Friday, 8 May 2015

The Edge of the World

Sandwood Bay: Photo JMT
I was not interested in those cliffs until the trawler drove straight into them. I was above Patey's Buachaille, contemplating the channel that, in the absence of ladders, must be swum; I was considering killer whales in that channel when the trawler disappeared halfway between me and Cape Wrath. Until that moment my interest stopped at Sandwood Bay, that would become Scamadale in Miss Pink at the Edge of the World. It was the trawler that aroused my interest in the country called the Parph.

The boat had not foundered but gone into Kescaig Bay; one fixed point at the edge of a hundred square miles of wilderness that, except for the lighthouse road across its northern fringe, is untracked. The terrain is moorland swelling into low hills, but fronting the Atlantic to west and north, there are over twelve miles of cliffs, and this is the Parph: the last land seen by the wild geese before they touch down in the Arctic, the ultimate sanctuary for the last wolf in Britain. Seal-women and mermaids have been seen in its coves, and on dark nights a drowned Dutch sailor can be heard scrunching the strand of Sandwood Bay.

I went there once, in late spring, with an anti-cyclone stationary over the north-west corner of Scotland so that I could travel light, without tent or stove. I went in from the road between Durness and Rhiconich, heading in a northerly direction for Creag Riabhach, which, at 1592ft, is the highest point of the Parph.

My route was line-of-sight and followed burns, upstream and down, over miniature water-sheds. And out there, in the middle of wastes of heather, I came on a squat round cairn of sandstone flags — just one, very old and with not the slightest indication of how or why it came to be there. If it was a grave, who died here, from what cause, miles from any road? Creag Riabhach was wild and dark, facing north-east, with late primroses glowing in its shadow. Below was a clear blue lochan fringed by pale sand marked with the tracks of fox and heron. Sitting between crag and water, eating lunch, I looked at the contents of my pack and reflected that for four days those few possessions represented security.

They looked madly incongruous and served only to emphasize the solitude. Suddenly this shining world, soft, balmy and beautiful, became animate, implacable. I was aware, first, of my own arrogance in coming here, then of my vulnerability . I thought of turning back, but I looked at the shimmering horizon and knew I should continue to the coast and find shelter for the night.
Providing the weather is holding the traveller may concentrate on his immediate surroundings. All I had to be wary of was a sprained ankle, and one man at least has crawled home with a fractured pelvis. As I approached the coast the land became more dramatic and the weather changed.

Not much but sufficient to make a difference. Untracked heather and bog is tiring, and the psychological strain is a heavy factor. I was happy on sandstone pavements among sculpted rocks, delighted with a prospect of Sandwood Bay, but the breeze was freshening, already driving white horses across the lochs. By the time I reached the cliffs water was slopping out of pools before a dry gale and I was uneasy. I had one glimpse of jumbled cliffs before I turned my back on wind and brilliant sun to stagger the last mile to Kescaig Bay. There was no thought of stopping because there would be no shelter until I could get down to the shore.

Appalled by this sudden violence I applied myself grimly to the task of trying to keep my balance, of putting one foot in front of the other until I reached a lip and looked down on a tiny stone shelter roofed with turf which I hadn't known was here. I turned in at 7pm, snug in my bag on a bed of bracken. The gale raged outside but my mind retreated like an animal in its den: warm dry, safe. I slept. I woke to stillness. I could tell by the light between the chinks in the stones that the sun was on the bothy. A wren was singing; A gull called. The bay was calm and only the occasional breaker bloomed against the southern headland. Eider duck were talking softly in the kelp, fulmar regarded me with dark eyes from their nests among the thrift. I bathed and ate at my leisure, and strolled back for a mile to see what I'd missed last night.

There were orchids everywhere (I'd not seen one), the Fulmars floated beside me, a Skua came in for a closer look but dismissed me. I was harmless. The lighthouse at Cape Wrath was visible as soon as I climbed out of Kescaig Bay: a black dome a little over three miles away but twice that distance as I was forced to trace the coastline, rounding its innumerable inlets. Depressions were full of flowers, the clifftop was scattered with cushions of moss, campion and thrift in deserts of red stones. A Ringed Plover's nest was framed by crystals of rose quartz. Seals tossed in the foam below the cliffs, Skuas patrolled, handing me to the next pair at the boundary of their territory.

As I approached the corner of the land, the sea boiled under stacks at the end of the of the reef: tall pinnacles, a cubist tower, carmine rock cleft by pink dykes. The sea was green and purple, the foam dazzling. The lighthouse was built above a reef that ended in an arched pinnacle covered with birds. The keepers gave me coffee ("We put the kettle on when saw you coming"), and told me about the man camping at Kearvaig, where I proposed to spend the night. It had happened last year: the police and coastguards had found his tent empty, the food  going mouldy, and nothing had been seen or heard of him since: a Liverpool man with spectacles.

The keepers and I regarded each other silently. My mind raced. At the Bay of Kearvaig the corner had been turned; Cape Wrath was now behind me, the arch below the lighthouse forming the bay's western headland, a huge horned stack to the east. Two men were camping on the strand and we sat round a fire of driftwood and talked until midnight, when I went way to sleep among the plovers in the dunes, the sunset colours still lingering in the sky. From Kearvaig eastward, the cliffs of Clo Mor rise sharply. Facing north they are shadowed and speckled with the white of birds and clumps of scurvy grass.

They are 900ft high, and vertical where they don't overhang. The sea whispers softly at their feet, the swell crawls landward in slow motion, seals bask on skerries: grey, black and silver, and sometimes, very faintly, their song rises to the watcher on the cliff. I spent the third night in the heather above the Kyle of Durness and the fog rolled in so that any dreams were threaded by sound: the fog horn, seals, the howl of the last wolf. I woke to space, to spiders' webs spangled with moisture against the cloud, to a new awareness as civilisation loomed on the other side of the Kyle.

The wilderness was inanimate but alive. It could not be intrinsically hostile but could well be a reflection of man's hostility, and his love. How many explorers have gone into the desert and found a soul out there beyond the sand and rocks? I had not heard the last wolf but my first.

Gwen Moffat: First published in High-Dec 1985