Sunday, November 14, 2010

Virtual Scotland: a vigorous sample

Virtual Scotland was, at one point, a book of linked short stories. It went round a few publishers in the 90s who all explained short stories were all very well, but I needed to write a novel instead. I suppose they didn't think they (the short stories) really were all that very well, but nonetheless a few got published elsewhere, including 'Horse Island' -- where, even I don't remember.

Horse Island

When I crossed the small strip of causeway separating Horse Island from the rest of Scotland, I had a fleeting sense of leaving not just one country but one dimension, and entering another. The sun gleamed on the cobbles as though they were metallic, the sky boomed blueness, shattering the small clouds that clung to its corners. I felt light-headed, as though on a mountain-top rather than -- literally -- at sea level. It would not be long before the tide would sweep back into the narrow channel, and water had already begun to shine between the stones.

Upon arrival in the village I was examined by the Doctor and the Magistrate. Notes were taken as to my occupation, date of birth, height, weight and the colour of my eyes; all the usual passport stuff. Then the samples were taken. Small squares were cut from each item of clothing and gummed to my form. Snippets of hair, blood and urine samples, even some excrement (I had been advised by the tourist board in Ullapool not to “go” before I went, as it were). Most of these items were placed in little cubic compartments in a plastic tray that was then frozen. I had to politely but insistently refuse the Doctor’s requests for “a wee drappie sperm”. She pursed her lips at this and made a note I couldn’t read.

I then signed a document which stated in English, Scots, Gaelic and Neo-Latin, that any drawn, painted or photographed images, cuttings of plants, clippings of the local paper or any literary work found on Horse Island, as well as any writings I might do, should all be listed on my departure. If at all possible copies should be deposited with the Chief Archivist. When this was done I was introduced to the Assistant Archivist, a Dr Tully, who issued me with a camera and some black and white film, and two notebooks, one blank and one ruled (narrow feint). I signed for all of these and thanked him, whereupon he bared his rather sallow teeth (he was one of those gentlemen who have triangles rather than rings beneath his eyes), and presented me with a card.

“The shop belongs to my brither-in-law. Ony pencils, pens, paints or ink, ye can buy them there.”

The Magistrate now presented a card of his own, advertising another shop where I could purchase or hire tape-recorders and camcorders, if I so wished. He did not specify his relation to the owner of this establishment, and I was so bamboozled by details by this point, I considered this a kindness. He then introduced me to the Town Geographer, a perky round man who looked as if he spent a great deal of time outdoors with a shooting stick and a flask of malt. He briskly issued me with a thorough guide to both village and island, with historical and literary sections as well as maps. The Magistrate now pressed a small card into my hand. It had my name and home address on it, as well as a picture of me crossing the causeway (which I had not been aware had been taken). In it I was squinting a little against the light, and concentrating on my steps. There was also an incomprehensible computer coding symbol.
Then, finally, I was introduced to the Town Photographer, who I cannot describe, as he did not remove his head from the black cloth hanging from the back of his upright camera, merely extending a burnt-looking hand for me to shake. I was then photographed an extraordinary number of times: straight passport, then casual, then as the photographer imagined me (as Napoleon, for some reason), then with the Doctor examining my genitals (I thought at the time that this might have been revenge for refusing the semen sample), then with the Magistrate apparently condemning me to death, then shaking hands with the Assistant Archivist, shaking hands with the Town Geographer and, at last, a group shot on the steps of the Incomers Building.
I stepped down onto the main street of the village (indeed its only street) in a complete daze. Perceiving my distress, the Magistrate took my arm, saying “Come on, I’ll tak ye to the Hotel. Ye’ll need a wee drink after aa that.”

It still seemed to be daylight, though it had been late afternoon when I arrived. I was unable to focus much on my surroundings, as the paving-stones and the walls of the houses all glittered intensely in the late light. I couldn’t tell if this was some quality of the stone, or my own slightly dazzled state of mind.

“Mind yir caird,” the Magistrate went on. “It’ll see ye into the Archive and into the Restaurant. The Sergeant will accept it as confirmin yir identity and oor local Madame will tak it as guaranteeing yir guid health and freedom from infection.”

Had I heard that right? He was staring straight into the distance as he spoke, as though addressing the horizon.

“Ye cannae imagine how that’s simplified oor bureaucratic system, jist having the one caird. Ye can even use it to hire bools or gowf clubs. Dye play chess at all?”
“Not really...that is, I used to prefer backgammon.”

“Ah well, we’re lucky to have a very good backgammon club here on the Island. Not that I play it masel, but the Doctor’s very keen. That’s the medical Doctor, ye understand, whom ye’ve aaready met. I’ll sometimes play her a bit, but I’m no a bettin man, and she’s jist...well, jist a wee bit ruthless with the bettin.”

As he finished we arrived at the door to the Hotel, a rather grand Victorian structure which towered a floor above the houses around it. I suggested he joined me for a drink, but he smiled no, and strode off down the street at twice the pace I’d been able to maintain. He seemed the most active man imaginable, apart from the Doctor and the Town Geographer, who had both given off this manic sense of energy. And yet he was clearly old, if not venerable, in his deeply-creased pepper-and-salt trousers and dusty frock coat.

I realised I was grinning involuntarily as I watched him pause abruptly, tilt his grey head at something on the ground (exactly like a hen), then nimbly bend down to snatch it up. He stuffed this objet trouvé, whatever it was, into a weskit pocket without looking at it, and carried on briskly. I shrugged and stepped into the Hotel.


