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Chapter 1

The sun. And what had been an immense, dimensionless gun-barrel of heat earlier that autumn day was now a tamed power casting a layer of brass over the plains of the Atlantic. The flickering light came ceaselessly across the sea, mile upon mile of it, gained the rocks and skerries of the coast, slipped up and across the raised beaches, powered its way up the final hundred and fifty feet of the cliff where the grass and dwarf birches lay beaten down against the surface of the earth and then sank itself into the hillsides of heathers and peat-moss which stretched in terraces and gentle slopes backwards into the blue sky over the island. A faint breeze carried the smell of bog-myrtle and heather and sea-life. All along the coast of the great bare headland the same thing was happening so that the whole mass of land which stood, with its flattened, rounded end, out into the ocean was trembling with warmth and life, calmed by the final weeks of a long summer before the winter, inevitable, arrived with its winds and rains.

Alasdair Mòr, too, felt the sun and trembled as he walked. The water rose from the peat-moss, all yellow and green and brown wetness, under the weight of his tackety boots and he moved seawards onto drier ground. Once he was on this firmer footing his great body settled into its steady, shambling gait. He moved like a bear on its hindlegs, with small steps and his sloping shoulders slightly in advance of the rest of him, hands dangling like forepaws; chest, waist and hips rolling clumsily. He felt his thighs tautening beneath the coarse-woven trousers as he worked his way up a rise and through a patch of knee-deep heathers. His thick sweater, oiled grey-green wool, and his stained and tattered leather jerkin, both seasons old, all contrived to constrict him as he moved upwards. He grunted twice to voice his effort and then, with a final stride, was out on top of a smooth green mound on the edge of the cliffs. He paused. He shifted his greasy cap once, twice, scratched the back of his neck and then, removing his cap, bared his head to the sun.

His face was like his body, like the hillside behind him. Rough, weather-beaten, heavy-boned. A good-sized nose and ears and full, generous lips like the flesh in the spocks of a grown crab. And all over, with no regular pattern, there sprouted little growths of hair. There was the stubble of an unshaven face like the after-grass in an autumn hayfield but there were also long, single hairs, double hairs, clusters, that had never felt the blade, which grew from the lobes of his ears, from the end of his nose, from inside his nostrils, from the thick ridges of his cheekbones. His eyebrows bushed and met in a great junction of pines above his nose. The hair of his head was greasy and thick, skart-black with no trace of grey that might have come with his forty-five years. It rolled and curled in a cold surf of disorder, wirily strong as heather roots in his thick skull, only indented by the mark of his cap’s rim.

His face was contorted – his eyes narrowed, his mouth stretched – as if the light were too strong. But this was not the case. He had that way of freezing his face in a grin when he was thinking. And now, with the early October sun low over the horizon, he was looking out to sea, slightly to the north, where the swell rose and fell round the rocks of Maisgeir. The weather would hold and he was thinking. Thinking that it would be calm enough to try some creels at the southern tip of the skerry where the swell was least. He remembered the first time his father had taken him out to Maisgeir. A similar day. He had been about nine. He saw his father in the bows of their boat, himself at the oars holding the boat as stationary as possible. His father, a large man, his heel wedged under the gunwale for support, hauling the line in hand over hand and the three creels slowly appearing out of the water one after the other and his own delight and his father’s satisfaction at the eight lobsters trapped in them. And him, forgetting his first man’s responsibilities, jumping up in the boat to examine the creatures and his father, in a moment’s anger and fear, barking at him to be seated. The waters of Maisgeir were never to be taken so lightly. And how he blushed and accepted this just rebuke and how his father had later smiled again and them rowing back in the failing light, both silent but with something unspoken between them.

