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


We drive round the head of the loch to the harbour to see our friend’s new dive boat. The afternoon is cloudy and calm, the loch grey and smooth and, as I climb down the pier ladder and clamber aboard, I suddenly realise how much I miss being on the water. I’ve been dimly aware of this lately but now, as I stroll across the deck and look over to the pontoons 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 moving 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 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.

Lochinver, Assynt, Scotland
4th November 2021


I can’t get used to the fact that everything is static. I hear the wind gusting and I brace myself but nothing moves. The caravan walls shudder in the stronger gusts, and occasionally flex, which is a bit disconcerting, but that’s all: the caravan doesn’t lean over or bounce; it doesn’t rise or tilt or creak achingly against a dock; bottles don’t roll, mugs don’t slide and books don’t tip out from their shelves, even without bungee cord holding them in. I listen and hear nothing but the wind and no matter how it blows the caravan and all the objects in it remain in place.

I tell myself this but it’s taking a while to sink in. As I look around for a place to put down the small Japanese cymbals I’ve just been playing, I notice that I’m still automatically scanning the various shelves and surfaces for somewhere secure, for a snug spot where they won’t rattle annoyingly in the squalls or become dislodged and fall. I realise that this is unnecessary but I can’t not do it. I don’t trust it yet, this land life, this new abode ashore.

I knew it would be a transition, moving from a boat to a static caravan, but I thought living on land would feel more secure. In fact it’s slightly unnerving. As well as the strange stationariness of the caravan, there are the different sounds. The rain on the roof is louder and more insistent, with a harder quality, and instead of the specific noises of the sea, pushing at the docks and slapping at the hull, there’s a general roar. It must be the wind going through the trees which stand around the caravan and along this side of the loch but it sounds sourceless; a general emanation of loudness almost overwhelming in its immensity. There’s a novel range of more particular sounds too. In place of the relatively genteel wailing of the seals beneath the pier there’s a rude bellowing of stags, echoing distantly as well as close at hand, with grunts and humphs at times right outside my bedroom window; and instead of the dry creaking of the hoodies or hoarse croaks of the heron, there are the sweet chirrups and trills of the garden birds arriving at my feeders, an array of petite tits and finches blowing in and out like the leaves which themselves yield new sounds as they land, twigs attached, on the thin tin roof or knock against the window as they skirl down.

This is another surprise. I thought living on land would be quieter than living aboard in an industrial harbour with huge boats coming and going at all hours and where you’re receiving sounds transmitted through the water as well as through the air, but no. The growl of cars passing on the road outside is far more intrusive than the tickering sound of boat engines – even massive ones – filtering through the hull, and the weather is louder too. In the boat, the sound of rain falling was one of my favourite sounds: no matter how heavy the downpour, it was muted by the boat to a diffuse pitter-patter, a steady tempered tattoo. Here, the drops clatter loudly, as if a thousand people are clog-dancing on the roof, and in a shower of hail I find myself cowering beneath the downward assault. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Although the caravan is less mobile than the boat it’s far less sturdy. The boat was built for bouncing around at sea, after all. Its decks and hull are no thicker than the roof and walls of the caravan but the fibreglass has been thickly laid up and the decks and roof reinforced in the middle with a layer of balsa wood. The caravan, by contrast, appears to be made of a few thin sticks of softwood lined with thin board on the inside and flimsy sheets of aluminium on the out. I was slightly alarmed the day we fitted the flue for my stove to see how easy it was to cut a hole in the roof. I really am living in a tin can.

Am I complaining? Not really. I’d rather hear the weather too distinctly than not clearly enough. When I’m staying in houses, I feel unsettled by not being able to hear the weather conditions. I feel too insulated from the world, too swaddled and cut off. There’s no chance of that here. I do miss being on the water, mind you – going up and down on the tide, moving to the rhythm of the sea – but I don’t miss the days and days of gales when the boat would lurch about like a drunk man on a rollercoaster; and although I’m away from the changing water levels, I’m more attuned to the changing light. And this is what I love here: the light, windows and windows of it. Much as I enjoyed living aboard, there was no getting around the fact that the boat was poky, its portlites slender and low-lying as the boat nestled itself hydro- and aerodynamically into the sea. Now I’m high and dry (literally, since we had to raise the caravan on several layers of breezeblocks to get enough of a downfall for the sewage pipe) with a wall of windows facing south, a clear view of the sky and even a glimpsing glance of the loch now that the bracken’s drying and subsiding. I can sit down and see out. And in this coming winter, when the light is at its most fugitive and beautiful, this is the most precious thing of all.

Lochinver, Assynt, Scotland
24th October 2021


Yesterday – For years I felt I was a gathering wave: all heaped up with nowhere to go and urgently looking for a shore to break on. Now I feel as if I’m a buoy on the sea, pushed up and down and back and fore in the tides and wind-driven surges, but essentially just held here in suspension – in motion without momentum – while out to sea the waves busily wash past.

