by Lottie Fyfe
There’s a house at the northeastern edge of Scotland, across the Moray Firth, about three quarters of a mile outside the small Highland town of Dornoch. My father grew up in this house, and my grandfather kept it on until he died, and my father’s brother moved back in. I’ve been coming to this place since I was a baby, and it has stayed exactly the same as it has always been. The piano we plonked away on as children stands on the original 1960s green patterned carpet that still graces much of the house, along with the varnished wooden fittings and open stairs that the dogs won’t climb for fear they’ll fall through the gaps. The same bright turquoise formica sink sits in the corner of my room, a room I shared with my brother on holidays here. It has twin beds and a shared nightstand whose cupboard used to house an old copy of Jaws that radiated terror and was the subject of many a childhood nightmare. Jaws is gone, lost to time, but the rest remains, and time and time again, each visit is inordinately comforting in a life of inevitable change.
We used to drive for hours and hours to get here. It’s a good stretch north of Inverness, and one of the last staging posts on the way to Caithness and the very edge of the mainland. To visitors and first-timers it can feel like the end of the world, and it’s easy to forget that life happens up here much the same as anywhere else. There are supermarkets a short drive away, a well-to-do gift shop selling Barbour coats and Harris Tweed, and a lovely deli selling soft-serve ice cream in the town centre. But it wasn’t always so developed. My mother’s first visit in the early eighties is mythologised in family lore: there was a scant selection of fresh fruit and vegetables at the local shop and she boldly asked my grandmother, ‘What do you do when you want, say, a lettuce?’ And my grandmother replied brightly, ‘Oh, you can get a lettuce.’ But then, after a beat: ‘Of course, you’d have to order it in.’
“This is not a place for sunbathing. It’s a place to welly-paddle in the expansive shallows”
The evenings here are light for a long time even in the spring, and in summer it barely gets dark. There’s a certain quality to the light that is hard to describe – shimmering almost; clear, soft and bright all at the same time. There are tall woods of spindly scots pine behind the house where we take the dogs in the dusky evenings, soft carpets of thousands upon thousands of dry needles underfoot, and more cones and fallen branches than you’ve ever seen (important for labradors). The low, rolling hills in the distance are blanketed in the turmeric-coloured clouds of blooming gorse that line every rural lane for many miles around.
And there’s the sea. If you’ve ever lived near it, can you really be happy anywhere else? And even if you’re not a child of the sea, chances are you still sense its magnetic pull, mystifying and undeniable, drawing us all back to where we came from, long ago. Growing up beside a sea loch, I dreamt as a teenager of escaping to the city and living a life of urban activity, but later, battling for survival in congested, built-up conurbations, I felt its absence keenly: the mood of the water, from clear, bright and glassy to threatening stormy-grey; the feeding-dive of the gannets; the single-track road littered with dropped mussel shells; the oddball call of the Eider ducks bobbing about in winter as we waited for the school bus in the dark. Then, on holiday in the highland house, we woke to the braying of seagulls. Huge and healthy, they perch on rooftops shouting the odds, or wheel about the expansive sky. A cacophonous, joyful sound: ‘Come on, come on, come on!’, they cry. ‘The sea, the sea, the sea!’
Miles and miles of unspoilt sand line the shore, white and soft around the dunes, punctuated by scatters of shells and swathes of bladder wrack washed in with the tide, finally darkening to tawny brown, silty and firm, towards the water’s edge. Today the tide is low, the water’s edge impossibly far out, choppy white caps breaking just below the horizon. The North Sea. This is not a place for sunbathing. It’s a place to welly-paddle in the expansive shallows, mudlarking for razor clams and anemones. To walk, shoes in hand, wet sand hard as cement under your feet, seaweed and salt water sliding between your toes. To feel overwhelmed by the power of nature. To be where everything stops, at the edge of land. To really breathe. It’s a place where important, fundamental things seem to stay the same as they ever were. A place to come back to, time and time again, a home of sorts, an ancestral castle. And it’s a relief to be caught up once again in the safety net of past times and memory and to drift, forgetting, buffeted by the wind, unencumbered by the world.
Lottie Fyfe grew up in an isolated Argyll hamlet before forging a career in publishing. She has escaped the city for now and can be found on the West Yorkshire Moors with two labradors, or blogging candidly about home, nature and life’s peaks and troughs.