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Authors: Paul Finch

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Cape Wrath

BOOK: Cape Wrath
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Title Page

 

CAPE WRATH

 

 

by

PAUL FINCH

Publisher Information

 

First published in England in 2002 by

Telos Publishing Ltd

17 Pendre Avenue, Prestatyn, Denbighshire, LL19 9SH, UK

www.telos.co.uk

 

Digital Edition converted and distributed in 2011 by

Andrews UK Limited

www.andrewsuk.com

 

Telos Publishing Ltd values feedback. Please e-mail us with any comments you may have about this book to:
[email protected]

 

Cape Wrath
© 2002 Paul Finch

Cover artwork by David J Howe

The moral rights of the authors have been asserted.

 

This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior written consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

Introduction

 

Then came Ivar, Great Ivar, also called ‘Slayer' and ‘Boneless'. Ivar, destined to add the crown of York to his crown of Dublin, but also to bring great murder and pillage to all the lands of the English.

The son of Ragnar, who was flung to Aella's adders, Ivar brought vengeance on all the Christian kings of Britain. Three of them he gave up in heathen rites. Their hearthmen he laid waste in bloody battle, their fair women he raped and enslaved and fed to his crews like meat to the dogs.

Ivar of the berserk rages, also called ‘shape-shifter', ‘wolf-spirit', and seer, it was said, with the single eye of Odin. His conquests and devastations ran like fire through England, 'til only the kingdom of Wessex held against him. This too he might have had, but White Olaf, Ivar's brother-in-arms, crossed the wide sea to Norway, and Ivar went unto the lands of the Gaels, already burned and sacked by him, yet ripe now for more.

Boneless Ivar was the terror of this age.

 

Monastic Chronicle of the Farnes, 870 AD

1

 

“Oh, shiiiit!” Craig cried, jumping to his feet, setting the boat rocking wildly. “Check it out!”

“You great Welsh prat!” Barry Wood shouted, grabbing hold of Linda to protect her.

Craig ignored him, and pointed skywards. “A sea-eagle, look!”

“Big deal,” Barry replied.

“What's so special about a sea-eagle?” David asked.

Craig shook his head. “You peasants. It's one of the rarest birds in Britain. It even went extinct at one time …”

Alan leaned back against the gunwales and stared up, finding he could just about distinguish an aerial form lofting about one of the higher coastal crags.

Craig meanwhile felt at the pocket of his cagoule, where his camera was always kept handy. “I'd love to get a couple of shots of it while we're here.”

“I'm sure we'll find the time, Craig darling,” came a soft but authoritative voice from the aft section of the outboard. Everyone looked round. It was Professor Mercy, who even bundled up like all the rest in a sweater and oilskins, looked as alluringly feminine as ever. Her flaxen hair hung in strands from under her woolly hat. “Now sit down, hey. The sea around the Stair is supposed to be dangerous enough without you trying to capsize us as well.”

Craig sat, but his attention was still focussed on the distant shape of the eagle. “I'll bet it's eyrie's up there somewhere. You want to see the places they nest. Talk about precarious.”

Alan couldn't help wondering how precarious their own position currently was out here in the middle of the firth; the rough water beneath them was so deep it was inky black. Then there was the island, Craeghatir; on a map it was nothing more than a tiny spot off the tip of Cape Wrath, mainland Britain's northern-most point, but in reality it was very different. He turned and viewed the awesome mass of rock looming towards them over the whitecaps. The sea seemed to boil around its feet. From deep, deep below it there rose a dull thunder, like the boom of cracking stones.

2

 

The Stair was easily as impressive as McEndry, the doughty old boatman, had said it would be, but docking there was a perilous procedure.

It was basically a narrow canyon, with a strip of gravel beach at its seaward end. Farther in, the beach was buried under jumbled heaps of boulders, the debris from some landslide way back in geological time, and it was this that afforded passage up and onto the island, which from the ocean appeared as a natural fortress of soaring limestone cliffs, utterly impregnable.

Even at the Stair – the only point on the entire circumference of the isle where explorers might get safely ashore – a boat had first to negotiate all manner of obstacles, rocks both visible and submerged, a terrifying swell and backwash, and closer in, explosions of surf, where the breakers, having charged full strength into the gorge, were funnelled violently together and detonated with elemental fury. With each impact, there was a phenomenal suck and crash of pebbles, the echoes of which rolled and rolled in the chasms of the cliffs.

