Leaving, and finding, Grimsay
by R Michael Small © 2012This is a fiction story with factual elements. Grimsay exists, very little is known about it and "the other world" is very much a part of Gaelic culture. Grimsay was explored during a trip to Islay, and my interest in Gaelic culture inspired me to write this story some time later. I hope you enjoy it. Special thanks to Scott Morrison who provided the Gaelic translations for the dialogue.
Ten years old, with fair hair and pale skin, Aonghas sat with his back against a standing stone, unfocused eyes staring out over the bracken and heather toward Loch Gearach in the distance. The day's low-lying, gray fog prevented him from seeing the loch, which was about ½ mile away, and added to the chill in the air. Aonghas was dressed in faded brown briogais (trousers), brògan (shoes) and leine (shirt), wrapped in a faded green and brown plaid, which he kept pulling tighter around his slight body, trying to stay warm in the cool dampness. Most days the plaid was very comforting, but today it wasn't and the cold, gray sentinel felt icy against his back. Da, his father, said the stone had been placed long ago by a people no one remembered, for reasons no one knew, and the stone would probably be standing long after everyone in Grimsay was gone and forgotten. He pulled the plaid even tighter around himself and then thought perhaps it was the sadness in his heart that prevented the plaid from warming him.
Today, he and Da were leaving for a land far away, across the sea, that Aonghas never heard of until Da made the announcement several weeks ago. He could not imagine leaving the small settlement in which he had been born, and where his Ma died, but Da said the new land offered opportunity for him and Aonghas. Da said he could no longer justify remaining here and walking long distances each day for work in order to buy not enough food, despite a small garden and seafood from nearby waters. Aonghas was hungry most of the time and it was that very hunger which caused Aonghas to grow up small for his age, and claimed his mother soon after Aonghas' birth.
His mother was buried a short distance away, her grave marked by a quickly fading wooden cross. Da never remarried, raising Aonghas with the help of neighbors. Despite the hardship Aonghas was a cheerful boy who loved his Da, and enjoyed playing with the other children. Recently though, and with increasing frequency, neighbors left and now only a few of the 12 black houses were occupied. Da and Aonghas were not the first to leave and would probably not be the last. The past few days were spent selling anything of value they did not need to take, and giving away the remainder. As a result their blackhouse was almost empty on this, the last day. With a heavy sigh Aonghas again tugged at the plaid, then leaned his head back against the stone and closed his eyes, remembering happier days.
Suddenly his thoughts were interrupted by a cold, wet nose pushing into the underside of his hands. His Border Collie, Trobhad, sensing Aonghas' sadness was trying to cheer him in the way dogs do: attention. Absent-mindedly Aonghas reached out to stroke the dog's long black and white coat. Trobhad came in close to nuzzle Aonghas' face then began to lick it frantically while his tail beat the air in a frenzy. Aonghas found himself laughing, then sobbing. He pulled Trobhad to him in a hug and buried his face in the dog's fur.
"Oh Trobhad", he asked, "am bi thu gam ionndrain a cheart cho mor 's a bhios mise?" [O Trobhad, will you miss me as much as I will miss you?"]
Da had been given Trobhad soon after Ma died, with the explanation the boy would need a companion while Da was off at work. How Da was expected to feed the dog seemed to be of no concern but Da had relented and allowed the boy to keep the dog, reasoning he did in fact need a companion now Ma was gone and Da was away at work much of the day. The boy and his dog had grown up together but at 10 years old Aonghas was still a boy, while Trobhad was an old dog. Still, he probably had a few years remaining and he kept up with Aonghas during their adventures. Sadly, taking such an old dog on a long trip was not possible and it pained Da to tell Aonghas they would not take Trobhad with them.
Aonghas had pleaded with Da, to no avail. Da patiently explained there would be just enough money to pay for their passage and food for the voyage with very little left over to use at their destination. Needless to say, feeding and caring for a dog while on board a crowded ship was not possible and no one knew what challenges would be faced in the new land. So, Da's decision was final; Trobhad would remain.
Inquiry had been made of the few remaining friends and neighbors to take Trobhad but they were worse off financially than Aonghas and Da, and did not need another animal to feed. The estate factor was asked but he sneered and said no because Trobhad was too old and more pet than worker; "A useless dog if ever there was one."
It was suggested that Aonghas simply tie up Trobhad when they left to prevent him from following them to Port Sgioba, but he could not bear that thought. Instead he would simply tell Trobhad to stay at the standing stone, leave the door open to their blackhouse, and console himself with the belief Trobhad would sooner or later have the sense to leave and someone would care for him. At worst he'd be able to get into the blackhouse for shelter. Aonghas would, in essence, leave Trobhad in God's hands.
The lad and his dog remained sitting in the damp mist for quite some time, the boy cuddling the dog and stroking his coat while Trobhad's tail softly beat against the damp grass and he occasionally licked the underside of Aonghas's chin. Aonghas spoke softly to Trobhad, remembering all the fun they had together: on fine, calm, sunny days they would paddle Aonghas' small curach around the loch and try to catch small fish; on windy or cool days they would walk north past one of the hills which Da said was an old fort, and play on the sand at Tràigh Mhachir. One particularly windy but sunny day they set out at first light and stayed out far too long, arriving home just after it was dark. Da was not pleased.
All too soon the moment he was dreading came as he heard Da calling him:
"Aonghas, tha an t-am ann ri ullachadh airson falbh !" ["Aonghas, it's time to get ready to leave."]
