Coll The Coll Magazine

Article by Pete Bell (2000)

The Millennium Beach Ball
Though not a great New Year enthusiast, the approach of the Millennium made me feel I ought to do something special. Not for me, however, the surging crowds of Trafalgar Square or the Royal Mile. I wanted to go somewhere quiet. Fate favoured me well in that a friend had just moved to the Isle of Coll. Remote from the Scottish mainland, and at the very edge of the wild Atlantic, I had found the perfect place.

It was not the first time I had been to Coll. I first visited the island three summers ago, returning each year since. I loved the multitude of wild flowers, the twilight call of the corncrake and the colonies of greylag geese that seemed to follow me around. Most of all I was impressed by the lonely white beaches that flanked the island's north western coastline. Feall, Hogh, Cliad - such romantic sounding names! Arriving again at the close of December, the first thing I did was to take a walk to the isolated beach at Hoagh. The sea looked even more turquoise in the bright winter light than it did in summer, the pinkish glaze on the white sand more sharp. The low angle of the December sun at three o'clock bathed the shore in a curious golden light, dazzling me as I tramped towards it, stepping out from the dark shadow of the sand hills. The geographical orientation of Coll always confuses me and at first I was puzzled why the sun was shining lengthways along the beach instead of from across the Sea of the Hebrides. There was a cold wind blowing sand into my eyes. The strange light percolating through the spray from the breakers gave the scene an ethereal, slightly unreal air. Coloured fishing floats, like giant billiard balls on the water's edge, were artificially bright. And the shape and size of distant clumps of tide debris were peculiarly distorted. The eerie scene put me in mind of macabre tales I had read of lonely walkers encountering strange presences on deserted beaches. Of Hans Andersen's tragic Ann Lisbeth, digging for her dead infant on the windy shore. Of Fergus Hume's dreaded 'sandwalker'. Of Eleanor Scott's frightful story about the 'other one', haunting a remote beach in Brittany. And, above all, of M.R. James's terrifying ghost tale, Oh! Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad, with its chilling line, 'Who is this who is coming?'

On another day I visited Feall, which as I approached through the dunes in the mid afternoon sun made me think of an exotic turquoise jewel set in white platinum. But it was on a cold grey day on Chad beach that I encountered a most uncanny sight. It was the day of the shinty game. Fortified by mulled wine and incinerated sausages, I took a stroll through the labyrinth of sand dunes to Cliad. The wind was chill and a dark mushroom cloud hung ominously above the sea. The crashing of the waves was furious as they flowed and ebbed vast distances up and down the sands. Far away I could discern, approaching erratically in my direction, a solitary figure, with something at its heels. Who is this who is coming? The figure was nearer sooner than I expected, proving to be nothing more sinister than a young woman with a dog, combing the beach for treasures. Following her example, I engaged in some casual beach combing myself as I continued, remembering an account in last year's Coll Magazine concerning the discovery of two St Kilda boats on the island's Atlantic shore. I found flotsam and jetsam from across the ocean - Cape Breton, Halifax, Newfoundland, Savannah. The words of a man I once met on the edge of wild Loch Bracadale in Skye, barely audible in the raging gale, came back to me - 'All the world's rubbish gets washed up here.' Who, indeed knew what the vast mysterious Atlantic could bring to the shores of Coll on a dark day in December?

It was with these somewhat discomforting thoughts in mind that I turned to make my journey back, surprised how far away I was. The wind, if not exactly behind me, was at least not searing my face. The light was starting to fade. It was then that I saw, two or three hundred yards ahead of me, what at first I took to be a white fishing float rolling very fast towards the sea. Far too heavy to be blown at that pace by the wind, I looked for sign of human agency, wondering if it was perhaps a child's beach ball. I was utterly alone. What, then, was this ball? I watched it rolling into the retreating breakers until it disappeared in the spume. Soon the waves were crashing once again, riding high up the sands, and as the sea reached its limit I saw the ball again, spinning forward with the tide. As the waves retreated one more time I realised what was happening. The ball, left high and dry each time by the sea, was racing back, as if with a will of its own, caught in an endlessly repeated motion. I watched this, fascinated, for some time. At last I came close up to it, watching it spinning round in the foamy sea. I noticed it had black marks or possibly holes upon its surface. A childhood memory came to me - it was like the head of a snowman, with black coals for eyes and nose and teeth. I felt a sense of unease as I watched it, spinning and grinning at me in the furious waves. My fancies took flight. What was this that had come? Something from the great unknown, from the depths of the wide mysterious Atlantic, landing on Coll's shores? Maybe it had brought with it the dread 'Millennium Bug' that had laid low half the island? As the waves washed in I summoned up my courage to investigate more closely, maybe to prod it with my stick, to find out what it was. I was foiled, however, because halfway in it snagged, as if deliberately, against a patch of seaweed. The grinning head spun in mockery. Back into the sea it went as the breakers sighed their return into the ocean, and I decided it was time to go.

I found that I was walking at a hurried pace, lonely and uneasy, anxious to get back to the noise of human company. But all the time I kept looking back, as if pulled by the ball, which had now returned to its relentless progress between the sea and the sand, endlessly racing to and fro in the tide. Just as I was about to force my back on it forever, a giant wave pitched the ball further up the shore than it had so far reached. This time, as the sea plunged back, the ball remained motionless, as if tired of its game, secure in the knowledge that the stranger was departing. As if drawn by a magnet, and against the call of my reluctant limbs, I retraced my steps, hoping for a last chance to solve the mystery. Trepidation gripped my heart as I traversed the sands. I must have got within three or four yards of it when it suddenly sprang back into life, like a wild animal disturbed, and sped with galloping speed down the shore to the incoming sea, as if it were returning to its mother. Somehow I was glad I hadn't got near enough to touch it, or find out what it was. Some things are better left unknown. I watched it, as I beat a hasty retreat in the darkening afternoon, still endlessly repeating its back and forward motion to the ocean.

I watched it until I could scarcely see it anymore. Wandering back through the sand dunes I got lost for a few minutes, dreading being benighted with the ball, but then at last I heard the sounds of cheering and laughter as the shinty game came to its amiable conclusion. I cannot tell you how welcome and reassuring it sounded. Often since, lying in my bed at night, I think of the Millennium Ball, and wonder if it is still rolling endlessly between the sand and the sea. I often wonder what it would be like to see it on a cloudless night beneath the full moon, but I'm not sure I would really like to know. PETE BELL
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Coll Magazine - Article by Pete Bell

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2007 The Coll Magazine