Underworld

Dark water marbles the moor. There is deer grass and bog asphodel. Already I’ve sunk my welly halfway up. I look to the wind turbines at Fiscary, but rather than being a comfort – a reminder I’m not alone here – they seem at this oblique angle to be slowing down. Turning to a stop.

Finn McCool by Stephen Reid
Eleanor Hull, The Boys’ Cuchulain (1904); illustration by Stephen Reid

There’s a timelessness about the bog that makes all those stories of giants and fairy people, the ones found in out-of-print books with cloth covers or websites about Celtic spirituality, seem possible. Although no one tells them anymore, I get the feeling the stories are still here, under the surface. All around, the moor floods the horizon, and just as marine birds die at sea, it’s easy to imagine a fallen giant here. The peat can preserve fallen trees for millennia. Their branches decay but the trunks are dug up whole – charred-looking but smooth. I tramp over pink sphagnum with whorls like fingertips. Is this where my giant lies buried, his face covered in moss? I move on, imagining eye sockets, a nose and chin into the hollows and lumps under my feet.

I hear you laugh. The thought of his giant strides shaking your high street is unimaginable. And with bay windows and balconies to catch his ankles, towers pricking his soles, the jumble of houses in the suburbs like walking on shingle, why would he bother? Ahead of me is Watch Hill, a perfect stool for a giant while he dips his feet in the kyle, keeping vigil for invaders.

My welly sinks again. Before I pull myself free, I look around at the bog. Strands of hair blow over my eyes and mouth. And just for a moment I remember how things were in my other life, four long years ago. I see myself walking around an air-conditioned office in my high heels. Pencil skirt, glossy hair, these things feel too real for memories, too distant for reality. That person – defender of budgets, keeper of spreadsheets – is unlikely to exist for me again. She has become a thing of myth.

Raindrops patter my hood. Occasionally a big one echoes like a finger tap but I don’t look round. It is dark when I get into the van, and I put the lights and wipers on just as a heavy shower falls. I feel bigger somehow. The feeling of being out on the moor, where size is meaningless with nothing but mountains for comparison, swells inside me. A small voice whispers. I strain to listen, but it’s just that the radio, turned down low, has picked up a station.

Revived

July 20th, 2016

IMG_0482We had thunderstorms last night. I left the bedroom window open and woke to shudders and cracks, flashes and bitter rain. This morning still feels heavy, the sun behind thick cloud. At the turn off for the loch, I pause in the middle of the road to wait for two cars to pass (rush hour on the North Coast 500), and at the rolled down windows the air is sticky. Everything is a damp kind of green. Tourists stopped on the roadside are taking photos of Ben Tongue. One is wrapped in a scarf, confusing the white sky with winter.

IMG_0491I haven’t written anything for weeks. At times like this a fear slowly dawns. It’s not writer’s block so much as the conviction that everything good I’ve ever written was a fluke. I want to walk it out and have chosen this spot where the glint of unknown water beckons. I pull over on the bog road and we get out. A track scars the hill, zigzagging upwards where it turns to little more than a landslide, the face all stones. In the quiet as I stop to tie a lace I hear deep splashes from the ditch (Tone amusing himself) and a sudden waterfall – last night’s heavy rain coming straight off the sod, the water etched with the downward press of green blades, into a gulping, swirling hole of froth. The track stretches out, long puddles shining in the ruts. I can see the loch now, below me to the south-west. Tone goes wild at the smell and bounds off over the moor. I follow, a little slower.

IMG_0500Coming down the bank, I squeal. There at the water’s edge is a makeshift metal boat, Thunder in red paint on its stern. It seems an ominous name for a boat and I wonder if there’s some sentiment that I’m missing. Something virtuous, something warrior-like. Or is it simply the sound the hull makes being dragged over a pebbly shore? I think of last night’s storm, of rising to pull my window to, and how exposed I had felt with just a pane of glass between the violent sky and me in my nightie. I feel the same way now, at the loch’s edge, with nothing on the horizon but frozen waves of heather.

Heading back, it is further than I remember. Drizzle dashes my hood. Eventually my eyes pick out the steady progress of a car on the main road. The way the light is, the water shining from the reeds has a blue tinge off the peat. There were islands in the loch, and I consider that in another place, with paved pathways and manicured grass, there might have been pedalos for rent, an ice cream hut. Instead all the loch had was that abandoned craft, the rusty inside camouflaged sphagnum orange.