Reluctantly Aonghas told Trobhad to get off him, and the boy slowly climbed to his feet while his dog sat to await direction, looking expectantly toward the house. Aonghas squatted down to pat the dog one last time, and told him to stay. Then he walked sadly to the stone house, helped Da gather up the few items they would take with them, and did not look back as he and Da walked away.
Years later, from across the sea, Stephen and Laurie Graham were visiting Ìle on holidays. One sunny, but windy day they were driving along in their hired car, exploring, and found a sign that read "FOOTPATH TO GRIMSAY OLD SETTLEMENT AND STANDING STONE". They pulled over, parked the car, a small, blue, two door import, as carefully as they could, and grabbed their Nikon camera and Steiner binoculars. Walking a short distance, about 150 yards, from the road, around a slight corner and up a small rise they saw Loch Gearach a short distance away.
Stephen, 6 feet tall with short dark hair, dark skin and piercing gray eyes, was dressed in gray shorts, black hiking boots with dark gray lightweight wool socks, and lightweight blue fleece shirt. He pushed back the baseball style cap he was wearing, raised the binoculars to his eyes and scanned the land beyond the loch.
"Well, I see several old stone buildings" he reported. Then he added "More accurately, what remains of them."
"How far is it?" Laurie asked. Laurie was dressed in a similar manner but was 5 ft 10inches tall with long blond hair tied back in a pony-tail, blue eyes and fair skin.
"Perhaps a mile. Could be farther. Take a while to get there. Are you up for it?"
"Yes, let's go but we should grab our packs, just in case."
"Right" Steve agreed, "wait here and I'll grab them from the car."
Within minutes Steve returned wearing a small black day-pack which contained a lightweight wind and water proof jacket along with basic first aid equipment. He tossed a similarly equipped, but gray in color, pack to Laurie who easily caught and donned it.
Thus prepared, and ready, they set out toward Grimsay occasionally stopping to look back at their progress. For the most part they did not speak unless one noticed a plant, or other item of interest, and they stopped to take a picture or two. After a rather circuitous, and challenging up and down route which was damp in several places, they arrived at the first of the stone buildings. They explored the area for about 30 minutes and found themselves wondering aloud:
"Who lived here and for how long?"
"Did they fish in the loch?"
"When and why did they leave?"
Stephen took several pictures of the building remains, and the standing stone. Eventually it was time to leave so they started the walk back to the car. Arriving at the point where the settlement would soon disappear from view Stephen again raised the binoculars to his eyes, quickly scanning the buildings and standing stone.
With a puzzled expression he exclaimed "That's odd".
"What is odd?" asked Laurie.
"Did you see or hear anyone else out there?"
"No, why do you ask?"
"I just saw a young boy and dog playing near that standing stone, but now they are gone."
"Where could they have gone?" she wondered.
"I have no idea. I only caught a glimpse because I was primarily looking at the old buildings. No sign of them now though."
"Think we should go back out there and look?" asked Laurie, an expression of concern clouding her face.
After a few seconds thought and glimpse at the sky Steve responded. "No, it's getting dark and the sky is threatening rain as well. Besides, I am not positive I saw anyone, but we'll stop in Port Sgioba and tell someone, just in case."
Fewer than five minutes later they were back in the car. Steve started the car, carefully checked the mirrors for other vehicles and slowly pulled off the side of the road and into the travel lane. Arriving back in Port Sgioba 30 minutes later they stopped in a small shop to report their observation. They were assured the local constabulary would be contacted. They did not notice the knowing look exchanged between the locals who were clustered around a small table, drinking afternoon tea.
Later that day they stopped at the "Islay Life" museum and asked the receptionist, a young dark haired woman about 20 years old, dressed smartly in a dark skirt and matching blazer about the old settlement. They were directed to the local historian, also smartly dressed, who warmly shook their hands and introduced himself as Mr. MacIntyre. He was about 50 years of age, with a full head of gray, not-too-long hair, and tanned skin. He was an Ìleach, a native of Ìle, and Gaelic speaker, which was of interest to the Grahams, and he was dressed in a fèileadh-beag which Steve recognized as a clan Domhnall pattern. After introducing themselves Steve complimented Mr MacIntyre on his small-kilt and then asked about Grimsay.
"Sadly," he said with a slight shake of his head, "Grimsay is one of the old villages about which we know very little. There was a survey, during the 1980s, conducted by the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments but Grimsay was not mentioned. Based on its condition we believe Grimsay might date from the very late, rather than mid, 19th century but we really cannot be certain."
MacIntyre sighed and added, "Tha mi duilich. I am sorry I cannot be more helpful."
"Well, that's more than we knew" Stephen responded and thanked him. They chatted for a few minutes about their interest in the island's history before Stephen and Laurie said it was time they left for dinner. They said their goodbyes, shook his hand, and turned to leave.
As they did so Mr MacIntyre sucked in his breath, gestured with his right hand and added:
"Oh, there is one more thing. Unofficial. It's folklore you understand but you might find it interesting because of what you told me of your interest in Gaelic culture during our conversation."
The Grahams stopped, and Mr MacIntyre continued: "If you are there on the right day, at the right moment, you will see a dog and boy playing near the standing stone. The boy is dressed in the old way and if you wave, he will wave back, but if you begin walking toward them they will immediately begin walking north toward Tràigh Mhachir. If you simply watch them they will play for a time then walk into one of the abandoned blackhouses. If you go searching for them, you won't find a trace."