Skipper Gunn’s Gifts


In the four o clock darkness o the late December afternoon, Skipper Gunn turns his back on the Christmas lights that are strung fae the rigging o the whitefish boats. He crosses Harbour Street, twists his skinny frame under the Ba barricades, and slips through the front door o the North Star Bar.

Skipper likes a double O.V.D. at the coal fire through the back, his peedie thin legs hanging fae the bar stool. His phone pings relentlessly wae notifications fae Leona – mind on Skyler’s prescription, don’t forget aboot Dale’s consent form, mind on the boat leaves early the night.  Steel-toed rigger boots, a toorie and a peedie beard. That’s Skipper. He nivver actually sailed as skipper, and he drinks in binges that come like northerly gales; one every twelve weeks or so, more often in the winter months.

Ally Ratter is sat there already, like a Heavy Metal Santa. Long white beard, and the big gut. His t-shirt says Baby Please Don’t Go. Ally is the engineer on the Jarl Thorfinn. On his fortnight ashore, Ally parks his reid Hilux on the pier at aboot 12.00. He sets his heavy wallet and his phone on the Formica o the bar. The screensaver is a picture o his dowter, Carrie. Four pints o Guinness for the afternoon, and four for the evening. Ally’s phone doesna ping; his ex doesna spik tae him.

But Skipper and Ally hiv a lot tae spik aboot. Their days in the school hostel taegethir. Westray folk that merried Sanday folk; Sanday folk that merried Westray folk. Ally’s fither’s trips tae Montevideo and Nagasaki. Skipper’s grandfither on the Northern Convoys. Climate Change. The weet westerly waathir, and hoo ye nivver get a right northerly gale any more. The reward for the ROV that the renewables company lost in the Westray Firth. Orcas in Eynhallow Soond. The price o lambs. Faroese quota. Unreal tonnages o salmon feed.

And dae you ken whit Brandon Harcus paid for that seventy acre at Ness? says Skipper, getting louder. Quarter o a million!

I heard that. I heard he paid cash in twa Lidl kerrier bags, says Ally, quietly. Still, he’s no a bad lad.

Sky News plays dumb overhead. Refugees: Skip wonders whitwey they can afford I-Phones; Ally says I-Phones are all they hiv. Ally luks at his screensaver.

Wae a dour nod tae the barmaid, Ally orders Skipper anither O.V.D. Ally’s gettan tae the stage whar he’s just aboot managing a peedie, shy smile. Skipper’s gettan tae the stage whar he can feel the rum coursing through his forearms. Ally does smile – peedie weys – aal big, heavy teeth. Skipper’s bad teeth luk broon in the mirror ahint the bar, especially when he’s been drinkan rum.

Mind on the bairns’ presents, Skipper.

Ah’ll no forget aboot them – I pat them in the waiting room.

And mind on the boat goes early.

Ah’ll no forget aboot that. Leona telt me no tae bother coman home if I miss it.

The north wind is gettan up. The boys on the boat will be gled tae get home across the Soond tae Blindarsay the night. Skipper scoops his last dram and claps the gless doon on the Formica.

Time for the boat. Hiv a Merry Christmas, Ally.

Ah’ll dae me best. Enjoy yersels the morn, Skip.

Cheers, beuy. And try no tae think aboot Carrie too much, says Skipper.

But I want tae think aboot her, says Ally. Anyway, get doon the pier – it’s three meenits tae six.

Oot intae the rising northerly wind he goes. Back across Harbour Street, and doon the pier tae the boat. Straight past the waiting room. He taks a peedie lurch as he’s crossan the linkspan, but whether it’s the wind or the rum he doesna ken. He’s no sooner aboard when CLUNK. CLUNK CLUNK the bow doors are secured and ready for sea. Skipper heads tae the lounge, kicks off his riggers, and is flat oot snoran like a bandsaw afore the boat sterts tae bury her heid in the lumps in the tide off the Ness.

He’s oot for the whole crossing until the voice blares oot o the speaker Ladies and gentlemen we have now arrived at Blindarsay please remember tae tak your belongings wae you as you disembark. And oot he goes again intae the wind.

Merry Christmas, Skip, say the boys on the deck. Merry, Christmas, beuys! Skip crosses the cobbles at the head o the Blindarsay pier. The lights hing doon fae the village Christmas tree as it springs upright and doon, upright and doon, atween the gusts. Cloods scud across the cowld sky and reveal a glimpse o the North Star. He’s home, on Christmas Eve! Skip gies a peedie skip and teks across the peedie square, past the War Memorial, and up tae his peedie Cooncil hoose whar Leona surely won’t realise he’s that drunk.

