George Mackay Brown
I could still smell the bonfires in my hair.
The night before was Hogmanay, and we had trudged along the pitch black of the shore drawn to lighted fires. Following music and song, we huddled around a bonfire amongst locals dancing on the sand. “We are locals too now,” my partner said. It was my first New Year’s Eve in Scotland since the millennium. The bells chimed midnight, and the tankers boomed in the Firth of Forth, lit up and sounding their horns to see in the New Year. I was so happy that I cried.
We walked for the first time in January to rid ourselves of hangovers and fatigue. The light was milky, the sky horizonless: a blur of water and air. We pressed on, northbound from Seafield towards Leith. It was our first time on this stretch of the coast; previously we had only been as far along as high-tide would allow. We came across a fisherman, kitted out with Berghaus and iPhone, unwilling to chat. We watched as he adjusted his line and gazed out to follow his bait. There, further out in the waves, was a seal.
I have never seen a seal before. I grew up in Aberdeenshire, and in the countryside near my home on weekend strolls I would see rabbits, horses, cows, sheep. I would gasp at the occasional deer that flashed in car headlights, or pheasant running along a verge. I was only ever inland.
The seal’s head was dark and large – too big and far out for a dog. We stood still without breathing as it swam towards the shore, closer and closer, drawn by the fisherman’s bait. It would disappear underwater then reappear to the left or right. We could see the ripple on the surface before we saw him again. And then he sank under the waves. The traces faded away. We waited, the damp seeped into our clothes, but our faces were radiant.
“Next time,” we said, and continued on, looking back over our shoulders across the shore.