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Fire Island – Scottish Review of Books
by Christian McEwen

Fire Island

March 27, 2013 | by Christian McEwen

In the late 1930s, just before the outbreak of the Second World War, Frank Fraser Darling moved to the tiny Scottish island of Tanera Mor. He came as a naturalist, intending to study seals and birds, and stayed on, for several hard-bitten years, to transform a ramshackle ruin into a thriving and productive farm. His was an urgent, sinewy, masculine enterprise, dependent, as so often, on the (largely) unsung labour of his devoted wife. But held in the daily mesh of action and practicality was another catch entirely: quiet epiphanies of looking and deep listening, the fruit less of mindfulness than of what some have called ‘placefulness’ – the blue-grey/blue-green wisdom given by Tanera itself.

Here, for example, in his memoir, Island Farm, he describes his pleasure in the evening milking:

I loved drawing milk through my fingers and hearing the sound of it piercing the mounting foam in crock or pail…There was the distant calling of the barnacle geese newly come to this green point, there were the near sounds of rough tongues licking backs on which the hair was growing long for the winter, of diligent muzzles plucking the grass, and if they were not grazing I would hear the soft rhythmic cudding of the cattle, together with the comfortable rumblings of their vast bellies.

At such times, he said, ‘with the sea plashing on either side and the mountains darkening into the night, milking the little black cow was a moment of joy in [the] day and war was forgotten.’ He was entirely given over to the immediate task, and at the same time, entirely focused – listening out – delicately appreciative of each island sound.

If you were to look for Tanera Mor on the map, you’d find it on the north-west coast, not far from Ullapool. It is the largest of the so-called Summer Isles, originally used by mainland crofters as summer grazing for their cattle, and later as winter grazing for their lambs. It is composed of red Torridonian sandstone, with a thin covering of peat: some 770 acres of tussocky hillside, birch and alder woods, high cliffs, and bright-eyed lochans. I came there first in 2010, and have returned several times since, teaching a series of workshops with the local artist Jan Kilpatrick. Whether or not it is true that, as  the sociologists like to say, ‘cognition is place specific’—meaning that certain thoughts are only possible in certain places – there’s no doubt that Tanera has had a powerful effect on my own internal weather.

For years now, I have lived in the United States – first in Berkeley, California, then in New York City, most recently in a little college town in Massachusetts. Returning to Scotland after so long away has, at times, an aching potency, which Tanera makes only more acute. When I first arrive, I like to take things slowly: looking, listening, pausing, breathing in. I take a long meandering walk, resting for twenty minutes on a sun-warmed rock, looking out across the body of the island. I glance down at the tough grass, seeded with brilliant wildflowers: the white and lavender and egg-yolk yellow of the little flower called eyebright, the creamy fronds of meadowsweet, the concentrated purple of knapweed or thistle, the varied yellows of coltsfoot, dandelion and tormentil, the soft puffs of white and crimson that mean clover.

Each visit fills me with the same impossible impulse – the desire to count and catalogue these island beauties, to accumulate not stones or shells or pressed dried flowers, but memories, noticings. And yet that small-scale focus is constantly being disrupted, my eye moving out from Tanera itself to the tremendous frieze of mountains on the Scottish mainland, now radiantly visible, now obscured. Stac Pollaidh, Cul Beag, Cul Mor; Ben Mor Coigeach; the Fiddler: one looks like a shifting family of mastodons (hence the official adjective, ‘pachydermatous’); another like a plum-pudding; the third is as sharply symmetrical as a child’s toy triangle. 

Like the Summer Isles, these mountains are composed of mixed Torridonian sandstone, set on a bed of gray Lewisian gneiss: at three billion years, among the oldest rocks on earth. Each has been submerged deep underwater; buried under layers of miles-deep sandstone; buffed and scored by glaciers. Each has its own inimitable character, its own compacted history. One of the joys of Tanera is the sheer astonishment of that geology, the marvel of its daily company.  ‘What do I know when I am in this place,’ asks Robert Macfarlane in his book, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, ‘that I know  nowhere else?’ What calls to me? Where do I pay attention? On Tanera, there are days when time itself seems visible, from those ancient blue-grey presences across the water to the shrill green of a single fallen leaf.

Meanwhile, I continue to explore the island, tramping up the steep track from the harbour, snuffing on the wind that raw, sweet scent: heather and honeysuckle and bog-myrtle, coffee and engine oil, the acrid tang of someone’s cigarette. I notice the smooth green pelt of the hillside, the splotches of rusty lichen, the clouds shifting to a wide fan overhead. I feel the squelch of peaty water through the straps of my sandals, the sudden flutter of a meadow-pippet as she springs up underfoot. I go swimming at Mol Mor, the largest beach on the island, where the rocks are big and round and sleek with emerald weed, and the water is pure Aegean turquoise (though searingly, bitingly, breathlessly cold).

Another day, I go swimming off the pier, edging down the rusty barnacled steps into the dark water, afraid of that cold, afraid of cramp, afraid for a while that I won’t make it back, repeating like a mantra with each stroke, ‘Swimming to Scotland, swimming back to Scotland – ’ I ‘taste’ Scotland in that icy water, in the leafy dulse growing wild along the shore, and in every mouthful of salt sea wind. I taste it too each evening, as we settle down to dinner – haggis and venison from the mainland, fresh berries and courgettes and onions from a Tanera garden – the spirit of the land becoming energy and sustenance, taking on, however briefly, my own corporeal form. Between times, I listen out in ever-widening circles, starting with the soft whoosh of my own breath, and the shuffle of wind in the tall clumps of fern, noticing how differently it moves through the rowans and the aspen trees, the flapping plastic bin-bags, or my own unbuttoned mackintosh. In his book, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace, the Irish writer John O’Donohue wrote that landscape ‘is always in conversation with itself.’ Walking by the shore, I hear that muffled monologue in the low flop of the waves, the grind of stones on the shingle, the white gulls swooping and squabbling overhead.

The ancient Mesopotamians saw birds as sacred because their footprints so resembled their own cuneiform script. More recently, ‘the language of the birds’ has been seen by alchemists as the gateway to all mystery, all hidden wisdom. What Fraser Darling would have made of this, I’ve no idea. He was of course a professional ornithologist, alert to the ‘seething toiling birdlife’ on the island. Clearly he had an excellent ear, well able to distinguish the ‘loud song of the island wrens, the thin pi-i-i-i of tysties, the skirl of a guillemot, the cooing of eiders, and the purity of a thrush’s song.’ He remarked too, with his own brand of wry amusement, on the young gulls whose ‘unmusical voice’ was ‘like an un-oiled door-hinge.’

But there was something of the dreamer and the mystic to him too, and the notion of a deeper knowing, a deeper kind of listening, would, I think, have puzzled and intrigued him. He was fascinated by the island: not just its natural history and geology, but its (far more hidden) human story too. Who used to live here? What had their lives been like? And the lives of their ancestors? During his years on Tanera, he conducted unofficial oral histories, recording local legends and etymologies, along with a smattering of history and archaeology, in an effort to  reconstruct a living narrative.

Without that work, it would be difficult to interpret Tanera’s human past, at least beyond the most immediate impressions. On my first visit, I saw ruined crofts still standing on the ridge above the pier, their rubbly walls lost in a tangle of ferns and nettles and wild iris. Young trees were sprouting from the space beside the hearth, and moss grew soft over the fallen stones. I took photographs of those crofts, and of the herring-curing station, further down the coast at Tigh an Quay. Tall and lean, it is an imposing edifice even now, its walls harled white with shell-sand and lime mortar, its empty windows cutting out clear rectangles of blue or cloudy sky. An old phone-booth stands to one side, its red paint long since faded, its door tied shut with a piece of turquoise twine. I took pictures of that too, and of the ‘new’ quay built by the Fraser Darlings in the long summers of the war, its red and grey and sandy-coloured rocks blotched bright with orange lichen.

By then I already knew some of the more recent history: herring, emigration, sheep, the Highland Clearances. But I had no idea how to make sense of what I saw. It took several readings of Island Farm, and some further research too, before I began to understand just how long – and how completely – Tanera had been inhabited. It is a tiny piece of territory, not more than a mile and a half in length. But reaching back across the years, I saw it thronged with invisible human presences.

Not much is known of Tanera’s ancient past, of the people who first lived there, or precisely when. Standing on the hillside, looking out, I imagine small bands of fisher-gatherers, searching for fish and shellfish along the shore, raiding the cliffs for prized sea-gulls’ eggs, and hunting seals and otters for their meat and skins. I picture the early Neolithic farmers, and later still, the Celts and then the Picts, sowing the machair with barley and wild oats, and grazing their cattle on the rugged pastures. By the time the Vikings arrived, towards the end of the eighth century, it seems likely that it already possessed a considerable year-round settlement. Hawrarymoir, those old marauders called it, ‘the island of the haven,’ in honour of its magnificent horse-shoe-shaped Anchorage.

Frank Fraser Darling preferred to believe that the name had an earlier (Celtic) derivation, and meant ‘island of fire.’ He noticed that much of the peat had been scraped from the top of Meall Mor, its highest point, which may well have served as a beacon up and down the coast. Certainly such a beacon would have had its uses on those long dark winter nights, when the Vikings sped across the Sound in their narrow longboats, burning and pillaging and taking hostages. On the island of Eigg, not far to the south, the Norsemen took over the farmland, and reduced the local population to slaves: a practice that may also have been replicated on Tanera. The earliest human record is a tombstone, dated 1193, when the Norse were still ensconced. ‘I do not wish to suggest the place is miserable,’ wrote Fraser Darling. ‘[But] at the back of everything I get a sense of great age, dark things done, and secrets held.’

In the centuries that followed, Tanera’s population shrank and swelled with the seasons. Crofters brought their cattle there for summer grazing, and returned them to the mainland for the winter. The soil, though poor, was not uncultivated. Traces of lazy-beds have been found on the lower slopes of the island, and some may have been worked until quite recent times. The Reverend Roderick MacNab, who wrote up the Parish of Lochbroom (and hence the Summer Isles) for the Statistical Accounts of Scotland described the use of ‘sea-ware’ as fertilizer, along with ‘compound dung-hills and shelly sand,’ claiming they could produce ‘exuberant crops’ from land that was ‘formerly thought good-for-nothing.’

But for all their hard work, the people were, in his opinion, ‘rather poor,’ living mainly on fish and potatoes, supplemented with oysters, cockles and other shellfish. Rents were high, and ‘the engrossing of farms for sheep walks’ forced many to emigrate to America. Whole districts were already depopulated, and where hundreds of people had once lived, ‘no human faces are now to be met with, except a shepherd attended by his dog.’

If there was one tremendous consolation to be found at that time, it was in the bounty of the local herring-fishery. Great shimmering shoals migrated south between Tanera and the mainland, then back around the smaller islands to the open sea, in an abundance many thought would last forever. The keeper of the Statistical Accounts for 1834-35, a Reverend Thomas Ross, remembered that ‘prodigious shoals’ would appear off the coast of Loch Broom, often as early as the month of May, though most of the catch was taken between September and February:

When the herrings set fairly in… the benefit is very great. The herrings of this coast are of the very best kind – the people are instantly afloat, with every species of seaworthy craft … sloops, schooners, wherries, boats of all sizes… constantly flying on the wings of the wind, from creek to creek, and from loch to loch… Hundreds of boats are seen to start at day-set for the watery field, then silently shoot their nets, lie out at the end of their train, all night, and return in the morning full of life and spirit, to sell or cure their cargoes.

Several herring-curing stations were established locally; including the one on Tanera, at Tigh an Quay. The smoked fish (or ‘red herring’) were transported as far as the West Indies to feed slaves on the plantations. Some were also exported to Ireland, and Irish soil bought back as ballast in their place, hence an especially verdant field called ‘Little Irish Park.’ Fraser Darling was especially drawn to such etymologies, and the way they functioned as a mini-history. Not far from his house there was a little hill, called in Gaelic Cnoc Ghlas, or the ‘green knoll.’ Its name too was a compacted anecdote. For many years, the fishermen had spread their nets out there to clean and dry, and the dried sea slime had acted as a kind of fertilizer, endowing it with a cap of bright green grass.

