Here is one of three new short stories I’m adding to my small anthology Another Spring, which will be retitled Awakening and published soon. I hope you enjoy it, and if you’ve ever been to the Outer Hebrides it might provoke fond memories.
Matthew and Sophie were having a glorious week’s holiday. It was their first trip to the isle of Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides, and what a revelation it had been! That September the weather had really delivered, so far anyway, which was more than could be said for some of the Scottish holidays they’d had. Unseasonal and, frankly, atypical sunshine four days running had turned out to be an unexpected bonus, exceeding their modest expectations borne of past experience. They’d got in a fair amount of walking – although nothing really strenuous; they weren’t what you’d call really serious ramblers, not like A W Wainwright, whose pocket walking guides they swore by when they visited the Lake District.
They’d visited the stunningly beautiful, silver beaches of Traigh lar and Traigh Niosaboilt and climbed to admire the massive Macleod’s standing stone, and wondered how on earth the people in those misty far-off times had got it upright. They’d tramped the stalkers’ path through wild hills to gaze in awe at the dramatic precipice of Stron Ulladale. They’d driven further afield from their holiday cottage in Tarbert, north into Lewis to see the megalithic Callanish Standing Stones brooding atmospherically on their lonely moor then while they were in the area taken in Carloway Broch: part house, part castle, remarkably intact considering it dated from the Roman-era. Today they’d gone the whole hog: up to Stornaway town and then on again to the northern tip of the island, the windy Butt of Lewis with its wailing sea birds and red-brick Stephenson lighthouse standing reassuringly sentinel and dramatic against the vast blue Atlantic Ocean.
Now it was Wednesday evening already. Four days down, two to go. Tomorrow was Matthew’s birthday. September the fifteenth, nineteen sixty-eight. He would be twenty-six. They’d have a medium-length walk, another fairly local one at the Harris end of the island perhaps, then a celebratory dinner in the Harris Hotel later.
After they’d eaten and cleared away and washed up, they spread the map on the small scrubbed pine kitchen table and consulted the guide book again. They’d already done two of the suggested walks so the options left on Harris had been reduced. Heads together, they leafed through the book.
‘What about this?’ Matthew suggested, pointing at a page. ‘Looks as though it could be nice. The Postman’s Path, from Urgha to Rhenigidale. It’s off the road from Tarbert to Scalpay.’
They’d already spotted Rhenigidale in another guide to Harris; how it was such a remote and tiny settlement and obviously so unimportant (you couldn’t call it a village or barely even a hamlet, really) that no one had ever bothered to build a metalled road to it. The only access, apart from by sea, was a rough track through the desolate hills – the Postman’s Path. It could only ever have been navigated by pony, either the four-legged variety or Shanks’s. But it was recommended as a splendid ramble, all the same.
‘How far is it?’ Sophie wondered.
Matthew looked it up. ‘Well, from here in Talbert it’s about ten miles there and back.’
‘Too far,’ Sophie declared. ‘Especially as it might be quite rough walking.’ She picked up the other guide and found the entry for it. ‘And it says there’s nothing there except a handful of cottages. No school or kirk. No pub, or shop even. So there’d be nothing to slake our thirsts. I can’t see the point of going there, really.’
Matthew looked at the map again. ‘But we could shorten the distance by driving to Urgha and leaving the car at the beginning of the track. That’s only three-and-a-half miles, so no more than seven for the round trip. And so what that there’s no watering hole there? There usually isn’t when we’re tramping the wild hills, is there? Old Wainwright would never approve of such things, would he?’
‘Well, okay,’ that’s a bit more reasonable. We could take our own provisions and we’d do it in less than a day. The weather forecast isn’t all that promising for tomorrow. They say there’s rain coming in later on.’ Sophie sounded half-convinced, at least.
‘Right then, let’s do it! It does sound very nice,’ Matthew repeated. ‘And besides, it’ll be my birthday. I should get to choose!’
Sophie laughed. ‘Yeah, okay Birthday Boy of tomorrow. You win!’
