The Great Edge
What follows is fiction, but that doesn’t mean it is not true. It has yet to happen as described, but it has happened before. Differently. A long way back in the past. This is what could happen, sometime in the future. Soon.
It was when he was pushed North West of Dunnet Head that he saw the wave.
Fracher had no time to be terrified. The wave flowed as quickly as a train over the top of South Ronaldsay and over the Eastern districts of Hoy and hung for a moment like a huge curtain of water as it crossed the Pentland Firth. He tied his left hand to the wheel with a piece of softline, opened up the throttle, heard the Kelvin engine cough and roar as he turned The Searcher’s bow to the wave and steamed right into it. Then everything was water and noise and then the sense of being lifted up and then of falling down as if over the edge of a cliff. Fracher was thrown forward and banged his head off the wheelhouse window. Then he was thrown to the port side of the wheelhouse and he hung there, his left wrist fastened to the wheel. In his half-stunned state he could see the back of the great wave pour over the coastline between Duncansby Head and Dunnet Head. He had no clue as to where he was or even if he was still on the sea. He had no idea what had happened. He did not know that he had literally surfed right over the giant wave-crest. As he pulled himself to his feet he felt the blood run down his cheek from a cut on his head. He looked out of the window and he immediately recognised the Western side of Stroma – well, at least he was still on the sea – although he couldn’t see the lighthouse and could only surmise that it hadn’t survived whatever it was that had happened. There was such a sea haze in the air it was as if he was seeing everything through a distorted lens, even though the Sun was still shining brightly overhead.
The Storegga wave violently broke over Dunnet Head and along the North coast in an explosion of water and energy, swamping and ravaging the exposed townships along The Coast of Widows and the villages of Dunnet and Castletown at the Southern base of the headland. The wave washed the dunes clean away from the top of the beach and flooded the farmland beyond for miles to the East. It powered over Thurso and crashed Westwards into the nuclear plant at Dounreay. On the East coast of Caithness the wave was even stronger and it destroyed everything that could not withstand it, sweeping it away in its wake and so great was the force of Jord and Storegga’s passion that the pulse of it sent the wave as far West as Cape Wrath. From the flooding of Shetland and the swamping of Orkney in the North it swept across the Moray Firth, eventually spending itself in a flurry of exhaustion, destruction, debris and froth on the shores of the Firth of Forth. For those who survived this sudden apocalypse they could not tell you if it happened in a minute or an hour, a second or a day, or exactly what had happened at all.
Fracher undid the softline, engaged the throttle and turned The Searcher Westwards and sailed her back towards Dunnet Head. As he rounded the headland the wave-water started pouring back so he kept her nose firmly in the flow and prayed that he wasn’t pushed back across the Firth onto the gigantic cliffs of St John’s on Hoy.
When the shuddering stopped Nessan and Mags picked themselves up from the floor of the cave to which they had both sunk in silent terror. Mags blessed the day she bought the LED torch but as she shone it through the pitch black to where the entrance through the wall had been her heart sank as she saw only solid stone.
“An Slanaighear,” muttered Nessan.
“What the hell are you talking about?” Mags snapped through her fear.
“An Slanaighear.” repeated Nessan. “Mah Grannie used til tell may aboot ur.”
“About who?” Mags felt as though she was losing her mind.
“Ay god aat lives in ay sea,” said Nessan.
Mags shone her torch onto the wall. God or no god, she thought, we are going to have to get out of here or we’ll die. She moved over and felt the stones. They were no longer warm to the touch. How could… Mags realised there was no point in asking such a question, any question. Her heart lightened in her breast as she pushed one of the stones at the top of the wall which she had already taken out and it fell effortlessly back into the main body of the cave. A beam of light instantly poured in and caught Nessan’s black hair, turning it, as Mags was about to speak, into shining liquorice ivory as the girl sat staring at the sound box of the clarsach.
