The blue, battered plastic box is intended for salmon. I know this, even though I cannot read the “SCOTTISH FISHERMANS ORGANISATION LTD” emblazoned in large, hand-stencilled letters on the side. I know this because I have often seen salmon in it, their desperate flapping sending quicksilver flashes dancing along the sides of our bath-shaped metal boat. The box is too small for anything larger than a decent-sized smolt to lie flat, but it is the perfect size for me. Even with the thick fleece blanket that my mother has tucked around the inside, my feet do not quite touch the end.
I spend a long time looking at my feet. This is partly because the sides of the boat block my view of the outside, but mostly because of my new rubber boots. They are green, which is my second favourite colour, and have frog-like googly eyes and moulded lips. I have called them frog and froggy, an early indication of what will be a lifelong preference for zoological accuracy over creativity. Every time I lift my toes, they seem to smile up at me.
I would normally be content to lie back in the tentative early-May sunshine and listen for the shrill kip of the Arctic Tern amongst the raucous calls of the gulls, but today I struggle to relax. I am acutely aware of the red, square, ‘Family Circle’ biscuit box that sits next to my mother on the wood of the captain’s bench. The original contents were consumed long ago, and every fibre of my being that can be spared from admiring my feet is directed towards ascertaining whether, on this particular outing, it has been filled up with digestive biscuits or Crisis Crumb. I would eat either, of course, but it is the flapjack chew and chocolate-covered snap of my mother’s own-recipe, Crisis Crumb, that really sets my pulse racing.
My mother, carelessly glamourous in an oversized shirt and faded jeans, is showing no immediate inclination to feed me. Her attention is divided between my younger brother, who is gurgling happily on her lap, and my older, red-haired sister.
“Lucy! Don’t lean so far over. You know what happened last time.”
We all know what happened last time. And the time before that. We three children have been brought up on boats, which means our short lives have been spent falling off them, including, on one memorable occasion, into one of my father’s floating salmon pens. I still feel claustrophobic when I think of the insistent pressure of those hundreds of curious, sinuous bodies.
On the floor next to my mother lies our whippet Joss. She is not 0ver-burdened with brains, and a mixture of greed and an early hernia have given her a most un-whippet-like pot belly. Whippets are a surprising choice of breed for a farming family in the North-West Highlands, but my parents stumbled across Joss’s brindled mother living miserably in the local fish and chip shop, took pity on her, and swapped her for a salmon. Joss shares my fixation with the biscuit box.
My father is behind the wheel. He knows every inch of Little Loch Broom. His eyes, therefore, are not on the mirror-flat water. They wander across the rounded, heather-covered hills of Dundonnell in search of stags and comb the sky for the barn-door-like wings of the recently reintroduced Sea Eagle. We children are more excited by a fleeting glimpse of a particularly lugubrious puffins and the plunging dives of the snow-white gannets.
An observer might be forgiven in mistaking my father for another piece of the local flora and fauna. At six foot four, with a foot-long, ginger-tinged beard and dancing greeny-brown eyes, he is the epitome of the wild and woolly Highlander. He is, however, a southern interloper. And it is perhaps the fact of having chosen this place, rather than being born to it, that makes him love the land and its inhabitants with the deep and almost jealous passion that has also begun to bubble in my five-year-old bones.
This is my favourite time of year. I am too young to yet be ruled by the academic calendar, and May has the dual advantages of long spells of settled weather and gulls’ eggs. The latter is our current goal. Black-backed gulls nest in late April, and local lore has it that the first weekend of May is the sweet spot for egg hunting. The unwritten rules are simple: first, only nests with one or two eggs are fair game; the parents will not yet be incubating, and will have time to re-lay. Second, never take more than you will eat.
A slight shift in the pitch of the engine tells me that we have shifted from the glassy smoothness of our loch to the slight swell of the open sea. The vast expanse of sky remains the same, however; it is cornflower blue overlaid with faint wisps of cirrocumulus, known locally as a mackerel sky. I think with satisfaction of the thousands of tiger-striped fish that have recently left the Norwegian fjords to make their way towards Little Loch Broom and—for an unlucky few—the pink-sequinned rubber fingerlings of my favourite fishing lure.
