After that moment of pure terror on the mountainside – when I clung to the sliding scree in desperation, the fjord deep and blue below me – I’ve finally reached the summit and sit at its northern precipice, looking down. Fog blows up at me in cold gusts. It’s hardly a surprise: the whole summit has been crawling in cloud since I arrived but, unlike the dull clamminess I’ve come through, this fog is lit from the inside. It seems sourceless, blowing up out of nowhere in swirling puffs and, other than the lumpy rock immediately around me, I can see nothing else. I would have thought I would be disappointed: to have come all this way – by sea, by bus, by painstaking foot and hand – and not be able to see the view from this most northern Faroese peak. Yet I find I am grateful. After that terrifying moment below, to be here now in the presence of this unseen luminance, this blind light…

I become still and let it absorb me. I hear birds cackling, wind in small gusts; I see moss shining quietly when the fog is blown thin for a moment. And it’s such a beautiful fog. It fills my brain, like a dream I can’t wake from – a bright mist, a lucent opacity, a billowing emptiness I don’t ever want to leave.

Villingardalsfjall, Viðoy, Føroyar / Faroe
22nd June 2019

Arriving in Suðuroy on a Sunday morning in June

It was in a world of fair-weather fog…

Forty-four hours of blank horizons and seasickness and suddenly, unannounced, we’re here. We sail slowly up the shelterered waters of the fjord. Cold fog blows over the sheeny surface. A kittiwake arcs over us and a couple of terns pick deftly at the sea to port. The fog rises, showing the hems of steep green hills, then settles back down. A pair of great northern divers, big dark birds, sit placidly in the sea ahead.

We tie up to a tyre-lined dock and step ashore. The town is pale-streeted and quiet except for the intermittent tolling of bells. We walk the length of the town, exchanging smiles with the odd passer-by, then come back to the boat to make a cup of tea. The customs officer steps aboard, apologising for coming late due to being at church. He asks us if we have any contraband then immediately answers for us, “of course you don’t,” laughs heartily, and welcomes us to the Faroes.

“We like it here already,” we tell him truthfully. And we set off once more to explore this island behind the fog, unable to shake the uncanny feeling that we’ve sailed out of time and have arrived in an earliness of some kind; as a native poet might put it, that we’re somehow here

with the whole unspoiled world
that God had made in the first days.

(Christian Matras)

silhouette of metal sculpture of rowing boat with three rowers and a coxon, mounted above a rock in mist

Vágur, Suðuroy, Føroyar / Faroe
16th June 2019


We sailed south to get here but as I wander about I have the uncanny sense that we’ve come further north. Maybe it’s all the whiteness. The large harbour where we’re moored is full of white boats – packed ranks of them, all gleaming, from the shiny power boats and sleek yachts to the large ferries, and even the fishing boats – a stark change from the rustbuckets lurching around Scotland. The docks themselves, an extensive network of floating wooden walkways, are weathered to a silvery grey. Ashore too, paleness dominates. The pavements are an almost-white concrete, and all the large buildings around the harbour are pale: the minimalist white stone library and concert hall, the light grey hotels and apartment blocks, the huge white silos further along on the industrial waterfront. They form crisp negative silhouettes against the dark mountains which surround the city, which, in turn, form their own silhouettes against the now cloudy white sky, silhouettes scooped here and there with bright patches of snow.

It’s all so clean and so linear – a true Arctic city scene. Many of the streets and buildings are fronted and roofed in plate glass, further reflecting all the cold brightness. It’s an impersonal-looking city in many ways, unlike the smaller wooden towns we’ve been in so far. Yet I feel at home here, in its spaciousness, in its lucent absence of colour – human as well as architectural. Elsewhere, the cool indifference of much Norwegian social contact has been disconcerting. Here it forms part of a sense of human space, a sense of a people neatly and graciously spread out, and I feel peaceful. There is room here, on the bleached wooden docks, on the wide glassed streets. Pale, clear room.

Especially in this room, on the first floor of the Bodø Bibliotek. The room is a distillation of the city itself, spaciously arranged and immaculately white. The floors are lined with warm wood but everything else – the walls and bookshelves, the tables and chairs – is white. Almost everywhere I look I see clean whiteness and I can look everywhere because the entire sea-facing wall is made of huge panes of glass. From the outside, the glass looked bluish but from in here it’s invisible, and in the uneffusive afternoon light there’s a sense of continuity, as if the glass is not holding things in but letting things out. I feel as if I’m outside as well as inside, my sight lines extending out smoothly to the street and the harbour and, beyond, to the grey south-west line of the sea.

I walk up the softly side-lit stairs to the upper floor and into its central atrium. It’s glass-walled all around and open to the sky, with a pale grey stone floor upon which, unexpectedly yet perfectly, sits a massive grey boulder. Its immense weight anchors the ascending height: I understand why they put it here. This is the heart of the building, the high centre.