“Come on, Nessan, we have to get out of here,” and she pushed another stone away. Nessan lifted the still sturdy ancient sound box of the clarsach and stuffed it down the front of her fastened up waterproof jacket. She put the rusted iron lock from the old box in her pocket and went over and helped Mags with the stones at the wall. Within a few minutes they were free to go so Mags grabbed her rucksack and soon they were out in the daylight. From where they were, at the bottom of the cliff of the headland they could not really see what had happened, except that the water in the bay was behaving strangely and was a different colour, all brown and agitated. Through the haze Nessan saw The Searcher about a quarter of a mile off the coast. She waved and shouted as if she was trying to ward off a tribe of devils. Mags was also delighted when she saw Fracher and the boat but as she looked across the bay and West towards Atomic City a large plume of grey white smoke rose some two hundred feet into the windless air behind the town from the general direction of Dounreay. The Searcher pulled up at the foot of The Geo of The Dead. The two young women clambered on. Nessan could not speak from sheer delight, Mags from complete horror. Fracher opened the clutch and the luckiest creel boat in The Province of The Cat cut across the bay back to Scrabster. No-one aboard said a word. Half way across they noticed a huge white ship of a kind none of them had seen before sitting off Dunnet Head. By the time The Searcher had reached the lee of Holborn Head the strange white ship had gone.
As they looked at the countryside they could see that it was both sodden and destroyed, as if some huge wet bomb had exploded. Houses sat craggy and violated, their roofs off and their windows caved in. Animals by the score lay dead in the fields. A blue hulled, red keeled cargo ship with two huge cranes and the bridge up near the bow, used for transporting nuclear waste and which had sat off the Scrabster Roads for a week, lay like a toy on its side between the old Bishop’s Castle and the Eye Rock. Two steel hatch covers were lieing like open discarded bibles on the flagstone rock. The gentle insistence of the sea and the soft crashing of the waves highlighted the extreme plight of this toxic transporter. The open cargo holds gaped cod-like towards the North, spewing out dark silence and invisible industrial blood into the sea.
Scrabster harbour was washed clean. Not a boat left in it. Most of modern buildings were destroyed with only the older stone built ones remaining. A trawler lay embedded in the porch of the roofless hotel. The harbour fuel tanks had been obliterated and the air was thick with the smell of gas and diesel. There was not a person to be seen. There was no movement at all. Mags looked to see if she could see her car but the pier where the creel boats tied up beneath the Fisherman’s Mission was empty and all the cars and even the Mission itself were gone, spread like ripped coloured cloth beneath the Scrabster Brae. Fracher couldn’t take The Searcher into the harbour as the wave had washed up tons of silt and sand blocking the entrance. What had once been a busy modern port was now nothing more than a beach.
Fracher turned The Searcher about and headed for the Thurso river-mouth. Everything he had known was either gone or damaged and as he looked from the wheelhouse to the shoreline his eye had to adjust to what was not there and to what he expected to see but couldn’t. He looked up to Holborn Head but he could not make out if his house was still there or not. The bay was full of wreckage, mostly wood and rubbish but there was the occasional roof, a shed, furniture. Several bodies floated past, lifeless and still.
By the time they got to the river entrance Fracher, Nessan and Mags were is a state of deep shock. Fracher’s mind went back to that night on the Piper Alpha and the infernal horror of it had burned into his memory. He had often reassured himself that he would never, in his lifetime, experience anything similar. Now his eyes scanned the townscape trying to undo the broken images the wave had fashioned from what was once Atomic City. Behind Holborn Avenue and up the Castlegreen Road and through the Atomics the houses were either damaged or flattened. After a while he stopped looking.
The Searcher sailed into the mouth of the River Thurso. The incessant force of the river-water had quite soon after the initial wave-surge forced a channel through the sand pile deposited by the wave all along Thurso East. Fracher edged his creel boat carefully through this channel and found a space by a twisted ladder which led up to what was left of the old pier. He tied the boat up and the three of them climbed up to what was once the riverside road but now looked like a sandy shoreline. All the buildings down by the old harbour mouth were gone. St Peter’s stubbornly remained, its twelfth century walls firmly emerging out the silt which covered the Fisherbiggins.
