Seascapes: Shaped by the Sea

SeascapesI am delighted to have received my copy of Seascapes: Shaped by the Sea, a book edited by Mike Brown and Barbara Humberstone exploring ‘different perspectives of being with the sea’, in which I have a chapter.

This book aimed primarily at an academic market. The editors use words like ‘autoethnography’ and ‘embodiment’ to frame it. But it seems nevertheless that it would appeal to non-academic readers. I am particularly looking forward to reading my friend Robbie Nichols account of explorations in his sea kayak. (Although its price at over $100 will put a lot of people off. Who pays this kind of price for a book? If you are an academic maybe your can get your University library to buy it!).

My chapter is in many ways a companion to Spindrift and part of my explorations ‘on the western edge’,  in that it explores issues of sustainability through eco-literature. I call it Sailing with Gregory Bateson in tribute to that great systems thinker and polymath, a man who has so influenced the way I think. Much of the chapter tells of a passage through the Chenal du Four – the tidal passage on the northwest corner of France that leads from the English Channel down to the Rade de Brest – how the tide turns against us and I chose to stop sailing and push through with the engine.

The whole sensation of moving through the water had changed: we were forcing our way into the wind rather than working with it. A mechanical wake of water stirred up by the propeller streamed out astern; the bows crashed directly into and through the waves rather than riding obliquely over them. No longer balanced against the wind, Coral sat level in the water yet pitched up and down as if irritated by the waves. And instead of the slap of the waves, the hum of the rigging, and the wind in our ears, the steady roar and vibration of the twin cylinder diesel engine under our feet, running at almost maximum power, dominated everything.

I use this story to illustrate the argument Bateson develops in his paper Conscious Purpose vs Nature: how as we humans pursue our purposes, drawing on fossil fuels and advanced technology, we cut through the complex cycles of mutual influence that balance natural ecosystems. In this case it is just me and my little diesel engine, but writ large on the planet this is devastating: it leads to degraded ecosystems, species loss, climate change.

It also makes the world and our experience of it less beautiful and at times even ugly. In his later life Bateson explored a theme he first developed in his early anthropological studies, linking the aesthetic and the beautiful in nature and in human art with the possibility of enlightened ways of being.

Creative activity and appreciation of art is a means of recovering grace, the reintegration of the “diverse parts of the mind” – especially those we (maybe wrongly) call the conscious and the unconscious. And he increasingly began to link these two themes, suggesting that aesthetic engagement is an essential part of a path toward ecological wisdom, for the appreciation of the systemic quality of the natural world is primarily an aesthetic, rather than an intellectual experience.

I have drawn on this notion of grace a bit more in an article that will come out soon in the magazine EarthLines. The appreciation of the systemic quality of the natural world is primarily an aesthetic, rather than an intellectual experience. Aesthetic engagement – through all the arts, and also through just getting out in wonder – is an essential part of a path toward a sustainable human presence on Earth.

Seascapes: Shaped by the Sea. Embodied Narratives and Fluid Geographies, edited by Mike Brown and Barbara Humberstone, London: Ashgate, 2015. http://www.ashgate.com/isbn/9781472424358

EarthLines: www.earthlines.org.uk

Being at home

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I am pleased to be home. I have been back nearly four weeks now, although it feels much longer. It is good to be back with Elizabeth, to feel again the intimate contentment of body to body, skin against skin; and to be more directly present with the challenges presented as her mother recovers slowly from a fall – we have just spend nearly a week hopefully settling her back in her home. Our house and neighbourhood feel homely and welcoming. And it is wonderful to reacquaint myself with the garden and the orchard, to see the growth on the fruit trees, to harvest the late raspberries, plums and early apples.

I have plunged myself into jobs that have been waiting for my return. First, I tackled the meadow grass under the trees in the Orchard. It should have been cut in early August when it was still standing proud; the torrents brought by the storm Bertha knocked some of it flat, making it more difficult to cut. Three fine sunny days allowed me to scythe it and wheel the cuttings down to the lady who keeps horses in the field below the Crescent. Now that is done, I can turn my attention to the sash windows that need repair and painting before the winter sets in. In contrast to these physical jobs I work at my computer putting the final touches to a book chapter and some articles, while wondering whether I am getting clear about the shape of my next book.

Yet every now and then I feel a pang of nostalgia. No longer can I look out across the open sea to where the world curves away at the horizon, or to where the sea crashes against rocks or laps gently on a sandy shoreline; even living on top of a hill, my outlook is constrained by trees and houses. No longer am I mainly in the open, with the wind moving around me; the air indoors often feels unnaturally still, and even in the garden I am relatively sheltered. No longer am I responding to Coral’s continual movement on the waves as she aligns herself to wind and tide; the house at times feels unnervingly immobile; the car unnaturally smooth. I miss the immediacy of life on board, even my concerns about weather, sea state, whether the anchor will hold. I miss finding my way on the seaways, discovering new places to visit, experiencing the words in the sailing directions unfold into the reality of a sound or a loch, so that the passage quickly becomes familiar and so easier to navigate on a second visit. I miss the fundamental sense of self-reliance, knowing that there is no one else who will chose the right course between the rocks, gybe or reef the mainsail safely in strong winds, and make sure everything is in proper in order.

