An Orkney Short Story: Sands of Rothiesholm

To celebrate Scotland’s Year of Stories, NorthLink Ferries ran a competition, offering a trip for the best short story set in Orkney or Shetland. We received many brilliant stories, and the winners were chosen by guest judge, Ann Cleeves! We hope you enjoy the winning Adult story set in Orkney, written by David Freer.

Sands of Rothiesholm, Stronsay, 5:17am.

For a moment at least he found himself calmed. He may not know who he was or where he was but he could imagine that there were far worse places to be than here.

The sun had long since risen by the time consciousness returned to him. Was it the warmth of the early morning or the sound of the gentle waves lapping on the shoreline mere feet away from where he lay that woke him up? All he could be certain was that the pain in his head was enough to make him wish he had not awoken.

In spite of the throbbing in his head, he was becoming more aware of his surroundings. Where was he? The mile-long stretch of white sand curving round to form a bay to encapsulate the calm turquoise water. It seemed familiar to him, and yet… As he tried to stand, he became increasingly aware of an unwelcome sensation in his stomach. His legs collapsed from underneath him and he fell, vomiting, to the sand where he lay panting for several moments.

Slowly, the soft sound of the waves breaking on the shore and the warmth of the light breeze worked their magic and his nausea eased. A trio of oystercatchers skimmed over the surface of the water, peeping noisily, breaking the spell of the otherwise peaceful morning. Why was he here and indeed, where was “here”? He was alone, he knew that much, and his earlier feeling of sickness had been replaced by one of growing hunger. He knew that he would have to leave the shore in order to search for food. He gingerly got to his feet again. He felt a lot more confident than before and started to survey his surroundings.

To his right, the beach curved round slowly until it met the sea at the corner as if of a crescent moon. There were buildings there, a farm perhaps? It seemed a long way away. To his left, a hundred yards or so of beach until it met the edge of fields, raised up from sea level on small sandy cliffs. Whilst they were nearer, he wasn’t sure if he could clamber up them in his weakened condition and so he ruled them out. In front of him stretched the water, calm, still and peaceful. The low tide meant that the water was a long way out from the wet sand he found himself on, and he had no way to judge its depth at any rate. Its tranquillity washed over him however and for a moment at least he found himself calmed. He may not know who he was or where he was but he could imagine that there were far worse places to be than here.

Behind him, between him and the sand dunes leading inland, lay a line of shells and pebbles. The high-water line, he surmised. He wandered over and casually picked up a small cyprina shell. He toyed with it idly for a moment and then tossed it down amongst the rest. There were so many of them, razor shells, cowries, bubble shells, all just lying in a line following the curve of the beach. Should he hoard them? They seemed so beautiful, so abundant. He looked down at them again, pelican foot shells, canoe shells, all lying there in a line a couple of feet wide. He sighed. What would he do with such pretty things anyway?

From the South West corner of the bay came the sound of a dog barking, shattering the illusion that he was completely alone. He froze. Instinct told him that he did not want to be found, but he could not fully explain why. Dogs bought their owners with them, and he did not relish an encounter with either. How could he escape though? He was unsure what lay beyond the edge of the sand dunes at the top of the beach. Should he try heading into the water instead? Somehow, he knew to trust his abilities as a swimmer but knew that he would still be visible in the water, an open target. No, the sand dunes it had to be.

Swiftly, he negotiated his way to the top of the beach. Crouching low behind clumps of sea rocket, oraches and marram grass, he held his breath and waited. He could hear the dog approaching, its running footsteps audible on the sand in spite of the distance. What would he do if he was discovered? The dog was getting much closer now and had slowed right down to sniff around as it neared. He risked a glance from his hiding place. Should he change position and move further inland, deeper into the undergrowth? He would surely be found within moments if he remained where he was, but that would be reduced to mere heartbeats if the dog sensed his movement. Just as it seemed that he would have to move, and hope that he would be aided by the element of surprise, he heard a far-off shout and a whistle. The dog abruptly stopped searching and raised its head. A further whistle and the dog reluctantly trotted back the way it had come. He was safe, for now.

