If you have never
experienced a stormy winters night in the Hebrides, you can have no
idea of the sort of weather which I encountered when I arrived,
travel-worn and weary, at the deserted little jetty where I was to await
the boat which would carry me across to Incredible Island. It was a
terrible night. A night to make one yearn for the fierce, bright heat of
an ample fire; for carpet slippers and a crossword puzzle. Yet here I
stood, alone in the alien, tempestuous blackness, sodden, cold and
dejected, my teeth chattering uncontrollably. On three sides of me the sea
roared and plunged frenziedly, and a strong wind, which shrieked and
wailed with theatrical violence, tore and buffeted at my clothes and
fought desperately to throw me off balance. The swift, relentless rain
stung my eyes, my face and my legs; it trickled from my ruined hat to seep
in cheeky rivulets down my neck; it found the ventilation holes in my
waterproof and crept exploratively under my armpits.
Somewhere out on the
turbulent water a light flashed briefly. Peering through screwed-up eyes,
I watched with fascinated horror as it appeared and vanished again and
again. With stiff fingers I switched on my torch; the battery was new and
the bright beam pierced the blurring rain for a few yards. Quickly I
switched it off. To a faint-hearted landlubber like myself the sound of
the sea was sufficiently menacing; the sight of it was absolutely
malevolent. Nostalgia overwhelmed me. Why, oh why, had I been so foolhardyso
headstrong? And this was supposed to be for the good of my health! Why was
I not sitting with Mary in the cosy living-room of our town flat, dunking
ginger-nuts into cups of steaming hot tea and following from my own
armchair the exploits of my favourite detective? The second question was
simple enough to answer. The first presented more difficulty.
An illness some months
previously had led my doctor to order me away to the country for a long
complete rest. A timely windfall in the shape of a small annuity had made
it possible for me to give up a not very lucrative teaching post in a
smoky North of England town, and look around for a suitable place where,
within the limits of my purse, I might, in the doctors words, rest
without being too lazy, and laze without being too restive.
My advertisement in a
well-known periodical had brought an avalanche of tempting offers. England it appeared, was liberally dotted with miniature Paradises for
anyone seeking recuperative solitude, and I had almost decided to remove
myself temporarily to a Kentish farmhouse when the postman brought a
letter which changed my plans completely. The envelope bore a Hebridean
postmark; the handwriting, though straggly, was fairly legible, but the
words themselves painted a picture as vivid and inviting as a railway
poster. It ran thus:
Its just now I saw your
advert when I got the book for the knitting
pattern I wanted from my cousin Catriona. I am sorry I did not write
sooner if you are fixed up if you are not in any way fixed up I have a
good good house stone and tiles and my brother Ruari who will wash down
with lime twice every year. Ruari is married and lives just by. She is
not damp. I live by myself and you could have the room that
is not a kitchen and bedroom reasonable. I
was in the kitchen of the
Thirds house till lately when he was changed God rest his soul
the poor old gentleman that he was. You would be very welcomed. I have a
cow also for milk and eggs and the minister at the manse will be referee
if you wish such.
PS. She is not thatched.
Mary, reading the letter
over my shoulder, dissolved into laughter. We were still chuckling when we
went to bed that night, I to dream of a minister in full clerical garb,
tearing frantically around a football pitch, blowing a referees
whistle, while two teams of lime-washed men played football with a cows
egga thing resembling a Dutch cheeseand an old man changed furtively
in the kitchen.
Deciding privately to
postpone acceptance of the Kentish offer, I wrote next morning to Morag
McDugan, excusing myself to Mary by saying that a further reply might
provide more amusement. I had to admit to myself, however, that the
ingenuousness of the letter had so delighted me that the idea of a
possible visit had already taken my fancy. The reply from Morag (already
we were using her Christian name) did not disappoint us. Her advice
regarding travelling arrangements was clear; obviously she had been
instructed by a seasoned traveller, but her answers to my questions about
quietness and distance from the sea, etc., were Morags own.
Surely its that quiet here
even the sheeps themselves on the hills is lonely and as to the sea its
that near I use it myself every day for the refusals.