The everyday creeps up and covers over the primal experience of the world. Much of my experience becomes secondhand, protected from the wild and increasingly mediated by computer screens. The urgency of self-reliance in a wilder world fades into the soft comforts of my favourite armchair.

Settled back in that armchair I watched a TV programme about the puffins on the Shiant Islands. Full of the memories of my stay there, I was keen to see it. It was a well-crafted programme enthusiastically presented by the engaging Miranda Krestovnikoff. The pictures were beautiful, and on the screen I could see the puffins close up, much more clearly than when I visited. Yet as I watched, I felt myself having to cling onto my own original more visceral experience – entering the lagoon through the tidal rip between the islands; seeing the sea surface littered with puffins; hearing the unstoppable croaking and crooning from the nests; watching the birds, beaks full of sand eels, flying on their little wings, often seeming they might crash into Coral’s mast, only swerving past only at the last moment. Above all I want to hold onto the puffins particular appearance, smart and self-important, with their peculiar way of swimming away while looking back over their shoulders, as if to say, “Goodness me, why can’t people leave us alone”.

I stayed at the islands overnight. Even though the weather was quiet, in the open anchorage Coral moved around uneasily. The holding is said to be poor, shingle and loose boulders, so I set the anchor carefully and made sure I knew how to leave the anchorage in the dark should I need to. And I watched the light fade through the long Highland evening with a sense of being on an edge: I was quite safe, but that safety was delicate and fragile. The birds were still active when I turned into my bunk, and busy again as I awoke in the morning.

It is sometimes said that we humans have so thoroughly colonized the Earth that there are no truly wild places left. And yet unmediated experiences of the more-than-human world are still available if we are open to them. It is this naked sense of the world that takes us out of our little selves into the wider whole. As Nietzsche put it, “All the regulations of mankind are turned to the end that the intense sensation of life is lost in continual distraction”.

The End

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Well, here she is: not sailing the Minch, not riding to anchor, but tucked up in Dunstaffnage Marina at the end of the voyage. Phoebe, who joined me for the last week, and I were very lucky to get onto the mooring before the worst of the tail end of Bertha hit Scotland.

I met Phoebe on Sunday evening at Mallaig and together we took Coral back to Dunstaffnage near Oban where the voyage began in May. Highlights of the week were an exhilarating sail down to and past Ardnamuchan point; seals, jumping fish, porpoises; and above all two close sightings of white tailed eagle in Loch Sunart. Phoebe and I scarcely knew each other, and so had to negotiate space and mutuality within the narrow confines of Coral’s cabin and cockpit. I think we did this well. We talked about sailing and travel and illustrated children’s books (Phoebe is about to start a Masters in illustration). And while we didn’t rush, the focus of the week for me was getting Coral back to Dunstaffnage. We motored the last leg from Loch Aline to Dunstaffnage in pouring rain, and moored Coral safely alongside a pontoon.

So now the voyage is over, although the pilgrimage continues. I have been away a long time, too long in many ways, and although I am sure that as the weeks and months pass I will get a more balanced perspective, just now I really want to get home.

What stays in my mind? It is too early to be definitive, but forefront in my mind is my greater understanding and appreciation of the rocks which form this part of the British Isles; I realize more clearly that while we tend to see rocks and mountains as fixed structures in our world, that they are always themselves in process. The ecological phrase “Thinking like a mountain” does not mean that nothing changes but that the whole of creation is in process. Another important theme is my deeper appreciation of the silence of the world that underlies its noisiness. And I have been blessed with a few occasions when the boundary between me and the wider world has seemed permeable, even if momentarily. Not that much, maybe. Or from another perspective, a very great deal.

For the moment, I rest with feelings of sadness that this, probably my last voyage in Coral, is over. And of relief that I can now go home, that I no longer have to worry about the wind and the weather, whether the anchor is holding, and whether I have enough fresh milk for tea in the morning.

With thanks to everyone who has followed our adventures, ‘liked’ and ‘retweeted’ the blog announcements; to Steve and Phoebe for their companionship; and to Elizabeth for so gracefully accepting my absence from home at a difficult time.

When the self disappears

After a day at anchor in Loch Torridon in strong and gusting winds, watching that the anchor was holding, the weather moderated enough for me to get a good sleep. The following morning with winds were still very fresh, but the inshore forecast said the sea would be slight to moderate. I decided to continue north to toward Ullapool, knowing I could stop at Gairloch if it were too rough.

Out of the Loch I turned north, setting the preventer on the double-reefed main and goosewinging the genoa so that Aries could steer Coral on a quartering reach. We blew fast but not uncomfortably up the coast, on a course that would pass well clear of the headland Rubha Reidh as is advised by the sailing directions. I made myself coffee, then soup and a chunk of bread for lunch, after which we were clear of the headland and it was time to gybe round on a reach into outer Loch Broom. I started the routine of getting Coral ready for the turn: rolling in the genoa; then, with lifejacket on and harness attached, going forward to lower and stow the spinnaker boom and take the preventer off the main boom. It was only when back in the cockpit I looked astern at the following sea. The waves seemed bigger, the troughs between them deeper, than I had expected. For a moment I hesitated. Could I really do this on my own? The grey-green surface of the approaching wave looked cold, relentless and implacable, a small hillside of water, then another, then another. I just watched the waves for a few short seconds and my moment of fearfulness dropped away. Now, in recollection, I could describe this as a moment of direct meeting, when I was in the presence of this rolling sea with no thoughts and so self-concern, just present. And by watching the waves roll toward Coral’s stern, I must have tuned myself to their rhythm. Without conscious decision the moment of action arrived. I hauled the mainsail right in and held it firm, then leaned against the tiller with my thigh and held it upwind. Coral’s stern came round through the waves, the mainsail, restrained by the tight sheet, flipped safely through its short arc, and I then gradually paid it out so Coral settled onto the opposite tack. I unfurled the genoa again and, after peering into the murky distance and comparing what I could see with what was shown on the chart, set a course to pass to the south of Priest Island.

I had thought that once around Rubha Reidh I would be sheltered by the land. And indeed, the water was somewhat calmer, but the wind was if anything more difficult. It blew down Loch Ewe, and gusted uncomfortably as it came off the land. The waves were smaller, but the surface of the water was increasing covered in whitecaps. Even with a double reefed main and half the genoa rolled in, Coral was overpowered. I couldn’t believe it for a while, but a third reef was needed–I hadn’t reefed down so much since that gale in Biscay. I let the main out so the wind was no longer filling it, climbed up onto the coach roof, and quite quickly lowered the halliard, hooked up the third cringle at the tack, winched in the green reefing line, and finally hardened the halliard. After all my prevarication, it was really quite easy and straightforward and Coral, with just a tiny flat triangle of mainsail, sailed through the gusts much more comfortably.

Several days, even weeks, later, with a draft of this writing on the iPad, I am reading David Hinton’s book Hunger Mountain, which attempts to articulate the wisdom and perspective of the ancient Chinese poets and sages. Hinton discussed the term wu-wei, the notion being absent or self-less while acting, so that “Whatever I do, I act from that source and with the rhythm of the Cosmos”. And while I don’t want to get into absurd and unsustainable claims of selflessness, it does seem to me that at both the moment of the gybe, and through the routine of reefing the main, I was sufficiently tuned to the boat and the wind and the sea that the action was accomplished with an elegance that was not just of my own making. One might say, to draw on another key idea from the Chinese sages, that is had some quality of tzu-jan, suchness about it.

Of course, it is not only in moments of challenge that the sense of self as a “transcendent spirit centre”, as Hinton puts it, disappears. I wrote in another blog of moments when “ego concerns drop away and the boundary between self and world becomes as diffuse and uncertain as that horizon between sea and sky. Such ‘sacred’ moments take one away from one’s little self into the wider whole. And in contrast, I am equally able to allow ego concerns to dominate, as when I am depressed, lonely and uncomfortable, or grumpy that the weather doesn’t suit my plans, but nevertheless insist on pursuing them.

My writing buddies continually remind me to place myself into my stories so that the reader can join me in my travels and to some extent identify with me. They want me to write about my deeper motivations and my feelings about the journey. And I understand the point them make. But as my inquiry sometimes leads me to those places where, to a greater or lesser extent, “I” am no longer the centre of experience, I do wonder how, and whether, to follow their advice.

 

Hinton, D. (2012). Hunger Mountain: A field guide to Mind and Landscape. Boston & London: Shambhala.

It’s always physical

Strong winds were forecast, so when I awoke early in the rather bleak anchorage just south of Applecross and saw conditions were still moderate, I set out immediately. A few tacks took me round the western edge of the Crowlin Islands, from where I could comfortably sail under the Skye bridge on a reach: I found it exhilarating to shoot the concrete arch with a strong tide adding to Coral’s speed through the water. But there is little shelter from westerly winds in Kyle Akin or Loch Alsh, so I carried on downwind to where Loch Alsh forks into Loch Long and Loch Duich. On the southern shore, right on the corner, is Tontaig, a small bay formed as a full half circle with a small islet in the middle, steep-too round the shore, surrounded by woodland. I remembered we had stopped there many years ago on a family cruise: Matthew had tried persistently to get the dinghy close enough to heron on the shore to get a good photo; and Ben and I had taken the dinghy on a wet and murky evening right across the loch to the village of Dornie to phone Kate for his A-level results.

