Pen of the oyster-catcher

Portmahomack, a fishing village on the north shore of one of the fingers of land that jut out into the North Sea, thirty or so miles north of Inverness.

There is something perfect about it.

Somewhere close, our collie dog, Tess, is barking, playing with the waves. I follow the waterline, ensuring that only the thick soles of my boots get wet. It is March and that green-grey sea is icy, here on the Sutherland coast. We’re an hour’s drive from John o’ Groats, the most northerly point on the British mainland. Had it been May, I might have paddled…

I am here to write, not play on the beach; though the early mornings and evenings will be devoted to making sure that the collie has lots of exercise and that I don’t become dull by sitting too long at that old wooden desk in the hotel room; the one that smells deliciously of ancient wood and generations of preserving polish. It even has a hole where the inkwell used to be.

The Oyster Catcher will do nicely for the evening meal. A latté, by itself, for breakfast – the mild hunger helps me think – and, at this time of year there’s nothing better for lunch than a steaming bowl of fish chowder with a chunk of locally-baked bread. I’ll see if I can persuade the hotel to do it; perhaps swap them a glowing review on Trip Advisor… It’s worth a try.

But food is for later. For now, I just want to drink in where I am, a writing castaway in this quiet and relatively unvisited place – at least I judge it so, as we are, as far as I can see, practically alone in Portmahomack.

We each have our own writing triggers. For me it’s a combination of sky, landscape, beaches.. and some inspirational music. Sometimes, I find a place that combines them all… This is one such. I’m looking forward to meeting a few of its residents, but not too many. Maybe a couple of beers, or a glass or two of wine after the evening meal, then an early night with one of my current books – I’m studying how William Boyd writes such apparently simple novels, yet hooks you into the plot early in the first chapter. Try ‘Any Human Heart‘ if you want to sample his best.

It helps to fall to asleep reflecting on how great writers do it… and wake refreshed and determined to have a go…

I’ll set the alarm so that I wake about six. I will open the curtains and look out at that vista, listen to the sea and drink in the the sheer wonder of being here. The start of the day will see me making a rubbish cup of tea from the contents of the wooden tray in the wardrobe, before taking Tess onto the beach across the road. Then I’ll sit down to begin the writing, knowing, at the end of the first couple of hours’ creativity, that a delicious coffee awaits at the tiny cafe along the quay. Later on, someone might be making chowder with home-made bread in the Oyster Catcher.

Sky, landscape and beaches… You can see from the photos how lovely this part of Scotland is, but none of them convey the sheer size of the Scottish sky. We’re less than an hour north of Inverness on the east coast of Scotland, yet we could be in a different world and in a different time. Most of our previous trips have been to the western highlands, which are glorious; but this part of the highlands has been a revelation. We are told that there are far fewer midges here in the north-east of the country. Depending on the time of year, this can be a life-saver.

Across the waters lie the mountains of South Sutherland – which don’t appear to have a generic name – but that may just be my lack of knowledge. We are well north of the famous skiing region of the Cairngorms and the landscape is very different. Golden beaches seem to be everywhere; most of them empty. Good to walk on and Collie heaven…

It’s not so much a question of writing a book as finishing one. Several years ago, we ran a Silent Eye weekend workshop called ‘River of the Sun‘, a modern mystery play, told in five acts, and set against the backdrop of the 19th Dynasty in ancient Egypt. The man who would become Pharaoh Ramases II is sailing back up the Nile to be at the bedside of his dying father – the, arguably, greater Seti I.

Ramases knows his father has little time left, yet he seems in no hurry to return to the royal palace. Instead, he mounts a night-raid on one his father’s favourite temples on an island in the Nile, run by a high-priestess the son suspects of heresy… The audacity and spiritual violence has far-reaching consequences…

The workshop was a success. Several people commented that the plot would make a good novel. As a test I serialised the first part of the book as a series of blogs (see list at the end of this post), but time has passed and I have yet – and inexcusably – to complete it. Hence being here…

We have reached the quayside. It’s quite windy and the farther out along its length we go the more we get blown. We do not linger… but return to the shelter of the village streets. Other days will dawn and the wind will have abated.

