This is the one place which I don’t yet know how to leave. Which I can’t quite believe that I can leave. My place. I recognised it the first moment I saw it. In some curious way it has defined this period of my life – this period that I’m now leaving. In some even more curious way, it has defined me. This place, with its vast expanse of slabbed rock extending underfoot like a multicoloured, layered carpet which slopes gradually down to smaller rocks, coated with emerald green algae, onto which the sea continually crashes. This undulating rock carpet is founded on gneiss, of course: Lewisian gneiss, one of the oldest rocks in the world. Gneiss is metamorphic rock – yes, metamorphic: a word shot through with all the possibilities of transformation that I could ever want. How could such a place not define me? I’m no geologist, but my understanding is that the layering effect is a form of igneous intrusion, produced by granite interwoven with bands of minerals, such as quartz. Whatever it is, my rock carpet is spectacularly beautiful, unique, and never fails to make me catch my breath in wonder. When you tread on it, you cannot help but do so with reverence, precisely because you are walking on some of the oldest rock on the planet. This rock has endured, and there are times in everyone’s life when endurance matters. The past year has been such a time in mine. This rock not only endures: it metamorphoses. It changes in form, it adapts to whatever storms and stresses may come along. It is phoenix rock, emerging renewed from temperatures greater than 1500°C and pressure that is greater than 1500 bars. Such things of necessity cause profound change if you mean to survive them.
There is a corner of this place which is a shrine. Cliff walls provide a home to succulent plants and to a miniature version of Scots lovage; a pool at the base never dries up and is inhabited by a species of fairy shrimp, or maybe gammarus … I have sat here often by the pool, cross-legged. In the cliffs behind the pool, if the light is right and your mind is open, you can identify several faces in the rock. One is the outline of a younger woman with a snub nose; another is the outline of a craggier face which belongs to a crone. In the cliff face to the left of the photograph you may see, if you are looking for it, the silhouette of a hag, and indeed it is known that in such places the Cailleach may stand and stare out to sea, perhaps looking for her husband the Bodach, otherwise known as Manannan, the sea-god.
Here, I have immersed myself in those stories of the Cailleach, the creator-goddess of this land. Here, I have become Cailleach for a time; I have become Storm; I have listened to the stories of stones – some of the oldest stones on the planet. I have stood for long periods of time by the side of that silhouetted Cailleach and stared out to sea with her, imagining the long ages and the unyielding rock and the unending power of the sea. Here, I have learned about endurance. I have learned about standing – and more than I ever wanted to know about making a stand. I have learned about digging in, and for sure I have learned about digging too deep. I have remembered too that the Cailleach, for all her seemingly harsh ways, danced her way across the mountains even as she brought the onset of winter, and I have remembered that I too have always loved to dance. This place has seen me grieve, but it has also seen me dance barefooted across its warm rock.
I’ve learned many things in this rocky place. But what I have learned above all else, four years on, is that I am not, after all, a creature of rock, or stone. I am not gneiss. I am a spirit of air and water: mutable, changeable, transforming. And when you dig yourself too deeply into an element that is not your natural element – as I dug myself into this hard, stony, peaty earth – then if you are very, very lucky it will spit you out rather than swallow you up.
It was a close thing, but she spat me out. Back to the horizon, and the distance; back to that clear light place where water meets sky, moving on, fluid, transforming, migrating. And on, down along the river, into the land of Riverwitch …
This piece is adapted from two longer articles on my ‘Re-enchanting the Earth’ blog http://reenchantingtheearth.com/2013/11/17/the-lessons-of-place/ and http://reenchantingtheearth.com/2013/08/04/stone-teller-extracting-stories-from-stones/