This one hasn't won me any competitions, but I confess it's a personal favourite. I'm just a hopeless romantic...
Dusk made crenelated castles of the cruach. Their scent washed the evening air, whilst swarms darted out in tight formations from above the stacks, warding off invaders, as if the midge were somehow guardians of these royal structures. Escaping, I swung the pack from my back and continued over the stone threshold, leaning into the door.
Inside, the smoky air substituted for the door’s resistance; the perfume was more intense here, but sweeter, the warm-honey grip slowing all things: light; time; even my thoughts. To my right, slabs the colour of fine malt melted in the hearth, their heat painting the walls and the black wood bar. I planted my forearms, by now the helpless victim of a peat-borne enchantment.
“Good evening. Abhainn Dearg, please. Single.”
“Ah! A man who knows his whiskies.”
That man was me, Gareth Chisholm, engineer. But for this week only, I was Gareth Houseman, tourist. The landlord wheeled around in the gap between bar and bottles, a happy shape fixed to his face. When he turned back with the dram, Atlantic eyes met mine.
“There you are, sir. And a good evening to you too. On holiday, are we?”
“That’s right,” I lied, blinking, “here for the week.”
“Well, you picked good weather for it. Although,” he slid along to the next customer, “I seem to be saying that a lot, lately.
“What’ll it be, Callum Angus? Same again?”
Too loud, the newcomer replied, “Aye, Michael. But not for that miserable Sassenach. He can buy his own.”
For a moment I feared that I was the one addressed, and my heart thumped inside my chest. But I could make out the huddled forms of the intended audience around a table, below the window. Four sets of teeth reflected the light from the fire, and three voices joined together in off-key laughter. The man Callum Angus rotated the long way around, giving me a polite nod as he turned past.
“Why are ships still allowed then?”
“Buckle yourself in.”
“Why are ships still allowed then?”
“Stop bothering your father, Tim. Just do as you’re told, and strap in. And leave your sister alone too.”
Rhona slid into the driver’s seat. John climbed up on the passenger side, and they shared a look. She didn’t want to ask, but his answer came anyway.
“Yes, I’m sure. This is our best chance for them,” he cocked a thumb backwards. “It may be a very slow end, certainly not the apocalypse of the Hollywood vision, but it’s the end. On that I’d bet anything.”
“We just have, John!”
She sighed, and took a last lingering look through the windows of their house. Wandering the empty rooms that morning, she’d felt that their home was already gone. What she found instead was a broken shell. It was cold, perhaps grieving at their departure as much as they were mourning its loss.
“Just got to let it go, Rhona.” John took her hand and squeezed. “Within a few years it’ll be rotten, worthless, not to mention right dead centre in the middle of a civil emergency zone. It’ll be chaos. Better we cashed out now.”
“I know. But what if you’re wrong?”
He released her hand and grappled with the roadmap.
“I’m not. This place will be hell on earth. Just last week, when we closed the barrier, the winds abated and the storm missed the tidal surge by no more than an hour. That saved us, not the flood defences.”
“I know — you said. I know.”
She sighed for a second time. Leaving was as hard as she had expected. Both her children had been born in that house. Ten years ago, she and John had been feverishly decorating the bedrooms upstairs for three weeks straight before Tim arrived - a month early. When her waters broke, she remembered she thought she’d spilt wallpaper paste on her feet.
“No replacement until 2070, they said. That’s what their original projections calculated, and that’s what they were gonna stick to, even if those projections were based upon data gathered in the 1960s, taking zero account of the alluvial flooding from the west as a result of climate change. Idiots. Twelve million people, protected by a committee of idiots.”
This refrain was familiar. John was angry again, and the map-book bore the brunt of it as he leafed blindly through the London street pages.
“It’s okay,” she reached out for a second time, “I do understand. And I’ve come to terms with it, it’s just… “
It was John’s turn to sigh, and he took her hand, their fingers clasping and unclasping. This was it. Decision behind them. House sold. Possessions given away. They were officially climate refugees. Rhona closed her eyes, and when she reopened them, she reached a finger towards the start button. The Land Rover shivered slightly in response, the electric motor soundless.
“Let’s go, then,” she said. “New life, here we come.”
They followed the Great North Road, along a route that had been a wayfarer’s journey since Roman times. Missionaries, mail coaches, highwaymen and refugees from previous displacement periods; all had carved this pilgrimage. They were in good company, she decided.
And until they angled northwest across the Borders, they wouldn’t need to rely upon John’s map-reading. In the meantime, John busied himself with the SatNav, attempting to tease a signal from Galileo. Since the Americans had switched off the civilian GPS, five years earlier, they’d been plunged back into pre-millennium navigation as standard, at least outside of the cities’ WiFi networks. The Second Dark Age, as Alice would have it.
In some years, they’d been able to get an approximate location out of Galileo, provided you pretty much knew where you were already; but with only six serviceable satellites in operation, coverage was patchy, at best. Today, John received little, except confirmation that they were somewhere in Western Europe.
“Why are the ships still allowed then, if aircraft aren’t? Don’t they all use oil?”
From the corner of her eye, Rhona saw John grin, despite himself. He craned around to peer back at their son.
“Clever boy, Tim, you’re right of course,” in the rearview, Rhona watched Alice roll her eyes, “but aircraft are considered more damaging to the atmosphere, particularly the delicate troposphere. A few years ago, they detected anomalies in the tropopause - which eventually led to fears that the temperature inversion at the stratosphere — “
“Right, sorry. Let’s just say that the footprint of an aircraft is significantly greater than that for a ship, for the same volume of oil.”
“Oh, thanks, that’s so much clearer, Dad,” muttered Alice.
“The carbon footprint?”
“That’s right, Tim, well done. A few years ago, the EU introduced a new quota — “
“Do they have bears in Scotland? And wolves?”
“No, son, of course not. I’ve told you that already. There’s nothing to be worried about. On the contrary. Especially in the Outer Hebrides, where we’re going. There’ll be golden eagles, seals, otters, red deer, whales, basking sharks — “
“Sharks!? I don’t want to go there!”
“No, they’re… “ John gave up answering Tim, sinking back into his map with a cough. He’d given up trying to convince Alice months ago. “Just follow the signs for Northumberland National Park, then Jedburgh, Peebles and Glasgow,” he said, finishing in a whisper.
Poor man, thought Rhona. Risking everything for his ungrateful family.
“Where do you think we’ll stop?”
“I’m not sure. Fort William, or further I hope. Let’s aim to be there before nightfall, then we’ll have time to get something to eat and find a hotel or bed and breakfast.”
“Are you sure we shouldn’t have booked ahead?”
“Well — “
“Oh please, not a bed and breakfast,” interrupted Alice, “they smell, and there won’t be any internet.”
“Give over, Alice, please?” Rhona said before John could react. “Time to grow up a bit, okay?”
Alice slouched back and replaced her headphones, closing her eyes. Rhona wasn’t fooled by her repose for a second. Her rebuke would likely cost hours of grief later.
Sure enough, when they were unable to find an open hotel, and thus forced to sleep in the Land Rover that night, Alice condemned them both for ruining her life, belatedly including her brother too, just for good measure. For the most part, John remained calm, only stomping off outside into the dark, ostensibly to check the charging point, after Alice accused him of being the most selfish man on the planet.
“That’s not fair, Alice. Rather, he’s the most selfless man you could hope to meet. It’s not his fault we are where we are. If you want to blame anybody, blame your grandparents and their parents before them, who wasted it all — “
“But they’re dead.”
Rhona closed her eyes for a moment, trying to escape the logic.
“Okay, Alice. Fair enough. Just try to see the bigger picture, all right? Try.”
She pinned her daughter with what she hoped was her most reproving stare, circling around to make eye contact through the seat-backs. Alice pulled her blanket up to cover her face, and rolled towards the door.
“I’m sorry, I suppose.”
“It’s okay, Alice. I do understand, but it’s the same for all of us. And particularly for your father. We’re all in this together.”
She did know what Alice was going through. What was not to understand? Professional, middle-class London family of four gives up everything to move to a storm-battered archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Read all about it!
But this was John’s plan to protect them, and she respected that. They’d agreed together that this was their best option, and she prayed that they were right.
