The Coastal Trade

He felt the urgency flow from the wide swathes of canvas, down the length of the twin masts and into the strong spine of the vessel itself. There it forced the bow to cut into the cold waters of the Minch, parting them into a pair of rolling, foaming undulations that chased along the surface of the hull before reuniting in a splurge of foaming wake shaken off the unyielding stiffness of the rudder.

The ketch lay low and laden but was making a good six or seven knots in the freshening breeze and it wasn’t long before the smoke rising from behind the headland assured him and his crew of a warm welcome when they reached the shore. They rounded the point and headed towards the glinting light reflecting from the window of the small, rectangular, stone house that stood just a few hundred feet inland from the shore. He steered his ship carefully towards the sandy beach then threw her head into the wind, giving the order for the sails to be let loose and the boat to be readied. At the bow, the boy stood ready to jump ashore with the tethering rope for here they could beach her quite safely for a couple of hours or more.

The two men readied the little rowing boat, taking a turn each to carry a sack of coal into it, then they set off for the shore to join the boy. The master, meanwhile, checked that all was secure before waiting for the boat to return and take him to the mainland shore where a small, stooping figure had appeared wheeling a wobbly handcart ahead of her.

Once all four and their cargo of coal were safely ashore they loaded the sacks into the cart and followed the old woman from the beach up the grassy path the short distance to her door. She led the way inside whilst the two men carried a sack each placing them neatly away from the heat of the metal stove upon which the hissing kettle sat in its , yet welcoming, matte black seriousness.

In a matter of moments five cups of steaming tea and a huge plate of freshly baked oatcakes and homemade soft cheese were passed around and the four sailors and the widow drank and ate, each mouthful of food and swallow of drink accompanied by the sound of news exchanged, stories told, and laughter shared. The woman and the crew looked forward to these visits that took place perhaps three or four times a year depending upon the cargo they carried, the state of the tide and the weather.

Soon it was time for the men to depart so, after thanking the widow and saying their goodbyes, they left her in her solitude, a tiny light in a flat grey wall surrounded by the rich colours of the hills and without a road or track, or even another smoking chimney, in sight. She waved them off but the rain drove her inside before the little boat had reached the ship. It was then that she noticed the small sack sitting on the dresser and when she opened it the stoneware flagon of whisky, the large brown packet of tea, the two bags of sugar and the thick block of black tobacco brought tears of love and friendship to her weary, ancient eyes…


(My great, great grandfather was engaged in coastal trading in small sailing ships such as this, working out of Stornoway in the second-half of the nineteenth century)


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