too early in the year to be confident that the savagery of a
winter gale might not suddenly transform the sheltered waters of the bay
into a churning hazard of white breakers. With a mixture of curiosity
and disapproval she watched the boat making steadily towards the shore.
She heard the engine being throttled down as the boat circled
investigatively and then it was revved up again and she saw that the
boat was making straight towards her. As it approached the engine was
cut to a slow pulsing. Catriona waited composedly for the yacht to draw
‘I say!’ a young man called from the cockpit. ‘D’you
happen to know a good place to moor for the night?’ He stepped up on to
She had been anticipating his question since it was
one she had been asked many times before, but the easy answer she had
been ready to give was checked by a gasp of consternation. Never in her
life had she been confronted by a male figure so naked and so close.
She had been married to Neil for three years but Neil
always turned down the lamp before he started to undress, and even then
he never took off his shirt. Though her hands knew his body she had
never seen him nearly so naked as the young man who was now standing so
unashamedly before her, his scanty swimming trunks seeming to emphasize
rather than conceal his maleness. The day’s sun had fired her cheeks but
now she was aware of a deeper, almost painful burning. Her throat grew
parched. Her eyes slid away from him as he crouched to lean over the bow
and hold on to the gunwale of the dinghy.
She steadied her voice. ‘How much do you draw?’ she
asked, resolutely looking him straight in the eye because it seemed the
safest place for her to fix her attention. He told her. It was a relief
to turn and point towards the shore. ‘See the old ruin there the other
side of the burn?’ He looked and nodded. ‘You’ll take a straight line
out from that until you see the wee house there in the cove. There’s a
good two fathoms there.’ She took up her oars again as an indication
that she wished to resume rowing but instead of returning to the cockpit
he kept his hold of the gunwale.
‘Good fishing?’ he asked.
‘Not bad,’ she allowed.
‘What’s the swimming like here?’ he pursued.
Catriona shrugged. ‘Not to my liking,’ she told him.
She had no wish to prolong the encounter and as a hint to him she began
pushing with an oar against the yacht’s side. He released his hold and
jumped back into the cockpit.
‘Good luck with the fishing,’ he called. She managed
a stiff smile of acknowledgement and then looked away quickly,
disallowing the approval that was plain in his eyes.
When she had caught a good fry of fish she rowed back
to the shore and as she was busy gutting and cleaning her catch at the
water’s edge she heard the yacht’s dinghy being lowered into the water.
Seconds later it was being rowed towards her and on reaching the shallow
water the young man leapt out and pulled the dinghy a little way up the
shingle. Catriona felt her cheeks begin to burn again as he approached.
He had covered his nakedness with a thin shirt but as he paused beside
her she was hotly aware that her rebellious inner eye was discarding the
garment, compelling her to see again the bare, sun-tanned flesh; the
firm muscles; the track of thick fair hair that travelled from above his
chest to below his trunks.
‘Hello again!’ he greeted her. Without looking at him
she murmured a shy acknowledgement. ‘Is there somewhere I can buy milk
and eggs?’ he inquired. She noticed he was carrying a can and an egg
Conscious of his boldly admiring gaze, Catriona
retaliated by affecting a tart irritability. ‘Go up to the cottage there
and tell the old woman what you want and that I sent you,’ she directed,
gesturing towards her mother-in-law’s house. She did not tell him that
the old woman, like all the other neighbours, would not only have
watched the yacht coming into the bay but would have observed his every
movement since then. Head bent, she continued to gut the fish but the
young man made no move to go.
‘They look good,’ he commented. ‘Would you consider
letting me buy a couple from you for my supper?’
‘You are welcome to take a couple of fish,’ she
offered coolly, and flicked a couple over the shingle to land at his
‘Gosh!’ he exclaimed. ‘That’s wonderful. I shall
certainly enjoy those. But, look, are you sure I can’t…?’ She did not
speak but her manner disdained his intended offer. He crouched down and
picked up the fish and continued to crouch, watching her until she had
finished the gutting.
‘What now?’ he asked as she rose.
‘I shall be taking them back to the house,’ she
replied. ‘You’d best follow me if you’re wanting milk and eggs.’