It was the exceptional purity of the malt (the Island’s own) that had stopped me fully taking in my surroundings. I didn’t have a particularly discriminating palate, but I could tell this was something neither from the great islands to the south, nor from Strathspey. It was almost a small sensation, mellow after the Irish model, though with none of that dangerous drooping toward sweet blandness, but then it just kept coming. The second sniff yielded more than the first, the second taste was bigger, broader. It was a dominy of malts; it taught you about itself as you took your third sip, and suggested, like all the best teachers, that beyond this beginning was more discrimination, and yet more vigorous detail. It was also, I realised, setting the glass down reluctantly, potent enough to cause instant blethering in the drinker. It was then that I first allowed myself to look around.

I had kept my head down as I registered, wary that another ritual of identification might begin, and hadn’t glanced about me on entering the bar. I didn’t want any ostracising glares from the regulars until I’d had a seat and a dram. Now I realised I was alone, alone, that is, apart from the art.

Every inch of wallpaper appeared to be covered by drawings and paintings in every conceivable medium; crayon, oil, watercolour, pencil, collage -- even a few peculiar-looking specimens which I guessed were made of juice rubbed from plants. My head started reeling again and I sacrificed the rest of my whisky in a good, stabilising slug: I had to come to terms with all this. The profusion of subjects was equally bewildering: there were views of what I presumed to be the other rooms, both full of people and emptied of them; there were views from all the rooms, in various weathers. There were views of the Hotel from different angles and at different times of year; there were views of the ramshackle inn which (I supposed) must have preceded the Hotel’s construction. I ordered another drink before continuing my mental catalogue, and enquired as to when dinner was served. The girl handed me a very bulky menu that would probably take a further drink to read through. Perhaps I could settle in to the intensity of life on the Island before cirrhosis got hold, but at this rate it would be a close thing.

Of course, the reason I had not felt alone in the bar was because it was full of portraits, both of regulars and hosts, stretching back across the generations. Family resemblances were noticeable across the walls; a certain pink-tinged idiot grin, the same extraordinary eyebrows, a dogged persistence in wearing a deerstalker rather too small for several heads (perhaps the same deerstalker?). The room was replete with a sensation of absent but imminent laughter, of conversation deferred but not done, of arguments and feuds still to be resolved. It was impossible to be lonely in such a bar; simply glancing around fitted you in. In fact there was one figure (I got up and peered closely at a faded interior) who looked rather like me, reading by a lamp in the middle of the last century. Were the others listening? Smiling again, I finished my drink and took the menu upstairs.

Ten minutes later, dumbfoundered and more than a little pissed, I ordered “whatever’s first on the list” down the telephone, and was brought a bowl of porridge by a giggling maid. She deposited a card with my tray, saying “It’s ma sister.” The card said:

Dr Eileen MacMorrow
Tourist Guide & Councillor
8, The Square,
Kinawe, Horse Island.

Clutching this small talisman in one hand, and my porridge spoon in the other (“supper” was delicious, by the way) I fell into a deep, comforted slumber.


“Maist people date the Tendency back tae the first Statistical Account and an unusually enthusiastic minister called McIlwraith, but ye should note that a bardic college was maintained on the site of Kinawe for mony hundreds of years afore that, and the poets of Gaelic Scotland were trained tae perform considerable mnemonic feats.”

“How absolutely fascinating, Dr MacMorrow.”

“Caa me Eileen, please! Anyway, be that as it may, Horse Island has certainly had mair than its fair share of lads -- and lasses -- of pairts, mony of whom went to the University in Glasgow.”

“But not the girls, surely, Eileen. You’re not suggesting that Scotland was a haven of equality in the nineteenth century!”

“Not at all. But Edinburgh’s first lady lawyer came frae Kinawe. And we had mony stalwarts amang the Scottish Suffragette movement. Blackwoods first remarked on us in 1819, suggesting that it was something tae dae wi the importation of exotic airs via the Gulf Stream Drift, that gave us a combination of “Scottish wit and Latin temperament”.”

I couldn’t have phrased it better; Dr Eileen MacMorrow was that perfect marriage of pale complexion and thick dark brows one sometimes finds among Italo-Scots. She had an energetic hairstyle (it seemed to be swept up in an otherwise impalpable breeze), a long powerful nose and high, rounded cheeks, and very brilliant, rather fierce blue eyes. Her mouth was brightly lipsticked in what seemed to me a continental manner. Sitting with her at this small café in the town’s central square was like clinging to the rail of a yacht being expertly thrown about a rough bay. I tossed back another espresso, noticed the Town Geographer crossing the park, and suppressed an impulse to yell “Ahoy!” Instead I knuckled down to what I saw as the task in hand; getting the good Doctor to steer me through the bewildering profusion of information on Horse Island.

I had already successfully negotiated the strange interior of the café under her careful tutelage. I was surprised at first to find a café with pavement tables so far north, but, thinking it was a nice day, I had sat down gratefully. “No, no,” she’d insisted, dragging me in to meet the owners.

“It’s awfy rude to treat people as though they are unimportant, simply because you’ve never met them.”

Once indoors we met the two old women who had run the café together for thirty eight years precisely: Jenny Baxter and Shona McCafferty. Jenny took our order, while Shona showed me round the exhibits. The café was divided into tall booths covered in red leather, and between the booths were large glass cases filled with ancient ice-cream making machines, beautiful Italian cappuccino machines, and a great deal of packaging from the early part of this century, of biscuits, chocolates, sweets, coffees and teas. There were samples of the different china the café had used at different periods, the two women’s extensive collection of butter dishes, each carefully labelled, and, their especial delight, doilies, napkins and tea towels of many nations.

