Imagine, if you will, standing in front of a marble wall. It is smooth and cool to the touch and although the overall impression is pale and white, on closer inspection it appears flecked and veined with different colours. The more you look, the more detail you see: granular histories of formation and distant tales of its crafting. Yet you cannot see through it and even though you might know what it encloses, it is impossible to see anything other than the gentle flow of energy contained within the stone itself.
The week leading up to the summer solstice was a marble wall. No horizons between sea and sky, mountains hidden, river heard though not seen and only a green glow in the immediate foreground where damp meadows and hedges glittered with water droplets, sap and juice. A stiff breeze accompanied the low swirling mists yet despite their churning the vapours and steams clung tenaciously to hill, hedge and home. Now and again a shot of bright light pierced the deep thick quilted sky but there has been little or no sign of mountain peaks, they have all remained encased in alabaster and marble.
My walk to the shore was akin to walking a high peak above the white clouds of a temperature inversion; of stepping carefully along a ridge, uncertain of one’s footing but knowing that a misplaced stride could mean a fall. The edge of the green, sheep-trimmed meadows adjacent to shore gave the same sense of weightlessness as the edge of a great cloud-filled void.
Birdsong was the saviour. Through dawn mists sea and shore birds continued to sing and pick over the decaying kelp strewn like bunting over boulders. And in our croft fields larks have risen, striving to ignore and overcome the fogs, disappearing from view now and again, still singing.
This year there are more stonechats and wheatears than ever before. Every other fence post or tall clump of heather has a proud songster. I am not sure why numbers seem to have increased so dramatically but perhaps our very mild spring has been a factor. What is also mysterious is how very similar their songs are. I have repeatedly misinterpreted their calls. Recordings available on the internet tell me there should be differences, but here they seem to mimic each other, both calling out with a characteristic “sweep chac chac”. I have watched and listened and yet they all keep repeating the same joyful and proud chorus. Croft, cliff and shore bustle with their busyness.
Just metres away the dunlin gangs I had thought would carry on and fly north have stayed; food supplies must be sufficient, potential nest sites suitable. The enormous quantities of seaweeds that have been brought ashore have been slowly decomposing supplying food for insects and crustaceans and thus for growing numbers of birds. And they have delivered a nutrient base for plants. Greenery is emerging in between the cobbles. New land is being created; the machair is extending, enriched by seaweed and shells.
In spite of the rolling banks of violet, grey and silver clouds light seeps through for more than eighteen hours each day. Even when the sun drops beyond the Point of Ness on Lewis, the ‘night’ is not dark. It is entirely possible to walk without a torch.
Shetlanders call this the ‘simmer dim’, the summer twilight, and in Wester Ross we do not fall much short of it. As the post sunset neon colours fade other lights flicker in and out of peripheral vision. During middle-night hours the world is silver and grey, sounds are amplified, and the perfumes of earth and living greenery are intense and intoxicating. The sweetness of myrrh and frankincense, corralled and kept low by shimmering mistiness, seeps out from the bogland and mixes with salted caramel rising from the shore. Breathe out and breath becomes mist, breathe in and you absorb the scented spirit of the place. Walking through the simmer dim is how I imagine a ghost moves: almost formless yet bound up with energy, silver and ivory, translucent and gossamer.
On solstice eve the sun returned; at last. I had almost forgotten the fluted details of Baosbheinn’s steep scree slopes and pointed hat peak lost in the mists. Even the low hills of Meall Ruadh and Cnoc an Fhuarain are back, greener than ever. In my sudden surprise at seeing shadows cast on the wall by the reassembled sun, blue skies and scudding cotton wool clouds, I remembered how close we had come to the solstice, and so quickly.
I hurried out through the croft fields to enjoy the warmth and light; with each step on the green living world my feet squeaked and I laughed at the sheer sappy juiciness of it all. Everything flickered like mirror tiles. Beyond the croft the sea was aflame with molten silver and gold and so, with Dog galloping happily along, I made straight for the sea. With each stride through the long grass pale froth appeared. It transformed into clouds of tiny moths disturbed by our passing and by the rising wind. Thin gusts shook the rushes and bushes and flashed across the grasses and wild flowers. Swallows swooped low to feed on the wing.
The midsummer’s eve sunset was hazy and rich. I tried to clear my eyes by squinting, thinking the blurring was mine. A high fine bank of cloud was moving swiftly in, flowing like spilt wine. Everything with wings was in the air. The machair below the cliff seemed to be rippling with insects and birds, scent and birdsong.
Later, I went to bed wondering about the solstice dawn and whether Stonehenge would be lucky this year. I woke at 2.30 prodded into wakefulness by the song thrush at the window. The silver-grey was beginning to blush with pink and mauve. Soon shapes began to coalesce and I could see that clouds were running through the sky in banded currents. As sunrise approached those to the north were painted in broad brush strokes of orange, carmine and violet. On the Baosbheinn a formless haze of rose-pink began to rust.
Sunrise over the hills was sudden and brief; it slipped though the line of thickening cloud and deeply shadowed hill of Cnoc an Fhuarain and quietly flared.
The longest day had begun and I was already tired. I wondered how songbirds keep on singing for almost twenty one hours. They do not simply mark the sunrise and sunset, they fill the voids for more than an hour at each end of the day with joy; they greet the coming light and salute its fading. Their tiny hearts are greater than mine.
And now, towards the end of the longest day, our wild Highland home is once more bathed in silver, the fire has flown into the northern sky, and still the birds sing.