When the courtesy light blinked off, she squinted across at Tim, who was already asleep, his features relaxed and innocent. For a moment, she was jealous.
“Good night, my dear children.”
I paid and fumbled my way towards a table for two in front of the fire, leaving my pack at the feet of the second seat. I slumped into the other. The day’s hike up and over An Cliseam was a little less than 15 miles. My thighs burned, but my feet were worse; sodden and bruised by bog and rock. I was ready for some warmth. I removed my boots and socks, and stretched out my toes, eager to recover some feeling against the wall of heat from the hearth.
The first sip of whisky scraped its way over my lips, followed by the tender stroke of the promised peaty aftertaste. It had been a good day.
“No, I won’t Alistair.”
Four of the five men at the adjacent table slanted towards the man I recognised as Callum Angus, imploring him.
“You can get a second hand one with a hundred peak power, for twenty thousand! Think about it, Callum!”
“I am. And no thanks.”
“Or get one of the new generators in the loch; they can reach two hundred kilowatts. You can afford it, right?”
“I said no, Peter. And I meant it.” His silhouette collected a cap from the table, twisting it onto his head.
“So are you going now, Callum? Had enough of us, have you?”
Callum Angus and his friends were crofters, I guessed, not one of them younger than sixty. In all likelihood, their fathers and their grandfathers had been crofters too. And like their modern heirs, they would also have sat in a darkened room, sharing illicit spirits, arguing over the price of commodities or the state of current affairs. Only back then, the subjects would have been religion, or fishing boats. Or farm machinery, the price of sheep or wool at market, perhaps simply the family car. Now that all of those considerations were gone, the subject of their discussion was new, but the consequences identical.
“Callum Angus, if you’re not going to contribute to the wealth and wellbeing of the community, better if you sell up. I’ll happily take your land off you. And I hear there’s a family moving up from London, looking to buy a croft house with loch access.”
“Is that what you hear is it, Peter?” asked Callum Angus with an esoteric smile.
“You’d be able to buy any other property in the Hebrides, so you would. You’d be rich.”
Obviously they hadn’t kept abreast of developments in London, I thought. After more than one hundred years of price inflation, the value of London homes had slumped on the back of emerging fears of a catastrophic flood, should the Thames Barrier be breached.
I watched as Callum Angus changed his mind and removed his cap with a flourish, dropping it amongst the jumble of whisky glasses collected at the centre of the table.
“Now that I’m in my dotage, Peter, aye, I’ve got enough money. But even before that state of affairs came to be, I was rich. I’ve been rich for nearly seventy years. What do I want with more zeros?” He made speech marks in the dark. “Buy one of your ‘commercial generators’? No thank you, I say, for the last time.
“Anyway. Since when did you care about the community, Peter? Didn’t you marry me sister?”
Fresh flows of laughter stirred the torpid air. The others raised their glasses in salute.
“You’re right, as usual, Callum Angus.” Peter struggled to make himself heard. “I take it all back. Provided you take back your sister.”
This time, Callum Angus appeared to concede the point well made, his head thrown back, joining in the hilarity.
“I’ll tell ‘er you said that,” he managed, at last.
“No you won’t. It’s not in either of our interests. In any case, you’re both invited for dinner with us tonight, or had you forgotten, you miserly old codger?”
I couldn’t make out most of the remainder of the conversation, layered as it was with crosstalk and echoes. Until I stood to leave, that is, when I distinctly heard one voice.
“Listen, Callum, just think on it, all right? Either we take our future into our own hands, as we’ve always done, or someone will take it for us.”
As I passed them on my way out, old Callum was still shaking his head, smiling, but I knew that he would do well to listen to his old friend.
John took the wheel when they left the ferry and continued south, out of Stornoway. Rhona made the most of the opportunity to take in their new surroundings. As she knew it would be, the Isle of Lewis was denuded; devoid of trees or hedges. Yet is was beautiful, in its own stark way. Like a watery desert, she thought, smiling.
Then, when they turned away from the coast, the Isle of Harris introduced itself. Her expression changed. Where she had been calmed by Lewis, now she sat in awe of Harris, mouth open. Tolkienesque mountains glowered back at her, shades of purple and grey dividing the horizon.
