slim vertical grey stone with small heap of slate-like stones atop it, and a grey fissured limestone pavement stretching away behind

Walls, walls. This place is all walls. Row after row of walls, running to the cliff edge, running along it, in line after line, parallel, perpendicular, everywhere. Even the ground is walls, cracked stacks and slabs of rigid grey stone; and the cliff itself, a great smooth wall falling straight into the sea, huge broken chunks at the foot of it.

The walls are in all shapes – stones slatted horizontally, vertically, on a diagonal – sloping or straight but all sharp. This stone does not weather kindly. Even the name for this landscape is harsh: karst – limestone eroded by acidic water into breaking flaking pavements, as far as the eye can see. Walls, and fields of stone, and slabs of rock jammed upright into the crevices like tombstones. It’s like walking in a graveyard: an epic plateau of a cemetery, held up against the flat wall of the blank Atlantic, falling into the hollow booms of the sea.

It’s a relief to finally reach the Black Fort, Dún Dúchathair. The outer wall is several feet thick, a rampart which closes off its own private finger of cliff, but it is curved – curved up to meet the sky and curved out to cup the small eroding point. And behind it, hidden beside the high horizon, are more curves – looped walls of stone folding back on themselves, almost sinuously. It’s profoundly welcoming after all the relentless linearity. Even the floor is covered in downy green grass.

I settle myself down to sit for a while but – boom! – the ground echoes beneath me as the sea slams into the undercut cliffs, and the sky turns grey as a wall of rain approaches. Time to escape, but only as far as the harbour because the stiff bulwarks of wind which surround us mean there’s no easy sail away.

Inishmore, Aran Islands, Ireland / Inis Mór, Oileáin Árann, Éire
17th September 2015


“Force 0. Calm. Sea like a mirror.” (Beaufort wind scale)

The sea is like a mirror, although it’s not flat. There’s a steady swell coming in from west-north-west and we rock back and forth on it for hours until we decide to start the engine and move.

Even then, creating a small wind above and a small wake below, it’s like moving through a rippling of the finest fabric: the sun is out and the sea is as silken as the smoothest cliché.

Soon it gets so glassy that it no longer even looks like silk, like anything substantial, but like billowing air. It’s as if we’re sailing through a dream of sea, the unreality enhanced by the effect of moving by motor as its drone and throb drown out the subtler sounds and sensations of being on the water.

Where are we? And how long have we been here? Foula sits like a great cake on the horizon but we could be anywhere – anywhere in this floating, blue-shining world.

West of mainland Shetland
3rd July 2015

Letter from Lanzarote

I sit under cool calm clouds – greyish and soft and medium weight – and watch bright white lines forming and diminishing out on the flat grey surface of the sea. The lines are new. Before they appeared, a whole patch of sea was blazing, as if the finely rippled surface had been fused into a plate of sheer platinum. Then, as the sun retreated towards Africa, the plate dissolved and the lines appeared. They shine, elongating and contracting, only near the horizon. Some of the lines are small and such concentrated white that they look like the foam of tiny distant breakers. However, the surrounding sea is too flat and peaceable to generate such froth and, although the lines change in size, the whiteness itself holds and doesn’t fold in.

If I could bear myself that brightly for so long –

palm trees silhouetted against a sun-shone sea

Puerto del Carmen, Lanzarote, Canary Islands
2nd February 2015


We sailed not far from Easdale last summer. We were going to sail right in and anchor by the island but, as we drew out from Colonsay and glided along its east coast, clouds began to gather in the distance ahead and, by the time we reached Colonsay’s northern tip, the Firth of Lorn looked dark and ominous. The wind had moved round too and was bearing down upon us and the sun was shining in the west, so we changed course and sailed into the sunset instead.

This year we were again going to sail there but our boat was in the north and the winds were from the south, so instead I took a collection of cars, buses and ferries to arrive, crossing the final short stretch of sea in cold windy rain.

I came to visit friends and took shelter in their cosy cottage with a cup of tea until the rain eased off and we set off round the island with wellies and children, sliding over the slate-heaped beaches and exhilarating in the wild washing of the waves over the sharp serrated lines of rock.

A big mist was still hanging around the coast but bits of brightness were starting to seep through and, as the others trailed slowly round the path, I quickly climbed the lumpy slice of hill. The island from up here looked astonishing, a strange gouged-out darkness with whiteness and lights crashing all along its shattered shores. As the air gradually cleared, the whole cauldron of island-ringed water beyond stretched itself out – to Seil, Luing, Scarba, Jura, Islay, the Garvellachs, Colonsay, Mull. I let myself drift out to meet them, following their rising rims, slowly navigating them in my imagination and last summer’s memory.

I was in a gentle dream; but as I picked my way back down the hill and ran the thin path round the north of the island to catch up with the others, I was caught by the quarry pools. They were so deep, so still, so blue, they seemed to gather into them all the wide distance of the waters outside, and to concentrate all their colour. I stopped at one, then another, then another – the deepest blue of all. A fine drizzle soaked into my skin as I stood gazing down and in.

Eventually I pulled myself away and now I stand in a glowing pink evening at the back shore staring out over that island-rimmed horizon. The wind comes across the waters, breaking them in white froth on the dark slate at my feet, but still my eyes are in the deep blue quarry pool on the other side of the island where all the wet world is, secretly, hidden and held.

deep blue quarry pool on Easdale

Easdale, Argyll, Scotland
7th July 2014

the summer

Assynt seen from the Minch

The summer was blue; blue and spreading, blue and rising, blue and stretching.

The summer slid out onto the sea, gliding through it, when the sea was silken; riding upon it, when the waves swelled cut and grey.

Summer streamed out and lands rose from the sides of it, low and lumpy, tall and hard. We sailed among their fingers, which reached out, raking the waters and holding them down like huge paws of an old stone beast, and we clambered out on their rocky knuckles, stumbling among the feathered grass and fallen walls.

Some lands greeted us with longer arms, which curved around and drew us in gently, with welcoming hills and pale beaches shining like soft promises through the thin drizzle; and when we rowed ashore, the sun flooded us and myriad wildflowers danced behind the sand in the multi-coloured machairs which are the true meadows of heaven.

One group of islands was made of walls – high columns, stacked with seabirds, which stood in a sheltering arc around us, and we spent the night there listening to their story, enchanted.

The summer was blue the day we left the spell of those islands and sailed back over the Minch to the northern mainland. The sun rose early and the wind blew us steadily east until, close to the coast, it dropped beneath the glassy water – and there we were with all the mountains of Assynt arrayed around us – solitaires, circling – rugged and red.

We watched and waited, in the blue bloomed sky, in the pure afternoon, floating on our own reflection, until eventually a small breeze arose and, nudging our sails, blew us quietly home.

It was slow, was fair, our passage through the summer: araf, teg.

Ara’ Deg.

Easy does it, she said.

The Minch, Scotland
14th August 2013