Who could tell, truly, of what they saw, the fisherman, the archaeologist and the girl? Everything they had left behind to go to the Cave of Gold was changed now, transformed, destroyed. Mags looked into the river and amongst the wreckage floating down she saw an NDA poster drifting on top of the water. “Gone by 2025” it proclaimed. The Storegga wave had forwarded the clock. It had also pushed back time. The three of them stood on a broken harbour wall in the limbo of powerlessness and non-comprehension. How could they know that the super-destructive wave which washed over Atomic City was also the wave of nostalgia which had imprisoned the future in impossibility and needless laws and crippled the past in censorship? History would call it a natural phenomenon but this wave brought optimism as a form of terror and pessimism to those who truly believed in pessimism’s power and they were rewarded for their loyalty with destruction. In the wave everything became a form of antagonism. Everybody enjoyed a joyless, pointless floundering death by drowning in the sea or by being struck by debris. The tragedy was that everything the wave brought was quietly welcomed by the destructive confluence of powers which all submerging societies inevitably succumb to. For the people it was not so abstract. All they could do was watch as their lives were destroyed.
However, if like Bragi Boddason, you see the moments of history as splinters of time shot through with eventualities which can occur in any age or epoch you would not so much welcome the wave, quietly or otherwise, but see it as the doorway both into and out of the cave of soothsayers, priests and politicians. You would, in other words, be horrified.
For Atomic City it was too late even for the useless hubris which comes when the tragic lessons of history have not been learned. Mags could see this in the dozens of expensive cars upturned and littering the drenched banks of the River Thurso and in the many dead bodies which lay on the streets as she silently walked along what was left of the town. The wave had washed in and then washed out again. All around the Salvation Army building, which had lost its roof and half of its back wall but was miraculously still standing, and along the boulevard and all over the beach itself, were piled high the confused and random debris-heaps of destruction. Fracher did not move far from The Searcher. He sat down on some stones on the pier and stared at the river. Nessan stuffed the clarsach sound box and the rusting lock into Mags’s rucksack and ran up the Ormlie Hill to where her family lived in the sink estate of High Ormlie. She found them safe and well and the housing scheme untouched by the wave. Forgotten and ignored by the state and the social services they were alive and dry. The residents of High Ormlie had watched the wave plough up the river and flood the surrounding fields as far as they could see, leaving the town below them an assaulted mess of falling masonry, flowing water and shattered lives.
Out at Dounreay the electricity had failed and the wave washed away all the back up generators plus their supply tanks. Water stopped flowing over the reactors so the heat inside increased as the water boiled. There was an explosion as hydrogen mixed with the air. There was another explosion which extensively damaged a suppression chamber which helped condense steam below one of the reactors. As a result there was a massive discharge of radiation. Fires broke out. No one knew what to do as everything happened so quickly and all their emergency procedures failed in the face of the catastrophe. Everything fails in the face of catastrophe: that is its emphatic quality. The North West wind blew the grey-white plume of smoke and dust South and East, gently depositing a thin snowfall of radiation over the Province of The Cat.
In the days that followed Nessan looked out from her small house on High Ormlie and saw the helicopters flying over Atomic City. She read the pamphlets telling the people which areas were to be evacuated. Her family listened to the radio and watched TV. They shut their door. They were not amongst the areas designated. Nessan played her clarsach. She played Uaimh Oir by Donald Mor MacCrimmon and she thought it a short sail, really, back to 1610. When the wind blew Nessan knew it was playing the same piobrochd as she did on her clarsach, the same as the lamentation through the strings of her black hair, the same as the wind of time which blew through the branches of the tree of her family’s lives. Whatever happened, they could not take that music away. The wind that blows from paradise is what the soothsayers call “progress”. No-one has ever heard its music. High on the Hill of Ormlie Nessan and her clan could hoard the gold of history in their local authority houses as the cynical rain of the cult of industrial war fell down upon them sealing them forever in the repository of their innocence.