Marys eyelids flickered.
What does she have to
say about the water supply?
good well right by me and no beasts at it, I
Im glad youre not
going there anyway, Becky, she said.
I believe I am though,
I said suddenly, but I was thinking out loud, not really having made up my
She stared at me,
incredulous. But you cant, Becky !' she expostulated. Surely you
can see that?
Why not? I asked
defensively. Im interested in meeting people and finding out how
they live and I've never yet crossed the border into Scotland.
Dont be a fool,
argued Mary. I admit the woman sounds fun, and so does the place; but
its ridiculous to let yourself be carried away like that. It wouldnt
be in the least funny to live under the conditions suggested by those
Im sure it would be
even funnier, I replied, with a flippancy I was far from actually
feeling. After all, there cant be many dual-purpose cows in the
world and its time someone did something to cheer up those poor lonely
Mary giggled. Dont be
a fool! she reiterated.
Her words goaded me to a
Thats just what Im
going to be, I replied.
Mary was not the only
person to remonstrate with me on my decision to forgo the indisputable
attractions of a Kentish farmhouse for the doubtful charms of a Hebridean
croft. My doctor was equally incredulous when I told him of my plans.
I dont think youre
very wise, he said seriously. Friends of mine whove been up in
the Hebrides tell me the inhabitants are only half civilised.
Well, I replied
gaily, Im going to find out for myself, and added: Really, Im
He stared at me for a few
moments, then shrugged his shoulders and rose. In that case, he
warned me, I think you should let me inoculate you against typhoid.
Inoculated I was, and now,
standing embittered and lonely on the pier, I was heartily amazed that I
could ever willingly have embarked on such a venture, and heartily glad
neither the doctor nor Mary could witness my plight.
The light I had been
watching drew unsteadily nearer and with sickening dread I realised that
it belonged to the masthead of a tiny boat, and that its appearance and disappearance was due to the boat lifting and plunging
on the huge seas.
Slowly she lunged nearer, the dark outline of her bow leaping
recklessly until it seemed impossible that she could come closer without
being smashed to pieces on the stone jetty. But suddenly she was
alongside and a figure clad in streaming oilskins and thigh-boots jumped
ashore, a rope in his hands.
Are you off the train?
he shouted as he hitched the rope around a tiny bollard.
The question was directed
at me. Yes, I yelled back. Is this the ferry?
Aye. He spat with
all the dignity of a man presenting a visiting card and obviously
considered it sufficient introduction. Iss there anybody else for the
ferry? Again the question was for me and I peered vaguely into the
Ive no idea! I
The man grunted. Wass
there many on the train?
Dimly I began to
appreciate the degree of familiarity I must expect in my new
There were quite a few
people on the train, I replied, but theyve all disappeared.
Impulsively I glanced behind and immediately regretted having done so,
for the movement had deflected some of the rivulets along chilling new
Have you been here
I felt that the questions
were becoming pointless and was tempted to grossly overstate the ten
minutes proclaimed by my watch. But I replied truthfully. Again the man
Youd best be gettin
aboard, then, if youre goin the night, he growled.
This was undoubtedly an
example of the dourness I had been warned to expect from the Hebrideans,
but to me at this moment it seemed particularly uncalled for.
Apprehensively I groped forward. There was a surging gulf of water between
the boat and the jetty and I was terrified of stepping down into it.
Watch your step now!
commanded another voice, brisk and imperious, from the darkness, as I
hesitated, waiting for the deck to leap high enough for me to clamber
aboard without having to perform something in the nature of a gymnastic
I cant see! I
wailed. Almost before the words were out of my mouth I was seized by two
strong arms and propelled unceremoniously over the gunwale and down into
the well of the boat. The calves of my legs came up against something
solid and I collapsed heavily. I managed to gasp out my thanks but need
not have wasted my breath, for the men, having seen me and my belongings
stowed safely aboard, went about their own business. Miserable with
fright, cold and vexation, every muscle strained and taut, I clung grimly
to the seat to prevent myself from being thrown overboard with each lurch
of the boat. There were no other passengers. No one else, I thought
dully, would be such a fool as to cross on a night like this. The
thought galvanised me into action.
Im coming off! I
shouted. My voice shrilled with panic. Im not going to cross
tonight. Its too rough.
Ach,. sit you down,
the answer came scornfully; you canna go jumpin on and off boats
for fun on a night like this.
Fun! I retorted
angrily, and was about to tell them the extent of my pleasure when a
suffocating stream of spray filled my mouth and effectively choked the
words. The boatman may have intended his sarcasm to be reassuring, but
before I could attempt further argument there was a staccato command, the
men leaped aboard and the slowly ticking engine pulsed into life. We were
off, and I must face whatever might come.
That we had left the jetty and were moving
I could guess from the sound of the engine, but from the terrific impact
of the waves on the bow I considered it more than likely that we were
being driven backwards. The boat seemed sometimes to rear supplicatingly
on her stem, and then nose-dive so steeply that I was certain each time
that her bow could never lift through the water again. My agonised
thoughts compared the performance with that of Blackpools Big Dipper,
a thrill which I had endured once and subsequently avoided. This, however,
was a succession of Big Dippers and my stomach tied itself into
knots at each abysmal plunge. While the boat rolled and pitched
dramatically the sea belched over each gunwale in turn. Icy water was
already swirling and eddying around my ankles. How much longer? I
wondered wretchedly. Soon I was sobbing and, in an excess of cowardice,
praying alternately for safety and a quick death. I felt terribly sick but
fear kept my muscles too tense to permit me to vomit.
A dark shape loomed up beside me, and
quite suddenly I knew that disaster was upon us; that this man had come to
tell me to save myself as best I could; that the boat was sinking. I
smothered a scream and, wrenching the torch from my pocket. looked wildly
around for lifebelts. I could see none. The man continued to stand, still
and silent, I guessed that he too was gripped by a fear as strong as
my own. I was shaking from head to foot.
What is it? I asked weakly.
Tenpence. His voice was crisply
matter-of-fact. Tenpence? My own voice burst from my throat in an
incredulous squeak and relief flooded through my quaking body like a nip
of hot brandy. I could almost have laughed. Foolishly I loosed my hold of
the seat and a sudden lurch of the boat threw me heavily against him.
Steady, he reproved
Tell that to the
boat, I replied pertly. With a feeling akin to elation I fumbled for my
purse and handed the man-a shilling. Gravely he sought the twopence change
and handed it to me along with the ticket. The latter I promptly lost; but
the two pennies I clutched like a talisman. It seemed fantastic. Twopence
change on a night like this! Twopence change, when I had been prepared to
abandon my all! I began to feel
The man disappeared and
again I was left alone, but now I could at times glimpse the island jetty
with its single light and what looked like a pair of car head-lamps
piercing the darkness beyond. Though I still had to cling to my seat as
the boat performed acrobatics more suited to an aeroplane; though I was
not one whit less cold and wet than I had been a few minutes previously,
the purchase of a tenpenny ticket had given me new confidence; for had I
not heard enough about the character of the Scot to be certain that the
tenpence stood a good chance of reaching its destination safely? Otherwise
I felt sure the weight of the money would have been left with my body, not
added to heavy oilskins and sea-boots.
Like a steeplechaser that
had scented its stable that boat romped alongside the jetty and I was
promptly hauled out with as little ceremony as I had been stowed in. The
headlights which I had noticed earlier had vanished temporarily, but now
they flashed on again, spotlighting my woebegone appearance. The slam of a
car door was followed by a rich masculine voice.
Would it be yourself
for McDugans, madam? it asked.
I replied thankfully, almost ready to fall upon the speakers neck.
Come this way if
you please, the voice invited
politely. I have the taxi you were wanting.