The wind claps the door shut ahint him. The nerrow lobby is fill o bruck. He sees three manilla envelopes wae cellophane windows addressed tae Mr S and Mrs L Gunn on the floor. Skyler is greetan; Dale is on the Xbox. Leona stands in the kitchen doorway. Her hair luks like it could dae wae a wash. She has rubber gloves on and a dishcloot in her hand, and she speaks quietly so the bairns canna hear: Did ye mind on the presents, Skipper? The wind roars owre the roof tiles. Jesus Christ the presents.

*          *          *

By seven AM the wind is doon again. Leona steps ootside the back door wae the bin bags, sets them doon, and lights an Embassy Regal. She can hear the eider ducks on the still bay a quarter mile away as the eastern sky reddens. They mate for life, her mither tellt her. Skip is indoors, sleepan on the sofa. The bairns are sleepan, too. As she exhales, Leona’s phone pings. It says ‘new message from Ally Ratter’:




Doon the concrete path tae the coal hoose she goes, and there, inside the door, are the three damp, bright parcels. The paper is soggy wae salt watter, and it’s a peedie bit ripped, but there they are. Leona draas deep on her cigarette, haads the breath, and stoops in under the low lintel o the coal hoose tae retrieve the gifts. Thank God fur that, sheu mutters tae hersel as the light sterts tae come up.




Governess of Floods

001When the end of the August comes and I haven’t caught a fish since 2014, the still water on a bonny Saturday evening is irresistable. I slip the boat into the water at Tingwall, and soon realise the steering has jammed on my main engine. So I pull the cord on the five horse reserve motor and twist the throttle. The peedie motor splutters and stalls, but after a few moments roars into life once again. It’s curious how we become attached not only to a boat, but also to an engine, which seems alive, and is companionable. I head for where the flood tide is moving powerfully.

August is the month for mackerel, taken by hand line on silvery flies from a deep hole west of the Wyre Bouy, or from the mid-point between the isles of Gairsay and Wyre and the harbour at Tingwall. It’s a thrill to see their white bellies as we haul them up from beneath the dinghy. On the line, mackerel is a proper game fish, fast and powerful. In the boat, they are trembling aluminium. On the plate – within an hour or so – they are the finest delicacy. Tuna of the North.

When I reach the fishing spot ten minutes later, things are strangely quiet. No birds call. The surface of the sea is unnaturally still. I drift southwards swiftly on the flood. The mackerel – usually aggressive, voracious and ubiquitous – are nowhere. After half an hour, because there are no fish, I decide to make my way back via a short scenic detour, and head for the Rendall shore below the farm of Queenamuckle.

Being alone on a quiet sea in the late evening at harvest time can be eerie; all that deep, dark mysteriousness beneath you. I gaze down into water the colour of used engine oil.

An outboard motor that seems a good companion becomes a cursed thing when it lets you down; the reserve motor gives up and refuses to re-start off the point at Queenamuckle. In my naïveté, I haven’t realised how incredibly powerful the tide is here. Immediately, I’m bearing down on stationary creel bouys at alarming speed, and I start to wonder where I might end up before I can get ashore. The back o Rendall? Shapinsay? Kirkwall? Or could tonight’s rampant spring tide carry me right through to the North Sea? It doesn’t bear thinking about. I’m close to panic as I lift the oars into the rowlocks.

I row as quickly as I can, concentrating on long, steady strokes. I can’t afford to miss one. Catching the surface on a back stroke might be enough to cost me the race. As I inch towards the shallows off the point, the bottom of the sea looms into view.

Rich brown acres of quivering kelp blades are being combed southwards in the tide, their movement and colour magnificent  in the late evening light. This beauty would be hypnotic – sweet therapy to watch – if it weren’t for the alarming speed of the water. This is like trying to row upstream in a vast river.

Surely the tide will slacken in the shallow water? But no, even in four feet of water it rumbles on at about six knots. How can I beat this? Seaweed floating on the surface closer to the shore means I can’t get any further in without entangling the oars. I’m tiring, and starting to think this is a pretty serious situation, when I remember my father’s advice: if you’re ever in trouble, drop your anchor.

I ship the oars and lob the anchor over the bow. I watch the chain spill out with a rattle and see the anchor bite the bottom. The dinghy holds still, like a pony on a tether. OK, the worst that can happen now is I sit here and wait for the tide to turn. I rest, and try the motor again. Fickle friend, it starts immediately. I feel like a rat that has found its way out of a trap. The peedie motor pushes me safely out of the tide and round into the bay, before gradually slowing once again to silence…

… but now to row is an easy pleasure. A magnificent, golden harvest moon rises over Gairsay. The Governess of the Floods. The reason for the tide, and for the strength of the tide tonight. A selkie watches. A flock of waders flits near, and veers away. The night is still again. I call home: I’m OK. I’m gaan tae be late. I love you. I row for forty minutes. When the Tingwall Pier lights eventually wash over me, I’ve never been so glad to be back.