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.

Summer Isles

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Summer Isles

I dropped the lines from the mooring buoy in Ullapool late morning, having replenished Coral’s water and fuel and topped up my supply of food. It was a bright day with a northerly wind, so I took Coral down Loch Broom in a series of short tacks from shore to shore. Once out in the broader waters of the bay making longer tacks, I began to study the islands to the northwest and work out out my route through them.

I was making for the Summer Isles of Tanera Mor and Tanera Beg–known as the ‘summer’ isles because this was where cattle were taken for summer grazing, just like Somerset in the south of England. Tanera is also derived from the Norse for ‘anchorage’ or ‘haven”–and of course these islands that appear so remote to a southerner have been the centre of much activity, both peaceful and violent, for thousands of years.

As I took Coral in now longer tacks across the bay, from the steep cliffs of Ben Mor Coigach to the north to the cone of Beinn Ghoblach in the south, I watched the islands changing shape, seeming to merge, then separating as the passage between them opened up. At the north end of each tack I could see south of Priest Island all the way to the headland Rubhar Reidh which I rounded in strong winds a week ago. Beyond the headland a long line of fair weather cloud marked the position of the Outer Hebrides–I remembered how it is said that the Vikings use the position of clouds to show where land lay. Underneath the cloud, misty blue in the far distance, I could make out the mountains of Lewis.

But more important was to learn the shapes of the islands in the bay and their relation to each other. Isle Martin was much more tucked into the mainland than I had imagined; I was confused for a while as Priest Island, Eilean Dubh and the skerries between them merged into one long mass of land; but that surely must be Horse Island on the starboard bow? I took the passage outside Horse Island but inside the Carn Skerries, tacking up the latter close enough to see the golden sands that join two of the skerries to each other. Once past Horse Island, I would be in the bay called The Anchorage on the east side of Tamera Mor…. but no, on the final approach the wind headed Coral and as I tacked to avoid the north end of the Horse Island I found Coral sailing now due west along the south side of Tamera Mor.

I was reminded of my theme of meandering; it suggested I might chose a different anchorage. Through the passage between Tamera Mor and Tamera Beg? Round the west of Tamera Beg and into the pool to its north and west? But the southern passage into the pool was on the port bow. It is shoal, with only half a metre of charted water, but at nearly high tide and a rise of over four metres there should be plenty of depth. Cautiously, with chart and sailing directions close to hand, I motored Coral toward what seemed like a very narrow gap. The leading line was clear–two headlands just touching–but it took us very close to the little peninsula of rock on the starboard side into order to clear the sunken rock to port. We crept forward, my eye flicking between the leading line and the depth sounder, but the passage was actually straightforward: never less than fifteen feet of water. After exploring several options I dropped the anchor just inside the pool in a little bay to the south of Eilean Fada Mor.

This islands are low, Torridonean sandstone showing pinkish in places, covered in peat with heather and bracken. It is their lowness that makes this a good anchorage–there is no danger of wind gusting dangerously down the side of a mountain. It is almost silent in this quiet weather, although there is a background hum from time to time which I assume comes from the fish farms nearby.

Is this wilderness? Of course not. These islands are visited frequently by fishermen and yachts; there is a regular tourist service on the Summer Queen from Ullapool; and just this morning two RIBs landed on the beach across from Coral. On the other hand, it is a place without facilities: no marker buoys, no moorings, nothing but the chart and the sailing directions. But it is not a place that is handed to you without skill, effort, and attention on your part. This is a place that needs to be learned, that one has to meet physically to learn the contours.

Wet morning off Eigg

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A slight swell from the south east sets Coral pitching, gently at first, then more violently as her own rhythm entrains with the waves: halliards rattle a bit, crockery moving uneasily in its racks. Then the entrainment fades and the movement is quieter again. All through the morning this sequence repeats: now more energetic, with the winch handle knocking as it moves with each pitch; now the waves splash up as the stern smacks into the water; now the movement slows and it is quiet again.

Around Coral the rocks are emerging with the dropping tide, their columnar basalt structure showing clearly, the weed that was floating on the surface now lying flattened on the tops. The swell moves past Coral and breaks ever so gently on the rockfaces, sending out the hollow sound of breaking water.

Behind that there is that silence again, the silence through which each pinprick of rain landing on the sprayhood seems to stand out distinctly; in which the twittering of shorebirds and (of course) the cry of the oystercatchers are distinct entities to themselves.

It is still very wet, but now the clouds have lifted somewhat and some individual cloud shapes can be seen. The horizon is clear, and I can see a yacht well out in the sound, although the mainland is obscured. Toward the land the new ferry pier makes its mark, I can’t make out any detail, but the strong horizontal line is marked by thin vertical slashes of lights and masts, with the wide sloping slipway running down to the water. Houses, a bit of roadway, then the wilder, rougher hillside of Eigg.

Steve has gone off on his own to explore the caves and buy some milk. I am on my own for a few hours. After the companionable discussions over first cups of tea and what to have for breakfast (boiled egg, baked beans, pitta bread and orange juice) my attention moves out to the more than human world around me. This process of writing itself feels like a kind of conversation in the world.

Maybe it also gives the reader something about a dull, damp morning, anchored off Eigg. I might say, “what a horrid day”; or I might take the opportunity to look more closely.

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Canna

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Canna is low and quite fertile compared with Rum, and lying to the west escapes much of the rainfall. Walking through a wet meadow full of buttercups and clover it is the silence that I find so remarkable: it has depth and spaciousness through which the cry of a lamb, the call of an oystercatcher, the twittering of woodland birds, even the sense of my own heartbeat, are all thrillingly clear.

Steve’s call, “Peter!” is almost shocking as it cuts through. I turn to see him pointing high up in the crags. Following his pointing arm I see an eagle, flapping hard to gain height and avoid the mobbing crows. It then soars across toward Compass Hill, circles for a while, then seems to swoop down so we lose sight of it against the hillside.

Later, we walk across the machair on Sanday among a profusion of wildflowers to look across the Sound of Canna to the steep cliffs at the west side of Rum. The rain has blown through and the air is marvelously clear, and looking back we have a clear view of the basalt terraces of Canna and beyond the west coast of Skye

Among basalt outcrops
Spotted orchid, ragged robin–
Mind the heavy footfall!

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