From Red River Croft it is possible track the procession of sunsets over the calendrical year, solstice to solstice. Across the Inner Sound the midwinter sun descends quickly behind the undulating hills below Skye’s Old Man of Storr while in midsummer it vanishes into the sea just off the northern tip of Lewis. If I turn my back to the sea sunrises ply back and forth from the empty hills and boglands beyond Erradale at the winter solstice, along the multitudinous silhouetted summits of Torridon and on to Meal Ruadh, the long sloping hill overlooking our small valley, where the sun halts briefly for midsummer.
It astonishes me even now, having watched countless sunsets, photographing them when conditions permit, to see the solar year play out in this way. It has the semblance of a blessing, a ‘gift from the gods’. That I am able to follow the motion of the year feels wondrous, miraculous even.
There has never been anything like this in my life before. I live in a bowl crafted from some of Britain’s most ancient geologies, a basin rimmed by the serrations of rocky peaks, islands and sea, illuminated by the workings of the cosmos, and I keep wondering why the valley is not full of megalithic stone structures like Stonehenge. If I can see the solar year sweep around me then surely the ancients did. I suspect they did mark the changing positions of solstice sunrises and sunsets, and precession of the equinoxes, but in the intervening millennia the loss of forest and soils, growth of peat and more recent enhanced soil degradation and intensive grazing has all but removed any marker stones from view. At the very least they have been moved by natural erosive forces, or used in buildings and by the constant winnowing action of cloven hooves. Perhaps there are some that remain hidden still, buried within the deeper swathes of uncut blanket peat.
At the autumn equinox the last red hot embers of the setting sun flare just north of the Quiraing on Skye, behind the low-lying northern hills and fields around Balmaqueen on the Trotternish peninsula, if my map figuring is correct. This year the trickery of light and playfulness of atmospheric conditions during a relatively benign spell of weather brought purple floating islands and pirate galleons shimmering in peach schnapps, rose wine and essence of lavender.
But since then the north has been beset by wind and rain and intermittent days of autumnal colour. In the weeks leading up to the rut evidence of the night-time forays of deer were scattered across the fields; patches of meadow vegetation that had been left uncut were flattened by their bed-making. On both sides of the Red River, high on the bench-like slopes of the Erradale valley, the rut eventually began and seemed more frenetic than in years past. It has been loud, hoarse, violent; occasionally one or two stags wandered down to crofter’s fields in the middle of the day to graze on remnant growth, for the rich grasses and sweet herbs that would replenish calories lost in battle.
Overhead the skies have been skewered and stitched by groups of geese flying south and the last rowan berries have been stolen. And yet our hedges burst with the chatter of sparrows. The din is uplifting and energising. The shouting and squabbling rises above the noise from gales and tractors.
Down in the small patch of woodland next to the ‘lower’ meadow, the chicken coop has attracted a female sparrowhawk. She deftly flies in and out hunting the unwary small birds who persistently go after hen food. She is beautiful and safe from us but I cannot help but think of the traps set for other birds of prey across our nation’s uplands; in some of the photographs I’ve seen they look just like our chicken run and coop. One morning we heard a thumping noise as we worked by the old byre and realised that she had got stuck. Having flown in through the open half-door she could not get out because she was fooled by the two old PVC corrugated roof sheets and was trying for the brighter light. We opened the byre door fully and went in from another door to encourage her out. With a swift fierce glare of outrage she escaped.
The byre has a large round bale of straw mostly used as bedding for the old ponies in the depths of winter. But all across the bale were smoke-grey feathers, the sole remains of a collared dove. Clearly the sparrowhawk had been in before and found her way out without our ‘help’, with her prey expertly dispatched and a full belly.
Byre, woodland and surrounding fields have been busy: chickens passing freely and enjoying the ‘right-to-roam’, Iron Age boars wallowing and rooting. And for a short time a small herd of cattle came from Opinan to trim the fields a little more. The bull met the boars with mutual interest and reserved respect, the chickens dashed happily between the legs of heifers and calves, and the old ponies glowered because they wanted to graze by the byre.
Three calves were born while the herd enjoyed its holiday on Red River Croft. It was lovely to have MacKenzie cattle once again on ancient MacKenzie ground but now they have returned to Opinan. The pigs have gone too, their clearance work complete. The old Shetlands have reclaimed the ground and strut about with pleasure eating as fast as they can. They know winter is not far away and will fuel up as much as possible, in peace, without the distraction of cattle and boars, flicking their tails at the chickens.
And they are right. Up on the mountain tops the first snows have arrived, blown down through the Minches in great white billowing sheets, stippled with rainbows. We taste winter in the air in spite of the golden sunsets and rainbows.