They had apparently travelled widely, and the tea towel genre was very well represented. They had a tea towel map of Sarawak, a tea towel listing the principal nineteenth century poets of Argentina, with small samples of their verse, a tea towel depicting in blue and yellow the shellfish of Maine. They even had two tea towels displaying ground rice recipes in French from Africa. When Jenny had tugged my sleeve to indicate my breakfast was ready, I was in the midst of the terrible realisation that I found tea towels interesting. They were jaunty, colourful, useful for saucers and cups, and unfailingly informative. Hurrah (with suitable ironic reserve) for the tea towel!

I had noticed, as I sat down shakily in the sun’s first heat, that Eileen had been regarding me with a quirky smile in one corner of her mouth. She was watching me with the same smile now, and I realised I must have lapsed into a benign but vacuous silence after spotting the Town Geographer.

“Okay, let’s talk some more about the Tendency,” I said, as breezily as I could muster. “How does it operate? How does it, say, affect you personally? Is it itch for order, for tidiness?”

“Well, I wadna go as far as to say that the Tendency exists in precisely that way. It was a humorous term, you recollect, invented by rival students at the university. As such, it carries undertones of uncontrollability, almost of infection.”
“Yes I know, this is one of the things that interests me: is it catchable?” This was said, I must admit, with several undertones of my own, while peering as deeply into those startling eyes as I could.

“I think it wad be mair accurate to say it is attractive.”

Attractive? I had been so busy trying to present my “witty” subtext to the conversation, arching imaginary eyebrows and so on, I realised I had no idea of which level her response was intended on. Again, as with the Magistrate, I had a sense the people of Horse Island had simply dispensed with several layers of “normal” responses. “How do you mean?”

“Since the 1860s we have been defying the demographic statistics of the ither islands. People actually come here from the cities, rather than vice versa. Not in large numbers, of course, but the brilliant few are always welcome. So we are attractive, magnetic. The Magistrate was an incomer once, you know.”
“Really, but he looks as though he’s always been here.”

“Even the Chief Archivist came frae the mainland, though he’s the first wan to haud that post.”

“But you yourself, I hope, are Island born and bred.”

“I am indeed, though my faither was an Italian painter, fleeing Mussolini. Anywhere else in Scotland he would have had to give up his work and open a fish and chip shop.” She laughed gently at this. It was clearly an old family joke. I bunched my hands into my pockets, delighted: I had known she was an Italo-Scot!

“What does your father do on Horse Island, then?”

“Oh, he rins the fish and chip shop.” This time she burst into hoots of laughter, as I realised I’d fallen into the second half of their family joke. “But here...” she continued through snorts, “here he can paint as well.”


Eileen MacMorrow palmed me off on the Town Geographer effortlessly, for all my “witty” subtexts. I was clearly not the first holidaymaker to hope for more than instruction. This man, Kintail, seemed to spend his days orbiting the island in various wobbling ellipses, most of which included the two pubs and the distillery. Over the next few days we always seemed to be coming on the whitewashed walls and round houses of “The Sweat of the Mare” from new and surprising angles. One short chalky tower within the distillery compound was his indispensable landmark.

“Keep that ahent ye and ye’ll hit Kinawe. Keep it ahent ye the ither way, and ye canna miss Kinell.”

This piece of information, so simple on the surface, didn’t really stand up to further scrutiny, as I told him one lunchtime in “The Wicker Man”.

“Aye, well, the ither thing tae remember is the waater. Once ye’ve hit the waater ye’ll no be that far aff either place.”

It was on my fourth day that we struck the Island’s cemetery, or rather the combined cemetery and sculpture park. These two little towns of stone face each other across a valley, and had clearly been sited so that the rays of the setting sun struck the gravestones, while those of the rising sun hit what Kintail called “the merrystanes”.
Apart from this detail, it would have been hard to tell the two apart, as there was little exclusively sombre about one, or “merry” about the other. How people wished themselves to be remembered, it seemed, was indistinguishable from those forms in which they had celebrated life. Each featured a number of people dancing; whole stony reels, in which animals, birds, fish and more abstract shapes joined in. There were also blockish stones, with reliefs and copious lettering in a wide range of languages and calligraphies. Some people’s sculptures crept along the ground, or impersonated parts of shipping. Since it was midday, I confessed myself at a loss after wandering through both parks as to which was which.

Kintail pointed to one with the stem of his pipe: “Mair angels,” he observed.

“The dead prefer angels, do they? Why are there no straight inscriptions?”

“Everybody kens wha’s here. The bare facts are in the Archive. And it’s no that they prefer angels, it’s jist that they canna avoid them ony more.”

“I wouldn’t have said that the people of this Island are in the habit of dodging any experience.”

“Aye, well I’ve had a few I’d like to see comin next time.”

“Such as?”

“Did ye ken the haill clanjamfrie was swappit ower, fifty year ago?”

My goodness, my first instance of issue-ducking. I made a mental note to ask Eileen about Kintail’s background: another incomer?

“What, dig them all up? Why on earth would they do that?”

“He. Why on earth would he do that.”

“Who’s he?”

“The Chief Archivist.”

“Of his day, you mean.”

“Of his day. He decided one fine morn that the symbolism was jist as interesting the ither weys aboot. So, up comes Granny.”

“That’s a lot of power for an Archivist to wield.”

“Aye, well the Archive is very important on Horse Island, as I’m sure you’re beginning to appreciate.”

I photographed him as he said this, so splendidly had his brows gathered; if golf-balls had been crimson, he would have made a smoulderingly intense golf-ball.


“'Up comes Granny!' Oh, I like that!” The Magistrate and Eileen MacMorrow were in fits. I was feeling rather po-faced, having convinced myself I’d hit upon some ructions beneath the smooth surface of Horse Island. We were sitting in the Hotel bar that same evening, with the violet light beating through its small windows and off the innumerable pictures within. The bar was full of locals, few of whom were distinguishable in any way from their predecessors. Had the walls been lined with little mirrors, the effect would have been much the same.

