Feature • Kathleen Jamie
Far over the horizon, out in the North Atlantic, where one might expect a clear run to Iceland or even Labrador, or, if anything, just a guano-streaked gull slum, the island of Rona is one last green hill rising from the waves.
Or so they tell me. It’s forty miles out, several hours’ sailing, but pretty soon I was prostrate on the aft deck, shivering under the wind- and engine-noise. From deep in my sick cocoon I heard the others calling they could see Rona on the horizon, then more cold, salt-immobilized ages passed until the boat slowed, the wind rush dropped. When they cut the engines and sent down the anchor, I felt gratitude, but then the boat began wallowing. Worse than the leaping waves was that awful wallowing. There were guillemots, but they sounded as though they were stuck down a well, because we were in the shelter of a geo—a steep-sided inlet. There were dark cliffs on either side, a rattling as the dinghy was lowered, and voices, one, a man’s, saying, “let’s get her ashore.”
I must have jumped from the dinghy and scrambled up the slabby rocks as per instructions, and meeting grass, collapsed on it. A green unheaving bosom. Blessed deep core of steady rock, reaching down and down. Lay there till the nausea passed, and the shivering.
Coming back to myself, I heard land birds, starlings; rolled over, looked up at the sky, smelled a sweet smell, some kind of wildflower, thrift maybe. How lush the grass was! That surprised me. Lush-long and harsh at once. The sky was high and bright with fleet clouds. Lay there, as slowly the sun and breeze dried my waterproofs. Bob, the skipper, blew the boat’s horn as he left, then Stuart and Jill appeared up from the shore, grinning, laden with gear, and we were on our own.
So, for a short while last summer we had Rona to ourselves. Alone in the encircling ocean, me and my companions Stuart Murray and Jill Harden. Stuart’s of that sterling tradition of self-taught naturalists; a bird man who says “believe what you see”—but a prerequisite of that believing is a great accuracy of seeing, and a rough idea of what you’re looking at. For him, Rona was an old and beloved haunt, he had brought notes in his own hand from thirty years before; lists and columns of figures pertaining to puffin colonies, to black-backed gulls and storm petrels. Jill is an archaeologist; and like Stuart, not one to be fanciful. Though she knew most of the Scottish islands, Rona was new to her, it intrigued her because despite being so remote, as we would say nowadays, when our sense of center is different, it had been inhabited for centuries. On its south-facing side, there’s a long-abandoned village surrounded by a swirl of field systems, and a very early Christian chapel. These remains are themselves ancient, but who knows what lies beneath.
Those two, Jill and Stuart, were great observers. Late on the afternoon we arrived, when I’d recovered myself and we’d unpacked all the food and gear, I was out walking when I caught sight of Stuart in characteristic pose. He was hunkered against an exposed rock that offered views of a cliff loud with guillemots and kittiwakes. He had binoculars in one hand and a notebook pressed open on his knee. I was back at the bothy when he arrived through the heavy door.
“Well?” I said, meaning, how goes the world?
“What were you doing?”
“Just having a damn good look.”
“Kittiwakes have young, two sometimes.”
“It is good. Maybe it’s the start of a recovery. How many gulls have you seen?”
“Me?” I said. “Gulls? Some. A few.”
A few standing on a broken wall, keeping a steely eye on us interlopers.
“Exactly. There were near a thousand pairs of great black-backeds in 2001, chicks running everywhere. They’ve completely collapsed.”
Then Jill arrived back, too, carrying her drawing board. Already she’d been down at the chapel and the semisubterranean village where she’d spend much of her time, brushing earth from stones with her strong hands, crawling into passages, shining a torch into gaps unlit for ages.
“Well?” I said again.
That merry smile. “Ooh, interesting.”
“What were you doing?”
“Oh, just… having a look!”
Inhabited once, but now the island is returned to birds and seals; gray seals in thousands breed there, many seemed disinclined to leave. Every day, all around the shore were rocks softened by the shapes of seals, seals watched us from the waters. What we called “the bothy” was properly a field station for a team of biologists who arrive every November to study the seals at pupping time. The bothy was a green shed, gale-proof and insulated, with two rooms, one with bunks and the other with a kitchen and table and a container for well water. Every store and roof space was crammed with equipment and supplies. There were spades and ropes and cupboards of tinned food and a shelf of fantasy novels and thrillers, which says much about Rona in November. There was even a handwritten copy of Kipling’s “If” pinned to the wall. “If you can keep your head when all about you / are losing theirs…” But there was little fear of that: though we were on our own and far from anywhere, Stuart and Jill were both relaxed and robust, old hands at this kind of thing.
That first night seasickness and sea air had done for me; come twilight, I dozed in my bunk a couple of hours, but when Jill came and said they were going to the village, I got up again, and like the others, made ready to go out. It was nearly midnight, and we went out, because, well, how often do you get the chance to ramble round an uninhabited island, in the northern ocean, in summer—but also, there was something in particular we wanted to witness, which happened only in the darkest hours. Saturday night, and we had a date in town—but instead of glad rags we pulled on winter waterproofs and hats, because even in July the sea winds were persistent and cold.
The island is only a mile and half long. It has one fertile hill, and two flat near-barren peninsulas, one pointing north, one southwest, like two mismatching wings. There are no beaches, all is cliff, swooping now high, now low, and cut with many geos. The sea prowled into every geo; by night its sound seemed muted, though now and then the breeze brought whoops of seal song. Clouds were gathering, but that was good, Stuart said, the darker the better.
We walked westward up a slight rise, which at its crest gave views down a long slope to the ragged peninsula called Sceapull, which soon surrendered to the waves. A dusty, antique sort of light lay over the island, the sea was the color of tarnished silver. The path led across a hillside, then through a gap in an earthen dike. At once, within the dike, the land began to rise and fall in ridges, like those of a vast scallop shell, waist-high ridges between shadow-filled troughs, all with a pelt of long grass that shivered in the wind. The ridges curved downhill toward the sea. Hundreds of years ago oats or barley would have been raised on them, but now, long overgrown, they had become sculptural, land art.
We passed through that strange estate, then arrived at the shell of Saint Ronan’s chapel. Just four stone walls, all speckled with lichen, a low doorway, no roof at all. It faced the southern sea, and between the chapel and the cliffs a quarter mile away were ovals and pockets of darkness, half-dug into the earth, and bound by overgrown turf walls—all that remained of the village. Beyond that, beat of the waves.
This was what we’d come for, something faraway and special, so we settled ourselves against the chapel wall to wait.
I think I fell asleep. Half-asleep, but started awake because someone had laughed right in my ear. It came again—a stuttery laugh in the air, a burst of high chatter, sudden as a match strike. At once it was answered from within the wall itself. A shape tilted fast overhead and Jill, beside me, said, “Look, that’s one, they’re coming.” Even as she spoke another spat of glee came, conjured out of the night air; now several dark shapes were darting about the chapel walls, quick like bats but not bats. They chattered as they flew, and from deep within the walls came rapid replies. Jill cast me a laughing look, as more birds appeared from nowhere to chase and chatter around us, so close we could feel the thrum of their wings on our hair.
You have to go a long way to find a breeding colony of Leach’s petrels; to a handful of the farthermost islands, Saint Kilda, the Flannans, and here, Rona, where on summer nights they make the quick dash ashore. Mate calls to mate, dit-dit diddle-dit!, rival pursues rival, one partner creeps back into his burrow nest, allowing the other to be off on her small black wings, far out to sea.
The call, to our human ears, sounded like laughter. At the darkest hour, the walls, like a hive, were busy with birds. They’re small as swifts, but their challenge isn’t the ocean storms, it’s the short race ashore. Great skuas—bonxies—prey on them, God knows how, hence their dash by moonlight—except, they prefer no moon. They prefer the darkest of summer nights.
Surf, and seal song, and petrel glee. By about two o’clock dawn was breathing onto the northeast sky again, and there was an urgent wartime feel in the air, of subterfuge and thrill, and exchanges of the birds’ high, rapid Morse.
Stuart had been prowling about the village, now he came back, a white-haired figure rounding the chapel end.
“It’s wonderful!” I whispered.
We stood in the chapel doorway, as dark bird shapes chased above its ancient walls.
“How far out do they go?”
“Right to the edge of the continental shelf.”
“How far’s that?”
“We’re about halfway there. Another fifty miles.”
The birds jinked about our heads as we spoke; if they saw or heard us at all they paid no heed.
“There’s no’ many...”
“There’s loads, look...”
But he shook his head. “No, there’s no’.”
Leach’s petrels are rare, so under European law we’re supposed to keep a weather eye on them. This was Stuart’s task, he’d come to Rona to count their secret nests. He had done the same ten years ago, over the next days he’d do it again.
In the morning—though the sun had been high for hours—we again made our way through the field systems to the village. The ruins were all innocence by light of day; not a sound came from them, nor from the stones of the chapel. Human presence and retreat was all they admitted to; they denied all knowledge of the night’s merriment.
We were blessed with the weather. I had the sensation I always have on Atlantic islands, in summertime, when the clouds pass quickly and light glints on the sea—a sense that the world is bringing itself into being moment by moment. Arising and passing away in the same breath. Stuart, however, meant business. From a rucksack he produced some bamboo canes and plastic tags. Then he handed me a Sony Walkman.
“Right,” he said. “Give three blasts, about thirty seconds, then move on.”
“Anywhere that looks likely.”
Looks likely. We were standing by a curved waist-high wall that contained an oval space now brightly carpeted with silverweed. Two stones jutted up from the wall head like praying hands.
“Does that look likely?”
He shrugged. “Try it.”
I held the tape player to a tiny gap between stone and turf and pressed the button. The tape whirred, then issued the dit-dit diddly-dit of a Leach’s petrel, and at once, from under the stones, a muffled but outraged householder dit diddle-ditted right back again. It made me laugh, but Stuart wrote a figure on a plastic marker and rammed it into the turf.
“You do the rest of these walls. This’ll be your patch, we’ll do the village every day. Jill’s taking the graveyard. I’ll do the chapel dike.”
“Does it work if you play them abba?” I asked, but he just gave me a long look.
It was a joy. In sunshine and a businesslike breeze, I made my way around the old walls, pausing every few yards to play the tape and quickly learning the “likely places.” Some burrows were neat round holes in the turf; the birds dig them out with their feet. If I saw such a burrow, I played the tape, then pressed my ear to the turf. Silence was disappointing, but every time a bird responded from within, it made me laugh again.
If a burrow was live, if a bird was tucked inside, there were tiny signs: broken grass stalks, a discreet dropping. You could sometimes smell their peculiar, rich, musty odor. Some burrows had no visible door, the response came from deep within green tussocks, as if from a fairy boudoir. Now and again the tape elicited some sexy Eartha Kitt purring—that was the female. Only males made the chatterbox call; sometimes if one piped up, he set off his neighbors, too, so a turf wall, centuries old, warming in the sun, started up like a barrel organ.
I found myself saying “thank you” and “sorry,” and began to feel like a door-to-door salesman, except if I looked behind me, there was the ocean, brightly shifting everywhere, meeting the sky in every shade of gray. A little farther uphill, around the chapel, Jill and Stuart worked at their own sections, leaning into their own walls, as if listening to the heartbeats of stones.
But when we met to compare notes, Stuart was again muttering darkly. It was not good, he said. Not like last time. Worrying.
Over the next ten days, he covered the entire island, from the lighthouse at the eastern cliff top, down to the ends of both storm-scoured peninsulas. Sometimes Jill and I helped. We laid blue nylon ropes over the ground to mark off strips of land so we could tell where we’d been when every stone began to look like every other. Within the roped sections, we crawled a few yards apart, playing our tapes under rocks and cairns. Sometimes birds answered, and soon I couldn’t see an unexplored rock without my heart giving a little leap—a likely place! We found bits of birds, a cradle of seals’ ribs, the exquisite skeleton of a starfish no bigger than a thumbnail. It was a curious task, very intimate, to sail to a faraway island then crawl over it on hands and knees, like pilgrims or penitents.
Every morning we worked the village, which held by far the greatest concentration of birds, and soon developed a feel for the colony’s dynamic. If a bird who’d replied every day for three days was suddenly absent, he got a cross against his number in my notebook, and I knew that he’d slipped out to sea in the small hours. Gone from the chapel, from the village. A wing and a prayer. Now his mate would be sitting meekly on her single egg, a dark eye in the darkness within the dike.
While Stuart spoke to the birds, Jill communed with stones. First she concentrated on Saint Ronan’s chapel. It’s just a shell now, the stones of its western gable much collapsed. It stands at the southern wall of an enclosure, and within the enclosure is a little graveyard, very old. The turf has risen over the centuries, so the humble gravestones, hewn of the sparkly island feldspar, tilt this way and that like little sinking ships.
Nothing is known of Saint Ronan but his name, which, oddly, means “little seal”—as if he’d been a Rona selkie who’d swapped his sealskin for the habit of a monk. Doubtless he was one of the early Scots-Irish monks who sailed from his monastery to seek “a desert place in the sea” where he could live a life of austerity and prayer. Hundreds of years later, the people built the chapel in his name and buried their dead beside it. Now those people are gone, too, and their graveyard is a poignant place.
But suddenly it was en fête. This was Jill’s doing. One day she went around the graveyard and festooned it with a little orange flags on wires, one beside every stone, and the flags snapped in the breeze, so the cemetery seemed to be celebrating a day of the dead. She was plotting the grave markers on a chart; the orange flags helped her see them as she measured their distance from a baseline: a measuring tape strung across the enclosure wall to wall. She was doing this because the stones were going missing. By studying black-and-white photographs from the 1930s or ’50s, she could tell that the stone crosses were being quietly stolen away—and by dint of wind and weather, the medieval chapel was ever more collapsed. It troubled her. The chapel, village, and all the surrounding fields are a scheduled ancient monument, in the care of the state, but the state is far away and has more pressing concerns. So Jill said, “We can at least plot them, so there’s a record of what there was.” Really, she’d like to get people out here, experts from official agencies, an architect, or a drystone diker, who could do some discreet shoring up and save the chapel from complete ruination.
