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


The whiteness of Scottish winters is on the go. Not held static with ice or slowly settling with heavy snows but moving: slim streams rushing down hillsides, big sea rollers whipping off into windy spray and blowing foam, sudden batterings of hail. Overhead too everything is in motion: thick white clouds scudding across the sky, the swift belly-white of the gulls fleering around beneath. When there is snow, it comes and goes; a dusting here, a gully-full there, before it’s rained out, wind-scoured, leaving only bleached stones and bones.

And the whiteness of Scottish winters is noisy. None of the soft muffling of snowfall or low creaking of ice. Our whiteness roars and rumbles: beaching waves, rapid rivers, the high clamour of waterfalls, the bright clattering of frozen rain. Scotland’s whiteness throws itself in your face and into your ears. It whips and lashes.

Even the elegant pale-limbed birches wave energetically alongside the running water, although occasionally you come upon the stillness of a white sea-washed stone resting silently at the head of the tide, cast up, waiting for the pull of the travelling moon.

white sea-washed stone

Assynt, Scotland
6th March 2014


The land is slow here. Green hillsides flow gently down and shallow lochs lie pooled in their hollows. Sheep, cows and horses lazily graze and the odd car putters along the small single-track road which curves along to the beach, where the gentleness finishes and the land disgorges itself between steep-cliffed jaws.

Great slid slabs and tumbled boulders lie piled around a choked throat of a beach, thrown up from a raw red gut. Some are smoothed into sensual bulbs and bulges by the steady lapping of the sea, but at the edge of the sand, worn rows of serrated teeth catch at the sea’s lips, and white waves rush over and smash into scudding cream foam.

Someone nearby told me that only a few years ago the beach was scalloped and sculpted with golden-white sand, before a few storms blew it all up onto the grass (and the farmhouse) behind. But I like it like this: rock-jawed, boulder-throated, and frothing wildly at the mouth. It’s not a beach to be folded into brochures. There’s no domestication here.

Balchladich, Assynt, Scotland
22nd February 2014