I wriggle out from my nest and rest a pudgy hand on the cold, metal rim of the boat. From my grand vantage point of a little over three feet, I see the coastline fanning out behind us. To the north I can see as far as the long Bactrian ridge of Suilven and the abrupt, jutting peak of Stac Pollaidh. I have known their names for as long as I can remember, though it will be a decade until I can reliably spell them. To the south it is not individual peaks that stand out, but the layer upon layer of mountain ranges that frame the sweep of Gruinard Bay and fade out into mere smudges as I look down towards the Isle of Skye. The pristine clarity of the air, which I will later learn is due to a combination of soggy ground and the prevailing onshore winds, means we sometimes catch glimpses of the peaks of Harris and the flat, gneissian rock plateau of Lewis, but today a slight haze blurs the horizon. I take a deep breath of the salt-tinged air, and let out a contented sigh. This is where I belong. And, in all the ways that really matter, every bit of it belongs to me.
A shout interrupts my proprietorial reverie.
I whip round. Lucy, her skinny frame taut with excitement, is pointing off to the front and right of the boat. She is leaning so far out that her body teeters on the boat’s rim like my mother’s brass weighing scales, but this time no-one notices.
“I can’t see anything. Are you sure?”
Doubt is stronger than excitement in my father’s voice. We see porpoises and dolphins fairly regularly, but whales are unusual.
“It was just there. I PROMISE.”
Lucy is a naturally truthful child, and the idea of being disbelieved brings a whiney note to her voice.
My father nudges the steering wheel to follow the line of Lucy’s still-outstretched arm.
“I don’t know. Maybe… here?”
He kills the engine. We wait.
I lose interest quickly. The possible presence of a whale outside the boat is decidedly less exciting than the definite presence of biscuits inside it. I potter to the back of the boat to admire the changing colours of the tiny petrol drops that pool on the surface of the water in our wake. I like the way that the green droplets turn to pink and then to dark purple as a tiny ripple disturbs the surface.
Quite suddenly, there is a solid object where—moments before—there had been nothing. For a second I am too surprised to shout. My voice, when it finally comes out, is high and strangled.
This time everyone sees it. A long back slides effortlessly through the water. It is perhaps two metres from the boat, and I am close enough to make out a tiny barnacle on its improbably small, hooked dorsal fin. And then it disappears, as quickly and silently as it appeared.
The whale surfaces perhaps ten seconds later, just north of the boat, and heads back towards us. I’m at the front to meet it. The head passes me, with the under-chin white patch of the minke whale clearly visible, and then it just keeps coming. I think our boat is large—it is at least four times the length of my father—but the whale is half as big again.
It circles back around and approaches us again from the side. I wonder for a moment if we are in danger, but it slips under the water and dives right underneath. Its curiosity is almost a tangible thing, dancing in the froth of the bow waves that caress the boat.
We are all laughing, though nothing that has just happened was funny. This, I think, was the moment I understood that laughter can express many different emotions. There is humorous laughter. There is bitter laughter. And, rarest and perhaps best of all, there is the laughter that is born in joy and exhilaration, and that is—for me—experienced almost exclusively in close proximity to the wild.
It is a strange feeling to look at a quiet, seemingly empty sea and to know that somewhere close by there is a living, breathing animal larger than any you have seen before. In an instant, the sea is transformed from a lonely and desolate place into something of infinite potential.
Those were not, however, my immediate reflections.
“Mum, can I have a biscuit now?”
“What? Yes. Whatever you want.” Her eyes are still fixed on the point where the whale had last disappeared.
I reach the tin just before my sister. Crisis Crumb!
Four pieces later, I return to my fish box sticky and satiated.
Our destination is Priest Island, its pancake-like silhouette clearly visible a couple of miles farther out to sea. Priest is the most exposed of the Summer Isles, which also include Bird, Bottle, and Horse, conclusively demonstrating that I am not the only inhabitant to have lacked imagination in the naming of inanimate objects.
My father tries to approach quietly, in the hope of spotting a reclusive otter, but we disturb a bazaar of guillemots. They take off in unison with thin, piping cries of outrage. Joss, true to form, begins to bark several seconds after they have disappeared over the horizon.
Access to Priest’s lonely shores must be earnt. Split-second timing is required to navigate up a narrow channel to the uneven ledge that is the only possible drop-off point. My mother springs out nimbly. I don’t struggle as my father passes me, parcel-like, into her arms. I have misjudged the distance before and have no desire to repeat the experience.
Our well-honed human chain means it doesn’t take long to get the picnic, spare clothes, and spare spare clothes ashore. My father pulls off his checked shirt and jeans, and hands them to me. His rubber boots, the constant wearing of which will eventually be responsible for arthritis in his toes, go to my sister. Then, as naked as the day he was born, he jumps back into the boat. Fifty metres offshore he stops, chucks the anchor overboard, and gently nudges the engine back and forth until he knows the anchor has dug deep into the kelp-covered shingle of the sea floor. He steps up onto the side of the boat and, without missing a beat, dives into the sea.