One bright afternoon I held measuring poles and called out the numbers she needed, while Jill, a black baseball cap pulled over her thick hair, bent over a board and mapped the people’s graves.
Of course it made us think of them. The long-dead people whose graves we knelt on. We called them “them” and spoke about them every day. How did they live, what were their lives like, these people who’d managed for generations out here alone in the sea?
The Rona people weren’t unique, they were Gaels, part of the wider culture of the Western Isles; and as Jill kept reminding us, the sea then was a conduit, not a barrier. Nonetheless they lived a long way from any neighbors, had to fend for themselves with their fields and few cattle and sea birds’ eggs. But by the time Martin Martin wrote his travel journal of the Western Isles in 1695, the people were already gone. “That ancient race,” he called them, “perfectly ignorant of most of those vices that abound in the world”—and when you wander round their village and look out at the uninterrupted sea, you know why.
Ronan’s name is known, but the names of those buried under the turf are lost, save for one tantalizing detail, which Martin provides: the Rona people, he says “took their surname from the colour of the sky, rainbow and clouds.”
“Such work,” Jill would say, as we strolled through the overgrown fields. When I asked her who had first come to Rona, if it was Neolithic or Bronze Age people or what, she just smiled and said, “Ooh, we don’t know, do we?” The sea may have been the highway then, but it was still a long way to venture in a skin-covered boat.
The work indeed. All those acres of undulating fields, built up by hand of the scant earth and seaweed. Outwith the enclosing dike lay the rest of the island, which the people must have known down to every blade of grass, every stone. They must have felt acutely the turning of the seasons, the need to lay down stores and supplies, because summer was brief. We arrived in early July, when bog cotton was in bloom, soft white tufts facing into the wind. Two weeks later, its seeds clung to rocks and grasses, or were out to sea and lost.
Daily, our sense of time slowed, days expanded like a wing. The days were long in the best, high-summer sense; at night we put up storm shutters on the bothy window to make it dark enough to sleep. Time was clouds passing, a sudden squall, a shift in the wind. Often we wondered what it would do to your mind if you were born here and lived your whole life within this small compass. To be named for the sky or the rainbow and live in constant sight and sound of the sea. After a mere fortnight I felt lighter inside, as though my bones were turning to flutes.
Saint Ronan rode to Rona on the back of a sea monster, so the legend says. Monster or boat, he’d have jumped ashore giving prayers of thanks sometime in the eighth century.
Whether he was really alone, as romanticists would have it, or whether others came with him—monks, lay penitents, men without women—well, as Jill would say, we don’t know, do we? Surely it would have taken more than one to do the spadework; even saints must eat. And if there were people on Rona already, people who knew exactly how many souls the island would support, watching as the Christians’ boat drew nearer—we don’t know that either.
But we know what the saint sought, because on faraway Rona, there survives something unique. A tiny building. To enter, you must first enter the chapel. Then, low on the eastern gable is another doorway, just a square of darkness with a lintel of white quartz, as though it were Neolithic. You have to crawl, but once inside you can stand freely. At first it seems wholly dark, and it smells of damp earth, but as your eyes adjust, stars of daylight begin to spangle here and there overhead, where, over the many centuries, the stones have slipped a little; so after a while, it’s like being in a wild planetarium.
Darkness, earth—and a sudden quiet; no wind or surf—you find yourself in a place from which all the distracting world is banned. Then you see the stonework. The little oratory is beautifully made, and has stood for twelve hundred years. A low stone altar stands against the east wall. So there is one thing we know of the saint—he had a feel for stone; strong hands. Or someone did. Having sailed here and claimed this island of sea light and sky and seals and crying birds, he built himself a world-denying cell.
Two or three times, when Stuart was inquiring of the birds, and Jill of stones, I crept into the oratory and waited till my eyes adjusted to the low light. I went warily, because a fulmar had made her nest in a corner; too close and she’d spit. A fulmar guarded the saint’s cell, and it was strange to think there were Leach’s petrels secreted in the walls. Seabirds, named for Saint Peter, who walked on water, had colonized a cell built by a saint named for a seal.
I crept in just to wonder what he did in there, Ronan; to imagine him right there, in front of the altar, wrapped in darkness, rapt in prayer, closed off from the sensory world, the better to connect with—what?
I say we had the island to ourselves, but of course that’s nonsense. There were the seals, and thousands of puffins, and colonies of terns on the low rocks, forever rising against some fresh outrage, and down among the rock pools, shags’ slatternly nests.
