I’m writing these words from the Minch – the choppy, windswept stretch of sea that separates Skye and the mainland from the curving spine of the Outer Hebrides.
I’m on my way home from a trip to the Isle of Lewis, the third in a series of adventures Em and I have been making over the past month, each one taking us further north or west, to more and more dramatic landscapes and, crucially, coastlines.
On the one hand these trips have been about the simple joy of exploration. What better way to make the most of a year on Skye than by using it as a base to explore the Highlands and Hebrides? Considering we can just about afford it, it would be rude not to – these lands are so incredibly rich and wild and tempting, everywhere calling ‘come look, come see’. On the other hand, this is part of a different kind of journey, the internal kind, the kind where I’m attempting in some clumsy way to make my surroundings mirror where I want to go internally. In pushing myself out to the Atlantic coast, in standing in gale force winds on the most northerly tip of the mainland UK, in dipping my toes into the freezing North Sea, I am trying to physically discover and represent my own limits, my own edgelands. I’ve known for some time that there is a message for me here, and I’m on a quest to figure it out. Have I uncovered it? Not yet – but enlightenment was never a switch that you could flip. The journey continues.
Callanish Standing Stones, Lewis
Meanwhile, I’m curled in the observation lounge of the surprisingly comfortable ship, bound for Ullapool, in Wester Ross. I have a hangover, the indulgent, sort-of-enjoyable kind in which you simply nestle down into a sickly daze with a mug of tea and allow yourself to simply be – last night we danced our hearts out in Stornaway, and it was worth every pang of pain that shoots across my forehead now. Emma is sleeping beside me, I’ve just finished another chapter of my book. No-one is speaking in the lounge, the people around me are dozing on each others’ shoulders, or gazing out of the window into the endless, darkening sea. Though the drizzle, past a tattered, dancing Scottish flag, across the swelling, turbulent water, I can see the mountains of Assynt, like shadows. Assynt is a wild, rocky, peaty place, visited just three weekends ago. It’s odd to be returning so soon by sea. By the time we arrive it will be dark as night. From Ullapool we’ll make the three hour drive home to Skye.
Yesterday, Emma and I went to the west coast of Lewis, to the white, windswept beaches of Uig. We walked out across a huge, curving bay, cut in two by a wide river. The wind was strong and the rain was wild and the visibility was minimal. We traced the (human) limits of that bay, from the tough, grassy dunes to the ocean’s turquoise, crashing edge, round to the peaty channel that brought an endless supply of water from the surrounding hills down, down into the sea. The wind was so strong you would think it was flowing the other way, back up into the mountains. We talked, or we walked in silence, occasionally letting out a ‘whoo-oooop!’ to be yanked away in the wind. We were utterly, utterly drenched. Jeans so wet I could barely bend my knee to walk, rain channelled down through my socks, filling my boots, hat plastered to my skull, ungloved hands red raw, wrinkled in soaking pockets.
Uig Bay, Lewis
So much water.
So much water.
Despite having spent the years prior to Scotland living on a boat, despite spending ten years in the Yorkshire Pennines, a land of rivers, streams and canals, reservoirs and rain, I’ve never felt the presence of water in my life the way I do now. An omnipresent force, always in view, around every turn a coast, a beach, a loch, a river or a stream. Constantly pouring from the sky, oozing from the earth, even in darkness the sound of the sea looms loud as I stand outside the door of our cottage, looking for the moon or the stars.
Stoer Point, Assynt
I have almost zero water in my natal chart. Odd, for a tarot reader, but water has never been my element. I have too much respect – or let’s make that fear – for its intangible, unstoppable, uncontrollable force. It’s weight. It’s unfathomable depths. I remember the nightmares I had the first time I moved my boat, the sight and sound and spray of so many thousands of tons of water pouring endlessly through locks built in the industrial revolution. Slip on the decking and you could easily be killed, broken in two by the current that sucked you through those ancient gate panels. Man thought he had harnessed the power of water there, but, like any time man thinks he has conquered nature, it was an illusion. We were at the mercy of that water, my dreams knew that.
I’m not afraid of water, but I’m in awe of it’s power. I’m not afraid of emotions or the deep-rooted energies that come swirling up from the depths of me, but I recognise their power. For much of this year I have been pushing away this power, afraid of where its currents might take me. Now, as winter grips my island home, I feel ready.
Dunnet Head, Caithness
So off we go, Em and I, north and north. North-east, with the bikes, to the most northerly point on the mainland UK – Dunnet Head – where we gazed out into the mist and to Orkney, the Vikings’ route to Britain. Battling against the gale, up that winding road, struggling to stay on two wheels, I felt myself reach that inner edge well before I reached the cliff. That old recognisable feeling of anger and frustration, of ‘I can’t do this’ of ‘I’m turning back’. With Em up ahead, I pushed on and something small broke inside.
Then north west, to the mountains of Assynt, then further, west across the Minch to Lewis, to the Atlantic coast, to thousands of miles of ocean, storms and emptiness.
Where am I going with this? Ach, I don’t know. I just know that it feels right to end the year this way, after so much stillness, to burst into action, movement, further north, ever closer to my edge.
The journey continues.