afloat

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.

I’ve felt at home many times in this harbour. I enjoy the marginal position of being aboard – tethered between the mountains (Suilven, Canisp and Quinag) and the Minch, and between the evolving dock community and the local life of the village – and, being most at ease on edges, I’ve attributed some of my intermittent sensations of being at home to that. I’ve also attributed much of it to being on the boat itself; this boat which has held so much of my life these last nine years. Sailing in it, living in it, sleeping in it, 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 black-green, pink and yellow, glossy 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

no evidence

I scamper off the boat as the white veil sweeps closer, racing ahead of it for the shelter of the woods. It follows behind me like a predatory net curtain, a finely woven mesh of raindrops, whose hem touches down just as I reach the trees. I stand in close to them, watching the rain drumming on the docks and decks and listening to it pelt the fledging birch leaves above me. Within a few minutes it passes and I continue on my walk. When I get back, half an hour or so later, I notice a couple of damp patches in the cockpit and am momentarily confused. It is a confusing day, right enough – one of those squally Scottish spring days: one minute sunshine, the next minute showers, each chasing away the other with fresh abandon as it makes the world anew.

Nonetheless, I wonder how I could forget the rain. I remind myself that my short-term memory isn’t yet fully restored and put it down to that. But then I wonder why I would remember. The sea level is not noticeably higher (at least not from rainfall) and, with the rain having drained from the boat through its various scuppers, the decks are mainly dry. There is no evidence of the rain having passed over. Unlike on land, there are no lingering puddles, no boggy ground, no high rivers or flooding. It’s the same with the wind. It blows and bounces us around endlessly without leaving any markers at all: no uprooted trees, no fallen roof tiles, no scattered outdoor possessions. While the wind can leave waves behind it in the open ocean, in the short fetch of this sea loch, even whitecaps quickly subside. This is one of the differences between living on land and living on the sea. On the sea, the seasons come and go – throughout the day, throughout the year – and the only traces are in our minds.

Lochinver harbour, Assynt, Scotland
4th May 2021

allegiances

It feels like one of the old days of freedom. The tide is high, the loch is wide, rippled and blue, with fat flecks of foam drifting slowly, unrestricted, across its surface. They’re being driven outward by the freshwater currents of the two rivers which run into this loch and by the cool easterly breeze but they look as if they’re being driven by the sun, which rides already high in the east-south-east behind them, backlighting them and seeming to propel them towards me.

It’s the first time we’ve seen the sun in days and, as the foam slides by, it continues its steady rise, presiding over the clear blue waters and skies with confident assurance. And its easy assertion, its potent presence reminds me, in good order, that we are only truly ruled by this sun: by its presence and absence, its warmth and light, and by the dynamic streams of air and water it generates across the Earth – our rotating, fecund Earth, which nourishes us in turn. This is where our allegiances belong: to our star, to our planet, and to our right to roam it, as we long to and as we must.

Lochinver harbour, Assynt, Scotland
1st April 2021

lockdown, day 16

I watch three hoodies strutting about on the road. One picks up a mussel shell, possibly discarded by an impatient seagull, and flies up in front of me to drop it. It cracks open immediately. I’m slightly surprised by their boldness. They usually stay clear of the road and deal with their mussels on the docks so they must be aware of the recent reduction in traffic, even on this relatively quiet harbour road. Yet just as I’m thinking this, the crow picks up the mussel shell and moves it onto the kerb, as if mindful that a vehicle might still drive along. It continues to pick at the mussel, another crow joining it and peering over its shoulder, until they both lift off and fly out over the water, landing on one of the pier ladders to pick more mussels off the wall below the tideline.

About two minutes later, one crow comes back, dropping another mussel in the middle of the road and picking it open in a leisurely manner, this time not flying off until Andy, the engineer, approaches in his big black Touareg. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised how they learn our habits and adapt to us, given how much they interpenetrate our lives. What’s shameful is how much this is usually beneath our conscious notice. Radio Scotland is currently full of people talking about how lovely it is to have time to notice the birds – their song, their bright behaviour – during this enforced slow-down of our lives. Or of their lives, rather. My life is often slow, deliberately so, because it’s important to have time to notice. During the winter when the humans don’t come, the hoodies, the herons and the shags are company on these cold harbour waters. Now it’s spring, and still the humans don’t come, but a pair of eiders have arrived and started poking around and soon the swallows will be here, and sometime after, my favourite birds, the terns. Life will be more sociable again, in this way at least.