He tried to draw her into conversation as they walked
together but though Catriona would have dearly liked to know the purpose
of his visit at such a time of year she was too tongue-tied to respond
with anything but shy, mono-syllabic answers to his questions and
The old woman was standing in the doorway of the
cottage. Catriona went past her into the kitchen. ‘He’s wanting milk and
eggs,’ she said. ‘You’ll get them for him while I go and see to the
‘Well, indeed but it’s welcome you are to the Bay of
Strangers on this beautiful evening,’ the old woman greeted the young
man. ‘Come away in now while I get you what you’re wanting.’ She led the
way inside and bade him sit down.
‘The Bay of Strangers?’ the young man repeated. ‘Now
that does sound interesting. Surely there must be a story to account for
it having a name like that?’
Catriona interrupted with unaccustomed curtness. ‘The
young man is wanting eggs and milk and I daresay he will be wishing to
get back to his boat so don’t be keeping him back with your talk,
cailleach!’ She put the fish in the larder then slipped away, mumuring
that it was time to close up the hens. She purposely lingered over the
task, hoping the young man would be back at his boat when she returned
to the house but she was dismayed to see his dinghy still on the shore.
So the old woman had held him captive with her garrulousness, she
thought irritably. Oh why, why she asked herself, when Neil was so
taciturn should his mother be such a blather?
The smell of cooking fish was wafting appetizingly
through the open door and when Catriona entered she found the young man
seated at the table enjoying a plate of fish and hot buttered scones.
She bit her lip. In no way did she begrudge her mother-in-law’s
hospitality but she was vexed that the young man was still around and,
from the look of the situation, seemed likely to be around for a while
The old woman shot her a defiant glance. ‘The young
Englishman is hungry,’ she explained, ‘and he did not know how to cook
the fish you gave him.’
‘The sea makes one hungry,’ Catriona conceded. She
felt awkward in the young man’s presence and since she hated eating in
front of strangers she was disconcerted when her mother-in-law put a
plate of fish on the table and pushed it towards her. Reluctantly she
‘I can honestly say I’ve never enjoyed fish so much
in my life,’ the young man enthused. ‘You don’t know how lucky you are
to be able to just go out and catch a fish or two for your meal whenever
you feel like it.’
‘It’s not always so easy,’ Catriona pointed out. ‘It
depends on the weather.’ Her resentment towards him began to lessen a
little. ‘And it depends on the fish,’ she added with a faint smile.
‘Naturally,’ he agreed, returning her smile. ‘What do
you call these fish, by the way?’
‘Sooyan, is what we call them but I can’t give you
the English for them,’ she replied. ‘You are English?’
‘That’s right. Yorkshire English. Sorry, I should
have introduced myself before. My name’s Jones.’
‘Chones,’ repeated the old woman. ‘And you will be a
doctor?’ she surmised. She always flattered strangers by implying they
were grand enough to be members of one of the professions.
‘Good gracious, no! I’m a car salesman normally but
when I’m on holiday I join up with a friend of mine who, like me, likes
to go birdwatching. He’s the owner of the boat out there but he had an
urgent call to go back to his job for a few days to do a bit of sorting
out. I’m picking him up again at Oban.’
‘You go birdwatching?’ The old woman was suddenly
full of interest. ‘Aye well, it’s many a bird you’ll see on this island
that you might not see in England no matter how hard you look.’
‘No great northern divers?’ he inquired hopefully,
and when both Catriona and the old woman shook their heads he went on,
‘Now that’s a bird I’d really like to see. I’ve not been lucky enough
yet, though. It’s said to nest up here but my friend and I haven’t found
one so far.’
‘No, indeed,’ the old woman consoled him. ‘I’ve never
heard tell of a great northern diver nesting on this island. But we have
storm petrels that nest here. My own son knows all there is to know
about the island and he found a petrel colony over by the Bheinn Mhor,’
Catriona was aghast. Neil had found the rare petrel
colony and had taken her and the cailleach there to see and hear the
petrels for themselves, but wishing to protect the colony from intruders
he had sworn both her and his mother to secrecy about his discovery.
