I haven’t been running much lately and I haven’t been to Kintyre for nearly two years now. Then I stumbled across this old blog post from my days on the running site Fetcheveryone and thought I would share it with you.
Every so often I take the crooked road to Kintyre, driving North and West from Glasgow to skirt the edges of Loch Fyne, before putting the same distance into descending southward into the drooping peninsula. Over the last years I have come to love the long curve of beach from Westport into Macrahannish. An unprepossessing car park, oddly municipal in this wild place, sits next to an anonymous hunch of sand dune- it could be a mere hillock of bleached grass- but walk through the gate and the world, at its last margin between land and sea, opens up for you.
The beach, secret and tacit behind the sheltering line of dunes, curves away with a suction that seems to insist upon your presence. A sandy and grassy path meets your step with a springing, tuned thud. The first sand is dry and golden, fine and giving- too giving to hold a runner’s step. On your shoulder the dunes reveal a hollow amphitheatre: there could be children playing there, perched in the high dress circle but the bowl of sand traps their voices in its stillness.
Distances stretch, the beach is far wider than your first perceptions of it. The dry golden sand gives way to a tide-washed darker edge. Here the Atlantic waves imperturbably steamroller a hard and flat way for you on the edge of the land. This is where you can dance between waves and shingle and sand. This is where the sand gives just enough. This is where you can run.
Look over your shoulder at that straight line of footprints you think that your dedication is driving into the beach you see it is a woozy undulation. The flat and hard sand starts to arrange itself into a pattern of short rises and falls, wavelike in itself. The sea has not made a highway for you, but left its swell in the land. Expeditionary sorties of waves rush towards you, chattering foam, muttering viciousness, forcing you to prance onto soft gold sand and deceitful shingle. You don’t conquer this beach, you become- for the briefest of times- part of the flow here.
And then there is the wind pushing in off the sea- setting you off on mighty and tireless legs only to traduce you. It may feel like a gentle breeze at your back on the outward leg but it will insist squeezing you close – holding on to each of your steps, each of your ragged breaths on the return. You run where the wind and the sea and the sand allow you to run. Your footfall, that act of volition, ignited between mind and muscle, was chosen and shaped as much by the Atlantic growling at your side as by the thing that you call yourself.
But there’s always the sky, this evening bright and blue, Islay and Jura serrated against the horizon, and the sun laying a trembling column of white and silver across the waves. The flight of Oyster-catchers scramble in alarm, flicking to the left to show their black and white plumage and the long needle of their beaks. High-pitched outrage from the birds registers sharply, startled peeps above the gruff rumble of the sea, and fills the mind for a moment.
My dog comes with me on these runs. Four legs make a better fist of this job. He loops crazy orbits around me, eccentric perihelions influenced by the pull of his nose towards the mystery of invisible odours and his somewhat marginal attachment to me. He will pick up hefty pieces of driftwood and run with them for miles. I envy and delight in his easy grace and simple strength. If the distance between us becomes too great I stretch my arms wide and call him. He manages a straighter line than I can as he gallops back, ears flapping, body straight with all the intent of a falling arrow.
The detritus of the beach is his business: the bloated seal carcasses; the dying gannet- hard beak and stern eye still formidable enough to make the dog wary; the smoking phosphorous flare, resurfaced from some sunken arms cache of the second world war and regurgitated like an irritant from the lining of the ocean’s stomach; the bright orange buoys, like hard plastic footballs, broken free from lobster pots they once marked. The strange and familiar traffic of this beach.
And on this run, the porpoise, a metre long- the pectoral fins and the flesh around the jaw already torn away. My dog dropped his shoulder into the body to rub his flank along its slate grey side. I roared and he backed away. Stopping to take in the eerie incongruity of the remnants of the creature, I see its tail has twisted from the horizontal plane. For a moment I contemplate that it is some huge fish; it is as mysterious as an image in a medieval bestiary but the teeth, the blowhole and the ventral slit tell me that it is a mammal. And yet, giving it a name, placing it in a taxonomy cannot strip it of its strangeness. I think of it quick and lithe in the waves, arcing between air and water for breath and think about its death. Then I start to run again.