To continually talk of destruction, as Bragi Boddason says, is tiresome. It does not lend itself to Bragarmál: which is how the god of poetry describes poetical speech. The Storegga wave – however it was conceived – had washed over The Province of The Cat and had destroyed most of it. The damage to the five reactors at Dounreay and at HMS Vulcan was making the Far North of Scotland a toxic zone where the levels of radiation rendered life impossible. Those with wealth deposited in banks and who were doomed to die were systematically evacuated during the days immediately after the disaster. Those who were poor and had no financial resources and who were uncontaminated and who could, after decontamination, live were left blockaded in their housing estates in Atomic City by roadblocks manned by armed MOD personnel in radiation suits. Anyone who approached the roadblocks was to be shot. Some did. They died.
Such has been our progression since the ice retreated but, as all the skalds since Bragi (who is eternal) insist in their Bragarmál, the language of poetry, destruction contains its own comfort, just as love gives birth to its own demise; and in this love and destruction are radically identical because they are each other’s ancestors. They position themselves in caves, chapels, crofts and in houses on hills and headlands and inflate eternally as the skalds predicted and charted in Skaldskaparmal, the language of poetry, offering and withdrawing apples, honey, blood and spit. Storegga, the wave from the great edge, is our natural universal. It has been and will come again. It proves that everything which is unknown is correct, that energy and agony are the same and that the huge and the tiny are their own equivalents. This is the Bragarbot, the poems improvement.
Mags was evacuated later that day and ferried over The Ord with hundreds of other people in a convoy of busses. She was treated along with everyone else from the designated areas of the toxic region in an un-named, secret and temporary decontamination centre somewhere outside of Inverness. Eventually she went back to London with the sound box from Colm’s clarsach and the lock she found on the cave-floor in her rucksack. She did not show them to Professor Benison at the university. Mags did not contact her university at all. She sat in her flat for several weeks and did not move. Then her mother came around and took her home. Mags wept in her mother’s arms for an hour.
Fracher got fed up looking at the river. Staying in Atomic City was too dangerous. He climbed down onto The Searcher and sailed her back across Thurso Bay to sit under the lee of Holborn Head between the lighthouse and the ferry pier. He tied up to an old cast iron schooner mooring eye, leaving some slack on his line for the tide, and scrambled up the rough path to the lighthouse road. Blue and yellow lights flashed and flickered around the harbour below and sirens cut through the air. Scores of people in white suits and breathing apparatus ran here and there like energetic maggots. After about fifteen minutes he reached the croft which miraculously was still there. It had been washed hard by the wave right enough but the bulk of Holborn Head had taken the destructive force out of the onslaught. His hen house had gone he noticed, and there was no sign of any animals in any of the surrounding fields, but the old Fergie still sat where it had always sat. Fracher went into the croft-house and closed the door. He took off his jacket and sea-boots, poured himself a large dram of rum and sat in his chair by the fire which was, astonishingly, still smoldering in the grate. Fracher laughed to himself. Weel, Kirstag, he thought to himself, e may be deid but e Mackay’s are impossible til kill. He tossed a couple of peats on the fire and watched some sparks fly up the chimney as the orange flames took hold. He wondered where Cushie could have got to? He resigned himself to the fact that he would never see his old pal again. He sipped his rum. He looked at the fiddle hanging on the wall. Uch, thought Fracher, ay morn Ah’ll take ur doon an fund a tune in ur. Then he saw Kirstag come into the room through the kitchen door. She was carrying a small basket full of freshly cut chives and bunches of thyme. Come til yer bed Fracher, she said, yer tired. Aye, he said, Ah will.
The next day two MOD operatives found him dead in his chair.
Sometime later the bloated hairless corpse of a collie was washed up on Dunnet Beach.