He waited. He was not going to risk moving from this spot until he felt comfortable that he was not in danger, no matter how much time passed. He reached out and grabbed a sea rocket stem that was growing at this low-level, so close to the floor of the sand dune. There were lots of different types of flora here and some of them had to be edible. He cautiously bit off a section of leaf and started chewing. It didn’t seem too bad to him, but it would not sustain him for very long he mused. He carefully let go of the plant and continued to lie still.

Only when he was certain that the coast was clear did he risk moving from his hiding place and carefully re-treading his footsteps back to the beach. His head did not pain him now but the feeling of hunger continued to gnaw at him. He would need to find food soon. He wandered along the line of shells and pebbles that he had found earlier until he became acutely aware that he was being watched. He turned towards the sea and saw the head of a common seal poking out of the water, staring straight at him. He supposed it was a common seal because of its dog-like head but at this distance it could easily be a grey seal, as both were active in these waters. The thought stopped him dead in his tracks. How did he know that? He pondered for a moment, and he started to recall… not quite a memory, but stronger than just a feeling… playing on a beach when he was younger. The sensation of walking on the hot dry sand, of digging in the cooler wet sand. Was it on this beach? He couldn’t be certain, but it felt right. He could now clearly remember playing on the shoreline, running in and out of the water, and swimming in the sea for the first time.

Birds! There had been a flock of birds guarding one end of the beach that day. Not as big as the greater black backed gulls he had seen, but gulls nethertheless. He remembered running down the sand towards them, determined to try and capture one. But even with the speed of youth he stood no chance. There was an air of nonchalance in the way they waited until he got nearer to him and then simply flew into the air before settling down on the gentle sea, once again out of his reach.

Another, more recent memory formed in his mind, had there been some sort of fight? Had that been here? Is that why he had woken up on the beach with his head injured? He remembered a figure backing away from him slowly, dejectedly, defeated. If only he could remember…

A pang of hunger jolted him back to the present. Whatever these memories were, they would sort themselves out over time and he had more pressing concerns at the moment. The common seal, the concave angled head more apparent in profile, was now gazing at another seal further along the bay. He left them to their staring contest and continued walking along the line of natural debris washed up along the beach in search of something to eat.

The sun was rising higher in the cloudless sky and really starting to warm the sands he trod barefoot on. Was he really still alone in this paradise? A paradise without food though, he reflected bitterly. He stopped for a moment and took in his surroundings once more. Here on the dry sand it was hard to determine if anyone else had walked these sands in a long time, and the wet sand closer to the water’s edge was devoid of footprints or tracks of any kind that he could see. Even the birds from his memory did not seem to have set foot here recently. He raised his eyes to sky just in time to see a large black and brown shape swooping low overhead. A bonxie! The powerful great skua came over him so fast that he had no time to scurry for cover, he just watched in amazement as the pirate of the skies flew so close to him. The bird, appearing to be spying the shoreline for food from the air, ignored him and flew on. He was neither a threat nor a meal he supposed. Still, he thought, he had better get used to the fact that he was not the only living thing on this beach, and not the only one in search of food. With a little more wariness, he continued on his way.

About two hundred yards along, the pebbles and shells were joined with the discarded carcasses of brown crabs. He inspected one. Not enough left on it to ease his hunger, but the scent triggered a thought that grew into a memory, and slowly recollection dawned. This was his beach, his hunting ground, and his holt was close by. He must have been knocked unconscious when he defended his territory against the invader last night. More sure of himself now, there was a perceptible arrogance in the way he held his tail, as he padded off to this favourite pool to look for crabs.

by David Freer

Supporting Scotland's Year of Stories 2022

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Header image: Looking across the beach of the Sand of Rothiesholm to Bay of Holland in Stronsay photo © Copyright Adam Ward and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence