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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Rocks and Mountainsm

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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 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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Sundown

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Sundown

Nine thirty in the evening I put aside my book and come on deck. The sun is just going down behind the peak of the island to the northwest, throwing a rich golden light onto the sandstone rocks that circle the anchorage. In the dark shadow below a heron stands motionless, poised to strike.

In the opposite direction the three-quarter moon is rising into a just-blue sky over the line of mountains on the mainland. The low sun highlights the ridges and casts the valleys into shadow, giving the mountains a dimensionality and body even though they are in the far distance.

The sky is clear apart from a few wisps of dark cloud over the peaks. The sea reaches calm all the way to the mainland shore, its tiny ripples casting a repeating pattern of dark shadows across the surface. The tide is falling, revealing the reefs at the entrance to this pool and uncovering the pale yellow coral beach, where an oystercatcher is hunting along the water’s edge.

A few gulls cry harshly; there is a twittering of land birds from the shore. The flag halliard rattles lightly against the backstay. Otherwise silence.

Night is coming, and yet at this time of year and at this latitude it will be scarcely dark, especially now with the near-full moon high in the sky.

And in the time it has taken me to scribble in my notebook and then type out these words, the sun has disappeared, the distant mountains seem to be in a greater light, the moon has risen higher and is more clearly defined in a darkening sky.

I am here on my own, floating on the sea as I have done nearly every night since late May. All that connects Coral to the sea bottom is 30 metres of chain. I am not far from the human world, but have few human distractions away from this closing of the day.

Waiting for the storm

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Waiting…. and then it comes!

I am anchored at the top of Loch Sheildaig, which is an extension of Loch Torridon. The sky has been deep blue all day and for the first time this summer I have been hot! The landscape round the loch has a magical quality to it, like one might expect to find in illustrations of fantasy adventure book by Tolkein. Huge rounded hills, great masses of rock, rise abruptly from a small strip of land by the water’s edge. At Sheildaig village a row of homely white houses are strung along the shore, utterly dwarfed by the hillside. Everywhere foreground hills overlap those behind which again overlap the misty ones in the far distance. A low finger of rock separates Loch Sheldaig from Upper Loch Torridon, so that as Coral passes at water level that low foreground and the higher background move past each other, revealing new perspectives moment by moment.

The hills–I learn from my geology book The Hidden Lndscape–are of an ancient sandstone that overlays the even more ancient Lewisian gneiss. At last I have learned where the phrase ‘Torridonean sandstone’, which is used a lot in my guidebooks, comes from: The Hidden Landscape tells me “the Torridonean sediments covered a Precambrian landscape floored by the Lewisian that was already ancient and eroded”. I am ever so slowly getting the hang of geological terms, wondering yet again why I did not learn any of this at school.

I am here partly because of the landscape, partly because I am seeking shelter and waiting…. while England is (I imagine) sweltering in sunshine, what the Met Office calls “a deep area of low pressure” is out in the North Atlantic near Iceland, and strong winds (gusting to Force 9) are forecast to sweep across the northwest tonight and tomorrow. I need to be in a secure anchorage on Wednesday to sit out the gale.

I spent last night in the upper loch but have moved. Partly because I was tired of the noise coming from a large fish farm in the middle of the loch; they really do industrialize an otherwise remote landscape. But I mainly moved to a bay where the sailing directions say offer good shelter and good holding for the anchor. And I am waiting. I can get hourly updates from the Met Office on my phone, but strangely enough, even now in the late afternoon there is little sign of a change of weather. The sky has been blue from horizon to horizon all day, apart from the clustering of fair weather cumulus around the tops of the hills. Now, when I look to the west, I can see what may be the high stratus clouds that would suggest a warm front is coming in and heralding the depression But the barometer remains high, even rising slightly through the day.

I have done what I can to prepare: I have made sure the anchor is well dug in, with plenty of chain; I have made sure there is nothing loose on the deck. But the sun still shines strongly, the wind is light, and so the waiting is a little surreal. Doubtless I will not think so in the middle of the night.

