My husband is a keen surfer and the north coast has some of the best waves in the UK. We used to come here for weekends in our homemade camper, leaving after work on a Friday, and returning home on a Sunday night. I loved those weekends more than anything – waking up to salt air and getting the camping stove lit. When I wrote the poem 'Flow Country' we’d already been coming here for seven years. The poem appeared in the anthology My Favourite Place, published by the Scottish Book Trust in 2012. The year after that we bought a cottage overlooking the sea, and finally made the move north.
Another bridge, only here at Dornoch the tide
is out, mudflats stretching into the summer dusk
with endless glowing puddles, while out to sea
it is as white and intangible as heaven. We’ve made
this journey many times, first in your R-reg Transit,
and now in the silver VW, but always loaded with
your surfboards and a yellowing Silentnight mattress,
my books piled about the floor on the passenger’s side
(usually some Neil Gunn, which I will insist
on reading aloud even though you hate it).
In the hills around Golspie, I see a house,
one window lit, and this is what I’m thinking,
while you drive up the coast in the falling light:
one day, the mattress – the one your upstairs
neighbour gave us, seven years ago
when we were just kids – will be replaced
with our sofa, and boxes of bubble-wrapped
crockery, and we will carry it all north,
where we belong, and the books in the footwell
will be lined-up in a cottage whose lintels
were long-ago dug from the ground.
The road bobs and dips so we feel more
like a ship at sea, and just as we reach Portgower
it drops into the rocks and surf, as we round
the bend into the village. We cut across the flói*
on the back road to Melvich, forty miles
of single track. White moths from the peatlands
flutter past in the headlights, and it is here,
beneath Ben Griam Beg, its summit hidden
by cloud, that we see Loch an Ruathair, shining
like a shard of moon half sunk in the bog.
I buzz my window down and the moor whips
away the feelings I’ve been carrying since
we left the grey office block on the outskirts
of the city; the dubh lochans are deep enough
to hold all manner of worldly sin, and those
graphs and spreadsheets, the figures
and the sums, sink easily below their surface,
so that all that remains is a scum around
the deer grass and sphagnum. And I breathe.
The sky seems bigger up here – deeper, wider,
as though viewed through a fisheye lens.
And now as you drive, I am thinking of morning,
when we will walk on the beach, and the sea
will be curdled with white froth, and we’ll stand
by the edge and listen, because we have nothing
more pressing to do, to the roll and wash
of the waves, the slop, and the slow
fizzle, like egg frying on a Primus stove.
While the landlord of the Halladale Inn is busy
pulling your Guinness, a local leans on the bar;
he’s spotted the van outside and wants to know
how far we’ve come and where we’re stopping,
and my mind catches on the burs of his tongue.
This is how it sounds to my lowlander ear –
it’s a stove ticking and wind in the pipe,
the whisper of blown sand and patter of hail,
a gate clinking as it yawns on its hinge.
At Strathy, we park above the dunes,
pulling up near the graveyard’s stone dyke,
where tomorrow you’ll hang your wet towel
and I will pray the dead don’t mind,
and we step into the night to brush our teeth
in the long grass. All the clouds have gone
and you pull me close, tell me to look up.
Night is different in the far north.
We stand there for a long time, cradled
in each other’s silence, and by the waves
that are breaking, far, far, below.
* old Norse, most usually written as ‘flow’ but pronounced to rhyme with plough
Laura Morgan writes short fiction. She is published in The Moth, Causeway/Cabhsair, Northwords Now, Words from an Island, and others. Her stories have been long and short-listed for various competitions including the Bristol Short Story Prize and the Colm Tóibín Award, and she was runner-up in the 2016 Brighton Prize. Laura also has her own place-writing blog.