On the moors between, white mills grew out of the marshes and hillsides. At any one time, Rhona could count at least ten of the turbine masts, each towering over its own watery nest like outsized herons.
“The wind turbines are ugly, aren’t they?” said Alice.
“I don’t know,” replied Rhona, “actually I think they’re rather beautiful. Pure.” She remembered her own metaphor. “Like giant herons or cranes.”
“Well, I’m glad you like them, because our place has one too. A small one,” added John.
With the micro-balloons secreted away in my pack, I set out south towards An Cliseam for the second day. The sky was more or less clear again, the temperature fifteen degrees Celsius by the time I left the guesthouse. A perfect day for a hike, which is exactly what I hoped my hosts would believe.
But this day was far more important than an aimless wander in the mountains. For today, the balloons’ payloads would sample air density and quality, wind-speed and incident electromagnetic radiation — all the way to 50,000 feet.
Not that the success of the Gallant Project was dependent upon this day alone — but data drawn from on-site might prove to be the icing on the cake of the cost-benefit report. I was feeling optimistic as sunlight dazzled from the lochans, and a gentle breeze pushed iodine-laden air across the coastline.
I knew too, with some sadness, that this might be my last occasion alone to savour the proposed Earth Energy Station location. Within a few months, when the report was complete and enough politicians in London and Edinburgh had been convinced or bought, this area would be crawling with scientists, engineers and boardroom lackeys. The Luskentyre Gold Rush, as my team back home had prematurely christened the anticipated impact.
The hyperbole was not misplaced. Satellite and on-site inspection confirmed at least forty sites for the new twenty megawatt turbines, constituting a network capacity of three terrawatt-hours per annum, or one percent of the UK’s total energy consumption — from a relatively small site, with minor regional environmental impact. Comparing that to a new nuclear reactor, was an easy sell. Each operational nuclear station produced, on average, one percent of the UK’s power. But what about the price comparison of energy generation? The decommissioning? Easy sell.
Oh, the locals would play merry hell, I knew that, and I couldn’t deny a stab of guilt, but they would be compensated, and the masts — at one hundred and fifty metres — would be visible to no more than a few thousand inhabitants. And with the project, came much needed jobs.
Yet the real money-maker would be the co-located Gallant Project. Each new turbine would be built within a perimeter of Gallant solar panels — our company’s most valued research development, not to mention best kept secret. The added security of this location — island-based, largely uninhabited (if one ignored the sheep) — was a bonus.
The Gallant gallium-arsenide-titanium nitride panel relied upon metal organic vapour deposition; a technology that safely delivered six hundred watts per square metre from the sun’s free gifts by accessing the majority of incident electromagnetic energy, right across the spectrum. It was the next best thing to space-based platforms.
Beyond that, over a few years, The Earth Energy Station (TEES) would expand to offshore energy sources. Loch tidal energy generators, offshore farms, deep-water generators. In total, this area represented more than twenty percent of the European Union’s renewable energy capacity.
Gallant and TEES together were going to dominate the world energy market for a hundred years, and it would start here. Right here.
As the gradient increased, I pulled on the straps, tugging my backpack in tighter. The climb up the northern flank was a tougher route than yesterday’s. The valley marshlands were calf-deep, and the steeper sections a mix of ankle-turning gneiss, and soul-stealing scree.
At about fifteen hundred feet, I paused for a draft of water and more sunscreen. My back was wet with perspiration, and as I stared out to sea, I could feel a chill spreading from my spine to my midriff.
Clouds had gathered out across the western horizon, coagulating and boiling with a fury only the Atlantic could sustain. Warm water from the Gulf Stream fed the local weather systems, making meteorological forecasting more a roll of the dice than a science. Out here, you could have four seasons in a day, as the locals would have it. Though at this range, the approaching storm looked more beautiful than threatening, and I only needed a few hours. Provided the wind-speed was less than eighty kilometres per hour, the balloons would fly.
A movement from the south caught my eye. A speck of black against the oyster-blue sky, doubling in relative size in a few seconds. A bird of prey, I was certain. Probably a golden eagle; the most formidable predator in these parts. The top of the food chain. Except for us.