Wednesday morning

I was right. It wasn’t until about four in the morning that the strong winds came, gusting fiercely between the hills, throwing Coral one way then the other. I managed to keep dozing for a while, every now and the checking the transit I had noted–a telephone pole in line with the corner of the white house. The anchor seemed to be holding… and then around 5.30 I realized it wasn’t. The transit moved out of alignment, features on the shoreline began to move past each other. Coral was drifting sideways toward the middle of the loch.

After dragging warm clothes over pyjamas, I went on deck to sort things out. Once I got the anchor out of the water I found it had picked up an enormous bundle of weed, such I could hardly lift it even with the windlass. Once I had cleared this–lying on my belly with my arms over the bows pulling at stalks of slimy seaweed–I motored back into the bay and re-anchored. I tried with one anchor, then with two anchors, dragging out the huge cqr that I had never needed to use before from the bottom of the cockpit locker. Each time I hauled up the anchor–careful to wear rigger gloves and to pull with my legs rather than my back–I felt myself near the limit of my strength. Two or three times I reset the anchor, sometimes one, sometimes two. Nothing seemed to work, the big cqr seemed more of a nuisance than a help. Eventually I must have hit lucky and found a place on the bottom where there was no weed and some stiff mud. With extra scope from a rope anchor line shackled to the end of 30 metres of chain, we seemed not to be moving. All this was tough work, and each time I had to struggle with the anchor, a little voice in the back of my head said, “you can’t do this on your own”. And each time I found that, once I started, my head was clear, my body ready, and I did what is needed. The challenge was both alarming and satisfying.

Once settled, I sat in the cockpit and stared at my new transit–now lining the telephone pole with the second window on the house–as it moved this way then that, sometimes losing a sense of which way was which. In the gusts Coral was blown downwind of the transit so that I worried we were dragging again; but then in the lulls she moved back sedately into position.

In the lulls between the gusts, Coral lay still and the loch seemed quiet.There was a sudden stillness in our little bay, just the sound of the wind blowing the trees on the hillsides and the waves further out in the loch. Then, as if the wind was preparing itself, a noise started from afar, a kind of forewarning that another gust was on its way. When it came, it hit Coral with a wild shriek, shaking the rigging, heeling her over and blowing the bows round. I could not believe it would not pull the anchor out, or break the anchor line. But each time everything held and she swung back into line. Then another lull came.

Sometimes I found myself talking to the wind, saying, “That’s enough, please stop now”. Other times I tred to find a way to enjoy the wind, to be in tune with it, rather than fight it. If I tensed my body with each gust I was using energy I might need for real work. And of course the wind was just doing what it does, howling through the pressure difference between the low to the north and the high to the south.

Then the rain came: sheets of wetness blowing down the loch, soaking everything, reducing the visibility to a few hundred yards and forcing me into the cabin. But the rain was also a sign that the worse was over. Gradually the wind eased, the gusts faded away–not without a last few shrieks, but shorter, less intense. I found I had dozed off for a bit, and then, quite suddenly, it was calm, with even a few patches of blue sky.

That evening
The sea that was a turmoil of white water is now calm, stretching through the loch north west out to sea. The hills have reappeared from behind the low cloud, and once again give the place the appearance of an illustration from an adventure book. I am very tired and will go to bed early.

Busy Day

It was a promising start to the day. I woke after a peaceful night at anchor in Sandaig Bay off the Sound of Sleat to blue sky and quite gentle northerly winds. Since I had to wait for the tide to turn before I could pass through the narrow Kyle Rhea between Skye and the mainland, I spent the morning on domestic chores. I stripped off and washed from head to foot, including all the intimate places that need special attention–I am always proud that I can do a full body wash in two inches of water in a small bowl. Then I shaved my month old beard–it was quite respectable, but very grey, and made me look like my father in a way I found disturbing. I washed some socks and pinned them to the guard rail to dry. And generally tidied the cabin.

After lunch I hauled up the anchor and continued north. I was pleased to find I had got the calculations right so I entered Kyle Rhea just as the tide was turning, and carried the tide on through the Kyle of Localsh and under the Skye bridge. And then things got a bit challenging.