We all cheer. This is a regular part of our island trips. The falling tide makes it impossible to leave the boat up close to the shore and, unlike the yacht on the island next door, we have no place for a rubber tender to ferry passengers to and fro.
“There he is!”
He has covered half the distance between us by the time he surfaces, and a short time later he scales the rough rocks below us, shakes off the worst of the water, and redresses.
My parents move across the shoreline with the same ease as the other winged and four-legged creatures that inhabit our barren, wind-flayed terrain. I long for the same facility, but my five-year-old feet struggle to navigate the loose, anemone-covered rocks. My sister, an all-important 18 months older, manages much better. I shoot dagger-like looks at my brother, who has so recently and unjustly supplanted my rightful place in my mother’s arms.
I try to ape my parents’ long, easy strides, but slip and hit my knee on a question-mark-shaped piece of barnacle-covered scrap metal. By the time I reach the profusion of sea pinks that mark the spot where rocks meet peaty turf, I am close to tears. My mother notes my mutinous expression.
“Katie, are you hungry?”
I’m not, but her distraction tactic is a good one. By the time I have polished off a slab-like sandwich, generously filled with hunks of last night’s venison, good humour is restored.
Leaving most of our belongings in a jumble on the high tide mark, we scramble off to explore. Our first stop, a short walk round the coast, is a collection of stones which just might, if you squint hard enough, resemble a ruined house. Here, rumour has it, lived the eighteenth-century priest who gave the island his name and later—in the 1970s—it was supposedly the home of two middle-aged financiers on the run from the law. This evidence of human habitation should undermine the pristine wilderness of this place, but the neon orange moss that has begun to spread across the tumbledown walls somehow only underlines the resilience and fecundity of the natural world. We run through the ruins, overturning stones in search of the island’s endearingly snub-tailed pygmy shrews.
Here the ground falls swiftly to the sea, but around the next bend the cliffs give way to flat, pebbly plains of exactly the sort favoured by nesting seagulls.
“Careful, everyone! Look where you’re putting your feet.”
I don’t need the warning. I’m already scanning the ground, determined to be the first to spot a nest. I hold the much-coveted moniker of “best looker,” and have no wish to forfeit it.
The nests are nearly invisible unless you’re looking for them. Seagulls, it turns out, are not especially good homemakers. Their nests are little more than slight indentations in the sandy turf, occasionally lined with shells. The murky green, brown-splodged eggs blend in too, despite being slightly larger than a hen’s egg.
A nest with two eggs! It is almost under my feet before I see it. I exhale with relief.
All duly troop over to inspect. Lucy feigns nonchalance.
“You were lucky. There weren’t any where I was.”
She doesn’t fool me. I know she is furious, and my chest swells with pride.
“Look how much more pointed the eggs are than hen’s eggs. Who can tell me why?” My father doesn’t like to miss any educational opportunities. My heart sinks. I have no idea, but my sister’s smug expression tells me that she does.
“So that they don’t roll away.”
“Exactly! Think of the strong winds we had yesterday. See how the eggs are arranged with their points to the centre? It means that they’ll just roll in circles in the nest?”
But he has lost his audience. We have drifted off, eyes down. In future years a mink population explosion will sometimes mean we go home empty handed, but during these early years the nests of the black-headed gull are fairly thick on the ground. It isn’t long before Lucy, crowing triumphantly, gets the second nest. I get the third.
My father calls a halt. We perch on a convenient boulder, while he feeds dead grass into our soot-blackened storm kettle. He blows lovingly into the base to encourage the flames to take. There is no better noise than the crackle of burning twigs overlaid with the low whistle of water coming to the boil.
The powdered milk in my hot chocolate is not fully dissolved, and the drink contains a generous sprinkling of rust specks from the kettle, but it tastes like heaven. I am using a grubby finger to scoop up lumps of chocolate powder from the bottom of my white enamelled mug when Joss catches up with us. Her dainty feet—built for speed over short distances—are particularly ill-suited to this terrain. She collapses at the foot of our boulder and looks reproachfully up at us, before being distracted by the pungent delights of a long-dead crab.
