Noup Head 04/09/13

Ravens hang in the white like crucifixes on church walls.

The wind that fixes the Ravens there is the wind that pushes the tops of waves over, picks up the scent of salt and the stench of manure and crushed crab fertiliser, and takes it to the gulls circling overhead like vultures.

The path to the cliffs is a rough track over damp grassy ground, becoming steadily bleaker as it extends out of the bays either side. Westray is an isolated Orcadian isle, the most north-westerly of them all, and the ferry from Kirkwall takes as long as the ferry from the mainland did in the first place. On the bus to Pierowall – the main village – we hardly lost sight of the sea. But if sea explains islands, it’s the wind that characterises them. It is the wind that carves the cliffs at Noup Head into the serrated stack of sandstone they are today.

But the wind purifies too.

I stood on the clifftop after a walk that felt longer than it looked, close enough to the edge to worry my mother. The salt and sand and wind that grinds down rock over millennia was gentle on me, rubbing away the tiredness accumulated from early starts and fitful nights in tents. With a wind like this I feel you can breathe again, properly. I can feel more than just air reaching down into the furthest alveoli. I feel the unexpected ecstasy of fresh air again.

The waves below literally boom as they collide with rock. Gannets cry. Fulmars chuckle.

And with the ecstasy, the fear. This is not a towering cathedral of rock but one that plummets, sheer, to the jagged rocks and white chaos of waves below. And I feel a twinge of the old vertigo that inflicts dad and lurks in me. My friend inched to the edge on hands on knees to peer over an overhang. I couldn’t bring myself to get more than a foot closer. Sweaty palms and leaden feet. Vision takes on the peculiarly sharp yet disorientated feel, as if your retina was an unspooling, like a tape measure, into a distance fathomable only by fear.

I stand back. Admire the naturally fearless Gannets folding themselves up and falling headfirst into the water at speed, emerging with a fish and returning to its identical sandstone ledge with its near identical chick; and repeating this with clockwork regularity, clockwork efficiency.

I stand back. Admire the view – greater than 180 degrees – of sea in almost every direction. The most northerly I have been and to the eye just sea beyond.

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