The following morning dawned bright yet again though, with a determined September sun painting the treeless slopes sage green and the waters of East Loch Talbert ultramarine blue. They ate breakfast quickly and had their rucksacks filled with waterproofs, spare clothes, packed lunch, water and coffee and were out of the cottage by a quarter to nine. It was only a fifteen minute, sedate drive in their Hillman Imp to Urgha hamlet, then on a bit further to the parking area by the tranquil waters of Lochanan Lascadail and the fingerpost pointing the way along the track up onto the austere moors.
At first it was rough, boggy going. ‘Crikey,’ Sophie grumbled, ‘I hope it’s not going to be like this all the way!’
Matthew was quick to reassure. ‘Don’t worry, the book says it gets better. Just think though; the children from Rhenigidale have to walk this every day to the secondary school in Tarbert.’
‘Well they must be fit, that’s all I can say. And it must be miserable for them when the weather’s foul. Rather them than me!’ Sophie shivered at the thought.
Matthew laughed. ‘Yeah, and for the postman. Although he doesn’t do it every day, so the postmaster in the shop was telling me yesterday when I mentioned we were doing this. It’s only when there’s something to deliver, which might be only once a week. Obviously, really. There’s no point in coming all this way just for the sake of it. And if anyone in Rhenigidale wants to post anything, they either have to wait until the postman next visits, or if it’s urgent, they just have to take it to Tarbert themselves.’
‘Mm, it really is an amazingly cut-off place, that’s for sure,’ Sophie said. ‘You can’t imagine a place not having a road to it, can you? Not in 1968.’
The book was right about the terrain though. Soon the path became drier, harder underfoot as it steadily climbed through the rocky landscape. The pointed peak of Clisham, the highest mountain of Harris and looking a little Alpine in a brown sea of moorland, came into view off in the distance to the north-west. In an hour they were at the top of the stone cairn-marked pass, pausing to take in the majestic panorama of mountains to their left with lower versions ahead, and the vast sweep of the Atlantic on the right.
Sophie slipped her arm around Matthew’s waist, sliding it under his rucksack; sighed deeply. ‘You were right; it was worth coming, wasn’t it?’
‘Yeah. It’s so wild and empty and desolate, isn’t it? Like you imagine Iceland to be, perhaps.’
‘Anyway, it’s mostly downhill now; this is the hard bit done,’ Matthew announced cheerfully.
‘Yes, except that we’ve got to come back this way and climb up here again from the other side!’ Sophie reminded.
They began the descent, Rhenigidale-bound, soon reaching a parting of the ways. ‘We keep left,’ Matthew said, ‘the other track goes down to a deserted village.’ He checked the guidebook. ‘Called Molinginis. We could do a detour to take it in, but it’s a stiff climb back here afterwards and the book says it’s very rough going. And we haven’t really got time.’
‘No, we haven’t,’ Sophie agreed, firmly.
So they continued ahead, as the hillside became steeper and the path zigzagged to ease the gradient, down, exhilaratingly down to a pebbly beach at Loch Trolamaraig. Over a bridge at the back of the beach they began to climb again, although it was a gentle incline now as the track wound around the hillside, dramatically hugging the side of the loch. Another half an hour brought them to a final, spectacular traverse of beetling cliffs and they were almost there, gazing down at the handful of cottages that were Rhenigidale.
They sauntered into the settlement, feeling almost as if they were intruding, so intimate was the tiny scattering of buildings. Perhaps it was the lack of a public road; without one it felt almost like trespassing. Although there wasn’t a soul to be seen. They found a grassy area that didn’t seem to be private property and sat down to their picnic lunch. It was twelve-thirty. The sun looked as though it were about to call it a day, at least as far as casting a bright spell over the wild landscape were concerned. Dark clouds had been sneaking in from the west for the last twenty minutes, stalking the sun. In a minute or two they would capture it.
Sophie cast an anxious glance skywards. Cerulean blue was rapidly giving way to slate grey. ‘I think we should start heading back as soon as we’ve eaten, Matt. The weather looks as though it’s closing in.’
He looked up too. ‘Yes, you’re right. It’s come sooner than they said on the forecast.’ He stuffed the rest of his sandwich into his mouth and chewed urgently, draining his thermos flank top to wash it down. The mars bars for afters could be eaten as they walked. She quickly finished too, and they stowed flasks and lunch boxes in rucksacks, got up, donned them and began to retrace their steps.
