John the Tailor

Young John, or Iain as was his true name, stepped into the boat at Port Eisgein, waved once to his mother, then sat with a thud on the thwart as the boatman’s oars cleaved the sea between the known past and the uncertain future.

He watched as the widow, supported by Angus her eldest son, shuffled towards the smoke rising from the heart of her home in Strond, a home that was now his responsibility to provide for. Angus, like all the small tenants of the tackswoman Anne Campbell, was worried for the laird had recently cleared Rodel and all were in fear of the absentee Alexander Norman MacLeod’s intentions. The boatman eased his rhythm, shipped the oars and raised the sail that would take John past the fractal shoreline of the Bays until they reached his destination in Ob Liceasto and the corrugated land of Direcleit.

John felt the rock beneath his feet, took the two bags that the boatman held safe above the gunwale, and picked his way amongst the wrack and lichen until he reached dry grass. He placed the bags with care and then turned and sat to survey the scene. East Loch Tarbert narrowed to the Kyles of Scalpay and in the distance the slumbering giants of the Shiants ghosted through the grey. John looked to his left, noticed a low terrace just above the necklace of tangle that lay discarded along the shore, and decided that was where to build his new home.

It only took a couple of days to raise stone walls, assemble driftwood and discarded spars into a sturdy frame, and thatch the house with heather. His new neighbours, some known, most not, welcomed the young tailor to the newly settled township and knew the cottar would repay their kindness many times over in the months and years to come.

One lass, from the neighbouring croft, brought him a small parcel of lamb-warm scones and he knew then that she would be his wife. Margaret, or Mairead as was her true name, was a daughter of Neil Martin whose people, like John’s own, had come to Harris in happier times to help develop fishing and other industries in the Bays. Two generations of lairds later and the island was in turmoil, the people scared and silent, the machair scarred by sheep and the price of kelp had plummeted making rents even more difficult to pay,

Within a year the cry of a baby echoed from the door by the shore, rippled across the loch, slipped through the narrows holding Scalpay away from Harris, and resounded past the Shiants and into the mysteries of the Minch. The boy became a man and followed that cry, sailing for over half a century across those seas, and farther still, always bearing the invisible thread that led, five generations from John the tailor and his wife, to stitch these thoughts into words within sight of the doorway by the shore.


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