PART OF THE Coasts and Waters ISSUE
‘I touched the pottery fish bead one last time. If I had another, I would have left it here, nose to tail with this one, like her star sign, Pisces.’
Extract taken from Marram: Memories of Sea and Spider-silk
By Leonie Charlton
Published by Sandstone Press
The three Terns from last night skittered by, all pointed wings and forked tails and chattering noisily, so close I could make out the flash of orange on their beaks, the tiny stab of black at the tip. I stood up and headed to the shore, crossing the sand to the huddle of rocks covered in seaweed. When I put my hand down to steady myself Bladderwrack slipped under my palm. Looking closer at the fronds of seaweed, on each one a mid-rib was visible and decorated with air sacks like small green olives. Oystercatchers pipped at me while I watched a canary-yellow Sea Snail take close-in suckery steps, stretch by shiny stretch. The magic of being down on this level, how much we miss as our heads go about our days all the way up there in the air, so far away from our feet.
I stepped onto the body of dry rock, where clumps of Sea Pinks seasoned the stone, and walked carefully to the end where it met a milky sea. It was a clouded-over day and St Kilda was nowhere to be seen. The rock I was standing on was black, marked with splashes of dove-grey and old-gold Lichen. I would leave the pottery fish bead here on the rocks, and the next spring tide would draw it away. A friend of Mum’s in Galloway had made these pottery fishes for her thirty years previously. Mum tended to stay clear of ‘craft’, seeing what she did as ‘art’, but this little pottery fish, with its blobby gold spots and clumsy yellow outline, was surely craft, and had somehow slipped through the net. I squatted down, laying it on the rock, and yes, it belonged. Its spots were the same colour as the Lichen, its body the very same green-brown as the Bladderwrack below.
Mum hadn’t been a great one for exercise, and was scornful of ‘sporty’ people, but she liked going for walks and riding. She also liked to swim. Some of my earliest memories are of her swimming in the public pool in Holyhead. I can still feel the surges of her strong breaststroke, how dizzily dangerous it had felt clinging on to her shoulders. Dad has a cine film of us in Ghana. Mum, young and slim, flared trousers, midriff showing and her hair swinging impossibly thick and red. A barrage of hair, surely too much for one person. And that colour, bright bay if she’d been a horse. The film, silent and speeded up, of her under a tree smoking a cigarette, walking and joking with the Ghanaian grooms at a polo yard, us being given pony rides. The African bush and the old Cortina on red dirt roads. Dad, young and handsome, his beard dark, eyes smiling. Will’s face already full of mischief, Tom and I white-blonde from the sun. The three of us splashing in an outdoor swimming pool, playing and performing for the camera. Mum at the side of the pool, laughing, diving in. I touched the pottery fish bead one last time. If I had another, I would have left it here, nose to tail with this one, like her star sign, Pisces.
Mum’s favourite bird, the Raven, croaked as we approached Vallay House which sat eerily in the muted morning light. I couldn’t see the bird, but the ponies were on the skyline by the house, heads up, looking straight at us. Ross’s mane was lifting out in all directions. He was getting saltier and wilder-looking by the day. They were standing against the disarray of an old iron fence, each upright post leaning waywardly, each cross-piece unsprung, a far cry from the neat line it must once have been. The rufous red of its rust stood out against the wet pigeon colour of the house walls. Gold Lichen swept the house’s graceful lines and curves. Large square windows, and small porthole-shaped ones, looked out at us, lacklustre without glass. The crow-stepped gable ends bit into a dull sky.
Parked outside the house was a tractor, rusted away to finger-touch crumble. The sea air had been hard on it. We looked through windows and saw tiled fireplaces, moulded ceilings fallen to the floor, a fire grate in mid-air where the first floor had collapsed. A sister Starling to the one we’d seen yesterday landed on the grate, hissing, her mouth full of Grubs, before hopping up into the chimney cavity.
‘Do you know anything about this place?’ I asked Shuna. ‘Did someone say it belonged to a photographer?’
‘Yes, a historian and photographer, his name was Erskine Beveridge.’
‘What a great name.’
‘It’s a sad story. His son inherited the house and lived here alone. He was forbidden from marrying the love of his life, became an alcoholic and died crossing the sands to Vallay, caught by the tide.’
The Raven croaked again. So close now it must have been somewhere in the building. Maybe it had a nest here, or was just on the prowl. We looked in on a circular room as a Pigeon flew low over the fallen debris following the curve of the wall, soft feather-flap of air as it passed before disappearing through an archway. The place was derelict but pulsing with life.
Ross and Chief followed us back down to the steading. ‘We’ll be back for you soon,’ I said to them, climbing over a wall. We wanted to explore the east end of the island and Angus had asked us not to go with the ponies as there were cows calving. As Shuna climbed over the wall beside me a buff bird whirred by before disappearing into the long grass.
‘That’s the first one I’ve ever seen,’ said Shuna. ‘Oh, this place…’ I couldn’t agree more.
The tide was going out and we followed a trail of neat cattle hoof-prints and tiny pink cockle shells across the bay towards the promontory of Àird Mhic Caoilt. Past a gate with a hand-painted sign warning Cows Calving, Please Keep Out were the dun and the standing stones that Anne had told us about. The dun was easy to spot, a circular stone-built wall straddling the pre-existing bedrock. The sea was encroaching now, and I wondered how it had looked when it was first built 3,000 years or so ago. Had there been trees, and where had the high tide mark been way back then? Now the tides were breathing on the dun and sometime in the not-too-distant future the sea would take it. We sat on the grassy top of the wall but weren’t the only ones to ever rest there. Little tubes of goose shit were dotted all about. There was a fence running through the middle of the dun with seaweed hanging from each square of rylock. I loved that this fence was there, that there were no paths to this ancient site, no signage, and wham-bam, a stock fence put up right through its centre. It was a living, breathing monument with tides and cattle and geese smoothing its edges.
There was an entrance way to the right, a beautifully crafted stonework channel that I imagined had originally been a doorway but was now a conduit for the sea. A tiny bird watched us from a grass tump beyond the dun. Bright glare from the sun came through the cloud and the air was warm. To my left a thick hessian rope dropped from beneath the turf, hanging over the inner wall of the dun and disappearing into a tangle of seaweed and silverweed below. I found my bead, a gemstone I didn’t know the name of. Roughly shaped, its purple hues picked up the blush of an empty crab’s shell and the pink in the quartz running through the gneiss. I threaded the bead and tied it onto the thick rope, drawing the knot extra tightly.
‘Shall we leave the standing stones for another day?’ Shuna said. ‘It’s so nice just sitting here, listening to the Oystercatchers.’ I nodded, feeling a jolt of pleasure at the thought of coming back here sometime.
Marram: Memories of Sea and Spider-silk by Leonie Charlton is published by Sandstone Press, priced £8.99
Gavin Francis is an award-winning writer and GP. He is the author of four books of non-fiction, including Adventures in Human Being, which was a Sunday Times bestseller and won the Saltire Scottish Non-Fiction Book of the Year Award, and Empire Antarct …
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