The herring-fishery flourished for more than 400 years. But by the middle of the nineteenth century the shoals had begun to diminish, and with them Tanera’s prosperity and independence. In 1881, there had been 118 crofters on the island: fifty years later, every one of them had left. The Great Depression tolled the death knell for the islanders. When Frank Fraser Darling arrived in 1938, he and his wife Bobbie were the only inhabitants. The herring factory was in ruins, as was the original quay, plundered for its cut and finished stone. The crofts stood roofless and empty. The schoolhouse, built in 1870, had  not served as a school since before the First World War. Already the island was returning to legend, dateless and inexact.

Hungry for information, Fraser Darling befriended Murdo Macleod, the last crofter-fisherman to leave Tanera, and later wrote up many of his stories. There was the cargo of rum buried somewhere down near Tigh an Quay, ‘a legend known as far away as Orkney.’ There were the strange old coins Macleod had dug up as a boy, ‘silver coins, about the size of a shilling.’ There was the ancient graveyard next to Little Irish Park, with its rough unlettered graves, and crumbly fragments of human bone. And always there was Tanera itself, with its wild red cliffs and rowan trees and ‘festoons of fragrant honeysuckle,’ its sandstone rock ‘dotted with tiny cornelians.’

Frank Fraser Darling left Tanera towards the end of World War Two, and died in 1979, with a long list of books and honours to his name, among them his 1969 Reith Lectures, appropriately entitled Wilderness and Plenty. Island Farm was recently reissued, with Bobbie’s smiling picture on the cover. Reading it, I realized they too had joined the legends. Frank was playing carols on his mouth-organ, while Bobbie sang, celebrating the first Christmas of the war. He was lying in the schoolhouse with a broken leg, while Bobbie brought him cups of strong hot tea. He was writing, writing, writing; they were working on the quay. He was planting a sixpenny packet of sweet peas down by the shore, enjoying their ‘tiny world of fragrance and peace.’

After the Fraser Darlings left, Tanera was uninhabited for several decades. In 1965, it was bought by the Summer Isles Estates,  which restored several of the ruined crofts, and let them as holiday accommodation. A salmon fish farm was established on the island, along with a café, a post office and a small sailing school. At time of writing, the Wilder family, who own the island, and have lived there for almost two decades, were trying to negotiate a local community buy-out. They have since decided to put the place on the open market, starting in April, through C.K.D. Galbraith in Inverness. No one knows quite what will happen next. But for friends of the island – and indeed, for the most casual visitor – the hope is that not too much will change, that in a world of distraction and overwhelm, Tanera will continue to be the haven it has been since Viking times, a source of wisdom, concentrated beauty, and yes, ‘placefulness.’ Nietzsche once wrote that the lakes were the eyes of the mountain, reflecting back the true light of the sky. On Tanera, one of the lochans holds its own small island, looking out across the heathery slopes with its own velvety green iris, its own keen, uncompromising gaze.

I thought of that last summer, as I stood with my friends outside the old schoolhouse, where the Fraser Darlings had lived for much of their first year. We were staring back towards the far south-east, now lit up in delicate beige and gold, almond and lavender. The scene was being transformed even as we watched: Stac Pollaidh and its attendant mountains deepening from maroon to purple to blaeberry as the sunlight fled; the moon slipping out, deft as a tongue: a plain round face, long nose, and dark smudged eyes, a wide and doubting mouth. We watched it rise over the hills, white, then pure bone ivory, its long track  lengthening across the bay. 

Meanwhile the sun was setting on the other side of the island, a rampage of fiery orange and charcoal grey. ‘Tiger clouds,’ someone called them, their edges gleaming gold. It was a marvellous thing to stand there on the crest between: gazing first at the small round moon and quiet hills, and then back to the far west with its roaring angelic golden pyre – looking, listening, listening out.

LITTLE TOLLER BOOKS, 309 PP, £10, ISBN: 978 1 908213 01 3

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