Thursday, 16 May 2019

Afloat Again: Assynt & the Outer Hebrides

After a few years when I posted photos & writing from the sea almost every month, it has been a long time since I added to this blog. After losing two cameras to saltwater I decided to have a break from carrying (& worrying about) one in the kayak. And in a peculiarly busy year, I managed fewer long trips than usual.

Over the last few months, though, I’ve not just been itching to be at sea, but to take the camera out among the skerries - whether those that are full of sealife or those that make good places to overnight.

 No doubt this is a natural consequence of the onset of spring, as life floods small islands…
…and the fins scything wavecrests grow gradually in number…

But it’s also to do with the excitement of the fact that my first big sea project is about to be released into the world. The Frayed Atlantic Edge – the story of what I learnt by spending a year kayaking 2,000km of Atlantic coastline, immersing myself in the archives & communities along the way – will be published by Harper Collins on 11 July. Here's the jacket, with its beautiful rough sea spine & my little yellow boat beneath the cliffs...

The journey itself was (predictably enough) the highlight of my life so far: wild, chaotic & beautiful - with an intensity of learning, & a breadth of experience, incomparable to anything else I’ve ever done. From paddling with Risso's dolphins & little auks, to seeing my first really huge whale (that I'd love to be able to confirm as a fin whale...), this was well worth the cost of being constantly damp for weeks on end. 

But there’s been a very different pleasure to the last few weeks. With the text written, I’ve been an observer of other people’s efforts, making requests for additions to the book, but without much by way of responsibilities. From the beginning of my trips out to sea, art & poetry have been key to my engagement with coastlines, whether aching for the sea when seeing ShaziaMahmoud’s mixed-media, half-abstracted paintings exhibited in the gallery opposite my student room, or reading Norman MacCaig or W.S. Graham in the back room (or better still bribing Ben T White, with whisky, to read them to me). So it has been extremely exciting to see the book populated with art, poems & maps. Donald Murray, for instance, has kindly allowed me to use his poem, The Cragsman’s Prayer at the outset of my Shetland journey, which launched into a spectacular seabird world:
Christina Riley has made a beautiful sea fan to mark the breaks between sections of each chapter…

 ...while Martin Brown has drawn twelve glorious maps to trace the stages of the trip…
...& the inserts of my photos have also been pieced together, here's one:

The effort the publishers have put into making this a beautiful book has been a joy to sit back & watch. But I’m sure you can imagine how all that has made me yearn to be back at sea. And there was a sense of return to all the watery ventures of spring.

The first thing I did - while not being able to escape the midlands - was dig myself an extremely messy new pond... an attempt to coax back the garden animals that have recently been absent...

The fox, & a multitude of common & great crested newts are now around (still no sign of the badgers). I hoped doing this would be good physical preparation for kayak trips & also make returning home from the rich sealife a little less of a wrench.

The first chance to paddle was in the place Llinos & I learned to kayak, with a visit to the Llyn Peninsula, seen here from the top of Bardsey Island: 

Over Easter weekend the land was heaving with people while the shores & sea filled with returning seabirds, & isolated beaches teemed with sand eels.

This is always a glorious coast to paddle because of the intense contrast between tourist hotspots such as Abersoch & Aberdaron, & the immense quiet of cliffs & small islands just a mile or two from them. There are chough's nests in sea caves metres below unsuspecting dog walkers, peregrine nests on the rock faces, & 700 pairs of puffins on this single little rock...
I even persuaded Llinos to do something that is hardly ever done at all, & take a photo of me in the kayak, just in case such a thing ever comes in handy:

A week later, I took the boat north to the hundred tiny islands of Coigach & Assynt. That had been a particularly exciting corner of the book journey, but it was nice to kayak these seas in spring rather than November:

I had a wild early-morning paddle beneath the cliffs of Handa...
...where, the razorbills were absorbed in the cooing & gurgling rituals that make them oblivious to passersby...
...& other, more easily distracted, seabirds filled the cliffs between them.

And I kayaked through the Summer Isles to Eilean a’ Chleirich one day, & around the northwestern islands the next. The weather forecasts promised rising winds each day so I always set off early. Every day, the forecasts were wrong. Unsettled starts...
...gave way to serene calm.

I ended up on the water from 6am to lunchtime each day, then back onshore, for the afternoon, in the Achiltibuie Piping School Café, with its titanic cakes & glorious views.
These Assynt & Coigach islands were another of our early kayaking haunts – beautiful scenes for adventure, but uncharacteristically safe, for places of such geographic drama, because almost entirely without strong tides. I even managed to catch the opening of Ellis O'Connor's amazing new exhibition of Assynt coastal scenes when I saw a tweet saying it was happening on the coast, that morning, about 2 miles from where I was currently kayaking:
But my main spring trip was more profoundly Atlantic, with many more tides & rough seas. And it was glorious. It took me back to the northern third of the part of the book journey in this map (which had been an immense challenge, during which I'd even been reported missing):

When people ask me what my favourite place to kayak is, I usually say the westside of Shetland, or the islands south of Barra. But this trip reminded me that I’m entirely wrong if I don't include the west coast of Lewis in this list. It’s a place that bares stony teeth to Atlantic weather:

But the scale of its contrasts, within a few hundred metres, is so ostentatious as to seem surreal:

...& many evenings were spent on skerries, sitting back with books above turquoise water...

My plan for this trip was to spend long hours each evening & morning on the water (light lasting about 20hrs each day), sleeping on islands or on the coast, then to spend the afternoons in archives, mainly in Stornoway, looking for accounts of travel in small boats. (This is for an article attempting to do for sea travel a little of what writers such as Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, Tim Ingold & Rebecca Solnit have done for walking).  

For this trip I arrived in Ullapool late on Friday night, during the weekend of the Ullapool Book Festival. I had time to catch two talks, & get a quick paddle to Isle Martin, before my ferry to Stornoway. The talks set the tone for the week: without them, this would have been a very different journey. 

The first was by an author I hadn’t heard of before, Andrew Drummond, whose first novel had imagined the fate of north-west Scotland if the transport schemes imagined from the 1890s onwards – such as the many railways fanning out across the highlands – had actually been built. His new work is historical research into those many schemes, & it’s profoundly revealing of attitudes to the north west coast as seen from Edinburgh, London & the coasts themselves. His talk was both hilarious & deeply meaningful, but perhaps the most revealing aspect of it was the warm response of the local crowd, for whom every past lowlander’s misconception of the region, & every grand scheme that could-almost-have-been, seemed to have deep resonance. Nothing could have served so well to click me back into sympathy with the politics of heritage on these coastlines: friendly but fierce, because so strangely misunderstood, for so long, by those with power.

There followed the talk I was here for, by Roseanne Watt, a new Shetland poet around whom there’s been lots of buzz over the last year or so. (When I clumsily wrote something recently about Jen Hadfield being the star among the current generation of Shetland poets, she wrote to me saying 'no, that's Roseanne Watt'). This was probably the most illuminating poetry reading I’ve ever been to (because Roseanne was much more willing to talk about the origins of, or stories behind, poems than poets often are). And Roseanne’s book – Moder Dy/Mother Wave, published this month – is the richest collection I've read for quite some time.

Over the last three years I’ve ended up reading lots of Shetland dialect writing, but nothing has made me feel the Shaetlan intertwining of language, literature, heritage, landscape & ocean with quite the immediacy of this book.  

Moder Dy belongs in the very best tradition of Scottish poetry in which the boundaries between human, weather & creature, past & present, land & sea, fall away. That characteristic recalls parallels as far back as Alasdair Mac Maighster Alasdair’s eighteenth-century Birlinn of Clanranald. In that epic, the birlinn moves through a sea that’s as cunning & wise as human or animal: it's an old man with streaming grey hair & a creature with gaping jaws and matted pelt. The ocean has reason & will, though it's pitched against the desires of the boatmen. There’s an element of conflict here perhaps absent from current equivalents: the sea responds to being struck with oars until, eventually, it submits to human strength. The boat is also alive, crying out like a person and whinnying like a mare, treading waves not with planks & thwarts but shoulders & thighs. Boat & boatmen are one: the sweat on the sailors’ brows is the brine foaming round the bow. And the boat becomes their homeland as they climb mast & ropes ‘as quickly as May squirrels on the trees of a dense forest’. At sea all distinctions between animate & inanimate, sentient & insensible, human & animal, flounder. In these verses, as in much writing on its waters, specific inter-islands seas are layered with metaphor & known like friends or rivals. Waves & tides are feared or loved like animals of hill & forest. Humanity is shown engaged in the quest for mastery over nature: for separation from the seething conflicts of the bestial, elemental world; but to Alasdair’s protagonists, before the age of steam & steel, that quest still seemed impossible; dividing lines, distinctions & disentanglements can rarely survive a single line of verse.     
Watts writes similar entanglements, but in a time when it's the connection, not the disconnection, that's being sought. In 'Raaga Tree', for instance, the speaker is an uprooted tree blown ashore on Shetland, its roots made tentacles, changed by being drenched in ocean. There’s a short film of this poem, where the tree is transmuted to creature, here. Watts’ demonstrations of the ways in which people are animals of earth, salt & seaweed is enriched no end by the landscape-bound vocabulary & rhythmic diction of the Shaetlan language. Another of her films, Alfie, shows the language in full flow. Blending an intimate knowledge of shorelines, a fascination for the uses of the past, with an eye fine-tuned for the uncanny, Moder Dy is full of writing that will stick deep in the consciousness of anyone who spends time on the sea. (I’ve been wanting to begin writing poetry for a while, but people with so much to say, and so unique a voice in which to say it, make the possibility seem more daunting & distant than ever.)

