Women of the Dunes
Ullaness, 2012, Libby
When Libby Snow finally arrived, darkness was already falling. She decided to park the car anyway and walk out onto the narrow spit of land. The tide was well in and the only sound was that of the waves as they crept, hissing over the sand to the line of seaweed which marked the tide’s turning point. Not an engine, not a voice, not a gull’s cry. And out at sea the moon floated above the horizon, pouring silver across the dark swells and lighting the spume at the shore’s edge.
It had taken a long time to reach this place. Eight hours of driving—
Or a lifetime, depending on how you looked at it.
The sun had set some time ago and the vibrant colours were fading in the western sky, draining away over a watery horizon; tomorrow she must make a point of being here earlier to watch it go down. March days were short, but by June, when she returned with her students, sunset would be late and lingering as long summer evenings merged with the early dawn. And once the planned dig started, there would be less time to savour such moments.
A breeze roughened the water and she pulled her jacket close, then shut her eyes and filled her lungs, absorbing the rank smell of high-tide seaweed and salty turf. Ullaness—a place of legend. She could almost hear Ulla’s name whispering through the marram grasses.
There was an awesome beauty to the place, and she looked up, seeing gulls blown landward by the wind wheeling above her, their wingtips catching the moonlight against a darkening sky. Others
circled out to sea, beyond the grey shapes of distant stacks, heading for the horizon over which lay the next landfall, two thousand miles away.
She had checked once in an atlas and been disappointed to find that if you followed the line of latitude eastwards from her grandmother’s home on Newfoundland’s broken coast, it went well south of Ullaness, south of Scotland in fact, to pass through the English Channel. And if you drew a line due west across the ocean from Ullaness, it fell north of that tiny Maritime harbour where she had spent her childhood summers, and went way up, above the tip of the Labrador coast, and entered the icy Hudson Strait. At the time this had seemed wrong! It should be possible to draw a line across the Atlantic, over the arc of the globe, and link the headland at Ullaness directly with Gosse Harbour, as her grandmother’s stories had done.
But then again, she thought, nothing in her grandmother’s stories made a straight connection either.
She could hardly believe she was here. The place
was etched so deeply into her psyche it was almost part of her being. Familiar and yet quite unknown. She watched as a string of seabirds flying low above the ocean rose to become silhouettes against clouds now edge-lit by moonlight. What a sight! Timeless and unchanging. It must have looked the same to the nomadic people who once came here to gather shellfish, and to those who followed them and then settled, and built houses. Tides and time had sculpted the shoreline, but this view must be unaltered, and Libby felt the centuries shrink around her.
Ulla herself must once have stood here, a thousand years ago.
And Ellen too—her grandmother’s grandmother, whose stories of Ulla had been woven into Libby’s childhood—and she wondered again at the darker threads in the weave. Generations might divide them, but standing here now she felt herself bound by the
connection to both these women, held by a sense of otherworldliness in the strange stillness of the place.
The archaeological work planned for the summer might throw light on Ulla’s legend, but Libby had her own reasons for being here, her own questions to ask.
In a few hours, dawn would filter through her grandmother’s bedroom window on the far side of the Atlantic, and the old lady would stir in her bed, emerging from under her gaily coloured quilts. As a child, in the summer holidays, Libby loved to go with her at daybreak, hand in hand, down to the fishing stages to watch the Gosse Harbour boats set off laden with crab and lobster pots, the chill morning air laced with salt and diesel. And when the boats had gone she would sit on the wooden landing, leaning her head against the mooring post, her short legs dangling, and think of the stories the old woman had told her. Of Ulla, and of Ellen who had come from Scotland, bringing the stories with her. And in her childish mind the two women had become hopelessly entangled, existing in a place she could only imagine, two thousand miles away across the ocean in Scotland.
And Libby had felt certain that Ulla must have been as good as she was beautiful: a lovely Norsewoman, blown in on a ship by the north wind, her dying lover beside her, fleeing her husband’s wrath. In her picture book of legends there was an illustration of the fabled Isolde, and Libby had imagined Ulla to be like her, tall and slender and very beautiful, while Odrhan, the legendary monk, would have been as handsome as the knightly Tristan. The legend of Ulla had, for Libby, been as compelling as that of those star-crossed lovers, all the more so because it was personal, as Ellen’s stories had connected her to this place, Ullaness, where the legend had been born.
It was only later that her grandmother had explained about Ellen’s final years, when all was neither beautiful nor good.
Libby rose, reminding herself that she was also here to do a job, and made an effort to bring her mind back to the present. She swept a more professional eye over the landscape, and tried to get a grip on how it all hung together. The ruined structure at her feet was Odrahn’s cell, so they said, and, beyond the curving line of the southerly beach, she could see the roofless nave of St. Oran’s Church, where Ellen had once worshipped. Ferns had taken root in the crumbling masonry and birds nested in niches left by fallen stones. And there, beside the church, was the abandoned manse where Ellen had worked, its broken roof slates caught in the gutters. Planks had been nailed across the door. Beyond church and manse she could see the remains of cottages, disappearing into a tangle of brambles and nettles, and wondered for a moment where Ellen might have lived. The abandoned dwellings could tell her nothing, settling back into the landscape and returning to the natural world, mute witnesses to the fact that if there had ever been a larger community here, it was long gone.
Only Sturrock House, the landowner’s residence, remained inhabited.
Her gaze followed the curve of the northern beach where, somewhere amongst the sand dunes, there was the mound that they would excavate this summer. From here it looked like just another dune, but she’d found it earlier and had stood staring down at the curved row of stones that the winter storms had exposed. It was now obviously a man-made feature, but was it a burial, and if so could it really be a physical part of the legend? Almost too much to hope for.
There had been a frisson of excitement amongst her colleagues when the news had reached them of what had been reported following a particularly wild storm, and parallels had quickly been drawn with similar stone settings which had turned out to be graves, significant graves, boat-shaped Viking-age graves—and
there had been general agreement that the site should be excavated before the evidence was lost. Despite her own attachment to it, the legend of Ullaness had never been in the same league as that of Tristan and Isolde, but it did, after all, refer explicitly to the burial of a Viking warrior.
Professor Declan Lockhart, an early medievalist at the midlands university where Libby had a short-term contract, had been assigned to the project and an advertisement had gone out for an assistant to help him run it. For Libby, the job was custom-made, and she had applied. She’d not mentioned her personal connection at the interview, nor had she mentioned her grandmother’s stories when she was offered the post. They had, after all, no bearing on the ancient site.
She moved off, back along the causeway. Tomorrow she would inspect the mound in daylight, putting the personal aspects aside, and start to think seriously about the summer. A unique opportunity to match archaeological investigation with the surviving oral tradition and ancient legend, their grant application had stated.
And, for Libby, a career-making opportunity which must go well.
That thought collided, as it had done all week, with the acute worry about the parcel which had arrived last Saturday from Gosse Harbour. She had opened it to find it contained an old sketchbook which she remembered from childhood, and she had thumbed through it, seeing the drawings she’d been told were Ellen’s, and smiled at her own scribblings added on wet summer days. A fragment of the legend had been written on the back page, but as she turned to it an object, wrapped in a slip of paper, had slid out from between the pages and onto her lap. This was Ellen’s, her grandmother had written on the paper. A trinket, she’d thought, as she carefully unwrapped it, and then stared down at the object in astonishment.
It was a cross about four inches across with four splayed arms, each decorated with a simple circular design while in the centre a larger incised circle framed a deep red stone, and the object seemed to glow against her skin. Gold? Carefully she turned it over, seeing how one of the arms had been folded over to make a loop through which a thong could be threaded so that the cross became a pendant. A simple design, but skilled craftsmanship, and her heart had started to pound as she recognised it for the real thing. An ancient artefact redolent of the early days of Christianity and the emergent northern church. It could only be gold, thin, hand-beaten gold, and the stone was almost certainly a garnet, a stone once much prized. Gold and garnet. The sort of thing that would be owned by an early bishop or other high-ranking churchman, or a devout layman—eighth century in date, if she was right.
So how had Ellen come by it? It was worth thousands.
She looked anxiously across towards Sturrock House. Over the years items had gone missing from there, it was said, valuable antiquities—
And she found herself wondering what else might have found its way to Gosse Harbour. The letter which arrived with the parcel had simply said: Ellen used to wear it, my dear, so I thought you’d like to have it. Libby had written straight back asking what else her grandmother could tell her about it, where it had come from, were there other items . . . ? But she had, as yet, had no reply. It was letters, stamps, and patience with Nan, not e-mail.
She looked again at the house. The cross had almost certainly come from there, but in what circumstances, and how on earth was she to broach the subject? And with whom? The house was set back within a garden bordered by a stone perimeter wall, masked by a line of shrubs and trees, and all she could see of it in the growing darkness was the roof, a silhouette of little turrets
and chimneys. A right old mishmash of architectural styles and now the home of the seventh baronet, Sturrock of Ullaness.
It had started life as a late medieval tower house, she had read, and developed from there, with successive extensions and alterations reaching a crescendo in the nineteenth century embellishments of the third baronet. He had, by all accounts, embraced the Romantic movement with well-funded gusto and positioned himself in something of a dream world, rooted in the works of Walter Scott.
The family was at home, she noted, seeing thin grey smoke spiralling above the rooftops. Perhaps, in the summer, there would be an opportunity to have a look inside, but on this visit, for all sorts of reasons—not least the arrival of the little cross—Libby intended to stay well below the radar.
Declan had had all the dealings with the Sturrock estate, and had found them unhelpful and remote; it had taken forever to agree on terms for the excavation. The estate had refused to contribute a penny towards the project, and numerous conditions had been stipulated and legal contracts insisted upon. Uphill work, Declan had said.
Libby had thought right from the start that it would have been better to come up here and deal with matters face-to-face, but Declan was a busy man, and he did not delegate, especially to a newly appointed assistant. Nor did he take advice. The baronet himself was impossible to contact, he said, so why go up to talk to an intermediary? It had taken time, therefore, and a lot of backwards and forwards of e-mails and letters to get all the paperwork in place and all appropriate bodies satisfied. In the end they had had to settle for a much less ambitious project than Declan had first envisaged, and had only secured permission to excavate the
mound itself and do a building survey of the roofless church. All correspondence had to be directed to the estate’s owner, Sir Hector Sturrock, but all negotiations were undertaken with his intractable land agent, who, Declan had told her, was uncooperative. Sir Hector himself remained unavailable.
She’d been in Declan’s office when he had phoned and tried one last time to persuade the agent to let them excavate the enigmatic ruins at the end of the headland and dig a few small test pits in the bay area. It would enhance their understanding of the ancient landscape, he explained down the phone, rolling his eyes at Libby. Ullaness was a unique and complex site, “. . . and the chance to tie the oral tradition to the physical remains is exceptional, so if—”
“Haven’t we been through this before?” The call was on speaker, so she heard the interruption.
“We touched on it—”
“And the estate agreed the extent of the work.”
Declan stuck up two fingers and continued in a tone which, in Libby’s view, was guaranteed to fail. “I know that, but what I’m suggesting is little more than a survey—”
“You’ll have enough to do, surely,” the cool voice replied.
Declan handled refusal no better than he handled rejection, as she’d learned to her cost, and he let it show. “I thought you’d welcome the opportunity,” he said. “After all, the Ullaness chalice must have come from somewhere on the estate, and a survey might suggest where.”
The chalice! Libby gaped at him, and the cool voice on the phone became arctic.
The conversation ended swiftly after that and Declan put the phone down, avoiding Libby’s eyes. “He’s a stubborn sod,” he said. “And there’s no getting past him. Everything’s signed Sturrock
but I bet it’s that guy making the decisions.” He spun his pen on the desk and stared sullenly out of the window. “Don’t they realise they’re sitting on one of the most promising sites on the west coast?”
Not mentioning the chalice and taking a more conciliatory tone might have produced better results, she’d thought, but said nothing; with Declan it simply wasn’t worth it.
“It’s the sense of entitlement that gets me,” Declan had continued. “Just because some forebear chose the winning side and got the whole damn estate as payback . . .”
All this was before the parcel had arrived, but it was the furore around the theft of the Ullaness chalice which now fuelled her anxiety; she was torn between wanting to tell Declan about the cross and needing to know more before she did.
It was about a year ago that thieves had broken into Sturrock House and taken the chalice, and the burglary had made the national newspapers. A short article had been published describing what was known about it, which was, in fact, very little, given that the circumstances of its original discovery were vague. All that was known was that it had been found somewhere on the estate in the late nineteenth century.
And the cross, if she was right, belonged to the same period. And was valuable.
The family had been absent at the time of the theft, which had obviously been a professional and targeted job, triggering grumblings in the broadsheets about national treasures being held, inadequately protected, by private individuals. It had never been fully studied, but the few images that existed had led scholars to believe that it was originally Irish, probably eighth century in date, a beautiful vessel of silver and gilt encrusted with semiprecious stones, and well worth stealing. An insurance scam had been suspected until it became clear that the missing item had not been
insured, and the art and museum world had groaned again at the hopeless ineptitude of the seventh baronet.
So Declan’s reference to it had been bound to provoke, and she had said so.
“I meant it to,” he replied, with the mulish set to his jaw she was learning to recognise. “Shows them no one’s forgotten and that maybe they should cooperate more.”
“But if they’re still smarting after all that publicity—”
“Yeah, well. The papers did rather go to town on it, I suppose,” he said, “and speculating about more treasure being out there. I heard a rumour that the estate’s gamekeeper fired at some metal-detectorists soon after.” She must have looked appalled, thinking of the students, and he had turned the subject. “Only a rumour, of course.”
No wonder the landowner was keeping his head down.
So against this background, the cross was a problem and it was overshadowing her excitement in being here.
She’d planned a visit as soon as she’d come to England for university, but it had seemed less pressing then and her new life had taken over. And almost at once she’d become involved with Simon, an economics postgraduate. Involved, looking back on it, to the exclusion of all else. Simon was London-based. Very focussed. Ambitious. And when he’d announced at Christmas that he had the opportunity to go to New York for a year, Libby’s growing concerns with that relentless focus had crystallized. Trailing in his wake was not at all what she wanted from life. She had felt vindicated by his expression of astonishment when she’d tried to explain her decision, and so she had stayed on, completing her studies, and let him go. They’d parted friends, more or less, and she had felt a sort of relief when she saw him off at the airport. She’d chart her own course now, and had no regrets.
And then the job with Declan had come up, and she was here!
A further vindication of her decision.
She started picking her way back towards the shore. The place had had no real part in her life, of course, and yet it still provided her with the sense of connection she had felt in childhood. Did everyone feel that need? To be able to point to somewhere and say that they had ties there? Since her parents’ divorce, many years ago, she had been passed between her mother in New Zealand and, less frequently, her father, who was constantly on the move. English boarding school had been endured because her summers had been spent, gloriously, in her grandmother’s house in Gosse Harbour. Her father had occasionally touched down there to take her fishing, teaching her to sail and to drive a boat, but it was her grandmother who had been her fixed point, constant, serene, and unchanging, and Gosse Harbour became the closest thing to home.
So perhaps it was not so strange, she thought, watching the smoke from Sturrock House blow towards the old cottages, that she felt a connection with this place, even one that was generations old and built on the flimsy foundation of an ancient tale.
She scanned the bay one last time, noting where the estate had said they could camp behind the old manse for the prescribed two weeks in June. Declan would be in overall charge, but she was responsible for the day-to-day smooth running, and she wasn’t sure just how hands-on he would be. He’d said from the start that he’d not be caught dead in a tent but would stay at the local pub, the Oran Bridge, which did bed and breakfast.
But somehow, between them, they would direct the students who would excavate the enigmatic mound, record their discoveries, catalogue any finds, and then go, leaving absolutely no trace of their stay there. This had all been spelled out in detailed, uncompromising print— Any and all finds remain estate property.
Nothing whatsoever is to be removed without explicit agreement.
And that thought brought her back again to the little cross. She’d left it, still in the package with the sketchbook, in a drawer in her flat, but it couldn’t stay there forever. If it had been Ellen’s, as her grandmother’s letter said, then it surely must have come from Ullaness. And if Libby was right, it was of the same period as the chalice and was hardly something Ellen, who had been in service, would have owned. So how had she come by it?
She knew that there was a darker side to Ellen’s story—but had Ellen also been a thief?