‘She noted his wave of black hair, the slimness of his frame, ignoring the words of other Lewismen who stood behind and in front of her, aware that, with the advent of nerves and fears at the prospect of the voyage, she might be unable to speak to them, her knowledge of both Gaelic and English slipping from mind and tongue. ‘

Donald S Murray is fast becoming one of Scotland’s most interesting historical novelists. His latest, The Salt and the Flame, which explores the island diaspora, has already gained plaudits, and was named The Times Historical Fiction Book of the Month.


The Salt and the Flame
By Donald S Murray
Published by Saraband


Mairead looked down the length of Francis Street again, seeing some of the people there. One man, who was clearly not travelling on the Metagama, had a coil of rope looped around his shoulder; long enough, perhaps, to fasten and tie the vessel in the harbour from which it was due to sail. A woman was near the town hall. Trembling and tearful, she was being consoled by others, their fingers clasped around her back, tapping her shoulders again and again. It was the kind of scene she did not want her own family to indulge in, fearing that if they did, she might want to turn back to a village in which she could see no glimpse of the future, locked away in the past. ‘Tsk, tsk,’ she heard one of her comforters say. ‘He’ll be back some day. I’m sure of that.’ And the woman responding by saying, ‘My son! My son! There’s no chance of that ever happening. No chance at all.’ 

Mairead pretended not to hear her, not wanting to think of returning to South Dell, not even to see the cairn some of her fellow emigrants had added stones to on the shoreline of Loch Sgriachabhat the night before. This had been first created by people who’d left the island before, heading to the Eastern Townships in Quebec near the end of the previous century. She had been told, too, that a few of the men had also built a bon-fire high upon the shoreline, a long way from the beach at the mouth of the river on the northern edge of the community; doing this in the hope that those leaving would catch a small reminder of their homeland when the Metagama sailed past.  

‘If the weather’s good, you’ll probably see it when the ship sails round the Butt of Lewis. A faint memory of home.’  

Again, Mairead shook her head when she heard this. She had decided that the moment she stepped on board, she would not look back at the island again, avoiding even glimpsing its coastline if she could. Even if her head did turn accidentally, she was certain the sights she had mentioned would be clouded in a thousand different ways. The glow and flame of a bonfire would be obscured by rain or mist or the salt of tears that would always be in danger of blurring her vision. The cairn of stones rendered invisible by the wings and plumage of the seabirds that had discovered it beside the loch, perching there as if each ledge was a bough or branch. Gulls would sit perched on its crest; small birds – like spar-rows and starlings – landing on its layers. Perhaps, too, the terns nesting round nearby Loch Drollabhat would rise up, obscuring the coast with the swiftness of their flight.  

It didn’t matter. She tried to shake all thought of the place from her head. MacQueen had been right that day in the pulpit. It wasn’t healthy to look back.  

She kept all this tight within her head as she looked towards her parents one last time, taking in their every gesture and feature as if she feared it might slip from her in a short time. There was her father’s gaunt face, his skin ravaged by so many years working on moor and shore, the spit of rain that so often lashed his features when he laboured on his croft. Her mother was different, her hair still dark with only a glimmer or two of grey, her face soft and well-rounded, quivering as she sought to suppress the sadness that she felt. Mairead hugged them both, trying not to draw too close to them but keep a little distance away, to prevent herself from succumbing to the sadness she felt all around Stornoway that day. 

And then there was her brother Murdo, his face as round as his mother’s, fair head the same shade as her own, bottom lip trembling. He had spoken more to her in the last week than he had done at any time since he came back from the war, babbling for ages about the family croft.  

‘If you marry and have children, I’ll make sure your family gets the croft,’ he would say. ‘They can always come back here to live if things don’t work out for them away.’  

‘And what about you? Won’t you have a family?’  

He shivered the one occasion he answered that. ‘No chance of that.’ 

‘Why not?’  

‘The war put me off all notion of that.’ 

She tried to question him about this, but he never responded, shrugging and walking away from her side.  

He didn’t do that today. Instead, he held onto her tightly, ignoring her attempts to keep them apart. He could feel a sob ripple through his body, one that she immediately tried to stifle and suppress in her own.  

‘Bye,’ he said. ‘Just remember the croft is waiting for your children. It’s theirs if they want.’  

‘Yes … Yes … Yes … I’ll remember that.’  

But she was already trying her best not to recall it, bringing all that she disliked about it to the forefront of her mind. The stink of peat within the house. The manure heap behind it. The smell of cow-dung she could frequently smell within it. 

Bye,’ she said. ‘Bye … Bye.’ 

And then she was away, straight down to Number One Quay, where the Metagama was waiting a short distance out of the harbour, not looking in any direction but in front of her, passing the town hall, the criss-cross of roads and streets that were barely familiar to her, since she had rarely gone to Stornoway before. A short time later, she joined the queue for the filling of forms, her medical inspection; her eyes clamped, too, on the back of the head of Finlay, a Ness man a few years older than her sixteen years of age. He stood just before her. She noted his wave of black hair, the slimness of his frame, ignoring the words of other Lewismen who stood behind and in front of her, aware that, with the advent of nerves and fears at the prospect of the voyage, she might be unable to speak to them, her knowledge of both Gaelic and English slipping from mind and tongue. 


The Salt and the Flame by Donald S Murray published by Saraband, priced £9.99.

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