His father had been a lobster-fisherman all his life and Alasdair, from the age of thirteen, had followed him in the same trade. Before this he had dutifully attended the village school, some nine miles away, until his father had fallen and hurt his back. Then Mr. Morrison, the schoolmaster from Aberdeen, had taken him aside one spring morning and told him that if his father needed help with the lobsters he could stop coming to school. Alasdair had waited silently, showing no reaction, while Mr. Morrison explained that he would continue to tick his name on the register for the final months before the law allowed him to leave. Then he had just nodded and walked away and never set foot in the classroom again. The freedom from school where Ina Maclean and Jennie MacFadyen and Wee Jamie had tortured him with their taunts at his slow-moving mind had given him added strength as he learned to handle the heavy oars and the weights of the submerged creels. Four years later, when his father was more or less bed-ridden with the pains, his younger brother David had started coming out with him in the boat. For three years more the two sons had shared their time between fishing and looking after their helpless father. Their mother had died giving birth to David those many years back and there were
few people within reach who could have come to lend a hand.

Then, quite suddenly, on a bright May morning, Alasdair had come back up from the shore to ask his father if he would like to be taken out into the sunshine and his father had just lain there with his mouth wide open as if in the middle of a yawn and his eyes staring at him in the doorway. For a moment Alasdair had not understood and then he had realised with a dull sense of loss and called David. And together they had tidied and washed him and then made a rare excursion into the small town to see the minister and Duncan the Hammer who would be the man to make up a rough coffin. And the next day they had walked over to Achateny to borrow a horse and cart and gone to collect the big, resonant coffin of unweathered wood. But Duncan had not seen their father for three summers or more and had not realised how he had wasted and shrunk in his invalid state so that when Alasdair and David came to lower the corpse into the coffin they saw that it was far too big. He, their big father, afraid of nothing, lay wizened and lost in the box. So they had packed some old fish sacks around him for fear that he would be knocked around on the journey into the town. And it seemed better to them that the odd smell of cold flesh was covered by the homely smells of dogfish and mackerel. Then they both shaved and splashed their hands and faces in the burn and loading the coffin on to the cart they drove in to the kirk, sitting side by side in shy silence on the driver’s bench.

A year later David had said goodbye and disappeared over the hill to find a new life.

Twenty-four years ago last January.

Five winters later, a letter had come from a town in Canada to tell that he was married with a small son. Sitting on a rock outside the croft-house, Alasdair had read the letter with difficulty and had glanced up at the sea’s horizon knowing dimly that Canada lay out over that way.

Alasdair bent down and picked up a piece of rock the size of a sheep’s eyeball. His great hands closed softly over the lump, caressing it, feeling out its shape, letting the warmth creep into his skin, finding pleasure and security in a sharp edge, a flattened side. The years since his brother’s departure stretched behind him in a belt of time in which there were few landmarks beyond the recurring seasons. But he was only aware of the length of his life alone when he began to think of David and his old father. And even in the first months after David had left when a prolonged winter had kept him off the sea and reduced him to chewing the sour, raw berries of the rowan tree, even then it had never occurred to him to follow David’s example and leave home in search of an easier life.

He squeezed the rock. This was his land, his sea. These he knew. . . At the back of the headland where the road passed, he was already beginning to feel the nearness of other people so that when he returned from one of his meetings with Aulay, the old shepherd from Achateny who brought him his supplies from the town, he walked faster than usual, always glancing up to catch the first sight of his croft.

His thinking face relaxed, showing the slight cast in his right-hand eye. It was this which had led Ina and Wee Jamie and later other people to treat him as a half-wit. For the slowness of his face with this misalignment of his eyes gave him the look of unworldly incomprehension. And yet there was no malice, no wilfulness in his looks – just a detachment, an isolation which had made the other children uncertain of him so that they, in their fear, had attacked him pitilessly.