The passengers hung on for dear life as McEndry clung to his tiller and stoically guided them into the cleft. The outboard – at first glance a sturdy 12-footer – now felt flimsy indeed. It was tossed and thrown from side to side. Spume spattered everyone, ice-cold brine slopped over the gunwales. It didn't surprise Alan at all that no-one had settled on Craeghatir in living memory; that in fact, aside from the infamous megalith, the only sign of man on this island was the lighthouse on its north-westerly tip. That was the way it was likely to stay if the only way to get ashore was via this roller-coaster ride.

He glanced overhead as they sailed in. The sliver of pale blue sky bore a crisscrossing pattern of seabirds. Their harsh cries rang down, and were amplified in the canyon, which made them sound strange and unnatural. It reminded Alan of the other reasons people were supposed to have avoided this place; the reasons none of them had really discussed yet, thinking perhaps they were too adult to entertain such fancies. Alan certainly thought that
he
was too adult, but that didn't prevent the discomfort he felt just to recall some of the ancient stories told about Craeghatir.

Then McEndry cut the engine. They were still several yards from the beach, but he lifted his propeller, leaped out of the back of the boat and began to push. Now they understood why he'd come out wearing his plastic ‘factory-ship' dungarees. A moment later, they'd crunched onto the shingle and were able to climb out, though even then they didn't feel shielded from the fury of the sea. The waves were rumbling at incredible volume, the air was filled with spray; for all his waterproof packaging, Alan found himself drenched through. He turned to Nigel ‘Nug' Unsworth, who was busy buckling his rucksack back over his oilskins.

“Tell me, Nug: why do I always fetch up in places like this?” Alan shouted. “This time last year, I was in the Black Wood of Rannoch in pissing rain, searching for Celtic artifacts, of which we found zilch; the year before that, I was on Bridestones Moor, freezing my knackers off digging up some really exciting relics of medieval charcoal-burning. And now look. A lovely day in the middle of summer, and instead of toasting on the Costa del Sol, supping sangria and checking out the tan-lines, I'm here with you lot.”

Nug grinned. With his sturdy frame, long hair and untrimmed moustache and beard, he visibly resembled a Viking, which was quite appropriate on this particular expedition.

“Nah, you wouldn't appreciate summer on a sun-lounger, man,” he laughed. “Watching the babes wiggle past in their thongs when you could be out here rubbing ointment on your blisters, checking your arms and legs for tick-bites.”

“Just up Alan's street that,” said Barry Wood, shouldering his way past. “He cracks on that he finds this tough going, but really he lives for pain. Wears a pair of leather undies, with metal studs in the crotch. Thinks no-one knows.”

Alan gave Nug a patient look as Barrye lumbered away to where Linda stood shaking water from her plastic coverall. “I'm sure I'm going to have a good time up here,” he said quietly, “I'm just wondering at which point
he's
going to die and make it perfect.”

Nug slapped him on the shoulder. “You never know. Strange things happen in wild places. And Britain doesn't get much wilder than this.”

McEndry, meanwhile, who'd made this trip once already today with his son, had now pulled the boat up fully onto the beach, then approached Professor Mercy, who was standing talking to Clive Tilley, her second-in-command. McEndry was a raw, red-faced fellow, and his hair blew about his head in a scraggy grey mop. If anyone looked like a native of this part of the world, it was the boatman, though curiously, like many of the north Highland Scots, his accent wasn't particularly strong.

“Your gear's further up,” he said, indicating the heaped rocks at the far end of the canyon. “Me and Angus took it up there for safety. Tides are a funny thing on Cape Wrath.” He considered for a moment, then turned to face the rest of the team. “ Don't any of you come down here unless you have to, especially when there's a heavy sea running. Think this is bad, think again. It isn't. We get real high water up here.” He gazed at the mountainous seas beyond the cleft. “You get washed out there, you've no chance. No chance at all.”

“Thanks for the advice,” Professor Mercy said, taking a wad of polythene-wrapped £10 notes from her anorak pocket and handing them over to him. “But they're a pretty sensible bunch, for students. I hand-picked them, myself.”

McEndry nodded his thanks as he pushed the money under his dungarees. “They'll need to be. Craeghatir isn't like anywhere they'll ever have been before.”

“They're a hardy lot too,” Clive assured him. “We took all this stuff into consideration when we chose them.”

“Aye, maybe. Well …” and the Scot moved back towards his boat, “I'll be back on Thursday on the six o'clock tide, with the supplies you ordered. You've got your phone and everything?”

