|Diary - July 2005|
57º 16' 42.92N; 5º 44' 20.42W
I came here on the fourth of July and my days have been full ever since. In my first few weeks, by walking the island (9½ acres, with a ½ mile network of wooden walkways and cobbled and marble-chip paths) and re-reading the books of Richard Frere and John Lister-Kaye, I have begun to see how the island might have looked back in 1968/69 when Gavin Maxwell was living here.
I see the strong-arm job that Richard Frere & Co. accomplished when they converted the cottages in '64/'65, and the remnants of the Zoo Park project of '69 – particularly Willie MacAskill's stock fence, built to keep in the goats and still standing sturdy after 36 years; testament to a Skye man's know-how. I've discovered the old well, and the site of the generator shed built by Richard Frere; I've yet to place John Lister-Kaye's 'Mansion Rock', or the path down to East Bay; and unfortunately much of the lighthouse keepers' walled garden now lies beneath the bulk of the Bridge. Teko's memorial remains of course, his name and dates carved in stone – a welcome surprise for the Maxwell cognoscenti.
The Long Room smells of stately homes: of furniture polish, antiques and rugs, and the artefacts – the Maxwell memorabilia – continue to impress. The lighthouse, seemingly silent and under-employed, still speaks: the weather vane atop its cupola points and states: 'West,' or 'North,' or 'East, Sir'; the whitewashed tower says: 'Since 1857 I am here, and I remain.'
Mike rolls over to the island most days to conduct the tours, and Suzanne continues to look after the holiday let. Margaret presides over the Bright Water Centre in Kyleakin, and every other Thursday Marcus, David and Dr Adamson – the work party – arrive to spend the day, come rain or shine, taming nature's continued advance. We've tidied the SWRI garden, and pulled weeds by Teko's memorial. We've hauled out the bracken that was threatening to envelop the sensory garden (the mint there, and the borage, is doing especially well); we continue to work on the paths, cutting back.
The daily afternoon tour to the island brings dreamers and romantics and readers who fell under the spell. People come to see the lighthouse, to make use of the hide to watch the seals and the bird life going on in the Inner Sound, or they come to look for the otters who continue to make this place their home. Some are content just to sit on the bench outside the house, to drink in the views.
Now that I'm here my low-fi amateur naturalist status vexes me. I need more books. I need an ornithologist, a marine biologist and a botanist on hand to verify my amateur sleuthing. Calling a tree 'a tree' just won’t do anymore. Yes, it's a tree, but which species of tree? So all right, that's a butterfly. Now classify it. Tell me how long it's expected to live, show me its larvae, its preferred habitat, its predators? What does it feed on? And how? Though I remain mostly ignorant, I'm learning something new every day.
On the island so far I've seen the dapper burnet moth, wagtails using the place as a stopover on the flight-path to Skye; I've seen pipistrelle bats quartering overhead at dusk down by the jetty in Lighthouse Bay, I've seen tortoiseshells and red admirals, common blues, and plenty of bumblebees.
I've watched a party of knot and sandpipers perched down on the rocks by East Bay, greenfinch, a wren amid the heather and honeysuckle up by the bothy steps. A whitethroat does its rounds most mornings; a robin accompanies the work party on Thursdays. Rock pipits, alighting on top of the hide, beaks full of worm, anxiously wait until I get out of sight before flying into the heather to feed young.
I stand on the summit of the bridge, 100 feet above the island, and watch a long trail of moon jellyfish drifting through the channel below. I watch the herons (about whom there is definitely "something of the night"), from neighbouring Eilean à Mhal, standing in the shallows of East Bay waiting to spear a fish. I respect the gulls here – the way they stand patiently on rocks in the wind, watching, or bobbing about like little grey boats in the water, or standing splay-footed on seaweed (Yes, but what kind of seaweed?) looking grumpy, proprietorial. And I admire the hooded crows, hopping along the rocks attempting to look innocent, when everyone knows they're as guilty as sin. I admire the guillemots and the oystercatchers, the 'hairy caterpillars', the slugs and the beetles (I know, I know… More books! I need more books); the beauty of the foxgloves, the rowans and the dog rose.
I've seen three otters so far – very cool characters – and the otter tunnels reek of fresh spraint. The otters appear untroubled by the bridge and its traffic, by the visitors, and the shipping and yachts that continually pass through the Kyle. From the hide I watch the seals basking on the Fork Rock skerries, and when the weather deteriorates I watch in awe as the gannets show their mastery, flying in over the Sound like ace fighter pilots. The young trees that were planted in 2002 continue to do well, a vole occasionally nips out of hiding to steal a fresh new blade of grass; I found a toad on the path by the lighthouse last night (How did it get here? Why did it come?), but I've found no pine marten scats or seen mink, though I continue to come across the desiccated skulls of their prey. So much to see, so much to learn.
Of ghosts (for this island is said to be haunted) I've seen no sign, not yet, though it's summer and they're said to be winter visitors only. The house moans, and occasionally creaks, but it's only the wind round the chimneys, the guttering, expanding and contracting, the house breathing.
I still think that the management of Eilean Bàn by the Trust is a Good Idea, and that a number of things make this place important: the Stevenson lighthouse, the lighthouse keepers' cottages and the history of these isles that they represent; the Long Room and its exposition of a compelling writer; the hide with its space and light; the otters and the flora and fauna, and the views. Even the bridge has it's own beauty, and comes in handy for the mainland or Skye and a pint.
There are guests staying in the cottages now, so I'm not totally alone. For sure, Eilean Bàn isn't the island it once was, and living here is no longer heroic – no boats to land in raging gales, no forced sleepovers in the village, no generators to tend or unreliable radio-phones. But the island has a different role to play these days and the echoes of all the hard work and hope, together with the superlative views (and perhaps the ghosts) remain. And when I look up from my work here – from edging the paths, from painting and clearing and digging and weeding – and look out at the view: "My word, Boothby, you're a lucky man." I used to sleep in, and lie around reading all day, but on The White Island, in the summer, why on earth would I want to do that? At night I retire to my bed in what was once the old coal shed. And I don't mind a bit. I'm all too aware that an island gives you time, then tells you to be gone. The house and the island have had a long winter and there's still a lot to be done. Time enough.
Dan Boothby - July 2005