TRÀIGH LAR BEACH is a small machair beach at the end of
Horgabost Sands on the west coast of the Isle of Harris in
the Outer Hebrides of northern Scotland. Machair is the
name given to the flat western coastal plain of Harris, its
beaches made of the shells and skeletons of ancient sea
creatures ground to fine sand by the ceaseless pounding of
the ocean. Breakers roll in with the roar of an oncoming
train, leaving drainage channels in pale blue-green gold and
symmetrical ripple marks above the high-tide line. Accumulated
sand forms wide white beaches and bordering dunes.
Calcium limes the dark acidic peat soils behind into rich
Standing on Tràigh Lar Beach, you can hardly feel more
solitary, more lulled by its stark beauty and breathtaking
peace. Black birds shoot in and out of nooks in the ancient
rock walls that line the road to Tarbert. Seagulls and carrion
crows hang motionless in the air. Cuckoos call from groves
of stunted trees, and hawks soar with ravens.
Flotsam, carried on the Gulf Stream from the New
World, has tangled in the seaweed on Tràigh Lar, dotting
the shimmering sand. During the summer months, the
machair lining its borders is adorned with a blanket of wildflowers.
Heather, a low-growing perennial shrub that dominates
the heathlands, moors, and acidic peat bogs of Europe,
was often called Erica—Calluna vulgaris—in traditional
references. Not a true heather, Erica’s mauve flowers
bloom on the machair in the spring.
RODEL, ISLE OF HARRIS,
OUTER HEBRIDES, SCOTLAND,
The wide-faced clock over the bar here at the Rodel Hotel
moves backwards. Three o’clock in the morning posts as
9:00 p.m. I’m comforted by that, buoyed by the steady procession
of hours and minutes piling up in front of me.
On a fluke, my recent novella, Remembrance and Mania,
just won the faintly prestigious Comstock Award for short
fiction. As a consequence, I’ve had a two-book contract
flung across my shoulders like a length of chain mail.
I’m stagnant with fear.
I’m empty, deficient, inept.
I’ve nothing to say and no words to say it with.
On Tràigh Lar Beach
We’ve just settled into our self-catering cottage in
Rodel, at the southern tip of Harris, after a seven-hour drive
from Glasgow to Uig on the Isle of Skye, with my husband,
Greyson, at the wheel. We took the ferry across the Minch
to Tarbert this morning.
In our rental car then, in the wind and the rain, we
sailed to Rodel on the eastern shore single-track Finsbay
road. Harris had once conjoined with the Scottish mainland
but had slipped into the sea at the end of the last ice age.
Waterlogged bogs and black tarns lay about at every turn,
stabbed with the sharp bony intrusions of gray gneiss.
The evening before our Glasgow flight, I’d offered up a
thin slice of my soul in gratitude at the annual Comstock
Awards banquet in London.
“A book of towering achievement, equal parts critique
and passion,” Tawny Woodhouse, Comstock’s ebullient director,
pronounced on introducing “our grand prize winner.”
And though I broach neither process nor achievement
with any ease, Comstock left me spunky and bold. I soared
as though that gold-embossed curlicued certificate—“Erica
Winchat, First Place, Short Fiction”—had given me wings.
Wings now clipped by my own feelings of inadequacy.
I woke up last night at about two o’clock. No moon, no stars,
and I could barely see my hand in front of my face. Outside
the bedroom window, the land and the sky stretched off in a
forever coal-blackness, just one shade darker than my own
shriveled psyche. I’m a fraud. I know that now. I can’t possibly
write anything of substance ever again. But Greyson
won’t let me wallow in it.
Late this afternoon, we sloshed through an old peat cutting
bog just off the Finsbay road. At the seaward end, we
climbed a hillock to watch storm-tossed waves heave themselves
at the cliff base below. Black-headed gulls hovered
above, and a brown-eyed fulmar exulted with two consecutive
flybys within arm’s reach.
About a third of a mile further on, a rock cairn marked
the site of a crippled broch-like tower, its stone walls now
reduced to a heap of rubble covered in thin brown grass. And
on the margins of the peat bog, at the far end of a small black
pool, stood a ruined croft filled with gravelly mounds of dirt
and old wire. Its yawning windows trumpeted a forlorn
Someone had lived there once, in veiled optimism. Or,
perhaps more likely, smothered in despair.
