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Boat to MykinesAt last, in the Faroes, I got out on the sea almost immediately. Even though I had to fly to the Faroes, the airport happens to be a former British Army base a fifteen minute walk from the small harbour that served my destination. The Faroe Islands are a small scattering of islands in the North Atlantic, well connected by tunnels, boats and helicopters so that even a village of nine people does not feel cut off from the rest of the world. And this is where I headed to first of all. Not just because of the nine people, but because of the puffins, the gannets, the guillemots and the fulmars.

boat cliffs mykines

Being on the sea alters your perspective entirely, especially when towered over by preposterously steep and high cliffs, which in the Faroes often seem to have their heads in the clouds. There is nothing to do but gaze in awe at them – at their shape and angle, as if chunks of land have only recently been ripped out of the sea by a giant who got distracted mid task. And at the many thousands of birds who come to land on those steep angles to create new life.

Nordlysid from Mykines

There is a tale in this area, of two giants: Óli Rami from the island of Mykines and Þóri Rami from the nearby village of Gásadalur. They were fighting, and Þóri ended up under Óli. He pleaded with Óli not to kill him and promised in return three wishes. Óli Rami agreed and first asked for lots of driftwood. To this day there is a place named Viðarhelli on Mykines, meaning Driftwood Cave. But he found the driftwood ugly. Next he asked for lots of whales. Hvalagjá – ‘Whale Cove’- is also to be found on Mykines. But he found them ugly too. Finally he asked for lots of gannets, and these birds he loved. That is why they come only to Mykines in all of the Faroe Islands.

wheeling gannetsAnd come they do. I went to see them soon after I arrived. At first I didn’t realise quite what I was looking at – two nobbled  stacks, each white point a bird at the peak of a trail of guano like thousands of comets launching upwards. All of them gannets.

the gannetry sm

They are doing well, partly as a bi-product of climate change. As mackerel moves into Faorese and Icelandic waters as the sea temperatures rise, the gannet population has plenty to feed on.

gannet pair

b&W gannet

The adolescents launched off cliffs with widespread wings like a haphazard piano keyboard.

gannet ghost

 These angled cliffs allowed me to look in the eyes of some, and look almost vertically down on others – their bodies a white cross on a teal blue sea. Watching their elegant flight I almost missed what they were flying over.

seals and gannets

A few days later, on a different island, I found one dead as if it had dived straight into the sand. What happened in those final moments of magnificence?

dead gannet

dead gannet on beach

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I did not get a boat ride to the Faroes. As the tall ship that could not take me wended north, I was transported by intrigue through an unseen, green sea, clustered with living larch masts, where herons sat atop in watch: My last hours on Lewis were spent hallowing a heronry, following story traces in a cosm of life and death.

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Most of Lewis is blanket bog. To see a stand of trees is a rare and beautiful thing. To see a stand of trees from which twenty herons are lifting from the canopy, in silhouette against the white blanket sky, is to bear witness to a moment whose shape is primordial. We could not help but enter into it.

With my host Jon, I approached the edge of where we had seen them. Some saw us coming and took off; others stayed perched high in the larches, encircled by their twiggy beds. Young awaited food.

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One attempted flight, for what looked like the first time – gangly, uncertain.

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In that stand of trees there was new life in these birds, looking out and over towards the far horizon. But wherein that vitality burbled was a crucible of stillness. It sheltered them in their early days, and the carpet of pink purslane underfoot.

The winds from the Outside, metres away, left their legacies in uprooted trees, wrenching the ground skywards.

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Some birds did not make their winged destinies: some event unseen by us had wrenched their sky groundwards.

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All the while, a cuckoo sounded her clock – the clock that has measured my journey since I entered Scotland. I have heard the cuckoo everywhere I have been, but never seen it. Again my eyes were elsewhere while Jon’s eyes landed on her flight.

cuckoo

Photo: Jon Macleod

We left, knowing this was not a place for humans to linger long. We had been blessed with a glimpse into the Holiest of Holies.

We were buoyant

From the Assynt I headed to Lewis.

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My time in Lewis was, externally, characterised by a seemingly incessant wind and mi-chailear – a Gaelic term for ‘unpleasant weather’, which I learned within minutes of arriving in Stornoway, written as it was on the walls of An Lanntair arts centre within a text message poem sent by sailor-poet Ian Stephen from out at sea:

It was three shades below mi-chailear, but we were buoyant.

As I took the ferry across from Ullapool to Stornoway the weather changed many times in a couple of hours. I was heading out to an island in the the open sea, to position myself in the pathways of boats that may take me to the Faroes.

