When he drops me on the island, Hamish the boatman has a last piece of advice: ‘Stay in the house at night,’ he says, ‘and lock the door behind you.’
‘Oh?’ I say, taken aback.
‘Don’t camp outdoors,’ he repeats, ‘or the cows will trample you. Make sure you sleep in the house. See you tomorrow.’ Then he’s gone, and I’m left alone on my desert island. Just me, and the birds, and these trampling cattle. I turn to face it: green and tumbledown and wind-battered, and feel for the first time a shiver of unease.
This is Swona, a small island off the tip of the northernmost point of mainland Scotland. Though always on the peripheries, it is a place with a long history of human occupation. The chambered cairn attests to the presence of Neolithic farmers in 3500 bc or even before. Perhaps 4,000 years later Celtic missionaries came ashore in their coracles; the Norse arrived sometime in the ninth century, and their descendants were still there a millennium later. People washed up here, and remained.
Different names, different tongues, but more of the same, if you get down to the nuts and bolts of living: they tended their livestock, they grew barley and oats in a patch of fertile ground, they grew rhubarb and potatoes in the shelter of low stone walls, they built boats. They fished for coalfish and dogfish and dried them in the salty air. They kept cows: domestic cattle, of the sort that too can trace a domestic lineage back to Neolithic times.
By the eighteenth century, there were nine families on the island, planting the same small strips of land, building new houses from the stones of the old. Names on the census flowed continuously from decade to decade, generation to generation: Halcrow, Gunn, Allan, Norquoy, Rosie. Island life flowed on, century to century, much the same as before. Until, suddenly, it didn’t.
In the 1920s, the fish market collapsed, and many in the community lost their main source of income. Off island, the world was changing fast. Rather than stay there, stranded on this rocky outcrop, bound on all sides by breakwaters and whirlpools, eddies and races, many chose to leave. Some went just across the water to South Ronaldsay, the most southerly of the Orkney Islands. Others to mainland Scotland, visible across the water to the south if you were to stand on Warbister Hill, the island’s highest point. Others decided to emigrate, and try their luck at a new life entirely: there was a whole world out there, one that they had only seen a corner of. By 1927, the Rosies were the only ones left.
How would you live on your own private island? This is how the Rosies did it: They kept chickens, they kept cattle, they kept house. Their five children ran wild, scrambling in the rocky geos and paddling in the shallows (although they didn’t climb trees, because there are no trees). They weeded and darned and mended nets. They scavenged on the shoreline for items washed up – revelations from the outside world. They read everything they could get their hands on. They wrote letters, and received them too: handwritten notes addressed simply ‘Swona’, or sometimes to their house, which was named for them: Rose Cottage. They played instruments, and formed for a while an island orchestra with fiddle, pipes, squeezebox and a makeshift set of drums made of oil cans. Their father built boats, manned the tiny lighthouse, and in 1935, after a cargo ship ran aground off the western shore, salvaged enough from the wreckage to install electricity in their house – powered by windmill and a diesel generator. After that they listened to the radio: news, plays, tunes, the shipping forecast.
They grew up. They grew old. Mr and Mrs Rosie grew older, then infirm, and then they died. Two of the daughters got married and left. And then there were three: the twin brothers Arthur and James, and their sister Violet.
In 1957, journalist Comer Clarke paid a visit to the island and made much in his subsequent article of ‘the Silent Woman of Swona’: Violet, he claimed, had not spoken to anyone outside her own family for twenty years. Not much call for it, I suppose. The family protested: she did speak, they said – albeit in a whisper, and to those she knew well. In any case, she lived happily enough, in spite of the unwelcome attention, on this small island alone with her brothers and their animals. But over time, the siblings too grew old and frail. Arthur died in 1974, and then there were two. By that time, James’s health was ailing, and they sent a distress call to family on South Ronaldsay. James and Violet packed their belongings, taking only what could be carried, bundled together in sheets and tied up with ropes, down to the Haven where a boat had been sent for them.
Last of all, almost as an afterthought, they turned to the byre and opened the gate, letting the cattle loose, to fend for themselves until their return.
The sun sets and rises, sets and rises, chasing shadows across the floor, across the table, across the wall. Rain lashes the windows to one side, salt spray the other. Days pass. Weeks pass. Months. Years.
Outside, torrents rush past the rocky shore. The lighthouse to the south and the beacon to the north pulse out automated advertisements to their presence. Constellations whirl overhead. The moon waxes, wanes, waxes, wanes, waxes. The cattle live, give birth, and die.
Inside Rose Cottage, dust settles unseen. At first it forms a thin veneer, but then a thicker, felt-like scrim, pulled up and over everything. It forms over tea towels hung to dry over a stove long ago gone out. It settles on the coal in the scuttle and the kitchen table sitting ready for a meal, with a jar of marmalade, tinned milk powder and a box of biscuits at its centre. It settles on the papers stacked in piles on the sideboard, and on the sewing machine packed neatly in its box, on the ham radio by the window and the stopped clock on the mantelpiece reading ten minutes past three.
Later, as the damp sets in, the air grows thick with decay. Tins pox and swell in the cupboard where they were stockpiled. Glassware takes on an opacity – that hazy, milky quality of age – and the mirror a patina of grey-green that creeps in from the edges, clouding the reflection. Salt in the shaker solidifies into a single, moulded block. Upstairs the beds are still made, ready to be slept in, the sheets pulled neatly up and tucked in tight.
