‘Do you know where the shipwreck is?’

View over Calvary island where the SS Politician's bow should lay

View over the Sound of Eriskay and Calvary island.

Asked a woman when Alexander was just standing outside the tent. He turned around to see a family consisting of mum, dad, two dogs, a son and a daughter wearing purple wellies and a pink raincoat. I peeked through the tent-opening and saw the girl hopefully looking up to Alexander, smiling, showing teeth too big for her small face. The long blond hair peeking out from under the rain hoody.

How on earth got this little girl, with her family, in the rain on this outcrop of the island? And I in my mindeye I began to see the story that brought her to this spot.

I Imagined how she went with mum and dad to the pub for lunch yesterday. It was alright, fish and chips and her favourite soft drink, which she drank slowly with a straw while watching the raindrops trickling down the windows of the pub. The island Eriskay is boring for a girl like her at that age, the pub is boring, her brother definitely was boring.
While mum and dad were having coffee she looked at the black and white pictures on the wall. A boat with a load of people around it.
There was an elderly man in the pub with a few stories to tell.
‘You know what that is?’ Asked the elderly man with a pint of beer sitting next to the picture.
She shook her blond head with the straw still in her mouth.
‘Well, it’s the SS Politician, she was on her way to Kingston in Jamaica with a shipload of whiskey on board when she came in a pretty bad storm. In the early hours of Thursday, 5th of February 1941, just of Roshinish point, 150 yards from Calvary island. I remember it as if it was yesterday. I was just a wee lad of 8 years old…

ss politician in full glory

The SS Politician in better days.

Mesmerized she must have been listening to the man, was it the soft Gaelic accent or the tone of his voice? It was as if she was there in 1941. The Islanders opening their houses for the shipwrecked crew. How the islanders smuggled the bottles of whiskey from the shipwreck. How they played tricks on the customs men and the police when they were hiding the whiskey and other stuff they looted from the ship. How everyone on the island was drunk for a month…. Her little-girl world suddenly became adventurous and exciting.
And as a proud Eriskay islander he ended his story with:
‘If you are very lucky you might find a whiskey bottle somewhere on the island. Not all were found again, you know, after hiding them,’ he said with a twinkle in his eyes.
‘You can still see the shipwreck today, just on the northeasterly tip of the island at low tide.’
The man looked around with a knowing smile and taped with his wrinkled finger under his eye. The entire pub was silent. The girl snapped out of the enchantment when everyone started clapping and thanking the man for the story.

whiskey-salvage-from-ss-politician

Islanders with their little boats full of goodies

‘Mum’, she asked as they were driving home to the self-catering cottage, ‘can we go and see the shipwreck tomorrow?’
‘Well, I don’t know. Let’s see what the weather is like. I thought we were going to Kildonan museum’
‘But I want to see the shipwreck’, she whined pouting her lip.
‘We will see tomorrow morning.’

That evening she was drawing pictures of the sea and a purple boat with smoke, a big rock and small boats and a rainbow with ‘Whisky Galore’ written in it. I imagine mum had to help with the writing.

Early that morning when some daylight was hesitantly poking through the curtains, she heard the soft rain on the roof. She tiptoed barefoot in her pink pyjamas through the house to her parent’s bedroom and slipped into the bed, to snuggled up against to her mother’s warm body as little girls do.
‘Can we go to see the shipwreck today’, she asked softly.
Her mother moaned and stirred a little.
‘Talk about…breakfast’, mum said in half sleep and sighed deeply.

‘What are we going to do today?’ her brother asked while having breakfast
‘Well, your sister wants to see the shipwreck.’
‘But it’s raining and I thought we were going to the Kildonan museum. She always gets her way, it is unfair.’
‘We might be able to combine the two, besides, we will have to walk the dogs’
‘I don’t want to see a stupid shipwreck’, her brother said and folded his arms over his chest.
‘Too bad, you don’t have to look at it, you can do the dog walking while we go and see the wreck. Deal?’

