Amy Liptrot

Writer from a Scottish island. I'm all ears

Born in Orkney, Scotland. Based in the UK

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Amy is a freelance journalist, lifelong diarist and outdoor swimmer.

Her memoir, The Outrun (2016, Canongate), was a Sunday Times bestseller, Radio 4 Book of the Week and won the Wainwright Prize for nature and travel writing. It's being translated into ten languages.

She grew up on a sheep farm in Orkney and moves around a lot. At the moment, she's living in Yorkshire and working on her next book. 

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Extract: The Outrun


A few years ago, I drunkenly got into an argument with someone I shouldn’t have. She retorted by calling me “washed up”. It stung because at that point it was fairly true. I was out of work, living in a tiny room in east London, not getting invited out, heartbroken and drinking alone. My once promising future, for which I’d moved to London, was turning into bitterness and frustration. My options were ever decreasing and I didn’t know where to turn, desperately seeking comfort in sexual encounters and obsessive memories. My life had become unmanageable.

When I first came back to Orkney I felt like the strandings of jellyfish, laid out on the rocks for all to see. I was washed up: no longer buoyant, battered and storm-tossed. I think of the things I have lost: my compass, stolen laptop, two shoes – one in the canal, one out of the door of a moving car – my boyfriend. But I also think of the things I have found from the sea: the fishing boat, the seal, the “ambergris”. These things were worn out and washed up but they were not always useless. They had tales to tell.

One Sunday morning while I am on Papay, a highly unusual animal washes on to the beach on North Ronaldsay: a walrus. These huge sea beasts, north Atlantic walruses, are more usually found in Greenland and north Norway and none had been seen in Orkney since 1986. Every islander goes out to see it, huge, tusked, posing obligingly on the beach, while wildlife enthusiasts and photographers book themselves on the first plane. By nightfall it has dragged itself back into the water and swum north. A few days later the same animal, distinguishable by its markings, is spotted on the Norwegian coastline.

When beachcombing, I get used to noticing and homing in on anything that looks a bit different among the pebbles, caught in a rockpool or buried in the sand. Usually it’s a piece of plastic – a drink bottle, one flip-flop, a crisps packet from 1993, bits of fish crate. Today something catches my eye in the tangles. I pick up a tiny – it would fit in a matchbox – headless, handless, footless porcelain figurine: a grisly find. I give it a rinse in a rockpool.

It is white and naked with a protruding tummy and bottom. During a gale in 1868 a ship called the Lessing, on its way from Bremerhaven in Germany to New York, drove into the rocks at Klavers Geo on Fair Isle. All 465 passengers, emigrants hoping to start a new life in the United States, and crew were brought safely ashore by the islanders but the ship itself was broken up by the sea and its cargo, including china dolls, dispersed.

A figurine from the wreck in the Shetland Museum looks tantalisingly similar in style to my find. I like to think my figurine came from the wreck. For years it might have been buried in the seabed but a perfect combination of time elapsed, stormy seas, east winds and high tides brought it for me to find on this spot on Papay this winter.

There is a cycle. The things we put into the sea come back to us but because the ocean is downhill from everywhere, they will go back there eventually. I wonder if I might find the shoe I lost in the London canal on an Orkney shore. As my time on Papay comes to an end, I am untethered and free-floating, like the jellyfish. I am wondering what’s next, standing back and allowing the unexpected to wash up at my feet.

I’ve been holding my breath. I’ve been clenching my teeth. I’ve been searching the seashore each day, just looking for a moment when I can feel at ease. I run my tongue over the tooth that’s chipped from opening beer bottles. Although it’s smoother now, the chip will always be there. I rub the scar on the back of my head. Deep in the night, I still think of my ex-boyfriend and how I didn’t change in time to save our relationship. He lives in America now with his girlfriend, and I heard they have a baby.

People like to tell me I’m looking “well” but there are late hours alone when my heart is an open wound and I wonder if the pain will ever stop brimming fresh. I cannot smooth out the fault line. At these times, drink suggests itself as a solution. “Getting sober” is not a moment after which everything gets better but an ongoing and slow process of rebuilding with regular setbacks, wobbles and temptations.

One morning after a bad night, walking on the east side of Papay, I see a plastic bottle among the rocks. I pick it up: a Finnish vodka bottle carried from Scandinavia with about a shot’s worth left inside. I open it and take a deep smell. The hollow tang of teenage parties, plastic cups in dark discos and finishing the bottle down an alleyway.

An impulse pulling at something deep within me, something strong, tells me to swig it down, all mixed with seawater and sailor spit. Sometimes I think it would just be funny to say, “Fuck it, fuck all of this.” A part of me, when I hear that someone has “drunk themselves to death”, finds the idea attractive: they did it to themselves, they were free. The vodka smell is making me light-headed. It seems so perfect, this mouthful of oblivion sent from the sea.

But everything I’ve found in the past year is pulling me more strongly: the clear eyes and shooting stars, the fresh mornings when sleep has made me feel better rather than worse. The strength I feel when I end a day without having inebriated myself is true freedom. I screw the cap back on, throw the bottle down and laugh loudly and wildly out into the waves. Is this all you’ve got, North Sea? I can take it. I can take anything you throw at me.

I stride onwards. The plane passes above and to the passengers I am a lone figure in waterproofs walking the coastline, morning after morning, miles from anywhere, at the north of nowhere. But down here, inside myself, I feel powerful and determined. I am saved from the sea, seeing the beauty in the breakers that almost dragged me under, drinking the cold air with gratitude.