The bird glided past, then flared left, reminiscent of a fighter aircraft diving for the enemy.
“Tally-ho!” I shouted. It wheeled and accelerated, plummeting towards the ground in pursuit of its unseen target.
The eagle was lost from my sight, behind the valley outcrops, but I heard its cry seconds later. A plaintive voice of monarchy and isolation bounced off the rocks, a sound that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.
Alone again, I hitched my pack, and turned upslope. I checked the American mil-spec GPS. One hour to the top, if I moved fast.
“Yes, my love. My soulmate, my —”
“You can save the flattery for when you haven’t been drinking all evening, and lying in your bed all morning. You need to get out to Loch Myisteam. Peter rang. It’s snowing hard up there. And he’s got forty ewes wandering ‘round somewhere.
“Callum Angus! Are you listening to me?”
“Ahh. Yes. Yes.”
“Are you going to help?”
“And have you been to see our guests yet?”
“I have, my love. We spoke last night.”
“I bet you did a bit more than speaking. And?”
“Are you going ahead with your harebrained scheme then?”
“Well, off with you then. Get out and help my brother first.”
“Aye, my love, I shall.”
“And take your new friend with you. It’s a beautiful day. I’m going to take his poor family to Luskentyre Beach.”
I sheltered where I could, downwind and downslope from a rounded pillow of gneiss. The GPS had been rendered useless by the blizzard conditions, and I was afraid to go further. The risk of stumbling blindly over a cliff was too real.
Snow piled up against the side of my body where I lay. As if the the freezing temperatures were not enough, the mountain seemed intent on slow suffocation. I kicked the drifts away with my leg, each thrust permitting the wind to flow beneath and around my thin defences, sucking away at the warmth remaining within my body. After hours without respite, and the snow chest deep, I began to consider the worst.
I dumped the contents of the pack out, searching for the emergency bivvy bag. Too late, I tried to recover the tight bundles of balloons and their rigging. They were taken from me by the storm, flying away as if stolen by invisible thieves.
Ripping away the plastic cover, I shielded the folds of the bag as best I could, and shook it out, determined not to lose the bivvy too. With one booted foot planted in its mouth, I pushed the other leg inside, and burrowed down. The wind responded by howling harder, pushing snow against my face, each flurry an icy slap, leaving my lips and cheeks raw then numb. I squeezed further inside, until only a narrow slit for air remained above my head. The snow was strangely soft below my body, sympathetic almost.
This wasn’t so bad, I thought, closing my burning eyes for a moment, before in horror I recognised the siren song of the mountain. Hypothermia — confusion, delusion, lethargy. Death.
I was shivering uncontrollably. The sound of the wind scrambled my thoughts, fuelling my panic; a natural white noise threading its way past my eardrums, icy fingers stealing their way to my brain, my heart.
I’m going to kill you, screamed the storm.
I don’t know for how long I slept.
When I woke, shivers now ceased, more than anything I wanted to say goodbye. I wanted to have one last image to take with me. With surprise, I discovered the prospect of death no longer as frightening as leaving without making peace with the mountain — with the eagle, with the island.
I pushed my head clear of the bag, pulling my beanie as low around my ears as it would stretch, blinking my eyes to free them of the harrying snow. Just one last chance, please!
As if in answer, a blinding cut of air raced overhead, clearing the air like a duster across a chalkboard. And there above — a pointed afterimage — was the golden eagle; soaring, crying. Crying for me.
Then it was gone, obliterated as the next roar of the blizzard stole the light, wrapping me inside a black and white cocoon — yet something called to me still. Beyond the voice of the storm, it wasn’t the eagle’s cry. It was a human voice. Shouting. Then another.
“Here, John, here! Stay closer to me. I’ve found someone.”
He’d found someone. Who? I wondered, before my consciousness surrendered to the cold.
Rhona stood watching the ocean as her feet sank into the sand. The water was the colour of blueberries, white horses the backdrop. Up ahead, Alice was running away across the firm beach, her wetsuit shaping a woman, no longer a girl, she noticed. She turned around to Tim, who was was busy digging a moat around his castle, with the help of Callum Angus’ wife, Carol. Behind them, the purple mountains of Harris stood guard, three billion year old sentinels doing battle with the water and the wind, the peaks hidden behind boiling black clouds.