Over a game of pool last night, the Rodel Hotel barkeep
had told us the story of Donald MacDonald and his betrothed,
Jessie of Balranald. In 1850, young Donald—too
forgiving of the estate’s crofters—had been dismissed as assistant
factor in North Uist, an island to the south of Harris.
Jessie’s father pressed her to marry Donald’s mean-spirited
successor, but Jessie declined, and she and Donald set off
for the Isle of Skye. A storm-tossed night forced their ship
back to Tarbert where Jessie’s brother seized the couple and
imprisoned them in Rodel House—now the Rodel Hotel.
They escaped out a window in the Red Room and made
their way to Australia.
Surely even I could structure something warm and sentient
from such poignancy.
THE LOCHBOISDALE HOTEL, LOCHBOISDALE, SOUTH
UIST, OUTER HEBRIDES, SCOTLAND,
We’re in our room, looking out across the rolling Minch to
Canna and Rum. We off-loaded in Otternish on North Uist
and drove south, arriving here just short of five o’clock.
After breakfast at the Anchorage this morning, a Leverburgh
restaurant dressed in honey-colored pine, we sailed
on the MV Loch Bhrusda ferry to North Uist. No ship was
scheduled for that time, but “sometimes the ferry just shows
up,” our waitress, Siobhan, said. Alert to the slightest shift
on the horizon, she’d spotted the black dot approach of the
Bhrusda well before anyone else.
For forty-five minutes then, the small boat beat against
the wind and the waves through one of the loneliest
stretches of the planet I’ve ever seen. Distant black islands
dulled with the rain. Plumes of spray nibbled at their base.
But sometimes, like the bright flash of a dream, sunlight
shimmered on the heaving sea.
The low groan of grinding engines, undertones humming
like an oncoming tank, sang above a frigid wind. Except for
the driver of a BP oil truck, who very quickly vanished,
Greyson and I were the ferry’s only passengers. No one
manned the bridge either, that we could see. If I could just
rouse my imagination long enough to create something compelling
THE LOCHMADDY HOTEL, LOCHMADDY, NORTH UIST,
We left Lochboisdale just after breakfast. One of the most
intriguing things about the hotel there was a carved cherry-
wood armchair that stood in the hallway, all loops and
sculpted lyres. Though it had been there “forever,” no one
could tell us where it had come from. And what about that
Kilbride Shellfish truck abandoned just below the Neolithic
chambered tomb of Minngearraidh on Reineval Hill. How
did that get there?
Back here on North Uist, we negotiated a short, potholed
road to Langass Lodge, waiting in the car in a light rain as a
middle-aged Aussie couple walked their long-haired Siamese,
Skye, up and around the stone circle of Pobull Fhinn.
At breakfast this morning in Lochmaddy, they played oldies
from the fifties and sixties, and Greyson and I had a slow
dance to Roy Orbison’s “Crying.” How apropos for my
numbed and moldering spirit.
On the way back to the Otternish-Tarbert ferry, we lingered
at Dun an Sticir, another ruined broch in a small back
tarn. Broken walls stood ten feet high in places, and the
remnants of a stone causeway lay visible just under the surface
of the pond’s crystalline water. Of course, we slogged
on over in our wellies, as fog slid down off the tops of the
hills and three white swans cruised the loch like the spirits
of long-gone tenants.
Stories as thick as clotted cream spring out of these Harris
peat bogs. The church next door, for instance, St. Clement’s,
dates back to the sixteenth century. Effigies of medieval
knights, set in the interior walls and bordered with Celtic
knots, offer no shortage of possibilities.
And sheep. Sheep stand everywhere. Never troubled by
wind or rain, they idle in roadways, oblivious to oncoming
traffic, finally moving off, paunchy Tribble bodies on spindly
legs. If the incessant wind were somehow sapped of its energy,
grinding sheep jaws would fill the void.
Later on, just up from some glassy loch off a skinny interior
byway, we stumbled on an overturned lorry lying in
the peaty muck. A half dozen young people, most of them
with Cockney accents, had gathered round in cable-knit
sweaters, blue jeans, and Wellington boots, and collectively,
we helped them work an old upright piano fallen from the
van onto a flatbed truck. Who was moving to such wilds
Greyson and I played golf at the Isle of Harris Golf Course
this morning. Two congenial Scotsmen, on playing the third
tee, lent us their clubs. Between intermittent rain squalls,
loitering sheep, and rabbit-warren sand traps, we finished a
solid round, the sea a thundering backdrop.
