Today up early, well before the rumble of the first train south, which tootles by just after eight each morning. Out down Ben Mailey Drive, past Sally’s mum’s house, where thyme is flowering for the delighted bees.
(Memo to self: plant out today the mixed perennials we bought from Lybster Nursery, who were selling at Langwell House Gardens Open Afternoon last Sunday.)
Across Brora Golf Course, parts of which are mown within a millimetre of their life, while other parts, leafy and duney, are patrolled by amiable cattle, sheep, dogs, holiday-makers, locals taking an airing, and me. Stumbling about without my specs on, the better to practise “soft eyes, soft eyes”, as a gentle way to tune into the more expansive cycles of the shifting shore, the tides, the wide skies over Moray.
Loping like the Hare, the Wolf that I am, heading towards the campsite at Dalchalm. It was there, only nineteen weeks ago, that we sheltered from the north winds and bitter chill in our old Camper-Van, clutching our list of “houses to view” in nearby Brora.
And here we are, here I am; home is here.
My feet lead me north, now dabbling at the lacy interface between wet sand and dry, now trudging along the drier strand line to respect the gathering of small waders of the family Scolopacidae as they swoof and scoop, peck and probe. My gentler-gaze vision lifts towards Portgower, where I was on a writing retreat at Palm Tree Cottage in 2016, and again on a week’s holiday with my partner in 2017.
The partner who said, yet again overriding my preconceived stories, “Well, why don’t you contact the estate agent then?”, and held my hand while I stepped with awe across the threshold of a nearby house called Castleroy. The threshold of possibility, the threshold of the sanctuary space, “the shrine without a roof”, that I had been envisioning for decades.
And now in August 2018 my feet lead me north, closer to where Ursa Minor spins around Dhruva, the North Star. “Mine eyes” lift “unto the hills” where in 2016 I encountered the Hare, and discovered a surprising affinity with the grandmother whom I had never known. Linked by a story of wartime emigration to Canada, to the hills and valleys here in this Scottish county of Sutherland, from where disenfranchised strath-dwellers were forcibly* removed, many of them fleeing across the Atlantic to Nova Scotia, and beyond.
And now as I approach Dalchalm, there are dog walkers and beach-gazers and strollers, just like me crossing the golf-course before breakfast to reach the sea that draws us, calls us, wraps around the land.
“The sea is my reminder” I used to say, and to write in my ThoughtBook, during that solitary retreat of 2016. Reminder of cycles of life and death, reminder of energy and vitality, of impermanence and evolution.
And then it’s happening to me again: a feeling of being magnetised towards the people that I meet; starting a conversation; sharing companionship and tenderness and understanding. Being ebullient and sparkly while relating my story: “Be careful of the magic at that Camp Site… we were there at Easter in the wild whippy wind, and by May we had bought our little house in Brora!”
(No, we did not buy Castleroy, at Portgower six miles up the coast. The romancing we had with the 1901stone house, with its long garden sloping to the sea, its two-storey stone barn that so asked to be my partner’s green-woodworking den, or my art studio, or either … that affair ended last autumn. “I know you’re sad” he said. “So am I. We’ll look again in the spring.”
And all to the good: Dhruvaloka in Brora is a safer bet for a spring-summer-autumn hideaway: smaller, easier to care for; snuggled into the community; and only five minutes from the railway station that connects us to family in the south.)
And then, catching breath from the tellings, I find that again I am practising a deep listening… and witnessing with mounting awe the precious time-lines, the unique life-stories, of the others.
Each of my five conversations this morning – on the dunes, on the shore – is a meeting of souls, of friends, of fellow humans connected by a passion for the environment, or local heritage, or landscape, or stillness, or the healing that comes from contemplation … or all five.
Whether it’s the holidaying electrical engineer from Hull, shutting himself off from social media and dropping down into reading books; or John, nurturing sustainable woodland on the Black Isle (and who lives next door to two of my partner’s scything friends); or the inspirational pair from Buckie in Moray, who visit here for healing and spiritual refreshment during a life of inter-generational caring; or the couple from Grantown-on-Spey who want to know more about Helmsdale Station where Irene’s father once worked… or whether it is the man walking his small dog down across the Golf Course as I head back up towards Ben Mailey Drive, with Ben Horn and Ben Bhraggie in my sights – all these become my companions; become my co-confiders in this shore, this coast, this landscape as a place of mysterious beauty and delight.
And I summon the confidence to ask of the last, and local, person whom I encounter – who reminds me of the Northamptonshire nature poet John Clare – does he know the identity of the small waders I’ve companioned along the shore, similar in size to Song Thrushes, straight bill? Because I’m not wearing my specs, and I can’t give him any more detail than that.
He smiles. Yes I know that. They’re sanderlings, he says. And thanking him, I head up the hill home.
* Footnote on “disenfranchised strath-dwellers were forcibly removed, many of them fleeing across the Atlantic to Nova Scotia, and beyond”:
Much has been written about the indignities and assaults of the Highland Clearances, and my take on this topic is influenced by my own associations and culture. As someone with origins in the English Midlands, I first related more to the effects of the Inclosure Acts, particularly as chronicled in the writings of the Northamptonshire poet John Clare.
In the 1970s, when I started coming to Scotland more regularly (albeit mostly to Dumfries and Galloway), a much-cited popular book was The Highland Clearances by John Prebble. My partner was influenced in his outlook as a student by the play The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black Black Oil (by John McGrath; performed 1973-1974.
This historical topic remains controversial and there may be other interpretations of the relationships between individual landowners and their heirs, and the local people on “their” land. Such relationships are evolving and will continue to be debated!