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The Bay of Strangers
by Lillian Beckwith

The Bay of Strangers, Chapter 1
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You can purchase Bay of Strangers from

The Bay of Strangers

In these eight short stories Lillian Beckwith packs in a rich cast of characters and seductive Highland settings. In the title story Catriona McRae embarks on married life and learns a closely guarded secret from her mother-in-law. ‘The Banjimolly’ features a witch and two bottles of whisky. ‘Because of an Elephant’ concerns an eccentric laird’s wife. A boy and his adored collie dog, Meg, are the subjects of ‘The Last Shot’. Each story is beautifully and affectionately told.

The Bay of Strangers

Neil Cameron was forty years old when he decided the time had come for him to ‘speak for’ Catriona McRae.

The intention to do so had begun to take shape in his mind some three years previously but since Catriona had been then only ten years of age he knew he must wait some lithe time before he could make his approach to her mother. Meantime he had watched Catriona develop from a frolicsome youngster into a responsible young girl sturdy enough to help her widowed mother with the work of the croft and able and willing enough to row a boat and bring home a catch of fish. Neil, continuing to assess her merits, was confident she would make a good wife for him when the time came for her to marry. So it was that on the eve of Catriona’s thirteenth birthday, which happened to be the night before Halloween, Neil was in his lamplit bedroom preparing himself for his delicate and important mission.

The room was small and despite the minimal amount of home-built furniture would have been cramped for a man only half Neil’s stature. Even sitting on the bed to dress himself he had to be careful of his movements for fear of knocking over the oil lamp which stood on the chest between the bed and the window. He reached for a clean shirt and pulling it over his head struggled to tuck the tail into the trousers of his dark Sabbath suit which though old in years, was still relatively new due to lack of wear. Bending forward he eased his stockinged feet into seldom worn shoes, grimacing slightly at the restraint which even well-fitting shoes imposed on feet that were more accustomed to the roominess of gumboots. He then put on his knitted tie, tying it without the aid of a mirror since the room boasted no such luxury, and finally he eased himself into his jacket which the years had tightened over his muscular arms and shoulders. He brushed his hair and passed the roughened palms of his hands over his suit to remove the fragments of down and tiny feathers which inevitably drifted through to his room and attached themselves to his clothes whenever his mother plucked a chicken in the kitchen. Satisfied, he picked up the lamp and, bending his head so as to avoid the low door frame, he opened the door into the kitchen.

His mother was standing by the table with her hands in a bowl of soapy water, washing the dishes they had used for their evening meal. Behind her the peat fire, made up in readiness for the anticipated respite from the day’s work, glowed its invitation. His mother glanced up at him as he entered and out of the corner of his eye he noted the fleeting expression of surprise that crossed her face.

‘You’re away visiting?’ Her tone was deliberately un-inquisitive.

‘Aye so,’ Neil affirmed, suspecting she had instantly divined his purpose. It had irritated him when he was younger that his mother had seemed able to sense his most secret thoughts, and there had been times when he had come to believe she must be gifted with the ‘second sight’, but now he accepted that it was no unusual gift she possessed save that of being highly perceptive. Careful as he had been to betray no sign of his choice of future wife having fallen on Catriona, he thought it likely that some preoccupied glance or unguarded action of his had been sufficient to reveal to her his intention.

Opening the outside door he stood there, the tall bulk of him filling the doorway. ‘I’ve seen to the calves and closed up the hens,’ he told her before she could put the question to him. ‘And there’s plenty of peats beside the door here so you’ll not be needing to go out of the house yourself tonight, cailleach.’

The old woman straightened her bent back as well as she could and wiped her wet hands on her apron. ‘Aye,’ she acknowledged expressionlessly. Her glance rested on his broad back, but fearing he might turn suddenly and detect the glow of pride she had in him, she shifted her gaze to the square of darkness that was the uncurtained window. ‘It’s a grand night in the Bay of Strangers,’ she observed, and when he did not answer she went on, ‘I was after lifting a few peats into the pail a wee whiley since and there was the moon looking like a great golden egg in the cup of the hills and it looking down into the bay as if it was fearing it might take a tumble into it, just.’

Neil’s lips moved fractionally. Taciturn as he was by nature it did not make him any the less patient with his mother’s garrulousness, which tended to flow more abundantly when she was a little disturbed, as he guessed she was now.

‘It’s a grand night indeed,’ he agreed, smiling into the darkness. His mother’s predilection for speaking of the bay as if she were reading its name from a map rarely failed to amuse him. To Neil and to the other islanders the bay was simply ‘the bay’. The reason it had at some time been characterized as the Bay of Strangers scarcely interested them since it belonged to an age before they or their forebears had set foot on the island and consequently no folklore was attached to it. For a while Neil lingered as if contemplating the darkness. His mother watched him covertly, gloating in the stalwart son she had reared.

‘I’ll be away then,’ he called over his shoulder, and going out into the night closed the door behind him.

