On Maundy Thursday in 1911, Ruaridh waded out waist deep into the water. The Atlantic was a glaucous grey-green in the dim light before dawn and mist obscured the horizon. He dragged heavy legs through the swell with both arms raised above his head, careful not to spill a drop from either bowl. Once the water reached the bottom of his ribcage, his undershirt saturated, he stopped and turned to face the shore. Twenty pale faces peered back at him through fog. ‘I’ll begin now, shall I Angus?’
Angus, as the eldest man, was deferred to in all things. He raised his hand to signal aye. Ruaridh’s two children clung to their mother’s legs, silent and bemused. The adults began to repeat Gaelic words that had been passed down through the centuries, originating from the same primal desires and fears they all felt now. They spoke to the sea god Seonaidh. They asked him to ‘put weed in the drawing wave, to enrich the ground, to shower us with food.’ Ruaridh was cold to his bones, now. He poured out first porridge and then ale before rinsing the bowls in sea water. The crofters watched as their gift of appeasement floated in a swirling eddy before slowly sinking, subsumed by what lay beneath.
Mary stands at the sink, hands red raw and aching after a morning cutting peat blocks out of the ground. Through a small window she has a view over her patch of land. Beyond, miles away, the sea meets the sky in a hazy blue dividing line. She sees her children running in circles and hears their shrieking over the ever-present heartbeat of waves buffeting rock. The sea is benevolent today. It laps gently, unsure of itself. ‘Perhaps the boat will be able to land with supplies’, she thinks, ‘and I’ll have a pat of butter.’ The weather has been unsettled since the world turned to let summer slip away. The boat has not landed for weeks. Out of the corner of her eye she sees the shimmering outline of a man striding out of the sea. The children fall down and lie flat to the earth, giggling at their game, and the long grass bends to cover them.
This is Smirisary. The word is all hushed ‘S’ sounds hissed through teeth, like wind around the curved edges of a stone house. The corners have to be rounded here, where the wind blows in off the sea hard enough to knock sheep off their feet in winter. The walls are three feet thick and there is never a day without a fire in the hearth. There are eight squat dwellings and byres dotted about the coast. These manmade structures are incongruous in the wilderness, like ornate clocks discarded on a glacier. It’s impossible that they should be here, at the very edge of land and existence, yet here they are, pushed to the periphery by the Highland clearances a century ago. Mary’s one-room home is nestled close to the water’s edge.
In the afternoon, she walks down to where the jagged rocks rise up out of the water. On a good day, this constitutes the jetty. On a bad day, a man might die trying to land his craft here. The tide has left behind an offering: reams and reams of thick-cut seaweed. She gathers as much as she can cram into her creel, her eyes drawn to its oily glint. Her hands snatch slimy ribbons, as hard as cartilage. She will share this lifegiving stuff with everyone. They’ll spread it over their land and let it rot down, enriching the soil for crops.
After a time, she senses a change in the air. The way the wind picks up the hair at the nape of her neck before tossing it lightly in the other direction. The water seems volatile. It moves with urgency. The islands of Muck, Eigg and Rùm rise out of the deep like camel humps in the far distance and to their left, on the horizon, is a grey smudge. Bad weather.
Nightfall here is the lid coming down on a black velvet-lined box. It starts with a patter but soon rain pelts down in torrents onto the corrugated iron roof. Spray from monstrous waves batters the window. The air is thick with the roar of it. She wonders if it’s coming from within her brain. She opens her mouth but can’t hear herself scream.
Eventually the rain eases off. In her fitful dreams she is underwater, in a realm ruled by Seonaidh. Vertical streamers of ruffled seaweed sway gently near the surface, moved by an ebb current which catches her cotton nightgown and twists it around her calves. The sun’s rays reach down to touch her and everything she sees glows cornflower blue. There is no sound save the blood rushing around her ears. She feels at peace. Two seals appear, black eyes shining, and chase each other in circles around her. When they dart down into the gloom, she follows.
She wakes. Anguish washes over her. Swallows her whole. She remembers the storm of 1912 and how quickly it came on. How Ruaridh had lifted the girls, both light as a feather, into the boat to go fishing. How the surface of the sea had transformed without warning in the course of an afternoon and how the white-crested waves seemed to move out of vengeance. How her fellow crofters laid out the pallid bodies of her husband and two girls in the long grass, fragments of boat washing onto the jetty. How Angus lead the line of pallbearers as they wended their way along the coastal path to Smirisary’s ancient cemetery, and the sunset flared pink as they lowered them down.
A creel full of seaweed sits innocuously in the corner of the room, illuminated by a sliver of sunshine. Outside, a gannet bobs on the merest hint of a swell. The pitiless ocean is serene and beautiful.
Kate MacCarthy is a UK-based writer whose interests include the natural world, art and Early Modern history.