Lochinver harbour, Sutherland, Scotland
8th April 2020

lockdown, day 14

A gusty morning after a blustery night. I lift the lid of the stove to see if any of last night’s fire has survived and particles of ash blow up into my face, arcing up over the stove and drifting down in a circle around it. It’s quite a beautiful sight, little white flakes falling up and down through the air like an unleashed snow-globe. The smell is less refreshing – acrid and stale. It’s like having a miniature storm aboard, mirroring the one raging on the nation’s airwaves over our Chief Medical Officer’s recent visits to her Fife holiday home. Whatever discomforts I’m waking up to, at least it’s not that.

Indeed, while I do not welcome the forced nature of our seclusion, I am secretly relishing the opportune solitude. It’s early days of course but I find I’m cocooning myself in the boat even more than necessary, with social interaction quickly becoming a fading memory of an unfamiliar past. “This is an easier time for introverts than extroverts,” someone remarked on the radio the other day. I’m thankful for being, although sociable, essentially a solitaire. I am so glad not to be in the public eye.

Lochinver harbour, Sutherland, Scotland
6th April 2020

freeze

I wake to unusual calmness. The boat is perfectly still. Droplets of condensed water hang in neat lines along the edges of the cabin ceiling. Only my breath moves, creating dense swirling clouds each time I exhale. I open the hatch, stick my head out, and slowly gaze around. The decks and docks are all covered in a thick frost, as if a white fur has grown over everything during the night, and on the sheltered waters between the breakwater and the pier rests a fine layer of ice.

I go below to make a cup of tea then come back to the hatch to take it all in. It’s not often I see the sea freeze. The ice initially appears transparent and blank. However, when I look more closely I can see patches of patterning embedded within it: fine leaves, intricately veined and toothed, jostle with curved fronds and short stalks, spread about unevenly as if haphazardly strewn. I wonder how long they’ll last. The sun is riding higher in the sky, creeping above the wooded hill behind the harbour, its wan warmth slowly strengthening. Meanwhile, the tide is going out, causing the harbour waters to slide down over the rocks and shrink in surface area. Pretty wavy fracture lines are forming as the ice sheet becomes horizontally compressed and, along the breakages, little shards of ice lean up against each other, catching the pale morning sunlight.

I wrap up, and step – gingerly – onto the docks, then carefully make my way ashore and into the woods. The shrubbery in the shadows is heavily frosted and my footsteps crunch satisfyingly upon the frozen grass, but the sunlit glades are green and the tree trunks shine, warm and brown and welcoming. I wind along various narrow paths, vaguely following the sun, until I come out at the back of the pebble beach of White Shore. At its far end, I come upon a small brown burn. I stop and stare. I thought the sea ice was stunning but this peaty water holds an equal beauty. The burn flows out of the woods over tumbled stone into a deep channel in the shingle, levelling out and producing white foam which bends into a series of perfectly curved ripples. The ripples drift along calmly, some in parallel, some gathered together at their bases and fanning out like bouquets of white plumes. The water surface isn’t frozen but moves only slowly over the rotating current beneath, its caught feathers pooling in my gaze as my thoughts burble on. If only the movements of this world were intelligible… But then they are, in a way. In a way, I understand.

curled plumes of flat foam on brown water over pebbles

Lochinver harbour and Culag Wood, Assynt, Sutherland, Scotland
19th January 2019

moorings

It’s always leaving, that’s what this sailing life is. It’s making a fresh friend and then casting off the lines that tie you and drifting away into the dawn.

I love so much, that’s my problem. I moor myself readily to each new dock in each new harbour, my heartstrings and dock lines pulling tight in the wind. And then we’re off again, your unattachable heart merrily seeking the next temporary destination while I’m still trying to undo the knots I’ve looped myself ashore with. And it’s not just people I grow fond of: the rounded hills at the mouth of the loch across the sound, the sudden misted glows in the sky behind the boat yard, the night-time curve of the village lights around Marine Road… And that grey-cloaked heron croaking by each eve, and the wee rock pipit flitting from deck to deck in the mornings, and the eiders which are always paddling about, calling to each other in incessant gulps and gargles.

So now, at the end of another winter’s berthage, I’m brimming over like this bay at this high tide. I used to be a solitaire, but there’s something about these groups when you find them – the friendly marina crew, the happy gang of harbour staff, the quick communities of sailors sharing docks and drams – all these sea friends and shore friends; all this coming and going in my heart.

Port Bannatyne marina, Bute, Argyll, Scotland
11th April 2018