“Kintail’s an obscurantist, he’s a millenarian,” said Eileen, guffawing.

“He’s a reid aboot the heid!” said the Magistrate, and they were off again.

“Doesn’t the Chief Archivist wield an extraordinary amount of power here?”

“Nae mair than Kintail does, but he jist likes to scandalmonger as well,” replied Eileen.

“Still, digging up the dead.”

“Every one of those people signed a medical form giving permission to the Doctor or the Archivist tae dig them up and dae whit he liked wi them. Deid’s deid. They ken we wadna dae onything that was too disrespectful,” said the Magistrate.

“What about MacPhail’s Tea Party?” countered Eileen, and they both went spiralling off into hoots of laughter.

“MacPhail’s tea party?” I enquired, when they’d recovered a little. The Magistrate smoothed down his beard and inserted a small nip of whisky before replying.

“MacPhail’s the Toun Photographer. People said he shudna’ve done that, but they were aa neatly stacked in the kirk atween interments, and he’s an awfy man wi a drink on him. The Doctor’s nae better; it wis the pair o them.”

“What did he do?”

“He recreated Lady Croma’s soirée,” said Eileen.

“Who was Lady Croma?”

“She was a great patroness of the arts on Horse Island. After we dispossessed her husband, she threw the family resources into the theatre, the art gallery...”

“Wait a minute, you dispossessed her husband?”

“It wis his idea,” interrupted the Magistrate, puffing up his whiskers as though a shot of static had just gone through him. “It wis him that cam back tae the Island fuhl o Prince Kropotkin and started posting pamphlets on the Toun Hall.”

“It’s all in yir guide,” said Eileen. “Huv ye no read it yet?”

“There’s been no time,” I spluttered.

“Och time. That’s aa you incomers go on aboot. As if there wis onything but time. And yet ye come lookin to us for amusement because ye don’t know what to do wi your precious time.”

I was alarmed by the note of contempt in her voice, and determined to stick to the point: “What was Lady Croma’s soirée?”

“She held a salon every Thursday evenin, and MacPhail thocht he’d recreate the one she’d held in honour of Alexander Smith.”

“Smith? Didn’t he write the Life-Drama?”

“And some very fine work on Skye. He visited Horse Island in 1872. MacPhail simply got all the relevant bodies thegither in appropriate costume, transported them to the theatre, and “boom boom!” -- as his flash tends to put it.”

“This is outrageous.”

“Nae mair ootrageous than Taggart prentin the picter in the Chronicle as though it hud jist happened,” muttered the Magistrate, with the beginnings of another smirk.

“Is Smith buried here? Surely his heirs would have protested.”

“Naw, naw. Young Morton stood in fur Smith, richt doon tae the whiskers.”

“Sam Morton is a local poet of increasing standing nationally,” Eileen said, in her best Guide’s manner.

I stomped off to the bar to get another round. Horse Island had flabbergasted me yet again. Were they kidding? I decided I would go to the Archive the next day and look up the appropriate issue of The Free Horse Chronicle.


That night I woke up with a ravenous desire for food. A snack, a sandwich, a four course dinner: anything would do. I hadn’t eaten because I’d gotten so caught up in our conversation, and I’d been out all day with Kintail on the hills. I picked up the menu, thinking forlornly that I could at least read about food. It was a stunning document, typical of the Island, or, as I’d come to think, amply displaying the Tendency. It was divided into main meals, which then broke down not just into lists of courses and delicacies, but also recipes, drawings and reminiscences from previous generations of Hotel cooks.

There were exotic foreign dishes, plus sparkling little vignettes of where and how they had been picked up. There was a stunning array of local and Scottish dishes, the former seeming to quite overwhelm the latter, with quotes from various literary diners. This last category included an account of a dinner had in the Hotel by Boswell during Johnson’s Highland Tour, which sounded distinctly apocryphal, if not downright phoney. The main dish was, appropriately, fish. Burns, too, had apparently stayed in the Hotel, and had left a small stanza on “Mrs Sempill’s Bannocks,” which contrived to sound remarkably lewd, something about “slappin’ doon the farls” and flour flying about like powder from the buttocks of a fine lady.

The menu was turning out to be a damn good read, but it did nothing to relieve my pangs of peckishness until I came across the statement at the foot of the last page: “Guests please note the kitchen maintains a twenty-four hour service and can be contacted via Reception.” This stretched even Kinawe’s bounds of credibility. I reached for the phone, then, on an impulse, slipped out of bed and into my dressing gown and slippers. I opened my bedroom door as quietly as I could, and crept downstairs.

As I creaked down the large central staircase, with the hall light flickering through its dark wooden banisters, I began to detect little noises from the kitchens. These were located in some indeterminate space behind the Reception booth, and connected to the Dining Room by a long corridor. I negotiated the darkened dining room by light filtering from the hall and through the smoked glass door which led to this corridor. The breakfast settings were already in place, and the dim light played with silver and cut glass as I threaded between the tables.

The noise was much more distinct now, a round of clatterings and voices raised, half in dispute, half in instruction. Every now and then the tone would break and a gale of laughter would blow down the corridor, or a great cursing and wailing would arise. I pressed my forehead to the lightly swinging door and pushed.

The corridor was dimly lit. Obviously they weren’t particularly expecting anyone to come down it. But light exploded from the far end of it as though from a blast furnace, and, unmuffled by the opening of the door, voices roared over a continual timpani of pots banging, whisks whirring, knives sharpening and thudding dully into boards, chopping interminable vegetables.

