Yesterday afternoon I found myself doing what could only be described as a poor version of a Russian Cossack shuffle dance along a very low narrow stone tunnel. The only sound was the rustle of waterproofs, the wind whipping around outside, and my own inner soundtrack featuring Simon and Garfunkel’s lyrics from the Sound of Silence.
As I made my ungainly progress down the tunnel, I was finally heading towards a silence I had long anticipated hearing. Since my first visit some time ago the burial mounds of the Grey Cairns of Camster in Caithness has played on my imagination. Due to a perfect storm of reasons, I had never been able to venture inside each time I visited. But here I finally was, alone on a rapidly darkening windswept afternoon heading towards what? I must admit – it took a little bit of courage on my part to venture into the heart of these mounds as the tunnels are so tight and dark and of course I stupidly had no torch only my sound recorder to record the silence. As I blindly groped my way towards the heart of the mound, I wondered what the quality of silence would feel like.
I originally went seeking silence in the winter of 2020, spending a week in a Benedictive Abbey with only the monks, myself, the rain-drenched land, and the very vocal birdlife for company. As lockdown measures were still in place, I was the only female resident which was perfect. The quality of the silence at the abbey stirred up a flurry of questions in my mind, such as whether sacred and secular, group or singular, inner, or outer silences differ and how could I creatively capture this essence?
Over time my journey to articulate silence has caused me to navigate familiar and unfamiliar shores – the family lounge with my dad, as we sit wordlessly locked into his growing dementia; a wild Atlantic coast where red-hot burning angry silence fills the car between myself and a close friend, the storm-tossed sea a silent witness; or down dark narrow tunnels to the land of the dead.
Finally standing upright in the centre of the tomb I listen. I’m not really certain what I was expecting but I swear I can hear the faint ticking of a clock as well as the sound of my heart beating after my Cossack dancing tunnel exertions. I can no longer hear the wind and my senses feel disoriented. There is a muffled dullness to the sensation, and I feel acutely aware of myself as though rather than a tomb this were a hall of mirrors. With that uneasy thought I thankfully turn, crouch and crawl my way back towards the rectangle of light at the other end of the tunnel.
Back in the warmth of the car the windscreen wipers sweep away the flurries of sleet, the silence of the tomb is now displaced in my memory by the music filling the air as I head back along the A9 North towards home.