A Daffodil for
I didn't understand the
problem. I mean this was the only village on the island
and no more than a dozen houses at that, so why was this
man looking at me, as if I were an idiot?
"Eileen MacKenzie," I repeated. "Can you
tell me where she lives?"
He backed away and peered around the half closed door of
his cottage as if at any moment he were going to shut me
out. He stared suspiciously at my small parcel and shook
his head. It was hopeless. I had a ferry to catch and I
couldn't afford to be wasting time like this.
"Try Father O'Donnel," he said, pointing a
wavering finger down the road. "At the Church House.
It's Father O'Donnel you'll be wanting."
Dark curtains of rain were blowing in from the wild
Atlantic now as I trudged along the village road. I
turned my collar to the wind and checked my watch, still
anxious about the ferry. If I missed it there'd be
another night's lodgings to beg.
He was the fourth person I'd asked. Each had appeared
friendly at first but then, it was if I'd suddenly
sprouted horns. It wasn't hostility - more caution
perhaps - I don't know. But whatever it was, it had
something to do with the package I was carrying and with
the name: "Eileen MacKenzie."
Fortunately, Father O'Donnel was more receptive - a
small, middle aged man with a distinguished crop of white
hair, he eyed my package discreetly and placed a friendly
hand on my arm.
"You'd better be coming in," he said.
But there was something leisurely in his manner that set
me on edge. "I'm in a bit of a hurry, Father - the
"Ah, the ferry," he said, brushing aside my
concerns with a sweep of his arm. "Don't be worrying
about the ferry."
He sat me down in a cosy little parlour which seemed to
doze under the heavy ticking of an ancient clock on the
"Eileen MacKenzie," he said, sinking himself
into a deep armchair, opposite. "You're sure that
was the name, now?"
"And you've something for her?" He gestured
with his eyes to my parcel. "May I see it?"
At first I wasn't sure. After all I'd been told it was
for Eileen. But if I wanted his help, I would have to
trust him. Carefully, I peeled away the brown paper and
laid the contents on the table between us.
Suddenly he seemed lost for words, as if he'd just
witnessed something beyond imagination and for a long
while, he just stared. But it seemed silly to me - almost
absurd - the pair of us silently contemplating what was,
after all, a single, mud-caked daffodil bulb.
"Can I ask how you came by it?" he said at
I could see he wasn't to be rushed so with another
nervous glance at my watch, I told him how I'd first come
to the island yesterday.
"It was for the walking, Father," I explained.
He nodded his encouragement and I went on to tell him how
I'd been walking most of the day in the north - a place
so wild I'd seen not a soul all day and heard only the
sounds of the wind and my own breath as I'd tramped the
empty hills. Then I told him of the storm that had
whipped up suddenly, colouring the land with dark intent
- and the hailstones like golf-balls that had sent me
scurrying blindly for the shelter of the nearest valley.
"I didn't care which way I went," I told him.
"So long as I got out of the storm."
But it was the wrong end of the day to be taking
excursions. It was late and I was off course. Whichever
way I turned now, it would be dark long before I reached
safety. What was I to do?
That's when I saw it, down the valley - a single warm
"I was desperate, you see, Father. Even though my
map said there was nothing there, I headed straight for
it, ploughing across country, keeping my eyes focused on
the light, as if I were a ship at sea. You can imagine my
relief when I finally came upon an isolated croft.
Dripping wet and breathless, I hammered on the door.
"It was a grey old man who answered - kindly looking
and well into his seventies. He was dressed in rough
working clothes, the like of which I've never seen before
- and he had this strange far-away look in his eyes.
"'Can you help me?' I asked him. He smiled and, as
if he required no further explanation, he showed me in.
He sat me in a corner by the fire where I could dry out
and then made himself busy with some soup he was boiling
up in a big black pot.
"'Have you farmed here long?' I asked him.
"'Aye,' he replied, quietly as he handed me a
chipped old bowl. 'You'll take some supper?' he asked.
"I thanked him as he filled the bowl from a ladle
and then I watched as he withdrew to the shadows, at the
back of the room.
"'It's a desolate spot,' I said to him. 'I was
surprised to find anyone living here - there's nothing on
the map, you see.'
"'A heart once touched by love knows no desolation,'
he replied, mysteriously."
Father O'Donnel leaned forward suddenly at that, gripping
the arms of his chair, his eyes almost popping as if he'd
just gone over the top of a roller coaster. "You're
sure that's what he said? You're sure now?"
"Quite sure, Father."
And indeed I was for in a strange way I'd known exactly
what he'd meant. I'd known that desolation you see - felt
it still sometimes in all my lonely wanderings. But him?
No. I remember looking at him, at his weather-worn face
pulsing and fading at the whim of the firelight and into
those far-away eyes. He'd been touched by that love - a
thing so rare, so precious most of us spend a lifetime
just searching for it. Eileen!...And yet there was a
twist of sadness also.
"From the warm glow of an oil lamp - the lamp that
had guided me down from the hills, I began to take in the
room. It was a time-capsule, Father - as if the clock had
stopped a hundred years ago. The walls were black with
soot and it was cluttered with farm tools and pots and
pans. There were bits of rope and sacks of stuff and I
could smell kerosene.....
