Letter from Scotland — From the April 2018 issue

A Port In a Storm

A community’s quest to save its harbor

Download Pdf
Read Online

The village of Portpatrick, on Scotland’s serrated western coast, doesn’t so much lie around its harbor as embrace it for dear life. On a map, the harbor resembles the head of a cartoon bunny gnawing its way inland; the main road runs around the muzzle and past one of the ears before curving away from the sea. Nearly all of Portpatrick’s establishments — its inns and pubs, its village hall and tennis court — are on this road or just off it. Portpatrick Hotel, stately and broad on a bluff above the coastline, gives its guests a gull’s-eye view: the rocks scarring the harbor’s outer lip, the brief beach that emerges during low tide, the boats bobbing about on the water.

In the harbor’s two basins — the bunny’s rectilinear ears, each a different size — the water can drop from one tide to the next by nearly fourteen feet. They tend to be properly populated with boats only during the summer; the winds of winter, ferocious enough to shred the saltire on the flagpole, send the sea barreling into the basins and up their sheer stone walls. Apart from the sturdy Royal National Lifeboat Institution vessel, few boats dare to stay through the winter. Yet the harbor is central to Portpatrick’s imagination. When asked to describe its importance, people are briefly stumped, as if they’ve been told to audit gravity. Not surprisingly, then, the dramatic near loss of the harbor two years ago came upon the village like a temblor.

The village harbor and seafront. All photographs from Portpatrick, Scotland, by Sophie Gerrard

Among Portpatrick’s 540 residents, it’s difficult to find anyone more intimately bound to the harbor than Robert Erskine. For two and a half decades, Erskine worked as the coxswain on the lifeboat. Then he became a partner in the Harbour House Hotel, a handsome cloud-white building. He also tends to the putting green, which is so close to the harbor that a wayward golf ball may well end up in the nearest basin. In one way or another, Erskine’s career, his livelihood, and his passions have all been channeled into the harbor.

He lives only a minute’s walk away, and I found him at home one morning, eating porridge in his kitchen. He is nearly bald, and his eyes glint with good humor; his voice is so soft that sometimes he’s just sighing the lowest registers of his sentences. Erskine became Portpatrick’s harbormaster in early 2015, just when it seemed that soon he might not have a harbor to master at all.

Under a succession of owners, the harbor’s charm had been sloughing off. Mooring rings, ladders, and chains corroded, and debris gathered in corners; the amenities that sailors today seek, such as Wi-Fi and showers, never materialized. “Nothing was getting repaired!” Erskine said. The harbormaster before him, “that English fella from Port William,” lived elsewhere. “So the boats coming in weren’t getting the sort of welcome they were getting earlier.” Fewer and fewer were pulling into the harbor, he said. Whispers of a fuller effacement — a cruel loan, financial intrigues, and the looming threat that the harbor would be redeveloped into a marina or a similarly dull commercial bauble — began to gust around the village.

“In the pub in my hotel, I’d hear different people saying about how they weren’t coming that often because it’s not the same,” Erskine said. It saddened him tremendously. Portpatrick was, in any case, like dozens of villages in Scotland — like thousands across the world — where the young had up and left. To be severed now from its cherished harbor would transform it into a lesser village altogether.

Previous PageNext Page
1 of 6

You are currently viewing this article as a guest. If you are a subscriber, please sign in. If you aren't, please subscribe below and get access to the entire Harper's archive for only $23.99/year.

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Download Pdf
Share
is the author, most recently, of This Divided Island: Life, Death, and the Sri Lankan War (Thomas Dunne Books). He lives in Dublin.

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2019

The Wood Chipper

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Common Ground

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Love and Acid

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Black Axe

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

Close

You’ve read your free article from Harper’s Magazine this month.

*Click “Unsubscribe” in the Weekly Review to stop receiving emails from Harper’s Magazine.