Last night, when I couldn’t sleep, I had a notion to open my eyes. There are no street lights where we live and I have never known a darkness like the darkness of our bedroom. There is nothing to become accustomed to – no subtle shades of black, no slit of moonlight at the curtains or shadowy furniture. I could hear the wind, but the room is like a crypt and you lose perspective within it. Muffled through a metre of stone in the old walls, it could have been the sea, or thunder, or a plane passing over – all are noises that soar and fade.
It’s different here at Sandside. The sound comes to me from all around the bay. It’s one of those dull days when the waves roll out of darkness into white froth. Boom, and then the close silence of the sliding back. Each one leaves a stain on the shore, the dark shrinking as the sand absorbs it. Where the shallows cross and blend, the waves form bands of shadow like contours on a map.
Perhaps my searching of the darkness last night was Timothy Pont’s doing. I spent yesterday looking at his early maps of the north on the National Library of Scotland’s website, peering at the slanting script of ink that is now over 400 years old.
dyvers kynds of wild beasts
specially heir never lack wolves, more than ar expedient
This on the map where my house is now, and the darkness and the wind.
Further out, the bigger waves collapse over the slab rock with a constant far away drone. The clouds out there are moving fast. I wonder how those early map-makers felt as their work was completed; distances shortened, the unknown falling away, the previously inconceivable no longer feared. Like waking to the gentle glow of a night light.
In the squall I lose sight of even the Fast Reactor, its huge white dome melding into the mist. Only the streetlamps around the plant are visible, like a string of fairy lights on the coast. When the mist clears, I see the electricity pylons stretching inland, below them the thin green headland, and red cliffs sweeping down to pale sand.
The wind batters my hood so that I can’t hear anything else. It could be some wild dystopian tale, this talk of wolves and nuclear power stations. But here in the far north, it all feels within reach. Strange things happen at the edge of the map. Men in radiation suits, their eyes deep inside the masks. Wolves slinking out from shadows.
I watch the waves at my feet push upwards, and in the froth that slides back I see a whole map of the world – hazy white continents that drift and collide, before falling away with a hiss.
Timothy Pont’s maps can be viewed on the National Library of Scotland’s website.