The temperature was beginning to drop, and by the time they’d got back to the beach at Loch Trolamaraig they both felt decidedly chilly. They stopped and donned sweaters and their anoraks then began panting up the zigzag. The clouds were descending worryingly quickly. At this rate the apex of the pass could be swallowed up when they got there. But there was no option but to carry on. They struggled anxiously on for another thirty minutes to regain the forking of the ways at the descent to the deserted village. The visibility was dropping; already it was down to twenty yards at the most. They didn’t speak. Each was wrapped in their own personal cloak of unease, with chocolate bars forgotten. Matthew could feel Sophie’s silent accusation though. Why have you got me into this, you idiot?
They hastened breathlessly on, trying to keep panic at bay. It wasn’t so much cloud now as mist. It must be the drop in temperature. Now the visibility was barely ten yards. Matthew tried not to recall from the outward journey that the ground fell away steeply on their left. They must keep to the path at all costs. But it was becoming increasingly difficult to see it. He forced himself to keep calm. Just take it easy. No rash moves. If the worse comes to the worse we’ll just have to stop. It’s only September after all; not the middle of winter. We shouldn’t die of exposure if we have to spend the night up here.
The mist was thick now, a pale grey shroud obliterating everything three yards ahead. Surely the summit couldn’t be far away now? Matthew looked at his watch. Two-thirty. They’d been walking the return leg for an hour and a half. It would be another couple of hours until safety, at their present slow rate of progress.
Suddenly he found himself stumbling, out of control. The hard path had given way to rough tussocky grass that sloped away steeply. An icy hand of fear gripped his chest. He sat down abruptly, grasping frantically for hand holds.
‘Are you okay?’
Sophie’s voice came from behind and to his right. He tried to collect himself; steady his madly pounding heart. ‘Yeah. I lost the path.’
‘It’s over this way. For Christ’s sake, be careful!
Her hand appeared at his right shoulder. ‘Come on; give me your hand.’
He got shakily to his feet, taking it. Stepped gratefully back onto the track.
‘We can’t go on like this,’ Sophie wailed. She was losing control too. ‘Why the hell did we come?’
‘It can’t be far to the summit now. Once we get over it and begin to lose height, perhaps it’ll get clearer,’ Matthew assured, sounding more confident than he felt. He knew he was fooling neither Sophie nor himself.
They stumbled slowly, nervously on for another fifteen minutes. The obliteration was virtually complete now. They could still see their feet but almost nothing in front of them. They found themselves constantly zigzagging to keep away from the edge and stay on the track. And the path was still rising.
‘Why in God’s name did I let you talk me into this?’ Sophie grumbled; her voice shrill with alarm. ‘I don’t like this one little bit!’
‘I’m not keen either. Sorry. I didn’t think the weather would change so quickly,’ Matthew said, contritely.
‘We’re going to be hours getting back at this rate. Or what if we get totally lost?’ Sophie sounded to be on the verge of hysterical tears.
‘Well we could stop. Shall we do that?’
‘No! I’m cold already! We’re not exactly equipped for overnighting, are we? We haven’t got sleeping bags or food or anything. Let’s keep going.’
‘Well alright. We must find the summit soon. We’ve got to.’
‘Yeah, you’ve already said that and I didn’t believe it the first time.’ Sophie didn’t bother to hide her sarcasm.
Matthew thought it best to stay silent. They continued edging gingerly forward. He peered into the white opacity, desperately seeking the cairn. He thought his eyes were beginning to play tricks. A small patch of whiteness began to grow directly ahead, like a very unfocused moon. Well, ahead and upwards, it was, as if on where he supposed the track must be, if he could only see it. But he must keep looking at his feet; keep the track in view.
A minute later he looked up again and it was still there, but now larger. And then he heard it; noise. Faint, but distinct. Almost like footfalls. But it couldn’t be, could it? Surely not. No-one else would be crazy enough to be out in this pea-souper. He looked down. The ground was beginning to slope alarmingly to the left again. He corrected course. Looked up again. The whiteness was larger still and the noise louder. Yes, it definitely sounded like boots beating a rhythm on the stony track now.
