You don't forget the moments of intensity - lying on your back with your eyes closed and stomach clenched listening to the sounds of vomiting all around, fighting close to vomit-point again through black wave-flossed fangs, a delicate solitude safe above a pillow of water that prisms the evening light off russet walls. Perhaps it is the subtler textures of the coast’s palette that deserve more care in their preservation - walking barefoot on pitted grassy clifftops in the dew dropped morning or waxy afternoon, the eerie strains of seals in deep places sliding into the hiss of the ocean, the fizz and pop of barnacle rocks on a low spring tide. Gentle fishy tones emanating from off-season puffin holes. The feel on skin of sea-washed smooth boulders and of sea-ivoried quartz walls.
I fear the sea.
Perhaps it was over-exposure to the Titanic when I was little. My primary school was named after Thomas Andrews, who lived just over the road. We made a big deal of our disaster heritage by making poster displays and building models of the ship (an opportunity for glue-fingered dads to make a project their own – mine was ace). The story loomed as huge as the vessel itself. It sunk deep in my mind – darkness and ice, a colossal wreck on the seafloor. Sometimes I couldn’t sleep for fear of being on a sinking ship. I got out of bed and interrogated mum.
“But what if there weren’t enough lifeboats?”
“Modern boats all have enough lifeboats, Andrew.”
“But what if the lifeboat sank?”
“Lifeboats are designed so they don’t sink easily.”
“But what if it did?”
I watched Jaws too young too – I thought there might be a shark in every body of water, including swimming pools. I drew pictures of sharks a lot, illustrating in a thousand pleasing angles of pectoral and dorsal fin that fear and fascination aren’t such different things.
Obviously, you don’t need an unhealthy obsession with these things to fear the sea. As everyone knows, you can’t see what’s beneath you – but it’s sure to be evil, with stings and teeth. Add the cold, and the salt...I once swam to a buoy in Strangford Lough and clung to it, muscles petrified and little legs trying to tread the menace they were engulfed in, too frightened to swim back. But none of this fully explains it. There’s something indefinable in the ocean’s unknown. Dressed in things washed up, in seaweed and rusted industry, something liminal in the meeting of mind with a primal margin.
I love the sea, with a potency fed by the fear.
Watch gannets. They soar fast, not with the imperial grace of an eagle, but with military purpose. Black-tipped wings dip and rise to contour a flight path programmed in Terminator eyes – eyes that catch some silver scales and in an instant the thing becomes a missile, dropping like it’s magnetised to the centre of the earth. I want to take inspiration, to know without doubt and with instant decision, every fibre of body and mind honed to the purpose of that silver flash. But most of the time I’m going the wrong direction, trying instead to see everything at once...
The air is full of sea-foam. Puffs of sea-foam in vertical flight, clinging wobbling to rocks, blobs of white like shot doves buffeted on the breeze, buffeted out of the sunlit sea. The froth of slow carnage where the ocean smashes the wild edge of the island and the continent, where ancient gneiss deformed in folds and slashed with amphibolites and quartz bears this latest in three billion years of violence with haggard dignity. Beyond here there are only battered outposts - the Flannan Isles, Boreray, St Kilda. I feel fantastically alone.
Machair grasses relent on the crazy old pavement of the headland; fists of thrift clutch on with waxen defiance. My boots do the thinking, tracing a familiar script of easy footfalls between boot-sized nooks, friction on sloping tongues of gneiss, the steady point on rocking blocks and the shallow steps through gravelly trickles stained with dark ore. A child running with money for sweets. In my rucksack I have an abseil rope, harness, shoes, chalk. Simple tools. Thread the rope behind a block, checking for sharp edges, checking the direction of pull, tying the knot, checking again. Scuff fragments of gravel and lichen from my rubbered toes before pressing my weight through them onto the surface of the rock. I love the simplicity of these things, the synergy. The wind and ocean's roar change pitch as the land drops in front of me, abrupt as a trapdoor, the suddenness of depth chastening my boots. A child’s vulnerability to stub the kerb and sprawl bloodynosed, coins spinning down the drain. Careful now.
Off the bottom of the rope, I scurry down black rocks all greased in salt air, into the stalls of a brutal theatre. The puffs of foam cling to the high boxes, wobbling in the wind like the uvulae of a vast choir in cacophony, the white noise of waves breaking and backwashing in the tidal arena below the stage. The geo cuts parallel to the coast, its inner walls shaded from the evening sun. I move into the shadow and the company of smooth rippled boulders that must have lived here for centuries, rattling around in storms until all rugosity was removed. I feel delighted to be here. I imagine someone appearing at the top of the cliff, and how I could scream at them, oystercatcher-shrill – fuck off! This is just for me, a strictly private performance.
Drawing back from the sea-sound, the silence of the land feels like settling for sleep. But we’re island people, there’s vitality here with no substitute.
The place gives a resonance to its name that cuts through its near-homophony with mundane, just as this perfected miniature of pastoral Britain cast off the Devon coast – a Noah's Ark of Highland coos and ponies and goats and Soay sheep and deer, steered blindly from the empty tower of the Old Light – winds up eerie, too tidy. Black effigies of kestrels sway uncannily over the silage bales like some neopagan symbol for lost mariners, and on all sides it’s cratered by great works of coastal devastation named for the Devil. When a haze comes in, even the sea disappears from view on the plateau, and there is nothing else. We walk in a smudged afterworld and imagine we have been dead without knowing.
The only way is down, through the pitted grass and puffin holes, vestiges of life-as-we-know-it gripping tight to the collapsing margin. Clean cuts of granite buttress the sickening drop into the Devil’s domain. Alone again. The evening sun is low and fiery on the water as I scramble down, trusting I’m small enough to be overlooked, to slip through. The moon-pulled water churns close, a beast to smirk at boldly while it’s chained in space. Love, fear.
The only way is up. The Slide stretches away in thrilling uniformity. One step at a time, rubbered toes scuff gravel, this crystal and that take their moment as the centre of the world. Thoughts go by, other people’s words flit like invisible witches on broomsticks in the space behind my back – go away! – stirred though with self-spun assurances, mantras, doubts. Push them all away. In time the sun will be gone, the roar of blood silenced in an ear-pop, the slab will be earthly grey. To find that space, that space that vanishes as soon as you look for it...
“Here may be lived a life of the senses so pure, so untouched by any mode of apprehension but their own, that the body may be said to think. Each sense heightened to its most exquisite awareness is in itself total experience. This is the innocence we have lost, living in one sense at a time to live all the way through.” Nan Shepherd
- Andrew Moles