Just over a decade after the Rosies’ departure, the photographer John S. Findlay came to document the island, and noted that the sense of human presence was still so strong as to prompt him to knock upon every door before he entered. The feeling that the owner was only in the next room, or shortly to return and catch him, was intense. At that time, the house still resided in a realm of mere absence – as if someone had slipped out for a walk – although a few artefacts suggested the start of the transmutation of this absence into something altogether more profound.
By the time I enter the house, more than three decades later, the metamorphosis has advanced. Now, it has clearly been abandoned for some time. There are still traces of how things were left – the wipe-clean tablecloth left in place, though its laminae are separating, its skirts shredding onto the floor; the soft furnishings rotting away to bare wooden frames; paperwork stacked, but soaked and softening to pulp – but the next phase, ruination, is now surely close at hand.
A newspaper rests on the table – wet and flimsy and folded in half. Its uppermost pages are too perished to be readable; when I tentatively lift its corner with one finger I find the cover hiding inside: a Press and Journal, bearing news of a change in government: Ted Heath out, Harold Wilson in.
I carry in my phone a photo of this room, taken by Findlay in 1985, and I bring it up now to chart the advance of its decay. What strikes me instead are the other ways in which the scene has changed. Items are missing: that stopped clock, for one thing, with an art print propped up in its place. The doors to the cabinet have been flung open, the paperwork rifled through and stuffed back. A kettle – aged, rusted – has appeared on the stove top. Though many years have passed, the suggestion of unseen presences moving in the space between the photo and the scene before me is uncanny.
A tide of mud has swept in under the door and across the floor. It has settled in a layer of around an inch in depth, soft and wet still, perhaps from the storm that’s just passed over – the one I had to wait out in a tent on South Ronaldsay for two days, canvas flapping through the night, the whole setup threatening to take off. In the mud, a broom lies half-submerged and dropping its bristles. And next to that, a set of footprints which are not mine. These too catch me unawares. I feel a sudden chill. I freeze where I stand and peer through a loose lattice of floorboards into the bedroom above, then down again to the footprints. It’s not clear how long they have been there. It’s sheltered inside the cottage, with the door tied shut. They could have been here for years, like footprints on the moon. Although – they look fresh.
I speak out loud without meaning to: ‘Hello?’
No answer. The house presses in silently against me.
It’s obvious which house Hamish meant me to sleep in. Only one stands firm, one of the Rosies’ neighbours’. It’s a broad, stone-built building, more solid than handsome, its exterior intact – or mostly so. Two roof tiles are missing to the rear: the kiss of death. Without repair, ruination is now inevitable. Until then, this is my best hope of shelter.
When I try the front door, it seems to have been locked from the inside. I throw my weight against it. Nothing. I drop my pack to the ground, and think about leaving it there – leaving the question of where to sleep for another time. But with a curtain of rain sweeping in from the sea, I circle the building, briefly consider clambering through a small window, before finally managing to jiggle loose the door to a lean-to at the rear.
At first it seems it’s only an outside store, with no way into the main house, but an internal door lies hidden behind a huge sheet of fibreboard. The whole place seems designed like an obstacle course, and as I step in I am half-braced for a booby trap. I find myself in the kitchen: an old gas cooker stands in the corner, its white front splattered with what looks like ink; an assortment of empty jugs and other vessels are lined up along the mantelpiece. The air smells stale, dead. I rest my backpack on a chair, sitting it upright as if it were a friend.
Outside, the rain has already passed by and the sky is clearing, the wind blustery and fresh, and I pause to watch through a grimy window the shadows of the clouds sliding fast and frictionless over the land. Here too the walls are stained the green of fresh clover, painted on in uneven strokes: algal-dark in patches, others still the pale powderwhite plaster. The air is thick with dust, motes of which rise and fall in asynchrony through shafts of light. I think: the skin cells of its previous occupants, and find I can’t unthink it.
The house has a traditional design: each gable has its own chimney and fireplace, with a narrow hall between. I find the front door I’d tried so hard to dislodge from outside has been barred by way of a heavy post roped to the handle, which strains against the doorway, holding it fast. It’s an eerie scene – so devoid of people and yet so thoroughly fortified – like the calm before a battle, or after one – when it’s too late to save anyone.
The fortifications aren’t for me. They’re for the cattle – and the birds, and the seals. Animals find their way in to buildings like this, a door closes behind them and they are trapped. They starve that way, or dash themselves to death against the walls. The greater part of Rose Cottage is long boarded up, after – years ago – a cow perished in what was once the parlour.
A narrow wooden staircase leads upwards, and as I take it I remember another of Hamish’s warnings: the last time he came out to look at the island, a few months previously, a tent had appeared in a bedroom of this house. An orange tent. He’d called out to check if anyone was inside the tent, but no one had answered.
‘What?’ I’d said, startled. ‘Why?’
He didn’t know. He hadn’t taken anyone else out here. I could sleep in it, he suggested.
The idea of it – of approaching an unknown tent inside a house, of unzipping it, and peering inside to check for occupants – filled me with horror. And the thought of lying down inside it in the dark, of listening through the canvas into the house at night beyond . . . No.
Anyway, the point is: when I get upstairs, the tent is gone.
Image © Rab Lawrence
This is an excerpt from Islands of Abandonment: Life In The Post-Human Landscape by Cal Flyn, out with William Collins. Shortlisted for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award 2021.