Out in the wider waters of the Inner Sound the north wind was sharper and colder, and now was blowing against the tide I had used so favourably. It had also backed from northeast to north and so was dead on the nose for the course I had planned round the north of Longay and Scalpay to an anchorage in the south of the Sound of Raasay. Biggish waves were rolling toward Coral, and I realized how lucky I had been with the calm waters of the trip so far.

I could have turned back, but of course, I didn’t. It was a bit of a scramble in the rough waters to set Coral as close to the wind as she would go, but with Aries looking after the steering we charged into the waves at around 5 knots while I hunkered down under the sprayhood. A quick tack north took us clear of Longay, and maybe clear of the reefs beyond: should I carry on, put in another tack if I needed, and leave them to leeward, or reach downwind past the green buoy and leave them to windward? I decided to take the shorter route, past the green buoy.

I had avoided reefing while closehauled in order to keep as much power through the waves as possible. As soon as I turned off the wind and we hurtled toward the buoy at over 7 knots, I realized we would be messing about close to a lee shore with too much sail up. Wrong decision, maybe, but too late now. Aries couldn’t cope, so I took over and steered as cleanly as I could toward the buoy. We cleared it successfully, then again had a bit of a scramble, with the rocks rather close, to get Coral back on the wind and sailing more stably. Am I frightened at such moments? I confess my heart was in my mouth for a second or two as Coral surged toward the rocks rather than clawing away from them; but it is later, in the middle of the night, that the “what ifs?” really arise! At the moment of action one is too busy.

But the day was by no means over. I reached the shelter of the southern end of the Sound of Raasay and tried a couple of places to anchor, both of which were unsatisfactory–still too exposed and uncomfortable–so I had the anchor up and down twice. The two lochs nearby didn’t seem very good alternatives so I decided to press on north the extra three miles to the shelter of Portree.

Three miles didn’t seem very much, really, even into the wind. But the Sound is completely open to the north, and not only had the wind increased but it was sending rollers down the sound, some of which were breaking. With the engine at full revs we moved forward well enough, but pitching quite spectacularly. Many of the waves Coral was able to shoulder aside with just a bit of spray. But the bigger ones seem to come in pairs: the first would lift her bows high in the air, so she came crashing down into the next one. Sometimes she hit it foursquare, sending huge sheets of spray to each side; other times she seemed to plough into the second wave, so that a mass of solid spray would hurtle over the deck, onto and over the sprayhood. The cockpit sole was awash with water, the sprayhood started leaking, the crockery was crashing around in its racks below so I was sure that everything would be broken. Yet on and on we went, wave after unrelenting wave until we could turn into the wide entrance of the inlet which leads to Portree harbour–although, of course, this meant turning across the waves, setting Coral rolling as well as pitching. All this time I stood in the cockpit looking over the sprayhood, watching each wave and watching Coral’s response. My face was covered in salt, my glasses thick with spray, but I didn’t feel it right to crouch in the cockpit while she was doing all this hard work. It was then I noticed how cold my face was without a beard!

Then the sudden bliss of calm water, the visitors’ moorings under the wooded promontory on the north side of the harbour well out of the wind, the long pick up line that was easy to catch with the boathook, and the substantial mooring line that I could just drop over the cleat.

And then it all seemed worth it: the world had offered a series of challenges and Coral and I had risen to them. My arms ached, my shoulders were stiff, my neck seemed to have a crick in it; and I was so very tired. And while there were mistakes along the way, and while others might have made different choices, I was pleased to be in a truly sheltered place for the night.

All this must pass

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I set out from Mallaig late in the morning, making for Canna, the most westerly of the Small Isles. It was a lovely day, sunny intervals, with the sea smooth and the wind just strong enough to push Coral along pleasantly. I looked back up Loch Nevis, across to the Sleat Peninsular, and ahead to the island of Rum–actually at the cloud which enveloped it right down to sea level so that the island itself was hidden. “This isn’t going to last,” I told myself, “there is going to be rain soon.” And then the wider thought popped into my mind, “All this must pass”.

