Each Monday for a little over six months nature writer and novelist Melissa Harrison enchanted listeners with her podcast https://melissaharrison.co.uk/podcast/ “The Stubborn Light of Things”*. At the end of September, I was thrilled to join her with a few words about this incredible country I call home. North West Scotland is a windy place and after several attempts to record outdoors I eventually retreated inside. The final recording was made with doors and windows closed, thoughts just spilling out as they often do.
My very first attempt, which included a lot of laughter as well as wind noise, was made as I walked along the track that runs from my front door to the sea. I wanted to describe the physical geography of this place, its shape and powerful presence and explain to potential listeners about the impact it has on my life. I had hoped, especially for Melissa, to capture the sounds made by the squadrons of geese that had been flying overhead for some time, the boisterous gangs of oystercatchers on the shore and maybe, just maybe an eagle. It is always busy and noisy here, with sheep and cattle comings and goings, with tractors, pigs, ponies and chickens, birds whisking back and forth, and of course, the sounds of the Red River and almost permanently present sea breeze. But on the day of recording it was just too windy, too noisy and time was short.
The walk I wanted to capture is one I do every day and, because I cannot climb the mountains just now, one that has become a talisman, influencing my perspectives on this place, and one that is a palliative for well-being. It is a walk from the back door along a track running between our croft and a large peat bog to the cliff-top edge by the sea. From there the little track turns north down the steep slope and before heading down I always pause to watch the waves and wildlife, try to figure out what the wind intends to bring to us and drink in the light. At this spot our small valley and the mountains of Torridon are at my back, the sea and wind in my face.
This part of Wester Ross is made from Britain’s oldest rocks, some more than 2 billion years old, overlain by multiple layers of climate and ecological history and by the stories of peoples who have come and gone over millennia. Ours are the most recent and thinnest of all these tales, the uppermost part of a palimpsest, yet they continue to be profoundly influenced by this living landscape and by the slow inexorable passage of ‘deep time’.
My home sits within an ‘edgeland’, a complex coastal zone like no other, habitat-rich and full of life. It is a place of motion and turbulence, shifting light and altered space, of transience, transmission and longing.
Out to the west the sea is also fringed by ancient rock. The horizon is an undulating silhouette created by what appears to be an almost continuous chain of islands – the Inner and Outer Hebrides – from Rona, Raasay and Skye all the way to the northern tip of Lewis. The view from croft and cliff is therefore created from great complexities of rock and water that have come together again and again over millions of years. To me the Minch is a great bowl whose edges and rims are formed from mainland mountains and islands and unimaginable expanses of time. It is a construct that holds me fast. It captures light and colour and magnifies and transmits both beyond its limits.
From my vantage point, I can watch the sun setting across the western rim of the bowl. Throughout the year the position of sunset changes, processing back and forth along the island-horizon from mid-winter to mid-summer. The summer solstice sun falls away into the sea just off the northern end of the Isle of Lewis and at the winter solstice dips behind the low hills between the Cuillin and Trotternish peninsula on the Isle of Skye. In spring and autumn equinoctial sunsets lie between the northern tip of Skye and the Uists.
The solar year is mapped out along ancient rock silhouettes whose island shapes are as well defined as the angles and lines on a sextant. As the year wanes we long for light most of all, grieving a little each day as it constricts. But watching sunsets move swiftly along the outer edges of this space back and forth, year in and year out, I see the light as powerful, stubborn and magical, an elemental force pitched against darkness of every kind. Even at its most constricted, the light from the sun brings great joy and colours so rich and deep they remain imprinted on the mind for days to come.
Of course, not every day brings a sunset clear enough to pinpoint to a particular peak or valley because the majority of our ‘weather’ also comes from the west. Above the line of islands, the towering cumulonimbi of great storms building out in the Atlantic are often visible. We can watch them travel towards us and assess the coming weather from the types of clouds growing beyond the Hebrides or pouring in over the Trotternish.
From the little vantage point the relationship between sea and sky in this space is laid bare. It is a relationship that is volatile, filled with energy, colour, sound and scent. I get caught up in it and feel part of it. No two days are the same. The vibrant colours are interchangeable, reactionary and animate. They feed off each other, they are intertwined and irrepressible even on the bleakest of dark winter days. At times, it is hard to recognise anything other than colour; the rest of the world falls away because of the limitless variety and intensity of hue and chroma, and because of the powerful interplay of light and shadow.
Seen from this particular spot the elemental exchanges between air, water and earth are unlike anything I have ever encountered before, even on mountain summits. Perhaps it is partly because, in my shielded and relatively immobilised state, I am measuring the changes more carefully and acknowledging more deeply the emotions they arouse in these Covid-19 times. And yet I can’t help feeling that I am not alone when I stand at the edge of the cliff, wind-whipped, eyes watering and skin stinging. There seem to be ghosts all around, the spirits of those who have stood here over millennia watching the sun’s passage, calculating, measuring, trying to decipher its meaning or their own relationships to the heavens, or merely enjoying the light and colour as I do. I often wonder whether they marked their conclusions on antler, wood or stone. In all likelihood their tales have become layered in the peat or carried off by the wind in the same way mine are dissolved in digital space.
I now think that even if I had been able to obtain a suitable recording from the cliff and tried to explain what it feels like to live here on this edge of the world, even the slightest breeze would have masked the voices of my ghostly companions. But I could have rejoiced in the light of the autumn equinox, described the colours of the sea and explained about the procession of the sun. And maybe you wouldn’t have believed any of it.
*If you have missed the beautiful podcast “The Stubborn Light of Things” you can listen to all twenty seven, half hour episodes here: