ALMOST a decade after her mother’s death, Leonie Charlton was still consumed by the memories of their fraught and fractured relationship.

In May 2017, the author was joined by a friend and together they trekked through the Outer Hebrides on their Highland ponies, Ross and Chief, as she sought to find closure. Her memoir, Marram: Memories of Sea and Spider Silk, blends travel and nature writing as Charlton reflects on her grief, catharsis and acceptance. It is a raw and powerful read that will appeal to fans of Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun and Wild by Cheryl Strayed.

Charlton travelled extensively as child, living in Scotland, England, Wales and Ghana. She has worked as a cowgirl in Australia, an English teacher in Japan and spent two years in Catalonia. Since 1998, she has been settled in Glen Lonan, Argyll, and runs a pony-trekking centre. Here, Charlton shares the section of her Hebridean journey from Benbecula to Grimsay:

THE ponies were breathtakingly handsome in the early light, heads high, nostrils fluted in velvety lines. A breeze lifted their manes and their foreheads gleamed. The trip was doing them good. They were in their element.

We rode through the outskirts of Balivanich along quiet roads, we hoped to get to Grimsay before the day’s traffic started up. We didn’t fancy meeting buses on the North Ford (Oitir Mhor) causeway, the five-mile loop of single-track road that links Benbecula and North Uist via the western tip of Grimsay. The sun climbed steadily ahead of us and brindled the sea with silver.

On the skyline was Eabhal, and behind it the smaller but similarly shaped Burabhal – two ski-slope smiles canting to the west. I looked back over my shoulder, with the sun behind us the colours were astonishingly lucid: reeds gleamed gold, cotton grass flowers shone pearl white, two sheds boasted roofs of peacock green and teal blue.

In his book, Hebridean Connection, Derek Cooper writes about the extraordinary light: “I know few places in the world which have such an ability to improve on nature as in the Hebrides. It has something to do with ultraviolet rays, I’m told, but the intensity of the light, its magical powers of magnification and its aggrandisement of colour are to me unparalleled.”

We passed a sign that read “Caution: Otters Crossing” and rode onto the causeway. Ross was unsure, jumpy. The sea splashed forcefully against the causeway walls, and the incoming tide powered noisily through narrow channels beneath us. It was exhilarating, this walking over water with a fresh wind on our faces.

A couple of work vans were approaching but we had plenty of time to trot to the next passing place. The drivers slowed, courteous and smiling. “Failte gu Uibhist a Tuath/Welcome to North Uist”, said a sign on the little island of Eileen na h-Airigh. Just one more stretch of causeway ahead and we’d be turning off to Grimsay.

“Car coming,” I shouted ahead to Shuna. We started trotting but I could hear the car coming up close and fast, I turned round and indicated to the driver to slow down. As we turned into a passing place, he accelerated past us, a look of darkest anger on his face. “Idiot,” I said to Shuna, inhaling exhaust fumes. I was shaken, feeling frayed with lack of sleep. I’d need to be careful today.

We took the second turning signed for Grimsay and followed Catriona’s instructions, and there she was, walking towards us and waving. We’d met her through long-distance riding. Like us she was passionate about getting out in the hills with her horse. She owned a house on Grimsay which she’d kindly offered us the use of. We’d be there alone as she and her husband were heading back to the mainland.

READ MORE: Line of Duty star Martin Compston on his new thriller The Nest

We followed a trail of Christmas tinsel that she’d tied onto fences and gateposts, “in case you arrived after we left”, she explained, to a field that belonged to her neighbour Theona.

“That’s her house there,” she said, pointing to a white farmhouse built on a peninsula. The tide was in, and the house, surrounded by water, floated at the end of its slip of track.

Theona had left buckets filled with water in the field. I felt huge warmth for this woman and her welcoming water, her care, and her lovely name which I savoured quietly. Back at the house we had breakfast with Catriona and her husband, Mike, a softly spoken, bushy-browed man who charmingly said, “touch wood” in almost every sentence. We were enfolded in a warm and organised world where every detail had been thought of.

The instructions on how to leave the house were a masterpiece in attention to detail: “leave the kettle empty and on its side”. I wanted to ask why but didn’t and felt so sloppy by comparison. Shame simmering again near my tired surface. I was self-conscious of our mucky, worn gear and ragged itinerary. Once alone Shuna and I sat in the upstairs living area looking over the garden of rhubarb and solar panels, to the tide now going out, the causeway, the stippled western horizon beyond.

