I felt it in my bones when I left the small, sheltered outpost of Ullapool on Scotland’s north-west coast yesterday – and knew I’d make Skye by nightfall.
Speed bonnie boat like a bird on a wing . . .
It is another of my grandchildren’s favourite songs, a lullaby that, despite their teenage years, they have never outgrown.
When I turned into Loch Aillse, Scotland’s closest mainland point to Skye, a massive mountain across the sea, too close to be that blue, slugged me in the heart.
. . . over the sea to Skye
The bridge crossing was sudden, landing me in a chaotic hum of B&Bs and other tourist facilities. I drove through and on, towards the main town of Port an Righ, which lazy English tongues have renamed Portree.
Late afternoon clouds roll over the island; mists turn the mountains grey, a rainbow bridge pours light into the sea.
It is morning. Scattered showers steal small bursts of sunshine from the sky.
I take the road north, having decided to spend today driving around the island’s topmost peninsula.
At the sight of cows crossing a tidal mudflat I decide this is as good a place as anywhere to stop for breakfast; load a small tub of yoghurt with fresh blueberries and promptly snap the only piece of cutlery I possess: a plastic fork.
Life on the road being what it is I simply turn the handle around and make a game of balancing berries on the tip as I shovel the yoghurt.
I glance at the toy map and that’s when I realise I’m on the wrong road – not that there’s anything particularly ‘wrong’ with it, I just have the strongest sense I’d like to be on the other side of the peninsular today.
So I turn around and drive back through Port an Righe – Scottish distances being what they are you’re never too far out of your way.
And so begins the loveliest of days on a and narrow road.
A mountain, misted with rolling vapour, green, flattish, leaning gently towards the sky, like a stack of pancakes on a tilt – and tall stones standing sentry to the forces of life.
I pull into the nearest layby, and there I sit, staring at a landscape that pitches with sun and shadow like a boat on a stormy sea, making sense of a thunderbolt of knowledge that floods my heart.
And I watch: sunlight races around the sheer rock face of the mountain; bursts of rain shade the mountain grey – but always, always, no matter how dark and low the cloud, the stones stand in clear air.
There is an incantation on my lips, my arms long to stretch for the sky above, the wind and rain are my allies, the mist my touchstone to mystery.
O holy rock of deepest memory . . . utterly untouched by Christian colonisation, by nationhood, parliaments and kings.
A priestess’s mystery, locked in time.
I could sit here all day.
But I do not.
I turn the key and drive on, seeking the pathway at the foot of the mountain. I rug up for any weather, wrap a scarf around my ears and the storm cover around my pack, and step onto the path.
A sign tells me one rock has been given a name: Old Man of Storr.
I laugh to myself: trust Englishmen to see only a wrinkly dick.
The rocks have a Norse name An Storr.
I set off up the muddy path, winding through pine forest, recently felled. The track is boggy, wet; the trees still standing offer shelter against the wind.
Up and up it winds through pockets of forest still standing, a carnage of harvest where they are not. The pines peter out and I am left standing at a gate, craning my neck at a clipped green mountainside dominated by the one the English call Old Man Storr. I stare, wondering if I should spoil my encounter with the rocks by going any closer; if I ought not step back, the point from where mysteries are often best viewed.
Those rocks are a beacon, signaling to the wider universe to which they are interconnected.
The howling wind calls me to me. I climb on, up and up and up. I stop to catch my breath and this time gasp at the sight of the rock: light and perspective shift and indeed I feel the strength of the noble masculine.
I continue to climb, up up up into the howling wind. And then I see him – a man’s face, Viking visage, huge, handsome, mustachioed with a clipped beard, a man at peace, almost smiling, staring out of the rock to the eastern sea.
O holy rock.
I am awed by the Norseman in the rock.
I climb on, but not too far – just far enough to feel the subtler feminine presence, vaster, broader, in the other rocks.
I photograph An Storr.
I attempt to photograph the castle shapes of the feminine rocks and the mists steal her away. When they clear, I try again, and my camera dies.
Mystery has stolen common sense from my day.
She will not be displayed.
She will not be named.
She will rise and, once risen, shall rise again.
I turn to slide down the mountain. The wind is so fierce I feel it lift me off the mountainside, the sensation is like that of a space gravity machine I stepped into in Malaysia many years ago.
Down down down I slide, back towards mortal reality, taking shelter in the forest from a hammering rainstorm.
The image of the Norse man in the rock is carved into my imagination. As I burrow my hands into my pockets and bow my head against the wind and driving rain, I wonder if my longing to walk in shoes shaped like tennis rackets across fields of snow precedes the stories of my childhood . . .