She did not care about the rain and put on her purple wellies and pink raincoat. She skipped and hoped from stone to stone. Flew up and down the hill, running after the dogs, while mum and dad walked with bend head against the wind and rain in their wellies. The north-east side of the island was in view, almost there!

On her way to the the remote landpoint there was a tent, a man standing outside of it and a woman peeking her head out the small opening.
‘Do you know where the shipwreck is?’ asked mum. ‘It should be around here somewhere.’
‘Well, I haven’t seen one’, said the man,‘and we came from South Uist yesterday by kayak.’
‘Oh, I see.’ She looked at her daughter from whom face the expectant smile was dripping off. Shoulders sagging down with disappointment.
‘Is it low water yet?’ Mum asked.
‘Yes, thereabouts. It still has 1 hour to go.’

She walked onto the beach. It must be there, it must be! That old man said so.’ Her little wellies were slowly sinking in the soft sand, the rain drizzled down on her raincoat. Was the water still going down? There were no big waves, the wreck should be visible any minute now.
‘Mummy, what time is it?’
‘We still have 15 minutes to low tide.’
‘There is no shipwreck, is there?’ she said staring at the water with tears in her eyes.
‘I don’t think so, honey’ her mum said softly.
She wiggled her wellies out of the sand, turned around resolutely. And walked away with angry steps. On her way she passed 2 kayaks, one was purple, her favourite colour, but she did not take a second glance at the bloody stupid plastic things.

View over Calvary island with the kayaks

View over the Sound of Eriskay with kayaks.

Without waiting for her parents and brother she walked back in de direction where she came from, yelling over her shoulder, ‘I never want to go to back to that pub, again!’

Her words echoed over the water, reaching the two kayakers at the tent, who simultaneously looked up, where they saw the little girl running over the hills and yelling to the big, big sea.

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I’m a weirdo and I know it

Self made dwelling of Tom Leppard, leopard men of Skye, on a remote shore of Skye

Visiting Tom Leppard on Skye

What is that? Two kayaks are approaching the beach? Oh no, not today. He thinks back to an evening three nights ago when a couple in kayaks landed on his cleared beach. He had totally been ignored then. He’s not going to have that again! He’s going to scare them off by looking angry behind a wall.

That morning he stretched, touching the rough dry stone wall with his feet and hands, as he does every morning. The light was flowing through the blue plastic tarp used as roof coverage. He doesn’t know what time it is and he doesn’t care, when daylight comes it is time to get up.He pulled his knees up and swung his body towards the narrow entrance to the small kitchen area. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he reached for the neatly folded clean clothes on the shelf and got dressed. Turning around he made his bed in the tiny bedroom. To call this a bedroom was an overstatement, the space hardly fit his mattress.
The book, that he is rereading for the tenth time, went back on the shelf above the bed. In its right place in alphabetical order.

In his tiny kitchen, he reached for a half pint of lager. Grolsch nowadays, a Dutch brand, he had gotten fed up with cider. He learned that beer roughly has the same nutritional value as bread. Both carbohydrates. Bread doesn’t keep as well as beer and he likes the taste of beer better, so the choice was easily made. He opened another can of beer while he walked out through the plastic flap which acts as a door. The early sunshine tickled his face. It was so relaxing to feel the warmth on his body. He’d better make the most of it, the sun would be behind the hill at noon. He crumpled his beer cans into neat little packages and stowed them in the designated trash bags.

He walked back into the kitchen of his shelter, rough cut planks formed a narrow kitchen counter covered in plastic.On wooden shelves and in cupboards were all his meager possessions stored. Satisfied that everything was organized and clean, he sat down on the edge of the bed and scratched his chin.
He knew he was getting older. Things were taking more of an effort nowadays. He wondered how long he could keep up this lifestyle. But he had no regrets. Not about his tattoo, nor about living out here alone. He still held the Guinness Book of Records title for being the most tattooed senior citizen. He had the full body tattoo that transformed him into a leopard, done in the eighties when he came out of the military service. It had cost him 5.500 pounds, an investment in the idea that ‘If I live like a freak and look like a freak, people will want to pay money to take pictures of me and write about my life’. But it did not work out that way. No, he was not sorry about that. He didn’t want too many people around anyway.

He felt the stubble under his fingers and reached up to his scalp. A shave was in order. With a bowl under his arm, he walked out his shelter to get some fresh water from the stream a few meters away.
Carefully he walked back. In front of the mirror, he lathered the shaving cream with a brush on his chin. He looked at his reflection while he scraped off the foam and stubble from his face with a cheap disposable razor while making funny faces.
On closer inspection he saw that the leopard spots were fading, every day a bit less vibrant, although the black and blue are still clearly visible, the orange was getting less and less visible.
He put the shaving foam on the top of his head and shaved that stubble off too. He knew his hairline is receding, but the black spots and dots made that barely noticeable.
With the last two strokes, he shaved off his eyebrows, bringing out the black tattooed ones.

watercolour painting made by Alexander Gannet of Tom leppard

Tom Leppard watching 2 kayakkers approaching.   (watercolour by Alexander Gannet)

He walked along the shoreline. There was nothing much on the beach except some plastic bottles. After a storm, he usually found good timber, which he could use to improve his shelter, and sometimes valuable things, like big plastic crates lost by fishing boats or ropes and strings. During the years that he lived here, he has cleared the big boulders from the beach to below the low water line. He enjoyed the sight of the clean small red pebble beach and on the practical side, it made an easy landing for his shopping laden kayaks.
He walked back to the shelter via his manicured garden through a labyrinth of small red pebbled paths, passed sculpted heather plants and pruned Rowan trees. The grass looked a bit too wild and needed some clipping. So he decided to do a bit of gardening in the afternoon.

It was Wednesday, washing day according to his activity planner. Not to get too wet, he changed into a short-sleeved shirt and tiny aqua blue thong and slipped into his big yellow wellies. The combination with his skinny spotted orange legs was striking. It was like he was wearing a leopard print leotard, but this one never came off.
The freshwater stream near his shelter ended in a small waterfall before it flowed into the sea. He got the fish crate from the top step of the waterfall and with his huge big hands, too big in comparison to his small body, he started to wring out the washing. He hung the wet washing outside in the sun and checked the clothes on the indoor washing line. Dry enough, he folded it, stuck it into a plastic bag and stored it.
He put yesterday’s clothes into the free fish crate, replaced the fish crates and put today’s crate on the bottom of the waterfall.

The sun passed behind the hill. Lunchtime, two pints of lager again. He sat outside staring over the water to the town of Kyle of Lochalsh. Tomorrow he would need to paddle over with his kayak to town, to do some shopping, his supplies are getting low. He needs food for a couple of weeks again.
There was that bloody gull again. It was like the bird had a watch. It was always there at the same time. He shuffled into the shelter and got a can of corned beef, opened it, cut it into pieces, fed the bird, while he drunk his beer. He watched the bird gobbling down the meat before another gull came to steal it away. For ten minutes he enjoyed the company of the bird and then it flew off.
He sat there staring over the water for another hour, it was a quiet time, almost meditative.

Standing behind the washing wall, he watched a man and a woman landing their kayaks on the beach. What is that language? It sounds familiar. South African or Dutch?
‘Hello’, the man said, Do you live there? Shall we move on and leave you in peace?’
‘No, no’, he hears himself say, ‘It is fine. Hi! My name is Tom.’
To be continued…..

Charlotte Gannet

P.s. Slow traveling is meeting people in there own environment. It is not always fitting to ask for a picture in that situation and we did not feel the need for it at that moment. Tom Leppard is in our memory but now, with people reading this story they can hardly believe or imagine how he would look like, is he real?

If you like to check real images, checkout the video

or google images (tom leppard skye)