The space between the shore and the islet is narrow, but deep, providing room to anchor safely, and the wooded shores provide good shelter from the west to northwesterly winds. It is a lovely setting, with the trees rising up the hillsides, Eileean Donnan Castle half a mile across the loch and the mountains rising behind. But the tide sets up a circular motion round the bay, so a long keel boat like Coral doesn’t lie comfortably to the wind, but veers between wind and tide: sometimes she lay across the wind; sometimes the tide pushed her stern to windward; sometimes she veered off toward the islet; and sometimes seemed to make a compete circuit round her anchor chain. Mostly, I decided she was quite safe, but I couldn’t quite relax until late that evening, when the wind died right back and all became quiet and settled.

Next morning, I decided to catch the early tide south through Kyle Akin. The weather was now calm,although a fine rain was penetrating everything and visibility was poor. With the engine running I started to haul up the anchor, soon realizing I needed to use the windlass as it was stuck firmly in the mud. Even with the windlass it was heavy work. “Surely it is out of the mud by now!” I said to myself. When I looked over the bows, there was the anchor, just above the water line, with an enormous ball of kelp wrapped round it, caught up by all the twisting and turning through the night. I had to set Coral on a safe course away from the shore before I could work the weed clear with the boat hook and to stow the anchor safely on board.

I am writing all this detail–which will be commonplace to a sailor and maybe rather incomprehensible to a landlubber–because this has been my experience for the past three months. Life on board a boat is a constant attention to the physical conditions: the immediate wind, tide, depth, rain, sun; the pattern of the weather as it changes; finding shelter and making sure the anchor is holding; thinking through each day’s passage, making sure conditions are suitable and working out alternatives should conditions change. Then there is Coral herself and her equipment: ropes and sails are taken out and put away daily, and need attention for wear and tear; the dinghy is pumped up, launched and retrieved; oil levels in engine and outboard must be checked; petrol, diesel and water and other consumables must be replenished. And finally, there are my own physical needs for clean and dry clothes (it didn’t help that I allowed my best pair of sailing trousers to get blown overboard at Rum), food, drink, rest, and above all not to hurt myself. Only rarely, as in my three days on a pontoon in Stornaway, have I not been thinking about all these practical matters.

So while I may not be in wilderness, I have certainly been on a physical edge quite different from my normal urban life, where the investments of civilization including solid stone walls, comfortable chairs, electricity and hot running water, insulate me from the physicality of existence. It may seem obvious, now that I write it down, but I have lived on this ‘edge’ for months at a time. When I get home, I imagine people will ask questions like, “Did you have a wonderful time?” What should I reply? Yet this physicality is not all negative: while there may be a worry as to whether the anchor will hold, there is also the delight in working Coral to windward.

I think this also means that in the back of my mind I am always looking for somewhere homely. After leaving the bay at Loch Duich I passed smoothly through Kyle Akin between Skye and the mainland, where the tides run at up to eight knots. From the southern end of the Kyle I could easily make out the lighthouse marking Ornsay harbour on the Skye side of the Sound of Sleat where I was headed. “I just I have time for coffee before I get there,” I thought to myself, and at that very moment the wind blew up briskly against the ebbing tide, setting up sharp little whitecaps that slowed Coral right down. It was an hour before I was in the lee of the land. Then the details of the bay became clear: the green shallow hills with wooded slopes, the network of fields coming down to the shore, and as I rounded the marker at the corner of the island, the little cluster of white buildings around the pier. All of this gave me a strong feeling of homeliness, almost a physical letting go of tension. My immediate thought was, “I shall stay here and rest for a few days”.

This feeling of homeliness feels like a significant contrast to the edgy-ness I described earlier. This latter doesn’t go away completely–there was no visitors’ buoy as promised in the sailing directions, I have had to set the anchor and worry about the depth of water–but it is background rather than foreground. Other places have carried the same homely feeling, most notably the village of Sheildag in Loch Torridon, with its single row of low white cottages underneath the towering bulk of the ancient sandstone hill behind. Homeliness seems to hold a balance between the wild edge and the civilized convenience: towns like Mallaig and Stornaway don’t have it, nor do wild and wonderful anchorages like Loch Awe or Tanera Beg in the Summer Isles. Part of the poignancy of the deserted village on Isay is that it would once have carried the same quality of homeliness for the people who lived there.

