Living by the sea is exhilarating, and markedly so on these outer reaches of northwest Britain. We do have protection here, however, from outer and inner Hebrides. To the west, to the sea, these islands appear distant, mythical, hidden by clouds, showers, wraith-like mists or fierce, squally showers of hail and snow passing swiftly as if on unknown, yet important, errands; then, as veils part, isles appear nearer, close enough to touch, intricate topographies emphasised by cascades of 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.
And 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 and across rock, crevice and buttress, fighting extremes of bodily and mental fatigue, madness and even death, and accounts of remarkable rescues, and blood curdling escapes. Every day I can and do look to the mountain fastness, to Torridonian heights, and yet the sea exerts an almost deafening call, as if alive, beckoning siren-like “come to me, look at me”. And I turn around. Why this might be, I do not know. The magnetic lure of water, turbulent or quiet? Motion, sound, smell? Knowing that abundant tumultuous life lies within? Perhaps the breaking of sea against rock, blasting of water across sand and shingle? I love the sucking, dragging sounds of gentle waters retreating back across cobbles and pebbles, knocking them against one another, chipping and grinding ancient the rock, smoothing and polishing. I love the boom of titanic waves as they break and then weightily and mightily crash down. 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.
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 organised by geomorphology. Never have I been witness to such dynamism; literally, every day, every visit is different.
But as well as the larger seascapes, cliffs, sandy beaches and island vistas, and the battles between sky and sea, smaller things are often as intriguing. Each tide brings with it 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. (And what stories such flotsam and jetsam could tell!) If I am not there to stumble, slip and scrabble amongst the litter of the strandline, tides carry off these treasures or reorganise and reassemble them as works of art. Such beauty, such colour, such jewels!
Along the sandy shore, waves leave other things too. Across the sands are ripples and larger ridges and runnels, but almost unnoticed are traces, lines, left by the zenith of each wave as it has carried its own atoms of salt and water landward. The finest tracery can be seen, as if an unseen artist has drawn a lost landscape across the grains of sand, as if the sands themselves, microscopic remnants of granites, sandstones, gneiss, of quartz and shell fragments, polished and translucent, have within them a memory of other landscapes, lost in the furthest, uttermost reaches of geological time. Or perhaps it is the ocean that retains the ancient blueprints and teases with samples of artistry of aons past. I can imagine those ancient Pangaeaic, Torridonian and Lewisian landscapes then.
And then, on a quiet day, watching turquoise-white waves break slowly and steadily, it is possible to see the life sub-aqua as sunlight penetrates the water. Here, tiny fish dart back and forth, seaweeds flutter, jellyfish pulsate and the sea floor speckles with multi-coloured sands, gravels, shells and starfish. And there, a smoothed yet tiny piece of green glass. Is it a fancy maybe? For, as golden, shining, glistening waters swirl and carry the living and dead with every swish and swash, it is possible to envision legendary underwater realms of Greek mythology and I dream of stepping forward.