Photo by Jamie Pollock on Unsplash

From where I stand now, it’s clear what I did was wrong.

When I was wee, the islands of St Kilda were always part of my world, even though I’d never seen them. But you knew the archipelago—Hirta, Soay, Boreray, Stac an Armin—skulked somewhere beyond the curve of the earth. The book I got from the library van, Tales of the Pacific, told me that in the South Seas, islanders discovered new lands by interpreting the dark or light on the clouds above the unseen terrain.

When mother was only six, the authorities decreed the St Kilda folk would have to leave their home; too many old folk, too many bairns sick and dying. “We were all just worn out,” said Grandad Gillies. One Friday morning in October 1930, twenty-five years before I was born, the steamer anchored in Village Bay and took all the families off. Grandad, Grannie, and Mam were put into a fine new council house on Uist, with electricity, running water and a bath. Grandad got a job on the roads.

When Father inherited the house and shop from his Uncle Uisdean he said to Mam he could marry her. She accepted. Now she was gone.

St Kilda was as real to me as the place she had gone to: the place where the Reverend Mitchell told us we’d all go one day. If we were good. But that was hard to credit, because you had seen Mam laid out in the front room in the shiny wooden coffin, swathed in pearly-silk cloth; neat and clean. Not like the long months in the clutter of medicine bottles and half-empty tea cups on the bed-side table, and the stink of used-up air. And you had touched her pale skin; cold and dry as the white rocks up on Cnoc Carnaig.

The day before the funeral, the bell on the shop door went. My sister Aggie, just back from the University, and I were in the kitchen. Father had kept me off school “under the circumstances.” We could hear him talking to someone out front, but not like he would speak to Willie the post, or Pat from the dairy. Then she spoke: Miss Laidlaw! Was I in trouble for dogging school? Aggie stood up from the table, side-looked in the mirror above the sink, straightened her hairband, and sat back down.  

“Aggie!” Dad called from the shop. “Miss Laidlaw’s here to pay her respects.”

Relief (I was not in trouble); excitement that my teacher, was calling at our house.

The till drawer rattled closed and Father said, “och let me take you round to the front door, Miss Laidlaw. We can’t have you trailing through the shop and the bourach in the kitchen.”

“You’re busy, I know my way. Is Aggie in?”

She set off towards us along the corridor, leaving Father stranded, the heels of her knee-length boots clicking on the faded linoleum. The vibrancy of her mustard pinafore, her psychedelic scarf, shamed the browns and greys of our house.

“Hello, Calum,” she said with a smile, “I’m so sorry about your Mum.” To Aggie she said, “Don’t get up.” She rested her hand on Aggie”s shoulder, leaning over, seeming to examine the Kalamazoo sheets spread across the table.

“Just helping Dad with the books. Mam used to do them. He hates it, but I quite like it.”

“Always top in arithmetic, my star pupil. How long since you went up to the Academy?”

“Ten years.”

“Oh my,” she sighed. “Now a Master of Arts, no less!”

“Bachelor of Science,” Aggie corrected.

“Of course. How’s the job-hunting?”

“Loads of applications, but nothing yet.”

“You’ll do just fine,” said Miss Laidlaw walking her fingers along the table and pivoting an official-looking letter so that she could read it.

“That’s private!” Aggie said, giving a playful slap to the back of her hand.

“Of course, I’m sorry. Patience—that’s what you need. About the jobs. Something will turn up,” she said.

Aggie stood and faced Miss Laidlaw with a smile.

“That’s pretty,” Miss Laidlaw said.

“Thank you.” Aggie smoothed the skirt of her lemon-yellow dress. “Mary Quant.”

“A bit of nothing for the price she paid!” Dad shouted through. The windowless corridor to the shop amplified sound from the house. “And not the thing to wear in a house in mourning, either.”

“I’m very sorry for your loss, Mr. McPherson,” Miss Laidlaw called back. Turning to Aggie she whispered, “It’s very with it, and shows off your legs, lovely.”

“You’d better go in,” Father said, appearing at the kitchen door carrying a carton of firelighters. “We’re expecting the Minister in a whiley.”

Miss Laidlaw lowered her eyes and followed Aggie into the front room.

Once inside, Aggie pressed her open hand against the door, all the while eyeing me, and closed it with a careful click. Father retreated to the shop and began stacking tinned peaches. I could see him pause, silhouetted in the afternoon sunlight from the high window, and cock his head, listening: hushed conversation from the front room, and then a giggle. Aggie’s. A dreamy peace settled on the house; just the wind soughing in the chimney, and the hum of the freezer in the shop.