And then there came a voice, calling.
They stopped, straining to hear.
It came again, louder now. ‘Hello.’ And then again, ‘hello.’
Astonished, Matthew called a cautious ‘hello?’
The voice came again, closer. It could only be a few yards away now. ‘Hello! Are ye there?’
And then a figure gradually took form, gaining substance as it emerged from the mist to stand before them. It was a man, tall, seemingly aged somewhere in his thirties, although his lined and weather-beaten face with piercing near-black eyes made it difficult to judge. He was carrying a hurricane lantern. He didn’t look dressed for a wet weather walk, with his tweed jacket and baggy corduroy trousers. There was a muffler at his throat and black hair stuck out scarecrow-like from beneath a flat cap.
He spoke. ‘Ah, here you are then.’
Matthew was puzzled. ‘Sorry?’
The man looked perplexed too, appearing not to understand. ‘I was sent out to look for ye.’
‘But no-one knows we’re here,’ Sophie joined in. ‘Well, apart from the landlord at the hotel. We told him we were coming here when we booked dinner for tonight.’
‘Aye,’ the man nodded. ‘He sent me to look for ye, as I know this walk like the back of my hand. Even when the ceò’s down.’
‘The what?’ Matthew and Sophie asked in unison.
The man smiled patiently. ‘Mist. When it’s misty.’
‘Does it often do this then?’ Sophie wondered.
‘Aye, this time of the year it does. A body could get really lost if they didn’t know the route. Or be away down the hillside and into the loch, if they weren’t too careful.’
Matthew laughed nervously. ‘Yes, I’ve nearly done that a couple of times. It was pretty scary.’
‘Aye, well you’re safe enough now. I’ll lead ye back all right; don’t ye worry none.’
‘This really is very kind of you,’ Sophie said. ‘We were beginning to think we’d be benighted.’
‘Och, don’t you worry about that now,’ the man said. ‘We couldn’t leave you out here. Just follow me.’
He turned and began striding into the mist, back the way he had come. The couple hurried to keep up with him. In five minutes they reached the reassuring, familiar summit cairn as their mysterious guide continued briskly onward, quite unperturbed by the lack of visibility. Matthew felt he should be making conversation. It seemed rude not to. ‘Er, by the way, we’re Matthew and Sophie. And you’re Mr . . .?’
‘Macleod. Well, we’re nearly all Macleods on Harris. Gordon Macleod.’
‘How do you do, Mr Macleod,’ Sophie said. ‘Thank you very much for this. We really were getting quite scared, to be honest.’
‘Dinna fret, lassie,’ their rescuer reassured, ‘ye’ll be quite safe now.’
‘Yes, well we’re very relieved you came out to look for us, all the same,’ Matthew reiterated.
Macleod obviously considered the subject closed. ‘So where are you folks from then?’
‘Bridgnorth – ’ Sophie began.
Their guide interrupted. ‘Shropshire; am I right?’
Matthew was impressed. ‘Yes! How did you know that? It’s not a very big place.’
‘Ah, there aren’t many towns in Britain I don’t know the location of. It goes with the job.’
‘Oh? What’s that?’
‘I’m the Tarbert postman. I cover most of Harris, as far up as Kintaravay. The boys up in Stornaway cover everything north of there.’
‘Crikey,’ Sophie said, ‘that’s a big area to cover.’
‘Ay, it is,’ Macleod agreed. ‘But the population isn’t huge. And most places only get visited once or twice a week. Like Reinigeadal. It gets it only once, as few souls live there. Sometimes there isn’t any mail at all for anyone the entire week and then it isn’t even that. There’s no point in me tramping all the way there for nothing. And if anyone there needs something posting, they either have to wait for the next time I visit or bring it away to Tarbert themselves.’
Matthew began to ask where he meant but then it dawned on him. He was using the Gaelic place name. ‘That’s amazing,’ he said. ‘It really is an incredibly remote place.’