"As it grew late, I remember him bidding me
goodnight and slipping quietly into his back room, taking
the lamp with him, leaving me to the smokey warmth, to
the firelight and to the sound of the storm blowing
"I settled down for the night, using my rucksack for
a pillow and covering myself with a blanket the old man
had left me. I snuggled beneath it, complementing myself
on my good fortune and cursing the map-makers for their
carelessness in missing such an oasis of comfort in the
midst of such emptiness.
"And in the morning, when I woke, there was a bowl
of porridge and a dish of tea at my elbow. The door was
wide open and the sunlight was pouring in. I ate
hurriedly and went outside, stiff and aching and with my
lungs burning from the smoke. The old man was digging in
a small cultivated plot by the door.
"'I'll be on my way then,' I said, toying awkwardly
with a ten pound note - something for his trouble, you
understand. But he pushed it away - gently, mind. Then he
lifted a bulb from the earth and passed it to me
carefully with both hands - like someone passing the
communion cup, Father.
"'For Eileen,' he told me. 'For Eileen MacKenzie.'
"'But where?' I asked. He didn't seem to hear.
'Eileen MacKenzie,' he repeated.
"But it's a small island. He could only have meant
the village and if that's all he wanted in return for his
kindness, then I was happy to take it. So I wrapped it
carefully and went on my way.....Simple! Except no one
seems to know who she is."
I looked again at my watch. The ferry would be docking
now. I had to hurry. But Father O'Donnel sat, lost in his
thoughts for what seemed a nail-biting eternity. Then he
rose suddenly and asked me to follow. "You'd better
be bringing that with you," he said,
nodding towards the bulb.
He led me from the house, a little way down the lane and
through a gate into a quiet cemetery. There, in a corner
beneath a giant Yew, he showed me a simple grave with the
plain stone bearing the inscription:
1750 - 1795
A heart once touched by love
knows no desolation
They were the words of the old man. But the dates! She'd
been dead for two hundred years!
Father O'Donnel knelt down and stroked the grass by the
stone. There were little shoots appearing, bright green
and thrusting. "You should plant it here," he
said. "With the others."
"The others?" I knelt beside him and took out
the bulb which was itself beginning to send out its own
tiny green shoot. "There's something I'm not
He dug away a little of the rich, black earth with his
hands and I lowered the bulb into place, pressing the
earth back around it.
"Eileen was in love with a crofter from the
North," he explained. "But she died before they
"And the old man?" I asked but he didn't seem
"Afterwards, every year, the crofter made the
journey to the village to plant a single daffodil bulb on
"....a kindly soul, they say, with a far-away look
in his eyes. He died a grey old man and his croft fell to
ruins..." He placed his hand on my shoulder.
"Are you getting the meaning, son? The croft you
described is nothing but a pile of overgrown rubble in a
lonely valley full of daffodils."
"Then I made a mistake," I said. "I must
have slept at another croft - in another valley."
He shook his head and smiled kindly. "No one lives
in the north," he said.
Then perhaps I'd hit my head in the dark, slept under a
rock and dreamed the whole thing. But I didn't look as if
I'd slept under a rock. I'd spent the night warm and dry.
And there was the daffodil!
That's when he told me of the others who'd passed this
way over the centuries - all strangers like myself, each
bearing a daffodil for Eileen and telling tales of a
welcome in the hills and of a warm light at dusk where in
reality there was nothing. It was a legend in these
islands and it seemed I had just become a part of it.....
Standing beneath that giant Yew with Father O'Donnel, I
was left in no doubt that something extraordinary had
happened to me. Perhaps, being as I am, a twentieth
century man, I should've been paralysed with shock or
stricken with disbelief. Instead though, I felt as if the
mists had parted for just one fleeting moment, allowing
me to peer beyond, into the great unknown. The love the
old man shared with Eileen two hundred years ago is with
us still. And while there is such a power in the world, I
know there will for ever be a warm light at the end of
the lonely valley and a comfort from the storm.
Father O'Donnel looked up suddenly. "The
ferry," he said. "You'll be missing the
"Ah....There's no hurry, Father," I replied,
for somehow the ferry just didn't seem important any
Published May 1995 ~
story behind the story
travellers finding a welcome in places which later turn
out to have been long derelict are the subject of
folklore and many a corny ghost story. But a story along
these lines had been nagging at me ever since an
experience in the remote Western Isles of Scotland. After
walking alone through a mist covered landscape of dark
hills and barely glimpsed mountains for most of the day,
I had finally come down to a secluded bay where a lone
cottage sat facing the sea. As I approached, a man
appeared. He looked odd, old fashioned somehow in the way
he dressed. Alas, unlike in my story, he did not invite
me in but suddenly turned and bolted himself inside the
cottage, a gesture whose unexpected hostility added to my
feeling of isolation.
time after my walk I was perusing the tourist shops in
Fort William and came upon a book by a long dead writer
who had lived in those parts. There was a photograph. The
hostile crofter and the writer shared a startling
likeness. It was a coincidence, but for a moment I felt
the hair rise on the back of my neck, and I had the
feeling of having walked into realms more remote than I
had first thought. The experience impressed upon me the
fact that there is a mysterious power in such lonely
places. It can frighten or it can inspire - it's all a
question of interpretation.
© M Graeme 1995