From along the beach, my wife, Bernie, calls… Tess barks for our reunion. My wandering reverie is broken. With a sigh I turn the corner of the quay and begin my walk back to where she and the Collie are waiting by the car for us all to depart. In a second, my fantasy of a creative break in this newly-discovered haven vanishes. It is not that it is impossible, just that it will have to be another time, as we are staying in a cottage forty minutes south of Portmahomack, not here.

I take one last look at this idyllic fishing village and get into the car. Tess licks my face and Bernie smiles at my wistful expression.

“A writers’ paradise?” she asks.

How well she knows me… But I will be back, though some other writing room may witness the creative conclusion of The River of the Sun.

For now, there are other places to visit on this lovely winter tour of north-east Scotland. Who knows what other writer’s dens I may encounter in this magical land.

©Stephen Tanham

Stephen Tanham is a director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit teaching school that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

Index to opening chapters of River of the Sun:

Chapter One – Gifts From the River

Chapter Two – An Agony of Sunset

Chapter Three – The Dark Waters

Chapter Four – Touching the Sky

Chapter Five – The Fire Within

Sound of the Primeval

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The grey dawn was breaking around the huge ship. It’s not a boat, Captain Thassos had explained. A ship is much bigger than a boat… you can fit several boats into a ship. Later on in the cruise he would provide a wonderful illustration of this. For now we were about to have an experience of a lifetime, and it was ironic that the very landscape dawning around us was very similar to the one on the other side of the planet that we were supposed to have visited…

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Two years prior, we had booked our first ever cruise as an experimental holiday. We love landscapes – especially dramatic ones – and thought that a week’s trip to see the Norwegian fjords (from the inside) would be a wonderful holiday. We had never been cruising, and, frankly, I was doubtful that being kept prisoner on even a well-fed ship was going to be my cup of tea. With a week to go, our cruise was cancelled – due to overbooking. At first we were enraged; but the compensation package offered by Celebrity Cruises was so good that we accepted their sincere apology and, banking the voucher for a free cruise of the same value (plus our money back and all expenses), we looked at the forward calendar…. and wondered…

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My eldest son and our daughter-in-law; plus our two grandchildren, live in Australia. Once every two years, we try to get out to see them. So, we thought, why not combine the two and spend November – one of the dreariest English months – having a combined Australia/New Zealand trip, with the replacement cruise being the first part of the experience. We are retired from a long life in IT, and happily, we can do this sort of thing –  but not too often, as cruising of any form is expensive.

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We had left Sydney two days before. It was such a beautiful experience that I blogged about it at the time – from my iPhone. But Milford Sound, the most primeval landscape on the whole of New Zealand’s South Island, was now up ahead, and Captain Thassos was waking the whole ship, early, to allow us time to get ready for this very special experience. ‘Once in a lifetime experience’ is overused but in this case we had reason to believe it would be so. Much depends on the weather… You can travel to this, one of the most southerly places on the planet, and see nothing because of the mist. New Zealand is a beautifully misty place…

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But, as our luck with the Norwegian cruise had been bad, so this was was good – more than good, because, as my first sprint to the upper deck showed, we had the perfect combination of wispy mist and a clear morning – not always present in Milford Sound.

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It was still before seven in the morning, yet just about every able-bodied person was on one of the upper decks. The Solstice is one of the largest vessels on the seas. It dwarfed the other tourist boats going past us, as can be seen from the above photographs.

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Milford Sound is a misnomer. A sound is an outlet to the sea formed by a river system. Milford was created by a glacial system – the mountains all around give the clue. Because of this the ‘lip’ of Milford Sound is quite shallow; something that would have produced problems for large vessels until the latest generation of low-draught ships (such as the Solstice) came into service.

