7th July 2020
The Outer Hebrides are a chain of islands about two hundred miles long, thrown up, seemingly, like an arm, to protect Scotland from the casual violence of the Atlantic Ocean.
The beaches lying along the ocean facing west coast are extraordinarily beautiful and have always possessed, for me, an otherworldly quality. The long journey from the south of England maybe contributes to this impression; wonders are passed and, as with many mythic journeys, things get stranger as you progress; brooding mountain ranges with snail-trail waterfalls high in their crags, wild moors and stony burns, gannet-mobbed ferry crossings and sinuous causeways that link island-dotted-sea to lochen-strewn-land. Gradually, it seems, the familiar world is left behind, and the imagination left increasingly vulnerable to subtlety and impression.
Some of my excitement is no doubt a remnant of childhood visits to Scotland. A key element then was the inherent uncertainty around the means of travel “we’re going to Scotland in daddy’s car – if daddy’s car will get that far” was sung, partly for fun but also maybe as a charm to ward off the real possibility of brakedown. The whole venture felt like a game of chance: one wrong turn in labyrinthine Glasgow, for example, could see you sliding down a snake headed back to exactly where you were forty minutes ago. Or worse, you might step on The Gorballs* and not escape at all.
In those days the goal was the Ardnamurchan peninsula, a final singular paradise guarded by two small car ferries; throw a double six and you could be through in an hour, but anything less would see you locked for a seeming eternity on the wrong side of the water, unless, that is, you are brave enough to take a chance and dare the precipitous Kinlochleven road.
Today, the psychological geometry is different. The reliability of modern travel has diminished the physical uncertainty, but the desire to reach the haven of the islands is made both more powerful and more poignant by the need to escape everyday life and by an adult’s knowledge of vulnerability and change. That something will have happened to cause the magic to fail is a powerful subconscious fear.
The effect of the journey, and these feelings, is to create the impression, on finally arriving, of having reached somewhere that is more than special. A place that is simultaneously the edge of the physical world and the centre of an internal world: a singularity where to travel in any direction is to travel away.
It is the beaches that convey these impressions most strongly, seeming places of essence rather than substance, removed from the material world and characterised less by geology and biology than by some more abstract discipline, theoretical physics or pure mathematics maybe. At times it feels that normality might be suspended, allowing secret truths to be revealed. The motif of undertaking a long and difficult journey to a place where physical laws break down, in order to gain knowledge of the world or of oneself is a well-established pattern in literature; the children in C. S. Lewis’s Narnia or Ged in Ursula le Guin’s wondeful Earthsea books come quickly to mind.
Some physical underpinnings to these impressions of otherworldliness can be identified. The coarse shell fragment sand does not hold much water and so is not cloying. Each flake is subtly distinct in form and colour and there is little sign of organic matter – all is clean, sharp and precise. The water too is different; being so clear that it might not to be a material substance at all but an abstraction; like the aether proposed by nineteenth century physicists, something only required to explain the observed properties of light, which, in this case, it diffracts and focusses into bands that flicker and lurch across the sea floor.
These are places of contrast. If the islands are an arm protecting the mainland from the sea then it is a pugilist’s arm; hard, tough and sinewy, with course marram grass hair and rock bones that were formed three billion years ago when the world was young. The rocks of these islands, some of the oldest in the world, make the era of the dinosaurs look like recent history. But if the rocks are old and hard then the air seems new and soft. Under the prevailing westerlies these islands are the first land the wind strikes after a fetch of some thousands of miles over a bird-strewn, but otherwise empty ocean. If you stand on one of the Atlantic facing beaches of the west coast you might think the air was freshly made and that you were the first to take it in.
I was on the island of Barra a few years ago, towards the end of a holiday. The holiday had not quite worked. It had been cold and windy and the tent I was sleeping in had felt confining rather than liberating. Even in such beautiful surroundings it had been hard to relax. Then, one morning, the weather changed and, walking from the dunes at Eolaigearraidh in the north of the island, up over Beinn Eolaigearraidh Mhor, and dropping down onto Barra Beach in perfect light and with a rainbow for company, spirits started to lift.
Strolling along a beach is often an aid to dreaming and this morning was no exception. As I walked a sort of rolling reverie unfolded; a reverie in which the sand became a close packed star-field, and the scattered pebbles, planets floating against a starry background. The action of a retreating tide had removed sand from around each pebble-planet leaving it sitting in a small hollow – a distortion in the otherwise perfect flat of the beach that reminded me of the illustrations in physics textbooks showing how, in Einstein’s theory of relativity, space-time is distorted by massive bodies such as planets. The crabs even became small spaceships scuttling from oasis to oasis across the desert of space and the strands of beached weed exotic nebula. Finally, wandering down to the shoreline, I arrived at a perfect bounded infinity: a wave lapped edge of the purest translucent blue.
* No offence meant – I knew nothing of the Gorballs at the time, this was merely a child’s response to – I don’t even remember what.
Walk on Barra Beach
With eyes turned down to better see the sky
And you might observe
As I hope you do
(As indeed did I)
A pristine place
A field of stars
Olber’s paradox in sand
Where scattered there all round about
Disrupting the metric of the plane
Banded pebble-planets lie
In Sea-washed hollows of perfect curved space-time
And Hubble objects
Whorls of weed and jellyfish
May cross your field of view
And at the wave-lapped edge
A singularity of pure Euclidean blue
Copyright (c) Jon James 2020