Living by the sea is exhilarating, more so here on this outer rim of northwest Britain than anywhere else I have lived, though there is some protection from the outer and inner Hebrides. To the west these islands may appear distant, insubstantial, mythical; they are often hidden by clouds, showers, wraith-like mists or fierce, squally showers of hail and snow that hurry past as if on unknown, yet important, errands. Then, as veils part, they seem close enough to touch, their intricate topographies emphasised by cascading sunlight or by snow. When the summer sun sets, it is easy to imagine the magical, elfish west of Tolkein and the legendary comings of fair folk and giants.
I look to the sea, I think, more than I look to the mountains. Strange to admit because even as a small child, I was fascinated by high places, loving tales of exotic, heroic adventures by hardy folk struggling though snow, ice, hurricane force winds, across rock, crevice and buttress, fighting extremes of bodily and mental fatigue, madness and death. Every day I can and do look to the mountain fastness, to Torridonian heights, and yet these ocean waters pull and tug, exerting an almost deafening call. “Come to me, look at me”. And I do, I turn around. The magnetic lure of water is very powerful but what else is acting here to make me turn? Motion, sound, smell? The life lies within? Perhaps it is nothing more than the sound of breaking waves against rock, or the blasting of water across sand and shingle? Or the sucking, dragging sounds of gentle waters retreating back across cobbles and pebbles, knocking one against another, chipping and grinding ancient rock, smoothing and polishing. I love the boom of titanic waves as they break and crash. I love the gurgle and tickle of creeping tides passing through silt and seaweed. And I love the petulant slap of small churnings against harbour walls. But is just that? The simplicity of sounds and scents and evocation of memories that accompany them?
Winds have brought mayhem and disorder to west coast dwellers in recent weeks, tossing roof tiles and flinging tree branches away. Waves have reorganised off-shore kelp fields, dumping enormous piles of stem and fluted leaf along the shore, ripping up boulders and cobbles and hurling them against field and fence. Each day the small beach nearby has been remodelled, redesigned and recast, as if Poseidon himself was not satisfied with the display. This is a dynamic, life-filled place; urgent and energetic.
Each tide brings treasures from the oceans: seaweeds, shells, fish and animal remains, countless kinds of rope of hemp and nylon, driftwood in innumerable shapes and sizes from boats, trees, building and fences, shoes (always single), bottles (multicoloured) and clothing (bedraggled). What stories such flotsam and jetsam could tell.
Along the sandy shore, waves leave other things too. Across the sands are ripples and larger ridges and runnels, but almost unnoticed are traces, like pencil lines on a fresh piece of paper, left by the zenith of each wave as it has carried its own atoms of salt and water landward. The finest tracery by an unseen artist, using the microscopic remnants of granites, sandstones, gneiss, of quartz and shell fragments, polished and translucent, depicts a lost landscape along the shore. Perhaps the sands themselves have memories of other landscapes stored within them, of places lost in the furthest, uttermost reaches of geological time. Or maybe the oceans retain blueprints of ancient Pangaea, of unimaginable, unknown Torridonian and Lewisian worlds. Or perhaps the waters are so filled with memories and dreams of long ago that they spill out once more onto the land.
On a quiet day, watching turquoise-white waves break slowly and steadily, it feels entirely possible that my thoughts and dreams exchange with those of the sea. Then the life sub-aqua becomes visible as sunlight penetrates the water. Tiny fish dart back and forth, seaweeds flutter, jellyfish pulsate and the sea floor speckles with multi-coloured sands, gravels, shells and starfish. Here and there, smoothed yet tiny pieces of green and blue glass catch the light. And as the shining, glistening waters swirl about, carrying both the living and dead with every swish and swash, I can imagine underwater realms of Greek mythology and I dream of stepping forward.