afloat

This is where I am at home. And, after all these years of absence and homesickness, it’s not on the land of Scotland at all. It’s on this sea loch.

It struck me a few days ago when I was out in the tender on one of my wee rowings-about. It was a bit choppy and I was pulling towards my usual pausing place midway between the harbour headland and the loch’s southern shore – where I’m in the habit of drawing in the oars and laying my head back on the bow – when it occurred to me that, out here in the middle of the loch, I felt perfectly at home.

I’ve felt at home many times in this harbour. I enjoy the marginal position of being aboard – tethered between the mountains (Suilven, Canisp and Quinag) and the Minch, and between the evolving dock community and the local life of the village – and, being most at ease on edges, I’ve attributed some of my intermittent sensations of being at home to that. I’ve also attributed much of it to being on the boat itself; this boat which has held so much of my life these last nine years. Sailing in it, living in it, sleeping in it, its familiar fibreglass hull has become a cocoon, a container, not just for myself but for the skipper whose presence is soaked into every inch of it; a reliable and sea-kindly vessel bearing us onward together.

I’m sitting aboard the boat as I write this on a long still summer evening. The sun has just set and the northern sky is a thin lemon yellow and the sandstone faces of the mountains in the east glow pinkishly in the last of the light. The air is utterly clear and the water in the loch is black-green, pink and yellow, glossy and almost mirror-flat. I feel at home right now, perched in the companionway, poised between these worlds of water, sky, mountains and folk, but the realisation I had out on the loch in the tender is more powerful. It means that my ability to feel at home here, to feel a sense – however slender – of belonging, does not depend on a particular boat or a particular location or particular company. It depends on me being afloat.

It’s time to find my own craft.

Loch Inver, Assynt, Scotland
9th July 2021

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

no evidence

I scamper off the boat as the white veil sweeps closer, racing ahead of it for the shelter of the woods. It follows behind me like a predatory net curtain, a finely woven mesh of raindrops, whose hem touches down just as I reach the trees. I stand in close to them, watching the rain drumming on the docks and decks and listening to it pelt the fledging birch leaves above me. Within a few minutes it passes and I continue on my walk. When I get back, half an hour or so later, I notice a couple of damp patches in the cockpit and am momentarily confused. It is a confusing day, right enough – one of those squally Scottish spring days: one minute sunshine, the next minute showers, each chasing away the other with fresh abandon as it makes the world anew.

Nonetheless, I wonder how I could forget the rain. I remind myself that my short-term memory isn’t yet fully restored and put it down to that. But then I wonder why I would remember. The sea level is not noticeably higher (at least not from rainfall) and, with the rain having drained from the boat through its various scuppers, the decks are mainly dry. There is no evidence of the rain having passed over. Unlike on land, there are no lingering puddles, no boggy ground, no high rivers or flooding. It’s the same with the wind. It blows and bounces us around endlessly without leaving any markers at all: no uprooted trees, no fallen roof tiles, no scattered outdoor possessions. While the wind can leave waves behind it in the open ocean, in the short fetch of this sea loch, even whitecaps quickly subside. This is one of the differences between living on land and living on the sea. On the sea, the seasons come and go – throughout the day, throughout the year – and the only traces are in our minds.

Lochinver harbour, Assynt, Scotland
4th May 2021

communion

I bless myself with burn water,
loch water,
rock water;
with moss water,
bog water,
sap.

I eat a gorse flower that faces toward Suilven
and a gorse flower that looks to the sea.

I stand with the many-armed hazel,
the gatherer of the wood,
larch cones caught in its branches
and honeysuckle vines twining up its trunks
and its own catkins dangling overhead,
quivering delicately
like mercifully silent wind chimes.

I hold the lean paper limbs of birch
and pull myself to them.

I make myself belong.

Culag Wood, Lochinver, Sutherland, Scotland
20th May 2020

freeze

I wake to unusual calmness. The boat is perfectly still. Droplets of condensed water hang in neat lines along the edges of the cabin ceiling. Only my breath moves, creating dense swirling clouds each time I exhale. I open the hatch, stick my head out, and slowly gaze around. The decks and docks are all covered in a thick frost, as if a white fur has grown over everything during the night, and on the sheltered waters between the breakwater and the pier rests a fine layer of ice.

I go below to make a cup of tea then come back to the hatch to take it all in. It’s not often I see the sea freeze. The ice initially appears transparent and blank. However, when I look more closely I can see patches of patterning embedded within it: fine leaves, intricately veined and toothed, jostle with curved fronds and short stalks, spread about unevenly as if haphazardly strewn. I wonder how long they’ll last. The sun is riding higher in the sky, creeping above the wooded hill behind the harbour, its wan warmth slowly strengthening. Meanwhile, the tide is going out, causing the harbour waters to slide down over the rocks and shrink in surface area. Pretty wavy fracture lines are forming as the ice sheet becomes horizontally compressed and, along the breakages, little shards of ice lean up against each other, catching the pale morning sunlight.

I wrap up, and step – gingerly – onto the docks, then carefully make my way ashore and into the woods. The shrubbery in the shadows is heavily frosted and my footsteps crunch satisfyingly upon the frozen grass, but the sunlit glades are green and the tree trunks shine, warm and brown and welcoming. I wind along various narrow paths, vaguely following the sun, until I come out at the back of the pebble beach of White Shore. At its far end, I come upon a small brown burn. I stop and stare. I thought the sea ice was stunning but this peaty water holds an equal beauty. The burn flows out of the woods over tumbled stone into a deep channel in the shingle, levelling out and producing white foam which bends into a series of perfectly curved ripples. The ripples drift along calmly, some in parallel, some gathered together at their bases and fanning out like bouquets of white plumes. The water surface isn’t frozen but moves only slowly over the rotating current beneath, its caught feathers pooling in my gaze as my thoughts burble on. If only the movements of this world were intelligible… But then they are, in a way. In a way, I understand.

curled plumes of flat foam on brown water over pebbles

Lochinver harbour and Culag Wood, Assynt, Sutherland, Scotland
19th January 2019