By Mike Smith
Traigh Beach lies on the west coast of the Scottish Highlands, and from it you look out towards the islands of Eigg, Rhum, and Skye; you look out towards sunset.
It’s a beach I know well, for an outsider. I’ve visited it, probably on average more than once a year for the past forty years, and once or twice in the decade before that. I have written poetry on it. But as often as not, I’ve passed it on my way to another beach a couple of miles up the coast, and that beach, forty years ago, was featured in a film that has become something of a cult movie.
But there’s another tale, and in fact more than one, that has drawn attention to this little stretch of coastline. Published as a short story a further fifty years into the past, and by a writer who is now almost totally forgotten, L.A.G. Strong’s tale ‘The Seal’ doesn’t name the beach, but one of its minor characters has a dog named Darach, with has no other reason to be there but to give us that clue.
And the beach is described — broom, dunes, the path along the burn leading in, never mind that view of Skye and the other islands – with picture postcard accuracy. It’s a simple but haunting tale of intimacy not quite achieved between the newly married George, clumsy, boisterous and totally obtuse and the contemplative, highly sensitive Rosamund. The first time I read it, I was thinking of Camusdarach long before the dog put in its brief appearance!
It’s a remarkable story, for its subtlety and its insights, but also for the fact that there is not a single word in it that would need to be excised for you to imagine it taking place, and having been written, in the last day or two. Equally, it could have been written, and again word for word, a hundred years before its publication over ninety years ago. That durability, of place as well as the story is astonishing, and both reassuring and daunting. If one of my stories managed such a feat of, well, transcendence, I would be very happy. It would also be possible to transfer Strong’s tale to just about any beach anywhere in the world over all that time by merely adjusting the names of people, places, and that dog, and the nature of the eponymous animal and the plants growing behind the beach. How’s that for universality? And curiously, the fact that you could do that makes it less worthwhile to do it! Strong’s story in its original setting could speak to us all from the day it was written and will continue to do so while people fail to connect.
Yet I’ve found remarkably little written about Strong. He was a prolific writer across several genres – plays, poetry, essays, novels, as well as the short story – but he’s one of those very good writers (based on the thirty-one short stories in this collection), that seems to have dropped out of our consciousness. How could I find out if this was indeed the beach he had in mind, and why did I want to?
I recently took a holiday cottage overlooking Camusdarach and spent most of a week staring at that view. It’s one of those special places that, in its continuous changes and in its unchanging certainties, holds the attention, day into night, night into day. I made sure to take my copy of Strong’s 1931 collection Travellers, in which ‘The Seal’ is included. I thought it would be good to read it, looking out to sea as Rosamund does in the story. And it was.
But I re-read the other stories too, and among them found the names of Arisaig, and Morar, villages a couple of miles to south and north of me respectively. I found also Glenan Cross farm – to which he pins a headless ghost, and which still sits a bare half mile away on the other side of the coast road — and the name of one the little islands lying just beyond the headland to my left as I read.
So, no biographical evidence, but there in the stories, the minutiae of place that tells me he knew it and implicitly, like me, loved it, though he would have been an incomer too.
And as I’m working on this piece, and dipping into the story, I notice with a frisson of recognition two more little details a few lines apart: ‘She crossed the road’, and ‘After the room at the farm’, which makes me think he pictured her walking the path from Glenan Cross, though he doesn’t name it here, and which I too walked only a few weeks ago.
I’m not a great fan of tagging an author’s biographical details to their writings. What a story means to them is their business, and what it means to me is mine, and the two need neither coincide nor influence one another, but to find myself in a place I know, reading a story set in that place and written by an author who knew it too, brought me a little closer, and not only to the story. Might I say that it heightened my sense of a common humanity and the shared experience of a story as timeless as a fine sunset?
 Local Hero, 1983, Scottish movie
 Leonard Alfred George Strong (1896 –1958), a popular English novelist, critic, historian, and poet, and published under the name L. A. G. Strong.
Mike Smith lives on the edge of England where he writes occasional plays, poetry, and essays, usually on the short story form in which he writes as Brindley Hallam Dennis. His writing has been published and performed. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com
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