Remains in the Sand

The final part after Skye, Lewis and Harris.

This is my earliest memory.

I’m walking beside a giant dune, the brilliant white sand squeaking underfoot, the brilliant white sky glaring overhead. My attention is all at ground level, absorbed in the yellow and green spinifex spiking out of the sand. But I’m aware of a presence, tall, bearded: my father.

There’s no-one else here; there rarely is, on the east coast of Tasmania in 1970. I’m two, and I’m camping in Seymour with my Dad, while Mum is at home, pregnant with my brother.

I’ve found something: a grey shape in the sand, half-buried. It’s the small, dessicated corpse of an animal, a rat or, I prefer to think (and quite possibly it was), a bandicoot.

There’s a handkerchief scrap of skin; a bundle of bleached white bones; and a delicate feather-light skull. Or perhaps it’s fresher than that, and its face still has features; these memories are almost as old as I am, and have been shaped and reshaped over thirty-four years. I can picture this animal in my head, but its details blur under my gaze as sunlight bleeds into it from the sand.

“It’s a bandicoot,” Dad tells me, “a dead bandy.” And I suppose this is my first encounter with death. So this is what happens when you die; the sun bakes you dry, and the wind drives fine white sand through your ribs into your body, until one day you’re just sand, too.

Later that day, the campsite cleared and the fire put out, we climb into our grey ex-Hydro Land Rover and circle around to drive off. “Bye-bye,” I wave at the dunes. Bye-bye, campsite; bye-bye, Seymour. Bye, dead animal.

No darkness, no menace; just a natural death, and a quiet funeral.


The word “dune” comes from the Gaelic dùn, meaning heap or hill. Perhaps it’s because there’s heaps of dunes in the parts of Britain where Gaelic is still spoken. The west of the Outer Hebrides is lined with them—especially the Uists, whose west coasts are almost one long continuous beach.

My early exposure to dunes has given me a lifelong fascination with them; an irresistable urge to slide in long heel-first strides down their slopes, and wander alongside them as far as they go. The fascination extends to the environments that make them; some of my favourite places are deserted storm-swept coastlines in cold climates, facing out to miles of open sea. The west coasts of New Zealand, Oregon, Washington, Ireland, the Highlands and the Hebrides have all reminded me of the west coast (and much of the east) of Tasmania, where my family would go camping every summer—the highlight of every childhood year. The beaches of the sheltered Mediterranean and the reef-protected tropics may be more popular, but that’s part of the appeal of dune country: the weather that forms them keeps most people away, and you end up having the whole place to yourself.

These are places for beachcombing, not sunbathing. You’ll rarely find anything interesting on the packed beaches of the Med, but the beaches of the Hebrides are full of messages from other worlds: washed-up buoys, from football-size to spacehopper; washed-up footballs; lobster traps; stray bits of net and rope; rubber gloves; empty jars with faded labels in Norwegian, Russian, Japanese, half-filled through leaking lids with sandy seawater; unused corroded candles; a giant ball of styrofoam the shape and size of a roc egg; a broken computer monitor; and of course bottles, both plastic and glass.

In the quiet of the howling wind, where your only companions are a friend or two and your own thoughts, the constant stream of human messages that you encounter in the city—the endless advertising, the hundreds of new faces every day—is reduced to a manageable trickle, a tick-tock of Morse code tapped out along the sand.

The strongest signal of all is from nature. Tangled strands of flat brown kelp; bleached white shells; sand-polished pebbles; smooth grey pieces of driftwood. And bones and, yes, bodies: empty crabs; hook-tipped lozenges of cuttlefish bone; curved seagull ribs; the hollow-eyed remains of an eagle, still with its feathers; a sheep that strayed too close to the edge of a too-steep dune, its legs sticking up like a cartoon.

On one walk I found a sheep skull in the sand, and rinsed it clean, thinking I might keep it. But I couldn’t see it going with the decor at home or in the office, and had no plans to stage a farm-yard Hamlet (alas, poor Ewerick). So I sat it on some stones that someone else had arranged in the grass and took a photo instead. It’s memory enough.


