Something at sea.

The last time I wrote this blog was in September when I was on Shetland and my visit had begun with a disconcerting incident which I decided not to talk about until I got home. Here is what I wrote:

My first day of solitary life in Shetland began in a quiet albeit not very Sunday morning way. The sun was so strong and inviting that I was up uncharacteristically early at six am. Beginning a creative retreat almost invariably involves a ritualistic amount of preparation and in this case tidying up and letting go of some ongoing projects at home. By lunchtime I felt truly in the present and as the weather was so alluring, I packed a bag of drawing materials and started along the coast, drawn to the western edge where you really are at the edge of the European landmass and the beginning of the North Atlantic.

The power of the sea here is like none I have witnessed before. It makes Loch Linnhe feel like an inland waterway. Even as you look out westwards to the ocean on an apparently calm day, you can feel and hear the strength of the swell and the power of the surf as it thrashes the rocks. It reminds me of the tragic prints you see occasionally in the Highlands of the drama of a shipwreck, all men lost in the savage wind and tides of a storm so eloquently illustrated in woodcuts and etchings.

As I noticed in April, the strength of the light is still so strong that the shadows become an inky black and as much of the rock is black anyway, the landscape is largely monochrome with even the water an inky blue and as clear as a glass of water when you find it shallow enough to see the bottom.

We came here in April for my birthday and I had a rushed hour of drawing that day. It is these I took with me and revisited the view. My attention was quickly distracted and I became fascinated by something floating in the water. Try as I may to concentrate, my eyes kept wandering back to this floating object gently pushed by the waves into a corner of rocks. Brown and black in colour with a pronounced bloating, it was above the surface and for as long as I told myself it was ghost gear or something thrown overboard, I was too disconcerted to let go and stop watching. There were limb-like appendages but not exactly how arms and legs would be. It appeared to be dead rather than inanimate and I became convinced that it was a body, human or not I was not sure.

I could not focus on my work at all and so when I saw a small red kyack emerge from the bright reflected light, rounding a headland and making for home, I knew it was my host returning from a fishing expedition. I wandered back and found him with a bag full of large fresh mackerel. Tentatively I asked if it was common for corpses to appear, washed overboard by some ghastly accident. He suggested it was very unusual but curious now, offered to go and investigate. I was too restless to go inside so exploring the small creaks and inlets, I waited. He returned eventually and agreed that I had found a body but not the body of a human. I had found a dead seal. The same size as a human and whilst not exactly the same shape, it was easy from a distance to assume the uncharacteristic features were as a result of too long in the water or clothing and damaged safety gear. It was a haunting experience watching the sack like mass washing back and forth with no will of its own as the life had gone. I was grateful to know what it was as I knew the image would haunt me, wondering who it was and where they had come from.

Insomnia at 4am

My reasoning  for not publishing this blog post was because I found the incident disconcerting. A few days later I was visited by a plain clothed policewoman who was secretly investigating the illegal shooting of seals and had heard of my discovery. She asked me to not breathe a word about her presence. Seals cause a problem to fish farming on Shetland. Meeting her made me think a lot about how the balance of nature and farming needs to coexist and when I got home I asked several fish farmers about the issues. Where we live there are seal alarms on every fish farm and I gather from a sound recording friend who has tried to record underwater, that the alarms are audible under water for miles around. Apparently they are so disruptive that the Whales who swim up the West Coast can’t hear each other because of all the human sounds. It is naive to think that our world is a natural one; man has his finger print on it all.