A short story by Susanna Naismith
All I can hear is the gentle rippling of the water on the shore, the call of a gull, the twittering of linnets and a door swinging shut in the distance, followed by the loud voices of foreigners who do not understand the silence of this place, or what it is to have only a bird for company or to stand still for so long you feel as if you might become part of the landscape.
The linnet flies away, breaking the spell. I crunch my way over the pebbles back to the house where Seanair is waiting. He sits by the peat fire smoking his pipe and gazing into the flames as though they speak a language only he can understand. He does not seem to notice when I walk in. I sneak into the kitchen and pour myself a glass of fresh milk. When I return, he looks up,
‘Ah, there you are, ’ille.’
He always calls me ‘boy,’ never by my real name, unless he is cross with me. Or perhaps because it is not a Gaelic name. If I had been called Dòmhnall or Aonghas things might have been different.
Seanair is more comfortable speaking Gaelic than English. He is one of the few left on the island who prefers to use his mother tongue. He would speak the language to me if I understood it better but I only remember bits and pieces from before my family left for the mainland. Every summer when I come to stay Seanair tries to instil it in me, but by the time I return the next year I have forgotten most of what he taught me.
Seanair is not usually a talkative man – at least not in English. He can sit for hours watching the sea or staring into the fire as he is doing now. This is my favourite part of the day with him. When he becomes a little drowsy, his tongue loosens and he begins to tell stories.
Stories of how my great-great-great-grandfather had to wade through a river on a winter’s morning, determined to get to church, and discovered that the water in his clothes had frozen as he listened to the sermon, forcing his feet right out of his shoes. Stories about a man who was so tall, people would travel from all over the islands to see him. He managed to make a living from it. Stories about faeries and selkies and kelpies, or the fugitive Jacobite who survived by making porridge in his shoe.
What will it be tonight? History or a family anecdote? A fairytale, perhaps? Not the happily-ever-after fairytales you get in books, but the eerie fairytales of Celtic folklore. Sometimes it seems to me that Seanair has a whole library of books stored in his head, although I have hardly ever seen him with a book in his hand.
‘’Eil thu ag iarraidh cupa tea?’ he asks, absent-minded, and for once I understand him. I make him the tea and set it before him.
‘Suidh sìos,’ he says, indicating the armchair opposite him.
I sit and wait for him to begin. He chews on his pipe for a few moments, strokes his beard once or twice with his huge hand and then coughs. His eyes glisten with age.
‘Perhaps it’s you who should tell a story tonight, ’ille,’ he muses in his soft, lilting accent.
‘Me, Seanair? I don’t have any stories to tell.’
He seems amused by this confession.
‘I wouldn’t be so sure,’ he murmurs almost to himself.
‘No, really. I’m useless at storytelling.’
‘Well, you’d better get some practice then.’
He sinks into silence and remains silent so long I begin to wonder if he really expects me to tell him a story. I rack my brain trying to think of something interesting to tell him but nothing springs to mind.
‘No stories to tell, eh? Mo chreach, what are we to do with a lad who can’t even tell a decent story?’ he chuckles, ‘Doesn’t even have the Gaelic. Obh obh.’
‘I’m learning,’ I remind him.
‘Good good. ’S math sin. Tell me, do you know the Gaelic word for poem, ’ille?’
I feel like I should know but I cannot remember.
‘No,’ I admit.
Of course, how could I have forgotten?
‘Such a little word,’ Seanair continues, ‘It can mean a poem, an art, a skill. But it can also mean a destiny.’
‘Were you destined to be a storyteller, Seanair?’
‘Hmm, ’s dòcha.’ Perhaps. ‘In Gaelic we do not define ourselves by what we do. I have been a crofter all my life but in Gaelic I cannot say “I am a crofter”. I can only say “a crofter is in me” or “a storyteller is in me”. There may well be a storyteller in you too.’
‘I seriously doubt that, Seanair.’
‘You young people, you are always doing, never being. You do not know the art of being still. Always seeking and never finding.’
His voice trails off. I do not know what to say. It is unusual for him to talk like this. He normally speaks of the past, not the present. I wonder which young people he is referring to. There are not many left on the island. It occurs to me that I have no idea if Seanair has ever left the island. I never thought to ask him before.
‘Have you ever been to the mainland, Seanair?’ I ask, hoping to stir some memories.
‘Oh, once, years ago. I went to Glaschu mòr nan sràid, Big Glasgow of the streets, we called it then. What’s the name of that street? Begins with a “b”.’
‘That’s it. I knew a grown man who had to have his hand held walking down that street. He had never seen so many people in his life. It put the fear in him.’
I picture this island man facing a sea of people. Seanair’s eyes linger on the doorway to the kitchen.
‘You’ve heard of the great songstress Màiri Nighean Alasdair Ruaidh?’ he asks.
‘Yes,’ I nod, surprised by the change of subject.
‘There’s a story that says the clan chief MacLeòid banned her from composing songs either inside or outside.’
‘No doubt she offended him. People were suspicious of women who made songs in those days. It was thought they had powers akin to sorcery.’
‘Not the men?’
‘No. Men were trained to be bards and the trade was often passed from father to son.’
‘I’m glad that’s not the case anymore,’ I laugh. ‘I would be the disgrace of the family!’
He shakes his head faintly.
‘What happened to Màiri?’ I refrain from attempting to pronounce the other names.
‘She defied MacLeòid by standing in doorways to sing. Is cha robh i muigh, is cha robh i staigh. She was neither out nor in.’
‘Is it a true story?’
‘Cò aig tha fios? Who knows?’
He looks me straight in the eye.
‘Now it’s your turn,’ he says.
I swallow hard.
Susanna Naismith was born in Glasgow and educated bilingually in the multicultural city of Strasbourg, France. She returned to her roots in Scotland to study English Literature and Scottish Gaelic. She started writing short stories inspired by Celtic myths while at university and later completed an MLitt in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow. Since graduating she has worked on various Gaelic projects, and is currently writing her second novel.