Wednesday, December 01, 2004

1.1988 - Ely to St Monace

North of Edinburgh, across the Firth of Forth lies the Kingdom of Fife. The word "kingdom" is only applied ironically these days, Fife not having been independent for 800 years or so. Still, there is something that sets this bulbous peninsula apart, the south-east corner (the “east neuk” of Fife) most of all.
Low, sandy hills sweep gently down to the slowly curving shore. The only straight lines to be seen are man made and there are few enough of those. True, the streets that run straight up from the sea in the little villages sprinkled along the coast could have been laid along tightened fishing lines, but the houses along side them have the sillouhetes of half risen loaves of bread. Precarious lumps of glittering granite, they look as though they could collapse at any minute although none has stood for less than 200 years.
The beaches are quietly pleasant during good weather and attritionally awful in bad. The sand is just a shade too pale to be called golden, the grains a little too large and sharp to make lying on it comfortable for any length of time.
This sand was once famous for “Ely Rubies”, chunks of garnet the colour of clotted blood and the size of a thumbnail, that could be plucked out after every storm, their perfect dodecahedral geometry making them look like machined parts lost from some ancient alien shipwreck.
Also in the sand, and immensely more common, are tiny flecks of mica that give it a cheap glitter effect when you hold a pile of it in your hand. And yet, when you pour out that pile of sand, having sifted through it for small garnets no doubt, something unexpected, magical sometimes happens.
Mica sticks to your hand and as you lazily raise it, to shield your eyes or point at a boat, the sun catches the flecks at a low angle. All of a sudden, for a few seconds only, your hand seems to have become translucent, misty - and through that flesh coloured mist the flash of the mica looks like stars, hugely distant, enveloped in clouds. For a moment you see through the world of appearances, through skin, flesh and bone into the place where you really live and you see that that is where stars are born.
The light shifts, the illusion is broken – but something of it, the sense of vastness within, stays with you. Not because it comes as a revelation but because it is something you have always known.
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