What had come over the old woman that she was now babbling out the
cherished secret to a total stranger? Why, for all she knew he might be
an egg collector! She tried to glower her mother-in-law into silence.
‘A petrel colony? Here on the island?’ The young man
looked excitedly at Catriona. She avoided his eyes. ‘Do you know where
it is? Can you take me there?’
‘Why, surely Catriona knows where it is,’ the old
woman assured him, and ignoring Catriona’s stricken expression she went
on, ‘If only my son was here he would be pleased to take you to see the
place. But Catriona will take you, will you not, Catriona? Seeing Mister
Chones must be away in his boat tomorrow it would be a shame for him not
to be able to see the petrels.’
Anger flashed through Catriona. Neil would have some
very strong words to say to his mother when he returned. She looked down
at her plate.
‘I’d be most grateful if you’d show me the colony.’
His voice was pleading. ‘It really would be the highlight of my holiday.
According to my records there’s no mention of a petrel colony on this
‘It has been a secret for a long time,’ Catriona
‘It will still be a secret, I promise you. You have
my word of honour that I won’t speak of it to a soul,’ he said
His word of honour, Catriona thought cynically. What
respect would a ‘here today and gone tomorrow’ Englishman have for a
word of honour?
‘Tonight will be a good night for the petrels,’ the
old woman insisted. ‘No moon and plenty of dim but no darkness and the
wind still as a bog. Surely it would be a great shame for Mister Chones
to miss such a sight.’ She looked compellingly at Catriona. ‘Surely you
will do that for him,’ she said confidently.
‘You’re not an egg collector?’ Catriona challenged
‘Certainly not!’ he replied indignantly.
She felt she could no longer demur. She had no wish
to take the young man to the petrel colony; no wish for his company;
least of all no wish to betray Neil’s discovery. But the old woman was
so pressing she had no doubt Neil would understand that under the
circumstances courtesy had required her to defer to his mother’s
insistence. ‘Very well, I will take you,’ she said. ‘Just as soon as
The night was mild and moonless. The purple sea was
still patched with the afterglow of sunset. The outer islands were fuzzy
dark shapes on the horizon. Catriona set a pace brisk enough to
discourage conversation until, nearing the site of the colony, she
The young man paused and laid an arresting hand on
her arm. ‘Are we near them?’ he whispered. ‘I thought for a moment I was
‘I am smelling them,’ she retorted nimbly. He pressed
her arm companionably. As they proceeded slowly his hand slid down to
hers, wanting her to share his excitement. She did not try to draw her
Catriona’s alert ears detected a faint churring.
‘Listen!’ she murmured commandingly.
The faint churring grew louder and louder and then as
they breasted a low hillock the air was suddenly filled with the
seemingly weightless shapes of the petrels flying with swift batlike
aimlessness and patterning the starless sky like wind-whipped leaves.
The young man squeezed her hand. ‘God! But this is
stupendous!’ he exclaimed, his tone reflecting his awe.
He was standing perfectly still as if transfixed by
the sight, and Catriona, touched by his obvious enthusiasm, let herself
be caught up in the excitement. Urging him towards a cluster of raised
hummocks she knelt and put her ear to the ground, beckoning him to do
likewise, and when she saw the mounting rapturousness of his expression
as he listened to the squeaks and scrabblings of the nestlings in their
underground nursery her sense of guilt at betraying Neil’s secret
She waited patiently until he rose. ‘Now that you
have not only seen them but heard them and smelled them it is time we
went back,’ she said, and turned to lead the way. But the young man did
‘Catriona, let’s stay here until the birds go back to
sea,’ he begged eagerly. ‘Please. It’s doubtful if I’ll ever get the
chance to witness something like this again so I’d like to see it
through to the end.’
She shrugged acceptance. It would be little more than
an hour before the petrels would be departing to spend the daylight
hours at sea, and since she was not tired she had no wish to curtail his
pleasure by insisting on an immediate return. They settled themselves on
a mossy incline, their backs against a smooth granite boulder.
