Depths

If you’ve ever seen a wavelet break in the mouth of a burn – the tide pushing in where the stream runs out, the quick folding along a crease, the frantic ripple, a determined progress like toppling dominoes – that’s what I think of when I see the juvenile herring shoaling, not pushing through the water but unfolding, as if pulled on a line, and the sound of the fish jumping, the movement of their whole bodies, like each little splash of the wavelet.

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At what seems like the edge of the world, I find a way down the rocks. The Atlantic turns over shadows where the swell lifts and a grey sky fades to nothing on the horizon. I hear an engine drop in pitch. I hadn’t noticed it until now, the drone of the motor steady above the water. All I can see from here is the boat’s dark hull and a couple of orange floats. Already it is disappearing around Boursa Island.

Kneeling on the rocks, I wonder how deep it is below me. It’s not like being on a beach where the shallows are translucent and wave froth skims the sand. Here, I can’t see beneath the chop. I imagine silt-hazy depths, currents churning. I’m scared of the sea – it’s a fear of choking, of surfacing with hair in my eyes as the next wave breaks.

A shadow, the size perhaps of an orca, sweeps through the ocean, darkness sweeping through light, then tiny ripples, the water puckering as silver rips the surface, the fish all turning over at different times. The waves jostle but where the wind whips up white flecks, the herring gleam – some arching beneath the surface and others jumping, and though I’m used to the sound of wind around this coast, this is different. The herring slap the sea as they land. Shoal chatter.

Version 2
Tone Investigates

When they come close, I see them quite clearly – each three or four inches long. One gets stranded on the rocks, flicking its body in the bladderwrack, a silver sliver on a mass of ochre weed. It convulses on its side as water washes over – water with the clarity of glass, and its eye staring up at clouds and sky. Still the sea simmers as bellies flash. And again they are on the move, like iron filings following a magnet, they swirl and push, and all the time the noise goes with them.

Scotland’s Far North was the epicentre of Europe’s herring fishing in the nineteenth century. Tens of thousands of barrels were cured for export every year. I read recently that the stocks are replenishing themselves. Standing here, feeling like a character from a Neil Gunn novel, I get the sense of history, and time, being round like the world itself – a big bowl of chaos, where now and then events surface.

There is a dive site near here: an underwater wall where langoustines hide, and then a shelf, and the water-depth plunges. The fry are feeding on zooplankton – arrow worms and copepods – but I can’t help feeling that there is something in the deep chasing them. And perhaps my fear of water is that too – a fear of shadows moving below me. A fear of chaos and uncontrollable time.

Eriboll

Tone demands to go swimming. ‘You’ll have to find something,’ I tell him. He goes off in search of driftwood, settles for a bit of rope. The loch shows a breeze I can’t feel, the dark flecked with white. But where it laps the shingle, it is the colour of the moon. Ethereal and calm.

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You pull on your drysuit and harness. The tanks are already in the water, two yellow lines below the green surface. Golden light undulates in diamond patterns. I throw the rope for Tone and watch the silver trails he makes, his current a ghost. When I look again, you have gone. I never hear you go – no splashing, no hissy intake of breath. The water is silent. But after a moment I turn and catch your lazy fin break the surface. For the next half hour it is just me, Tone, and his bit of rope. I have tied a knot in it for weight but, wet, it keeps slipping. I will ask you to fix it on your return. Your voice in my mind laughs: ‘If you can’t tie knots, tie lots.’ But none of this matters because somehow the slipping of the rope and my only half-hearted caring is what this weekend is about.

IMG_0533.jpgWe often used to spend time like this in the north – rough camping at Strathy, Melvich or Torrisdale. When we finally moved up here, all that changed. We said goodbye to the homemade camper. You took the bed out and I helped haul it into the loft where it’s been these last four years. And then yesterday, on a whim, we hauled it down again. You dusted off the cobwebs, hoovered up the dead moths and spiders. It was a simple enough thing: a longing to lose ourselves in the landscape. Just the van, two deckchairs and the hills.

You are noisier coming back and I hear the chomp chomp of your feet on the shingle. Your towel, jammed in the van door, ripples as the wind picks up. Years ago, this would have been a place of work: the ferry ploughing back and forth to Portnancon, and the limekilns aglow. Today, time here feels hollow, like the empty scallop and whelk shells bleaching on the shore. As you cast off your harness, lay the wet things on the grass, it occurs to me that you’re my moon-coloured water. The world foam-flecked and tricky, in you I find an ethereal calm. And beyond that, nothing matters. Nothing at all.

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.

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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.