Remains in the Sand

This is my earliest memory.

I’m walking beside a giant dune, the brilliant white sand squeaking underfoot, the sky glaring overhead. My attention is 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 Dad.

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, 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; 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 dead bandy,” Dad tells me. 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, the campsite cleared and the fire put out, we climb into our grey 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. The west of the Outer Hebrides is lined with them—especially the Uists, whose west coasts are one long 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. 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 of Tasmania, where my family would go camping every summer—the highlight of every childhood year. The beaches of the Mediterranean and the reef-protected tropics may be more popular, but that’s the appeal of dune country: the weather that forms them keeps most people away, and you end up having it to yourself.

These are places for beachcombing, not sunbathing. You won’t find much on the packed beaches of the Med, but the beaches of the Hebrides are full of messages from other worlds: washed-up buoys and footballs; lobster traps; stray bits of rope; rubber gloves; empty jars with faded labels in Norwegian and Japanese, half-filled with sandy seawater; corroded candles; a giant ball of styrofoam the shape and size of a roc egg; a broken computer monitor; and, of course, bottles.

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 encountered 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 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. 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).

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

He’s using scraps of wood from here and there. One of them, an old fence-post, 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 its flat windscreen panes.

There’s no sign of the burn 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 my strongest memory of being with Dain.

 

We woke up to rain in North Uist, and went out walking anyway; no point 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. We saw a couple of soggy dead lambs in the field, and told a passing farmer. “Yes,” he said, “some of them will do that.” I thought he might want to bury them, but the skulls and bodies should have told me otherwise. The Atlantic takes care of burials here.

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

As Griminish Point came into view, the bog was broken up by flat patches of rock. I stepped onto one to avoid 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.

Damn, 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, 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 the others, who hadn’t seen any of it. Bog, bog, ow, bog.

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

 

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 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 in the wind and rain. The cairn was too cramped to crawl into for shelter, so there was nothing to do but walk back down. We went over the other side of the hill, down a steep scramble of heather and bracken, to the Pobull Fhinn stone circle standing next to a loch. Finn’s People looked cold and wet, just like us, but at least we could head for a pub. We gave the Langass Lodge a miss, though. Something about the mossy deer skulls nailed to its fence looked a bit too primeval.

We spent the day driving from shelter to shelter, pub to museum to B&B to pub. 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 was the end of our line: we’d run out of time to catch a ferry to Barra, even though the temptation was strong to Collect the Set.

 

Our guidebook steered us through the backroads of South Uist the next morning, to 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 made it hard to spot a few stones; all we could see were abandoned cars and rabbit burrows.

Out on the beach, we walked south looking for another ruin. 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.

The others 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. 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 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 museum displays speak of lives focussed on the peat fires in the blackhouses, where people would sit and tell each other stories.

There’s something about the place that brings it out in you.

 

“Could you ever see yourself living here?” my wife asked.

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.

 

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 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. Then another, and another. The first was the best, so 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. It’d be a good gag.

But I prefer it the way it is.

2004