If you have ever driven the road right through the district of Uig to this farthest south-western corner of the Isle of Lewis, you’ll know Mangurstadh Beach. It sits almost out of sight, well below the road, just as you reach the top of that rise, three miles or so before the road finally abandons its attempt to go south, a little beyond Breanish. You’ll recall that rise where the road you have been confidently riding falls away from you like a breaking wave – I’d bet you’ll never forget it – the place where you suddenly fall forward into the open jaw of the Atlantic, where the sea and the sky rise up to ambush you. Just there, when you think that you are going to pitch headlong into so much space and distance, Mangurstadh Beach is waiting to catch you. If you allow yourself to be ensnared by it, you’ll forever be a haunter-of-edges. If you don’t watch yourself you’ll turn to stone down on that beach, a sea-smoothed rock-creature with eyes that are holes where the sky shines through.
Sometimes you do not sever yourself from a land you have loved by holding yourself back from it. Sometimes you sever yourself by giving it everything you have left, more than you are sure you can bear to risk. In the early days of this year, as our departure becomes real, I circle around the loved places, the places to which I have already given more of myself than was safe to risk. And I love all the more, and so risk all the more. Isn’t the loving and the risking, after all, the essence of what it is to be alive? And that act of loving is both an act of giving and an act of committing – not least, of committing to memory. It is also an act of worship, and so it is that we have fashioned a Sunday morning ritual: we walk out to the places we haven’t been to yet, the places we pass each day on the road, where so often we have said ‘Oh, we must go down there sometime …’ but of course we did not, because there has always been another pig-shed to muck out, another seed tray of fledgling vegetables to cherish. We stand in these familiarly unfamiliar places knowing that we will never know them fully now, nor they us. But we bow our heads to a rock and turn into the face of a wave; we let the wind carry us and we do not in this way ease the pain of our leaving, but rather participate in it. We choose not to simply fade from this place like ghosts; even in our passing we continue to try to bear witness to it.
This morning’s church was Mangurstadh beach, and as I stood back above the rocks and watched David and the dogs down by the shoreline, I was reminded of a poem by our friend John Glenday:
I send you the hush and founder
of the waves at Manghurstadh
in case there is too much
darkness in you now
and you need to remember
why it is we love
(John Glenday, from Grain, 2009)