Women of the Dunes

Legends are tales retold, over and over again, down the generations. But does truth survive the centuries of retelling, or does it twist and warp along the way? Libby Snow first heard the legend of Ullaness from her grandmother in Newfoundland, but when she comes to Ullaness on Scotland’s west coast, she  finds that  she was  not told everything –

Published July 2018 : Hodder and Stoughton (UK and Commonwealth), Atria (USA and Canada).

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West coast of Scotland, c. 800 A.D., Odrhan


As the sun rose over a pale sea, Odrhan emerged from his dwelling at the end of the headland. Eyes closed, he stretched, reaching his fingertips to the sky, and felt the chill of dawn on his cheek. He offered up a prayer, and a gull’s cry was blown back on the north wind as the sun set the water asparkle.

He stood there, a solitary figure, savouring the sharp stillness of early morning, and took long breaths, filling his lungs and belly with the salt-laden air, glorying for a moment in his own youthful vigour. The sea was well in. Waves lapped on the sweep of the twin beaches either side of the spit of land which formed a natural causeway, binding his rocky refuge to the shore.

Soon the tide would turn.

He prayed again, and a mist rose like breath from the ocean, changing form and softly gathering. He lifted his head and allowed his eyes to follow a pair of dark shags flying low over the sea’s surface, casting fleeting shadows. The birds turned seaward, towards the distant stacks, and his gaze pursued them, then stalled.

A shape was emerging from the mist. It vanished, then reappeared, gaining substance and form. A sail!

A ship.

He studied it, eyes narrowed. Should he retreat inland? Something held him back—It was just a single ship, after all, and a small one at that. Time enough to wait, and watch. He marked its progress as he went about his chores, and as it drew closer he saw it was a high-prowed vessel with a square tan sail. A mile or so offshore it altered course to follow the coast, moving south towards the headland. And still he stayed— By midmorning prayers it was close enough for him to discern three or four figures on board. One of them pointed in his direction and then another rose and stood at the gunwale looking towards him.

A woman.

They stared across the water at each other. There was yet time to head inland, but he stayed, curious now, and then seemingly the woman spoke and the vessel altered course, coming in fast on the surf.

It beached moments later on the sand of the northern bay.

The time to leave had passed and Odrhan felt a strange presentiment as he watched the woman, unhurried, lift her skirts and climb out of the ship into the ebbing flow of the surf.

And she stood there on the strand line, and waited for him to come to her.


Chapter 1

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.