I can’t get a grip on things, that’s the problem. Little things: dry paper, kindling, replying to emails. Big things: how to make a living, how to make sense of what’s happening to society, how to come to terms with what’s happened to myself. The thing with things is that they are too much. Even the little ones. Especially the little ones. A head-injured taiko player I spoke to online said that living with a brain injury is like having a hangover. All you want is comfort food and sleep and you know if you just ride it out it’ll pass. Except we’re still waiting.

Today – And then there are days like today when there is so much beauty: too much to take in, too much to give out. The sea is spilling over with golden blue light and in it all doubt is dissolved. For today at least, the waves don’t make me envious with their rhythmic fluid motion. Like me, they settle as the sun holds them, as the sun settles and holds everything, forever and ever.


Lochinver, Assynt, Scotland
19th October 2021


This is where I am at home. And, after all these years of absence and homesickness, it’s not on the land of Scotland at all. It’s on this sea loch.

It struck me a few days ago when I was out in the tender on one of my wee rowings-about. It was a bit choppy and I was pulling towards my usual pausing place midway between the harbour headland and the loch’s southern shore – where I’m in the habit of drawing in the oars and laying my head back on the bow – when it occurred to me that, out here in the middle of the loch, I felt perfectly at home.

It’s not that I don’t usually feel at ease here. I’ve been living aboard our sailboat in this harbour, on and off, for years, and I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve enjoyed our marginal position, tethered between the mountains and the Minch, between the evolving dock community and the local life of the village: I’ve always been most at ease on the edges of things. I’ve also come to feel very at home on the boat itself. Sailing the seas or coorying up in sheltered havens, its familiar fibreglass hull has become a cocoon, a container, not just for myself but for the skipper whose presence is soaked into every inch of it; a reliable and sea-kindly vessel bearing us onward together.

I’m sitting aboard the boat as I write this on a long still summer evening. The sun has just set and the northern sky is a thin lemon yellow and the sandstone faces of the mountains in the east glow pinkishly in the last of the light. The air is utterly clear and the water in the loch is glossy pink, yellow, and black-green, and almost mirror-flat. I feel at home right now, perched in the companionway, poised between these worlds of water, sky, mountains and folk, but the realisation I had out on the loch in the tender is more powerful. It means that my ability to feel at home here, to feel a sense – however slender – of belonging, does not depend on a particular boat or a particular location or particular company. It depends on me being afloat.

It’s time to find my own craft.

Loch Inver, Assynt, Scotland
9th July 2021

The Wanderer

Each time I move closer to finding a home: The Wanderer. And even now I have committed – biting the bullet and buying a static – I draw The Wanderer again. Strange lands and separation are the wanderer’s lot, I am reminded. I sigh. I just want to belong.

I haven’t always felt so ambivalent about this image. In the past it has inspired me – when I was stuck in a dead-end job and marriage, to become a wanderer was an aspiration; and, in recent years it has enthused me to persist in my semi-nomadic life, indeed, to attempt to make an art of it. It’s what prompted me to buy my wee Japanese van (and convert it to a mobile writing studio and overnighter), to live for much of the year on my partner’s sailboat, and to continually resist taking up stable employment in order to follow my taiko and sailing muses wherever they might carry me.

The wanderer has no fixed abode; his home is the road: I’ve romanticised that in my mind for so long now, hitching it to my more existential desires to pare myself down – to put myself through a process of ‘subtraction’ as Milan Kundera would call it, to reach the state of ‘no abode’ of the old Zen traditions of Japan. But maybe I’ve become too attached to the image. It is a great freedom to not have a home you’re obliged to return to and take care of, and a privilege to have friends and family who help you to make it work. Yet homelessness (of my relatively luxurious sort) is its own tether as well. Your mind is constantly entangled in calculations and plans: where to go to do this or to get that or to find the other. And if you’re someone who becomes readily attached to places and people, living such a circuitous life can be tiring. Your heart, strung out between too many of them, starts to become stretched thin and frayed at the edges. This has its own beauty of course – now and again the breeze catches the worn tatters which flutter a moment then settle and still, and you feel exposed and sensitive and close to things. But even wanderers need a break sometimes: a spell on dry land and stable ground to recover spent energies, to heal injuries, to take nourishment in depth rather than breadth and – dare I say it – to grow some roots.

And yet…

card depicting a wandering figure and far mountains, sitting in grass in front of the sea

Lochinver, Assynt, Scotland
4th July 2021


I bless myself with burn water,
loch water,
rock water;
with moss water,
bog water,

I eat a gorse flower that faces toward Suilven
and a gorse flower that looks to the sea.

I stand with the many-armed hazel,
the gatherer of the wood,
larch cones caught in its branches
and honeysuckle vines twining up its trunks
and its own catkins dangling overhead,
quivering delicately
like mercifully silent wind chimes.

I hold the lean paper limbs of birch
and pull myself to them.

I make myself belong.

Culag Wood, Lochinver, Sutherland, Scotland
20th May 2020