But he ought to be moving on if the creels were to be set before dark and with a snuff of his nose he rolled off along the cliff. Down below him lay the two tiers of raised beaches where his grandfather’s people had grown the barley for their whisky. Great green steps between the brown hills and the
hyaline sea, they now lay unworked, the furrows in the grass fast disappearing beneath the proliferating bracken. Here the Achateny sheep grazed, furry lice scattered along the coast, their cries mingling with the mad threats of the black-backs, herring gulls and hoodies which plunged and climbed and
wheeled over the shoreland. Beyond, the great castling rocks stood black by the sea where tongues and skerries prickled in amongst light surf as the tide rose over them.

A few yards further on Alasdair turned down a narrow gully in the cliff where a steep, zig-zagging track led down to the natural harbour of Port nam Freumh. The track was dusty and loose after the warm weeks of the summer and he slipped and slithered as he hurried on. Over the first beach, down another small track to the left, across the second beach, along the bulk of a long rock protruding into the sea as a jetty and he was by his boat.

The boat – his father’s before him – lay in the shadow thrown by the jetty and the sea-fortress rock out at the end. It was heavy, clinker-built, with a raised elongated prow. Here, where nothing but the wildest seas could reach, it hung passively in a fathom of glassy water whose very stillness in the shadows seemed arctic cold. Out beyond the shadows, the surface of the water shimmered and breathed off metallic vapours of light and life. And this was the mystery of the sea.

He worked quickly collecting the creels and little rusty buoys and the cork floats and lines and then filled an old box with bait from a barrel that stood by the water’s edge.

At last he was done and clutching the box of bait he dropped like a goat into the bows of the boat. He slipped the mooring rope and pushed the boat away from the rock. For the few seconds while he waited for room to use the oars the boat swung over the freezing depths like a fantastic prison ship, the hulks, with its tower of tarred cages. And then with the first of two pulls on the oars, its forward end issued out into the sunlight and the movement of the unlocked sea so that the old wood and then Alasdair and finally the creels all shone and sparkled with the reflected sun darting at every glossy or polished point.

The sun on your back is a good way to row. So it seemed to Alasdair as he dropped his shoulders forward and then straightened his back in that ancient, instinctive rhythm. And the sea slipped its oiled limbs beneath the wood and vanished in a trail of bubbles and swirls astern.

When he had rowed up the coast, he turned the boat round and sidled in closer to the shore. He baited each of three creels that were attached to the same line, fixing the glutinous gobbets of fish next to the stone weights. Then, choosing a good spot near the offshore rocks, he carefully fed the primed sea-traps over the gunwale. The wavering shapes disappeared quickly into the waters until all that showed was the rusty buoy, the top float and a length of line bowing away into nothingness.

The oars lay down in the water, moving with the gentle shifting of the sea and Alasdair heard the pitchless grinding of the oars on the wooden thole-pins and was pleased. How often had this happened before in his life? How often would it come again? The great cliffs rose above him with their gullies and landslides and patchy growths of birch and hazel and rowan. He glanced up and saw way down the coast his path home lying like a discarded length of rope on the slope.

At strategic points all down the coast he set his creels. Then he turned his boat out to sea and bent his back into the oars. He heard the water bumping under the bows behind him, saw a strand of kelp pass alongside and into the bubbling wake, and knew that he was making good speed. His breath sang in his nostrils, odd unpredictable gruntings rose from his throat and his eyes darted around him ceaselessly, the cast in his eye perhaps allowing him to see things which other men could never see. Behind him grew the suckings and slappings of the swell as he closed in on Maisgeir.

At its southernmost end, the skerry was in fact a small island. For in the area of a few square yards it rose to the height of some fifteen feet above high water. There thin clumps of grass grew among the cast-up tangle and the empty crab shells left by the feeding birds. But northwards of this the level of the rock lay sunken beneath the sea at anything but low water and its arms and ledges and spines caught wind and current so that a turbulent swell and surf were always present.

With easy skill, Alasdair ran the boat in on the swell, tossed a fleet of creels overboard and had turned the boat away again before the following wave could carry him on to the rocks. A few more powerful strokes took the boat clear into calmer water.

