Spring light is spellbinding. It is high and diamond hard. It pierces everything, shreds thoughts, fills eyes with tears and burns delicate skin.
In the unpolluted Highland air the intense clarity of light brings out the finest details of the crags and crevices of Torridon’s mountains. As the eagle flies, their summits are 16 kilometres from my back garden yet this spring light can sharpen their familiar shapes more than the ice cold of deep winter – Baosbheinn, Beinn Dearg and Beinn Alligin, whose tops include Sgùrr Mhòr (986m) and Tom na Gruagaich (922m), become crystalline and proud in the fierce glare.
Close to the summit of Sgùrr Mhòr there is a distinctive ‘cleft’. From South Erradale it looks like a small slice has been cut out by a sharp knife to create a flat platform. I keep dreaming of camping up there. I want to see the sunrise and the sunset from my proposed campsite. Yes, I am being greedy and unrealistic, but I can dream.
There is no platform as such. That is just a trick of the eye and wishful thinking. The notch marks the top of a long defile that drops almost a thousand feet down the other side of the mountain. Seen from Loch Torridon the feature appears as a dark gash in the mountain’s steepest face. Geologists and geomorphologists have figured out that it formed almost 4000 years ago in a single event. The mountainside collapsed in a great rock avalanche almost impossible to imagine. Scientists who have studied the debris in the valley below say it would have made a strange sound that would have been heard for miles around. Not just a rumbling but a higher pitched wailing, sound created by the speed of movement, size of rock fragments and sheer steepness of slope. Pure physics at play as well as geology and geography.
It has a name, this special place – Eag Dhubh na h-Eigheachd (the black gash of the wailing) or Leum na Caillich (the hag’s leap). Both names are evocative and ancient. The first probably refers to the sound acoustic scientists believe was made. The second may refer to the legends of Beira, Queen of winter, who raged around the land smoting mountains with her hammer. Across the Celtic world she is the Cailleach who is credited with creating the mountain landscapes of Wester Ross. Think of that – the first woman with a geological hammer!
That legends and measurable physical, geomorphological and geological events can be married in this way is wonderful. They may be tied to climate change too. 4000 years ago climate was rapidly becoming cooler and wetter. It’s entirely possible that intense rainfall coupled with rapid freezing and thawing would have weakened the rock along its fault-lines until the face came crashing down in one, enormous sudden event. What terror, amazement, shock and disbelief must have been felt by communities living here then? Yet we are almost in touching distance of what they experienced and described because their reactions remain, preserved within the places names and legends of Wester Ross.
It’s now May and Beira has lost her battles. Spring has come to this small valley close to the sea and to our croft. Yet even today, great bursts of cloud could be seen rushing between the peaks, growing and swelling to create thunderheads or pouring like rivers through the gaps between the summits.
In truth we have been enjoying the relatively calm, cold weather. Some days have continued to get a bit flustered with gusting winds but others have been as quiet as the end of a very long sigh. Life all around is beginning to bloom despite the still low temperatures. Catkins on the willows are bee-filled. The first tiny sedges in the top meadows have burst open with tufts of pale yellow flowers. Mosses and lichens have thrown up their fruiting bodies – forests in miniature – and bright green shards of grass are heading sunwards. It has been cold for such a long time that when the sun shines we all move into its yellow warmth, faces turned upwards like sunflowers. And in a sheltered nook, pale warmth transforms into real heat.
The cuckoos are busy, the sand martins busier still. But there are no swallows. I know they have much further to fly than the martins but they usually arrive within a day or two of each other. The sand martins have been here for two weeks so it is difficult to overcome a growing feeling of disquiet.
As I write, it is Beltane and I have just been looking at photographs and notes from this time last year. There was a long dry cool spell then too, when we were all in the first coronavirus lockdown, but swallows swam through our skies with the sand martins and marsh marigolds were in bloom. Caltha palustris, “Kingcups”, the yellow flower of Beltane, are said to protect against witches; here in Wester Ross they were picked to ward off Beira. And they are usually in flower by now, scattered in our croft ditches and along the river. Because of the cold they are not yet blooming. Perhaps they think winter may still come a-visiting and I’m wondering if they are also waiting for the swallows.
Throughout April most days have been multi-faceted gemstone bright, but the sunsets have been very different. Powerful, deeply resonant colours, often as rich and thick as melted wax, have filled the western skies. One evening a squad of showers blustered down the Minch and threatened to wipe away the sunset but they were exposed as mere whimsy by the strong and lavish light.
On another evening, the sun was a disc of mustard yellow, the yellow of Kingcups, surrounded by concentric circles of every ‘hot’ colour imaginable. This was not the light of a feeble setting sun; this was a blazing quasi apocalyptic heat. Though I watched it wrapped up in my winter coat, woolly hat and gloves to keep out the icy breeze, the hues and chroma were of Armageddon – hot, and about to get hotter. This was the nuclear sun as painted by artist Stanley Donwood, the beautiful terrifying image that adorns the front cover of Robert Macfarlane’s fabulous book “Underland”. Though at first the writer thought the painting showed the way down into the earth’s hot core, Donwood said it represented the last thing one would see in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear explosion.
It makes me think of that too. But it also reminded me of the last time I had seen an almost identical sunset. My mother died at the winter solstice 25 years ago, in Aberystwyth. The following day I drove home to be with my husband and four children, a journey of about three hours over the hills of mid and north Wales. Some of the drive would inevitably be in the dark but I wanted to get home to the children in plenty of time for the normal routines of evening meal, bath and bedtime stories. By the time I got to Llandegla Moor the sun was setting. Here, for some strange reason I felt compelled to stop. The valley below had all but disappeared in the flaming light. I could see the disc of sun but around it halos of treacle-thick colour began to swell until even the silhouettes of the hills and valley sides fizzled away and everything was consumed by the almost blinding light and intense colour.
My mother loved to watch the setting sun from their hill farm overlooking the great bog of Cors Fochno and the wide sweep of Cardigan Bay. Every sunset since those happy days has had her voice burned within in it. But this week’s ‘Donwood’ sunset, was the very same shape and density and richness as the one marking her death all those years ago. I have never seen colour so condensed in spring-time. Just as it had on Llandegla Moor the sun consumed everything. Then, as it was finally taken under-land, the spell was broken by oystercatchers and curlew down on the shore and by a strange, pale mist thrown up by the waves.
Spring light is all motion and trickery and opulence and vigour. Yet it reveals the secrets of mountains and retells tales of the mystical figures who ‘created’ these grand landscapes. The blinkers fall from our eyes until we are blinded again and again by the setting sun and its decadent kaleidoscope of colour.