I put my hand on the boulder and listen. The city is quiet from here and I notice that I am too – unusually so. The library is doing its work, lending me its patient grace and clarity, its sheer and simple form. I turn my attention inward for a moment and find my mind, normally a fairly cluttered chamber, has become a large transparent room, sparsely furnished, its low hum of chatter like an audible silence. The thoughts within it are spacious, elevated and calm. They drift outwards from this open room, over the pale glass-vaulted city, over the snow-lined peaks and out into the ever-enveloping opaque white sky.

clean white stone building with tall blue windows on pale concrete pavements which seem to reflect the grey sky overhead

Bodø, Nordland, Norway
26th June 2017


6.30 pm, 66°13’13″N. An Arctic tern wings past the sun, which is high in the west above a row of bunched fluffy grey clouds. A broad platinum path blazes to the horizon beneath it. The east wind is getting colder and the mountains behind it increasingly snow-covered: an unending panorama of tiny pointed peaks, uplifting and continually startling to look at. Ahead loom the Træna islands, steep bumps growing ominously; one island a single jagged fang, almost frightening to look at.

9.35 pm, 66°28’54″N. The wind has picked up to about fifteen knots and we’re flying along at well over six. Up, up we go, over the surface of the rounded world, the minutes of latitude rushing by our hull.

9.45 pm, 66°30’0″N. We’re looking into the Arctic now, past the sharp teeth of Træna, towards distant ranges of snowy peaks, whipped like icing on a Christmas cake. A slight yellow glow warms their north-west-facing hollows as the sun slowly gravitates across the sky; as we ride north to greet it.

10.08 pm, 66°33’02″N. I sit with the handheld GPS and watch the numbers tick upwards.

10.14pm, 66°33’48″N. We have crossed the Arctic Circle! The sun lies behind a bank of grey cloud in the north-west with small scraps of cloud below it outlined in livid gold. A patch of rainbow hangs in front of the mountains to the east, the sharp peaks beyond all softened by the sun’s rosy-tinged touch. Ahead, above the northern horizon, a clear band of sky stretches like a luminous yellow promise. We sail on towards it.

foredeck and mainmast of boat on cold sea with pale yellow light on the far horizon ahead

Norwegian Sea
8th June 2017


We’re hanging out here with the eiders and oystercatchers, the heron and a few noisy gulls. We’re waiting for our flu to subside, for the winds to shift, for the tide to turn. And when they do, we’ll be gone again, north again, hopefully further north than we’ve ever been before.

The sun’s cool and golden now, settling slowly behind the various western peninsulas of the mainland. Will it be thinner in the north or more substantial? And what will we be? Still light-driven nomads of sorts, I guess. As I suppose we all are, continually moving in time if not geography, forever following the sun.

Ettrick Bay, Bute, Scotland
10th April 2017

strange lights

Last night the sky was weft with strange lights. They appeared first in the north: an array of subtle green shafts glowing gently across the back of the sky. They were uncanny, difficult to focus on, seeming still at a quick glance but moving almost imperceptibly with slight shifts and shimmers. You had to look at them only intermittently, as if visually standing back from them, as they hovered above the horizon, until gradually, barely discernibly, they strengthened and spread and eventually the whole north-eastern sky was shot through with a shimmering green shine.

That was it for a while. Cloud came, covering the green shafts, and the night became damp and subdued. We went inside to warm up in front of small flames of gold and amber but when we came back outside, the sky was alight. Soft ribbons of rose and green streamed towards us from the west, flowing upon us in long sinuous tongues, and waving and wafting over our heads like smoke. Their colours were paler than the brighter green of the shafts to the north but they moved so sensuously; flaring and subsiding, weaving and dissolving in and out of each other, stretching and illuminating the dark width of the night.

It was difficult to get a sense of their scale. Their display took over the whole northern half-dome of the sky, arching over our heads and homes, appearing infinitely far and intimately near, and seeming to move both quickly and slowly at the same time. And the light itself looked both alien and familiar, eerie and incredible. The night felt hallowed and hollowed and filled.

Eventually cloud came once more, and rain, extinguishing the lights, and the sky became blanketly dark. A few hours later, however, when we stepped outside, the rain and cloud had blown over and the stars had been restored.

It seemed surprising to see the night showing itself again. The stars were so white – bright all the way down to the horizon – and the spaces between them so black. The north star had pinned itself overhead and in the time since the lights had begun, smothering the stars, the Plough and Orion had wheeled well around it. Time had resumed now, constellated and clear.

Even after the stars were restored though, a low arc remained, radiating from the north: stalks of faint greenish light lined upward into the height of the sky, like the backlit stems of tall pines in an invisible night forest. But there are no trees here, only rolling ground, and stars, and lights.

Balchladich, Assynt, Scotland
27th February 2014