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”.

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.

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