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This mi-chailear was punctuated by brief moments of benignity and blessing – the sun’s warmth penetrating my many layers. And, if I found a sheltered hollow, a standing stone or the right side of a house, it could warm me through in a soporific triangulation. The Lewis islanders are thoroughly fed up with this weather by now. They have suffered an exceptionally storm- embattled winter, and just want to plant out their vegetables and get out on their boats.

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The old Norse Mill and kiln at Shawbost – sadly not an occupied dwelling!

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Callanish

I had become used to the changeability of the weather in the Assynt, which bodily I felt to be a sign of my drawing closer to the dance of the elements that makes Iceland the place it is, and the place I long to return to. The journey north has been like standing at the edge of the disco, limbering up, waiting until the right time and the right music jolts me into the energetic core of approaching Arctic midsummer.

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Though within all that wind and damp, as I pick through the ashes of the first leg of my Northbound journey, I find some of the most brightly glowing image-embers of my trip.

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The bothy of all bothies – night and day

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I met a great many remarkable people, not least my host the artist and trace-hunter Jon Macleod. Through him and his many coloured tweed of people and places, woven over twenty years on the island, I quickly felt a part of it. His cosy home offered shelter from the weather, and a selection of books I could spend a year reading.

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There was music, film, seafood, croft visiting, first harvest rhubarb crumble making (which incidentally is how I ended up living in Iceland, but you’ll have to read my book for the full story!), many a peat fire, friend rescuing & car breakdowns – in the same trip, an astoundingly good pop up book shop hosted by an inspiring young couple who are about to drive to Japan (I came away with eight), a magical night in a bothy perched high on a cliff singing to a rock dove with the morning tea, walks on beaches – each with a very different character and a varied assortment of combings which ended up in my pocket, and on my last night a feast of carrageen – a seaweed milk pudding, eaten in the company of some very fine humans indeed, including peat poetess Anne Campbell and Australian environmentalist Bob Brown. Not to mention the myriad gifts underfoot.

IMG_9450Moss Campion – an Icelandic familiar of mine

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Raven feather

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Reindeer Moss and Heather

In amongst all that, my agenda was to find a ride to the Faroes on a boat. That story thread took several twists and turns during my stay. In the first hour upon arrival, I was introduced to Ian Stephen who is the go-to person for boat related requests, and incidentally was Robert MacFarlane’s sailing companion in The Old Ways. But he was off to a festival in Ireland, by boat of course. Two days later, I was thrown an incredible scrap of insider knowledge: that an 1884 Faroese smack, the Westward Ho! was due to dock in Stornoway at the weekend, just for two nights. Some heart racing research followed, and a phone call to the Tórshavn port authority where the captain was identified. I wrote to him with my story, hoping to just catch him before he set sail.

Westward Ho

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I had two days for my dreams to take full hold, and immensely enjoyed tracing the ship’s passage on marinetraffic.com but the reality was different. They were full, he said, and remained full on second request. I did at least get to see the beauty that would not be my ride. They had made the voyage from Tórshavn to Stornoway in thirty hours – a keen indication of how close I was. By chance that day there were two other much smaller French boats in harbour heading for Iceland, both also full, but it felt like the flow of northbound maritime traffic was beginning to trickle in. If I had been a month later I might have had more of a chance. Next time…

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In fact, the last day on Lewis was so memorable I felt privileged that I did not get the ride. I spent a part of it among herons. The sanctity of that experience is deserving of a post of its own.

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And so, slightly heavy hearted for many reasons, but spurred on by the ever weaving threads, I have left that northern perch, and swung southward to Edinburgh, where tomorrow I will fly north again, to Vágar in the Faroes. I will then take a ferry to an island and spend a couple of days in a village of ten people, and many thousands of seabirds.

Threads

thrift rockWhen I made my journey on foot in 2013, I was astounded, though not surprised, by the number of connections there were on my journey – people whose names came up again and again, chance encounters with people I had known and never met, serendipitous events helping me on my way. At walking pace, the whole of you can inhabit a patch as you travel through it: your stories, your intent. You leave threads of both clinging to the places you pass, like fibres of a sheep’s fleece as it brushes past the heather. Down the road as you walk into your intentions, another passer by, it seems, has gathered those threads, and woven them into a new story even better than you could have dreamed, cloaking you in all its pattern and colour.

thrift threads

I expected this journey to be a more isolated one, with less time for such weaving to occur, as much of my time is being spent moving at speed in a metal box called a car. But it is not to be.