‘This,’ proclaimed the young man, ‘will undoubtedly
rank as the most memorable experience of my bird-watching life. And it’s
all thanks to you, Catriona.’ He reached for her hand and pressed it to
The gesture startled her and she had to stifle a
giggle as she quickly pulled her hand away. It was a totally new
experience for her to have her hand kissed and the absurdity of his
action lit such a spark of merriment in her eyes that she had to stare
steadily at the sea to give time for the amusement to fade from her
expression. What fools these English men were, she told herself. ‘You
should be thanking the cailleach,’ she disputed. ‘I would never have
told you of the place, let alone brought you here.’
‘I could see that well enough,’ he acknowledged.
‘Tell me, what is this word "cailleach" you use? Is it the Gaelic for
‘For grandmother, mother, old woman or indeed any
woman with age on her. It can be a term of endearment just as easily as
it can be a term of scorn. It is difficult to explain,’ she told him.
He lay back and drew up his knees. ‘I certainly count
myself a lucky man tonight,’ he said.
‘Indeed,’ she agreed. ‘The petrels don’t come in such
numbers every night.’
‘I don’t mean just seeing the petrel colony but
seeing them in the company of a girl as fresh and beautiful as yourself,
Catriona.’ He rolled on his side the better to study her.
A tremor of apprehension ran through her and yet she
knew she need not be afraid of him. ‘Now you are talking foolish
nonsense,’ she rebuked him.
‘I am not,’ he contradicted. ‘You have a splendidly
wild beauty, Catriona. Mesmerizing, I should say. Has no one ever told
you so?’ A kind of fervour crept into his voice.
The embarrassment she had felt on first seeing him
returned. She steadied her voice. ‘You must stop talking such nonsense
or you will be making me think you are drunk or have gone off your head
so it is not safe for me to be with you. I have a good mind to leave you
here to find your own way back,’ she threatened, pursing her lips so
they could not soften into a smile. He was indeed foolish, she thought,
but all the same it was pleasant to hear such things.
With a pretended groan he lay back and turned away
from her. ‘I feel I’m drunk,’ he admitted. ‘Drunk with excitement.’ For
some time there was a silence between them and then he said, ‘I say,
Catriona, I’ve got a terrible thirst on me. Is there a stream or a pool
nearby where I can get a drink?’
She was about to reply that there was a stream some
distance away but she stopped herself. A small imp of recklessness
lurking at the back of her mind told her she now had an opportunity to
revenge herself for the embarrassment he had caused her, first with his
nakedness and then for having manoeuvred her into bringing him here and
disturbing her with his foolish talk. ‘Over this way,’ she said, guiding
him towards a small spring that cascaded over moss-covered rocks.
Eagerly the young man lay down and let the flow pour
into his mouth and over his face. The next moment he sprang to his feet,
coughing and spitting. Catriona moved a few steps away, unable to
control her laughter. He lurched towards her.
‘God! Are you trying to poison me?’ he demanded.
‘It’s perfectly good water,’ she told him, stepping
adroitly out of his reach. ‘And it is very good for the stomach. It is
to this spring we come when we need medicine.’
‘You minx!’ he upbraided her. ‘I’ve a jolly good mind
to force a dose of it down your own throat this very minute.’ Before she
could evade him he had rushed forward, and grabbing her arms, had begun
pulling her towards the spring. As she twisted and fought against his
grip she stumbled and fell. The next moment they were together on the
ground, gasping and laughing as they struggled with each other. ‘My, but
you’re strong as well as beautiful,’ he complimented her breathlessly.
‘You’re not so weak yourself,’ she told him. ‘You can
let me go now.’ But instead of relaxing his hold his hands pinioned her
shoulders. He bent over her.
‘I would like very much to kiss you, Catriona,’ he
‘There has already been too much foolishness between
us,’ she told him severely, wriggling her shoulders against his grip. He
made no move to release her and as her own hands pushed him away she
could feel his flesh beneath the thin shirt; not sweaty flesh such as
Neil’s would have been but having a vibrant warmth that made her own
fingers tingle in response. She knew at that moment what was likely to
happen. She also knew that had she exerted her full strength against him
she could almost certainly have freed herself, but he was young and he
was foolish and she had no wish to hurt him.