I am reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s book The Sixth Extinction. This is a first-rate journalist’s account of the many ways in which the human impact on the planet is directly or indirectly brining about the disappearance of other species and ecosystems. Frogs are disappearing because international travel is spreading a fungus around; coral reefs are threatened by ocean acidification and warming; many creatures are threatened by climate change; and more still by the destruction and fragmentation of habitats. Most megafauna, as well as our Neanderthal cousins, were wiped out shortly (in evolutionary terms) after humans arrival in their territory. The book is engaging and deeply alarming.

I have also been reading Charles Eistenstein’s The More Beautiful World our Hearts Know is Possible. In some considerable contrast, is an argument that we humans need to move away from a story of separation to a story of interbeing. In many ways this is a new take on the arguments for a participatory worldview that I and others have made for many years. Nothing wrong with that, and he does pay tribute to old hippies toward the end. One of his most important points is that many of our actions to ‘save the world’ derive from the story of separation, and in that sense can be seen as contribution to the problem they attempt to address. I suspect Eistenstein would see Kolbert as still coming from a story of separation

But the idea that a more beautiful world is possible needs to be set against the reality of the extinction spasm. Because Kolbert’s point, as she clearly articulates at the end of her book, is that that we are part of an extinction event that began early in human prehistory, is caused by human presence and is accelerated by modernity. The very things that make us humans–our use of symbol and language, “our restlessness, our creativity, our ability to cooperate to solve problems and complete complicated tasks”, changes the world. And it changes the world in a way that pushes beyond the limits of the current ecological order, just as surely as an asteroid does.

I find myself wondering what quality of interbeing we can have on a catastrophically impoverished planet.

All this will pass:
This moment of insight
This calm sea and gentle winds
This sunshine and showers, these patterns of clouds
These homely houses with their gardens and fields
These towns, harbours, ships
These waters and all that live in them
And this human man.

Even the mountains come and go.

As I worked Coral past the Point of Sleat and round the west of Rum we were blown around by squally rain showers. For half an hour or so my attention was taken with the needs of sailing. Then the squalls passed and Coral settled down again to a comfortable amble. In the clear air that so often follows rain, the sea turned the colour of lead, the sky a washed out blue, separated by the sharp, hard, razor slash of the horizon.

All this must pass, this moment and these mountains. And yet there remains this instant of awareness and beauty.

Sailing North

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I spent a couple of day on Ulva, off the west coast of Mull, walking, resting and watching eagles. Ulva is a lovely island but tinged with human sadness, as this was one of the places where there was a truly brutal clearance of the crofters, and signs of their life here remain, including a beautiful and substantial church designed by the celebrated Thomas Telford.

After a night in Craigaig Bay, a remote anchorage among rocks and islets right underneath where the eagles are said to rest (and one glided overhead just as the evening closed) I had to move on rather abruptly: gusty winds from the east plucked the anchor from its holding. For half an hour or so I was busy retrieving the anchor, avoiding rocks, heaving the dinghy on board and securing it, and piloting safely into the deep waters of Loch an Neal. But once I was safe and had got my breath back, I realised that the conditions were excellent for moving north, so I set course for Ardnamurchan Point and beyond. After a wet night at Arisaig, still with a fresh wind but in wonderful sunshine, I decided to take a long route on to the fishing port of Mallaig by going round the island of Eigg.

Eigg is one of the ‘small isles’–Muck, Rum, Eigg and Carna–none of which are actually particularly small. I sailed between Muck and Eigg, turned north between Eigg and Rum, anchored for lunch in a sandy bay, and continued on to Mallaig by evening. This must have been among the most beautiful sailing days in my experience: Fresh wind, calm seas, glorious scenery: the cliffs of Eigg, the mountains of Rum, the Cuillin on Skye in the distance, with wonderfully changing cloud patterns as the day warmed up and clouds gathered around the peaks.

This is picturesque scenery in the fullest sense of that word: It has been written about, painted, photographed, been the context of historical horrors and heroism, and so it feels quite difficult to take it in afresh, for itself, so to speak. Whatever I write feels cliched. And yet surely our human ability to appreciate such spectacular beauty is also part of the way “wilderness treats me as a human being”.

Just to make sure I wasn’t complacent, late that afternoon as I approached Mallaig, dark clouds from the south brought winds gusting round the mountains. After a struggle to keep Coral into the wind while I got the sails down, the port entrance was closed to allow a ferry passage through. I was relieved to find the visitors buoys unoccupied and easy to moor to, and enjoyed a really good fish and chips in the pub that evening.

I do like to gaze at the Cuillins
I do like to sail on the Minch
But I got very cross
At the ferry boat’s wash
And now I just want fish and chips!

Inch Kenneth

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Mood swings. I am upset and furious that the outboard doesn’t work again, but then pleased with myself when I see how to mend the broken rowlock on the dinghy. Tired and grumpy, I wonder again what on earth I am doing here all on my own. One of the challenges is to keep in mind that, just because it is a great privilege to be away like this, I do not have to be happy, or enjoying myself, or certainly not having transcendental experiences ALL THE TIME. Getting tired and grumpy is part of being human and so part of the human pilgrimage.

I have moved north to an interesting anchorage, set between Inch Kenneth, which is a low and grassy island, and the huge cliffs at the entrance Loch na Keal on the west coast of Mull. The island is sedimentary rock (“triassic conglomerates and limestone outcrops broken down to give good soil”, according to the book Scottish Islands); while the cliffs on Mull are volcanic in origin, Triassic basalt weathered into terraces.

Between these two, the hard and the friable, is this sheltered anchorage, quite a large pool, although guarded by reefs that make entry challenging (especially with an inaccurate hand bearing compass!)

Anchor down, I look toward the cliffs and the three tiny white cottages that lie by the road along the shore. Three white rectangles, in some ways quite insignificant, but in other ways a testament to human abilities to create living space in the most unlikely places.

I decided to stay put for a day, to do nothing. I need to take time to settle into this pilgrimage now I am really into it. I don’t have to justify myself by ‘going somewhere’ or by having wonderful experiences I can blog about. Take it gently, John Crook used to say about solo retreats. So I allowed myself to wake late and have a leisurely morning–strip off for full body wash, breakfast, wash up and tidy, half hour formal meditation. Then I rowed ashore and explored the grassy island, enjoying the wildflowers and the views–for a moment I thought I saw a pair of eagles, but realized that they were (only!) ravens.

Thursday was wet and windy, I saw no point in getting wet and uncomfortable, so I stayed another day. I meditated longer, opening myself to the cliffs. With the rain spitting and fresher winds rocking the boat concentration is difficult, to say nothing of the stream of my thoughts demanding attention. But I do get glimpses of a time scale at the limits of human imagination. These cliffs, according to my book, are geologically quite recent. Sequential volcanic eruptions laid down the layers that over time have eroded into terraces stepping down the hillsides. These rocks have been here since before humans evolved. And yet those little cottages and houses look so permanent, so part of the scene. My sense of impatience at wanting to be getting along, wanting to do something, while these cliffs just stay present. “Thinking like a mountain”, indeed!

“Wilderness treats me like a human being”. So goes the koan. This meditation gives me a sense of our human impatience, our restlessness, our wanting things to be the way we want them to be. And the mountains and the weather just keep doing their thing, Meandering is just that, going with what is. I had intended to move, but I will stay here until the rain stops.

I do have thoughts about quitting, about saying this is all to uncomfortable, too challenging. I occasional have a sense of such loneliness that I can imagine how a person might go quite crazy. The pilgrimage is a confrontation with the self, with the skin encapsulated ego, with the project-driven and achievement-oriented modern human. Every project that comes to mind is a diversion from the challenges of the moment: Let’s go further up the Loch, let’s go to Tiree, let’s make sure we see an eagle by going on a nature tour, let’s get the outboard fixed…. But if needed I could stay here a week with all the food and water available.

So the engagement with the larger world, even in a few minutes of meditation on the cliffs, or with the cliffs, puts the self into a perspective, helps quieten the thrusting ego.

