The beach at Port of Ness is far from the finest beach on these islands. Which, given how fine it is, says quite a lot. The big scythe of sand half a mile away at Eoropie dwarfs it in size and stature and even nearby Stoth gives it a run in terms of beauty. But as it’s the nearest beach to the croft, it’s the beach the dog and I walk most, at least once daily. Visiting the same place every day for a year gives the flux we find ourselves in some nice perspective. Far from unchanging, treading the same path over and over only seeks to highlight just how much of the world around us constantly shifts. It can also be very focussing. With little to dwell on for the half hour or so it takes to walk from one end of the shallow bay to the other, thoughts can’t help to turn to the surroundings.
A relatively inquisitive mind or someone of an autodidactic bent can learn a lot from the banalities of the process. For instance, waves, those relentless, unending stalwarts of the sea, for the first month or so of dog walking at the beach I thought a lot about them, the multitude of differences in their size and noise and direction, variations in movement and action. Where they started to break and why they break from left to right or vice versa. Pondering the how, where and why of the four classifications of spilling, collapsing, plunging, and surging. Inevitably, old internal physics lessons were dragged up from the recesses of more educated days and words like amplitude, wavelength and refraction remembered and thought through. Old experiments explaining why the gull bobbing out at sea isn’t swept in with the onward, rolling water, why the waves are perpendicular to the shore and so on.
While a walk might open up memories of school lessons it often opened up new areas of learning. The great striated sheets and curls of long cooled, pyroclastic past events led to research on local geology upon returning home and new-found knowledge (for me anyway) on Lewisian Gneiss, some of the oldest rock in the world. The less steadfast cliffsides surrounding the beach show a more sedimentary side, slipping and sliding downwards with each passing storm, changing the contours of the coastline, contorting old fences into ever new directions, the adjacent croftland itself always shifting, quite literally under sheeps’ feet. The seaweed that litters the place to varying degrees demands identification of taxonomy and research into how best to use this free source of fertiliser after filling bags with the good for growing green stuff. Shells get collected as does interesting flotsam and jetsam, plastic toy soldiers, bowling ball-sized fishing net bhoys, yards of beautiful old coir rope.
The sand itself is different every day. Tides determine the area of beach exposed twice a day, the pull of the moon subtly revealing just that little bit more or less depending on time of year and nearness to ebb or neap. Sometimes there is a vast expanse to walk, islands of often unseen rocks laden with jade ribbons of bladderwrack are suddenly exposed, secret paths to further afield parts of the beach opening up for just a few hours a week. Other times there is but a sliver to step upon as the water rushes towards the land leaving just a few meters to trek across tentatively, always looking back to make sure one does not get left cut off. Depending on the time of day and year there can be a thousand footprints from man, woman and beast or, best of all, none at all. I like the fact that, whatever the previous day’s activities, each new morning begins pristine, the sands shaken smooth again like a giant Etch-a-Sketch, a fresh start, a bank canvas on which to write anew.
The beach is full of nature, alive and often less so. A small colony of Northern Fulmars nestle in snug roosts for the latter part of the year, usually as pairs and confused threesomes. The males dive-bomb passers-by half-heartedly, more for show than grievance, returning again and again to chatter to their irate partner until danger is long gone. Out on the sea, but never close to shore, oblivious black cormorants bob along and above them the darts of diving terns pierce and plunge into passing shoals of silvery darlings deep below the surface. In winter months storms bring bedraggled guillemots and razorbills ashore, usually dead but sometimes found flapping wearily in the surf. In summer too, trouble far out at sea can wash up schools of multi-coloured jellyfish, netloads of small, sparkling fish and the odd young grey seal, common porpoise or even, once, a minke whale, brave failures in the rigours of ocean life. Year round, oystercatchers and peewits paddle at low tide or perch on rocks paying their small part in this abounding wee part of the world.
Once again weather is always being watched, where the sun is in relation to the horizon as the seasons move onward inexorably. After heavy rain two streams cascade off nearby croftland in dark waterfalls, making their own mark on the beach as this freshest of water makes its way to back to its saltier cousin for recycling, eventually, back to cloud. Rinse and repeat. And as the dog and I walk in driving rain and full waterproof gear, it’s easy to reflect on being here on past days with bare feet and shorts on, it feels like a lost lifetime ago but thankfully it will come around again. With the dark sky which looms not long past 4pm starting to give way, we look forward to being able to tread the same path in a few months time, with light long into evenings, bringing a mutual sense of return through the turning of time.
All in all, it’s the deep feeling of change that makes this simple routine meaningful. Life and death, ebb and flow, everything in motion and nothing staying the same, regardless of the timescales involved. I see my dog Mara growing up too, how she’s grown physically, how her behaviour has changed, I think about how many more years we’ll make this stretch of sand our daily routine, will we still be doing this when she’s too old to chase a ball, when will our last walk here together be? I think a lot about how life has changed for me also, the people who have come and gone, the problems that have been resolved and the issues that need to be faced still. Regardless of control or outcome, one things remains true, this is all just a fleeting moment of little importance, with no purpose other than to take from it the deepest of meaning one can, in the briefness we are allowed to glimpse it, through this great churn of energy and atom.