He held her face, forcing her to look up at him, and
she tried to feign an angry expression, but they looked too long into
each other’s eyes. His mouth fastened on her lips and then moved gently
over her face and closed her eyelids and as he lifted his body to cover
hers she knew she wanted to yield to what, to her, was an entirely new
and exciting kind of ‘cuddling’, which was her term for lovemaking. When
he began pulling urgently at her clothes and she felt the coolness of
the moss under her bare buttocks her body was already quivering with
An hour later they were watching the petrels
flighting back to sea.
‘A night of total enchantment,’ the young man
commented feelingly and seemed inclined to linger, but Catriona was
impatient to start for home. He tried to take her arm but now she drew
away from him and if she saw his rueful glance she ignored it.
‘Ready?’ she said curtly, and again walking ahead of
him she strode briskly homewards. As they were nearing the gate to the
croft she paused and, turning to him, said, ‘I wish you to swear once
more to me that you will never, ever tell any living soul of the petrel
colony you have seen here.’
For a moment he looked dumbfounded. ‘The petrel
colony?’ he repeated, as if he had been expecting her to make an
entirely different request. ‘I promised you, didn’t I? And I reckon I
keep my word. All the same it’s a pity you want to keep it to
yourselves. I’m certain it would be of tremendous interest to
ornithologists to know there is a colony here. Why do you not want
anyone to know?’
‘Because the cailleach did wrong to mention it to
you. It is not her secret but her son’s. When he discovered it he told
her and swore her to secrecy. Even I was not aware of it until after I
was married. It is my husband’s secret and should remain so till he
chooses to tell of it.’
‘Your husband? Did I hear you say your husband?’ He
was gaping at her in consternation. Catriona stared at him unblinkingly.
‘You’re married?’ He was almost stammering with incredulity. When she
nodded affirmation his manner changed hastily. ‘Where is your husband?’
‘Did you not hear my mother-in-law tell you that her
son was away from home until next week?’
He looked stunned. ‘That old woman you call the
cailleach is your mother-in-law? Dear God! I took her to be your
grandmother at least!’ He glanced down at her hands. ‘You don’t wear a
wedding ring,’ he accused.
‘On the Sabbath only,’ she told him. ‘It is the
‘That’s that then,’ he said. ‘I’m clearing out as
fast as I can, so I don’t suppose I shall see you again.’
‘It is unlikely.’ Her tone was coolly dismissive.
‘Well, all that’s left for me to say is thank you for
an unusual and interesting evening’s entertainment,’ he said
caustically. He started to move away and then paused. ‘Why couldn’t you
have told me you were married?’ he demanded plaintively. For answer she
looked at him with puzzled inquiry. With a muffled comment he turned and
went striding down to the shore and, she assumed, out of her life.
It was too early to start the morning’s work so
Catriona went to bed and slept until wakened by the calves bawling to be
fed. When she rose the yacht had gone from the bay.
It was best so, she told herself dispassionately. She
felt no guilt after her indiscretion of the previous evening. It had
been a natural thing to happen to a man and a woman alone in the
semi-darkness and silence of the moors. She had not planned it to
happen. Had not expected it to happen, since she had started off by
disliking the young man. It was the cailleach who had been responsible
by insisting that the young man should see the petrels. It was finished
now and she felt no regret that the young man had gone; no lingering
attraction, in fact no emotion whatsoever save when in the ensuing
months she occasionally recalled her experience with a kind of saucy
She was eating her porridge when the cailleach
appeared. The old woman filled a bowl and sat down at the table but she
had taken only a couple of spoonfuls before she put her spoon down and
looked anxiously at her daughter-in-law. ‘You will not say to Neil that
I forgot my promise to him and told the young man about the petrels?’
she pleaded. ‘He will say I am a stupid old woman and no longer to be
‘You were indeed a stupid old woman, cailleach!’
Catriona scolded her. The cailleach looked abject. ‘Very well, I will
not speak to him of it,’ Catriona relented. ‘We will not speak of the
young man’s visit at all. But you must be sure and never tell anyone
else,’ she insisted. ‘You shamed me into taking the young man there
since I could not refuse without being rude. And would you or Neil or
indeed my own mother wish me to show anything but kindness to a
stranger? Isn’t that the way it has always been on this island?’ she
finished indignantly. The old woman flicked her a look of gratitude as
she murmured vague agreement.
