I never wanted to come back. Deep down, I knew I shouldn’t and yet, I came here anyway.
The quayside was colder than I’d imagined possible as I clambered off the boat. A wind sweeping in from across from the North Atlantic with one intent, to blow the marrow from my bones and leave them hollow. Even in my thermals and goose down jacket, I shivered.
Everything was arranged. They’d told me a chap called Fergus would be waiting for me. And sure enough, as I looked to the end of the quay, the headlights of a black SUV flashed on and off. I raised my hand in greeting. By rights, I should have started walking towards the car, and yet I stayed rooted to the spot, staring at the cliffs and the churning sea flecked with white foam. The stone houses some way up the road. And I thought about every time my father had warned me that this island was not for me. That nothing good ever came out of this place. Except you, my darling, he’d say. And whatever happened I was never to go back. There’s nothing there for you. Are you clear about that, Elodie? Crystal clear, Daddy, I’d say.
I knew the story of course. My mother had died when I was six months old. A fever, he said. Bereft, my father swaddled me up, packed a suitcase, and left on a supply boat one dawn. His own parents were long since dead and he told no other soul he was leaving.
And throughout my childhood, even into my early twenties, I never wanted to go back to the island. I was never curious. Until my father died, and I saw the job advertised: Marketing manager, Auld Bride Whisky Distillery: £60,000, six weeks holiday, accommodation provided. Only suitable for someone happy at the idea of remote island living, it warned. I liked the outdoors and the occasional whisky, and the job would be a step up from being a marketing assistant. But it wasn’t the money, so much as the idea that took hold. Because my father shouldn’t have done what he did. He shouldn’t have got ill, and he shouldn’t have died, and he certainly shouldn’t have left me. And this right here was his punishment, because now I was standing where he said I shouldn’t ever go. The recklessness of it thrilled me.
Then again, he’d only ever wanted the best for me.
And there was still time to change my mind. As the engine of the boat roared into life again, as the captain’s mate unwound the rope from the metal cleat embedded in the concrete, and tossed it down into the well of the boat, I considered retreat – calling for the captain to take me back with him.
But then, as if he suspected as much, Fergus was right there in front of me. His calloused hand over mine, taking the case from me with a grunt, swinging my rucksack onto his own back, and it was too late. There was no going back anymore. Instead, I watched as the boat pulled away, picking up speed as it cut through the choppy water, lifting and falling, sea birds wheeling in the air above as it headed back to the mainland.
I cursed as I hurried to catch up. Shona was waiting to meet me, he said. Everyone was waiting to meet me.
Her arms were wide as I pushed open the door of the distillery. It made me hesitate. Did she mean to hug me? My father was not a tactile man, so Shona’s warmth made me panic. I stumbled, almost falling at the threshold and Fergus’s strong fingers gripped my arm to keep me upright. She lowered her arms.
We had never met. Only talked on Zoom during the interview when I had shyly confessed that I’d been born on the island. But now she smiled as if she had known me a lifetime. “Elodie McKenzie, come home to us.” A cheer went up from the workers.
I couldn’t help myself then. I grinned. Who doesn’t have that reaction when they’re cheered? But then, I didn’t know what it was they were cheering.
I lost track of how many hands I shook, how many tearful hugs the women gave me. Malcolm’s child, I heard more than once. I felt a flush of pleasure that my father was remembered here. And sadness that he couldn’t see he’d been wrong not to come back. And, if I’m honest – and why wouldn’t I be now – there was anger there, too. That he’d kept me away so long.
I should have run then, of course. But I had no idea what was to come.
Later, in her office, a peat fire blazing in the hearth, Shona sat me down in a leather armchair, and placed a whisky glass in front of me. With some ceremony, she reached for a bottle and poured both of us a drink. Her eyes narrowed as she watched me take my first sip. They were amber I realised, the same colour as the whisky she’d poured, and the flames from the fire flickered in them.
“What do you think, Elodie McKenzie, child of Malcolm McKenzie, grandchild of Fraser Mckenzie?”
That was new, my father never discussed his family. The people here would know more about my own heritage than I did. A moment of disquiet before the taste of the whisky hit me.
Over the years, I had tasted various whiskies. A Laphroaig after a country walk, a Talisker on a date. A whisky cocktail in a nightclub. And each and every time, it was as if voices whispered to me but I couldn’t make out the words. But this whisky was the truth. I heard all of it, and understood what it had to say to me. That it was the rain that fell from the sky. And the barley that grew through me and around me. I’d yet to swallow it but I knew the heat that had passed over it, because I was that heat. And I was the peat and the smoke, and the oak cask around it. The noise and the silence of the years of waiting. Knew that the whisky was me and I was the whisky.