There was a squealing of oven doors swinging this way and that, clunking shut or creaking open, and the bubbling, hissing, scraping and sighing of meats and sauces, custards and potatoes being manipulated by what appeared to be an army of cooks and assistants. Just then I distinguished the voice of the maid who had brought my porridge, Eileen’s sister Rosa:

“Mrs Sempill, Mrs Sempill,” she was saying, “Ur these roastit enough yet?”

A sensation of stark terror flooded over me, and I was gone in a second, before even thinking why, back through the dining room and heading up the stairs to my room. At the top of the flight I calmed down a little, concluding that of course it was a small island, and family names persisted, and, what’s more, it was quite likely a descendent of Burns’s cook would be working here still. I proceeded to my room with my dignity restored, but the little nerve thrumming in my brain said, “So what made ye jump, then?”


The following morning I breakfasted with Eileen inside the café. It was a little dull outside and I was secretly hoping to get round the rest of the tea towel collection before I visited the Archive. She was looking wonderfully sober, despite or perhaps because of the ravages of the night before. Her hair was tied back and there was a dark vertical stroke between her brows, as if from a soft pencil. She was concentrating on a few shapes I’d made with our paper napkins, folding them into hats and boats.

“How dye initiate new shapes? Is there a free-form version or is it always the same opening steps? Show me the Bird Base again.”

I did so, opening and refolding one napkin, and explaining, “This is my favourite shape. I don’t usually bother making all the next things. It’s really pure, abstract.”

“Like a meditation,” she said, smiling to herself. Jenny brought our coffees and rolls. “Oh Jenny, can we get some more napkins?”

“Ye can get proper origami paper at the Art Shop,” Jenny pointed out, but brought some more anyway. Eileen set to folding them neatly to form squares, then tearing the extra length off.

“Are ye allowed to mark them in any way? I mean can ye decorate the paper, not jist one face but specifically, so the particular effect is intensified?”

“You can do what you want. I think drawing on them looks a wee bit naff if it’s representational, though.”

“How can we no tear it? Does this work wi thin metal?”

I sipped my coffee, amused. After nearly a week, the vitality of the Islanders no longer astonished me. Everywhere I had gone I had been politely quizzed as to my intentions, my circumstances, my politics, my opinion as to their shop’s lay-out or their garden’s symbolic resonances. I had signed visitor’s books (always having to include a comment), rendered up a considerable portion of my hair (more, frankly, than I was willing to part with), and even contributed a short verse to a renga drive.

I had sat in bars with complete strangers discussing my politics, their politics, other people’s politics, my thoughts on art, their thoughts on music, my hopes and plans, the disappointments of my past life, their strongest childhood memories, their extensive travels. Anything which two casual acquaintances elsewhere would have considered taboo was to them the very bread of life.

“Why do you do it, Eileen?” I said fondly, not just for her, but for Horse Island as a whole.

“Do what?” she replied, rather shortly.

“All this,” I gestured vaguely, “all this...focusing. I mean, take the cemetery: all that labour, the sentiment...”

“Sentiment?” The word clearly did not agree with her. “Until you actually perform an action, you cannot understand it. Do you understand the experience of childbirth?”

This was a little sharp, and my face must have shown it, as she softened instantly.
“This is why the Archive is so important. If we didna make every effort to assimilate aa the material relevant tae ony given subject, then we micht be forced tae experience its consequences, however far-fetched.”

“So it’s a kind of response to...are you familiar with chaos theory?”

“We have been concerned with this matter since Lord Croma advanced his principle of Incremental Anarchy.”

“Incre...what? You let the gentry...”

“You’re being incoherent, my dear Osmond. Mebbe you’ve had too much caffeine. Incremental Anarchy is based on the famous statement by Archimedes, you know it? “Gee me somewhaur tae staund, and I shall muve the warld.”

“I didn’t realise Archimedes spoke in the Doric.”

“That is beneath even you, Osmond Dips. Why ye have to mock yir ain language escapes me. Anyway, treating pig ignorance wi the contempt it deserves, I shall continue my point. If ye’re still interested.”

“Where does it come from, your energy?” I interrupted, taken by her charming fury as she had clearly intended, striking the pose of pugnacious explicator, fist on thigh and nose in the air.

“The real question is: where do you lose yours? For us, life is an indivisible mystery. It’s because your energies are so low that you resort to compartmentalising everything, or rather a few wee portions of it.”

“Oh scathing, scathing. You people compartmentalise everything. You itemise butter dishes, you scalp strangers, you reduce the world to a list of lists!”

“On the contrary we are constantly looking for ways to simplify our systems. We are against specialisation in any field, but we do not fall into the pathetic trap of assumin ye can jist abandon some phenomena afore ye’ve examined as much of its effects as possible.”

“But...where do you find time?” I was losing ground, I realised, falling back on an old, weak argument.

“How do you avoid it? Look at ye, you’re not a lazy man. From what I’ve seen of yir sketches, ye’ve got some skill, and you claim to be a writer. But your drawing line looks podgy, and you mainly jist moon aboot. Were ye a hyper-active child? There’s a theory that they suppress creative energies out of guilt for their parents, ye know. You lose two, mebbe three hours a day navel-gazin.”

“I like to think,” I protested, sounding peevish even to my own ears.

“How exactly is it you can stop thinking?” she snapped back.

“I don’t always understand how I behave...” I began.

“Then visit our Archive,” she concluded triumphantly, and went back to her folding. I watched the dark line reappear between her brows and sighed.


