by Anna Watson (2020 Writing Retreat Scholarship Winner)
The view from the dining room is a lesson in painting perspective. In the foreground, the damp grass and incomplete hedgerow are a brilliant lime flecked with lemon yellow. The towering trees that spread down the hill to the shoreline (whose names I must collect in a list) are a deep, appropriately forest green; a combination of pine needles, moss grey leaves and mint lichen set against the bold brushstrokes of their trunks. The water is grey; a white grey not dissimilar to the sky above. Both are calm today. The trees atop the island in the middle distance are less defined. Their greens, much like their branches, weave together to form a soft brown. Behind them lies the mainland. Were you to take all the colours of the foreground and the mid-ground and combine them on a palette board, you’d surely recreate the marbling of those hills. I know that the purple of the heather, the white of the rocks, the brown of grasses past and the electric green of new growth are all present. For now they merge in a backdrop perfectly coordinated to the scene. I understand why my grandfather liked to write in green ink.
A Mediterranean breakfast on a dreich Scottish morning. Crushed feta and not-quite-ripe figs pressed into salted soda bread and drizzled with honey. I would have never thought to pair mozzarella with strawberries. Lashings of olive oil and a twist of black pepper, washed down with hot black coffee. After clearing the table we sit down to write. For the first hour we talk. The chef tempted fate, it seems; as the morning marches on, the Highland smirr gives way to bright sunshine. Through the cafetiere light falls in ripples on my paper.
On the way up to the top of the island, just before the stone path gives way to a dirt track bouncy with moisture, a low moan followed by a short grunt has me do a double take. Shona tells me there are deer on this island, so many they have to be ‘managed’. I quickly rule out the possibility of a nearby bear and assume it’s a stag calling, even if it is early in the season. Either way, I quicken my pace. On the way back I hear the same protracted groan. This time I look up to see one of the ancient trunks keeling under its own weight, bending to touch its neighbour and emitting a sigh every time. I smile. On J.M. Barrie’s island I have conjured bears from trees.
The raindrops hang heavy from the gutter. They’re larger than the ones that cling to window panes, and it takes me a second to think what they remind me of. Bubblewrap. Even-spaced and irresistible. Just below them is a series of brass eyelets running the length of a wooden curtain pole, like the bangles that decorated our teenage wrists. I follow the folds of fabric down to the edge of the window frame to the right. Pictured, a bright blue sky with cotton wool clouds rolling by like tumbleweed. It’s a shame, really, that when we lie on our backs, more often than not, our eyes are closed.
The bath water is brown. Coloured by the peat it passes as it winds its way down the hillside. The plug isn’t 100% effective. Worn down by decades of use, the seal permits the steady escape of a trickle of water; my time here is limited. As the soft water slowly drains, the peaks and valleys of my body rise; I watch as a blurred sepia figure becomes defined, warm pink and glistening. The clawfoot tub is impossibly long. I hadn’t intended on getting my hair wet, but the urge to stretch out completely and submerge every inch is strong. Toes pointed and eyes closed, I hold my breath and deep dive. We’re having dinner up at the Village Hall tonight and so I opt for a sheer black shirt and a spritz of perfume in an attempt at dressing up. A short walk through the rain, boots crunching on stones and arms laden with wine bottles, leads us up and into a wooden chapel. A log fire burns at the far end, framed by a steamy window looking out onto dense green woodland. Along the sides are four pillow-laden daybeds and down the middle stands a long dinner table decorated with moss, brambles and lichen. Tonight, the hall is our haven. We gather around the fire to tell our stories; each one heartfelt, often heavy. Listening to them I feel uplifted, in spite of, or perhaps because of, the weight in each word. Before we sit down and tuck into bowls of steaming mussels I look around the table and wonder at my luck. For the first time in a long time I feel hopeful. The bath water is brown and my future is bright.
This morning, the buoy - our usual target - was floating to the right of the pontoon. It usually veers to the left. As we stepped down onto the slate grey wooden boards, rubber shoes careful to grip the yellow sandpaper that counters the slip of the slope, Ness points out the swirling eddies that bubble up between the boat and the jetty. A sign of a strong current. Dark, twisting whirlpools, they’re beautiful, almost hypnotising. Silent but deadly. Shona descends first, back to the water, and in a fit of enthusiasm launches herself into the briny vast. She forgets to keep left, and like a cork is swept fast to the right. Ness and I lunge for the ladder and leap into the water; within seconds we’re with her and have a hold on each arm. With our free hands we stretch and strain against the tide, struggling to bridge the few feet back to the pontoon. On the surface the water is smooth, underneath it's a raging torrent. Time slows, and yet, all of a sudden, we’re there. Trembling hands grip cold metal, Shona is safe. Exhilarated and not a little defiant Ness and I strike out to the left and swim a few fierce laps against the current. This morning, neither one of us feels the cold.
‘In July we pick chanterelle mushrooms. A golden trumpet with firm flesh and tones of golden apricots. Fry until tender in golden oil and serve on stiff pillows of golden pasta. Pair with wine and soak in the glow of a summer sunset, your sun-kissed skin sitting in comfortable silence. All golden.’ So read a few of the lines that paved my way to Eilean Shona. And now I find myself treading the sponge between the silky ferns and fallen pines of the hills behind the house, eyes peeled for bursts of orange and inspiration. We stumble across a bumper crop just below the path that leads to Red Cottage; Peggy wonders if we’re walking on a Mycelium. A mass of branching, thread-like spores that feels its way in the pitch dark beneath forest floors, occasionally surfacing in crowns of atomic tangerine. Ness tells us there’s buried treasure on this island, I think we’ve found it.
My trainers are soaking. The path past the Shepherd’s Hut is boggy but I’m determined to reach the end of the road - the old port - before I leave the island; we have just one day more. I leap from one grassy cushion to another in an attempt to avoid the puddles, perhaps better described as rockpools. As I round the corner into the cove at Baramore, I have a clear view through the channel across to Rubha nan Clach Dearga, Sgeirean Dubha Fhiadhach and I think An Glas-eilean. It’s still early, so the sky that meets the horizon is lime-washed pink and lilac. I stop to take a photo when I hear a bird’s call. Below me, between the trees, a flash of white speckled with brown. A juvenile sea eagle, disturbed by my eager steps, has abandoned its post at An Dubh aeonach and is now striking out for the hills to my left. I let my camera rest by my side; fleeting moments like these are best captured in words. On my return journey I make sure to listen; to the pip pip of an oyster catcher, the gush of falling water, the sound of my steady breathing. The air is clean and I drink it in like gin.
The night is dark up here, pitch black. Perhaps the most definite dark I’ve ever seen, or cared to notice. Most evenings we spent in the warm artificial glow of the dining or drawing rooms, and so it is only now, driving to the station to catch the train home, that I really see it. Out of the taxi window, only a faint line separates the hill from sky, a slightly lighter shade of ebony. The few houses we pass opt for lamplight, so the frames of their windows are softened, inviting. Every so often roving orbs flicker and shift in the distance - headlights on the road to Kingussie. Their presence adds another layer to the darkness, deepening the black of the woodland between field and hill. Every now and then, one of our phones flashes, piercing the darkness seeping its way into the car, pooling at our feet and between the seats. We’re back on the mainland, the cellular connection to the outside is reinstated and our delicate bubble is burst. I do not want to leave. I know that we must.