Then the sound of shattering glass; Father’s brogues approaching. He threw open the door to the front room. Miss Laidlaw and Aggie stood, shoulders touching, staring down at the green tiles of the fireplace. At their feet, Mam’s vase, smashed. The one she brought back from the Empire Exhibition in Glasgow, engraved with an image of the beetling Tait’s Tower; the one I loved for its sleek lines, its silvery sense of hope, optimism, and glamour.

Miss Laidlaw’s face glowed pink, her lipsticked mouth, wan. Mam lay in her lidded coffin, mute.

“Aggie! What on earth have you done?” he said.

Aggie began, “I…”

“I’m terribly sorry Mr. McPherson, it was entirely my fault. I am so clumsy. I put my arm round Aggie…”

“…she was trying to comfort me…” interjected Aggie.

“…and I… knocked the vase off the mantelpiece… and you can see the consequences. I’m awfully sorry.”

“Well,” he said,  “accidents will happen.” Kneeling, he gathered the fragments with the little brush and shovel from the fire-side set. “Maybe Calum can fix it with his airplane glue. Fetch a newspaper for the bits, son.”

Rising, he turned to Miss Laidlaw. “It was only an ornament. Such things really don’t matter after all, do they?”

But his tone said there was something that did matter, and it wasn’t the vase.


After the burial, the men climbed back up the hill from the cemetery to join the women, filling the kitchen, the lobby, and the front room with the smell of tinned salmon sandwiches, whisky, cigarette smoke.

I wrapped some sausage rolls in a serviette and wriggled through the maze of black serge and tweed trousers to my room. I unwrapped the bits of mother’s vase, squeezing a tacky bubble of Airfix glue from the tube. I had all the bits. All I needed to do was put them together in the right order. I could work it out. And I did manage to assemble something like the right shape. You could just make out the tower rising above the rolling grassy hillside, the Union Jack flapping proudly from the flagpole. But it was spoiled: tainted by smears of sticky adhesive. It would never be the same. Sitting cross-legged upon the patched rag-rug I cried angry tears.


There were twelve of us went to the school; all in one room. Only Maihri McDonald was older than me, but not bright. I would tease her when she got her spelling homework wrong. In retaliation she called me teacher’s pet. Miss Laidlaw taught us everything: Reading (English only, no Gaelic in the school), Writing, and Arithmetic, of course. Because I was going to the big school in September I got the mathematics too: like arithmetic, only harder.

When I got stuck I would twist the hair that hung down over my forehead.

“Your forelock is taking some punishment this morning, Master McPherson,” Miss Laidlaw said, squatting down beside my desk. I fixed my eyes on my jotter to avoid her thigh revealed as her skirt rode up; the sticky sweet smell of her hairspray, fixing her raven-black beehive.

“What seems to be the trouble?”

“I don’t understand the sine, cosine, tan.”

“Oh dear! It’s nearly four o’clock. What I’d like you to do for homework, is read chapter twelve in your Junior Trigonometry.”And she wrote on my jotter Sin, Cos, Tan. “That’s how you write them for short. Read that, and we can go over it tomorrow.”

On the walk home from school Maihri asked: “What’s trig… triggle… trigglenometerry? And why don’t I learn it?”

“It’s all about triangles, stupid,” I said  

What about triangles?”

“Well, I’m not sure, really,” I said, aiming a kick at a loose stone on the road and missing. “It’s sort of like… when you know two things, it helps you find out a third thing.”

“Like what?”

“Like… like… oh, well, you won’t understand anyway.”

“That’s rubbish, you don’t know what it means at all!”

Mairi grabbed my schoolbag. Though she was a foot taller than me, I was thick-set so she couldn’t swing me around as she would have liked, and so she let me go.

Trying another tactic to restore her self-esteem, she said, “I know what people do when they’re winching.”

“Do not!”

“Do so! It’s like when the tup serves the yows. I seen one of the RAF boys at Jeannie Morrison, down under the old bridge.”

“You’re a liar!” I shouted, in outrage.

Mother and Father? Miss Laidlaw? Though she wasn’t married, of course. Here was another thing that I knew in my guts, but could not, would not, know in my head.

“You’re just a stupid liar,” I blurted and shoved Mairi into the ditch.


That night, the textbook lay splayed on the kitchen table. Panic mounted as the words and figures danced before my eyes; shame and dread of failing in front of Miss Laidlaw. But, a sly pleasure that she would, once more, draw on the blackboard elegant chalky curves, clean lines and resolute arrows; and numbers, with that perfect little high-up circle denoting degrees. All for me.

“My, but you’ve got an awful scowl on you, Calum,” Father said, peering at me over the Daily Express.

My cheeks flushed. Could he tell what I was thinking?

