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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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.

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