After she had dried and replaced the dishes on the dresser the old woman sat down on the high-backed wooden chair strategically placed beside the fire and within easy reach of the kettle and the peat box. It was her own special chair, fashioned for her by her husband from prized pieces of driftwood and then presented to her on the day they were married. Since that day it had stood in the same position as it stood now and where it would continue to stand so long as she was alive. Draped over the back of the chair was a worn woollen pullover of Neil’s, half unpicked, and this she took on to her lap, resuming the unpicking while she stared meditatively into the fireglow and allowed a smile of contentment to soften the mouth that had been so tightened by adversity. As soon as Neil had appeared, dressed, in the kitchen she had indeed guessed where he was bound for and she had no doubt as to the purpose of his errand.

It was good, she mused, that Neil was thinking of taking a wife, for surely the time was coming when she herself would no longer be able to cope with much of the outdoor work of the croft. Though recognizing the inevitable she saw no urgent need to bring another woman into the household. She was proud to consider herself still capable of carrying on with those tasks which were traditionally a woman’s work, but on the other hand there was no denying that increasing age sometimes pressed hard on her shoulders and shortened her breath, giving her cause to allow herself to think how comforting it would be to be rid of the dread of going out on to the moors in all weathers to see to the cattle; of having to wrestle with unruly calves; of being tortured by her aching back as she strove to keep up with the harvesting. For sixty years, ever since she had been old enough to carry home a pail of milk from the hill, she had been steeped in work. Now she could look forward to the day when she could sit here in her chair beside the fire while a young woman took over the tasks of carrying water from the well; of lifting the heavy pans from the fire and of feeding the poultry when the path to their shed was treacherous with ice. Yes, her thoughts assured her, she would truly welcome Catriona into her home even if it would lead to a lessening of her own authority there, and in the years between now and the chosen time for the marriage – and there would be no undue haste, of that the old woman was certain – Catriona would have plenty of opportunity to prepare herself to be Neil’s wife.

There had been times since Neil had reached manhood when the old woman had feared his getting himself married. Feared that following one of his annual trips to Glasgow where he went to look at boatyards and keep in touch with fishmarkets he might return with a city wife who would be totally unfitted for island life. She had judged it an unlikely possibility but, she had reminded herself, was not Neil a man? And a fine, handsome man who could easily cause a young woman’s heart to flutter. And who would know better than herself that men, even the best of men, could behave foolishly enough to make their womenfolk hold up their hands in horror? Her relief when she had seen that Neil’s choice had settled on Catriona had been like the releasing of a too-tight creel rope across her breast. He had never spoken to her of his resolve. He had not needed to since even before he himself had become fully aware of his aspiration to some day marry Catriona, his mother, in her shrewd, far-seeing way, had worked it out for herself. Catriona might have been only a young lassie but it had not escaped the old woman’s notice that Neil, who had always been a favourite with the children of the island, had become increasingly offhand in his behaviour towards the girl. The clue had thus presented itself. It was a characteristic she had observed in him from his earliest childhood – the more he cared for something the harder he had always tried to conceal his feelings.

There was no question in the old woman’s mind but that Neil’s bespeaking of Catriona would be welcomed by both the girl and her mother. What lassie would not be delighted to be chosen by such a man as Neil? What widow-woman would not welcome such fine expectations for her daughter? Wasn’t he the most respected of men? she questioned herself… Was he not tall and strong, fearless and hard working? Was his croft not the best tended? And was there any man who could match his skill at fishing? Didn’t the lobsters he caught in his creels bring him good money from London? Good enough for him to have an account at a bank on the mainland. Once, she recalled, when she had managed to steal a peep at his bank book the figures she had seen there had made her gasp with astonishment. Oh yes, Neil would be a great catch for any woman. And young as she was Catriona would be wise enough to know she would be getting the very best of husbands. The old woman nodded ruminatively at the flames. And my! she told herself, would not Catriona be the proud one when she got to know of her good fortune? Surely it was a rare enough thing for a girl to be spoken for when she was no more than thirteen years old?

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 to her.

‘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 inquisitive.

‘Not as high as you would expect,’ Neil said guardedly. ‘Lobsters are gey scarce just now and they should be bringing top prices.’

‘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 sedateness.

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,’ he added.

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 anything else.’

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 long?’

‘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 answer.

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 gloriously happy.

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 status.

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 comment.

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 meal.

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 alongside.

‘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 the deck.

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 box.

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 feet.

‘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 comments.

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 hens.’

‘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 longer.

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 sat down.

‘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,’ she declared.

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 island.’

‘It has been a secret for a long time,’ Catriona rebuffed him.

‘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 earnestly.

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 him.

‘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 you’re ready.’

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 slowed.

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 hearing something.’

‘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 hand away.

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 retreated temporarily.

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 not move.

‘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 his lips.

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 grandmother?’

‘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 said.

‘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 acquiescence.

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 custom.’

‘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 satisfaction.

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 trusted.’

‘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 gingery-coloured liquid.

‘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 woman said.

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 being cuddled.

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 renewed strength.

When the baby, a lusty boy, arrived Catriona showed him proudly to her husband. ‘He’s certainly been worth waiting for,’ he commented.

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 lap.

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 with scorn.

‘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 gone.

‘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 on us.’

‘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 larder.

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 it not?’

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 sobbed.

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 childlessness.’

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 happiness.’

‘But how can I?’ Catriona exclaimed miserably. ‘It’s impossible.’

‘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?’

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