The Archive itself was a single-story building of Victorian design, a cross between Greek temple and Scottish bungalow. It was set on a rectangular grassy mound which suggested much material was stored below ground, and it hived off at the back into several extensions which in turn lost themselves among the buildings at this end of the village. Inscribed above its doors was a Latin inscription: “Non omnia possumus omnes.”

As I stood staring up at this, the Assistant Archivist came out and took me by the elbow. “We can’t all do everything,” he whispered. “Virgil.”

I allowed myself to be drawn into the main hallway of the Archive as I pondered this statement of humility. It was full of the inevitable glass cases, here displaying ordinary household objects from every period of the village’s history. At least in these surroundings, the appearance of a museum was not unsuitable. The Assistant Archivist murmured something about seeing “if he’s ready,” then disappeared down a stair which descended from a trapdoor behind a desk. I noted it had no banisters.

I turned my attention to the Archaeological and Natural History sections. Here were geological samples, fossils, prehistoric tools, the skeletons of small birds and mammals. A few cases contained very badly stuffed rabbits, pine martens, red squirrels and the like. Some of these, I realised to my horror, consisted of those Victorian genre scenes, in which the animals are positioned to display human foibles. Here was a recreation of a pub, with a drunken rabbit floundering on the floor while the landlord, a capercaillie, stood over him threateningly. Mice and rat regulars studied their pint pots carefully, ignoring the fracas. Here was a traffic scene, with rakish young guinea fowl in a little trap drawn by a kitten, and a fox cub in police uniform taking their particulars.

“I see you’ve discovered our Unnatural History section,” said a thin, dry voice from the stairwell. “This way, Mr Dips.”

I turned in time to see a small bald head vanishing jerkily down the stairwell. So this was the all-powerful Chief Archivist. By the time I reached the first step, I could just see the tips of his shoes in the shadows. I hurried down towards these as the precise quaver of his voice floated up: “Do mind your head.”

At the bottom I was in a narrow corridor apparently walled in carpet. My companion was concealed by a hanging flap of some material labelled “Mrs Erskine-Lamond, own design, 1923”.

“This is our domestic section, Mr Dips. Follow me.”

I brushed aside the curtain-like material and found myself following a tiny grey-suited man down a sloping passage lined with samplers, antimacassars, lacework of all kinds, cushion covers, and so on. It was impossible to catch a glimpse of his face, and quite difficult to fathom our direction. I noticed en passant that the samplers did not confine themselves to alphabets known to me, while the cushion covers were dyed a dazzling range of colours, showing little restraint when it came to bluebottle greens and electric oranges.

“Are you familiar with the phrase “Rancho Malaria”, Mr Dips?” shot back the dry voice. “It describes the kind of dwelling where vividity rather than modulation has been the guiding principle behind decoration.”

We came out into a large gloomy space piled high with furniture, including chaise longues and entire three piece suites, some of which looked as though they had been made by amateurs, so misshapen and misaligned were their appearance. Somebody at some point had been very interested in futurist design, it would seem, judging from some rather dramatic and unsteady pieces heaped to one side which looked as though they might not be comfortable, but would certainly be capable of a fair lick of speed.

“We’ll get round to all this one day, I suppose,” the old man muttered disconsolately as he picked his way through the ruins. I caught a glimpse of a sharp little profile as he glanced at some derelict sofa, which sprawled like a punchdrunk walrus.

Next we plunged into another, rather poorly-lit corridor lined with glass cases filled with a miscellany of objects. What looked like ancient legal documents were mingled with stamp collections, prints of the various geological wonders of the island were mingled with a photographic encyclopaedia of human types done in the late nineteenth century. As I tramped along after the Chief Archivist, I was scrutinised by all the tribes of humanity, gazing imperturbably through tattoos and head-dresses, feathers and crowns, collars and ties and hats of a supposedly “civilised” nature. Men, women and children in a olive-coloured monochrome, with the focus always on the tip of their nose, watched me descend deeper into the Archive.

We turned a corner and were in a section where the lights worked properly and the floor did not lean to one side or descend imperceptibly. Here the walls were panelled in wood and had cases in glass cabinets. This whole stretch of corridor was devoted to lepidopterae. Vivid colours shone in neatly regimented rows as we continued, as though a miniature nation had turned out in their finest garments to watch us pass. I had not realised the world possessed so many species of butterfly.

“Did you know the butterflies depicted in the scrolls of the Chinese ancients very frequently have no counterpart in the real world?” inquired my enigmatic guide. “And yet there are so many real butterflies. I wonder what is the characteristic which prompts humanity to invent still more?”

“Surely we just reflect Nature’s own talent for variation?” I ventured, determined not to be overawed by all this.

“I’m sure you’re right, Mr Dips. I’ve often thought we must diagnose Nature as an omnipotent schizophrenic, whose every uncontrollable whim is, uncontrollably, possible.”

That shut me up for the remainder of our travels, which ended in yet another dim room of uncertain proportions, filled with metal shelf units which reminded me of the storage section of a supermarket. Here and there stood entire bookcases full of old leatherbound tomes and great tea-chests crammed with rumpled paperbacks. The fact that none of these was ranged against a wall made them appear thrown down at random. There was a very large wooden table in this room, stacked with more books, old microscopes, bowls and racks for bottles, some of which did indeed contain old bottles in apothecary blue. There was a TV with no insides, and numerous heaps with dirty sheets flung hastily over them. Standing at this table was the Doctor who had examined me on first arriving on Horse Island.

The Doctor was a tall brusque woman in her early fifties, with a rather long face and beautiful soft black hair with long threads of grey, bound up rather severely. She wore a grey pullover and a tartan skirt which seemed to be entirely in tones of charcoal. The slender gold chain which was attached to her spectacles had the air of an extravagance thrust upon her by a courageous admirer. I remembered the Magistrate’s comments on her skills at backgammon and wondered if it could be a trophy.

