After our huge breakfast at Morag’s wonderful B&B in her old watermill near Stenness, we drove down to Stromness and walked the mile long main street toward Ness point. The houses of the old town cluster along here, running from the harbour by the side of an inlet called Hamla Voe. On the bay side, the houses rise directly from the water’s edge, and in occasional gaps between are for rough slipways for launching boats—some of them now filled in to provide car parking spaces, but many still in use. Pulled up on one was an old clinker sailing boat resting on her long heavy keel, generous of beam, well rounded in bilge. As we admired her lines we imagined how seaworthy she would be.  Further along a pile of lobster pots on the foreshore marked the end of a double mooring line leading to an open boat floating beyond low tide level.

The harbour and bay were both quiet, a couple of big fishing boats by the quay, the ferry terminal empty, awaiting the next scheduled arrival. Stromness may seem, to southerners like me, far flung, remote. But it was established because of it provided good shelter, and more importantly fresh water, along the strategic routes for sailing boats in the eighteenth century. Whalers and the early long distance fishing boats stopped here for that important last supply of fresh water. So did Cook and Franklin as they set off on the voyages of discovery—the former to map large parts of the Pacific, the latter to disappear, with both his ships and all his crew, in the frozen seas somewhere north of Canada, searching  for the northwest passage. I imagined how busy the town must have suddenly become when one of these ships sailed in, provisioning, repairing, and entertaining.

Elizabeth and I followed the main street out of town, past the golf course and boatyard. Then, as footpath took us round the point, the sound of Hoy opened in front of us. The lighthouse we were heading toward, we realized, was not on the mainland but on the small island of Graemsay, beyond which the high hills of Hoy loomed through low cloud. Seals were basking on the uncovering shoals between the land and a white navigation marker, occasionally lifting their heads and letting forth a mournful bellow.  One slipped into the water and swam down the sound, a black hump appearing and disappearing on the water surface.

It was mid tide, the ebb flowing hard through the sound, and ahead was a sight that made me catch my breath and quicken my stride: white water filled the sound from the mainland right across to Hoy. As the ebb tide met the Atlantic, two streams tumbled into each other in a wild turbulance, and the fresh northwest wind that was biting our faces blew the tops off the waves, covering the surface with white breakers. I imagined how these overfalls would be marked on an Admiralty chart with little wavy lines, and how dangerous it would be for a small boat to be caught in them.

Once we got a little nearer, we found a way down to the beach and sat on a flat rock watching the water. Everything is quiet. Close inshore by the beach, the water was almost still. Little waves made occasional forays up the beach, scarcely bothering to make a noise as they slapped lazily against the sand and then ruffle out to sea again as if with a long sigh. An oystercatcher, as they always do, flew across in front of us filling the air with its high call. But behind and underneath these foreground sounds we could hear the continual dull roar of the overfalls.

It seemed almost as if there was a bank of water trying to get into the sound. Looking casually, the breakers seemed to cover the surface, but watching carefully I saw each flash of white had a lifecyle. A wave would arise from the surface, rear up, hang in a dark concave for a fragment of a second, then break in a plume of white foam. There was a continual rising up and breaking, so my eye is caught by one, then another, as individual waves become figural for just moments then disappear into the background.

We sat, watching, for a while, our shoulders resting comfortably against each other. Elizabeth drew, I tried to find ways to describe what I saw in words. As we sat and the ebb continued toward low tide, more beach uncovered, and beyond it lines of rocks extending from the shore like breakwaters, smooth on one side and broken on the other. The seals’ shoal became fully exposed, and the patterns of the overfalls shifted this way with the changing currents. In the distance, the northwest corner of Hoy rose in a jagged the line from sea level to a smooth curve along the mountain tops, one moment clear in the sunshine, a few minutes later obscured by rain clouds. Mostly we were dry, apart from occasional flurries of thin snow blowing around us. A few large drops of rain wet my notebook, then the sun warmed the side of my face and helped thaw out my frozen fingertips.