One evening six swifts appeared, circled above the bothy, and then vanished again. A party of Risso’s dolphins arrived out of the blue, spent half an hour feeding just off the south side, then they, too, went on their way. The time of thrift had passed; every day we met a flock of crossbills, of all things, which twittered round the island, feeding on thrift seeds. Crossbills are birds of the northern pine forest, but nary a pine tree here, and long sea miles to travel before they saw one again. There were about a hundred; the males were bright red and the females brown, so when they all flew by they were like embers blown from a bonfire.
And although no inhabited land was in sight, we weren’t even truly alone in the ocean. Ten miles west, like the moon to Rona’s fertile earth, rose the barren rock of Sula Sgeir—a gannet factory. And there was always the sense of the “ancient race.” Personally, if ever I felt remote or cut off, it wasn’t from the mainland far over the horizon, but from the abandoned village a quarter mile away. There was something homely and recognizable about the oval shapes they made in the earth, and the humble chapel. We ate packet soups and tinned fruit and looked out through the window at the relics of a lost intelligence, the long-forsaken fields, gilded in evening light.
One morning, when the day was already established, I was washing my hair in a basin round at the bothy gable when I heard Stuart shouting. He’d gone out early, over to the north side, but here he was again, bawling from the hillcrest and pointing out to sea. The wind had veered a little during the night, the sea was calm with a few whitecaps, and nothing seemed untoward except—I grabbed a towel—for a party of gannets, ten or a dozen, a half mile out from the island, which were quickly heading toward us. The birds’ wings were a slow white flicker in the sunshine, as I thought later, like the flashes of paparazzi cameras. That’s what I noticed first: that the gannets were flying in a peculiar way, limp and floppy, and in a bunch low above the water, not like the arrow lines they usually form.
This all happened very quickly—the shout, the towel, the wide sea and floppy gannets. I’d seen gannets behave like that just once before, but once was enough; I yelled back, telling Stuart that we were on to it, and wiping soapy water from my eyes, barged into the bothy to find Jill.
We all arrived breathless at the cliffy rim of an inlet called Poll Thothatom. It was where we’d landed, steep sided but for one obliging slope where you could jump ashore without fear of breaking your neck. Now though, at the mouth of the inlet, with the wide sea behind them, five black fins pierced the water’s surface.
Killer whales. The fins were glossy, one was tall and straight, a male’s amid four smaller and more curved. The gannets had peeled away, and the killer whales were turning slowly around one another. Now and then an area of back surfaced, lay for a moment like an atoll as the animal blew softly. It was as if, having arrived, they were taking time to agree on strategy.
We stood side by side on the cliff top, watching with our hearts in our mouths. One thing we knew—they probably weren’t here for a holiday. There were always seals loafing around this geo, both in the water or hauled out on rocks, and until that moment I’d have called a bull seal a big animal, but suddenly the seals were small and tender, and they knew exactly what was going on. In the waters of the geo, about sixty feet below us, the seals were mustering quietly, heads held above the waves. I’d expected to see them lolloping up onto rocks in panic, but instead they hung vertical and looked out at the slow, dreadful fins, while the killer whales held their council. With each incoming wave, the congregation of seals rose and fell, and for a long moment all was tense calm.
Then the killer whales moved. They moved so fast I think I screamed. The females came in two volleys; a few leaps and they were exactly below us, exactly where we’d landed in the dinghy. As soon as she reached the rocks the first animal careened, showing her white belly, and she drew her right flank along the rocks, as though she was glad to feel them, as though she was scratching a maddening sea itch.
Screaming, jumping up and down at their sheer speed and panache, inside I thought, she’s smelling it—I thought the huge animal below was smelling a bouquet of rock, seals, vegetation, maybe even ourselves. That’s what my human mind said—how she seemed to relish the sensation. Then, with these four animals below us, we heard them blow—all synchronized, a sound low, regular, and industrial, like a Victorian machine.
The waves still washed vaguely up against the rocks, and just at the place where water met rock, the four killer whales aligned themselves one behind the other, and it seemed to me already, even in my excitement, that there was something peculiar about how I was seeing them. Four killer whales in front of my eyes, big, big animals, but something about the play of their black-and-white livery was confounding. It was the white patch behind the eye: it seemed to deflect the gaze, the way a mirror or amulet deflects the evil eye.
As I say, I think I screamed, but Jill or Stuart was tugging me, shouting to come on, and we set off running.
The animals had turned west and were moving tight against the island, following its contours. We followed them from above—once again I was running along a cliff top after killer whales. Again! The same as the year before on Shetland. My friend Tim had been there then, we’d run along a cliff much higher than this, it was Tim who’d pointed out the slow-moving entourage of gannets. That day we’d managed to keep up till we lost the animals in a bright band of glare, but these ones were hard against the rocks, and very much faster, and hell-bent on something. They’d ignored the Poll Thothatom seals, but were moving at terrific speed—hunt speed—cutting through the waves’ turquoise backwash, rounding every promontory to the next inlet, out again and into the next.
