I’ve been corrupted.

Yesterday I walked up a hill, as I often do, following a burbling burn with pretty pools and falls, and up onto a rounded top covered in boulders of shattered blue-grey quartzite. Behind me the western mountains rose from the sea like petrified waves and ahead of me eastern Sutherland spread out in all its low and dappled brown glory. Everything was gleaming in the clear summer sun – the rocks, the lochs, the distant sea – but all I could see were good builders (large and squareish with clean faces), fine pins (long and slender) and some excellent (tapered and triangular) wedges.

The summit itself was covered in hefty slabs, perfect for making cheek-ends, and previous hillwalkers had used some of them to make a bench, a sound construction, far better built than the low stone wall around the trig point which looked distinctly shoogly. I secured one end of the wall with a handy wedge, sat on it and ate my lunch, then slept heavily for a while on the stone bench in the sun.

“Have you started dreaming of stones yet?,” the waller who is training me asked recently. I had. And now even my waking thoughts are stone-shaped: sometimes rough, sometimes smooth but substantial and with a satisfying heft. Even the little thoughts have their uses, like the hearting in a wall, supporting and securing those of larger dimensions. Nothing is wasted.

I think about this as the mountain carries me along, this heightened attunement to rock. It’s not only in my mind but my hands too. I can almost feel the stones that I think about: their grain and texture, their corners and edges, their linear or complex forms (the even grain of Torridonian sandstone, the sheer faces of Cambrian quartzite, the lumpy curves of Lewissian gneiss).

I’m being changed by them, and it’s disorientating, as change often is. But as I recover from the fragility of a brain injury, I sense that working with stone is good for me, that it’s therapeutic in some way. In lifting the stones, handling the stones, placing the stones, I’m being consolidated. I’m being built up. I’m being heartened.

long slender pale stone embedded in dry grass pointing towards distant blue lochs and hills

Ben Hee, Sutherland, Scotland
4th June 2023

Sàil Ghorm

a maniacal butterfly
and a bee bombing about
and my limbs aching in their driving desire

in the drenching blue sun
in the scouring white wind

on the stones
on the bones
on the bare back of Scotland

close rough grey textured stone with mountains in the blue distance

Quinag / A’ Chuinneag, Assynt, Scotland
5th May 2015


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


wee backyard shrine in Nikko

Wandering around the back streets and alleys of Nikko, I notice every second or third house hosts a small shrine in its tiny walled grounds. Most are red-painted, often with complete with a small torii (gate) as well. Even on a patch of wasteground between houses, there’s a miniature stone shrine. Two white porcelain beckoning cats, which bring good fortune, sit either side of its narrow portal, and a glass of sake appears one morning as well.

I love the flashes of red, the glimpses of gateways, crimson thresholds. At the edge of town is a wooden bridge so sacred you have to pay 300 yen to cross it. It’s also red and curves gently across the green-blue river, bringing out the vermillion tints emerging in the forests which rise steeply above it. Red times, times of changing. We are on the cusp.

Nikko, Tochigi, Japan
16th October 2014


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