‘Ay, I suppose it is,’ their pathfinder concurred, as if it had never really occurred to him before.
‘Yes, the man in the post office was telling us you don’t exactly do this walk every day,’ Sophie said.
‘No; as I say, there’s no point in doing it just for the sake of it. And besides, there’s the rest of south Harris to deliver to. Mind you, the rest of it’s easy, now the Post Office has provided me with a van. It’s a lot quicker than it used to be with the pony.’
‘And do you walk it in all weathers? Weather like today for instance? Surely not!’ Sophie couldn’t believe he would.
Macleod laughed. ‘Ay, well if I waited for only fine days the folks would never get their mail! Yes, I know the route blindfold, almost. I’ve been walking it since I was a wee boy of eight, before the war. I used to live over there until I was fourteen and we used to walk to school in Tarbert every day. Then when I left school at fourteen I came to live with my aunt and uncle who kept the Harris Hotel, because there was work there and my parents didn’t want me to do the fishing.’
With their amiable, pathfinding guide regaling them with stories of the far-flung Scottish isles and striding confidently ahead they made surprisingly rapid progress, and in an hour and a half they were back at the boggy stretch. It wasn’t far now; the road should appear soon. And sure enough, their little green Hillman loomed out of the mist less than fifteen minutes later.
At the roadside Macleod stopped, rubbing his left upper arm vigorously. Relieved, they walked past him and wriggled out of their rucksacks, dropping them by the front of the car. Matthew remembered his manners. ‘Let us give you a lift back to Tarbert, Mr Macleod,’ he said, turning back to their guide.
But he had disappeared, swallowed up again by the mist.
‘Where’s he gone?’ said Sophie.
‘Dunno. Perhaps he’s going back to Rhenigidale.’
‘No, surely not? He told us he doesn’t live there anymore. And he came out from Tarbert to find us, anyway.’
‘Yes, that’s true.’
‘Well I suppose he knows what he’s doing,’ Sophie said, not entirely convinced. Strange that he didn’t say goodbye though.’
‘Yeah,’ Matthew agreed, ‘it is a bit odd. He seemed so friendly.’
With Gordon Macleod’s kind assistance they’d got back to their holiday cottage by four-thirty. With a celebratory mug of tea accompanied by a generous wedge of cherry cake each, they relaxed; the anxiety of two hours ago rapidly dissipating, beginning to feel like nothing more than a bad dream. Then they each took a bath and put on their cleanest clothes (there’d be a pile of washing to do when they got back home as there was no washing machine of any sort in the cottage) ready for Matthew’s birthday treat. They had avoided the temptations of the Harris Hotel until now, saving their rapidly dwindling funds for one special splurge. There was still another overnight stop to allow for on the journey home, as it was much too great a distance to do in one day, so they couldn’t afford too much lavish spending. But your twenty-sixth birthday only came once in a lifetime, after all. And it was a pretty marvellous place in which to spend it.
The hotel wasn’t exactly heaving with patrons when they walked into the bar. There were two elderly men ensconced in a corner who looked the perfect caricature of locals with their doleful expressions, hand-knitted sweaters, pipes and curt nods of welcome. But then the holiday season was over, really. In the Outer Hebrides the window of reasonably guaranteed fine weather was only a month, or six weeks at the most, according to the tourist literature they’d eagerly devoured back at the beginning of the year, and as they’d discovered the hard way a few hours previously, it was certainly true. But they’d decided to leave their second week of holiday until fairly late partly because it was cheaper out of season and also because they wanted to celebrate Matthew’s birthday and the other big event of the year, their getting engaged, in a special place.
They ordered drinks at the bar and told the bartender they’d booked a meal, although by the look of things, it hardly seemed necessary. The bartender’s eyes lit up; they might be his only food customers that evening. He recommended the locally caught fish.
‘Thanks very much for sending Mr Macleod out to find us today,’ Matthew said. ‘We’d have been in fairly serious trouble otherwise. We’d begun to think we’d have a chilly night stranded out on the moor. The mist was a real pea souper.’
The bartender, a portly thirty-something with a red face and thick shock of black hair, looked puzzled. ‘Excuse me? I didn’t. Unless my father did. Did he know you were out walking?’