The following evening when Catriona came back to the
cottage after finishing her chores she noticed a trace of excitement in
the old woman’s manner. As soon as Catriona sat down the old woman,
thrusting her hand into the pocket of her apron, produced a bottle of
‘I was after visiting old Flora McNamus yesterday and
I got this dose from her. She said I was to give it to you and it would
help you to have a bairn.’ The old woman’s hand shook a little as she
held out the bottle. ‘Will you not try it?’ she begged when Catriona
seemed heedless of her suggestion.
Old Flora McNamus was supposed to possess all kinds
of magical powers and at one time, before doctors and nurses had become
easier to contact, she had been called upon to concoct all kinds of
potions and medicines for both people and animals. Her cures were still
reputed by many to outmatch modern medicines and there had been times
during the past year when Catriona herself had felt desperate enough to
think of paying old Flora a secret visit. She took the bottle and after
shaking it held it up to the light. ‘A dose night and morning,’ the old
Catriona grimaced sceptically. ‘I will try it,’ she
said, her lukewarm tone disguising her eagerness. She took her first
dose that night.
She was glad when Neil returned the following week.
She had missed him in every way. Without his burly frame the cottage had
seemed empty. Without his strong firm body beside her in the bed she had
felt isolated. Her eyes glowed as she waited for him to come up from the
shore. She loved her husband. He and he only was her man; her satisfying
true lover who cuddled her stolidly in the way she had grown used to
As she snuggled up to him on the night of his return
she wondered mischievously what his reaction might be were she one day
to summon up enough courage to suggest to him that he should stand
before her naked; or ask him why they should not cuddle on a summer
evening in some solitary place on the moors rather than in the secrecy
of their bed? In the safety of the darkness she let an impish smile play
around her mouth.
Three months after Neil’s return from Glasgow
Catriona knew beyond doubt that she was pregnant. She was ecstatic. Her
mind was brimful of anticipation; her hands busy with preparations.
Neil’s normally impassive expression softened to one of serenity. His
old mother seemed to find that the prospect of a grandchild gave her
When the baby, a lusty boy, arrived Catriona showed
him proudly to her husband. ‘He’s certainly been worth waiting for,’ he
The old woman was quick to appoint herself nurse and
was content to sit for most of the day in her chair, crooning and
clucking to the gurgling baby in her lap. Catriona, busy enough with the
spring work of the croft, was glad to have it so for it was becoming
plain to both her and Neil that his mother was becoming more frail. The
surge of energy which had manifested itself when Catriona had announced
that she was pregnant seemed gradually to have dissipated and by the
time the spring work had come to an end she had become so vague and
forgetful that Catriona, worrying about her ability to cope with the
child, found herself having to spend much more time around the house.
She was at home one day engaged in the daily nappy
washing when her mother-in-law gave a slight moan and leaned forward in
her chair. Catriona went quickly to her side. The old woman was
breathing quickly and Catriona wondered if she should run and get
someone to go for the nurse, but instead she held a glass of whisky to
her lips and within half an hour her mother-in-law had recovered
sufficiently to be able to assure her that there was nothing wrong with
her save a bout of indigestion. She asked for the child to be put in her
Catriona, watchfully complying, said indulgently, ‘It
is spoiling the bairn you are with all your petting, cailleach.’
‘I could not be petting and loving him more were he
my own son’s bairn,’ her mother-in-law said.
Catriona, assuming the old woman’s mind was
wandering, said, ‘Surely he is your own son’s bairn, cailleach.’ The old
woman shook her head. ‘Then are ye thinking the fairies have visited us
and substituted some changeling for our own child?’ Catriona teased, and
thought how amused Neil would be when she told him of his mother’s
strange talk. ‘Why are you nursing him so lovingly if he is not truly
your own grandchild? My child and Neil’s?’ she pursued, her voice edged
‘Indeed he is truly your child,’ the old woman
replied. ‘But I am telling you he is not the child of my son’s loins.’