I am also writing haiku that I am sharing with my friend David

Eocine basalt cliffs
pattering rain on sprayhood
one modern man

Fresh Nor’easterlies
cold hard rain
I wait

I am finding there is a discipline in writing haiku that is itself meditative. Haiku (forget the five/seven/five format) I take as a distillation of a moment, removing all that is not essential in an intimate focusing. It is a little like a koan in reverse: instead of having to crack the koan, one has to crack the present experience into haiku.

By staying here these couple of days I have been able to really attend to these basalt cliffs: watching them through the day as the sun moves from shadowing them in the morning to lighting their peaks with orange in the evening; noticing the details of the streams tumbling down and glimmering where the light catches the falling water; seeing the contrast between the cottages and farm buildings at the foot and the enormity of their 200-300 metres drop; understanding their origin by reading the geology book. I have also been developing a sense of time: these rocks are geologically quite young, yet they were here long before human evolution can be said to have begun, have weathered and reduced in size.

All this attention provides me with a tiny sense of intimacy, of being in place rather than of watching scenery.

Meandering

me at helmLast year, sailing round Ireland to Scotland, I set out a series of objectives. My plan was first to sail down the Channel and across the Celtic Sea to County Cork and on past Kerry and Clare to Galway; after exploring Galway Bay and the coast of Connemara, I would set off round the northwest coast, past Erris Head and Bloody Foreland and across to Scotland. For each leg I worked out an approximate number of days sailing, and identified places to stay along the way.

In the event, with persistent fresh northerly winds, it took far longer to reach Galway that I expected. More difficult weather made the last leg to Scotland hard work. I rushed past places I wanted to explore and appreciate. I alarmed my crew and got very tired.

My original plan for this year was equally ambitious: I would sail from Oban up the west coast, around the north of Scotland, through the Pentland Firth and return to the west coast via the Caledonian Canal through the Great Glen. But as I studied the charts, I realized this if I did this I would again rush past places where I might want to linger. I realized that heroic objectives are not necessary.

So I have began to explore a different metaphor for this year’s journey, that of meandering. A meandering river winds through the countryside, its changing course guided by its own internal dynamics and in response to the land through which it flows. The river does, of course, flow with a sense of direction, meandering always down toward the sea; but its course may take it in great loops away from this destination.

The word meander is used metaphorically to refer to suggest leisurely wandering over an irregular or winding course. ‘Wandering’ generally means to go without fixed purpose or goal, or to go by an indirect route. ‘Meandering’ implies an inclination rather than a goal. Just as a river follows a meandering course toward the sea, so a human wandering may have some sense of a direction and purpose, but does not allow that does not dominate their choices. Meandering suggests rather an emphasis on spontaneity and choice in the moment, influenced by circumstances and opportunities – in my case the wind and the tides – and by one’s own inclinations in the moment.

But a river does not meander all the time. Meandering is a response to particular environmental conditions: a relatively wide valley, soft soil, a gentle incline. Where it flows over hard rocks, the river may be forced into ravines, tumble through rapids or over falls. And in similar fashion, the meandering pilgrim will at times need to reach a temporary destination, a safe anchorage in bad weather or a town where stores can be replenished. And yet, maybe in the longer term all rivers meander, as can be seen by the way the Colorado River now meanders along the bottom of the Grand Canyon, which it cut through the rock. Wikipedia tells us that “… this process of making meanders seems to be a self-intensifying process … in which greater curvature results in more erosion of the bank, which results in greater curvature ….” So maybe all life is best seen as a meandering, and the plans we set out are no more than entertaining fictions.

As a river meanders it leaves behind it a record of its history – often an extensive fertile flood plain, layers of deposits, occasional oxbow lakes. A sailing yacht leaves a wake behind that is very soon disappears into the ocean. As a pilgrim sailor I can leave another kind of record – in the stories I can tell, the meaning I can fathom from my journeying.

So this year my intention is to wander away from Dunstaffnage, where Coral has spend the winter, and meander up the west coast of Scotland, exploring the islands as I go. My meandering will have a certain inclination – toward Cape Wrath and the Outer Hebrides, toward the wilder rather than the more urbanised. But I might end up just slowly ambling round the Isle of Skye.

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