This is Stromsay, Mairi Elphinstone’s new home.
It has a reputation.
Two miles northwest of John o’ Groats and eight miles southeast of Hoy, Stromsay straddles of one of Europe’s busiest shipping lanes. Inexperienced sailors fear the Pentland Firth at the best of times, but Stromsay waters are the deadliest of all. Tidal races, hidden reefs, jagged rocks and whirlpools lurk north of the island, and only the bravest or foolhardiest of captains dares sail the Swilkie without muttering a prayer for fine weather and safe passage.
The Firth’s best sailors and strongest fishermen call Stromsay a ship’s graveyard; visit a Thurso inn on a wintry night and you might overhear rumours of lights on the Sgeirskerry and hunters seeking prey.
Ships don’t just come to grief in Stromsay waters; they vanish.
In daylight, Stromsay could be anywhere in Caithness-shire. The island’s occupants farm crofts and fish for a living; free education is available to both boys and girls, and Stromsay Kirk’s pews are packed every Sunday.
Nevertheless, don’t ask Mrs Johnstone where the more exotic stock in her grocery comes from, and don’t be surprised if the islanders flinch when Ragnar Rasmussen is mentioned.
No matter how alluring they might sound, try to ignore the siren songs drifting across the island on full moon nights. Never ask a Stromsay man where he met his ethereally beautiful and mysterious bride, and try not to think about why his wife yearns for the sea with every fibre of her being.
Most of all, if it’s a foggy night, close the curtains and stay inside.