Every year I stare out from Ardnamurchan to that craggy sculpture on the horizon, not knowing fully what I’m looking at, nor probing further into what it actually is - an angular, rising monster emerging from the deep. Geology of the small isles is complex, and when looking out to sea at this blue silhouetted dragon, I wonder which fault, formation or super volcanic, mountain-raising event created it. No compulsion over the years led me to investigate Eigg’s topography; despite my interest in geology, I generally focus on the area I’m visiting and have never had the chance to visit any of the small isles.... until today. I had some trepidation on my journey with the prospect of Storm Ciara hitting the west coast on Friday.
Sailing to Eigg and into the storm was exciting and terrifying. I stood drenched on the upper deck, the boat descending rhythmically into approaching waves, hitting them hard and launching spray across the top of the boat. I could taste the sea on my face. I saw the south, basalt cliffs of Eigg looming out of the approaching storm haze and the Sgurr growing as we got closer to the island - a 55 million-year-old, Sphinx-like slug in pitchstone suspension.
At Sweeney’s bothy I was at once alone, no one visible around. An incredible vista before me. I didn’t know what to do, I just looked out, stunned and immoveable. After what seemed a fairly long time staring in stupefying contemplation, I finally got everything together and headed out - armed to the teeth with pencils, paint, books and camera - and wandered into the Eigg storm. After a day of adjustment, I was firmly at home. I narrated my routine as soon as I descended the bunk bed, talking my way through the next move like a demented shipwrecked explorer; my inner monologue finding a voice, giving clearance and reassurance to the decisions for the day’s agenda. The sense of freedom was overwhelming and, having no constraints other than my own self-analysis, I relished each day, chatting to myself, wandering, drawing and reading, whenever and wherever I liked, a comparatively novel pursuit for me.
On Monday I headed to Singing Sands (illustrated left) – a place I was keen to visit, following in Hugh Miller’s footsteps. The weather was fierce, but I was determined. I reached the cliff overlooking Singing Sands and was confronted with storm Ciara head on. I attempted a few videos to demonstrate its ferocity – futile! A small burn made its way over the cliff-edge but was coming back up due to the wind. There were sunny patches appearing on the sea, and despite it rolling and crashing, it turned with a burst of that distinctive teal green reminding me of Peploe and Cadell’s paintings of Iona. I sat on the sands in a hailstorm, atop some large black pebbles. I never get the chance to just sit and look, especially with this maelstrom going on around me. Just sitting, absorbing and looking; not having to worry about getting back for a certain time – I didn’t care what time it was! I just stared and listened and breathed and was battered by the hail, there was even some thunder. The colours, so many bright colours, yet muted by light and weather. They all looked the same colour - the sea, sky, land, Rum and the shoreline, all various tones of blue-grey; harmonised, but so distinctly different; a homogeny of nature in the dim storm light but when the sun appears, everything is clearly defined.
When I got to Singing Sands, they were silent. The quartz crystals only appear to sing when the sand is dry and, as it had been persistently raining for days, could only muster a hollow thump as my actions to make sound resonated deep over the Jurassic slab. I decided to keep heading north and go fossil hunting. Making my way from the Singing Sands, I rounded the edge of the north-west tip and stopped. It was here that Hugh Miller so descriptively observed: “But the dizzy front of black basalt, dark as night, save where a broad belt of light-coloured sandstone traverses it in an angular direction, like a white sash thrown across a funeral robe, - the fantastic peaks and turrets in which the rock terminates atop, - the masses of broken ruins, roughened with moss and lichen, that have fallen from above, and lie scattered at its base, - the extreme loneliness of the place, for we have left behind us every trace of the human family, - and the expanse of solitary sea which it commands, - all conspire to render the scene a profoundly imposing one.” ‘The Cruise of the Betsey’ 1844
I returned late afternoon each day to paint the view from the window. Small oil sketches on paper, an exercise in exhausting a place; painting the same scene, restricted by the frame. The evenings, after tea, was spent writing and drawing whilst listening to radio 4 - I wrote up the day’s events and thoughts in an illustrated journal, feeling like Hugh Miller on his summer tour of Eigg in 1844. Whilst writing up my journal each night, I’ve been considering my long interest in geology, instilled as a child, growing up in Edinburgh and reading about Arthurs Seat and its surrounding vents. Eigg, like much of Scotland, has a diverse, rich geology but it’s comparatively young considering its proximity to the Outer Hebrides and the ancient Lewisian Gneiss; and as I explored the bothy’s library, coupled with my soggy galumphing discoveries around the island, I immersed myself more in its history and rocks. The Concretions and Oolite formations on Laig Bay, in the Jurassic section, provided no end of fascination. Hugh Miller’s discoveries, Plesiosaur bones, Eigg Pine and his theories on the Sgurr, motivated the research.
My current practice for drawing abstract, synthetic landscapes was lost on Eigg – the landscape is too intense, dynamic and beautiful. I resorted to some representational studies and paintings, not something I often do these days, but it felt like the right response. The view of Rum and Laig bay constantly changed as storm Ciara raged over the island and out at sea. On Wednesday the wind and rain eased, and the landscape switched to ‘Glorious Technicolour’; the rust orange bracken glowed when the sun came out and Rum got closer and more intimate.
I spent just over 6 days at Sweeney’s but my time there was cut a day short due to storm Dennis’ arrival which was forecast for Friday. I was sad to go, there was so much I didn’t see, but the short time living in isolation and briefly exploring the northern part of Eigg, was an incredible experience and an unforgettable week, despite some trips being curtailed by weather. I was blessed on Wednesday evening with some sunshine, and the landscape completely changed from the dark and gloom of Tuesday hailstorms, to a glowing display of burnt caramel and blue, albeit freezing. My journey back to Mallaig on Thursday was in a charter boat, specifically hired to pick up stranded visitors on Muck. I watched Eigg disappear in a flume of surf and rain through the sea-diffused windows of the boat as the mainland grew closer.