Another memory, another campsite. A different landscape, the Lagoon of Islands in Tasmania’s midlands. I’m with my father again, and with his father (Dain, as our family called him instead of grandpa). My brother must just have been born, and been back at home with Mum and Nan.

We’re setting up camp next to the lagoon, where black swans are swimming close to the shore. There’s an old wooden shed with an outer wall missing, and Dad is making a fire near the open edge, so that we can shelter under the roof from the encroaching mist and rain.

He’s using scraps of wood from here and there; old fence-posts, some of them. One has a large bolt sticking out of it. As the fire burns to a good steady heat, I reach out my curious two-year-old hand and grab it.

The trip is cut short. We’ve barely unpacked; we pack up again. I get to sit in the front seat of the Landy, watching the rain turn to hail on flat windscreen panes joined by a metal strip down the middle.

There’s no sign of a burn on my hands today; the bolt was hot, but not red-hot. The surprise burned deeper. I must have cried, but I don’t regret it: that day is the strongest memory I have of being with Dain.


We woke up to rain in North Uist, and went out walking anyway; no point in waiting for it to stop. Our first hike took us across wet fields behind a beach, over a peat-covered headland, and out to a rocky point where there was supposed to be a blowhole and some arches. We saw a couple of soggy dead lambs in the field, and told a farmer who was making his way back to the buildings where we’d parked. “Yes,” he said, “some of them will do that.” (Die? Decompose?) I thought he might want to bury them, but the skulls and bodies we’d seen should have told me otherwise. The Atlantic takes care of burials here.

The ground was a squelching carpet of rain-soaked peat and sedge. The word “bog” is Gaelic too, meaning soft and wet, and again you can see why it entered English from here. I chanted it to myself, bog, bog, bog, bog, as I took each step. Now and then I misjudged the ground and went ankle-deep into it.

As Griminish Point came into view, the bog was broken up by the occasional flat patch of rock. I stepped onto one to avoid yet another bootful of water, but forgot about the lubricating powers of rain on wind-polished stone. My foot slipped downhill and I fell sideways onto the only hard surface within fifty feet, whacking my right hip and elbow.

Oh shit, I thought, lying there a moment, visions of soggy lambs in my head. Why didn’t I just step in the bloody bog. I felt my elbow; it was all right, just a bit jarred. My hip wasn’t—I’d hit it hard—but I was able to swing my legs round to the edge of the rock and push myself up. I could walk, so I knew I hadn’t broken anything; my legs didn’t spontaneously dislocate from their sockets like some cheap plastic action figure. I trudged on after Jane and her dad, who hadn’t seen any of this. Bog, bog, ow, bog.

I caught up with them on the point. The blowhole wasn’t blowing, despite the wind.

“I fell over,” I told Jane. “On a patch of rock up there.”

“Oh dear.”

Without any witnesses, I knew I had to make the story more compelling. From the outside I looked no different, after all—still six foot two of wet Gore-Tex.

“I stepped onto it and went BAM! Slipped right over, came down right on my pelvis.”

“Ow, you poor thing.”

It was no use. There’d be no rescue helicopter and emergency hot chocolate today. I was just going to have to walk on.

Walking all day probably stopped it from getting worse, actually; there was no chance for any muscles to swell up when they were being used. But I still ended up with a bruise bigger than my outstretched hand, which took two weeks to disappear.


From Griminish we drove to Barpa Langais, a prehistoric burial cairn on top of a windswept hill. The parking space, notched into the peat by the road, had turned into a pond, fed by the track leading up from it which had turned into a stream. We slodged up through the bog to reach the pile of lichen-covered rocks. On a clear day the view would have been impressive, but it was hard to appreciate the lochs and rocks in the wind and rain. Crawling into the cairn for shelter wasn’t viable, so there was nothing to do but walk back down. We went via the other side of the hill, down a steep scramble of heather and bracken, to the Pobull Fhinn stone circle standing next to another loch. Finn’s People looked cold and wet, just like us, but at least we could head for a pub. We gave the nearby Langass Lodge a miss, though. There was something about the dozen mossy deer skulls nailed to its fence that looked a bit too primeval in this weather.

We spent the rest of the day driving from shelter to shelter, pub to South Uist Community Museum to B&B to pub. For a population of six thousand, there were a lot of pubs. I counted at least eight. It was hard to see how they stayed in business; we were often the only people in them.

