Wild Moment: John Marshall

Published: 2nd August 2017

Lazybeds, lumpers and kelping provide the inspiration for this short and atmospheric timeshift story

John Marshall lumper on the shore

Present day

The remote beach had rewarded us with white sands stretching into the distance, curved motionless seals basking on exposed rocks and a couple of gannets plunging into the sea to the far off sound of tumbling surf.

Kelp caught in the swell, glinted life-like.

“There’s an otter…”

“False alarm, just kelp.”

We had hiked 10 miles through boggy or rocky ground to get there and were now on the homeward stretch. I had stopped by a pile of stones submerged in foxgloves and bracken and became mesmerised by two hypnotic eyes.

John Marshall hike from beach

Back then

My neck, back and limbs all ached and my face still stinging after the last squall. Only a few more paces to release my load. Today I had had two extra journeys and fuller creels to make up for Morag’s absence.

She was feverish when I left the blackhouse, lying on the bed of heather in the smoke-filled room. The viper lurking unseen had lunged and struck with its fangs. Her once stick leg now ballooning out and throbbing. The potion of mixed herbs and sphagnum moss packs would work, but would take time which we hadn’t got.

They said the lazybeds had to be planted before the weather turned. Last year’s crop had long since gone blackened. The sickness had spread to the cherished lumpers, the best of which now rotted leaving a black trail of liquid oozing out from the pit. The weaker folk had cut and planted half of the beds already, but more kelp was required before the job could be finished.

Smoke rose out of the turf roof and drifted down to the peaty bog burn. Mither was heating gruel in the muckle pot over the smouldering peats.

The strangers had called it “a smoking dunghill” but it was our house - ten of us last year, only five now. Three of my brothers had left in search of food and not returned, two of the bairns had screamed their last.

The eyeless quartered cut lumper seed would give us a feed. Today they would give me extra as I would have more kelp carrying tomorrow and not for the secret swelling life in my belly.

They said a sailing ship would take us to the Promised Land. Profits were no longer in kelping. The lairds wanted sheep. We had to go.

This desolate place, I hate it.

Present day

“What can you see?”

“An adder I think,” but at that the viper withdrew into the pile taking its dark story with it.

“Look you can see the traces of the lazybeds in the bracken – those regular humps stretching down to the burn. That’s where they grew their potatoes and the burn is packed with trout”.

“What a beautiful place – so desolate, yet so peaceful. I wish we could stay here. They must have loved it.”

John Marshall blackhouse ruin

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