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  • Writer's pictureMonique Sliedrecht

Sea Swell

Skerry Lighthouses, Skerry Island, Pentland Firth

The Pentland Firth in the far north of Scotland is known to be one of the roughest stretches of tide in the world. There have been many a shipwreck in these terrifying cross currents, with very few unable to survive the frigid waters.

I remember a trip across the Firth once. It was to the mainland from the island of Stroma in a fishing boat called ‘Boy James’. The person driving the boat was experienced and familiar with that passage of water, having made the trip many times, and suggested that we would have to take the long route back as the tide was turning. It was early evening and the light was lowering. So a boat journey that normally took 10-20 minutes took us an hour and a half. I didn’t mind. The light was stunning and birds were flying around the boat, active in their pursuit of fish. The swell of the water was powerful and the smooth surface areas indicated a strong whirlpool-type undercurrent. I just sat at the back on the floor of the boat, exposed to the open sea air and wind, and drank in as much as I could, hanging on tightly to the side when the boat lurched and rocked.

That journey became the inspiration for a number of paintings, including ‘Sea’ and ‘Stroma’, and it had an impact on me for years to follow. It was one of the most memorable sea-going adventures for me. Crossing that great expanse of ocean, where Atlantic meets North Sea currents, created an impact that I’ve only experienced standing behind the Niagara Falls.

The hidden depths of the sea are so unknown to us, the life it contains yet to be discovered and explored. It has a power that is mesmerising and stirs up fear at the same time.

It is a wildness that cannot be reigned in or controlled.

I’ve been noticing the sea swell in the last few days as the wind has been constant. Yesterday, late morning, on a very cold February day, I went out to look over the bay. The waves were rolling in, fast and strong.

Freswick Bay

Later, I drove out to Duncansby Stacks a few miles away and stepped out by the lighthouse to get a panoramic view of the Pentland Firth which was wild and threatening. Light snow was blowing and when I got to the lighthouse a pinkish glow infused the murky sky.

Duncansby Lighthouse, Duncansby Head

The island of Stroma sits in the middle of this rough stretch of water. Some say the name Stroma means ‘Island in the Tide’. In days before lighthouses, whenever there was a storm, the island community would hang a large lantern from a tripod to warn the ships passing by. But as one could imagine, it did not prevent every boat from hitting the rocky shore.

Caithness, Pentland Firth, Stroma, Orkney

In ancient cultures, the sea has often been used as a symbol of chaos and darkness.

Poets and writers in later times refer to the sea as a vast space reflecting the grandness of nature, drawing a person beyond the troubles and concerns of everyday life, and serving as the ultimate inspiration. I must say, a walk to the seaside along with a blast of wintry air certainly does help pull me outside of myself, allowing nature to seep in and re-enliven my senses.

Kathleen Jamie once again says it so well in this first verse of 'Poem' which, seemingly casual, reflects some of my feelings of yesterday:

I walk at the land’s edge,

turning in my mind

a private predicament.

Today the sea is indigo.

Thirty years an adult –

same mind, same

ridiculous quandaries –

but every time the sea

appears differently: today

a tumultuous dream,

flinging its waves ashore –


~ Kathleen Jamie

John Keats wrote this sonnet, 'On the Sea'. A sonnet is often a love poem, so we can consider this a love letter to the sea. When caught up in concern and worry, creativity and the flow of words can be stifled. Ideas and inspiration lie stagnant, unmoving, like the smallest shell that sits still in the same place for days, despite the motion of water all around it. The moment we step out and consider something as vast as the sea and its depths, we are taken to another place, and perhaps that unleashes a new impulse to create.

On the Sea

It keeps eternal whisperings around

Desolate shores, and with its mighty swell

Gluts twice ten thousand Caverns, till the spell

Of Hecate leaves them their old shadowy sound.

Often ’tis in such gentle temper found,

That scarcely will the very smallest shell

Be moved for days from where it sometime fell.

When last the winds of Heaven were unbound.

Oh, ye! who have your eyeballs vexed and tired,

Feast them upon the wideness of the Sea;

Oh ye! whose ears are dinned with uproar rude,

Or fed too much with cloying melody—

Sit ye near some old Cavern’s Mouth and brood,

Until ye start, as if the sea nymphs quired!

~ John Keats

Sometimes nature speaks in place of the words we do not have.

In this next poem, Lord Byron talks about the impact of nature, and the sea, on him.

There Is A Pleasure In The Pathless Woods

From Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,

There is a rapture on the lonely shore,

There is society where none intrudes,

By the deep Sea, and music in its roar:

I love not Man the less, but Nature more,

From these our interviews, in which I steal

From all I may be, or have been before,

To mingle with the Universe, and feel

What I can ne'er express, yet cannot all conceal.


~ Lord Byron

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