Hampered by thick grass, our own pounding hearts, we hadn’t a cat’s chance of keeping up, but it was worth trying, and even when they were out of sight, we could hear, coming up from below, like a steam pump in a basement, that thrilling whomp, whomp.
What Jill and Stuart and I said or did or called to each other is blown out of my memory, except that we shouted a lot and ran hard. Every moment we dreaded a sudden thrash and a bloom of blood spreading on the surf: keep calm and watch, I’d told myself—even if it all gets bloody, try and watch, ’cause you won’t see this again, but abruptly the four killer whales struck away from us, and again in two-by-two formation, they swam directly across a bay toward the low peninsula of Sceapull, half a mile off.
Now we could catch our breath. Catch our breath and look through binoculars at the four fins slicing through the water, still traveling fast. Somehow the seals over on Sceapull knew the killer whales were in town, because they, too, were gathering in calm groups, until they were visible only as heads above the water, like floating footballs, waiting.
Somehow we understood that these four killer whales were going to loop the whole island, so figuring they’d round the tip of Sceapull, then drive up the island’s west side, the three of us—like spectators at a Grand Prix—took a shortcut and pounded up to the crest of the island, then ran pell-mell down its steep north side to where we knew there was another geo, so long it almost cleaves the island in two. From there we’d see the killer whales again as they flashed through.
Acid burn at my sternum, taste of blood, tussocky earth and sky flashing and my heart pounding; suddenly I was reminded mine was an animal body, all muscle and nerve—and so were they, the killer whales, surging animal bodies, in their black and whites, outclassing us utterly. We timed it well—the animals powered around round the headland and into the geo below just as we arrived, sending a couple of eider ducks scuttering away, but the killer whales carried on regardless. Again I had them right in my gaze as they leapt through the water, but again that white behind-the-eye patch threw me. Black and white, it’s the conjurer’s garb: a moment’s bewilderment, a sleight of hand, and you’re gone.
By the time we’d run from Poll Thothatom halfway round the island, up over the hill and down the other side, there was no running left in us, and all we could do was jump and shout as the four animals traveled on through the surf zone northward, with the cliff at their right sides, and their vast Atlantic domain to their left. Two by two they went, leaping clear and low over the water, showing the pale underside of their tails as they went down, until at last they were out of sight.
And that was that. We stood for a while, yearning after them, the scary, beautiful animals, as one yearns after a dream, then we turned to head back to the bothy.
Except—we’d forgotten about the male. The male who’d been left behind on his own. Just then I chanced to glance back down at the inlet below us—and there he was. He was rounding the cliff, entering the inlet, conveying his black dorsal fin through the water as if balancing it on a tray, the fin yawing a little as he swam.
This time the three of us stood quietly. This was different; a different kind of tension, local and particular. After the females’ sheer speed and élan, this animal had an air of solitude about him, as though he’d been holding back, almost out of courtesy, while the females went about business of their own. But now, here he was.
Above us, around us, the summer day carried on obliviously, the helpless waves washed the rocks, fell back again, and beyond the cliff-sided inlet with birds on its ledges, the Atlantic lay to the horizon. All was focused here: one huge predator, cruising at his own speed, nearer to us and nearer. We were looking down from above, and he was heading toward us, his fin cutting through the gray-green water. Gradually, as he neared, the bulk of his body became visible; black and white, rippling under the skin of the water like a specter. Stuart lifted his camera and I my binoculars, and we focused on that fin. Tugged in close, it was thick and rubbery, but not rubber, it was glossy, a sort of flesh rubber—and just a little bit crooked. I could hear the clicking of the camera and the waves’ wash, and through the binoculars I saw that this fin had the slightest of wavers, a slight S bend, and as I looked the voice in my mind said I know you; but right then Jill cried “Oh no!” and the thought was dismissed.
Oh no, because also in the geo was a single seal. In our excitement we’d missed her, and she had somehow missed the message every other seal apparently knew. A dreamer, a loner, she was oblivious to the killer whale stealing up behind her because she was facing the wrong way. She was gazing up at us—humans! Up on the rocks! Objects of fascination! Humans who’d run down the hillside pointing and shouting! Who were suddenly bellowing again “For God’s sake, it’s behind you!” as if this were all a pantomime and a fate could be turned by the wave of a magic wand.
A hundred questions. After they were gone, a hundred questions. As we walked back to the bothy, feeling marooned and elated, we talked about what we’d witnessed. The females had indeed whipped round the entire island: we saw them again heading back down the eastern side; then they’d regrouped with the male, and eventually the whole party left, en famille, heading southwest toward Sula Sgeir.
