The September days are shorter and cooler now. Autumn is here, and the purple heather flowers have nearly finished blooming.
My little brother Niall and his friends are playing Soldiers while we wait on the wharf. They march up and down and pretend to fire rifles. Niall wears the red woollen vest our Grandma Coira knitted. He says it makes him look like a real army man.
Just after we reached the wharfs this morning, Niall and the other boys began shouting and pointing. A great steel shape was slicing through the water, fifty yards from shore, smoke pouring from its funnels. ‘’Tis the Ajax!’ someone called. ‘The new battleship!’ We could see the huge gun barrels, the bow built to ram enemy vessels. (Niall is just seven, but he loves to talk about such things.)
Scores of people sit or stand around us. Some smile at me. Are they feeling the excitement that stirs in me when I think of the adventure ahead? Other faces are sad. We are leaving our beloved Scotland for a new land on the other side of the world.
We hear that faraway New Zealand has clean air and rivers. Children will grow strong there. The small farms here in Scotland have been swallowed up by big English landowners, and the cities do not have enough work. Shepherds like my father, or carpenters, ditch-diggers, factory workers, have to make different lives in a different land.
A breeze sighs past. I pull my shawl around me, and something touches my wrist. My silver bracelet. Every time I see it, my heart beats faster. It is so beautiful, with its plaited patterns and clasp like a tiny thistle.
My Auntie Flora gave it to me four days ago, while Mother, Father, Niall and I stood waiting for the wagon that was to carry us away from our farm for ever.
‘This belonged tae your Great-great-grandmother Maidie,’ she whispered. ‘Take it wi’ ye, Aggie, my darling niece. ’Twas meant for your cousin Nettie, had she lived. I dinna ken what treasures you will find in New Zealand, but here is one of ours tae carry across the seas. Every time ye touch the thistle, think of the purple flowers o’ Scotland.'
I stroke the bracelet while I gaze around me. Niall is back now, staring at the railway locomotive that stands hissing and snorting on its steel lines where the roadway meets our wharf. Mother shrank away when she saw it. Father took her arm. ‘An iron horse, Helen. ’Tis slow and strong and noisy, like all horses.’
Beside the wharf rise the masts and funnel of our ship, the Princess Louisa, named after one of Queen Victoria’s daughters. This is the vessel that will sail south for four months, taking us to our new home.
Our luggage is already aboard. Men with dirty hands and faces are hoisting sacks of coal onto the deck. The Princess Louisa has engines as well as sails. Niall pretends to understand how they work, but I don’t believe him.
A man in a black top-hat, with a lady in a lilac-colour dress and bonnet, is walking up the gangway, holding onto the rail as the ship dips and rises in the water. They must be some of the rich passengers, with proper bunks in their cabins instead of just a mattress on the floor, and even a steward to fetch water for them. ‘Och! They’ll be just as seasick as we puir folk,’ my mother laughed.
Something glides through the air above us. I squint up, pushing back my own bonnet. An osprey, the wonderful fishing hawk that Niall and I have watched so often from the cliffs near our farm. Its brown and white wings are stretched wide, its curved talons tense.
The wings fold, and it slices down like a sword, gouging the waves. Then it rises, climbing towards the low sun, a fish clutched in its talons. A pair of seagulls flap at it, screeching and circling, trying to make it drop its catch. The osprey ignores them, wheeling upwards until the gulls fall away, snapping at each other. Will we see birds like that in the distant land that will be our home?
A hand rests on my shoulder. My father watches the soaring osprey. His black beard juts upwards.
He glances down, smiles at me. ‘That’s us, Aggie, lass. Setting our sights on high. Seizing our chances, and flying away tae prosper. A bonnie wee farm I’ll be making for us all.’
His words are brave, but his face is sad, like my Auntie Flora’s. I heard him murmuring other words of hope to my mother, the night before we left our farm. ‘Helen, Helen, my puir dear . . .’ he went. I heard the sound of her weeping. Hardly ever had I heard that before.
Men begin shouting from the Princess Louisa. A sound like a trumpet blares out, and we all jump. Steam is gushing from a pipe beside one funnel. Again the sound blares. Around us, families stand up, gathering bundles together, talking to children; Niall leaves his game with the other boys, and runs to join us.
I touch the silver thistle of my bracelet again. Will there be purple flowers in New Zealand? What will the native people, the Maori, be like? It must be spring there now, halfway around the great curve of the world. How strange that must feel!
And will there be riches, as Auntie Flora says? Those of us who live there in the years ahead — what sorts of treasure will they find? I grow excited again when I think of it. Yet the most precious thing I can think of just now is for all of us to be happy there.
We file up the gangway. ‘Och, Angus,’ Mother murmurs to my father. ‘Never tae walk on our bonnie homeland again!’
I gaze at the wooden planks beneath my feet, and the cold, slapping waves below. Fear stabs me now, along with excitement. The sea is grey, deep and unfriendly. It looks the worst water in the world.