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On my first morning, waking up at Glencoe Youth Hostel, I waited for the ‘Munroe baggers’ to leave before going to the kitchen (I tire quickly of their competitive chatter). There, sat quietly and alone was a man who was intriguing and somehow familiar. I could not figure out why he was familiar without staring at him more often than was acceptable so I gave up. When his height was next to me at the hob I looked across and suddenly out of my mouth fell the words, “Are you Tall Andy?”. And he was. We were at university together twelve years ago and have not crossed paths since. A five minute summary of the intervening years did not seem enough so I joined him and his friend on the first part of their hike. A gift of a first morning.

Glencoe path sm

Now, at the end of what felt to me like an epic few days of driving (though some would do the distance in a day), I have arrived in the Assynt, in the county of Sutherland – the Vikings’ ‘Suðurland’ (‘South Country’). I am in a tiny crofters’ village on the coast. There is a white sand beach and turquoise water when the sun is shining. The landscape is both wild and intimate, and deer and seals have become commonplace. I was told about this place by some Basque exchange students at the University of Edinburgh, while travelling in Morocco last Christmas. In the irrational way that I choose my destinations, this village became a kind of ‘Shangri-La': A place where I could spend a while, walking and writing, and letting the threads of my intent to reach the Faroes, then Iceland, catch on the heather.

heather threads

Separately, my housemates from Cumbria have recently completed a cycling trip through Scotland. One of their final destinations was to volunteer on a croft, in the same region as my intended ‘destination’. That much we all knew. Yesterday I found out that that croft is the neighbouring one to where I am. Three people from the same household, three weeks apart, end up within metres of each other with completely different inspirations and intent. Their story threads are still on the heather: I met someone yesterday who had spoken with them regularly and knew where they had gone next. There is no internet here, but word of mouth is loud and clear. Yesterday I walked past the croft where they had been without realising it, and was impressed by the strength and beauty of the horses I saw grazing. I have learned since that they are Icelandic, and that in this village the crofters own a mixture of Icelandic horses and Fell ponies (from Cumbria).

lichen threadsI have been walking not high or far, but exploring the Close-to-Here while the weather is changeable. It seems right to get to know your neighbours first – people, plants, creatures. The perfume of birch is in the air, and here crowberry ling has crept into the carpet, two of my Icelandic familiars. In the shelter of the forest there is the delicateness of primroses and bluebells aplenty, and out in the open the heather stems glisten a translucent red in the wet, the colour of straw dipped in drying blood. They do not live across the sea.

view from Willie's Achmelvich

And so it is that that the two places, the two parts of me I which to join up, are pooling into one another like the salty sea into the nearby loch, creating a mix of different strengths around wherever I place my feet.

Summer is around the corner. I can smell it and my feet long for horizons.

Some years ago, travelling in Zanzibar with my Icelandic then partner Orri, we were attempting to describe where Iceland was to a bemused Zanzibari. It seemed that London was at the furthest reaches of his mental geography. “North a bit. You know Scotland?” When prompted, he conceded he had heard of Scotland. “And more north,” we said. “More north?! So…north of the world?” ‘North of the World’ seemed like the most fitting term for Iceland I had ever heard. I congratulated him for nailing it.

Almost two weeks ago, leaving in my car from Cumbria England, I drove past a great number of motorway signs that had a diverse array of branches off to Elsewhere, but their main thrust was The North.

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En route to Glencoe

That is where I am heading – The North, then north some more – in an attempt to reach Iceland by land and sea. My wayfaring self would normally find these branches hard to ignore, but in a car they are soon gone – not an option to ponder. And besides, the pull towards an Arctic summer is as tangible for me as for the pink footed goose.

chasing the glacier's tail Glencoe

Chasing the glacier’s tail – nearly Glencoe

Since 2008 I have been in Iceland every summer except one. That moment when the warmth comes to the air – you can smell it. The green pushing up through the dead and the dandelions nodding their heads to the hum of eiders and the screeches of Arctic Terns is utterly beguiling. Everything other than what you are looking at seems not to exist.

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Ardnamurchan Peninsula

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For me this journey is a kind of pilgrimage on two levels. One is to return slowly and as the Norse settlers would have done to a land which used to be my home, to spend un-pressured time with a man who I used to share my life with and move our story forwards, to inhabit a cottage where my soul still lives and which needs some renovation. I have always wanted to arrive by sea, as it seems to me the only way the whole of you can arrive. Sadly the closure of the ferry line between Shetland and Iceland coincided with the year of my first visit. Since then, the route from Norway has also closed, leaving only a very convoluted route down to Harwich, across to Esbjerg in Denmark, then to Iceland via the Faroes.

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The magical moment where Wester Ross begins

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Looking back on Wester Ross

With Cumbria as my starting point, it seems absurd (and expensive) to go this way, so the second level of this pilgrimage is a continuation of my Wayfaring in summer 2013: a journey of openness and trust. I had wanted to explore Scotland then, but between the midges and the weather it was too late in summer for it to be enjoyable. Now I can come to know a little these patches of land and sea between where I live now and and where I lived before – to fill in the gaps in my internal landscape. Being on wheels this time, it is a very different sort of journey, but similar in its ethos. I am simply heading north, and seeing who I meet along the way who may get me to the Faroes, from where I can get a ferry to Iceland. As with everything in life, all one can do is try it and enjoy doing so. At the very least one meets some wonderful people in the asking.

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Applecross

Torridon to end

Torridon to Diabaig

For me, the journey north also feels like a journey back in time: I am heading towards the end of the last ice age. The smoothened hills of Cumbria gave way to the steep and jagged peaks of the highlands, some still with snow on top. And I know well the shape of the mountains and glaciers that await me in Iceland. Plant succession had transitioned from what I am familiar with in Cumbria, to include some flowers I am familiar with from Iceland. I spied Cuckoo Flower lining the road from Loch Lomond onwards, which is a wildflower I became familiar with in Iceland – there it is called Hrafnaklukka (‘The Raven’s Clock’). As I head further north I’m sure I will start seeing ever more of my northern familiars, and fall in love with them again and again.

loch assynt

Loch Assynt

Since I left Iceland for England more than two tears ago, it has certainly not left me. I feel as if I have a foot in each land, and this journey is bringing them together.

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To Suilven, Assynt

What is home? What is belonging? These are some of the questions I’ll be asking myself as I head into the lengthening evenings, at a pace at which my soul can hopefully keep up with my body – or at least no too far behind. This is a journey, as ever, in between. And in the in between of things the veil is always thin, the character is strong and for now the sun is shining.

Rising

today's inspiration

These past months I have steered my course guided by belief in what I know I must do. I must write. I have written. Some days I write much, others none – for a long time. But all in all this is what I have been doing. This has been the purpose of my being. And when I am walking, or engaged in some other task that is not sitting at my computer, I remind myself that this is still writing.

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It has paid off. I have been published for the second time in the wondrous Earthlines magazine, this time an excerpt from my book, a piece called Mataræði which is the Icelandic for ´Diet´and literally means ´Food Craziness´.

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And Breaking Up, a piece that came out whole upon return from a literally earth shattering trip to Iceland last summer, is soon going to appear in the Dark Mountain Journal Issue 7.

But most rewarding of all, is the recent news that I shall be able to dedicate myself to this task for three whole years. I have been awarded a PhD scholarship in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow, where I shall work on this memoir as my thesis. I am beyond delighted, and in a strange way I knew it would come to this.

Last summer, I had been considering how I could dedicate myself to a message I had heard loud and true – that I must write about Iceland – and still sustain myself. I had always thought I would only ever do a PhD if it served a very specific aim that married my interests and allowed a progression in my career and personal life. En route to catch my flight to that fractious time in Iceland, I stopped over at a friend’s house. In my bag was a ‘to do’ list of the cluttered kind one makes before leaving on a journey. I was proud that I had managed to cross everything out. Except one thing: ‘Email Dave Borthwick’ it said. Dave was one of the academics I had identified online as being a suitable potential supervisor.  My friend collected me from the station. “Have I ever told you about my friend Dave Borthwick?,” she said. “He’s coming for tea.” The rest, as they say, is history.

Troutbeck

It is a tricky path to tread, writing about a challenging time in one’s life whilst trying to move on from it. Being faithful to what happened while thinking about an audience. So far I have not been thinking much about an audience, but I know when a good piece comes out, and I know an audience would be enchanted, as I am. Those pieces come through me rather than from me, and can be prompted by holding a quartz crystal from a beach in Iceland once sent to me, or having a thought drop heavily and surely into my mind while cooking dinner.

For now, between the Cumbrian rainbows and horizontal hail, I am enjoying the prospect of an imminent summer of journeying north. I shall be making my way slowly to Iceland by land, (possibly air), and sea via the Faroes to my little house on the edge of everything – a fitting pilgrimage towards a new chapter, before my PhD starts in the autumn. If anyone knows anyone who might be sailing from Scotland to the Faroes, or Scotland to Iceland in late May who might like a writer on board, please do get in touch!

