in the beginning
There is an island far away where the land is the hardest of rock and the surrounding sea is always cold. One day long ago, for reasons equally long forgotten, people came to this place and made their home on the unforgiving land. They built their houses of stone and scratched their food from the thin and sickly soil, but it was never enough and every day the young and the weak died. Only the strongest survived. One morning, the chief of their number went down to the sea’s edge and he did not come back till darkness had fallen. Then he gathered his men together and he spoke to them.
“Tomorrow we shall take our boats and we shall catch food from the icy sea. This will keep us alive and nourish our children so they can grow strong. This our people will do for as long as there is one of us alive on this land.”
With that he went back to his house and the others did likewise. All his comrades were happy with the news, and from that day on the men went out and pulled food from the cold waves.
The chieftain’s wife was not so pleased. While the men were away she assembled all the women and she spoke to them.
“I followed my husband to the shore that first day,” she said. “I heard him as he struck a bargain with the Queen of the Sea. She has permitted him to fish the waters of her realm, but there is a price to be paid. For every dozen children that her bounty sustains through youth, she will take back one full-grown man to keep her company in the depths of the waves. She has sent her nine black Kelpies to see that this is done and she has turned them into stone. Look where they now sit outside our calm bay.”
She pointed out to sea where a ring of sharp black stones lay waiting. “They will watch our boats and when the time is right they will choose which shall return and which shall not.”
At her words the women fell to weeping and wailing, but the chieftain’s wife would have none of this. “There is nothing we can do at sea now a bargain has been struck, but there is much we can do on land. We must harden ourselves to our lives.”
As she spoke she lifted her sharp dagger from her waist and pushed it into her chest. She cut a hole and pulled out her heart and flung it to the ground, where it lay beating like a fish pulled from water. Then she bent down and cut a stone from the skin of the island. This she put into her chest and the skin healed all around it. “This is what we all must do if we are to face this life and keep our minds.”
The women around her stood up and did just as she had done, except for a few here and there who fled crying into their houses. The chieftain’s wife watched them go. “From this day on we will watch the Kelpies, and we will watch the Sea Queen’s realm. We will know her as well as any mortal can, but we will not stir from the shore and she will not be able to reach us. We will take back from her all that we can. We have made no bargain and never shall we.”
So it was in the beginning and so it is to this day. Time has changed some things, but the most important remain. The same families who first made their bargain live on the little island – Eilean Beag. Their houses have changed and their language has changed but inside they are made the same. Down in the township by the shore they make their lives, but their families have grown and prospered and spread. Along the road and over a narrow strait is the big island – Eilean Mor – a place of many villages but most importantly a town called Port Malin. It is a busy, bustling place with a harbour and shops and streets, but out in the bay the Kelpies still watch over. They are not the only ones. Along the coast in a little stone house sits an old woman descended from the Chieftain’s wife. She knows the tides and she knows the currents. If there is a body in the water she will know if and where it will come ashore, and there have been many. Every day she walks the sandy coastal fringe which is known as machair, and every day she walks past six headstones, neatly lined up amidst the flower-strewn grass. She knows that only the strongest can survive the land and the weather, but even they can perish in the sea. She knows that the truly blessed – the lucky ones – are the ones that cross the water and never look back
Here is a story from this place and of these people. Of the weak, whose minds were lost, and of the strong who survived to tell the tale. But most of all about the lucky ones: the ones that got away