I had a snooze then picked up The Pebbles on the Beach from the bookshelf. We’d hardly seen any shingle on our trip, in all these miles of sand. On Grimsay I was looking out at yet more sand, but this was grey and sludgy, the causeway was interfering with the old current patterns. I would be transported back to that place a few months later while reading about The North Ford in Terry J Williams’ book Walking with Cattle. While researching the book she was led across the sands on the same route they drove the cattle along on their way to the cattle sales in North Uist.

She describes how a line of cairns had been built to mark the safe route across the ford: “Some kept their heads above water even at high tide. Most have disappeared, broken by storms, and scattered by the ever-meddling sea. Others are hardly distinguishable heaps, although a keen eye can still detect traces of the skill that made them.

“Every year the sea dislodged one more stone, widens one more crack. For now, enough remains for those who know to show those who don’t how it used to be […] in places there was a line of stones set in the sand like stepping stones between cairns […] Angus showed me a remnant – one, two, three, four, each with its crown of seaweed – and I wondered how it felt to be not-quite-lost out here in darkness or swirling mist, trusting this thread of stones to lead you to the next cairn, listening for the sound of creeping water.”

In the early afternoon, we set off with the ponies to explore Grimsay. We felt rested, and the beautiful day beckoned. We came to a field with a handful of tups, bachelor boys standing resting in the sun, one was a little way off from the others, head down he was well and truly caught up in wire. His flanks were heaving in the hot sun. We’d need wire cutters to set him free. When a pickup truck drove along towards us, I lifted my arm and flagged it down. The woman driving wound down her window.

I smiled. “Do you know who these sheep belong to?”

“Who’s asking?” Her accent was surprising, American maybe.

“We’re just riding through with ponies and saw there’s a tup tangled in wire. I think he’ll need cutting free.”

“Well, no doubt someone will be along.” With that she drove off, sour faced. I felt my temper flare. What was her problem? Another car came along and stopped, a helpful woman called Joan, who it turned out lived in the house across the water from Catriona’s, said she’d call the farmer straight away. When we came back later, we found the tup had been cut free.

The houses we rode by were immaculate. Lawns trimmed and mown, washing pegged precisely on tightly strung lines. “It feels very sanitised here compared to Barra and South Uist,” Shuna said. Later on, a passer-by who stopped to pet the ponies explained it to us as being a “religion thing”: north of Benbecula is Presbyterian, South Uist and Barra are Catholic.

READ MORE: Line of Duty star Martin Compston on his new thriller The Nest

“You know how it goes,” she said cryptically. She added that there were a lot of incomers on Grimsay. You could understand why. This quintessentially picturesque “stepping-stone island” with its stunning backdrop of Eabhal to the north, the sea all around, sheltered fishing harbours, tiny stone cottages, and its close proximity to the airport, was a little haven.

“Incomers”, the word always landed somewhere difficult for me. I could never hear it without taking it a tiny bit personally, imagining there might be resentful undertones lurking. Sometimes there were, of course, but not always. All my life I’d lived as an incomer, my accent never fitting. That worn-out spool of conversation goes:

“Where are you from?”


“No, but where are you really from?”

I thought back to Anglesey. The first house Mum bought after she left Dad was a tumbledown farmhouse. It was a freezing house with flagstone floors and no heating. We were troubled with what Mum called “the prowler”. We never found out who it was, but someone would walk around the house in the middle of the night.

Mum borrowed a friend’s dogs, two huge chow chows who would run around the inside of the house, barking and shadowing “the prowler” as they made his or her sinister way around the outside. It was terrifying.

After a few nights the prowler disappeared, but that sense of being an outsider, of being looked in on from the outside, of feeling vulnerable, never left me. Mum, being who she was, always outspoken and revelling in standing out (the only Mum at parents’ evening to wear green contact lenses and a short ra-ra skirt) meant that we were always conspicuous in our difference.

By contrast I loved going up to Oban to see Dad who was welcomed and respected in the community. I piggybacked on his belonging, loving that he had a clear role and that when I said who my father was people’s faces softened. I loved that when I was with him “normal” people would have me into their homes, give me tea and cakes, make a fuss.

We rode through the village of Bagh Mor past the old stone pier, half on the lookout for Norman MacLean’s house. Norman was a comedian, singer, poet and piper who Shuna remembered from ceilidhs in her family home years before. She’d just finished reading his autobiography The Leper’s Bell.

I’d seen Norman MacLean talking about “creativity and values” on YouTube. He described himself as “someone on the periphery of both societies, the English and the Gaelic, not quite belonging in either”. It was strange for me to think of this legend in the Gaelic world as feeling that he didn’t quite belong.