Through the rain we watched the hills of the east coast pass by on our left, and the flat sandy soils of the west on our right, until we reached the causeway to Eriskay at the end of South Uist. This tiny island was the end of our line: we’d run out of time to catch a ferry over to Barra, even though the temptation was strong to Collect the Entire Set. We spent the next day exploring South Uist instead, before driving back to the ferry to Skye.

Our walks guidebook steered us through the backroads of Kilpheder, past a few damp farms and houses, to a TV tower near a cemetery behind the dunes. Nearby, it said, were the remains of a 3,000-year-old village, but we couldn’t find them. The grassy undulations of the dunes made it hard to spot a few stones; all we could see were one or two abandoned cars and countless rabbit burrows.


When I was small, whenever we drove on unsealed roads out to remote west coast campsites, Dad would sing:

Here comes the galloping major
Just like an Indian rajah

And Mum would join in:

All the girls declare
He’s a grand old stager
Here comes the galloping major!

And every time a cotton-tailed flash of grey darted away from the road, we would sing,

Run, rabbit, run, rabbit, run, run, run
Here comes the farmer with his great big gun

And sometimes it was Dad with the gun; and sometimes we ate rabbit.


Out on the beach, we walked south looking for another ruin in the dunes. The driftwood and kelp continued for miles. Farmers here still gather kelp and spread it on the sand behind the dunes, making a thin layer of topsoil to provide pasture for their animals. Driftwood, too, was the only source of timber for generations of Hebrideans; the South Uist museum had well-finished pieces of furniture made from nothing else.

Jane and her dad had climbed to the top of the dunes, and were thinking of turning back, when I saw a line of rocks sticking out of a sandy slope, with more in a grassy hollow nearby. I called them over to see it: the foundations of a Viking longhouse, only a few feet from the beach, waiting to be eaten away by the wind.

There were no signs, no cars, no Historic Scotland huts. It was just one of hundreds of archaeological sites around the Hebrides (like the iron age Kilpheder wheelhouse, which we also failed to find in the dunes). This one felt special, though, facing out to the cold Atlantic, waiting for its red-haired owners to return. The foundations showed a direct line of descent to the blackhouses of last century, pointing to a way of life essentially unchanged for a thousand years. A hard life, of burning peat, spreading kelp, replenishing the soil and then watching the rain leach it away.

Too hard for many, which is why there are Macleods all over the world. But some stayed, and their memories aren’t all of hardship and howling winds. The accounts in the museums speak of lives focussed on the peat fires in the blackhouses, where people would sit and happily tell each other stories. There’s something about the place that brings it out in you.


“Could you ever see yourself living here?” Jane asked, as we contemplated the day we’d just spent in Lewis, or Harris, or North Uist, or whichever it was.

No, I said; it’s fascinating, but too windy, too wet, too treeless, too remote. It’s someone else’s culture, someone else’s place.

Yet part of me could live here—or feels as if it already has.


I remember when Dad came into our room a year or two later and told us that Dain had been hurt in an accident, and that he had to go up to the mainland to see him.

And that after that, Dain wasn’t there any more.

So this is what happens.


On the walk back to the car I found a rabbit skull in the dunes. And then another, and another; four in all. The first one was the best, and since it was smaller than the sheep’s, I kept it.

Back in Skye I saw a pair of highland cow horns mounted on a pub wall, and remembered the deer skulls outside Langass Lodge. I thought about gluing a tiny pair of antlers to the rabbit skull and mounting it. Wouldn’t be too hard to do. It’d be a good gag.

But I prefer it the way it is.


→ More bones and stones in The Western Isles, part four.

25 May–6 June 2004

Here’s what people said about this entry.

wow... that was even better than the previous installments. brilliant stuff...

Added by shauny on a Monday in June.

it's aggravating to be coming over here all the time and being so freaking bowled over. fantastic.

or is it just that I'm a softie, easily moved by the image of poor wee dead bandicoot?

Added by BT on a Wednesday in June.

Quality bit of writing Rory...excellent stuff.

PS I know it's the wrong place but I liked the peas recipes too!

Added by gareth on a Monday in June.