“I just can’t get these damned triangles!” I shouted and threw the pencil to the floor.

“Any more of that blaspheming and I’ll have my belt off to you,” said he, slapping the arm of the chair with the rolled-up newspaper. “What’s come over you boy? If the work is ower hard for you, we can take you out the school, and you can help me in the shop full-time. Lord knows there’s enough work now for the two of us, with your mother gone, and Aggie set for off.”

But I knew well enough that he’d not carry out his threat. The truant officer would come to chap the door, and what would people say then?

“Ask yon lah-di-dah teacher of yours to explain it,” Father said. “She gets paid a pretty penny to learn you your lessons. Let her earn her salary. And if she winna, I’ll be having a word with the Chairman of the Education Committee.”


One bright morning I took a deep breath and came clean to Miss Laidlaw.

“Miss, I just canna see how it works, like. And anyhow, what good is it to anybody?”

She stared out the schoolroom window to where the road turned at the telephone box, past our shop and Wilson’s Garage.

“What we need is a practical experiment.” She looked down at me and said. “The forecast’s good for Sunday. Why don’t I take you out and we can maybe solve this mystery for you? And Aggie, too. If she’s willing.” She added in an undertone, “Lord knows you could do with some time out of that house.”

“Father won’t let us go on the Sabbath, Miss.”

“A Sunday afternoon walk? An innocent family outing! We’ll see.”


Me and Aggie were drying the dishes after our Sunday dinner—we called lunch “dinner” back then—we heard the knock at the front door. The shop was closed, of course.

“Go you, Aggie, and see who that is,” said Father.

Aggie jettisoned her apron en route to the door. On the doorstep stood Miss Laidlaw wearing slacks, and below them walking boots; a rucksack on her back.

“Hello Mr. McPherson,” she called, peeking round Aggie. “Is Calum ready? Did he tell you we were going for a walk?”

“He said some such thing,” said Father, not looking up from the Bible in his lap.

“We won’t go far,” she said, still standing in the porch among the wellies and walking sticks.

“I’m sure,” he said, running his finger along a line of text.

“Will you come too, Aggie?” Miss Laidlaw asked.

Aggie, her back still to the room, nodded. She pulled back her ginger hair, liberated from the curlers and pins that had held it tight all that morning until church-time.

“Where are we going?” asked Aggie.

“Along the road a bit. I’d like to give Calum some suggestions for his school work. Not actual schoolwork, you understand.” She glanced towards Father. “More like… discovering God’s creation. All very proper for a Sunday.”

Aggie and I put on our shoes and threw on our jackets. As we walked down the path Miss Laidlaw said to Aggie: “I took your advice and parked out of sight, over the bridge.”

Sitting in front of the school was her red Mini.  

Turning to me she said, “this expedition is a little too far to accomplish on foot, so I’ve brought my car. Best not mention this to your father. Can we trust your discretion?”

I nodded. I didn’t understand the question but liked being part of the conspiracy. Who was, “we”?  Just her fancy way of speaking, I thought.

There were only two directions to go, and she took the road north. After seven miles or so, turning in at the McAllister’s place she headed up, on the best road on the island, smooth shiny black tar, snaking all the way to the RAF listening station. Out of a thickening mist loomed the squat brick block-house, beside an array of radar antennae whipping around in their manic orbits. The building had no windows. How could they watch the Russians from inside there? Keep track of the gangly, red-starred bombers caught in blurry photos, in the Daily Express? Sometimes lying on a heather bank, late on a summer evening you could spot one, a silver glint high in the sky; you’d picture the clutch of bombs held in their bellies, set to tumble like skittles onto our innocent cities. And we took it on trust that the blue-uniformed men in the kirk pew, or outside the Caberfeidh Hotel were our protectors. Their ways mysterious, and all the more potent for that.

“It’s all very hush-hush,” the Minister would say in a worldly way. “Still, it’s as well they are here to keep us safe.”

“Neither of you have been up here before have you?” Miss Laidlaw asked, stopping next to a concrete post that braced the chain-link fence around the compound.

“It’s so good of you to drive us, Chris,” said Aggie. This was the first time I’d heard Miss Laidlaw addressed by her Christian name.

“Hmm, mist.” said Miss Laidlaw, staring out at the grey cloud. “Quel domage! But it’s not cold, the sun’s trying to get through. Patience. Let’s eat.”

She spread a tartan rug, here beside me, Aggie, and an oilskin sheet, there you go, Calum, on the springy turf. From her rucksack: Coke for me, and a bottle of Asti Spumate for them. We ate Scotch eggs, prawns on brown bread, and scones and strawberry jam.  

