Across the earth, across the sea
A stocky brown cow approaches the water. She sniffs it and hesitates, lifting her head up. Behind her the herd baulks and shuffles. A shout from behind and suddenly they’re in. The sea thrashes and foams beneath their bulky bodies. Eyes blinking then wide open, snouts up. The gulping and bellowing subsides into calm as they begin to power their way across the Minch. Behind them, Calum is standing in the small boat, shouting encouragement, as Donald rows. The two dogs stand with him at the prow. Back on the foreshore, their father gives a brief wave of his stick and turns for home.
Five hundred yards and the land is quickly nearing. On the beach a small boy in shorts and a green cable knit jumper runs and waves his cap to call the incredible sight to shore.
The cattle emerge from the sea, dripping and panting, quiet now in their exhaustion. Calum leaps out onto the shingle, crunching his way to encourage them into the rough holding area, dogs skirting round to assist. Donald manoeuvres the smack to the small jetty.
The boy, suddenly frightened by the sight of the steaming water-beasts, runs back to his mother and the baby. Eilidh takes the boy’s hand and, unmoved by the cattle, continues to look out over the sea, where the sun is now catching the island’s white beach. The smooth-topped hills remain in shadow. The scent of the machair blows through her.
Having let the cows drink from the burn that trickles down to the shore, Calum and Donald quietly move the cattle on, tipping their caps to Eilidh and her children. She looks steadfastly out over the water, even when her man joins them. In his hand are yellow tickets, print just visible: New York.
© Laura Parker
Note to original piece, written on the theme of migration: The next morning, the herd will set off along the drove roads through the mountains. Some cows and calves may be sold along the way, with the yearling ‘stirks’ headed for fattening on the lowland pastures. It’s a route trodden by their herd ancestors, as well as by Calum and Donald’s fathers and forebears. These old ways have been formed over thousands of years by people and animals together as they move to new pastures and transactions. The transhumance paths – the word combining across and earth – criss-cross the British Isles, Europe, and every continent of the world.