A large overcoated figure
picked up my two cases, shepherded me towards the headlamps and, with a
flourish worthy of a Rolls, opened the door of an ancient roadster. It
offered indifferent shelter, but I climbed in gratefully, and from
somewhere in the rear the driver thoughtfully produced a rug which, though
coarse and hairy and reeking horribly of mildew, was welcome if only to
muffle the knocking of my knees. As we drove away from the pier the wind rushed
and volleyed both inside and outside the car; silvery rain sluiced down
the windscreen and visibility was restricted to the semi-circle of road
lit by the headlamps. The driver, who chatted amiably the whole time,
kindly informed me that the road followed the coastline most of the way,
and I had to accept his assurance that it was a ghrand fiew in fine
For some miles the car
ploughed noisily on, then it turned off abruptly into a ridiculously
narrow lane, bounded on either side by high stone walls, vaulted a couple
of hump-backed bridges in quick succession and drew slowly to a stop. I
wondered if we had run out of petrol, for there were no lights or houses
visible; nothing but road and walls and the rain.
This is what you
were wanting, announced the
driver, pushing open the door and slithering out from his seat. He could
not have made a more erroneous statement. This was certainly not what I
was wanting, but it looked, unfortunately, as though this was what I was
Pulling his cap well down
on the side of his face exposed to the wind and exaggeratedly drawing up
his coat collar, he uttered a mild curse and flung open the rear door of
the car, where he commenced to wrestle with my luggage. In the glare of
the headlights the rain still swooped vengefully down as though each drop
bore some personal animosity to each and every particle of the gritty
lane. In all my life I had never seen such full-blooded rain!
With a despairing shudder I
pulled my waterproof closer about my shoulders and peered anxiously over
the drivers back, hoping fervently that he had stopped as near to the
entrance gate as was possible. I was disappointed. On each side of the car
the stone walls loomed up impenetrably, and I could see that it was not so
much that the walls themselves were high, as that the road was a cutting,
leaving an earth bank on either side thus forming a fairly inaccessible
barrier of about six foot in height between the lane and the field.
I cant see any
entrance, I complained fretfully.
The driver paused in his
attempt to lever my second case through the door of the car. Oh no,
he assured me with nimble complacency; theres no entrance at all
here, but youll just climb over the wall, dy see? The house is
I could not have been more
astounded had he told me I must wait for the drawbridge to be lowered! I
began to realise that acrobatics were a necessary accomplishment for
visitors to Bruach.
I cant climb walls!
I protested, and that one is a good six feet high. Surely, I went
on, there must be some other entrance.
Oh surely, madam, he
replied in conciliatory tones, but the tides in just now, and youd
be after swimming for it if you were going to use that tonight. He
permitted himself a sardonic chuckle.
What a welcome!
Ach, youll soon nip
over the wall easy enough, the driver assured me blandly. Ill
give you a leg up myself.
Now while I do not wish to
give the impression that my figure is in any way grotesque, I must
disclaim that it is by any means the sort of figure which nips easily over
six-foot walls. Agility is not, and never was, my strong point; my figure,
though sturdy, being somewhat rotund for anything but a very moderate
degree of athleticism. I viewed the prospect of climbing, even with a
willing leg up from the driver, with misgivings.
Despondently I climbed out
of the car. The wind caught me off guard and almost succeeded in
unbalancing me, and the rain recommenced its furious assault on my
waterproof. From the darkness beyond and uncomfortably close came the
pounding and sucking of breakers on the shore. To add to my dismay I
perceived that a fast-flowing ditch coursed riotously along the base of
the wall. I positively yearned for town pavements.
The driver nonchalantly
stepped over the ditch (his legs were long) and pulled himself upwards. He
was a tall man and the top of the wall was on a level with his nose. He
turned an enquiring gaze on me.
Theyll be expectin
you likely? he asked. I agreed that it was extremely likely, for I had
sent Morag a wire announcing the probable time of my arrival.
Once again the driver
turned to the wall, and gave a stentorian yell, the volume and
unexpectedness of which outrivalled the storm and very nearly caused me to
make a premature and undesirably close acquaintance with the ditch.
Immediately a shaft of yellow light gleamed in the distance as a door was
opened and a voice of equal power, though indisputably feminine, called
out interrogatively. The driver answered and in spite of the violence of
the weather a conversation was carried on, though as I could make out no
word of it I concluded it to be in Gaelic.