I am not entirely sure what to make of these musings, but as I read through what I have written I realize that many of the classics of nature writing are about both the relationship of home and the wild. Wendell Berry is a farmer who writes about generations of living with the land; Gary Snyder’s later writing is grounded in the Californian mountains where he lives; and Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac is about the restoration of a run down farm. More recently, Kathleen Jamie, who can be caustic about those who idealise wild places, has a domestic as well as wild dimension to her writing.

And in the event, the attractive while buildings by the pier at Oronsay turned out to be a rather upmarket hotel and restaurant, full of Audis and BMWs in the carpark. I could buy expensive Scottish Woolens or special single malt whiskey, but not milk. So not homely at all.

Whose Western Edge?

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There is always a cliched poignancy about a deserted and ruined village. Here on the island of Isay in the entrance to Loch Dunvegan, maybe eighteen roofless remains of cottages and blackhouses line the shore each side of a landing beach. Large stones have been neatly assembled into substantial walls up to eighteen inches thick, creating a living space about eight metres long by three across, with rounded corners at each end. I found myself marveling at the solidity of the construction, gazing in fascination inside and wondering how a family would have lived in such a space. And then I felt rather heartless as it came home to me that this had been home for that family, who would have loved and laughed and fought and struggled here. I have similar feeling when I see pictures of wrecked houses in war zones, Sarajevo, Grozny, Syria, Gaza: deep sympathy alongside a curiosity, “Is that how they live?” I felt even more heartless as I took a picturesque shot of the heather growing in the walls with my iPhone.

There is a convenient landing beach by the old houses, and another one further south near the bigger ‘laird’s house’. Each one has a crude stone pier or breakwater leading out into the shallows, no more than a line of heavy stones, which would have given the fishing boats some protection from any fetch coming round the headland. The shoreline is heavy with seaweed which threatened to tangle up in the propeller of my outboard, but I thought I could detect a clear path through the weed to the beach just by the breakwater. Was this my imagination? And if there was a path, is it a leftover from the times when this was a busy fishing community, or is it maintained today by the visits of local boats?

Hamish Haswell-Smith’s book on Scottish Islands gives a potted history. Dastardly deeds were committed in the laird’s house in the 16th century; Dr Johnson visited in 1773 and was offered the island as a gift, so long as he lived there for three months each year. But the history really belongs to the families who lived in the street of now-ruined houses who, as on so many of these Scottish islands, prospered when times were good and starved when times were bad.

As Adam Nicholson points out in his book about the Shiant Islands, not so long ago the sea was the main path of communication and transport. Islands were not ‘remote’, they were always on a path to somewhere else as well as destinations in their own right. This was not the ‘western edge’ of a European land civilisation but rather at the heart of a society based on the seaways running from Iceland and Scandinavia in the north, through Wales and Ireland, the Cornish Peninsular, Brittany, Galicia and the straights of Gibraltar. If eighteen or more families lived here in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, this must have been in its way a prosperous fishing community, only cleared out when the herring were fished out and a modernising and finance-driven economy made sheep farming more profitable to those who supposedly owned the land (reading the history of land ownership in Scotland I am inclined to take seriously the maxim ‘property in theft’; not that it is any better in England).

My visit raises the question (which has to some extent haunted me through the whole of this voyage) “whose western edge?”

“All ye need to know”

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From the Shiant Islands I sailed Coral to Loch Seaforth and then on to the North Harbour at Scalpay. I arrived there on Sunday afternoon and, on taking the dinghy ashore, found the usual noticeboard telling the visitor of the local attractions, but in this case also asking that you ‘respect the Sabbath’. And indeed, the houses of the community, lying between the north and south harbours, seemed effused with a silence and respect, so that I felt out of place even to be walking around. But this is a prosperous and hard working community, as was evident with the fishermen on the quay waking me at half past four in the morning, clearly well rested and ready to get to the week’s work.

I was ambivalent about where to take my meandering next. Part of me was called to the southern islands of the Outer Hebrides, the Uists, but more to the far southern islands like Barra and Mingulay; another part was called back to Skye and to the northwest corner I had not explored. I was also feeling I had been away from home long enough, seen more than I could digest. And I felt I should be at home, since Elizabeth’s aged mother was in hospital with an uncertain prognosis. Slightly grumpy and a bit confused, I decided to allow the wind to make the decision for me.

It seemed more of a performance the usual, getting going that morning. Maybe it was the comparison with the six, or was it eight, young French people on the neighbouring boat, who had more hands to do the work than was needed and were soon sailing away. As I hauled the anchor chain in it spread a very black and sticky mud all over the foredeck, and I had to leave the anchor itself hanging while I found the deck brush and cleaned it off. Then the dinghy had to be hauled on board–I had left if afloat in case I needed to deal with a snagged anchor–and various rocks and reefs to negotiate. And once I had done all that, the mainsail up and was ready to start sailing, it was clear that what wind there was was very light, and I needed rig the inner forestay and hoist the big No.1 genoa rather than just unfurl the working genoa. I seemed to be constantly on the go from cockpit to foredeck and back again.

