On Skeleton Beach

'I head to the shore, curious to learn how the edges of things reveal their stories.' On a small Scottish island, writer and photographer Hannah Close seeks out a beach only briefly exposed at the lowest tide. Here the Hebridean sand is made of the bones of a hard-shelled algae, both threatened by human damage and the source of regeneration for the tidal zone. With images by the author.
Hannah Close is a writer, photographer and cultural curator. She is currently making a documentary called Islandness and convenes floating artist residencies in the Scottish Hebrides with Sail Britain.
It’s the height of summer in the Scottish Hebrides. I’m tramping through heather, bracken and bladderwrack along the northwest coast of Gometra, the island I’ve been lucky to call home for a few unusually warm months. I’m researching ‘islandness’ in the context of what some term the Anthropocene. I want to understand why islands are known as ‘canaries in the coal mine’ when it comes to climate breakdown, signalling the arrival of collapse long before it reaches mainlands. Gometra is off-grid (without generators), but this is no ‘remote-island-luxury-eco-getaway’. For those used to mod-cons like myself, life on Gometra is an eye-opener. Getting here from the mainland requires two ferries and a three-hour hike across the neighbouring Isle of Ulva. There are no shops, roads or pylons, and the only tourists are intrepid travellers and those who arrive on the water.

With just a few solar panels reserved for charging mobile phones, and no mains electricity or hot water, Gometra’s lack of convenience is a stark reminder of my precarious co-dependency on fossil fuels back on the mainland. After a few weeks on the island,  however, I feel as though I’ve returned to civilisation, not left it. My desires for consumption wane. What remains is time, space, and the gentle redirection of my attention. 

I walk along the frothing shore towards Eilean Dioghlum (pronounced ‘jill-uhm’), a small island separated from Gometra at high tide. Dioghlum is four islands deep in the archipelago if you count mainland Britain as the first, though this is not always how it can be seen. Perhaps Britain is four islands deep. Perhaps there is no archipelagic hierarchy. Dioghlum is shielded by the Isle of Mull and its numerous peninsulas but exposed to the unrelenting Atlantic swell heaving in from the west. The island appears craggy and full of nooks, expressing its volcanic peculiarities more explicitly than most islands I’ve encountered. These crumbling basalt formations are typical of Gometra and its kin-islands. They stack up at random, fall suddenly into the flanks of earth and heather carpeting the island, and rise at bizarre intervals around the coastline, tapering off abruptly into the blue. Sea eagles, hen harriers and corvids find their salt-sprayed homes among these primaeval sculptures.

The ‘Dutchman’s Cap’ as seen from the shores of Gometra, by Hannah Close.

Something particular drew me to this skerry-speckled edge of Gometra. When you look at Google Maps, you’ll see that at low tide, there appears to be a small beach at the mouth of Dioghlum’s proper entrance for those with two legs. While the image doesn’t show the beach itself, the azure water sitting just above it gives it away. This beach only appears at the regress of a spring tide. Twice a month, when the sun, moon and earth are in line, the Atlantic exhales fully into the harbour, filling every last crevice with saltwater. Some hours later, it sucks itself back out again, exposing the beach on its final inhale. This moment of exposure is brief; the ocean must relieve its lungs once more. It is in these liminal moments between liquescent breaths that islands reveal their hidden nature. If I am to understand anything about ‘islandness’, I must meet these places at their thresholds, so I head to the shore, curious to learn how the edges of things reveal their stories.

If I am to understand anything about ‘islandness’, I must meet these places at their thresholds.

After wading through the final fronds of bracken, I arrive out of sync with the tide. The beach remains submerged, scarcely visible beneath the shadow of a cloud and the oarweed, pepper dulse, and wrack swaying in the shallows. Privy to the whims of the ocean, I wait, my shoreside purgatory adorned with the shrill pip-pips of oystercatchers. An hour later, the beach peels into view. I leap down from the rocks into an ooze of dirty-looking sand at the point where sea, stone and seaweed osmose. For a moment, I worry that it’s sinking sand and that my enthusiasm may have been a fatal error. My boots halt at about five inches, and I creep towards the water’s edge, where the sand hardens and I can move across it freely. The sea, tamed by Dioghlum’s barricade around Acarsaid Mhòr, laps feebly, churning up little tangles of gutweed, Irish moss, and the occasional shard of plastic, like oceanic dust bunnies tumbling in off the Atlantic tundra.

Knotted wrack swaying in the shallows, by Hannah Close

I switch, almost instantaneously, from a diffuse, contemplative attention into what I call ‘magpie mode’. People often flock to beaches to relax and watch the world go by. I go to beaches to collect treasure, give myself a backache from stooping too long, and make my eyes go fuzzy from squeezing too many shiny objects into my retinas at once. You can visit the same beach daily and encounter something new, one of the many reasons I revere the shoreline. It teaches you to pay attention.

I notice a delicate crunching sound underfoot and peer down at thousands of tiny, vacant shells interspersed with what looks like coral fronds or the ossified, squiggly bones of minute creatures. Each fragment is bleached white by the sun and made smooth by saltwater. I crush a piece between my fingers. I want to test its strength and understand its porosity. I sprinkle the bone dust onto the surface of the beach so that it becomes the beach. We, too, are architects here.