After the two talks, I kayaked out to a little unpopulated island called Isle Martin, just north of Ullapool (wish I'd taken the camera). Its sheltered side was full of bluebells, birch trees and nesting geese, its cliffs wild & filled with fulmars. But then I turned a corner, to find lots of completely unexpected humans wandering round. Within a few minutes, I was talking to a team of archaeologists (led by the Scoraig resident Cathy Dagg). I was handed a long-handled tool called dragon’s teeth, & was soon helping excavate a cemetery that had been used from before the ninth century into the nineteenth. This offered unique & unexpected insights into the region’s past, & meant I was left reflecting back on a bewilderingly rich day of coastal culture.

It’s difficult to imagine that the scene could have been better set for a few days soaked in seaspray. I read Moder Dy again & again on the cliffs & skerries, & felt its insights applicable to these Norse-inflected coastlines (sharing, in some ways, more in common with Orkney & Shetland than with Barra & the other southern islands of the Outer Hebrides – even the Gaelic here is spoken with a parallel hard, stony rhythm to Shaetlan - the opposite of the soft, lyrical Gaelic spoken even in Harris).

The trip began in clear-blue calm & I set out exploring the stunning islands & skerries beyond the mouth of Loch Ròg

From Little Bernera to Pabbay Mor, these are a place of song, & thickly historied, though uninhabited today. Lazybeds line the slopes of the larger islands, while headstones from many centuries stand out from the exceptionally rich sand.
And the beaches, though inaccessible to anything but tiny boat, are some of the most beautiful imaginable. 

I lazed at the water’s edge for hours between stretches of paddling, the ridiculously long northern days meaning there was never any need for urgency. Otters surfaced occasionally, & a merlin hugged the coastline, making circuits of the island. But sitting still long enough meant a gradual profusion of birds along the shoreline. The character of isolated beaches tends to be defined by their specific balance of small waders. Here it was sanderling, with a few dunlin & sandpiper mixed in (rather than the more usual dunlin-led blend). And the sanderling, present in the hundreds, were in full skittering, clock-work-toy mode:

I tried my best to avoid any rocks that arctic terns - the last of the seabirds to come in off the ocean for breeding - were using, but drew the ire of one or two anyway…

Many of these small islands have tiny inland lochs, meaning the diversity of the wildlife can be incredible, with flocking Great Northern Divers (laughing away) on the sea, & black throated divers (with their more occasional piping), just a few metres higher on tiny-island infinity pools.
In this crystal-clear sea, kelp forests flourished & hundreds of tiny fish scattered beneath the boat. Strands of sea spaghetti provided snacks while travelling. And this was perfect water for kayaking, the clearest imaginable:

Eagles soared high above the boat during the day…

…but at the day’s extremities they’d investigate the boat much closer, though usually in light too low for photos to be worth taking:

But the wind soon rose. Before long, the cliffs were showing their teeth, & the water foaming round them. 

My kayak had been made slightly vulnerable by the loss of a hatch lid (they’re supposed to float, but for some reason mine sank when it fell off my deck into the sea). That meant I couldn’t allow waves to break over the boat, & couldn’t risk being knocked over & having to roll, so I moved to the sheltered side of Lewis & into the minch. After a glorious night on the Butt of Lewis cliffs…

…when seabirds landed round me in the night & gave a wonderful oceanic dawn chorus…

…I made my way slowly down the district of Ness towards Stornoway. This is an entirely different coastline to the ones I’d spent the previous two days exploring. It’s just as historic – the tiny rocky lump of Dun Eistean once having housed a fort that commanded hundreds of miles of coastline – but the evidence of more recent labour is much stronger than on the west. Everywhere, there’s the iron & wood furniture, lodged in rock, that shows a coastline extremely well used. 

Nowhere would these ladders be climbable by a fisherman or kayaker today. 

The sense of rich tradition run through with loss, which is one of the background themes of Moder Dy, was therefore evident every time I returned to the rocks. And yet more faces of the water, & uses of this most beguiling & diverse of elements, were visible from the boat.

It was while kayaking this history-laden coast that I realised that my next book project needs to be a cultural history of small boats, called, perhaps, Afloat.

The next trip - Shetland - should be a great opportunity to begin it.

And, in case anyone does wnat to read more, here's a link to preorder The Frayed Atlantic Edge.

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