I hacked off the gannet’s head with my penknife, which turned out to be one of those jobs you wish you’d never started. It was a Swiss Army knife, with a blade only two inches long, and a diving gannet can enter the water at ninety miles an hour: they have strong necks. It was early morning, low tide, and I was glad to have the beach to myself. When the head was at last free, I rolled the body with my foot. It was light and dense at once, still with much of its plumage, but the white breast was dirty and the black-tipped wings bedraggled. No doubt it was an Ailsa Craig gannet, because it was washed up on the shore on Arran. I left the body among the dried wrack and shell-grit, and took the head home in my bag.
It was the skull I wanted, a sculptural form, the sightless sockets and that great piercing bill. I could picture it mounted in a glass box, and hung on the wall; or, better, displayed on the low table here in my study. Phil, my husband, had made the table from a huge piece of oak he hauled out of the firth. Two hefty, deeply weathered supports were each joined with six through-tenons to the single board of the top. The top is a slab an inch and a quarter thick, but light-coloured. A bird’s skull would sit well on such solid oak. Phil reckons it must have been a pier stanchion, before it came journeying downriver to wash up among the reeds. It was so big he couldn’t lift it; he had to tie it up and wait for the incoming tide, then float it on a rope behind him to the slipway. There, he sawed it into three, before he could get it home piece by piece in a rucksack. ‘Like carrying a fridge,’ he said.
I put the gannet’s head in a jar in the outhouse, and poured over it a solution of caustic soda. When we were kids, we used to shine pennies with HP Sauce or Coca-Cola. I had a notion that caustic soda would dissolve the skin and flesh, but leave the bones intact. Nothing happened. I stirred the mess daily with a stick, but the gannet bobbed up to glare at me from the pot, the few feathers still adhering to the skin of its skull. Eventually the bones didn’t clean but softened, and the liquid turned a foul brown-green and then, gagging, I tipped the lot into a hole in the flowerbed.
But I had Phil’s table and, on it, two white sticks I’d found at the east end of Loch Avich. There were thousands of these irresistible white sticks washed up there. They weren’t straight like magic wands or conductors’ batons, but sinuous, like eels. I’d chosen two, and left a whole strand of them behind. According to Norse mythology, the first woman and first man were fashioned from two sticks of ash washed up on a strand, and I remember thinking of that as I ploutered about on the loch’s shore, holding up this stick and then that to the evening light, and deciding between them.
A gannet’s skull would be good to have. Or a whaup’s. But bird skulls are rare to find. I daresay most sea-birds die at sea, and their weightless bones are pulverised by the water or the wind. Once, on a flawless sandy beach in Donegal, I found five silver fishes, freshly abandoned by a wave, glittering and bright as knives presented in a canteen.
The yacht Annag was riding at anchor in the Sound of Shillay. The Sound separates two of the Monach Isles, Shillay itself and Ceann Iar, and although the Sound was sheltered from the wind, the yacht was rolling, and I was climbing over her side, clinging to what I’d learned to call the shrouds.
We – Martin, Tim and I – hadn’t intended to come here. In truth, I’d never heard of the Monach Isles before, but I lowered myself down the red plastic ladder towards the inflatable. We’d hoped to reach St Kilda, but, as the skipper noted gruffly, nothing’s guaranteed in this life. He was an auk-shaped man called Donald Wilkie. The wind persisted too much in the east for St Kilda, and he was going to anchor here for the day. Meanwhile, we could go ashore if we wanted to, and see what tomorrow brought.
From their haul-out on the rocks ahead, grey seals watched our approach. Sometimes on the yacht, during a brief lull in the wind, we had heard them singing their sad whoops, but now we could barely hear ourselves speak above the inflatable’s engine. The seals seemed not to mind our coming, but as we neared, a party of eider drakes put out into the waves. We rode so low in the water that the island looked as though it were being pumped up, swelling and assuming what shape it had. An uninhabited island ringed with dunes and pale sands. When we reached the shore, Donald used the thrust of the engine to hold the boat against the rocks just long enough for us to clamber out, find our footing and struggle up onto the grass.
I’d never set foot in a yacht before this trip, never sailed the sea in anything smaller than a CalMac ferry, never approached land from the sea without a harbour and a town and all the panoply of human activity – stacked creels, diesel fumes, a church on a hill with a fish-shaped weather-vane. I’d never understood you can draw a straight line across the ocean and call it a course. Ceann Iar is uninhabited, by people that is, but birds were breeding here, the air was worked by oyster-catchers, fulmars, terns; and there were many rabbits, and sheep.