A single piece of maerl, by Hannah Close

I fill a dusty clamshell with the pieces. They are treasure, I am sure of it. But they are not coral, nor are they bones. They are seaweed! Maerl, to be precise. Rhymes with pearl. Much like an oyster, which secretes calcium carbonate to form the pearl that protects its fragile body, maerl deposits a layer of lime inside its cell wall as it grows, forming a solid but brittle skeleton on its exterior. Maerl is a type of ‘coralline algae’, meaning it is, at least in my eyes, a seaweed, coral, and algae all at once. I am delighted by this plurality, though unsurprised; the ocean is always pulling these tricks out of its bag. 

Living maerl is coated in a purplish red layer, while dead maerl turns white, whiter still the closer to the surface it gets, refined by the sun’s glare. If it doesn’t find its way via wave power to the seashore, dead maerl falls to the seabed, providing nutrients for the living maerl beds that form on top of it. I had assumed the crystalline white beaches of Scotland’s Western Isles were formed over millennia primarily by broken down rocks and shells, but the chief architect of this ancient landscape is maerl, its bones ground to very fine dust that blankets some of the oldest rocks in the world, namely Lewisian gneiss, as well as pink granite, limestone, sandstone, and shale, among others. 

Clamshell filled with maerl, by Hannah Close

I notice that the white sand on this beach is not really white, but dark beige and pockmarked. It feels clean in places and dirty in others. I’m not sure those are the right words, but the beach is just shy of its ‘postcard perfect’ accolade. The clusters of maerl are assorted in colour, some of it freshly disgorged from the belly of the ocean, with tendrils of seaweed draped across its curves. Semi-concealed chunks of plastic and metal buried among the tangle catch my eye. Like synthetic bones, these harbingers of consumer civilisation are woven into the skeleton beach. 

Remnants at the shoreline, by Hannah Close

A crucial ecosystem architect and regenerator, maerl stores organic and inorganic carbon in its tissue, with ‘an estimated 440,561 tonnes of inorganic carbon locked within Scottish maerl beds’ alone. These beds store carbon for millennia, much longer than terrestrial equivalents such as tropical rainforests. They also form crucial marine habitats for sea creatures, such as clams, scallops and spawning cod, some of the creatures we humans most enjoy eating. I contemplate this at the shore of the harbour, where dropped anchors routinely rip open the seabed below. We are despoiling our own plates, it seems.

My eyes turn towards the salmon farm off the north coast of Gometra in Loch Tuath, where large engine-powered boats jostle to hoover the creatures out of their cages. Sixteen circular metal rings float in the dark water. Hungry seals are shot while acoustic deterrents intercept the cetacean airwaves. I recall the word ‘eyesore’ as sea lice feast on the eyes of the salmon across the bay. When you get close, which is not often – few people roam this far – you can see the salmon flailing above the surface and crashing into the nets that tower above them. Their homing instincts remain intact but futile; there is no homecoming for these declining animals. 

If maerl ceases to exist, what colour will the beaches of the future be?

My attention returns to the beach. Buried between thick sheaves of seaweed and basalt is a buoy, a disfigured creel, and a crumpled bottle of Evian spring water, its label pale and dogeared, its watery contents now saline. In that moment I despair, because I know that for every piece of plastic I remove from this coastline, several more will replace it the next day. I feel like Sisyphus. It is a never-ending task. Layers of sediment created by degrading plastic block maerl from getting the sunlight it needs to photosynthesise. Given it only grows at a rate of 1mm per year, maerl is particularly vulnerable to the suffocating effects of pollution and rising temperatures. 

The skeleton beach has enlivened and shaken me in the same (tidal) breath. Between the expanse of the surrounding Atlantic and the smallness of these sea bones, there is a sense of time being, well, not on time. The shallows bloom with seaweed, the azure water shimmers in the sunlight, and fresh ruins emerge all around me. Bearing witness to the dissonance is a practice all too real for these times. I realise how strange it is to think of this while in a place many consider an unspoiled wilderness, white sand beaches being the poster child of Hebridean tourism. If maerl ceases to exist, what colour will the beaches of the future be? 

Sifting through the sand on the skeleton beach, by Hannah Close

One hundred years from now: 2124. A diver working on a nearby research vessel happens upon a secluded alcove in the depths of Acarseid Mhòr. The skeleton beach is underwater, its secrets concealed for at least half a century. No tide reveals its contents, nor do any magpies perch patiently at its shore awaiting time-bound treasure. Among the debris settled on the seabed, remnants of the bygone era of voracious consumerism reveal themselves in plastic ossuaries. An aqueous archive of things once revered. The diver glimpses a tiny object, serpentine and pale, an incongruous presence among the plasticised wreckage. It is a fragment of maerl, to remind them, perhaps, that even at the nadir of human industry’s decay, the bones of yesterday can become the fertile soil from which new life emerges.

 

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