Magic of a Spinning Globe
I currently live in a corner of the world where there are no horizons. Instead, great mouthfuls of sky are chewed by these first western Alps, each mountain, each ridgeline lessening the percentage of stars I can see, obscuring incoming weather and hiding the rising and setting of the sun. By the time she appears, it is already morning, when she disappears, it is evening, with still hours of daylight. In the middle of winter, the sun only appears in our sky near noon and then “sets” a very, very short time later.
For a long time, I didn’t realise how ingrained within me being able to watch the sun rise or set actually is. It is like the salt of the ocean, something mixed in my blood, something which is important but also hidden, tantalising with hint, but rarely obvious until I see the sun set or rise over water and realise what has been lacking in my life. Essentially, like that salt, it is only when I need a fresh transfusion that I notice the lack.
A part of the reason for this is that I have been lucky enough to spend much of my life in places with big skies, or places where the worlds of land and sea meet, an expanse of water and sky eagerly awaiting whatever art the sun shall create and both dawn and dusk.
Living in Caithness, the sunrises in particular were memorable, living in Stenness in Orkney, it was the sunsets which could be jaw-droppingly stunning.
Too often, I have seen people on social media bemoaning the fact a friend posted yet another sunset photo—it’s not original, they say, share something else! How wrong this is—each sunset, each sunrise, is unique. Each photo taken will be different to every other. There is something within us, something ancient, which makes us pause and watch and seek to record that memory. Sometimes, the sun can cast too powerful a spell, and you stand, camera or phone in hand, forgetting to press the button.
Once, on a holiday in Orkney, with my parents, some of my five sisters, and Orlando the sprocker spaniel—long after moving away from the islands, but not too long before I left Scotland to try and chase down other sunrises and sunsets on a more global scale—Orlando and I walked out early, as was our habit, before the dawn. This was April, on the coast of Rendall (the parish which shares the surname of the character in last week’s well-received story) and, as such at that latitude, the sun was already rising north of east.
That morning, I remember standing by the beach, surrounded by flowers of sea pinks and lesser and greater celandine, as a great ball of red fire rose between the islands of Gairsay and Shapinsay, so swift that I could track it with my eyes, its brilliance not yet strong enough to deter staring, so near I felt I could almost reach out and pluck her from the sky. Orlando sat beside me, seemingly also entranced by the spectacle, clouds above pink candyfloss, oddly calm sea slashed by a widening scarlet fissure. In scant heartbeats, it was over and the spell broken, but the memory is as strong today as it ever has been. It was extraordinary, more so because the sight was unexpected, little hint until it was there—and Orlando and I seemingly the only ones in the world to give witness.
When I lived in the woods for those months—the first time, back in 2010—the shelter I built had its door deliberately facing to the dawn, echoing the Bronze Age roundhouses I was lucky enough to help dig, out on South Uist to the west1. I could climb the rock to the left of the door and watch the sun set, charting a progression southward over the time I was out there, from September to December. Sometimes, the reflections, the intensity of the colours, and the sheer, often bloody, hope the sun brought, each and every day, raised tears in my eyes and pulled a gasp from my lips. Like a good display of Merry Dancers—Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis—the natural world once again gifting thrill after thrill.
Being on the edges of the land, on the edge of the ocean, means our views are clear, sightlines expansive and colours rich and vibrant. I miss this, I miss the hemisphere canvas of water and sky. The mountains and forests and snows and wolves are wonderful, but I sometimes find myself craving that moment where our planet merrily wobbles around, throwing the sun into our sky or down into the ocean, over and over, each an opportunity to thrill, each an opportunity for us to provide witness and, crucially, each an opportunity to fill us all with unadulterated joy—if only we let it.
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Do you have a particular love of either dawn or dusk? Or are you a big fan of both? Can you remember certain individual risings and settings of our sun, and what made them so special? Are you ‘guilty’ of taking far too many photos of these? Have you also relocated to somewhere lacking horizons and, like me, are experiencing a sense of separation from the sunrise and sunset? How do you deal with this?
“Every morning, when we start the engines, we guide our boat to face the dawn, turning her clockwise, mirroring the movement of the sun in the sky. Then we pause for a moment, silent and thinking. We do this and she will see us safe back to harbour. This is just how it is, we have been doing so for generations, for forever, since we used oar and sail and the fish were many, dancing into our net. These are the ways of boat and net and creel, the rule of sea and wind—we turn to greet the sunrise, we do not allow music to be played at sea, neither radio nor song, and we certainly cannot let women set a foot aboard. This is just how it is—and it always has been.”
Ruaraidh MacKinnon, Lochboisdale, South Uist2
Although I have shared this as a piece of fiction which, to a degree, it is, this is also a paraphrasing of something I learnt when I was on South Uist; there are places in our world where traditions stretching back many hundreds of years—if not longer—can still be found today. I do not know if this still continues, but it did twenty-something years ago.