I woke in the night, dreaming that I had to crawl down a long, dimly-lit tunnel, carved by human hands and supported by weathered pit props. In front and behind me, others were crawling, so that I could not see their faces, but could only keep pace with the shuffling rhythm of their knees and feet. The heat furred my mouth and throat. It seemed that I had been here before, crawling this same tunnel, enduring this same heat. I was awake, but the fear of the dream lingered with me, drawing me back into its darkened places.
I lay in the darkness, feeling my heart slow to a sleeper's pace. I unzipped the door of the tent and drunk in lungfuls of cool air, tasting the unfamiliar taint of seaweed and salt. Across the loch, a single lighthouse turned and turned, pulsing in the silent darkness. The sound of birds somewhere on the night-time loch comforted me. I had got too hot in my sleeping bag. That's all. It took some time to settle into sleep again.
In the grey tones of the morning, rain thrummed on the tent fabric. I packed in the half-light of a highlands dawn, the world reduced to a dark, furrowed loch, the dense slopes of conifers evaporating into the cloud above. In the stillness which comes with rain, I could hear the ferry crossing the water, the visceral growl of its engines like a warning against the vagaries of travel. I waited with my bicycle at the head of slipway, watching oystercatchers spill one over the other on the exposed mud, their peep-peep-pirrrr seeming too loud, too hollow in the vacancy of the morning. It was raining, there was a ferry coming, and I was alone with my bike.
By mid-morning, the rain had eased, and blue skies appeared in threads over the Kintyre peninsula. I cycled beneath clearing skies, drying out in the breeze on my bike, rolling effortlessly along the west coast of Arran, pedalling away from the haunting presence of my nightmare. Crossing from the mainland to the island, my mood had lightened; the hills were russet and purple with the tones of a fading summer, the rocks by the shore were curved into shapes too beautiful to imagine. I passed standing stones and chambered cairns, and once again pondered on the meaning of the land to people with whom we could never communicate, whose values and attitudes we interpret from their leavings and funeral rights. What chance, I thought, for us and the messages we leave behind?
I camped that night at Kildonan, at the southern tip of the island, on a cropped shelf of rich machair grass, above a beach of silvered sand beyond which, on the far horizon, Ailsa Craig rested like a curling stone on the water.
I sat on the short, prickly grass through the long afternoon, noting the sun's decline towards the tall westward cliffs at the end of the beach, looking up at intervals from my book to stare absently at the two islands which framed my view. Nearer, to the left, Pladda: low, squat, rimmed with a line of small crags, topped by a lighthouse. Beyond, to the right, that haunting presence of Ailsa Craig: domed, bulky, half-hidden in shadow, circled by gannets. My eyes flickered from one to the other, probing their contours, picking out details as the sun shifted and shadows sharpened. It was a rare moment; a chance to simply stare at the horizon, to feel the warmth of the sun on my skin, to absently hear the curlews trilling their course across the flat rocks and to feel completely, peacefully, at home in the world.
The prefix Kil- in Scottish place names signifies the presence of a saint's cell or hermitage – an early Celtic Christian church which gave its name to the village. There are examples of Kil- along the length of the west coast, mostly dating from the days of Colm Cille; Saint Columba, the Irish emigré priest who, by virtue of beaching in a narrow pebbly cove on Iona, is credited with spreading Christianity through Scotland. I have passed through a number of such places over the years, and I begin to marvel about the sense of rightness which can be found there: not righteousness, which is something different altogether, but a sense that these places hold some combination of microclimate and flora and perhaps, even, the colour of the rocks, which makes them feel right. They are special places, I believe, not because the saints have visited, but perhaps because the saints themselves had a skill which we may all have possessed but increasingly lose: to feel instinctively that almost-perfect combination of factors which make us feel at home at once, as though these are places to which we belong.
Before I left for the islands, I pulled down a copy of Neil Gunn's The Well at the World's End to take with me – a book I first read in my late twenties, and my copy of which spilled dust from its yellowed edges as I eased it from the shelf. I had read a lot of Gunn's work at that time in my life, and it seemed oddly talismanic as I packed for my trip, with its highland scenes and images, its themes of epiphany and rediscovery.
The book begins with a haunting image of a couple searching for water to fill their kettle whilst on holiday in the highlands. An old lady at an isolated cottage directs them to a well which they are convinced is dry. But when they plunge the kettle, they find it filled with water so clear and pure it is almost invisible. The well is a metaphor for the serendipity we wish for in middle age, the ways in which the apparent emptiness of our lives can be replenished by the unique, the numinous, the unlooked-for.
Like many of Gunn's books, The Well at the Word's End explores the spark of happiness which many people experience when outdoors. His canon of work, between the 1930s and the 1950s, feels like a working-out of an unresolved question, a debate with oneself which, amidst its explorations of Scottish nationalism and international socialism, the shifting threats of the world war and the cold war, returns again and again to a fundamental question: what is it that creates this unique spark of delight when I am alone out of doors? How do I capture that child-like joy which I recall from so many scenes of my youth, and which I spend my adulthood yearning to rediscover? What is the nature of the numinous, that thing which I can believe but cannot explain?
I returned to Kildonan later in the summer, this time with the rest of the family, on a cycle tour around the perimeter of Arran. Once again, the weather at the southern end of the island was benign, the palm trees above the beach hissing softly in a late august breeze, the pale sands of the beach warmed by the afternoon sun. The low light, the darkly rippled sea, the breeze which tugged the pages of my notebook: all spoke of summer ending, of the turning of the seasons and the onset of autumn. I sat on the verandah of the hotel with my tea, staring again at the almost-mythical bulk of Ailsa Craig, the way it squatted on the sea as though weightless, the way that it divided the light so sharply from the shade. To the west and to the east, the mainland was shrouded in darkened rain clouds. The southern tip of this island was once again strangely bathed in sunshine, the air fresh and newly-scrubbed, as though awaiting the visit of a saint.
Listening to the sounds of my children below on the sand, I felt again that sense of peace, that feeling of rightness, that satisfaction in watching these two islands poised above the water. A single heron made a funereal pass over the surface of the waves, the slow pulse of its wings keeping pace with the gentle hiss of the incoming sea.
Ian Hill is a Cumbria-based writer, whose work has been published in Earthlines magazine, and the Dark Mountain anthologies, among other places. More of his work can be found at www.printedland.blogspot.co.uk.