Marooned on the uninhabited Scottish island of Scarba with only his terrier for company, Patrick Galbraith discovers the realities of a solitary way of life.
I’ve heard it said that, sooner or later in life, most people are struck by a desire to live apart from the world. Whether they’re searching for their own Walden Pond or just fancy finding out if they’re capable of life without loo paper, I don’t know. However, as the boat tore off across a drizzly sombre sea, I was suddenly aware that I’ve never been afflicted by any such desire.
I’m not opposed to an out-of-doors life. I take pride in my plum trees and generally prefer Hardy to Dickens, but, when the sound of the engine faded, the reality of spending five nights alone on an uninhabited island suddenly hit me.
Admittedly, I wasn’t completely alone. As I picked my way along the coastline, tripping over a rope trailing from a lobster pot on my back, a little dog sulked behind me, her velveteen ears flapping in the tangy breeze.
Scarba is a precipitous mountain rising up between two notoriously dangerous tidal races. To the south, the Corryvreckan Whirlpool rages and, to the north, the Grey Dogs rushes out into the Atlantic. The former almost killed George Orwell in 1948 when he misread the tide and the latter is said to be the watery grave of a Viking prince’s canine companion. According to Hebridean lore, the ghost of the drowned dog prowls the cliffs on moonless nights, seeking out the souls of shipwrecked sailors sheltering in caves along the shore.
It was in the back of one of the more luxurious caves — luxurious on account of the goat dung littering the floor being relatively dry — that I decided to unpack my sleeping bag. Five minutes later, after finding a ledge for the books I had with me and pouring a little whisky, I declared the place home.
Earlier that day, a ginger-haired man on the mainland assured me that, not far above the rocky scree on Scarba, there’s ‘a wee lochan full of famished trout’. Capitulating to my hunger, I picked up my fishing rod and walked out into the rain.
An hour later, I was still walking and, an hour after that, with darkness beginning to threaten, I traced my way back.
That night, as the flames of my feeble fire threw shadows on the back wall, I shivered in silence and looked at my dog. Not long ago, she would have roamed the island looking for things to kill, but, now, her muzzle grows grey and she only cares for afternoons by the Aga.
‘Fishing with hunger in your belly and despair in your heart is altogether different’
At 8pm, I forced myself into a sleeping bag that had belonged to my brother when he was a Boy Scout of slender build. Lying there half-suffocating, with my nipples exposed to the wind and desperately willing sleep to come, I evaluated Hattie. In 2011, I paid £200 for her as a puppy, so I estimated she’s cost about 0.05p a day — remarkable value for a dog of such kindness.
Then, I awoke. Hoping it was 4am or 5am, I turned over my watch. Painfully, it was just 10pm. The rest of the night followed the same pattern — I would lull myself to sleep with some tedious calculation and then awake an hour later, starving, frightened and cold.
Twelve hours passed and, in the east, out across the dark waves, a new day dawned. Cheered I hadn’t been molested by the Grey Dogs, I stumbled along the coastline with my lobster pot. For a moment, it occurred to me it might be better just to eat my small supply of bacon rather than use it as bait, but I prefer lobster to Tesco’s smoked streaky.
After setting the creel, I collected my fishing rod and scrambled up the hill. Three hours and five false peaks later, I stood overlooking a bleak lochan. I’m no stranger to ham-fistedly flinging a fly across Britain’s prettier rivers in the hope of seducing an overfed and underbrained salmonid, but fishing with hunger in your belly and despair in your heart is altogether different.
About 335 casts later, I looked upwards and started remonstrating with the clouds. It wasn’t going to be long until rain was falling over the island. Then, noticing the line was stuck, I flicked my rod to tug it free of whatever encumbrance held it and, almost immediately, the water in front of me erupted. Two trout had taken both my flies and were running hard across the loch, the last of the sun glinting on their iridescent scales each time they broke through the surface.
That evening, I covered the fish in Worcestershire sauce and cooked them over a fire before settling down for a night of rest much like the previous one.
It would have been far too easy if the lobster pot had ensnared a veritable seafood platter just half a day after I set it, so I decided to spend the day reading. At the very least, it would delay the gratification of a tremendous haul.
