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.