Extraordinarily, she looked very like the Chief Archivist.

Not in build of course, as the man could only have been half the Doctor’s height. But about the face and in her bearing especially, there were the signs of relation. The Archivist was clean-shaven, with a long upper lip and a small dagger of a nose, but his brows were similarly querulous, and they both shared the intense gray glare of the typical Islander. They were undoubtedly father and daughter.

“Doctor Vaisey tells me she has not yet obtained a sperm sample from you, Mr Dips. We don’t normally experience any difficulty of this nature with our male visitors.” The little man regarded me momentarily through his brilliant eyes, then turned his attention to the Doctor.

“You did explain, Deirdre, about payment and pornography?”

“She did indeed, sir,” I interrupted, determined to take control of this delicate issue. “I said at the time I didn’t understand the need for such a...personal detail of documentation.”

“Most masculine incomers appear to have spent a great deal of time spreading their seed hither and yon with no apparent signs of delicacy or squeamishness,” the Doctor said, pursing her lips in the gesture I remembered from our first meeting. I glanced at the Chief Archivist in mute appeal and saw the same expression. Then it registered that this was the family’s version of a smile.

“Do you collect eggs from your female incomers, Doctor Vaisey?” I asked, determined to be as challenging as I was being challenged.

“Ah, a smart one indeed,” the old man interjected. “Come sit down Osmond my boy, we have much to discuss before you leave us.” With this the Chief Archivist beckoned me over, while the Doctor produced two armchairs and a stool from the shadows behind a shelf. The stool she commandeered for himself, and leaning an elbow on the gutted TV, she watched us sit in silence.

“We do indeed collect eggs from our women guests,” Mr Vaisey said, leaning forward and tapping my knee in a conspiratorial manner. “But they are generally asleep and unaware of the process.”

“Isn’t that highly unethical?”

“This is not a place for moral vertigo!” he exclaimed abruptly, and sank back in the armchair, studying me closely. “What do you think, Deirdre?” his dry voice emerged from the wings of the chair.

“He has a fine head,” the Doctor announced.

“What do you do with all this genetic booty?” I asked.

“Do? Nothing. Nothing at all. We merely catalogue it, as we catalogue everything.”

“Why do you catalogue everything?”

“Do you know Virgil, Mr Dips? ‘Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas.’ I translate: he is a lucky man who understands the causes of things.”

“You want to know how things change, don’t you.”

“Quite right. We want to understand how all change occurs. Social change, psychological change, genetic change, mythic change. You have a fine head on your shoulders, Mr Dips.”

“What is it that you want to change?”

“Ah, that is where you come in. We have computers working on that problem right now.”

“Computers? I don’t know anything about computers. Are you offering me some kind of job?”

“A very interesting way of expressing it. Deirdre.”

The Doctor stretched across for a corner of sheet and tugged at it, bunching the sheet up as it came. This process gradually exposed a complicated mass of machinery bunched around a big jug. Doctor Vaisey clicked on an overhead lamp illuminating this jumble of stuff. In the jug was a human head.


To say I was not prepared for this vision is to present my reaction in a restrained manner. I screamed quite suddenly and very loudly, and succeeded in alarming myself, the Archivist, the Doctor, and the Head. I refer to this last personage impersonally because, although I was told his name I could by no means associate this entity with a merely human title. For me he must remain the first Head. There were more, many more. There were, apparently, corridors of them.

The Chief Archivist led me off down one such corridor, briskly pointing out faces he thought I might know, whilst urging me to reconsider my decision. He kept tapping at the glass cases behind which the Heads swam in their individual jugs, as though checking some monstrous barometer. My decision had been, wholeheartedly, “No!” The request I can only explain in terms of what happened next.

“These people are no longer in any pain or any distress,” he said. “Their personality maintains itself for a few hundred years, though latterly it becomes a dream-like unit, as more and more of the brain is directed to the work in hand. They tell us that there is a definite cut-off point -- if you will pardon the expression -- at which the kind of person they once were no longer relates to the manner in which they think. They evolve through their consciousness into a greater being, one that participates in all their thoughts and dreams.”

“Explain again how they are still alive at all.”

“They are not. Look here.”

We were at the end of one corridor, and the beginning of another. He clicked on a light, and I saw that the cases were full of skulls, some of which looked primitive, prehuman.

“All our containers and chemicals and monitors only enable us to maintain easy contact with the Heads. In the old days it was necessary for the shaman to enter the world of the captured Heads in order to communicate with them. A perilous operation, as not all of those Heads were voluntary sacrifices, like ours.”

“You can’t expect me to believe that this is behind Celtic head-hunting.”

“I present you with theory and example. Your conclusions are your own.”

“And these heads are your computers?”

“The mind that has been freed from physicality can harness all its energies, not just the miserable percentage we are able to spare. In such a condition they dwarf the capabilities of existing technology. Most importantly, they are not limited to logic. They are dreaming virtual worlds, whole countries every bit as complex as the one we inhabit. They are dreaming of other islands, other Scotlands. You know Chuang-Tzu’s dream of the butterfly? Perhaps it is the Heads who are dreaming us. There is raw myth in your skull, Mr Dips, wouldn’t you like to harvest it?”

“Let me talk to one of these Heads, prove to me this happens.”

“That is exactly where we are going, Mr Dips. Really, you do not think we are -- how would you put it in that quaint Americanese into which I hear you lapse now and then? some sicko skull cult?”