The shaft of light was
blotted out as the door was shut and then a lantern came swinging
rhythmically towards us. A moment later a figure surmounted the wall and
climbed quickly down to stand beside me. This then was Morag, my future
Well, well, Miss
Peckwitt is it? And how are you? My hand was lifted in a firm grip and
shaken vigorously and I only just managed to evade a full-lipped kiss.
My, my, but what a
night to welcome a body. Surely you must be drookit, she lamented
cheerfully. I thought that drookit probably meant dead and I
agreed that I wasalmost.
Almost? Sure you must be
quite, she asserted. I decided that drookit meant drowned.
Ach, but I have a nice
fire waitin on you, continued Morag happily, and youll be
warrm and dry in no time at all. The softened consonants were very
noticeable and to my Sassenach ears the rolled rs sounded as
over-emphasised as those of some opera singers.
Morag held up the lantern
so that for a moment we were able to study each others faces and I was
surprised, in view of her agility, to see that hers was dry and wrinkled
with age, while the wisps of hair escaping from the scarf she had wound
round her head were snowy white. She dropped my hand and turned to the
Will we just swing her,
up and over between us? she asked him.
Aye, agreed the
driver shortly. I bridled and stepped back a pace but, ignoring me, they
bent and together swung my two suitcases up and on to the wall. They were
swiftly followed by Morag who lifted them down to the other side; then,
lissom as a two-year-old, she leaped lightly down again. I gasped at the
effortless ease with which she accomplished the feat but her performance
did nothing to allay my own apprehension.
Is there no other way?
I asked timidly.
No indeed, she
replied, and pointed down the road; the wee gates down there, but
the watters up and all round it at this hour. Its a pity you couldna
have come when the tide was out. It occurred to me that tides were
going to play a very important part in my new life. I smothered a sigh.
Ach, but youll find
this way easy enough when you put your feets to it, Morag went on in an
encouraging tone. Now come. Cautiously I stepped across the ditch
and put my feets to it. Now then, directed my landlady with
heavy pleasantry, one fine feet here... now another fine feet here...
thats lovely just... now another fine feet here.... Undoubtedly
Morag believed her new guest to be a quadruped. The driver who was waiting
on the other side of the wall to haul me over also clucked encouragement.
I felt a firm grasp on my ankle. Now just another feet here and youll
be near done, instructed Morag. She was right! In the next instant one
of my fine feet slipped on the treacherous wet stone and I was left
clinging desperately with my hands, my legs flaying the air, while the
wind Iifted my skirts above my head and the rain committed atrocities on
those parts of my body which had not before been directly exposed to such
vengeance. The driver, seeing my predicament, came to the rescue and
gripping both arms firmly hoisted me bodily over the wall. My feet landed
on solid earth. Very wet earth admittedly, but I cared not so long as I
had to do no more climbing. Instantly Morag was beside me. Youre all
right? she enquired anxiously; you didna hurt yourself?
I assured her that I was in
no way hurt; though I knew that, even if I had not suffered, my stockings
at least were irreparably damaged.
Thats all right,
then. Ill tell Ruari to see to your boxes directly.
Oh yesRuari, I
echoed, and had a fleeting vision of a freshly lime-washed Ruari braving
this torrential rain, and began to feel better again. After all, I told
myself, I had been roughly handled but then I had planned this as
something of an adventure.
Opening my purse, I gave
the driver his fare plus a moderate tip. He demurred at the latter but on
my insistence thanked me courteously and pocketed it. It is indeed,
I thought, like coming to a different world, where even the
taxi-drivers refuse to be tipped.
