The ever-present sea-breeze on our backs, buffeting us forward – we clattered and stumbled over the half-made road. This mass of people, the largest I’d ever seen, marched on laughing, like a conquering army, across the brand-new causeway to Uist; from dear little Eriskay to what I thought of then as the big wide world. The flash of cameras followed us: the last community in the Western Isles to be linked to the rest of the western civilization. We watched the rocks tumbling with our past into the sea. And I, six-year old wannabe spaceman, took my own one small step to Uist, no longer a giant leap over the Sound. My brother and I, breaking free of Granaidh’s grip, running ahead of the crowd, inexorably into the future, running away from my island, running away from home…
Eriskay, the Island of Youth, the island of my youth, was connected to Uist on November 27th 2000. This bare rock, home to just some six-score souls, most of them old, godly but grumpy, has been my playground, my paradise, my prison. I remember the day when I first realized the sheer tininess of this Hebridean pebble: Dad dragging me up to the top of the hill; a watchful crag from where I looked out to see nothing but sea. Perpetual, endless sea. Stretching – curving – beyond the borders of my world.
And then I looked down upon Eriskay, and was surprised to find the people like dolls, their houses like toys, so small compared to that carpet of blue. I appreciated at last that these three square-miles of Lewisian Gneiss were our fastness, our only sanctuary from the sea’s storms – it was truly our island paradise. Yet even then I felt a creeping sense of entrapment, suffocation, that one day the baleful ocean might swallow us up, scarcely a pip. Though I felt big and grown-up, like an astronaut, like Edmund Hilary after he conquered Everest, I also knew that I was indeed a little boy.
Human beings tend to view their childhood as an idyll; mine is no exception. My brothers and I spent our summers toddling about the hill, exploring every sloc, cnoc and rockas Dad dictated their names to us, delighting us with the stories hidden behind them. Our history is written into the hills and Dad made sure we learned it. In Gàidhlig, we don’t simply live somewhere, we “belong” there. Dad taught me that to know the names is to be aware of the bond we Gaels have with our place of upbringing.
Before the causeway, everyone knew the island, and the other islanders, intimately. I could name every single person who crossed that causeway at the turn of the millennium. The other day, at my cousin’s funeral, with Eriskay church so full that fifty had to stand outside, I realised that there is beauty in that neologism “community spirit.” Taking my turn bearing the coffin down the road to the graveyard, it struck me that even in death you could still count on the island. Last year, when I spent two months in a mainland hospital, showered with parcels and cards from friends back home, I learned to value this solidarity. Through the window, I could see people walking along the street, everyone’s eyes on the concrete, and I reflected, although Eriskay might be isolated, in the city, every individual is isolated.
I smile when I think of how, in contrast, Granaidh and I walked together across the semi-causeway every Sunday, a little further each week. She held my hand, encouraging me onwards. So for me, at least, the causeway was no finish-line. It was a way of overcoming the watery prison which had kept us for so long lodged in the past and in the island community. An island is for the very young and the very old. Ultimately, at age sixteen, I can’t help but see the causeway as my way ‘outta’ here. The community which seemed so close in my childhood years has now been revealed to be a backstabbing gossip emporium. The hill which seemed so tall can be run up in ten minutes. The names which seemed so deep have been forgotten by all. The people pounding across the causeway have become the lazy, stubborn, sheep-like crones of this free-range old folks’ home.
That’s the paradox of island-living, this irony of bounded freedom. As children, we lived in almost a primal state, like Rousseau’s noble savage, at liberty to roam, giggling naught but Gàidhlig, building dens, rafts, and causeways. Days merging into a never-ending summer haze of paddling and pier-jumping. But now I am older, I don’t see the fenceless fields of Elysium but my very own Tartarus, where football scores are the only philosophy.
My particular paradise was lost the day I went to secondary school. With the causeway came growing up and buses. Buses shipping us like cargo to the new school, transforming Eriskay into a mere peninsula, an appendage to that greater lacuna, South Uist. It’s been all too easy to surrender to the Uist ‘transport’ network and believe that my true freedom lies in school, exams and university prospectuses. Yet life, lived indoors, is its own prison. As I write this, I look up to the hill of my childhood, and regret that it’s been years since I last felt the crunch of grass, the plop of bog, the squelch of sand under my toes. I smudge my nose with ink on paper yet I’ve abandoned the sweet stench of seaweed on the shore … who was I? … who will I become?
My name is Dòmhnall Iain Nèill Dhòmhnuill ‘ic Eachainn ‘ic Dhòmhnuill ‘ic Iain ‘ic Dhòmhnaill Mòr nan Each. I was named for my grandfather; teacher, bard and classical scholar. Although he died before I was born – drowned, fallen off a pier, a testament to the precariousness of our life at the periphery of the world – I have always been fascinated by this remarkable man, who, born into a cottar family, had worked hard to escape poverty. To escape Eriskay. And yet, having worked his way to the top, came back to the island, drawn back to his own very real Tìr nan Òg. My dad, in his turn did the same – left a good job in Carlisle to be head of a tiny primary school at the edge of nowhere. Why? I wonder.
I admit, it has become a teenage temptation to turn the paradise into a prison, to call the sea constraining, this island a cell. Yet wandering with my Reason out beside the sea, I am free to think, free to ponder, free from the incessant chatter of Facebook, phones, and French homework. I can debate all I want but in the end there is no greater speech than the sermon of the silence. Island life is its own freedom.
And now I’ll go for a run across the causeway, to the end of the road, but, I confess, I know I’ll come back, I always turn round. I’ll turn to see the hill rising like a beacon from the deep, beckoning me homeward…
I think back to the day we walked across the causeway for the first time. All of Eriskay. They turned round too. The causeway isn’t the gateway away from Eriskay: it’s what ferries us back. The sea-breeze behind us breathes life into the island. In a year’s time I’ll be crossing it to finally leave my childhood home, to go to university. But I know the causeway is always welcoming, always there to take me back, to take me into the future.
I run and run knowing I’m learning at last to love well what I must leave ere long.