A hundred questions. A small patch of blue on the hill was the towel I’d dropped; it felt like a long time ago. It was certainly a long time since I’d run so fast my lungs ached, since I’d screamed freely—so much for keeping your head when all around were losing theirs.
We had plenty of wine among our essential supplies, and sat that evening drinking and talking. I recalled how the first animal had rolled, seeming to relish the graze of the rock against her flank. Only then it occurred to me that she wasn’t smelling the land at all. Cetaceans can’t smell. Not like a dog can. With what would they smell? They may have been only twenty yards away but they inhabited a different sensory world—I’d just made that bit up, out of my own humanness.
There had been no blood. We’d been braced for blood, but none came. Did the seals know that this wasn’t a real raid? Could seals decipher the text messages killer whales send between themselves? There were seals aplenty, but the killer whales took none at all, not even the lone dreamer. She had lived to idle another day, the bull killer whale had simply dismissed her, had turned and swam off. A wave of a magic wand.
What then? It was almost as if they were checking an inventory—tearing round, slamming open cupboard doors, taking stock. Or, our best speculation: maybe we’d seen an exercise. Maybe we’d seen two mothers training their young in the Way of the Killer Whale: watch and repeat: like this, like this, like this.
We talked through the evening to no conclusion. Out of the shifting sea, the witless sky, out of the ambivalent world had come terrible certainty: a natural law, laid down in black and white, but mystery, too.
Night came, or what passed for night. I couldn’t sleep, so I dressed against the cold, crept out, and walked down to the ruins. The surf boomed under the cliffs. If the seals were calm again, singing loopy psalms of deliverance, I can’t recall. In due course, down at the chapel, the petrels began to arrive. They darted and chased in the night, giving their high chatter, the walls striking sparks of reply. Little dusky things that flit over the ocean, so small you could hold them in the palm of your hand.
Cleared of the dishes of an evening the bothy table accumulated notebooks and bird reports, archaeological monographs, plans and photographs. One evening, maybe a week after we’d arrived, Stuart was sitting opposite Jill and me, head bowed, noting figures and tapping a calculator, calibrating the figures his fieldwork was producing. He’d covered about half the island with his tapes. Abruptly he said, “There’s some consistency emerging here. Almost 40 percent decline, I think, all over. And very suddenly.”
We paused. We all loved the Leach’s petrels: their midnight flit, the backchat they gave us from their burrows.
“That’s bad,” said Jill.
“Why though?” I asked, but Stuart didn’t answer.
“Maybe they get eaten….” Jill said, but he shook his head. “I’m sure it’s not predators. Bonxies get the blame but I’m sure it’s not just that.”
Again he shook his head.
“But you must have some idea,” I persisted. “Is it to do with climate change—with the ocean—is there not enough food…? What do they eat, anyway?”
“Zooplankton, larval-stage fish … creepy-crawly things.”
“Plankton? We’re not running out of plankton, are we?”
This time Stuart put down his pencil, took off his glasses, and pinched his eyes.
“I don’t know. But something’s going on out there.”
Stuart often said there was no such thing as “natural harmony.” It was a dynamic. Populations expand then crash. Mysterious things happen; catastrophic things sometimes, on the island, everywhere. Nothing stays the same.
Our attitude to the village houses we explored and the fields we walked was tempered by a particular piece of knowledge, this: the Rona people hadn’t simply quit their tenancy and sailed away to a life less isolated. Neither had they been forcibly cleared. The village was abandoned because the people had died, all wiped out, suddenly.
It happened about 1680. Their fate was discovered because of a shipwreck. A man called McLeod, his wife, and a “good crew” were heading home from Saint Kilda to Harris, but a storm blew up which drove them a hundred miles north until they were cast up on the rocks of Rona. They managed to save themselves and some provisions, but their boat was destroyed. They’d have been hoping for help, but what they found were corpses.
What had happened is unsure; the stories are peculiar. A plague of rats had somehow swarmed ashore and devoured the people’s supplies. Pirates had stolen their bull. No boat had come north from Lewis that year, which might have brought supplies. These calamities, compounded, were too much. But with everyone dead, who was left to bear witness?
The shipwrecked party buried the bodies and overwintered, then in spring, fashioned a new boat, which they sailed home to Harris to arrive like revenants. That was then. No one has really lived on Rona since.
On our next-to-last day, Jill said to Stuart and me, “Come and look at this stonework.”
She led us down through the ruined village to its southern edge, then toward some more curved low walls, built, as were all the dwelling houses, of stone and turf. To my untrained eye these walls looked no different than the others, but Jill beckoned us to follow her.
Then she jumped down into a curving sort of trench. There, she kneeled at the entrance of a short passageway about four feet long. She brushed the sidewall with her hand. Its stones were close packed and neat.