I leave you here with a beautiful Icelandic rímur: þegar vetrar þokan grá by Þorsteinn Erlingsson (1858-1914), sung by Steindór Andersen, who was the Westfjords Goði of the Ásatrúafélagið when I lived there (a post about that here), though he lived elsewhere. It tells of the longing for summer from the winter fog, choosing to sit in the light if that is what you love, but remembering the darkness and its place.

Þegar vetrar þokan grá
þig vill fjötra inni:
svífðu burt og sestu hjá
sumargleði þinni.

Þar var löngum lokið skjótt
lífsins öllum mæðum.
Manstu, hvað þær flýðu fljótt
fyrir hennar kvæðum?

Taktu öruggt hennar hönd,
hún mun aftur finna
þau hin sælu sólskinslönd
sumardrauma þinna.

Þar sem loftsins létti son
leið með skærum hljómi,
þar sem yndi, vor og von
vögguðu hverju blómi.

Fljúgðu helst á hennar fund,
hvenær sem þú getur,
við það munu stund og stund
styttast nótt og vetur.

En ef létt er lundin þín,
loftið bjart og næði:
sestu þar sem sólin skín,
syngdu lítið kvæði.

Það er líkt og ylur í
ómi sumra braga;
mér hefur hlýnað mest á því
marga kalda daga.

May your Springtime be an unbridled sprouting of winter’s stored inspirations, rising towards the sun. Happy Easter all.

Mulling and Clearing

Eskdale path

It is true that this blog is not a place I have chosen to inhabit for a long while. It is a place for my more spontaneous responses to the world around me, to events, people, ideas, activities. This past six months feel as though they have had a rhythm of their own – a slow throbbing which had to be. A lull in my normal energy as my cells reconfigured themselves, suspended in grief. A trip to Iceland at the end of summer was a cleansing flush – a wave of motion, newness, and knowing what is not, even if I do not yet know what is.

I have been writing. And I have been creating a dedicated space within which that writing can happen. I have known for a long time that I need to write a book about my experience in Iceland, but when that experience did not turn out as I had dreamed, it was too overwhelming a task to consider. Now, thanks to time, good friends and new perspectives I am beginning to pick out the gold dust in the darkness, and fan old embers which have waited so long to crackle again. In between the chapters of draft, I try to create shorter, whole pieces, which have been or will be published. My words have even been spoken out loud at Lancaster Spotlight – a monthly spoken word event. Here is a piece on Caught By The River, with more to come soon in various exciting journals.

text fragmentA fragment of a true tale

I have made space by completing a project I stumbled into, which was a serendipitous extension of my Wayfaring. I had met a character in Cumbria named Walter Lloyd, an 89 year old former charcoal burner who lived in a bow top wagon built with his own hands. He had shown me his barn full of rusting everything, much of it paraphernalia to do with rural trades such as coppicing, coopering, tanning, blacksmithing, hay making, rope making…he had it all. It so happened that soon after my move to Cumbria a charity was awarded a small Heritage Lottery grant to restore these hand tools into a functioning tool library for free use by the public. So began Walter’s Tools, and I was asked to run it. It has been a fascinating and challenging way in to being in Cumbria, and through it I have met many fine people and deepened my knowledge. But now it feels time to return to my own unfinished business – writing about Iceland.

S ScythingLearning to scythe – part of the Walter’s Tools project

I have made space by getting a studio. At some point in their lives, preferably sooner than later, the artist in everyone deserves to be honoured by having a dedicated space to express, to procrastinate, to think, to not be disturbed, and to not have to tidy up to make way for the dinner plates. I do not know why I didn’t take this step sooner but it has been transformational. The space I now inhabit is tucked away in a cottage adjoining a former Victorian carpet factory, which has also been converted into artists’ studios.

Sarah's studio picMy studio

I happened to call the developer one day back in Spring when my grief gave me a short break, knowing that all the spaces were most probably taken. That day, someone had just decided they did not need as much space as they had thought, and as if my magic the space was mine. I now sit and write with the clacking of weavers next door on one side, the whispered cross hatching of a Japanese painter on the other, and the shaving and hammering of a chair maker below. Matter is being transformed into beauty in this building, and it seeps under every door.

Lindin Goda necklaceLindin Goda leafIceland inspired jewellery by me

This weekend our doors shall be open to the public with our first ever Open Studios. Do pop in and say hello, if you would like to hear about Iceland or see what I make of it. As it is not that interesting to watch a writer tap away at their computer, I shall be selling winter cards with my photography from Iceland, jewellery I have made that was inspired by Iceland, and of course …Icelandic jumpers!

Howgills sweep

With the turning of the year upon us and another year older, I hope to drink deeply of my mulled liquids and clear paths to new open doors. It is all a journey, but I am glad to be striding again.

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