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The highlight of the experience came when we had penetrated Milford Sound to the end of its navigable depth. The Solstice is equipped with twin giant propellors that can be rotated through 360 degrees. This enables complete turns to be made within the length of the ship: the vessel simply rotates in the water on its horizontal axis. Captain Thassos made a point of stressing how much control it gave the crew in tight or difficult situations.

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The ‘doughnut’ turn complete, it was time to visit the last of the vast waterfalls that tumble from the highland peaks into Milford Sound. Then we made one last turn before heading back into the open waters of the ocean. There were two more locations to visit on the ‘Fjord Coast’ of New Zealand’s South Island, but none compared to Milford Sound. Visitors from inland face a difficult car journey or many days on foot to get there. We had arrived in the comfort of the huge Solstice, which also offered us her height from which to see the whole of glacial landscape.

The captain took care to explain that the apparent fumes given off by the Solstice-class boats are not polluting. The engines have catalytic processes that convert what would be diesel smoke to harmless vapour – that is what is seen emerging from the giant funnels.

The trip of a lifetime? It most certainly was. There were many other stopping points on our ten-day cruise around New Zealand. I will be writing about the best of them in posts to come.

©️Stephen Tanham


Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye School of Consciousness, a not-for-profit organisation that helps people find a personal path to a deeper place within their internal and external lives.

The Silent Eye provides home-based, practical courses which are low-cost and personally supervised. The course materials and corresponding supervision are provided month by month without further commitment.

Steve’s personal blog, Sun in Gemini, is at stevetanham.wordpress.com.

You’ll find friends, poetry, literature and photography there…and some great guest posts on related topics.

 

 

South of the wall (1)


We normally take a week’s holiday at this time of year. Our Silent Eye’s main event – the April Workshop in Derbyshire – is a result of a year’s intensive preparation by the organisers and some very concentrated participation by all those present. 

This year’s ‘Feathered Seer’ workshop worked very well and Sue and Stuart’s posts cover it in some detail, as per my reblogs, here. 

Bernie and I have never been cruising. It didn’t feel like our thing, and I have this morbid dread of cabin fever based upon overnight ferry trips we have made to get the car to such starting points as Santander in northern Spain. 

But the prospect of a cruise on a very large and well-equipped ship appealed when we saw an advert by Celebrity Cruises for a seven day trip from Southampton to the Fijords of Norway – the ones that the extra-terrestrial Slartibartfast designed in Douglas Adams’ ‘The Hitch-hiker’s guide to the galaxy’. 

So, we booked… and, two weeks before the trip, we were still booking little day trips from the boat, like Kayaking excursions, and Celebrity were still accepting our additional monies. 

When I got back from ‘The Feathered Seer’, Bernie sat me down with a coffee and said she had some bad news… A representative from the company had phoned and explained that our cruise had been cancelled – those exact words. At first, I assumed it meant that the boat had come down with a massive virus, or some huge marine engineering problem, but no… the phrasing was exact, ‘our’ cruise had been cancelled…

To cut a long explanation short, it appears that cruise companies overbook their boats on the basis that some cancellations always occur – but this time clearly not enough. We we bumped and dumped… and read the small print, there’s nothing you can do about it. 

There were apologies and a generous compensation package, including a free cruise some time in the next two years at our leisure. But we weren’t going to Norway. 

With my Slartibartfast hat on I wished I had been home to take the call from Celebrity. I would have asked what was to stop them from cancelling our ‘replacement’ cruise a few days before that one is due? Further incursions into the Douglas Adams world would have led me to ask whether they actually had any boats at all; or were just operating the world’s most slick business plan, based on endless cancellations…

But now I’m getting churlish…

So, we’re not in Norway, we’re sitting in a last-minute booked  resort in Cancun, Mexico. It looks very nice and we’ll get some sun, but probably not too much kayaking. It’s a long way to fly for a week but we’ll make the best of it!

We figured the Mexicans needed a break, too…

I’ll attempt to keep the irony going with a series of ‘Not from Norway’ posts as we dance on our hats… our celebrity hats…

(Posted from my iPhone so forgive the formatting!)

Image: Wikipedia CC by 2.5