By now the sun was low, a fiery bubble of gas threatening to plunge into distant waters. Beyond Maisgeir the sea was an immense gilded haugh growing out on both sides of the river of fire, the sun’s reflection. The skerry itself stood against this as a two-dimensional stain, no more than a hole in the exploding light, with sketches of surf playing around it, encasing it as the first fleece on a lamb.

Alasdair dropped the oars. He spat on the palm of each hand, rubbed them together thoughtfully, grasped the oars again and set off at a fast pace for the coast. He was wondering how long this autumn weather would hold. . .

The boat which came round once a week and collected whatever lobsters he had, stopped in the winter months and he had to ask Aulay or one of the others at Achateny to take his catch into the town and sell it. Sometimes Aulay would come back obviously pleased with himself and hand over the few shillings with a look of personal triumph as though he had caught the lobsters himself.

Alasdair smiled.

Aulay had been telling him about the newcomer who had taken over the croft to the south of Rubha na Leap and started on the lobsters. Nobody seemed to know his name but they called him An Sionnach, the Fox. Aulay had said that it was not so much his reddy, fair hair that had earned him his name as his undisclosed past and his slightly shifty ways. He didnae speak hellish much, said Aulay, and even when he did, it was hard to know just what he was after. Aye, a right queer one. He’d been in to get some twine off Archie the other day and you should’ve heard the way he was after getting yon for nothing. Archie was having none of it of course and told the man the twine was a penny an ounce, take it or leave it. . .

Alasdair had not seen An Sionnach but those that had seemed unable to say anything definite about him. Some said he was from the Long Island, others that he came originally from the Orkneys of Faroese parentage. All that could be said for sure was that he had arrived with his woman and a few belongings at the last moon. And as for the woman, few people had even set eyes on her. It was only Aulay and one of the other shepherds who had seen her at a distance from the hills. So far she had not yet been seen to leave the croft.

The men on the collection boat had said that An Sionnach was doing well enough on the lobsters. In spite of his pleas of poverty, he appeared to be working with a newish boat and brand new creels and lines, though where the money for these had come from nobody knew. But the same men confessed to feeling deeply uneasy in his presence. If they ever spoke of him, they found themselves making jokes about his strange ways, almost as if hoping to ward off trouble by not taking it seriously.

The boat slid onwards towards the shore, cuffing through the rippling waters, bending over the polished backs of the swell. Maisgeir and the horizon bobbed and bounced in the distance. Only Alasdair and the sun stood still.

Once back near the coast Alasdair laid some more creels just to the north of Port nam Freumh and then finished his work by setting his two last fleets at the mouth of the burn whose waters, up at the back of the cliff, ran past his crofthouse. Here he could always be sure of a good catch for the lobsters came to feed off what the burn brought down from the hills.

And when the last of the creels were down and the boat seemed as vast and empty as a grain hopper, Alasdair breathed deeply and ran his hands over his thick hair. The day’s work was done. And not too soon either. For the great sun was down in the sea, sliced in half like a fruit by the stroke of the horizon. And now the sea was no longer brassy but a carnage of bloody juices lying, like oil, on the old waters below, while the shadowy places, formerly glassy greens and dark blues from the light of the sky, now lay black and tarry.

For Alasdair, the sight of the dying sun showering the world with its flood of fiery light was one of warmth and promise. It meant that the day was done and that he could count himself happy in that he had completed what he had set out to do. Now he could return to his croft and his animals and while away the evening hours in small matters, sitting beside his fire, knowing that the stars and moon were rising over a still sea.

So, for the last time that day, he settled the callouses of his hands squarely on the smoothness of the oars and bent his back, making the boat leap forward up the coast, its prow finally slotting itself into the black hole of Port nam Freumh. There he shipped the oars, tied up and unloaded a few odds and ends. Then he took one deep sighting of the sea, opened the barrel and, nostrils and eyes a-quiver, drew the old sweetness of the dead fish into his stomach, closed the barrel and turned for the path. Alasdair Mòr was on his way home.

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