Swallowing down the fire of it, I struggled to catch my breath and the whole time Shona talked, and I thought it was to give me time to come back to myself.
The Auld Bride distillery was a ghost distillery, she told me. There’d been ‘aquavite’ brewed in a monastery on the island as early as the 16th century, with a distillery opened by the laird in 1701. Business was good, but tastes change and the distillery closed in 1994. That was the year my father left the island. Was that the reason for his bitterness? That the island first took his wife and then his living when the distillery closed its doors? Shona was still talking as I zoned back in. Three years ago, a bottle of the 1912 Auld Bride came up at auction and fetched £56,000. I blinked then. For one bottle, I queried. Shona nodded. My eyes went to the bottle we’d been drinking. I could have sworn it too was a 1912.
“We’re going to do it again, Elodie,” she said, turning the bottle away from me an inch. “With your help.” She pulled out a smaller flask from a drawer. But when she poured this and lifted the glass to the light, the liquid in it was crystal-clear. “In the oak barrels, it turns to Auld Bride. It’s a different creature without the ageing.” I went to take the glass from her, but her hand stayed mine. “Tomorrow,” she said.
I never did get to the accommodation I’d been promised with its stove and its views over the sea. Apparently, the roof was leaking. Instead, Shona took me home with her. It could have been awkward, but she made it seem like the most natural thing in the world.
I dragged myself into the bed and slept for 12 straight hours. The next day I came down to porridge and a pot of tea you could stand a spoon up in. And then Shona drove me back to the distillery. It was raining, but even so people lined the road. Each man, woman and child straining to see into the car.
I panicked then, I admit. But Shona patted my knee. Said not to worry. The islanders were pleased to see me.
And what could I do but trust her.
The morning passed slowly. They told me the landline and internet connection had gone down, so I had little to do as I waited in my dusty office for the tour of the distillery which I’d been promised at twelve. I hoped it would inspire me, and truth to tell, I hoped it would reassure me. Fergus had bolted the huge distillery gates behind us as we drove in and now islanders stood six deep outside them. I could catch the low thrum of their murmurs even through the leaded window.
I called to Fiona, the elderly secretary outside my office. What was happening?
But she waved a hand. Shona was sorting things. She’d said the same about the lack of signal on my phone. But I must need another cup of tea? I’d shrugged okay and went back to the files.
That was when I found the History of Whisky. It was at the back of the lowest shelf in the darkest corner. I sneezed as I pulled it out and carried it across to my desk. Something told me not to let Fiona see it, so I met her at the doorway when she brought me tea in a bone china cup, a triangle of shortbread balanced on the saucer. So kind, I said.
I closed the door and went back to the book on my desk. I turned the pages with care, the tea forgotten.
Auld Bride Whisky.
It was a short enough entry and much as Shona had told it. The monks. The distillery and laird. The geography and geology of the island that helped lend the whisky its distinct flavour. Then I turned the page. An addendum on the superstition of the Auld Bride.
“Originally, this author understands the whisky was known as ‘Auld One’s Bride’. According to legend, no fisherman could catch so much as a sprat in his nets, and the crops had failed year after year. The islanders were starving when the local laird summoned the Devil. They made a pact. The Devil would help them brew unforgettable whisky they could trade for gold. In return for which, every generation of islanders must drown a girl of the Devil’s choosing in an oak barrel full of crystal-clear spirit. The girl to become his bride in Hell. Witnessed by each and every islander, the laird signed his name in blood. The first bride the devil chose was his youngest daughter.”
My mouth dried and I stood up from the desk. My father had left this place for a reason. Because he knew the evil here. And the islanders had laid the perfect snare. There’d never been a job for me. No cottage with a stove and windows overlooking the sea. If anyone ever enquired, they’d say I’d never arrived, and that I must have thought better of it.
I was chosen.
I hear the scrape of the gates over the cobbles now, and the islanders streaming through. Fergus already stands outside the door. When I finish writing this, I’ll leave these pages pressed between the pages of the history, and hide the book again as best as I’m able. As they pull me to the open barrel, I’ll fight them harder than they expect me to fight them. Fight against the drowning and the Devil.
I expect to lose.