An extract from ‘The Oatmeal Ark’
‘I belong to the Hebrides, the sweep of islands formed when the Cailleach Bheur, the benevolent giantess of Celtic mythology, let stones fall from the creel carried on her back while wading off the Highland’s western shore. It is a place more of water than land, of wild seas and calm bays, amber burns and white desert sands which surface at the ebb-tide; islands among islands, pools within pools, the indigo skerry at Europe’s edge. Ours was a family of mariners; a boat load of sailors and dreamers. The Gilleans had their own ark, or so my father often told me. When the rains came and Noah battened down the hatches against God’s flood, the clan crowded into a cockle-shell coracle and huddled under a tartan umbrella until the storm had passed. They were used to inclement weather. They were Scots. After forty damp days and nights their leather boat came to rest not on the mountains of Ararat, where the torrents had been stopped, but on a soggy bed of peatmoss beside a silver Caledonian firth. Our forefathers sent forth a curlew, for they had no dove, and it returned with a sprig of heather. The men, their wives, sons and son’s wives took each other in their arms and rejoiced. They had found our home.
But my great-grandson, who seems not to hear that which I tell him, was born in a land where everyone came from somewhere else. Its people had been imported across the sea on sailing-ships and ocean-liners. No family had lived in his New World for more than five, at most six, generations, except the Native people who had been written out of the newcomer’s history. No one on his continent could drink from a river that was part of himself or grasp a handful of soil and say, ‘I am of this earth’. Its settlers had been washed across the surface of the land only to remain tied to an old country by blood, keepsakes and dog-eared albums of faded photographs. It was I who, with the idealism of the living, had swept the family from these waters.
I had been a man of the Enlightenment. I had believed that thought could renew the life of the world and restore its original purity, energy and justice. Two hundred years ago as an island minister for a congregation of poor fisherwomen and trawlermen I had taken ship west. In the loch below this manse I had boarded my ark. The globe had been tucked under my arm. My luggage was Testaments, Catechisms and the dream of creating a nation of devout individuals bonded by a common idea. The tool with which I hoped to help build this New Jerusalem was neither the axe, plough nor theodolite; it was the Word.
My sons, Beagan’s grandfather James and great-uncle Zachary, had inherited the vision. To preach it they had moved from the Atlantic coast to the heart of the optimistic young nation and formed the country’s first national publisher. For them the Word was print. Print was the medium of communication and through it they had propagated the settler’s belief in a better life, trusting that it would fuse the new land’s disparate peoples into a just society. Beagan’s father Sandy had also grown up looking forward toward one ocean and back across another, washed west by the flow yet drawn east to the stream’s source. He had pursued his hopes to the Pacific coast. For him words, precious words, had to edify. Canada would be united by radio waves and reason. Sandy had never waited for the world to improve, instead he had set about trying to change it. Like us all he had put his faith in a dream.’
‘The Oatmeal Ark’ is republished by Tauris Parke in 2008. It was first published by HarperCollins UK and Canada in 1997.