Was it much more of an internal thing then, ultimately, to feel belonging? If you didn’t feel like you fitted with yourself then it didn’t matter how much Gaelic or heritage or connections to family or place you had. I wondered if that feeling of not quite belonging had been at the root of his alcoholism. He was living a sober life now.

A few months after we rode past his house he died, his obituary in the Sunday Herald told the story of how he’d been rescued by a teacher from Uist who’d found him in the Southern General Hospital in Govan, and couldn’t bear to see him die, “in some dingy flat, besieged by empties”. She’d said, “people in Uist love him and here we have a huge tolerance for drunks. Every family here has an alcoholic, so I knew he’d be safe.”

READ MORE: Line of Duty star Martin Compston on his new thriller The Nest

Beyond the village we stopped by a small hill loch. Its almost-black surface was mottled with the claret leaves of water lilies. Two white flowers were opening up, the first I’d seen this year. I’d read back at the Kildonan Museum that their rhizomes were used for dyeing Harris Tweed. They gave dark browns and black, but that it was dangerous harvesting. You had to walk in the loch barefoot and dig out the tenacious roots with your toes, people had drowned doing it.

We carried on following signs for Kallin Shellfish Ltd. The car park was built on tons of scallop shells. A convertible arrived at the same time.

Once again, I was taken back to Anglesey, and the throat-catching smell of scallop shells. I remembered one of Mum’s boyfriends who’d taken me to Brownies in his convertible. I’d felt mortified by his shaved head, his strange car, and how the other Brownies peered out at us from the windows of Llanethli village hall.

I only went once. Mum wasn’t great at driving us to things. I can remember getting my hopes up about various clubs, activities. She’d take me to one maybe, and then the novelty would wear off. Perhaps the illness was working away in her even way back then. All those times she couldn’t get us up for school, maybe she’d been ill our whole childhood.

“I’d imagined something smaller,” said Shuna. “This is a factory.”

“Shall I hold the ponies and you go and have a look? If they’ve got sparkling water could you get me some?”

The ponies didn’t want to stand still, possibly it was the smell of shellfish, or the clouds of dust lifting every time a vehicle came or went. Kallin Shellfish Ltd was a hive of activity, a booming business.

“What did you get?” I asked Shuna as she walked towards me holding a white plastic bag.

“Some squat lobsters, couldn’t bring myself to buy scallops. They’re all dredged but got you some water.”

We decided to go back the way we’d come. We were tired, dawn in Balivanich felt like a long time ago. I also had a peculiarly strong feeling of not wanting to let Eabhal out of sight, of wanting to stay facing north. On the way back we left the road where in the lee of a knoll we found a patch of sun-warmed rock. We sat down, looking west across Loch Hornaraigh, and beyond to the tidal channels around Catriona’s house, which we could just make out.

The ponies trailed their ropes and grazed between bog cotton stems. I walked to the tiny summit behind us where there was a tump, a pointed mound of turf about a foot high. Mussel shells were scattered around, and I imagined all the birds that stopped here to eat: oystercatchers, great black-backed gulls, maybe birds of prey, their droppings fertilising the ground, building up over the decades, centuries even, into this green-topped nipple.

Some people call them fairy hills. The bedrock around was covered in crusty black lichens. There were mosses too, red and yellow and frog green. Welts of bright white quartz ran through the gneiss. I knew exactly what to leave for Mum here. I dug about in the bead purse and found it, not a bead but an unpolished crystal shard, and lay it down on the rocks where it was absorbed by all the colours of that lichen forest. Instant belonging.

I went back down and sat beside Shuna. We shared the squat lobsters and left the pink tail shells where we dropped them. Wriggling my toes inside my boots I looked across the loch to the hillside freckled with Hebridean sheep. The best-preserved Iron Age wheelhouse in the Uists was somewhere around here.

We should explore, but the sun felt so good, and the ponies had stopped grazing and were resting. I thought of the lines from Pauline Prior-Pitt’s poem Late Adventure: “Lose control. Catch up with Vikings”. But once again we were too slow to catch up with anything, let alone Vikings, or early Celts.

READ MORE: Line of Duty star Martin Compston on his new thriller The Nest

Then again maybe that’s exactly what we had done, caught up with the ancient ones. There on that sun-warmed rock on Grim’s Island sucking shellfish through our teeth.

Marram: Memories of Sea and Spider Silk by Leonie Charlton is published by Sandstone Press, priced £12.99