When we were all three ashore, Donald turned the tender and headed back over the waves to his yacht. I stood for a few minutes, following his progress, letting the movement of the sea settle in my ears. Martin and Tim were taking off their red life-jackets and zipping them round the horizontal bars of a sheep fank.
The water we’d crossed was ink-blue, flecked with white, but calmer there in the Sound than out in open water. Beyond the Sound, waves barged westward. In this place of water and horizons and flat green islands, there was only one vertical line: Shillay lighthouse. Rain beat at my left side, and wind buffeted me, as I raised the binoculars and looked across the channel. Something had disturbed a colony of Arctic terns at the foot of the lighthouse. The birds moved in the wind in and out and around each other, but the gantry round the light, a hundred feet higher – that was a ravens’ place. A pair were hanging blackly in the wind, against the grey sky. When I lowered the glasses, the yacht seemed terribly small between the two islands, with its white mast and shrouds; small, and fragile as the skull of a bird.
My two companions hadn’t met before this trip, but both happened to be sound recordists. They’d brought microphones, tape recorders and binoculars in waterproof bags. They were alert to bird-cries, waves sucking on rocks, a rope frittering against a mast. Sometimes I’d notice them catch each other’s eye, give a complicit smile, and I’d wonder what I’d missed.
Beside the sheep fanks was the shepherds’ bothy, no bigger than an allotment shed, and beside that lay three huge round floats like Spacehoppers. The rain was turning heavy now, but we began walking over the machair, inland, into the wind. Few flowers bloomed under our feet, just tiny yellow sea pansies. We’d no plan but to spend a few hours exploring until, at a pre-arranged time, we returned to the landing place to be collected. But the air was full of birds.
Tim knew most about them. ‘What are those?’ I could ask of a flight of shore birds. ‘Dunlin, a few turnstones,’ he’d call back. Once I looked back to see him on bended knee, in his blue cagoule, looking through binoculars at the waves. ‘Great northern divers – in summer plumage!’ He could tell a bird by a mark, a piped note, an attitude in the air. It was he who saw in a grassy rut the handful of fluff that was a lapwing chick while its parents flipped in the air overhead, he who pointed out the way the starlings launched themselves mob-handed into the wind.
We walked between dunes that were bound by bent-grass. The island is so low that, from the top of the dunes, we could survey it all, a couple of miles of machair, marshy sumps, sandy hillocks, dunes. Once, Martin grabbed me mid-step, and once I did the same for him, because what had seemed mere pebbles had snapped into focus as three olive-green eggs cupped in eiderdown. The eggs were covered in greenish shit, to deter maurauders. More than once we crunched on rabbit bones among the sharp grass. There was a lamb, very new, with its stomach opened by buzzards. But as one or the other of us stopped to check something in the binoculars, or turn over some bit of flotsam with a foot, we each took to walking alone, each into the wind.
On Donald’s sea-charts, Ceann Iar appears less like a rounded treasure island than a flayed skin. Ceann Iar means West Head, and it’s joined at low tide to the isle called Stockay, and thence to its eastern twin, Ceann Ear. These plus Shillay and some smaller rocks make up the group called the Monachs. There used to be plenty of people here, crofters and cottars who kept black cows, and the islands were famed for their fertility, but now there is no one left. I worked my way down to a southern-facing bay and trudged along the tide line, where there would be no danger of standing on nests. Midway down the pale sand, where the retreating tide had left it, lay a band of orange weed, thick ribbons, like tagliatelli. Sometimes, as I walked, I’d flush a flock of feeding shorebirds, dunlin or turnstones. I loved the moment when, after they’d all risen together, they all banked at once, like when you pull the string in a Venetian blind.
What do we imagine of uninhabited Hebridean islands? Windswept, we might say, remote, all vast skies and seascapes, machair and tiny yellow flowers. From where I stood on the beach, a long finger of rock ran out into the sea, waves broke against it and there were seals hauled out there, too. You could tell them from the rocks only by the sheen and shape of their bodies. These were grey seals, with Roman noses. They slump on the rocks, and don’t bend themselves up at each end as common seals do. ‘Like black bananas,’ the B&B lady had said on Berneray, the night before we sailed.
A stone caught my eye, and I bent to pick it up. It was a perfect sphere of white quartz that fitted the palm of my hand, an orb. I’ll keep that, I thought, and, in the moment it had taken me to admire it and slip it into my bag, all the seals had slithered from their rocks into the water. Two dozen heads, two dozen pairs of dark eyes were looking at me, the human figure on the wide shore. Then, on a whim, they all dived, leaving only splashes, as though a handful of pebbles had been thrown into a pond.
Walking in this way in the rain, head down into the rain and wind, I didn’t see the whale until I was next to it. It didn’t startle me, it was too big and too dead to be startling. My body was still carrying the rocking motion of the yacht, which feels a bit like shock, or like being drunk but still able to think. My mind continued its rocking and announced: ‘Oh, it’s a whale. A small whale.’ I was standing by the head. The head came up to my knees. I looked up onto the dunes, scanned the length of the long curved beach, and had one of the others been in sight I’d have called, but no one was there.
It must have been on the shore a month or two, the whale, because it was half-blanketed in the orange weed. The body was rolled in the motion of a wave, and there was one dark orifice, like a cave, in its mouldering head, perhaps an eye socket. It was the heaviest creature I have ever seen, dead and out of the water’s buoyancy, a massive failure. I thought about touching it, with just one finger, furtively, the way a gull pecks, and I wish now I had, because I’ve never touched a whale and probably won’t get the chance again. The skin looked almost like black leatherette. The biggest leatherette sofa you can imagine, washed up on an empty shore. There was no smell, or if there was it was lost to the wind and rain. But the sand around the whale was marked with soft triangles – the webbed feet of herring gulls. It wasn’t bloody where they had managed to peck through the skin, but the tissue had the foamy texture of worm-rotten wood. Partly because I didn’t know quite what to do with myself – some gesture seemed required and I didn’t know what – I slowly paced it out. Twenty-five feet or so, a Minke perhaps. As the rain fell on me and the whale, and the surf roared, I stood wondering whether it had stranded and died here, or been washed up dead in a storm.
A shout, a wave, a lean figure in blue and green waterproofs. Martin was hailing me from a sand dune a few hundred yards away. ‘Look,’ he said. ‘I’ve found a plane – a bit of a plane. Come and see.’
Together we slithered down into a cleft between dunes, and then he was bending over a shapely piece of metal, his long back damp with rain. I couldn’t see his face for the side of his hood, but he was calling back to me: ‘See – the ailerons still work!’ The wind knocked me, so I couldn’t quite make out what he was doing, but he seemed to be pulling at a wire sticking out of the sand, and a little metal flap waggled up and down obligingly. Then he stood and swept his arm. ‘Can you believe all this plastic – all these floats – bottles. All this plastic rope!’
The cleavages between the sand dunes, where the wind and waves had driven it, were choked with plastic. There were hundreds of marker-buoys, ripped from their creels. The same storms that lobbed rocks two hundred yards inland had strewn floats and bottles and plastic crates. Among the dunes and bent-grass, at the mouths of rabbit holes, trapped at the high-tide line in every cove were tangles of rope and plastic bottles, shoes and aerosol cans.
They had their own fascination, the shampoo and milk cartons, the toilet-cleaner bottles we could turn over with our feet. Though the colours were faded and the labels long gone, we knew their shapes, had seen them ranked in supermarkets and hardware stores. Toilet brushes, masking tape, training shoes, orange polypropylene net. Weeks later, in a sunlit street café in Edinburgh, Donald explained the currents to me, moving his huge hands over the table as if his coffee cup were the island. This shore caught it. At the tideline of every inlet, where the dunlin foraged and fulmars rested, were seals’ vertebrae and whale-bones, driftwood and plastic garbage. I wonder now if we shouldn’t have been more concerned about the plane. A plane had crashed, sometime, and we were unconcerned. Little wonder, when there were winds and currents strong enough to flense whales and scatter their bones across the machair. Here in the rain, with the rotting whale and wheeling birds, the plastic floats and turquoise rope, the seal skins, driftwood and rabbit skulls, a crashed plane didn’t seem untoward. If a whale, why not an aeroplane, if a lamb, why not a training shoe? Here was a baby’s yellow bathtime duck, and here the severed head of a doll. The doll still had tufts of hair, and if you tilted her, she blinked her eyes in surprise.
We were soaked, the wind was climbing and we’d had enough of Ceann Iar. It was a deathly place, this island, and it was nearly time for Donald to return in the tender and take us back to the yacht.
We found the door to the plane on the northern side of the island. Just the door, insulated with four inches of yellowish foam. Blubber, if you like. It, too, was cast up between dunes. Then I realised what the whale had reminded me of, a connection that had been trying to forge in my mind – the black dense head. It was the awful image of the plane blown up over Lockerbie, its cockpit thumped in a field, out of its element, deadweight, an inspectable grandeur. Near the door, Martin found a whale’s scapula, a flat rounded triangle of bone, and triumphantly he held it on his head; he looked like one of those Tibetan monks with the yellow crests on their hats. I slithered down a dune to retrieve a whale’s vertebra from a tussock. The hole through which the nerves had passed sheltered some yellow sea-pansies.
This is what we chose to take away from Ceann Iar: a bleached whale’s scapula, not the door of a plane; an orb of quartz, not a doll’s head. As for Tim, he’d picked up a two-foot long plastic duck, which he carried under his arm. So we walked the mile back to the sheep-pens, the rain at our backs. The thin pencil of the lighthouse was our waysign. A long time ago, there used to be a monastery on these islands, where the lighthouse stands; a convent, too. (Monach means ‘place of the monks’.) To the seals who watched from the water, we must have looked less like monks than cheapskate Magi, the three of us in waterproofs, one behind the other, bearing these peculiar things.
Below-decks on the yacht, it was wood-lined and dark and crowded, like a Victorian parlour. There was a foldaway dining-table, and above it, a brass lamp tied with elastic that nonetheless swung as the boat rocked. The barometer slid against the wall. We spent the rest of the afternoon sitting on narrow benches around the table, or up under the spray-hood, reading or watching the sea. Donald showed me how the boat’s equipment worked, the autopilot and GPS. Two small computer screens were angled above the chart-desk, but the charts themselves, the ones he favoured, were Victorian. He’d had to go especially to the National Library in Edinburgh to get copies. To make the charts, he said, two men had had to put out in a rowing boat and row – ‘row, mind you’ – up and down in straight lines over the open sea. Every cable – that is, every tenth of a mile – they lowered a lead on a line, and discovered both the depth in fathoms and what composed the sea bed – sand or gravel or rock. All the results were noted on the chart, in a meticulous and precise script. The sea was a tight grid of readings, the land bare. With a magnifying glass we found the tiny anchor that marked the spot where we lay.
As the afternoon passed, the wind mounted. Every so often the radio fizzed and Stornoway coastguard, in beautiful and courteous tones, alerted ‘all stations, all stations’, and issued another gale warning. Force 7 through 8, ‘soon’ she said, or ‘imminent’. By about five o’clock, it was up to Severe Gale Force 9, veering south-east. We groaned, or laughed. Donald clamped his hand to his forehead. Soon, imminently, the wind, already moaning through the rigging, raised its pitch. The sound-men began reaching for their tape recorders. Suddenly, an alarm bleeped above the chart desk. ‘We’re dragging anchor,’ Donald said. ‘I know a better anchorage for such a wind, on the other side of the island. After we’ve eaten, we’ll move.’ We drove the yacht carefully into a bay, where a pale beach was backed by dunes. The echo-sounder showed only seven feet of depth; leaning over the guard rail, we could see the sand ghostly-green through the water. ‘How much depth?’ Donald shouted from the wheel. He seemed to prefer our human judgment to the echo-sounder. ‘How much now?’ We moved towards shore, the comfort of land.
It had been inhabited, once. A single abandoned house stood at the westernmost end of the bay. It had no roof, and its twin gables rose against the grey sky as if surrendering. It drew the eye, as the lighthouse had. Maybe there’s something instinctive in us, that we’re drawn to human habitation, and can’t resist a ruin, the way newborn babies respond to a crude drawing of a face. These once inhabited places play a different air from the uninhabited: they suggest the lost past, the lost Eden; not the Utopia to come. Under the spray-hood, we were out of the wind, and could sit as the boat turned, listening to the wind. We were only two hundred yards off shore. ‘You see? Only two hundred yards out and it’s rolling like this. Imagine what it’s like on the open water,’ Donald insisted, as though we didn’t believe him. ‘But it’s a lee shore, you realise that? Not ideal, but the wind’s forecast to veer to south, then it’ll be OK. Till then, though, if the anchor dragged or the chain snapped we’d be driven onshore. Land doesn’t mean safety, to a mariner. Land means danger. What you want is to be swept out to sea.’