“Things can only improve,” said Aggie lifting her glass high to toast the day.

Slowly the mist lost its uniform greyness, giving way to ragged gouts snagged on the outcrops scattered across the curved (convex Miss Laidlaw called it) hilltop.

“I think something will emerge soon. Calum, why don’t you trot over to that little rocky bit and see what you can see?”

I crossed the bouncy heather and scrambled onto the lichen-rough granite. The sun flickered through the thinning mist. I looked back towards the picnickers, but saw only grey. Looking west again, now utter clarity. Across the void of the clear air, the white-capped sea below, and higher up, breaching the horizon, three blue-grey silhouettes. Two, lying long and low: Hirta, then Borerary. Then the chunky outlier, Star an Armin.

Triumphant, I turned, and trumpeted: “Miss, Miss! I see them, I see them.”

The veil between us dissolved. Miss Laidlaw knelt, her back to me, slightly raised up. Aggie’s hand curled around the older woman’s neck, touching the downy hairs at the nape that would not be gathered up. Aggie pulled Miss Laidlaw’s face down onto her open mouth.

My breath caught in my throat.

Now This! Now This!

Hearing me, they jerked apart. Aggie grabbed a serviette and pressed it to her lips, eyes down.

Miss Laidlaw jumped to her feet and faced me, hands on hips.

“Well done, Calum,” she shouted across the gap. “Come back here and we can work out the theory.”

“I’m going for a walk,” Aggie said.

The next half hour was a jumble of words, Miss Laidlaw holding my eye like she would see into my soul. She talked, and talked as if she would never stop. Of adjacent angles, hypotenuse… fifty miles on the map from us here on Cleitrabhal to Village Bay on St Kilda; how the elevation—see that dot on the map with the number beside it, that’s us—how we could see over the horizon to the islands; how we could calculate the length of a straight line from here to Hirta.

Cos Tan Sin. Sin Sin Sin.

Aggie drifted back, red-eyed. Miss Laidlaw packed the picnic smartly into the rucksack. “Calum, roll up the rug, and carry it for me,” she instructed. “You sit in the front, you’ve had a momentous day.” No-one spoke on the way back. Miss Laidlaw hummed a Beatles song, and sang softly: take a sad song and make it better.

She drew up by the phone box and yanked the handbrake on.

“Now I hope you’ve benefited from our little experiment—a little treat, N’est ce pas? And remember what we said about discretion, we don’t want Father upset, do we?”

I got out and held the tip-up seat for Aggie.

“Calum, go home,” she said. “Don’t wait for me.”

As I crossed the bridge I could just hear, over the burble of the water, the urgent voices of Aggie and Miss Laidlaw. As the Mini passed me on the road she waved and smiled.


We got two days off the school because Miss Laidlaw was ill. Then a temporary teacher, Mrs Lockhart, came from Stornoway. The first day, she called two of us, me included, out to the front to tell the class our “news.” Trembling, I told the class: “My sister Aggie, got a job with the Inland Revenue. She’s going to East Kilbride on the mainland. They’ll teach her how to work the computer.”

“That’s excellent news, Calum,” said Mrs Lockhart. “Now,” she said, turning to the rest of the class, “can anyone tell me what the Inland Revenue does?”


Late one Saturday afternoon in December, I was minding the shop when the Minister arrived. “Father’s in the kitchen watching the wrestling,” I said.

“I’ll go on through,” he said. “But before I do, I want you to know, Calum, boy, that back in the summer you did the right thing. I heard tell that you’ve been worried about Miss Laidlaw going away. You’ve nothing to reproach yourself for. You obeyed your conscience, like a man. We—the Committee and the Kirk Session—are all extremely grateful for that. Extremely.”

“Aye,” I said. “Father told me.”

“Just you mind, then. Nothing to reproach yourself with.”

He went through, and Father turned off the TV.

I heard the Minister say, “I’ll take a cup of tea, thank you, Donald.”

There was chat about the state of the roads, the storm-wrecked boat in the Minch, and Johan McIntyre from Balranald that passed away in the hospital in Inverness.

“And you know, Donald, I met up with Aggie when I visited my sister in East Kilbride. What a terrible place, just terrible. All car parks and roundabouts.”

I brought through a plate of biscuits and placed it on the table.

“Thank you, Calum. No, Donald I wasn’t invited to her flat. She suggested a café. Very nice it was too. There was a strange thing though, Donald. When I stepped out to walk to the station, parked round the corner was a wee red Mini. And who do you think was sitting at the wheel? None other than our friend, Miss Christine Laidlaw.”

He shook his head and took a bite of his Garibaldi

“None other.”

Don J Taylor

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