It’s not my usual reading material, but, after much thought, I’d decided Mitford and Amis would be a reliable antidote to the wretchedness of cave life. Frustratingly, however, a hungover mix-up resulted in my packing Amis junior rather than Amis senior, which led me to spend the rest of the day leafing through The Pursuit of Love.
‘For hours, I wandered the shore, skimming stones and flailing my arms about while singing Wuthering Heights’
At 6am the following morning, I stopped trying to work out how many dogs travel on the Northern Line on Saturdays and peered out of my sleeping bag. Not far beyond the cave, six geese were crossing the sea. It was a clear sign that crustaceans had flocked to my bacon and I ran barefoot to the shore.
Not since a girl at nursery school set about my teddy with some scissors have I felt despair like I felt that morning. The smoked streaky was gone, but the creel was empty. For hours, I wandered the shore, skimming stones and flailing my arms about while singing Wuthering Heights. When the sun broke through, I perched on a washed-up barrel and looked out over the sea.
In the rich silence, it struck me that modern life is so feverish that we live from one day to the next without ever considering how we really feel. I sat and thought that, in everyone’s formative years, there’s an experience that makes us realise we won’t live forever. As I watched Hattie paddling, I recalled standing at the front of a group of people, almost exactly a year ago, reading a passage from a novel my uncle had written. He’d killed himself a month previously. I remembered thinking how masterfully crafted the concluding paragraphs were and wondered whether I’d ever be able to write like that.
However, sitting on the beach watching the tide coming in, I was haunted by the pain etched on the congregation’s faces that day and the vanity of my thoughts hit me. Wandering back to the cave, I realised it didn’t matter whether I could write like he could — what mattered was to try to live my life in a way that meant I’d never plumb such depths of destructive unhappiness.
That night, I came upon an unexpectedly terrifying bit of Mitford in which the tyrannical uncle kills six Germans with an entrenching tool he later hangs above the mantelpiece in the lounge. Throwing the paperback towards the purring embers of the fire, I retreated into my sleeping bag.
‘I got hung up on the image of a hair-shirted Scots monk breathlessly chasing a choirboy around the aisles and nothing else would come’
Sleep came, but I awoke soon afterwards. Hattie was slumped in the mouth of the cave snoring like a gin-soaked fishwife. ‘Please. No more,’ I hissed quietly, attempting not to alert the prowling Grey Dog, but the terrier droned on.
The following morning, with calm weather looking set to stay, I tramped over the island in search of a crumbling graveyard and chapel I’d read about. Down on the north-eastern shore, Hattie’s hackles went up and she pushed her nose into the wind. Crouching so as to not silhouette myself against the skyline, I crept forwards and, as we came to the top of a small rise, she started growling. Grabbing a stick, I leapt forwards ready to attack whatever it was on the other side. As I landed, three goats flew out of the bracken and crashed away through the woods with Hattie snapping at their tails.
For some hours that afternoon, I sat among the rocks of the ruined chapel and tried to write some Gothic haikus. Regrettably, I got hung up on the image of a hair-shirted Scots monk breathlessly chasing a choirboy around the aisles and nothing else would come. I closed my book — that’s not the sort of poet I want to be.
Later, as I drifted off to sleep, terrifying vignettes came to me. I dreamt I awoke to find the cave blocked up and, in searching for a way out, discovered the same names that had been inscribed on the gravestones scratched into the walls.
At 7.30am the following morning, the sun had cleared Jura, turning the sea a glimmering blue. It was the most I’d slept in days. Changing out of my pyjamas, I packed my fishing rod and went to haul up the lobster pot.
Somewhere across the water, I could hear the sound of a boat coming to meet me and I realised that, in the past few days, my thinking had become clearer than it had been in months. Taking my woolly hat off for the first time in a week, I turned, waved it at the cave, then carried on along the shore.
Scarba is owned by the Cadzow family, who kindly gave the writer permission to stay on the island. The Cadzows are well known for developing Luing cattle. In 1965, they gained official certification for their shorthorn, Highland crosses, making Luing cattle the first new breed in more than 100 years.
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