At the old salmon bothy, I check the signpost. Poulouriscaig 2.5km. It doesn’t sound far but it always takes longer than I think. In the mist the moor is brindled brown and ochre – last year’s bracken, desiccated deer grass, half-dead whin on twisted stocks. It is months yet before the heather and bog asphodel will bloom.
In the last week it’s rained so much that the top of the cart road turns into a stream, froth bubbling over the stones and the water bright and cold, as though the dirt of the world has been washed away. I’m thinking of a conversation I had with my neighbour – that at this time of year, the sheep navigate the bog by remembering how it looked in the summer: where the green stuff had grown will be firm under hoof. Remembering is essential.
The track rises and I zigzag upwards. I look back once and see I’m already a good way from the house, the roofs of my village grown small. The moor swells into the distance in waves. After the second rise, the tumbled stones of Poulouriscaig shadow the yellow scrub. One remaining gable end points into the sky, its fireplace open to the world. The same fireplace where stories of changelings and water horses were told, stories I now only find in books. For the last short distance, I follow the sheep tracks, until these too disappear and I pick my way through the reeds.
Four houses stood here once. Fallen walls outline where the barns were, the easy undulation of long-buried lazy beds. Tourists coming across the place think the ruins centuries old, but I have a neighbour who was born here. Now, it’s just a scattering of stones on the hill. From below the cliffs, the sea sounds like static on a forgotten radio. I rest on a dyke, looking at what was once the neighbouring cottage. Lichen flaked on the boulder where I sit is as white and thick as cigarette ash.
The village was deserted in the forties. The people left, taking their few bits of furniture, their horses and livestock, the timber from their roofs, in search of better amenities. There was no electricity here. No natural harbour. No roads and so no cars. Perhaps the lack of these things left them feeling disconnected – unable to relate to others’ lives. Last summer, sitting on a foldaway chair in the draughty museum at Clachan, I watched a short film about Poulouriscaig.* It had been famed for its ceilidhs. I take a last look around, imagining a time when lanterns were hung from the doors and music drifted over the bog.
Coming back, I see the green and rust-red sheds of the salmon fishery, its caravan tucked into the lee side. The rain is fine as blown sand. I can hear it on my jacket but can’t see it, except that my jeans grow painfully cold. Bog holes and bygone eras. It’s a strange kind of day, somewhere between winter and spring, and I feel part of me is still back there on that dyke with the chain-smoking ghost whose radio is never tuned.
Though I have GPS on my phone, Netflix at home on my Smart TV, instantaneous Twitter notifications, I know that sense of disconnectedness. I never thought I’d say it but I miss the nine to five. I often spend afternoons scrolling through online job adverts. Not to work, never to get a pay cheque, is to set yourself apart from others, and it’s an empty, unpopulated place.
I have to remind myself that I’m a writer. In August I will get my first pay cheque, for a story that is being published in this year’s New Writing Scotland. By then, the green stuff on the moor will be growing again.
Remembering is essential.