The Professor nodded and patted the waterproof satchel at her side, which contained the satellite telephone. “A couple of us have got mobiles too, just in case.”

Again the boatman pointed out to sea. Six miles away, the smudge of the Scottish mainland was just visible over the blue rollers. “Coast Guard station at Durness will pick up a distress call,” he said. “Better make sure it's an emergency, though. They'll not be pleased if you turn ‘em out because you've run low on baked beans or something.”

Professor Mercy, who'd made about a hundred other hazardous field-trips during her career, simply smiled.

On the whole, Alan mused, she was right to be confident they could handle the hardships of the island. They were a more-than-reliable crew. All volunteers of course, as any field-trip over holiday time would require them to be, but specifically chosen even then, firstly because they got high grades and were original thinkers – “fresh minds for fresh finds”, as she was fond of saying – and also because they were physically robust, which was essential on an outdoors dig. In this respect, only David Thorson had a question-mark against him. At 19, he was the youngest present, and still in the first year of his bachelor's degree. On top of this, he was short, plump rather than fit, and though amusing and good company to be with, of uncertain temperament when the going got tough. Even now, as they yomped their way up the high rocky stairway, Alan watched David struggling, sweat pumping from his fat, freckled brow … and this was without any kind of kit to carry. Alan knew that Professor Mercy had included the lad because his father was Assistant-Treasurer back at the college, but he still wasn't certain it was a good idea.

Of course, it was no easy climb for any of them. It was hazardously steep for one thing, while many of the rocks were loose and shifted alarmingly beneath their booted feet. Here and there, there were patches of green bladderwrack – proof of McEndry's assertion that sometimes the seas off Cape Wrath ran very high indeed – and these proved slippery and treacherous.

Alan turned, and found Linda coming up behind him. She was a pert, lithe creature, whose love of aerobics and martial arts kept her in terrific shape, though even
she
was panting and puffing, and generally having trouble on the loose surface.

“Okay?” he asked, stopping as she came alongside him.

Linda gave him a disdainful look. “Course I am.”

“Hey … I only asked. I
am
allowed to show concern, I suppose?”

She sniffed. “Bit late for that, don't you think.” And then she pressed on up.

Alan gazed regretfully after her. She these days effected a ‘pageboy' look, keeping her chestnut hair in a fashionable bob. Though most of it was currently stuffed under her anorak hood, it went with her lovely green eyes to near perfection. Which only served to pain him more.

For several moments, he watched her from behind as she scrambled away up the Stair. Then Barry appeared alongside him. The burly athlete didn't say a word, but made a point of giving Alan a deeply suspicious once-over as he passed. Alan ignored it, shook his head at the unfairness of life, then continued with the ascent.

Within 10 minutes or so, they'd reached half way, where, as the boatman had promised, their various haversacks and sealed packs of rations were awaiting them on a flat shelf. As they loaded up, Alan glanced back down. Far below, framed in the mouth of the gorge, he saw McEndry chugging his way back across the firth. Higher up here, away from the windy sea-front, the sun was noticeably warmer. Alan unzipped his oilskin coat and loosened the thick fleece beneath it, remembering dozens of TV commercials on which the highlands and islands of Scotland were portrayed in their finest summer livery; an unspoiled paradise of heather-clad mountains, verdant pinewoods and blue tidal inlets.

And at first glance, inner Craeghatir appeared to live up to that holiday-maker's dream.

They came up over the top of the Stair in their ones and twos, but invariably, each one of them then stopped short to take in the stunning scenery, for what seemed like the entirety of the island lay spread out before them. It was basically a plateau, about three miles across but concave, the lower central portion dipping down into a sweeping glen, with a blaze of lush green mosses and white fluffy cotton-grass at its far end, indicating peat bogs. Higher up, on the glen's sloping sides, deep stands of Scots pine dominated, probably the haunt of rare birds like the osprey and crossbill. Only in the island's high south-western corner, did the trees thin out and the bare hillside take over, veering sharply upwards into sheer Alpine crags that towered several hundred feet above everything else.

“Fancy going up there to find your sea-eagle?” Nug said to Craig, as they processed inland.

The bird-spotter grinned. “Going to have to. It won't be coming down to us.”

“You sure it's what you think it is?” Alan asked him.

Craig nodded eagerly. “The sea-eagle's highly distinctive. Got a snow-white tail and big square wings. Nothing even comes close to resembling it, not even the golden eagle. I'll tell you, it's a rare sighting for a British ornithologist.”

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