IMG_0497

At home, I stare at the white page on my laptop. My fingers flexed, a pitter-patter of black characters dots the screen, and then a stream, a torrent of words, the downdraft of key strikes followed by a dissipation that feels just as real as any break in the weather – weeks of sticky awkwardness gone.

A freshness, a revival.

Litany: Venture North

I was thrilled to write a guest blog for Venture North’s Discovery Series. Read the original piece over on their website.

I am slow to remember at first. But as one name comes, another follows. ‘Eyebright, Speedwell, Self-heal,’ I chant, swinging the dog’s lead like a censer, winter vestments of coat and cardie draped over my arm. I push open the gate to the public footway, last year’s bracken crushed underneath. In the darkness of the gorge, overhung by hazel, with the Armadale Burn below, my litany falters. I dredge my mind for the colour of petals, the shape of leaves. On the path to the dunes, I start again. ‘Cat’s Ear, Lady’s Bedstraw, Holy Grass, Devil’s-bit.’ It seems like I’ve been waiting forever. Since the spring equinox and the coming of light, since the first lambs hiding under their mothers, since the winds dropped and the cuckoo called, I have been waiting.

Every year, in late spring and summer, my walks with the dog turn into pilgrimages. Headland, bay, hill and ditch, I trudge with bowed head. Few of these species are particular to the north. But here – where there are hardly any trees, where heather and reeds tumble for miles bound only by mountain shadows, where in winter, moor, pasture and bluff are all the same pale ochre – there is something wondrous about the wild flowers of spring.

Today, I find bluebells, what I think is cuckooflower, and primrose. They are scattered about under the whin and lining the fence on the way to the beach. In the open grassland before the dunes is the remains of knapweed – a whole meadow of it, charred remnants that will be overwhelmed in a month or so with a glut of new purple heads.

Flowers

At home, my copy of Wild Flowers of the North Highlands of Scotland is well thumbed. The species divided by peatlands, machair and coast, they are all here to be found if you look hard enough. And perhaps in my remembering of names, there is learning of another kind. I’m not from here, but with knowledge comes reverence, and where some outsiders see bleak emptiness, appellation populates a place. I know those reeds are soft rush, that moss sphagnum.

On the beach, the first of the sandwort spatters the foot of the cliffs. In the rocks here I have seen the delicate white of surveygrass and the raucous yellow of kidney vetch. But not today. The tide is so far out that the clatter and soar of the waves and the white lines unfurling in my middle distance seem unconnected – the sound rolling in all around me but the sea just an inch of blue on the horizon. It takes a long time to reach the water’s edge. The ocean, the wind, the gulls calling, all hush my thoughts. Turning back, it’s the other way around – the land just a strip of green between cloud and sand, and in the middle, a few gable ends of faraway houses. Mine are the only footprints stretching down to the water. I close my eyes against the sun and enjoy the feel of my wellies striding out, the sound of the waves telling me where the sea is, the breeze in my face.

Armadale Burn is just one place to see wild flowers. Other favourite spots are the bumble bee garden behind Strathnaver Museum (in itself worth a visit), the clifftops at nearby Farr Bay, the machair at Strathy Point (where the Scottish Primrose grows), and the coastal path at Portskerra, Melvich. Or just stop your car in any old layby and potter off for a stravaig on the moor.

Seascape

Butler & Crossan’s Wild Flowers of the North Highlands of Scotland is available from Caithness Horizons in Thurso, and from Wordery.

Previsional

As I park up the sky darkens. I turn off the ignition and tell Tone we’ll have to wait. We watch the squall pass over. Beyond the rough fence, mounds of dune grass bounce and billow, luminous in that strange light, the sea slate blue with jumping jagged lines. Wind grabs the van and the suspension creaks. While I sit there with the keys still in my hand, something in the wing mirror takes my eye. It is the calm of the inland strath, untouched somehow by the squall. A snapshot of the Halladale shining its way through the valley, the unmoving green of treeless hills, and the low sand banks. Again, the van rocks and I feel like I’m perched on the divide – with the prescience of the world as a billion parallels, one for each life on it.

Melvich fade

We cross the scrubland, free today of the cows that sometimes plod its worn paths. Coming out of the dunes, my view opens on the river and the bridge over to Big House. A Keep Off sign propped against its steps, the bridge seems to be sinking back into the landscape, its untreated wood the same colour as the sand, and the watermark on its cement piers as dark as the river’s glossy surface and thunderous sky to the north. An exposed cable runs the length of the parapet, dangles the last few feet and disappears into the sand. ‘Where electricity goes to die,’ I say. I’m thinking of last winter and the power cuts – the north’s distances tricky to span. With the sun high above Beinn Ruadh, the pebbles on the shore gleam. One last throw of the ball and we make our way back to the van.