I’ve been scouting the wide white sands of West Harris
for inspiration. Flat and firm, they’re overflown by hawks
and ravens. The marram-grass dunes and plains behind are
called machair, pocked with rabbit holes and patches of cultivated
grains, small sheaves tied up with straw. Redshanks
bob among the wildflowers.
Just to the west of Seilebost Sands, the farthest machair
from Rodel, lies our favorite beach—Tràigh Lar. Tràigh
(pronounced “try”) is Gaelic for sandy, and Lar means floor.
When the sea is wild and blue, Tràigh Lar is astonishing.
Even with high tide, waves continue to shatter on Tràigh
Lar in a frothy mass.
To the left, the empty Toe Head peninsula extends three
miles into the Atlantic, capped by the moorish hill of
Chaipaval, and joined to the mainland by a strip of machair,
with a sandy beach to either side. The island of Taransay
lies to the right. And between them—emptiest of all—are
the distant deserted islands of St. Kilda. On the hillside
above Tràigh Lar, the MacLeod Stone rises tall and thin, one
face covered in crusty pale-blue lichen.
We wandered back to the roadway through blankets of
limpet shells deposited in a tangle of seaweed and flotsam. A
cigarette lighter, a jar of pickled onions, the handle of a
child’s bucket, an empty ketchup holder, a rock-concert laminate
badge, a green plastic laundry basket, a packet of
arthritis pills . . .
Now where did these come from?
(An Empty Ketchup Holder)
White Common Eyebright—Eurphrasia nemorosa—
latches its roots onto nearby plants for sustenance.
HE HAD A FACE LIKE polished driftwood. Sculpted. Ageless.
So fluid and graceful, it was almost courtly. When he
danced, his thin old-man arms dangled at his sides and he
shuffled across the pavement on crimped legs. Someone
from the stage, without looking, called him “Pops.”
“Give it a rest, will ya, Pops?”
But the old man’s name was Walker, and some of them
up there knew it.
Old Walker crooked a finger at a little boy in red passing
by—a chubby all-smiles toddler in an oversized baseball
cap and bare, dirty feet. “One small dance, eh, big fella?” He
dropped down, bent almost double, wagged a bony finger in
the boy’s face, and winked. “Oh, come on now.” His voice
rasped like a file over the music from the stage, and he
coiled the finger over his palm. Once. Twice.
All afternoon, the little boy in red had circled the seated
folk-festival crowd, wobbling haphazardly up this side and
down the other under the attentive but distant eye of his
father. Now, in front of the old man, he lurched to a halt
and stared at the creased and empty outstretched hand. His
hazelnut eyes gleamed like buffed sandalwood, and he
worked his small pink mouth into an extravagant pout.
“Jason!” The boy pitched forward with the sound of a
coarse male voice from out of the crowd. “Jason!”
Jason pulled a stubby arm from behind his back and
thrust it toward the old man just as his father, a craggy
young man in tattered Levi’s and a stale blue T-shirt,
swooped in and plucked the child away.
“Time to go, sport,” he said, hoisting the little boy up into
the air, where he hung over his father’s head, suspended by
two freckled arms. And then, vicelike, his chunky baby-fat
legs clamped to left and right on the man’s shoulders.
“Time to go, sport,” his father said again. And, without a
single glance at the old man, he lumbered off into the crowd
like a freighter putting out to sea.
Old Walker unfolded his bones in the manner of old
men everywhere and swayed over the concrete slab fronting
the stage, like an empty skiff in a sea breeze. Above him, a
dark-haired, pasty-faced man in a ruby-red cotton T-shirt
and thick black-rimmed glasses stepped forward to introduce
the next act.
“If y’all are lucky”—and the old man was not—“you saw
this next group at Voodoo Mama’s last Saturday night,” the
man on stage announced.
A rowdy wave of approval rippled through the crowd as
three booted and bearded young men with instruments of a
bluegrass nature strolled to the center of the stage.
“Please welcome, from right here in Orleans Parish,
New Orleans’s very own Catfish Bayou String Band.”
Almost at once, the three men in boots and beards be-