For a while, Coral sailed elegantly across the unusually smooth waters of the Little Minch, making well over three knots toward the northern end of Skye. After all the struggle of getting things going this was delightful. And the decision about destination seemed to be made for me. But then the speed dropped to three knots, then two, and after creeping along for half and hour or so, none at all. Let it be, I told myself, there is plenty of daylight, we are not unsafe or uncomfortable. And so I allowed Coral to just sit there, out in the middle of the sea. No longer engaged in trying to get Coral to sail, I started to look around me.

The day was pleasantly warm with the southerly wind. Loose cloud covered much of the sky, with the sun shining fitfully through the gaps. The wind was even more fitful, ruffles on the surface promising some action but fading into nothing very much. Ahead, Skye was a dark silhouette; behind, bright sunshine picked out the outcrops of gneiss on Harris. Fair weather cumulus, maybe holding a touch of rain, was rising over the mainland and all the islands, showing the line of the Outer Hebrides from Barra to Stornaway, the tops of the mountains. The sea was quiet, but with undulations on the surface, like a dimpled mirror, throwing shallow reflections this way and that. In the far distances north and south the horizon where sea met the sky was not a razor sharp line, as I have described in an earlier blog, but diffuse and uncertain. Sea and sky were both an exquisite silvery grey so closely matched in tone so that the one merged into the other.

Gary Snyder writes of the ‘sacred’ as that which takes on away from one’s little self into the wider whole. This sense of the sea merging into the sky, the sky into the sea, of being held between two lands, did just that for me. This was all it took to drop my disappointment that the wind had faded and my wider concerns about what I was up to, and for a few moments to open my heart to a simple sense of wonder, a kind of ordinary ecstasy.

If I have learned anything in three long seasons of sailing ‘on the western edge’, of pilgrimage in search of a different kind of relation to the earth on which we live, it is that these sacred moments arise, often quite spontaneously and unexpectedly. And at these moments, ego concerns drop away and the boundary between self and world becomes as diffuse and uncertain as that horizon between sea and sky. The challenge, the creative opportunity, is quite simply to be open to these moments when they arise. If we can catch 10%, then maybe we are doing well.

That is what I now know, and, to add Keat’s insight to Snyder’s, maybe that really is ‘all ye need to know’.

However, and in case all this may seem to be too sweet and lovely, the rest of the day did not go so well. I did need to get somewhere by nightfall, and so I determined to motor on to Loch Dunvegan on northwest Skye. But I allowed myself to be deceived by the charming quality of the day, I didn’t do my pilotage calculations carefully, it was further than it seemed and the tide turned against me round the headlands. Silly and definitely unseamanlike, I ended up pushing for hours against the tide round a headland and anchoring very tired and cross with myself. I am sure the world around me still carried that sacred quality, but I became too wrapped up in my irritation and disappointment to notice.

Puffins at the Shiant Islands

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In Spindrift I tell of my first encounter with a puffin off Bolus Head, my childlike response calling out “it’s a puffin! It’s a puffin!” As I steered Coral through the tidal popple at the north entrance to the bay at the Shiant Islands, my response was similar: I could see dots of white everywhere, and those wonderful beaks: as I wrote in texts to several people, it was as if the sea surface was littered with puffins. Very soon after I realized that the air was full of puffins too. Most of those afloat seemed to be juveniles, pufflets (puffins live up to forty years but do not mate for the first five years) while those airborne were clearly adults, tirelessly flying too and from to the fishing grounds to bring sand-eels to feed their chicks. These adults seemed so intent on their business that they often seemed not to see Coral, flying toward the mast and only diverting at the last moment and passing within feet. If the sea was littered with puffins, the air was full as if with a cloud of mosquitoes (If you look very closely in the picture you can see the dots in the air; otherwise, please imagine).

It is very difficult not to anthropomorphise puffins. They do look like well turned out but rather insecure and yet self-important people. As I took Coral slowly toward the anchorage, steering through the floating flocks, the pufflets would swim energetically ahead, looking anxiously from side to side as if to say, “I am not really bothered by this great white creature”, until we get too close. They can then either dive underwater or take off. The former is the more elegant choice, a neat flip takes them underwater leaving a patterns of ripples behind. The latter is a bit of a mess, because puffins, with their wings more suited for flying underwater, have huge difficulty in taking off. so they usually splashing frantically along with water, wings and feet flapping away, until they crash inelegantly into a wave.

