The Highlander and the Sea Siren – Excerpt
Port of Ness is a little fishing village nestling at the far western corner of the Hebridean Isle of Lewis. It’s a remote and beautiful place, with the cottages and crofts hugging the cliff top, and the moorland stretching, brown and gold and umber into the distance. A steep path winds its way from the centre of the village, meandering through the white-washed thatched cottages to the harbour. The silver sands of the beach stretch in an inviting crescent, following the contours of the starkly rising, forbidding cliffs.
The sea is the life-blood of the people of Ness, called Niseachs in their own Gaelic language, but her plunder is often hard won, for she is a temperamental mistress, calm and inviting one minute, seething and roiling the next. Even in the height of summer, the tranquillity of the glittering turquoise depths can turn gunmetal grey, the gentle white-crested surf becoming a vicious swell, high enough to envelop the tiny fishing boats, powerful enough to consume the strongest swimmer.
As you would expect, the sea forms a central role in the customs and lore of the Niseachs too. No wife will do her laundry on the day her man goes out in his boat, for fear of him being washed away. A minister, a red-haired woman, even a man with a squint, are bad luck to meet on the way to a boat. Equally bad luck, it is, to say the words Kirk, hare or pig. All can rouse the sea from her slumber, though she can be appeased by the touching of cold iron, or the presence of a child’s caul.
Lullabies and stories while away the long winter’s nights on Ness. Huddled together for warmth in front of the peat fire, the Niseachs tell of sirens and mermaids and shipwrecks and lost souls. This is one such tale.
Port of Ness, Late Nineteenth Century
The storm had been raging all night. Waves pounded relentlessly onto the shore, huge breakers like vicious maws, churning the sand, casting seaweed and shells high over the usual tide line, as far as the cliffs on top of which Lachlan Sinclair’s house perched, at the furthermost point of the village.
It was Midsummer’s Eve, a strange night for such a tempest. Unable to sleep, Lachlan rolled out of bed and padded naked over to the window. Pushing back the shutter and lifting the sash, he was assaulted by a cold blast of air which whipped his shoulder-length black hair straight back from his face. Above him, the thatch rustled and lifted with the force of the gale. The shutter was wrenched out of his hand, banging against the stone of the cottage wall.
Below him, the sea was a cauldron of movement. The sky, which had been velvet black and cloudless, scattered with stars when he went to bed, was now a strange colour of silvery grey streaked with dusky pink.
An ominous sky, he thought, stretching out of the window to look up beyond the overhang of the thatch. There was something in the air, no doubt about it. The hairs on the back of his arm stood on end, though the storm was not an electrical one.
A gust of wind whirled through the room, scattering ash from the embers of the fire. Lachlan hastily closed the window. Sleep had deserted him. With practiced ease, he re-lit the fire and hooked the heavy kettle over it. Soon, the room was filled with the familiar smell of smoking peat, and the less usual – for these parts – aroma of delicate China tea. Lachlan measured the leaves carefully from the enamelled tea chest which had belonged to his grandmother, smiling as usual at the delicately painted and comical figure of the sampan man hiding in the reeds who was sneaking a sly look at the bathing geisha girl.
Sipping on the pale brew from the cup and saucer with the dragons which had also been his grandmother’s, Lachlan allowed his thoughts to drift back in time. He’d spent every holiday he could down at the big old house just outside Fairlie on the south west coast of Scotland, where his grandparents had lived. His grandfather had been a merchant, but his real love was the sea. His tea clippers were the sleekest and fastest in the world, but he used to race yachts too, and had a small boatyard in the town which built luxury craft. Here, Lachlan spent most of his time, sweeping up wood shavings, fetching and carrying, varnishing and caulking, until over the years he learned every part of the trade. In the afternoons there was Lapsang Souchong in his grandmother’s drawing room, where afternoon tea, with her own home-made drop scones and Dundee cake, was as much an un-missable ritual as the laying out of the skeleton of a new boat, or the launch of a finished one. Soothed by the memories, Lachlan fell into a doze by the fire.
He awoke as dawn broke. Pulling on his shirt and belting his rough work trousers, he decided to see for himself what havoc the night had wreaked. The sky was new-washed, the palest of blue tinged with the blushing pink of the early morning. Barefoot, Lachlan made his way out of the cottage, along the cliff top, to the narrow path which zigzagged down the cliffs to the beach.
The sea was aquamarine and almost flat calm now, the gently lapping waves like contented sighs on the silver sand. A thick line of weed marked the zenith of its rage. Lachlan made his way along the beach, a tall figure glowing with health, his long legs striding with ease on the hard sand, his hair ruffled by the breeze which flattened his shirt against his torso, outlining the broad shoulders and muscled chest of a man used to physical labour.
At the far end of the beach, where the harbour wall curved out to sea, was a clump of rocks. Here were deep pools filled with vibrant anemones, scuttling crabs, flounders and tiddlers, a favourite spot with the bairns. From a distance, he took it for a large clump of weed, huddled against the rocks. The pale shimmer showing through, he took for sand. Then it moved. Too large for a beached porpoise, his first thought. And too pale. Lachlan approached cautiously. Not weed, but hair. Not sand, but skin. Even as he looked in amazement, the shape unfurled and revealed itself to be a young woman of astonishing beauty, with the most speaking pair of deep brown eyes he had ever seen.
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