Ian Hill is a writer, bookbinder, printmaker and lover of wild places. He lives in Cumbria, with a view of the hills. His blog is The Printed Land.
I step downwards into a bowl of green. The marram grass which has scratched at my legs through the dunes has given way to a short grazed turf; a lush green lawn, peppered with tormentil and bedstraw. Bright burnet moths browse the neat cusps of birdsfoot trefoil, busy through the the brief passage of their sunlit lives, knowing only the warmth of this summer sun, the scent of these flowers scattered across the machair. Here, where the wind is stilled into a soft kiss of breeze, blue butterflies drift on the cushion of warm summer air. The air smells of haymaking and mown lawns, the lemonade scent of high summer.
From within this grass-filled hollow, I can hear but not glimpse the sea, a gentle whispering on this calmest of days. Further out, at the edge of the horizon, where the blue of distance turns everything to the colour of the sea, islands are scattered across the ocean like shards of flint. Behind me, I know that the mainland is draped in cloud. Out here, westwards, the sun is shining on an archipelago of soft green islands.
I find the stones littered amongst coarser grasses at the centre of the hollow: a random scatter, it seems. They seem out of place amongst these dunes; solid forms when all beneath my feet is shifting, blown sand and marram grass. Slowly, my eye makes shapes from their hard edges, senses the design intended by the maker, three thousand, perhaps four thousand years ago.
This is a cist grave; a rough stone chest formed by placing stones with their straight edges inwards to form the shape of a box. In some parts of the country, they are made with vertically placed slates, but here, in a land of coarse gneiss, the rough accretion of millions of years of metamorphosis, the stones are awkward in shape, do not take easily to forming unnaturally straight lines. Somewhere within, a body would have been laid, curled with knees towards chest, perhaps with some pottery and other goods laid within the grave. Perhaps their remains are still here; I have no way of knowing if this grave has been plundered, for gain or for science, in the years since it was mounded over.
I want to know who these people were; with what rituals did they mourn their dead? Did they look on these beaches and rippling waves with a sense of beauty and wonder, or with an anticipation sharpened by the need for food and safety, a landscape of necessity, not luxury? I want to know how they came to choose this western edge of this westernmost island of the western archipelago of Europe; a journey into the sunset, the direction from which the weather comes, the winter winds; the direction of mystery, of the unknown. To journey here, to the point beyond which there is only ocean, would have been an act of faith, a giving-up to the shifting tidal currents of chance, an acceptance of the vagaries of the shifting sands, the turning winds, the breezy dune tops and the sun-pooled hollows.
I lie down within the hollow space of the grave, with my knees drawn up to my chest, and try to imagine what I would need with me in this stone box to carry into the next life. Tools, perhaps, to make a boat. The seed heads of grasses to plant crops in whatever meadows might be waiting for me. And love, and the memory of those who have placed me here, in this grassy bowl amongst the dunes. And perhaps the knowledge that, whatever is waiting for me in this next life, there may yet be nowhere more perfect than this, this rich circle of pasture with its view to the steel-blue sea and the endlessly shifting sky. And beyond the horizon, only mystery.