We now entered another of the cavernous chambers filled with shelves, books, monitors, and other peculiar pieces of apparatus. Here Eileen MacMorrow awaited us by another suspicious-looking box with a sheet over it. She dragged up a stool as we approached.

“Here, Osmond, you perch on this. I told ye he wouldna go for it Mr Vaisey,” she said to the Chief Archivist. He shrugged youthfully and stuck his hands in his pockets.
I sat down facing the box and she began sticking wires to my forearms and head with sellotape. She pulled the sheet off it and I realised I was gazing at a head encased within a TV.

“This is Marian. She’s still keen to keep in touch. Dinna worry aboot the TV, ye’ll find the shape gives yir subconscious the right sort of signals. Dye want him drugged?”

“No, no,” said the Chief Archivist. “I want him to realise how powerful and clear the signals are for himself.”

“Okay. Dinna close yir eyes till she gets through, then ye’ll find it helps.”

I stared at the discoloured face squashed up against the glass of the set, not two feet away from me. The hair was blonde and smeared here and there about the face. It was impossible to guess an age; the skin looked quite wrinkled, but that might have been the solution it was in. The eyes were closed, and one corner of her mouth was open. I could see dirty little teeth within. Her right cheek pressed against the glass, alarmingly white, a soft amorphous shape, like the underside of a snail.
All at once I began thinking in disjointed blurts. Jagged colours and shapes came into my head involuntarily. It was very frightening, as though you were in a plane and the clouds had suddenly cleared. I felt I was much closer to the ground than I had realised, and that the “ground” consisted of a startlingly unknown territory.
None of this was linguistic, there were scarcely any images in the visual sense. It just seemed like great slabs of something “other” were being intruded into my consciousness. These slabs seemed composed of infinite numbers of small squirmy things, like animated numbers or letters. It made my head feel like it was full of insects. I had a sudden insight that these squirmy things were individual thoughts, and that the slabs were therefore whole nations of insects, large amounts of related information.

None of it felt like facts and figures, however. It felt like driving through a plague of locusts, or being caught in a cloud of midges. It was as though a book, instead of staying flat on the page, dissolved into its component letters and flew at you. It was all intensely disturbing: my every nerve was being set on end and I could find no way to calm them down.

Abruptly these sensations ceased and I became aware of being enveloped in a medium. It was like floating in a swimming pool, except the pool was sentient. This was Marian. She was utterly calm, utterly accepting; she understood all my disquiet and revulsion at once, and accepted them without reservation. There was still no verbal communication, but neither was there any sense of impediment to communication. I was understood through her absorbing me, her holding me, weighing me, and accepting me. She was understood through her opening herself to me, and concealing nothing from me. I recognised the sensation immediately, though I could not articulate from where or how. I knew that time had ceased to operate for the duration of this sensation, and that this reformation of the very principle of duration would sustain itself as long as we maintained this contact.

Then, quite suddenly, starkly, I was back in the gloomy room covered in wires and sellotape and the contact was over. I found that I was shaking and that every nerve in my body felt like it was audibly jangling. I felt awful and the sight of that head lurching in a jug of pickles made me nauseous.

“Okay, cover her up,” sounded the voice of Mr Vaizey, the Chief Archivist. “She’s seen enough.”


I was back upstairs in the Archive’s main hallway being force-sipped sweet tea by Eileen. Doctor Vaizey had reappeared briefly to take my pulse and my temperature, but after pronouncing me “perfectly normal for a justified paranoiac,” she had vanished back into the body of the Archive. The Assistant Archivist was fussing over me, but of Mr Vaizey himself, there was no sight.

I felt totally disorientated and somewhat ashamed. I felt I had failed in some test and now could never redeem myself. I felt like crying and was only restraining myself because I was sure Eileen would treat me with total derision. She was being brisk and efficient, and was completely unreadable.

“How did I do, Eileen, how did I do?” I finally mumbled in my misery.

“How did you do what, you silly man? You’ve not been taking a driving test, you know.”

“What happened? I feel so ghastly...”

“What didn’t happen! But you want tae know how you got on, don’t you. You met Marian, is what happened. She tried you out wi a bit of real thinking and your brain seized up. So she grabbed haud of ye and lulled ye back to a condition where we could pull you out. That was it.”

“So I’m not up to it, is that it?”

“Not at all! Most of us cannae thole the way the Heids go on, but ye get used tae it. The important thing wi you was the recovery time. Very quick, jist as the Chief Archivist predicted.

You’re adaptable, Osmond ma boy. We’re jist a bit concerned you lack stamina.”
“Stamina? What do you mean stamina?”

“Well, could you do that mair than once a day? It gets mair familiar, but no that much. Could you tolerate mair than one Heid? Could ye answer back?”

“The way I feel right now, I don’t think I ever want to go through that again.”
“Aye, he predicted that as well. But see how ye feel in a week.”

“In a week? My holiday runs out in three days! I’ve got a job to get back to.”
“Correction, pal; your holiday runs out the morn. You’ve been talking to Marian for twa haill days. And ye don’t have tae worry about your job. You’re Junior Archivist while you choose tae stay.”

At that I gave up altogether and allowed the Assistant Archivist to give me a blanket, and nodded vaguely whilst he spoke about sorting out a desk for me with his brother. Eileen decided I should try and make it back to the Hotel and got me wrapped up in the blanket. Then, as I tottered gamely for the door on her arm, she battered down the final shreds of resistance.

“Oh, by the way, Doctor Vaizey said to thank you for the sperm sample.”

“What? Oh, you don’t mean I...”

“Oh yes. It’s an invariable first reaction. We were expectin it, though not sae suddenly. Still, Doctor Vaizey said it was “fine and vigorous”. So that’s aa right, isn’t it.”

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