Alice reached the water, her entry signalled by an ambiguous scream of cold shock and delight. Rhona snapped her head around at the sound, in time to see another black shape, further out along the edge of the surf. Instinctively a chill stole across her.
“Alice!” she cried, running forwards, before common sense caught up with her. It’s just a seal, she told herself. Calm down, woman. She heard footsteps behind her. Both Mrs McIntyre and Tim were following.
“What is it?” she said, spinning around. “What is that out there?”
“Ooh, my goodness, you don’t often see them that close to the shore. It’s a basking shark — though actually it’s a type of whale. Harmless, don’t worry. And quite beautiful.”
Tim continued running, yelling and gesticulating at his sister.
“Allie… look! A whale! A basking shark. Look.”
Rhona watched as Alice hesitated, then began to crawl towards the animal, the suit’s buoyancy holding her up high in the waves.
“Be careful, Alice!” yelled Rhona, unable to help herself.
“Oh, shush now, Rhona. Don’t be scaring the girl. There’s nothing to worry about here. Let her go, I can see she’s a strong swimmer.”
Rhona swivelled, ready to admonish their new friend and landlady for interfering, but then thought better of it. She was right. That’s why we’re here after all, she realised.
That’s when she saw the man in the dunes, waving in human semaphore.
“What is it?” Carol turned to follow Rhona’s finger, “Is that your husband? Is that John?”
It was. A new fear washed over her.
“Can you stay and watch over Tim and Alice, until she comes back in?”
“Of course. No problem.”
Rhona had already started running.
By the time she reached the dunes, there were three figures. One of them was wrapped in a blanket, seated in a deckchair behind Callum Angus’ old 4x4.
“What’s going on, John? Are you okay?”
He took her in his arms, his smile wide. “I’m fine, Rhona. Better than fine. This is Gareth Chisholm. We found him, half-dead, up on the mountain.”
“How do you do? Are you all right?”
“I am now, thanks to these two,” replied the stranger. “And a golden eagle. Or perhaps it was a spirit of my delirium?”
Rhona looked quizzically from one to the other, and back to John.
“What the hell are you talking about? What are you doing here?”
“Rhona, you know all about Callum Angus’ plan, well— ”
“Of course, but that’s not what I mean! Who’s he? Sorry, Gareth, but who are you, and how do you fit into this?”
The man with the soft southern accent took a deep breath, and looked skywards. He spoke carefully, choosing his words. Rhona sensed that he was trying to convince himself just as much as explain his circumstances to her.
“When I was a boy, I wanted to save the world.” Rhona smiled. “Yeah, I know, but it’s true. I dreamed of building a time machine, and going back a hundred years to convince our forebears to take better care of our legacy. Or else solving cold fusion, or perpetual motion. And when I grew up, I learned the science, and I landed the perfect job. I began researching photovoltaics, studied wind and wave energy generation.
“Yet somewhere along the line, I forgot the dream. The real dream.
“I nearly died today, and I’m glad, because in that moment I remembered my dream again. I can save the world.”
A panting Alice dropped to the sand between them, laughing and gasping for breath. Carol and Tim were a few moments behind.
“And so, my new friends. Do you like it here?” asked Callum Angus, “Are you planning to stay?”
“Yes,” replied John, and Rhona nodded, at last believing it too.
“I’m never leaving!” sang Alice.
Somewhere away beneath the clouds and mountains, they heard the call of the eagle, unconsciously celebrating the freedom of the wind and the sun.
“Strangely, I believe I must. It sounds odd, or perhaps I’m still delirious, but I believe the mountain spared me for a reason.”
“There is another way Gareth,” said Callum Angus.
“I believe that too.”
“John and I are going to build the future of energy generation, right here, without damaging the island, as your Gallant Project surely would. I’d like you to join us.”
Gareth laughed, and pulled the blanket closer. “You knew what I was doing here, all along?”
Callum Angus held out a flask.
“Of course. I’ve been waiting for you. For all of you,” he nodded at Carol. “Anybody like a wee dram to celebrate?”