I started to shrink soon after I came to live on Lewis. I think we can date the start of the process from that time. For sure, when I arrived I was still quite a large creature. I would stride across the moor and leap at a single bound up to some bedrock bulge from which to survey the wide world. I stood jaw-square to the wind and took in a glance the high mountains, the far horizon, the peppering of small islands in the ocean to the west: the Flannans (I counted seven to be sure I wasn’t being short-changed), the St Kilda archipelago (of which I could only see the tops of Boreray and Hiort itself – but took the others on trust) and the petty cash of Gasker and the distant Monachs further south. From my favoured perches I would occasionally be eye-to-eye with the low-flying fighter jets. I had only to close my eyes to see again from the place in which the pilot sits, to know the things he touches, to hear the sounds he hears. After more than a quarter of a century in that seat I knew the big secret – that above a certain speed the aircraft does not move at all; it stands eerily still like a giant vacuum cleaner and sucks the whole island past it at many hundreds of miles an hour. The process is so smooth at that rate of knots, you see, that the lady down there, hanging her washing in the drying breeze, has no inkling that she is actually hurtling at a breakneck pace to the north.
Yes. I was definitely still a large creature when I got here, pounding the soft ground with my bones.
But I fell in with curious company during our first summer on the island. Had there been trolls still camped up near the high pass (where you can still see their fireplaces) I would have gladly marched with them a while, for the fun of it. Had there still been fairies on the bushy island in the corrie loch I would gladly have traded with them. Had the water-horse still lived in the loch at the bottom of the croft I would, inevitably, have tried to ride him. But all these are recently departed.
So, rather reluctantly at first, I took to passing the days out on the moor with our small, single-minded flock of Hebridean sheep and a young sheepdog called Nell. We had brought the flock here from the mainland so they, of course, needed me as a guide. I tried to tell the older ewes the names of the islands and how their ancestors had once been the only sheep in this place, before the Blackface and the Cheviots, before sheep were ‘improved’. They knew this. I told them how wonderful it was to hear the sound of the crashing Atlantic, sucking and blowing its wistful tunes in the geos half a mile or so to the west of us. They chewed on this. I was thinking of some other clever things to tell them but there was a muttering in the flock as they prepared to move off to some new part of the moor. I wondered indulgently where they imagined they were going – the moor is a uniform blanket of peat here, with little to distinguish one part from another. Still, a few hundred yards away they found a gentle heathery swell, not quite a mound, with maybe a little shelter from the cool breeze, and dry ground on which to lie. The flock, stomachs full of bits of herbaceous this-and-that and the best of the rough grass which they had so carefully selected over the previous two hours, installed themselves decoratively on the leeside of the rise and started to chew and gurgle and regurgitate, each looking off into some middle distance of their own. They were settled to cudding for an hour or two. By and by Nell fell asleep. By and by I fell asleep.
I was a little alarmed when I woke. I was in some sort of wood. Or to be more specific, I was in a clearing in some sort of wood. The trunks of the dwarf trees were ornately twisted and bent by the wind. There was no sign of islands or oceans or high mountains. Only the clearing, in which I marvelled at the huge yellow brightness of a flower half my own height, that looked for all the world like a giant version of the tiny tormentil on the moor, and over there an over-sized pattern just the spit of cinquefoil leaves – and everywhere the variety of giant grasses and sedges, lichens and worts. The sun went behind a giant black cloud with teeth and grassy breath and I wondered at how intricate and rich the moor had become that morning.
As we all stood and left our day-beds to continue grazing I found that I had returned almost to my previous size. The old ewes pretended that nothing had happened. I could see again the mountain tops and the ocean and the islands. I could still measure myself against them and, if I squinted, I was not so very much smaller than I had been. But with each day I spent out shepherding the sheep, the flowers grew a little larger, the tiny details of the flushes and the tummocks of bare rock became more significant. The multitude of streamlets which I had discounted because they were too small for fish became echoing, gold-flecked palaces under the magnifying glass of the clear water. The contents of me, on the other hand, continued gradually to settle, to take up less room. Simply, I shrank. And as I shrank I began, just a little, to fit in with the moor and the sheep and the flowers.
They say that there is an old man still somewhere up in the mountains who could reverse this spell the sheep have cast on me. I hope with all my heart that I never meet him.