going backwards

“It’s going backwards!” he cries in confusion. “It’s going backwards!” I try to walk him a wee bit closer but he’s not having it. I suggest we run towards it as goes out then run away from it as it comes in again but he’s not convinced. I’m surprised by his reticence as I thought he’d be keen to go for a wee paddle. Usually he loves water of all kinds – puddles, ponds, baths, burns – and generally delights in making as much of a splash as he can. Admittedly, the sea is a very different prospect to these more contained bodies of water but it’s not as if he hasn’t been to the coast before. Just a few days ago we were on the pebble beach at Ardmair and he was completely unperturbed, merrily pitching pebbles into the sea and eagerly trying to clamber over the last seaweed-covered stones to get closer. We had to hold him back to stop him going in. I’d have thought the sea here would, if anything, be less daunting. Compared to the open sweep of Ardmair, this beach – just north of Achmelvich – is sheltered, enclosed on each side by long rocky headlands with the distant horizon safely contained between them, and the water is clear as glass.

It’s not the water itself that’s unnerving him though – it’s the motion. When we were at Ardmair it was low tide and the sea sat slack and quiet on the stones. There was a bit of a breeze and the water rippled briskly as it received our ineptly skimmed pebbles but there were no real waves. The waves today are small – wavelets really, rolling gently over the pale shell sand at our feet – but there’s an energy to them, and their pronounced back-and-forth movement is evidently unsettling him. We try to explain it to him to put him at ease, telling him how the wind makes the waves and pushes them onto the shore, and about the tide itself and its approach and retreat, but at two-and-a-half he isn’t interested in the abstract. He’s absorbed utterly by what’s in front of him: this line of liquid mysteriously drawing away from him then all of a sudden returning. “It’s going white!” he exclaims as one wave rushes closer and spreads out at our feet in a wide lacy froth.

He clearly doesn’t want to go in so I pick him up and hold him on my hip and reassure him that we’ll just watch. And as we do, standing here quietly together, it strikes me more than ever how much this motion of the sea is like breathing. It seems animated, washing forward in exhalation then sucking back in, its rhythm measured yet capricious, like a great creature breathing. Maybe that’s what he feels too. Or maybe he has no idea of it at all and is simply sensibly wary of something whose nature and action he cannot fathom. I watch him watching, innocent and intent, and it strikes me too how moved I am to be here with him, on this sand in front of this water, witnessing him have this primary and elemental encounter.

I’ve always felt the seashore to be powerful. “A place of revelation,” for the Irish poets of old*; a place of alteration. No matter how familiar the shore has become to me over the years, it’s the one place I can always be freshened, the one place I am reliably renewed. But seeing him meet the sea like this with his young spirit and young eyes stirs something else in me, movements that I too cannot fathom but which rouse in me a profound tenderness… for him? for water? for this endless turning over? I don’t know. And anyway, that’s an abstraction again and this beach is anything but that. It’s “sand!” It’s “waves!” It’s froth and awe – and fun.

I give him a mischievous giggle and, still holding him, run in.

* From the Imacallam in dá Thuarad (Colloquy of the Two Sages, twelfth century Irish manuscript)

Vestey beach, Achmelvich, Assynt, Scotland
19th May 2021

Balchladich beach in a south-westerly gale

The green wave curls,
the white wave smashes,
the cream banks of foam quiver on the sand
then scatter up into the wind like bursts of hysterical laughter.

The whole foreshore is a seething plain of froth
with gulls drifting high above it,
appearing to just hang in the sky
like the long banks of cloud laid out, unmoving, overhead.

In the south, the mountains, striated with snow,
hold themselves up like a frozen wave –
a suspended crest,
a momentary stoppage –

and I wonder how we can continue,
the sky so still,
the sea so live,
the earth so static.

Balchladich, Assynt, Scotland
23rd March 2021


It was like a sun from another universe. Wreathed and shrouded in finely-spun fibres of cloud, it hung low over the western horizon just north of the brown humps of Soyea. The cloud cradling it was a deep purplish rose but the hue of the sun itself was hard to describe. Not orange, nor yellow, nor even gold, it was a colour from another world, and its texture too seemed of a softness too fine to be from ours.

I stood at the shore and watched it, this very gentle apocalypse happening somewhere else, and all the while a strange ache grew in my breast – a sense of things I couldn’t reach for,  of distance without end. Meanwhile at my feet, the sea just kept sighing: surge, retreat; surge, retreat; surge, retreat.

Aird Ghlas, Loch Inver, Assynt, Scotland
19th March 2021


All the sounds are so loud: the flapping wings of the hoodies cruising overhead, the beating of the cormorant upon the sea in front of me, the crisp chirps of wee land birds on the hill behind. It’s intense – the clarity of the still air, the clarity of my cleared ears. They don’t hurt any more but I hear the noise of all the life here so acutely it’s almost painful.

The hammer blows of someone working on the other side of the loch rebound across the water. A dog barks over there too. I know that cold water conducts sound across its surface very efficiently but I feel as if I’m sitting in an amphitheatre. Even the occasional gentle shwoosh of the sea along the shore seems amplified. A prawn boat glides in, cutting the water in two with a steadily increasing hum, and I have the sensation that not just this but all sounds are drawing near.

All sounds are drawing near and all sounds penetrate. The wings of the hoodies creak so densely it’s as if they’re sawing through the sky, and when they caw I feel as if my brain is being grated. The hard-edged audio quality affects how I see things too. The loch and its headlands appear fresher and more present, turning rapidly as the sun sinks from green and blue to black and gold. The air contracts to a sharp coolness. The loch seems huge and small at the same time, with myself just a stillness beside it, collecting audible events in an empty echoing head.

This unusual clarity might also be due to the fact that, for the first time in weeks, I am alone – my attention undisturbed, my ears free of voices. Indeed, that’s what I’ve come here for, for this loud silence and for these elements: blessed seashore, blessed solitude, blessed sound.

Lochinver, Sutherland, Scotland
29th October 2019