‘Well that’s what the man said. He said he’d been sent to look for us, and only your dad knew where we were going. And then after he’d brought us to the roadside he just seemed to vanish into thin air. Well, into the mist, anyway. We assumed he walked back to Rhenigidale.’
‘And that’s where were you walking, was it?’
‘Yes, the Postman’s Path. In fact it was the postman who came to find us.’
The bartender furrowed his brow. ‘Really? Is that what he said? What did you say he said his name was?’
‘Macleod.’ Matthew turned to Sophie. ‘That was what he said, wasn’t it, Soph?’
‘Well that’s very strange, because our postman is Gordon Morrison. Not Macleod.’
‘Oh; well perhaps we misheard,’ Sophie said. ‘We were so relieved to see him, we might have done.’
‘Aye, perhaps you did. Anyway, can I take your orders for your meals?’
They perused the menu and taking their host’s advice, chose locally-caught sea trout. The bartender, whose name was Hamish Macleod, he told them, suggested they might prefer to eat in the lounge bar rather than sit in awkward isolation in the otherwise empty dining room, so they took their drinks through there. There were intriguing old pictures on the walls: Harris and its people photographically frozen for posterity, some clearly many years ago. Pictures of Talbert harbour, of fishing boats and weather-beaten fishermen; of the whaling station a few miles north long since closed, apparently; of Harris Tweed weavers; of ancient astonishingly primitive ‘black houses;’ of regimented children formally posing outside the village school.
Matthew and Sophie examined them all at close range. They were fascinating. One particularly caught Sophie’s eye. It showed a young man looking very proud and serious wearing some sort of uniform, frowning at the camera.
‘Good grief,’ She exclaimed, ‘does he remind you of anyone?’
Matthew peered closer. ‘No, not really.’
‘Come on, Matt. Someone we’ve seen recently?’
‘Oh . . . you mean?’
‘Yes! Isn’t he quite a lot like that man we saw today? Our rescuer?’
‘Well, I suppose with this being such a small community, that’s not so surprising. Not a very big gene pool, perhaps!’
‘Mm; maybe so.’
They chose a table and sat, sipping their drinks. There’d be a celebratory bottle of wine too, to go with the food. Hamish appeared with cutlery and condiments to lay their table.
‘We were just saying,’ Matthew remarked, how much that man looked like our rescuer today.’
Hamish smiled. ‘Well, there aren’t all that many of us on Harris. We don’t exactly interbreed, but we’d have to if there were any fewer. Either that or import all the lassies of marriageable age! Although he doesn’t look very much Gordon the postman, if that’s who rescued you today. And besides, he died years ago, before the war. He was my second-cousin – my dad’s cousin. He was a postman too, funnily enough.’
Matthew stared. ‘Really?’
‘Aye. He was quite the local hero, the way he died. Strangely enough, he went out on a tourist-rescuing mission too. On the Postman’s Path. He found a group of people who had got lost over there, in the mist, and brought them back to safety. But just before they reached the road between here and Scalpay he collapsed with a heart attack and had to be rescued himself. Sadly he died, poor man. His heroic rescue made the Stornaway Gazette. Here’s the clipping of it, look.’
Hamish indicated it, a yellowing scrap of paper in its own frame next to the photograph of his second-cousin. TARBERT MAN IN GALLANT REINIGIADAL RESCUE THAT COST HIS OWN LIFE ran the melodramatic headline.
Matthew felt his blood run cold. He hardly dared to ask the question. He knew what the answer would be. ‘And . . . what was his name?’
Hamish smiled. ‘Well there’s another funny thing. His name was Gordon too. Gordon Macleod. It would be of course, him being on the male line of our family.’
He looked at the clipping. ‘Aye. It was about this time of the year.’ He paused, reading. ‘Hold on. What’s today’s date?’
‘September fifteenth,’ Sophie supplied.
‘Yes, that was the date it happened. The fifteenth of September, nineteen thirty-eight. Exactly thirty years ago.’
‘Oh good grief,’ Matthew and Sophie gasped, in unison.
Photo credit: mcalisterium.wordpress.com