I flop down to join her. The turf may appear to be a uniform, lifeless brown, but from ground level the patient viewer is treated to a colourful soap opera woven together from innumerable, interdependent storylines. A drop of mucilage balances gracefully on a magenta spike of the insectivorous sundew, poised to take advantage of the season’s first midges. It is too early for the miniature lady’s bloomers of the bell heather, which will later splash the hills in every shade from lilac to puce, but this year’s iridescent green buds are already inconveniencing the ants march along its ancient, wizened roots. I watch them use a burgundy-spotted orchid leaf as a bridge to navigate one such obstacle, before abandoning the heather entirely for a half-capsized stalk of yellow rattle. The ant’s final destination proves to be the hulking corpse of a burying beetle, marooned on its back with its five remaining legs swaying gently in the breeze.
“Where did Will get that egg from?” My mother sounds puzzled.
Sure enough, my fat, placid little buddha of a brother is clasping a gull’s egg tightly in both hands. He chuckles in delight. It turns out that he is actually sitting on a nest. A second egg, miraculously unscathed, nestles tightly against his bottom. With his yellow waterproof jacket, he himself bears more than a passing resemblance to a round, beaming chick.
By the time we set off again the wind has stiffened, sending an armada of clouds scuttling across the sun. It is cooler now and I am glad of my red bobble hat. Angry gusts rustle along the shore, intensifying the briny, slightly sweet smell of decaying seaweed. I can only just discern the warning cries of the gulls that soar and wheedle overhead.
We turn inland in search of shelter. I eye the water of an inland loch nervously. For my father, submersion in cold water is vital for the development of character and moral fibre. He regularly offers us “the option of a compulsory swim”. Today, however, he doesn’t insist; perhaps his earlier dip has temporarily cooled his passion. I am enormously relieved. There is such a thing as too much moral fibre.
Instead we continue to pick our way across the pathless interior of the island. This requires great concentration; innocent-looking heather clumps often conceal the blackest of bogs. The best tactics are as follows: If there is a rock available, step on the rock; if not, choose whatever piece of bog looks least promising. There is a neat inverse relationship between how solid a piece of turf appears and its actual footworthiness.
A cry from my sister demonstrates that she has not yet learnt this lesson. My father heads across to help her extract her leg from the vice-like suction of the black mud. This must be done with great care. The uninitiated will tend to point their toe to minimise resistance. To do so is fatal: Your foot will part company with your boot, which will vanish forever with a satisfying squelch. A sacrifice to the pagan bog gods.
I do not stop, but drift onwards, dancing from rock to root in an attempt to avoid my sister’s fate. The sun has come out again, and I am warm from the exercise. Pausing to fight with the salt-rusted zip of my jacket, I sense, rather than see, the shadow moving across the ground towards me.
I panic and try to get as low to the ground as possible. Great skuas—known in Shetland as bonxies—are the pirates of the islands. A cross between a gull and an eagle, they have sharp talons, wicked curved beaks, and a nasty habit of dive-bombing anything that strays into their territory. You cannot truly be said to have experienced the Hebrides until you have received at least one flesh wound from a disgruntled skua.
“A stick! GET A STICK!” My mother’s voice sounds terrifyingly distant.
Of course! How could I have forgotten? The chink in the skua’s armour is that their intelligence lags considerably behind their aggression. They always attack the highest point, which means that a prepared walker can simply hold a stick up in the air and walk unharmed through the densest of skua colonies.
I don’t have a stick, however, and this treeless island is unlikely to provide one. I improvise, pulling off my jacket and whirling it above my head. This is tiring, but it works; the skua seems content to lay siege to my sleeve until I stumble, exhausted, out of her territory. I expect sympathy. I expect heartfelt relief. But this is not what I get. Each and every one of my family members is laughing so hard that tears are rolling down their cheeks. Even Joss looks amused.
Shaken, and offended to my very core, I burst into tears. My father tries to pull me in for a hug, but I push him away. In doing so, I stumble straight into a particularly deep, black bog.
An hour, several pieces of Crisis Crumb, and some clean trousers later, I am snug under a blanket in my fish box and we are on the way home. The setting sun has turned the sky above me into an artist’s palette of periwinkle, apricot, and cerise, and and the conical sandstone peak of An Teallach—which I will soon develop the ritual of climbing each summer solstice—juts out a welcoming salute as we speed towards it. A happy exhaustion is beginning to dissolve the edges of my consciousness.
“… the look on her face… just too funny…”
I suspect that my parents are talking about me, but the stab of outrage is muted. I am too warm and comfortable to care. I give way to sleep, and to dreams of the orange-yolked eggs, dripping in butter, that await me when I wake up.
STORY IMAGES COURTESY THE AUTHOR