At home, my mum calls. My dad has a sickness bug and has spent the day in bed. The cordless handset crackles so that it is hard to tell how worried she is – the two hundred miles that separate us spanned by phone lines, looping, looping. I hang up thinking of worlds glimpsed in mirrors – their wholeness, their immediacy nothing but reflections.

A trick of the light.

Stranded

IMG_0381When I take my walk at low water I find the beach potholed. Puddles everywhere. The dog falls behind, his shadow gone from my side, and when I turn, he is sniffing the sand. He dips his nose, shakes his jowls. Usually Tone’s treasures are dead things. Seagull wings, old rabbit bones. But today there is something in the toss of his head that makes me turn back.

I’m not well acquainted with fish species. I might recognise a bass or a mackerel because I’ve seen those sucked into plastic in supermarket chiller cabinets. It takes me a moment to even spot this one, on a bit of sand dug over with Tone’s scrappy paw marks. It’s only four inches long and terribly thin. We watch it convulsing – too small to see its lungs heave. And I’m thinking sprat. Only sprats are steely blue, whereas this is pale, pale silver. As quickly as Tone grabs it up, he spits it out and does a little dance. ‘Wimp,’ I tell him.

I look at the huge expanse of beach, the sea so far away. It will be five hours until the tide rescues the stranded sprat. I think about picking it up, but the thread of its life is so close to snapping I can barely look. If I touch it, if I accidently twine the thread in my clumsy hands, I too might struggle for breath. With spring’s imposter driven off and a return to cloudy skies, I’m still carrying sheepskin mitts in my pockets and I pull these out and take the fish in padded fingers. The gloves are drool-stained and sandy, the sprat a thin line of light. It’s while I’m hopping between puddles, gloves cupped and a euphoric Tone at my side, that I stare into its upward facing eye. It is stoically unmoving, a trick perhaps of its lidlessness. (Or has the fish already suffocated in my glove bath of rough air?) I’m startled by the lack of pigment in the iris. It isn’t yellow nor amber nor grey but the same pale silver as the scales, as though the whole is camouflaged for some moon landscape.

It is this detail that helps me identity it later when, damp gloves propped on the radiator, I google images of small fish. But the sound of its name falls flatly from my tongue. It occurs to me now that had I held it in my bare hands, I’d have better felt its weight, been able to gauge its stiffness; I could have run my thumb along the dorsal fin and the too-smooth-looking body.

Instead I ran the length of the beach with my gloves on, and left the sand eel under the silver cover of gently breaking waves.

Regeneration

Halfway across the burn, the sea just a sliver on my horizon, I stop. All winter, plodding up and down this beach with my dog, I’ve heard only storms – chin to my scarf, I’ve hidden from an Atlantic seething in black and white. And I’m thinking how spring isn’t just wild flowers and lambs. It is stillness. Like the sea has taken a deep breath and relaxed. Today there is only the gentlest of breezes and looking down, I watch the water pucker into glossy ridges around my wellies, the bubbles sailing downstream – gurgling and lathering all one action. And I feel it working on my mind, the foam flittering over a calloused core. ‘Hallefuckinglujah,’ I cry, and then turn around, but as always it’s just me and Tone, his snout in the sandy roots of marram grass.

Armadale Burn

There’s only a foot of water but it pulls around my boots, persuading me on. So I turn and go with it – splashing towards the beach, a part of the flow. It’s not easy walking. The deeper stones, the ones that are always underwater, even when the burn is low, are covered in moss so dark and thick that their contours are lost; instead there is only a textured depth with weed swirling through the peaty water. The streaming green tendrils surface on an eddy.

There is a point, as I walk, where the burble of the rocks recedes and the sea takes over with its constant grind – a deeper voice. A point where standing, you can hear both, before a step closer to the beach and the burn becomes irrelevant, trivial. I look up. The dunes have tumbled out on to sand, the burn widened, the sea just that little bit closer. I can see its ribbon on the horizon – now rippling, now pulled taut. Where I’ve stopped, in a cut-out of the bank, reeds prick the dark water making pinholes of light. I turn my back on the sea. Head inland towards the strath and the burn’s source. On this spring day, I want only gurgling and bubbles.