All night the wind shrieked in the rigging, but it was easy to sleep, cradled in the rocking boat. In the morning, with the boat still riding tense in the wind, Donald announced that we wouldn’t be moving. The lamp swung, the barometer slid back and forth against the wall. It was better to be out in the cockpit, watching the wind-flecked grey sea, and the birds. A shag issued up from the water. Gannets, that class act, banked now low across the surface, now gaining height to dive, closing their immense black-tipped wings against the grey sky. In certain lights, only the wing-tips would show, in others, the gleam of the diving back, and a spout of water. Two or three times we witnessed skua attacks, a dark shape that twisted down among terns then lifted away over the dunes. By mid-morning, the sky had begun to clear, the colours revealing themselves: blue for the sky and water. The islands were green dunes, ringed with palest cream sand.
The last crofters had left the largest island, Ceann Ear, in the 1940s. Some houses still stand, on the eastern side of the island, looking over the sea to the low hills of North Uist. There is a school, and the walls of some old tumbledown black houses, where nettles and silverweed grow. Fulmars nest in their corners now, and there are nests of cheeping starlings in the crannies of the stonework. We had come ashore again, this time to Ceann Ear, but though the wind was still restless and strong, it had stopped raining, and the world again seemed habitable. There was the constant muffled roar of surf. This island seemed a place of life compared to yesterday’s, but still we offered the prize of a Mars Bar to the finder of the first carcass. At the top of the beach, on the crest of the ramp of sea-worn stones, lay a stranded lobster creel, and beside it a mottled grey seal-pup, who tilted back its head and crooned. A pace away an eider-duck sat tight on her nest between a few stones. She faced into the wind, her back rose softly as she breathed, her plumage was rippled with the same grey as the rocks around her, the lichen and fawn-coloured grass. The Mars Bar went to Tim, whom I found trying to break the leg off a rotting herring gull, which had crash-landed into a dune. The gull had been ringed, and he wanted the ring to send back to the British Museum. I offered him my Swiss Army knife, saying: ‘You can take the head off a gannet with this.’
The island is a 21st-century midden of aerosols and plastic bottles. It seemed that what we valued enough to take home, the orb of quartz, the whale bones, weren’t the things that endured, but those that had been transformed by death or weather. Or just plain useful – Donald saw lasting value in his Victorian charts. ‘No one now would put such work into the task,’ he said. The lighthouse had been disused for fifty years, but it still stood against all weather, pointlessly. I wondered if it’s still possible to value that which endures, when we have invented plastic, and the doll’s head with her tufts of hair and rolling eyes may well persist after our own have cleaned back down to bone.
It was Martin who gave me the gannet’s skull. We had moved to the island of Scarp, and though he had found the bird bones on Ceann Iar, he chose this moment to produce them, with mock-ceremony, from the inner pocket of his jacket. Mock-ceremony, because – the others were laughing – we had just been watching an Arctic tern bring gifts of food to his intended, who sat disdainfully on a rock. With the air of a magician Martin produced first a leg bone, then another, then a tiny white complex affair which, held in a certain way, was exactly the shape of the purple orchid flowers we’d found on the hill that afternoon. Last, he handed me the skull. In truth, it was not a whole skull, but the lower mandible, bleached clean. I was laughing, too, but managed to thank him gravely; and at once, before they got broken, I made an ossuary of the plastic Tupperware box in which I kept my tobacco.
‘How did you know I wanted one?’ I asked.
‘You told me,’ he said. ‘On Ceann Iar.’
On the table made of the washed up pier-stanchion are two pale sticks, like eels, or the first man and the first woman. There’s the gannet’s shank, its tiny orchid-shaped bone, and the whale’s vertebra. These are in my study. Tim had celebrated his birthday on the yacht, and as a present I’d given him the orb of quartz. The bits of aeroplane, traffic cone and whale will still be on the shore on the Monach Islands. Holding the gannet’s beak up to the window-light, I’ve just noticed a tiny bit of feather still clinging to the bone. I wish now I’d brought home the doll’s head, too. I’d have put her on a corner of my desk like a paper-weight, with her mad tufts of hair and those sea-blue blinking eyes.