Monday morning, autumn. 2018. There are things I do not know.
I do not know the collective noun for a group of ladybirds. I do not know that the world is 15 months away from a global pandemic, or that I am 5 months away from a cancer diagnosis.
What I do know, however, is that Mondays are supposed to be my writing day. This doesn’t always happen, but today, by some miracle, it does, and I reward myself with a walk after lunch. I scan the list of walks I want to do in the back of my Bullet Journal, and decide on St Mary’s Chapel.
Getting there is easy; it’s signposted at Forss on the A836, a 10-minute drive from Thurso. Park at the end of the lane, climb over the gate, and away I go. This rugged, lonely section of the north coast is magnificent. Crashing waves, eerie geos, boulder-strewn beaches, and sea and sky that stretch on endlessly. It’s easy to picture the Viking longboats that once descended on this unforgiving coastline, cutting through the volatile expanse of the North Sea as they headed towards the cliffs.
Inquisitive sheep watch me, nostrils twitching. I hold a hand out, call to them. One ewe advances until she decides I’m not worth the effort. I cut through a field, explore an abandoned building on the shore then cross a bridge over a fast-flowing stream. Here, the path climbs steeply, and the gurgling of the stream gives way to the roar of unseen waves against the cliffs. The path passes a small ruined croft house before reaching the chapel.
St Mary’s, unlike most Highland churches, has a separate nave and chancel. This design is similar to other early churches in Caithness, Orkney and Norway, which strongly suggests a Norse origin. It’s a tiny, plain and windowless building, making it hard to date effectively. Some say it dates from the 12th century, but a 9th century gravestone at nearby Reay implies there may have been a chapel at the site much earlier than this. The oldest date on a gravestone is 1692.
As I approach the chapel I hear a rhythmic metallic sound, reminiscent of a church bell ringing. But it’s not the ghostly peal of a long-gone church bell. Instead, a turbine in the wind farm behind the chapel has developed a ‘clink’ at a certain point in its rotation. A wind farm behind an ancient chapel makes the site feel less off the beaten track, but still, I feel that the small, three-turbine wind farm fits in well to this open, wild environment.
I stop and watch the slow turning blades, hypnotised by their steady rotation. I would never call them beautiful, but the towering masts inspire a sense of awe, different to the natural wonder around me, but fascinating all the same.
There was once a broch here – a tall drystone tower built perhaps 2000 years ago – long since succumbed to erosion, and behind the turbines is a 1960s US Submarine Communication Station. This is a spot our ancestors have used over the centuries, for whatever was important to them – faith, home, protection. And now, it’s being used for what’s important to us in the 21st century – renewable energy. A place is a sum of its parts, its history. I’m looking at a cross-section of Caithness life through the ages.
Inside the cemetery walls feels like a sanctuary, a place of protection from the elements out with. I wander around, looking at the names and stories on the stones. A quote from the King James bible on a broken stone catches my eye.
‘Take ye heed, watch and pray; for ye know not when the time is.’ – Mark 13:33
I crouch in front of the stone, white and jagged like a broken tooth, and run my index finger over the lichened-filled letters.
‘Ye know not when the time is,’ I whisper. The words remind me of my mum and my auntie. On Saturday they’d spoken to me about how they’d planned to go over to Orkney earlier this year to visit an elderly relative, but they never went. Now, my auntie – who recently turned 90 – isn’t well enough. They both agreed they should have gone over when they said they would.
An unusual sight suddenly takes me by surprise. Six ladybirds huddled together on the side of the stone. Hibernating, maybe. I watch them for a while. They don’t move. Eventually I stand up, and that’s when I notice the others. Lots of them on the gravestones, some with up to twenty in their huddle. Why are they hibernating here? Is that even what they’re doing? I count nearly a hundred of them, colourful, shiny and seemingly polished in this otherwise neutral terrain. One ladybird has been caught in a spider’s web, left wing already devoured.
I head back along the cliffs, where I spot a wren at the ruined croft house. It reminds me of a mouse, so small and fast, and I follow the bird as it darts between the stones. It leads me right round the building before disappearing into the field beyond. A meadow pipit chirps from a fencepost. Why can’t I stop thinking about that poor ladybird caught in the web? I feel guilty but I don’t know why; it was already dead.
On my way back to Thurso I listen to a 90s CD my sister gave me. Songs we once listened to on a three-disk CD player in my teenage bedroom, with its vanilla incense sticks, glow in the dark galaxy stickers on the roof and Blur posters on the walls. Past and present and future all mix and collide. When my uncle died earlier this year, we all made plans at the funeral to keep in touch, to make an effort to connect with each other more, but we haven’t. Adversity makes us huddle together like the ladybirds, yet we splinter and drift once it’s over.
Back home I make coffee, write some more. I learn that a group of ladybirds is called a loveliness.
I will remember the Caithness landscape on an autumn Monday afternoon; those ladybirds, the way they stoically gathered together to protect themselves from the advancing winter. I will remember this when I find a lump. When the consultant tells me I have cancer. When I start chemotherapy. When we are thrust into a lockdown with no clue as to how long we will have to live like this. When, post-pandemic, my cousins and I make an effort to meet up regularly.
Connection. Protection. Safety in numbers. A loveliness.
Ye know not when the time is.