Once I had Coral safely anchored and looked around, I soon realized that there were nearly as many razorbills as puffins. These are a slightly bigger bird, an auk, distinguished by a black beak with a white line across it, joining a similar line across the face to the eye. The razorbills seem on the whole less nervous than the puffins: I saw one swimming quite happily within a couple of yards of Coral, it seemed quite unfazed as I moved about the deck. When it decided to dive I was able to watch it turn tail up and one underwater open its wings to fly down beneath Coral’s keel.

There are, of course, other birds: shags, various gulls, kittiwakes, fulmars, guillemots, the odd gannet, and for me the most impressive, the skuas, big, heavily built seabirds, brown, with two white stripes on their wing. Again, my first encounter with a skua is recounted in Spindrift, when I watched one attack a gull and make it regurgitate its meal. Skuas are known as ‘kleptoparasites’ because of their habit is stealing food this way. I climbed the heights of Eilean an Tighe, and watched the skuas cruising above the flocks of puffins and razorbills looking for opportunities to pounce. I am sure they would quickly steal a puffin chick if given half a chance. I felt I could see a section of a food chain: sand-eels feeding baby birds and baby birds feeding skuas.

The Shiants are columnar basalt, the most northern remnants of the volcanic chain that stretches all the way south, through southern Skye, the Small Isles, Staffa, Mull to the Giants Causeway off northeast Ireland. These rocks, still looking as if recently thrust out of the earth, as so different from the ancient worn down gneiss of the Outer Hebrides and the Torridonean sandstone of the northwest mainland. The islands belong to the Nicholson family, and I enjoyed reading Adam Nicholson’s account of his life on the island in Sea Room: An Island Life. I spent almost two full days and one night at the Shiants, enjoying the spectacular scenery. But really just watching the puffins.

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Tourist or Pilgrim?

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I have been challenged to articulate more clearly the difference between the pilgrim and the tourist.

I think I articulated some of the yearning that I see as part of pilgrimage in my last blog: There is something about the mountains and rocks of northwest Scotland, seen from the sea, which pulled me strongly. I wanted, at least for a while, to bathe in their presence (‘dwell’, that good Heideggerian word, also comes to mind). I had the same kind of feeling with the mountains of Connemara rising out of the bogland last year. The mountains resonate with a sense of eternity, and evoke that good deep ecology maxim, “thinking like a mountain’.

I had a truly wonderful night in Loch Awe. The water was deep and calm, rising to a very high spring tide late in the evening. The seals lay on the rocks looking at me from time to time until the high water drove them away. In the far distance the Quinage ridge showed its different faces with the changing light. Late in the evening, the evening sunlight lit up the rocks so that they shone a deep gold, finally leaving black sillouettes against the twilight sky.

Next morning I left for Stornaway, 30 miles west across the North Minch. The wind was disappointingly patchy, despite the forecast. I arrived in heavy rain with poor visibility, got a bit lost at the entrance because I couldn’t see the markers but soon settled on a pontoon in the marina. Everything was soaked, the rain had even penetrated right through my waterproof trousers.

The following day, after dropping off two bags at the laundry I picked up a little hire car and made my way to the west coast. I wanted to see the Atlantic, I wanted to see the standing stones at Callanish, I wanted to see the golden sands at Uig. And so I did!

Elizabeth and I have always visited stone circles when we can, especially since were were introduced to the Merry Maidens near the tip of Cornwall. These circles carry a reminder, both physically and spiritually, of the ancient ways of being on these islands. We have participated in moving ceremonies at stone circles where we feel we have touched the Earth in a special way. Yet stone circles, especially the famous ones like Stonehenge and Averbury, are also magnets for tourism, so that any sense of the numinous buried, just as in an over-visited cathedral.

I found the Callanish stones particularly strange. The pictures I had seen showed tall, gaunt stones standing lonely against the sky, and I imagined them as being in a wild and remote place. Actually, they are set almost in the middle of a Hebridean settlement, modern houses of no particular beauty straggling across the landscape.

My visit was definitely a tourist experience. Go and see the stones, and marvel at them in a rather superficial way. Take some pictures. If you are with family, take pictures of your family against stone background. Otherwise, try not to get strangers into your pictures, try to take pictures that make the stones look appropriately lonely and wild. Wonder, again rather superficially, why they were put there. Then go to visitor centre for coffee and rather dry cake, wander round the shop and decide there is nothing you could possibly want to buy. Return to car and drive on to next place. This kind of visit doesn’t honour the old stones and it doesn’t honour oneself.

That is a slight exaggeration. I did spend time touching some of the stones, taking in the crystalline qualities of the gneiss rock; I did visit the other two, smaller, circles nearby and spend some quiet time. But there was nothing in the experience that ‘caught me’, and so I moved on, driving my tiny Nissan car like a rolling skate along the single track roads. I drove to the end of Great Bernera–done that; I drove to the Uig Sands–done that!

