Friday, June 27, 2014

Still life with pebble

On my desk, two pebbles lean together like eggs in a nest. I take one and turn it in my palms, run my fingertips over its surface. It is smooth, not unlike an egg, covered with the chalky dust which rises from the knapped surface of stones. I breathe on it to blush the dulled surface, and the structure of crystals flickers in the dampness. In this warm summer air, the bloom fades as I watch.
Since I was a child, I have returned from places with a stone in my pocket. They have been a source of comfort to me; smooth and slightly flattened, warm from my touch; a piece of the earth to remind me that all is well. As I position this perfect oval of quartzite to take a photograph, I think of days on western winter beaches, spent listening to the grind and squeak of stones as they shift together beneath the swell of incoming breakers. I think of storm berms warm beneath my palms on summer evenings. I think of islands, spilled onto the metallic surface of the sea. I pick up the stone again and I think of the stone bank from which it was lifted, only a week ago, above a beach of almost perfect grey-white, the colour of the pebble itself. The beach cusped the edge of a bay on the western shore of a small, isolated Scottish island. The pebble is my talisman; my memory of the place.

We arrived on the island in a slack westerly wind, the evening sun striking off the buff-coloured cliffs of skerries and islets. We had passed the journey staring into the spaces between the surrounding islands; the tidal races named by fearful fishermen in their small, fragile boats: The Corryvreckan, The Grey Dogs. The sea remained inscrutably calm throughout the voyage, only the oily slicks of unrippled water hinting at the shifting of currents beneath the surface. Gannets boobed on the gentle crests of waves, as pristine as plaster ducks.

On a small island, the sea is a vague presence; an absent reminder of the darkness beyond the margins of the land. On clear days, the view extends to a horizon shimmering like beaten zinc, where distant lighthouses hinted at rocks and reefs patient beneath the surface. Each one, each submerged hazard, has its own signature, its characteristics and foibles indicated in the area's sea chart: breaks heavily in south-easterly gales; overfalls during a falling tide; or The Great Race: Dangerous Tidal Streams. I search the chart looking for more ominous signs: unexplored region; uncharted waters; here be dragons. I am woken at night by dreams of drowning, and through the open window I can hear the sound of gulls, the hushing of the wind, perhaps through the trees, perhaps across the ruffled surface of the sea.
Each morning, I crossed the ridge outside the village and followed the traces of an old track downhill, through bog myrtle and dwarf willow, to a cusp of beach wedged between low headlands of grey rock. The Paps of Jura float above the surface of the sea, draped in cloud most mornings, bleached white in the sun. The night's high tide has flensed the beach, re-ordered the strand line of kelp and bladder wrack, freshly tipped the ripples with shimmering flakes of mica. I arrive on the beach like a penitent, grateful for the chance to step my feet into the shallow, freezing cold water. I listen to the silence.

On a day bleached with the intensity of the sun, we crossed the mile of open sand flats to the semi-detached island of Oronsay. For two hours each side of low tide, the strand emerges from the sea mud-wet and dimpled like the skin of a flayed beast. Shoals of empty cockle shells drift onto sand bars and mud flats, an accumulation of death, their paired shell halves opened like a prayer book.
The lodestone of the island is an ancient Priory, its ancient walls dated to the 13th century. It is said that Columba stopped here on his journey from Ireland in the 6th century, but that he would not settle until he was no longer in sight of his native land. It is also said that Islay was visited and left for the same reason.
The Priory, on this day of intense sun and gentle northerly wind, is pooled in shadows from the high walls. The grass which now grows inside the old cloisters is littered with daisies. It is a place of utter, profound peace; a reminder of the other-worldliness of the islands, the way in which they appear as 'the thin place', where the veil between the corporeal and the spiritual worlds is so thin as to be transparent.

Leaving the Priory, we climb the low hill of Beinn Oronsay. Below us, the land falls through banks of heather, runnels of bog grass studded with orchids, through mosses and cotton grass, to the shimmering strand of open sand. We turn and turn in the afternoon sun, naming the islands which surround us, picking out the beaches on which we have walked earlier in the week, listening for the echoes of saints.


  1. Talismans and thin worlds. An excellent evocation of the other-worldliness of islands and yet, at the same time, an almost excess of sensation, making us so aware of being in the 'here and now'. Wonderful Ian. Thank you.

    1. Thanks very much. It is hard to condense a week of sensation-excess into a short blog post - invariably, it is almost impossible to do justice to such a wonderful place

      all best wishes


  2. Hi Ian, I met up with Julian when he was over this way and he said he'd spent time with you and your family in Cumbria. I feel like I've been so distracted this year with planning for travels yet trying to stay grounded and present in our current home. I hope you're well and hope to catch up with your writings soon. I see you haven't blogged since June though, are you writing elsewhere? All the best, Selina x