In April the land burned. Cold snow showers that had bundled together under cloud-bands of steel grey and ink in late March were swept aside by penetrating blue skies, fierce light and desiccating wind. The air was bright, dry and crisp. April rushed in and overtopped the last stranglehold of winter like erupting breakers in a high storm tide.
Snow continued to hold fast on the summits but the coastal margins were incandescent, mirror tiles reflecting halogen lamps, all retina-searing, eye-watering blues and whites tempered only by the slow gentle greening of our low hills and meadows and by pale yellow effervescences on willow, birch, alder and hazel. Sunsets were turmeric-stained smears on rose-pink tablecloths, sunrises as bold as market stalls filled with neat rows of red chillies, strawberries and plums. The sea was calm, the air calmer still. Birdsong was ripe and rowdy in the hours before the sun rose over Baosbheinn but at dusk even sea bird voices were hushed by the soft peach-skin glow of fading light.
Tides moved between the days like silk drawn slowly over skin. Even under grey skies the sea was wave-less, the atmosphere rainless. And then at the end of April fires broke out on the hills. Some grew from unguarded muirburn, others from unmanned camp fires; some, it is thought, blossomed from the careless disposal of cigarettes. All smoked, flamed and spread because the ground was preternaturally dry. The largest and fiercest fire here in coastal Wester Ross ran across swathes of the Gairloch Estate and even now its cause is still unknown. It gripped the steep, heathered slopes of ‘The Miniatures’ and leapt the main road into Gairloch threatening power supplies and access. It lasted for three days and turned the hillsides to black ash, burning young pines and birch and combusting ancient soils. Only the gullies and hollows filled with mature mixed deciduous woodland escaped the worst for the high relative humidity and deeper, wetter moss-covered soils under their dense canopies rebuffed the flames.
Though we were miles from the fires, yellow and brown smokes filled our nostrils and darkened our hearts. All I could think about was the loss of wildlife, nesting birds and burrowing insects, the ruination of soil structure and vital microscopic colonies of fungi and bacteria. At a time when perceptions of loss in the natural world are expanding and concerns about potential extinctions growing these fires felt particularly savage and almost personal. Yet down in South Erradale light and life bloomed in the mustard-yellow gorse. In the dry warmth almond and coconut scents overwhelmed the tang of charcoal while joy (and hope) flitted around us in the exuberant voices of small birds and rippling hum of emerging insects.
There were days of summer heat too, strange and unsettling for a month usually spliced with snow and hail. The paths dried; I walked about in old trainers rather than wellies. Meadow turf was pale and brittle, crunching underfoot just as it had done when January enclosed us all in ice. As cuckoos arrived the bog pools continued to shrink. I gathered frogspawn with my neighbour to put in her old bathtub and wait out the ‘dry’. Sand martins returned to the river bank; I worried about their food supplies because after the initial bloom of insect life it seemed to vanish just as quickly.
In May grey rains came, firm as dark pewter or layered like silver tissue paper. The seashore glowed under the heavy skies. After so much dry light, the solidity of wet and cold felt wrong. We grumbled, the old Shetland ponies were miserable, our neighbour’s new lambs shuddered.
Late spring in the north requires a subtle combination of moisture and warmth to bring greening and abundance; we had excess water but no heating. The soils in our fields and moorland peats need to warm up to enable the full rushing bloom of leaf, stem and root. Brighter days did tumble in from the west, in a cyanometer’s colour-coding of blue, but still there was no real, bone-reaching warmth. Then swallows began to appear, not in their usual groups but singly. One poor bird simply fell out of the air by the front door, its feathers bedraggled though still shimmering with colour and iridescence. How it had died was a mystery, perhaps it was exhausted after battling gales and relentless rain. For days I watched the skies hoping others would return. I buried the tiny body in our ‘top’ meadow.
Sunsets blurred with ribbons of deep lilac and soot-grey as the distant cloud of oncoming rains built beyond the westernmost reaches of the Hebrides. Far off flickers of sunshine and hints of heat were bedevilled by mists, tepid light and brimming burns. On some days high pale azure skies were streaked by feathers and streamers of cirrus cloud that whispered of summer but were not strong enough to keep the weather of the north Atlantic at bay, and they did not last long. Cuckoo song rippled around the valley, skylarks rose, the volume of small meadow-bird song grew despite the poor weather, and yet the overwhelming feeling was that all was not well. Dark words of vanished swallows and missing swifts came to us from the south. I was troubled and kept my eyes on the skies. I tried to count the number of cuckoo voices, worried that many had not returned to the valley.
The topsy-turvy upending of weather norms was unnerving; blame it on the extreme sinuosity of the ‘Jet stream’ said the forecasters. Sinuous is too gentle a word to describe the upheavals. March, April and May have been upended, their days shuffled like a deck of cards, succumbing to an altered world. Is this ‘sinuosity’ a sign of greater changes to come? If so, I am fearful. The natural world has not been swift to respond to this modified spring. How many species live on the brink of disaster here I could not say. There are more questions in my notebooks than comments. And yet May passed, hiccupping towards summer, cold and unforgiving, challenging the normal vernal rhythms and confronting the ability of wildlife to cope.
June arrived bringing a subtle warming but just not enough for us to call it summer. We still need layers of warm clothes and to light a fire in the evening. For a time the wind blew crossly from the north east and blasted our young vegetables with cold so their leaves yellowed in shock. But now, in spite of the wind, the longer hours of daylight have begun to work their magic and at last the ground is warming and the croft is beginning to flourish. Growth is discernible; it has scent and such colour changes as to give the impression that each meadow is singularly alive and pulses with energy.
Everything is reinvigorated. While the south remains cool and wet, we are cool and bright. Where I find a shelter from the wind the sun seeps into my bones. Pausing from the work that must be done so I can turn my face up to the warmth I find I’m accompanied by dozens of small birds feeding their young in the same patches of sunlight.
‘Spring’ growth is a few weeks behind because of April’s cold and May’s rain but finally the fields are thickening with lush growth. Orchids spear the greenery. They are everywhere. I am almost afraid to walk out over the fields for fear of trampling flower spikes yet to burst into colour. And there are new species of orchid this year: dozens of ‘Butterfly’ orchids, creamy and fragrant.
And best of all, this morning as I walked through the fields, stepping carefully to avoid crushing the orchids, insects rose up, moths, craneflies, lacewings and myriad others. Tumbling down, riding sinuous waves of light and sweet scents and almost caressing the orchid flowers, came swallows, desperate to feed.