A pilgrimage north has long been deemed a rite of passage for British surfers and those in search of cold uncrowded waves. No stranger to the lands and surrounding islands, Dan Crockett explores the bountiful coastline and the hunt for 'unconventional joy' .
Late one endless June day, sharing a tight little reef with a lone bodyboarder and a seal or two. Those lumps of rock hoover swell, turning nothing into something, out past the piles of tyres and knee-deep tractor furrows. I finally got in position for a set, hesitated, hung up in the lip and bounced around in the kelp for a long time. I don’t know if I’m making this up, but I feel like a local surfer was standing on the slab playing bagpipes. It was my first wave in Scotland.
As southerners, we tend to make the north romantic in our heads. I can imagine the locals think that’s a load of pish, especially during september when every travelling pro with a camera team packages the ‘magical solitude’ into video clips, or a february storm when the only good tide window is in the everlasting dark. The waves now have their own crews of talented surfers, emptiness is less than guaranteed. If you blow a set wave and do the kelp dance, you might not get another one. However, outside a few spots, the essence of surfing up there remains the same. Cold and quiet as it ever was, a conversation with fast-changing elements and non-human life. It’s a feeling that I go back for whenever I can.
Many memories. Graveyard shifts on that arse-killing road north. Tape players became CD players became Spotify rambling through the nether regions of a playlist. Everyone else asleep. Pull over at the side of the road for a piss and it’s ten degrees colder than the last one. Moonlit stags and snow on the first pines of the Caledonian Forest.
A month in the Hebrides in a tent. A dram each morning, noon and night. A golden eagle towering above a shrinking lamb. Unloading a stuck car of twelve surfboards to push it free. Twenty foot and peaks at dusk on a beach that should never get swell. Strange lefts inside islands. I steal a march off my companions who sleep awkwardly on the rocky foreshore, lifting a coveted Andreini vaquero lying idly welded by frost. It’s not even four am and one of the biggest spring low tides of the year. The spot, usually a soft right point, is transformed into spinning tubes.
First time in the islands. By fortuitous blagging we found ourselves staying in the west wing of Skaill House. The wind came up ferocious and from the SSW. It was the strongest gale I’ve experienced, and even in our 17th Century mansion, we didn’t feel secure. The wind slammed into the ancient walls so hard it felt like the whole structure was rocking. Windswell, short-fetched and solid, poured up the lee coast. The last possible point before the wind turned the swell ragged. Feathering and bending, the outside section clearly shallow, the inside a little small to reel, but passable. On the way down to the point, a stone head guarded the path, features a blur of orange lichen, nothing but the pulse of the ocean and the call of the gulls to disturb his sanctuary. I’ve come back twice for that wave and never caught it, but found other, better waves where no waves should be, empty rincon through the high tide. It wouldn’t happen more than a few days a year.
‘Big ling out there,’ my friend shouts from the rocks above as I’m half into the freezing water with a virgin speargun, wondering what a ling is. I kick out into a jungle of kelp lit by rays of light, hoping for a late sea trout lured by the stream. It’s like swimming through a cathedral. A self-caught fish feels like a fair exchange of energy. But the wasabi and filleting knife in my bag remain unused. Just getting acquainted, I tell myself, failing to mention missing a healthy Pollack who then nuzzles my shiny spear tip in disdain. No fish today.
Outer islands. Waterfalls flowing backwards uphill with the force of the wind. The morning after, the birds on the island lie down on the road, exhausted. Turbot the size of dustbin lids on the wade out to the beach. The paddle under the cliffs takes twenty minutes. Heart in the mouth every stroke. Black water and thoughts of killer whales. A sunset like incandescent fire and every wave blows like a firehose. It’s entirely possible to die out here at this lonely place. To reach it you pick your way through fields of dulse and carragheen, time your leap from the keyhole and navigate the rushing water. The only things to hoot you are the fulmars and bull seals.
Midwinter tripping on a declining chart. Ten under and barn owls stalk the moonlit hills. The mouth of the Naver is spinning. Rights with Sam into the fading light. Pointing the nose of a ten footer at a snow-capped munro. Drinking peat water in the realm of the salmon. I remember once surfing in front of the castle and seeing them dance, fish after fish, on their tails. Without ever leaving this island, but for endless road hours, perhaps with the odd ferry or two, the north offers a great deal of unconventional joy. Stopping time in the silence and fury.
Words and photos by Dan Crockett.