for a friend

Rain hammering yellow on the siskins, and the finches, golden as your August fields. I watch them from the kitchen window as I run in to shelter from another downpour, finding it hard to believe that just this morning I was sitting in a sun-drenched garden in Aberdeenshire.

It was a flying visit – a rare opportunity to meet you and your family during your own visit back from the Basque country. It’s not an area I’ve ever been to but I hadn’t been to Aberdeenshire before yesterday and it seemed foreign enough. All these years thinking we were both just Scottish and I hadn’t realised you came from such different land – so yellow and broad, and so smooth compared to the volcanic upthrusts of Edinburgh where I grew up or the rough highland coast I now call home.

Our birds would have overlapped though, and I watch the birds to re-orientate myself now. They crowd the feeder intently, sharp-faced and focused, flitting back and forward between the swinging plastic tube and the lower branches of the ash tree. I love the deftness of the siskins but it’s the goldfinches that draw my eye – the flash of yellow in the wing, the jewel-red face. I’ve never seen such ruby on a bird, at least not in this country. There were, however, the hummingbirds that came to the garden when I lived in rural Québec. I’d thought they were insects at first, some kind of massive bees zooming back and forth by the wild apple tree, until they slowed down enough to come into clear view. And what a view: metallic emerald plumage with white breasts and an iridescent red plating on their throats, they were beautifully dainty but also surprisingly fierce, circling each other aggressively in tight spirals of defence and desire.

They seemed impossibly exotic, and were the only species of hummingbird to come to Eastern Canada, but almost all the birds were brighter there. The goldfinches were pure canary yellow – the whole bird the colour of our goldfinch’s wing flash, except for a small black cap and wings. Even the blackbirds had vivid wing-stripes of red and yellow; and then there were the cardinals, crested and clothed almost entirely in crimson. I got compared to a cardinal once, when I lived in Montréal, and we spoke about them when you visited me there (didn’t they appear in Lowry’s Under the Volcano?). However, it wasn’t until after you left that I started seeing – and hearing – them in the city parks, their jaunty presence announced by their distinctive pyew pyew call, a cross between a wolf-whistle and the noise we made as kids pretending to shoot each other.

We’re not used to such vivacity here in Scotland and, after years back here again, my eye has been recalibrated. When I look at the siskins – which are like drabber versions of the North American goldfinch – I think their colour looks unnatural, as if they’ve fallen into a tin of yellow paint. And for all that I admire our goldfinches, I can’t help being suspicious – that dramatic yellow splash, that fancy face mask – as if they’re pretending, dressing up; as if they’re not really from here.

The birds you describe seeing in the Basque country are bright too: lurid yellowhammers and smart black kites and redstarts, birds I’m not familiar with. But you still see sparrows and robins and it makes you feel nearer to know that we’re looking at some of the same creatures despite the space between us.

Because this is the way of it. You’ll return to the Basque country and I’ll remain in the Highlands, places that neither of us are from, but then we always were migrants or vagrants, never quite feeling that we belonged. Though I suspect it’s in that distance that we feel most at home, and perhaps with each other too, in our continuing correspondence, our lives separated as they’ve always been, stitched together by feathers and flights.

Lochinver, Assynt, Scotland
2nd August 2022

seasick

We drive round the head of the loch to the harbour to see our friend’s new boat. It’s a dull afternoon and the imminent dusk presses in on us. The water is calm and grey and smooth and, as I climb down the pier ladder and stroll onto the afterdeck, I realise how much I miss being on it. I’ve been dimly aware of this lately, but as I look out over to the pontoon where I used to live, I feel it acutely: I’m seasick again, only this time not from the sea but for it.

It’s funny how the subtler senses work. When l lived in Canada, by the end of the long snow and ice-bound winters I would crave greenness. It was like a thirst: a need for deep draughts of green, a desire that needed slaking. You’d think my longing for the sea would be a thirst too but it’s more like a hunger, as if I’m not dry but hollow. Even hunger doesn’t capture it fully though. What I feel now is not an appetite to be satiated – not a craving, not an onward desire – but an awareness of absence. To draw an analogy with the boat I’m standing on, whose fuel tanks have recently been rebuilt, I have an emptiness which wants to be filled.

It’s not that I’m not nourished living on land. I love my caravan and appreciate its greater space and comfort, and its relative stability now the autumn gales are coming in. Living on the water was less comfortable, more restless and raw, and I need to live ashore now. With the various damages from my head injury a year ago not yet resolved, I’m too sensitive to motion to spend another winter aboard. Yet I can’t help feeling insulated, cut off from a primal source. I miss the water and the life of it: the seals and otters, the sea and shore birds, and the sailors and fishermen I used to reliably encounter on the docks. And I find it strange that the view from my window is no longer linked to the phases of the moon. I still tear out the tide table from the Ullapool News and pin it up in the kitchen but without the living presence of the tide I feel disconnected from it, and from something more fundamental – as if I’m not just out of tide but out of time.

Most of all, I miss the dynamism; the sense, however subtle, of being always in motion. Even on a calm sea, stillness aboard a boat is not the same as stillness on land – something that becomes immediately obvious if the keel even briefly touches the seabed. However static you appear to be, you’re still in a fluid medium, you’re still supported. In contrast, I am now held up by a sheet of plywood and a few breezeblocks. I am (literally, since we had to raise the caravan a few feet to get a downfall for the sewage pipe) high and dry. I enjoy the resulting vista – I can see across the loch and glimpse Suilven and Cul Mor through the trees – but I feel unsettled. I’m not sure if I feel ungrounded or too grounded. And so I begin to do what I always did before I took to the sea: I seek the shore.

4th November 2021
Lochinver, Assynt, Scotland