What I did see, and what I don’t think one would get a sense of without actually being there, was the extraordinary quality of this island, especially of the mountains rising in the south. I am tempted to use the term ‘bleak’ to describe them, but that feels to pejorative; ‘forbidding’ might be a better word–and indeed they do lie across between Lewis and Harris to the south traditionally preventing contact between the two communities. And yet, when I picked up a fragment to take home with me, I was delighted to see the contrasting bands of pink, grey, and white, and the glistening golden glow of embedded mica or quartz.

On the way back, just as I was fretting about too much driving, needing a cup of tea, feeling that my visit had left a sour taste in my mouth, I was struck by the enormous difference between such fragile, short-term, almost pathetic human sentiments and the immense endurance of these rocks, among the oldest anywhere in the world. I had to pull off the road and scribble something in my notebook in case I lost that fleeting insight–again, maybe, into a sense of eternity.

So it was a funny day. I was really pleased with myself when I got back to Stornaway and picked up my two bags of clean laundry.

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Rocks and Mountains

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It took all morning to get round the Point of Stoer. I foolishly congratulated myself, as Coral worked to windward at over 5 knots coming out of the Eddrachallis Bay, thinking we would be round in no time. But the wind dropped and soon we were scarcely moving, and when it did pick up again it had backed and headed us, so all the hard work we had put in getting to windward of the point was to no avail. In the end we passed closer inshore than I intended, so Coral had to fight her way through the choppy waters that swirled round the headland.

Once we were south of Stoer it was evident that my plans for a long leg south were over-ambitious: it was now late, and the wind was against us. I didn’t really want to go into the fishing port in Loch Inver again, convenient though that might be. But I remembered that the sailing directions mentioned a ‘small loch’, Loch Roe, just a mile north of the entrance to Loch Inver. There was a sheltered pool there where we might anchor. I checked the chart and turned Coral inshore.

The sailing directions refer to a high bluff which distinguishes the entrance; as far as I could see, the coast was full of high bluffs, and it is almost impossible to distinguish the entrance to a small loch against the background of grey rocks, which all merge into each other until you are really close in. I sailed past the entrance, nearly into Loch Inver, before I realized my mistake. Turning Coral round, and with the sails down approaching closer to the shore, I saw what I thought must be the entrance. There was the bluff of rock; there were the offshore rocks marked on the chart. Closer in, carefully motoring ahead ready to turn around at a moment’s notice, a little bay ahead opened up, a dead end, then a narrow gap opened to starboard between a tidal island and floating seaweed showing where there was an underwater a reef; and, of course, a litter of fishing buoys in the way across the surface.

So here we are, anchored in a deep pool with an almost vertical cliff rising above the cockpit to one side, and a line of rocks and islands sheltering on the other. But most important for me is that the ridge of mountains called Quinag is clearly visible across the top of the loch.

I have for the past few days been on a quest to get a good view of these mountains. I could see them in the distance from the Summer Islands; they loomed closer when I entered Enard Bay; I could clearly see Stac Pollaidh from Polly Bay; I got a good look at the cone of Suilven when I entered Lock Inver, but once I was on the pontoon the high pilings of the fish harbour got in the way of my view. I think I really sailed north around the Point of Stoer to get a closer look at Quinag, but by the time I got there they were covered in low cloud.

So here I am now, watching the pattern of clouds pass across Quinag as the sun drops down behind me. They are quite clear for a while; then, as the shadows lengthen, dark cloud obscures the line of the ridge. This range is of Torridonean sandstone, billions of years old and resting on Lewisian gneiss that is even older. I think I have got it right that the gneiss is along the foreshore, the tortured and bent grey cliffs, the lower rocks where the seals are resting polished by the passing of ice. The sandstone in the distance is clearly different, holding a distinct red tone.

Just what is it about these rocks and mountains that I find it so satisfying to see, to be in the presence of? Is it their size, their shape, rising as they do so directly from the basement rock? Is it that I know something of their age, how they were formed? Does this put me in touch with some notion of eternity? Are these mountains representations of archetypes in the same way I felt the Skellig Rocks of County Kerry carried an archetypal quality (although the Skellig Rocks are so much ‘younger’?). And if so, what do I really mean by archetype?

Beyond all that, is there something simply inconceivable about their age, their origins, their history. Maybe witnessing these mountains gives me some sense of eternity in the same way as looking at the stars takes me back to the origins of the universe? Or maybe I make too much of all this, and should be content to look at a beautiful landscape.

After a wonderful night in this wild place, I have crossed the North Minch to Stornaway on Lewis. I got very wet on the way across. Now on a pontoon, enjoying the prospect of civilization and fish and chips again!

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