“See how different this stonework is to the rest, how thick? This wall’s about three-foot thick. Solid. But now, come and look here.”
From the doorway, she followed the external wall a few yards rightward, to a place where it had partially collapsed. There was a hole just big enough to peer into. She handed over her torch and told us to look through the gap. It was like spying through a letter box into a hallway beyond.
“Caved in, I think.”
She took the torch herself and shone the light into the gap within the wall, so the light played along a particular stone, which was tilted with one end in the earth.
“See that stone? If that’s a lintel, and if all that stuff that looks like a floor is actually accumulation debris, then we’re looking at a passageway enclosed within two walls. Now come up here...?”
She climbed nimbly up onto the wall head and stood above us on an uneven platform of flat stones.
“This is its roof, a bit caved in...”
“You’re standing on the roof?”
“… of cell-like structure. Which is a side chamber to that bigger interior, the one that first passageway entered into. This chamber is contained within the thickness of the wall. Maybe it was a sleeping area. All of this”—she gestured around her—“was a very thick-walled circular structure.”
“That means it’s old?”
“Oooh, two thousand years? But what’s happened is that new people have come and changed it to suit themselves. So, jump down here again, come inside… and you have a rectangular room, cut into the preexisting round structure, see? This was done much, much later... look how the stonework here’s not very well made, really, compared to where we just were...?”
“Two thousand years? You mean when the Christians came, there was already a thousand years of settlement...?”
Jill smiled. “Could have been people here, or they could have come and gone... more than once.”
“Long periods of abandonment...”
“Perhaps that’s what this is,” I said, meaning that perhaps someday in the future, when unimaginable change has come to the life we know, a few acres far out in the Atlantic might be pressed into service again.
Many people, including the Stornoway coast guard, knew we were on Rona, but nonetheless, as we cleared the bothy on our last morning and prepared to leave, we all three kept glancing at the horizon. Nothing was said, but only when the boat appeared, a steady gleam in the southeast, did we relax. When it did appear, that was our signal to move. The skipper wouldn’t want to hang about, so we began to heave all the seabags, sleeping bags, gas bottles, tape recorders, and notebooks back down the hillside to the geo, where black rocks tilted to the waves.
Seals were basking there again, they’d watched us come, they’d watch us go, but the rocks we stepped from were different now. They had a wild glamour about them, as though sprayed with an invisible graffiti tag: killer whale was here.
Those killer whales. Perhaps the eye has a memory of its own. One day, a few weeks after we’d returned from Rona, when the sense of light and spaciousness was beginning to wane, an e-mail arrived from a biologist called Andy Foote.
Dr. Foote worked then with the North Atlantic Killer Whale id project, which was based at Aberdeen University. Out of interest and a sort of public spiritedness, we’d sent him photographs of the Rona animals. By magnifying the pictures and by comparing nicks and scars on their fins and backs with pictures held in stock, Dr. Foote concluded that, yes, this party of killer whales was the very same five as had often been seen around Shetland the previous summer. When, from the cliffs of Noss, I’d watched a fin appear out of the water, what I’d seen was a puzzling, six-foot, slightly crooked black line, as if, as I thought then, someone had drawn a stroke with a pencil. A year and 180 miles separated the two encounters, but when on Rona, I’d focused the binoculars again on a stately, slightly wonky fin, and thought, hello, chances are it was indeed the selfsame animal.
Dr. Foote wrote: “This is only the second set of photos of this party of killer whales on the West coast of Scotland, so its a useful bit of data.”
A bit of data to him, but to me it felt like an initiation. “Believe what you see,” say the eye-trained naturalists. Aye, right. Most of the time you’ll sound like an idiot. But once in a blue moon you might be right. You just might be making the same journeys as these other creatures, all of us alive at the same time on the same planet.
Tonight, at home, with the blinds closed against the winter dark, the shipping forecast gives “…increasing severe gale force nine later.” But that’s nothing. Some storm waves are so big they sweep clean over the peninsula of Fianius.
I’d like to witness that. To see Rona in winter, just for a few short days: to hear the sea roar, and spend long nights under the wheel of the stars. You’d soon know why the houses were dug down deep into the earth.
The seals will be there, but the birds will be flown. The Leach’s petrels, new colonizers of the village, will be away far down into the southern Atlantic. The cliffs will be bare, too, the puffins and guillemots dispersed out to sea. Skuas likewise, all headed south. As for the crossbills, heaven knows. One day, and with one mind, they must simply up sticks and go, twittering over the waves.
Kathleen Jamie is the author of the essay collection Findings (Graywolf) and eight collections of poetry, including Mr & Mrs Scotland Are Dead (Picador) and The Treehouse (Bloodaxe), which received the Forward Poetry Prize. She waselected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2009 and lives in Scotland.
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