Guided by Morags lantern
I followed her across the sodden grass, over cobblestones and into the
tiny hall of the cottage where a candle burned lopsidedly in the draught
from some hidden crevice. Taking off my dripping outdoor clothes I hung
them on the antlers of a pathetic-looking stags head. Morag opened the
door of a room on our left and ushered me inside. The room that wasnt
a kitchen was a neat lamplit place with an immense fire burning
brightly in the well-polished grate. Half on the fire, half on the hob, a
kettle stood spouting steam and rattling its lid in ill-concealed
impatience, promising a speedy brew of tea. A small table was spread with
a white cloth and on it my supper was laid invitingly. After the appalling
conditions outside the whole place gave a welcome so much greater than I
had expected that I exclaimed over it impulsively. I dropped into a chair
and ignoring its formidable creakings watched while Morag, with;
self-satisfied smile on her face, busied herself about the meal.
My landlady was a small
woman with a broad back which, though not exactly bent, gave one the
impression that it was accustomed to carrying many burdens. The rest of
her figure was hardly discernible beneath the bulk of clothing she wore,
but her movements were lively enough despite a gait which I can only
describe as running with one leg and walking with the other. Her
hair, as I have said, was white, her face wizened and freckled. Her eyes,
when they were not being soulfully blue, were as mischievous as a small
boys, while her hands were horny as a mans, the stubby fingers
resembling calcified sausages. Her clothes, or what I could see of them,
consisted of a thick tweed jacket over a homespun skirt, the front of
which was partially concealed by a now sodden apron, for she had
apparently added nothing to her attire when she left the house to come to
my assistance. I judged, however, from the proportion of bulk in relation
to size, that there were in all probability a great many insulating
layers between her skin and her outer garments, which were no doubt as
efficient under Island weather conditions as the more conventional
The tea brewed, Morag
departed, having first assured herself that she could at the moment do
nothing further for me beyond promising to stir Ruari into bringing my
cases indoors. Accordingly, soon after she had gone I heard the front door
bang, and even while I sat sipping my third cup of tea there was a rumble
of voices followed by a thudding on the stairs which indicated that my
bags were being carried up to my bedroom. I repressed a desire to peep. A
few minutes later there was a knock on my door and Morag entered.
Im just sayin I didna bring
Ruari and Lachy in to see you tonight, seeing youll be awful tired,
she began. I protested feebly. You see, she went on apologetically,
Ruaris that deaf his shoutin near splits the ears off you, and Im
after tellin him to keep his mouth shut on the stairs for sure he
grunts like a bull.
But who is Lachy? I asked, stifling a
Ach, hes the other half of the boat
with Ruari, explained Morag obscurely.
And what time will you be for takin
your breakfast? she asked.
I suggested about eight-thirty.
Half past eight, she agreed; and
if the Lord spares me Ill have your fire lit by eight then. I
glanced at her enquiringly.
Arent you feeling well then? I
Im feelin fine, she answered
with some surprise; why, dyou think Im lookin poorly?
Not at all, I rejoined hurriedly, but
when you said "if the Lord spares me", I thought perhaps you
were not feeling quite well.
Im feeling quite well tonight,
replied Morag piously; but who can tell if the Lord may call any one of
us before the morn comes; and if He chooses to call me in the night then I
canna light your fire in the mornin, can I?
I rather take that for granted, I
said with a smile.
'Ah indeed, its no wise to take anythin
for granted with the Lord, she rebuked me, and then added determinedly:
But I'll have your fire lit for eight certain if Im spared, and
as though to underline the words she closed the door firmly behind her.
After the long journey, the
fright, the bitter cold and now the warmth and food, I became
unconquerably sleepy. Wearily I climbed the narrow linoleum-covered stairs
to the bedroom which Morag had already pointed out to me. In the room a
lamp had been lighted and burned dimly, but more than that everything
appeared to be clean and comfortable. I could not have told that night.
Unpacking the minimum of necessities, I undressed and tumbled into bed,
where I lay for a time listening to the storm outside. Conscious of a
queer little thrill, I turned out the lamp. It was the first time in my
life that I had actually used an oil-lamp and I was not at all sure
whether to blow or keep turning the knob until the flame was completely
extinguished. I managed a successful compromise, and as I dropped back on
to the pillows and drifted into sleep I was aware of the rain spattering
against the window and drumming with dogged persistence on the tiled roof.
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