Catriona stared at her, certain that her mother-in-law had taken leave
of her senses. She was about to utter a sharp rebuke when the old woman
went on. ‘My son can never father a child though he does not and must
never know it,’ she asserted. ‘It is a sad thing but it is something
that comes through my family – through my mother and my grandmother and
her mother and grandmothers before her as far back as anyone can
remember. It is a curse some say was laid upon us by a witch long ago.
We women can have children but no son of ours can father children.’
‘That’s nonsense!’ Catriona snapped, her tolerance
‘It is not nonsense. It is true, right enough. My
other son, Neil’s brother who was killed in the war, was married eight
years before he died but there was no bairn. My own mother’s sister’s
son has been married these thirty years but he has no family, though he
and his wife longed for a bairn. There is no doubting the curse is still
‘But don’t you remember, cailleach,’ Catriona
reminded her. ‘It was Flora McNamus’ dose that helped give me the child.
Surely you cannot have forgotten getting the dose for me? Ach!’ she
added derisively, ‘It is mad you are.’ She made to go out into the
Again the old woman shook her head and, reaching out,
detained Catriona by laying a hand on her arm. ‘It was not the dose that
helped you to have the bairn. I wanted you to believe that at the time
but indeed it could not have been so. I must tell you now because I am
old and must soon pass on. The father of your bairn is surely the young
man you took to see the petrels. Mister Chones. That could be so, could
Catriona’s stupefied gaze stayed riveted on her
mother-in-law. Again she protested, ‘That is nonsense. The bairn is the
image of Neil, everyone can see the likeness. I cannot believe that Neil
is not his father.’
‘Your son is fair like Neil, but tell me, wasn’t the
young man you took to see the petrels also fair?’
Catriona covered her burning face with her hands.
‘But if what you are saying is true then I am wicked. Truly wicked!’ she
The shrewd old eyes were on her. ‘Is it so wicked for
a woman to give her man the bairn he is wanting?’
‘But you say Neil is not the father…’ Catriona’s
voice trailed into disbelief once more.
‘That he must never know.’ The old woman was as
emphatic as her frail body would allow. ‘Neil is a proud man and the
shame of knowing that he could not father bairns would destroy him.’ She
shook her daughter-in-law’s arm, stressing the importance of what she
was saying. ‘It is the woman always who must be blamed for
Catriona shook her head bemusedly. ‘It cannot be
true. It cannot,’ she insisted, though with lessening conviction.
‘It is true,’ the old woman reiterated. ‘What mother
would be cruel enough to say such a thing if it was not so?’
‘Dear God!’ Catriona whispered. ‘I hardly remember
him.’ She had indeed banished the young man easily enough from her
memory but now his presence was there asserting itself as if he were in
the room. She sagged to her knees beside the old woman’s chair, her face
hidden in her clasped hands. ‘What have I done?’ she wailed. A moment
later she looked up at the old woman accusingly. ‘Was it your doing,
cailleach? Was it your design to shame me into taking the young man to
see the petrels?’
‘It was best so,’ comforted the old woman. ‘The
outcome is a happy one, is it not?’ She studied Catriona’s face.
‘Together now we must keep this secret between us. I swear to you there
is no happier way.’ She gripped Catriona’s wrist with all the strength
she could muster.
‘But if what you are saying is true there can be no
more bairns,’ Catriona whimpered tragically.
The old woman stroked her daughter-in-law’s bent
head. ‘One bairn has given my son great happiness,’ she reasoned. ‘It is
for you and you only to decide whether more bairns would increase his
‘But how can I?’ Catriona exclaimed miserably. ‘It’s
‘You love Neil?’
Catriona was unsure whether it was a question or a
statement. ‘Of course I do,’ she was quick to affirm. ‘I would do
anything to make Neil happy.’
‘That is what I hoped you would say,’ her
mother-in-law said complacently. She looked fondly at the child and then
slid her work-roughened fingers under Catriona’s chin, turning her face
so they were forced to look into each other’s eyes. ‘You are a bonny
lass and will be so for many years to come,’ she told her. ‘And the
petrels are known to be faithful to their nesting places.’ Her voice
sank confidingly. ‘And is this place not truly called the Bay of
Strangers,’ she whispered, ‘and do we not say here that the truth
belongs only to God?’