By Leonie Charlton
We’d left the road that runs up the west coast of Barra and were now riding down a grassy track to the burial ground on the point at Gob Burgh. The ponies, Ross and Chief, were striding out, their hooves making soft thuds on the sandy soil. They were looking around them, checking everything out. Shuna and I were the same, taking it all in. We passed a sheep track that trickled through the machair to a single standing stone, clearly a favoured rubbing post. There was a long fenced-off potato strip, the sandy soil piled up in neat ridges, tattie shaws were just starting to show. Then, between Ross’s ears, a huddle of crosses showed up on the skyline against a pewter sea. They were all facing us - eastwards, towards the rising sun. The graveyard was enclosed by a tall dry-stone dyke. In places it had fallen down and the ubiquitous strands of barbed wire were strung across the gaps, ribbons of last years’ haylage bale wrapping fluttered in the wind like Tibetan prayer flags. A thick fisherman’s rope lay in recumbent coils between the dyke and the sea. It was melded onto the shoreline, its hemp spirals sewn through with moss and silverweed. The rope looked like it might have been there for decades. Boulders that had rolled down from the wall were embossed in yolk-yellow lichen - cat’s-tongue rough to the touch.
We got off and led the ponies round to a gate on the far side of the burial ground. A sign told us it was a commonwealth graveyard; that casualties from both the first and second world wars were buried here. I wandered amongst the stones, listening, touching, reading. The lettered, dated summations of lives - short lived, long lived - were being taken over by lichens: some like smooth spillages of cream, others sage-green, wiry and tufted. The air was strung with the oscillating calls of curlews, and lapwings flung themselves in somersaults against the wind. This place of remembrance was bird paradise. I felt a sense of privilege to be there that was almost too much to bear. We walked towards the tip of the point, the carved gravestones were replaced by body-sized rocks left by the sea, or glaciers, or maybe both. A curlew whistled in alarm and we stopped. The sky was full of birds watching over their nests. I had a sense of trespassing on hallowed ground. The bird calls escalated, echoing my own sense of wonder. As we retreated a slender head and neck peered at us from above a rock, there was something strangely adolescent about this bird, it wheeled up, all awkward elegance before the sky stole it. Later, Collins Gem book of Scottish birds told me it was a godwit.
We headed back towards the gate. The ground in the lee of the high wall was a mixture of dried cowshit and sand, this place was a refuge for cattle in the winter months. We left quietly through the gate, it’s metal rungs holey with rust. An arctic tern trailed its long tail with impossible grace in the air above us. Shapeshifter I thought, as a fine rain blew across our faces.
I could still hear the curlews’ evocative calls, they had tuned me in to a world tilting ever-so-slightly differently on its axis. A world I wanted to know more deeply, and one I’d need to learn a new language to explore. Shuna had told me down at the graveyard that Karen, her sister in law, had family buried there. Karen’s mother had left Barra when she was sixteen to go and work in the hotels in Oban. She’d been ashamed of her Gaelic - as many were at that time - and hadn’t spoken it in the home. In spite of this, or perhaps because of it, Karen herself had gone on to become a world-renowned Gaelic singer. Her last album was a return to her Hebridean roots, recording traditional songs and poems. She had called the album ‘Urram’, the Gaelic for ‘respect’ and ‘honour’. Urram, what a beautiful word.
‘Look, I can post my cards.’ We were back on the tarmac road and Shuna was pointing to the postbox on the verge ahead. She leant over and posted from the saddle, a grin of delight spreading across her face. I laughed at the improbability of it all. At us, there, Michelin women padded out in full waterproofs, our faces red-ruddy from the wind. At the two glossy sunset-scenes sent on their way at the end of a quiet township road on Barra. As the road went inland the crashing beryl-coloured waves on our left were replaced by fields and stock fences; I noticed how in places each barb on the wire was coated in sorrel-coloured cattle hair, like felted pearls, strings of cow beads. ‘Allasdale,’ said Shuna, looking at a road sign ahead, ‘I read what that means, elves’ milking place, from the Norse’. I drank in the words. Elves’ milking place. I imagined them nipping in and milking the cattle. Their fair dues, for what, I wondered.
Leonie Charlton lives on the west coast of Scotland. She is a writer of creative non-fiction, poetry and fiction. Her work has appeared in publications such as Causeway and Northwords Now. She is greatly inspired by observing the natural world; much of her writing is based on a sense of place and our relationship with other species. She is currently working on a book of her journey through the Outer Hebrides with Highland ponies; the travelogue is intercut with intimate memoir as she leaves behind beads in memory of her mother.
Leonie can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photograph: Isle of Barra, Szczepan Janus, CC 2.0