Billy Connelly once famously said that Scotland has only two seasons, “June and Winter”, but the reality is very different. Just as the Japanese divide the year into twenty-four sekki (seasons) which are then subdivided further into three ko, a Highland year has a multiplicity of micro-seasons, many occurring within a single day. The mid-June sekki in Japan is ‘Geshi’ (summer solstice) with delightful ko names including ayame hana saku (Irises bloom), but our midsummer is as beautiful and blessed with as much if not more variety.
On the croft and surrounding moorland wildflowers bloom in a regular sequence; some then vanish in the growing sward so quickly that if you are not careful, they are gone before you have had time to enjoy them.
In the long warm days of June, our meadows, hedges and woodlands begin to catch up with the blooming of wildflowers further south, but it is always an impatient and slightly uneasy wait for me, tinged with jealousy. I have been anxiously looking out for the first orchids since late May, jealous of the meadow-flowers and frothy flower-filled hedgerows already in bloom in southern England, even though I know we are at least three weeks behind. But nevertheless, I have wandered the croft peering into tufts and clumps hoping and willing the turf into action.
Then, suddenly, after a 48-hour period of rain and warm winds, came a burst of insect life, synchronous with the rapid greening of crofts, peatbogs and moorland, and part of the rich, dense partnership that is our living green envelope. And very quickly, the green swards were flecked with flowers.
While the turf was still quite short, heath bedstraw, tormentil and heath milkwort prickled the ground with white, yellow and blue. To see the milkwort, whose flowers are delicate and tiny, you must bend down and take your time; then when you have seen one, the whole place seems sewn together with stitches of deep blue. Soon the bedstraw froths over the edges of paths and walls and tormentil flickers among the low-growth young heathers and tufts of grass.
During the first dry days of June pale pink orchids began to push up through the short grasses on one of the steep banks on the croft. It had been so dry for weeks but still they came, rank-upon-rank of bold spears, and between them, in small patches of bare earth, hundreds of small holes, the front doors of emerging solitary bees.
But after the rains, the fields were transformed. Growth was tangible and almost visible. Standing still for a few moments I felt certain I could hear as well as see the burgeoning life.
Last year, the delicate cream blooms of the lesser butterfly orchid appeared in one old patch of meadow. I counted eight individuals. This year there are dozens; they have spread out across the fields into a variety of micro-habitats and are flourishing.
On the surrounding peatland, pale pink cuckoo flowers are now beginning to fade, overwhelmed by dense carpets of white. Bog-cottons are blooming more than ever this year, like ballerinas in the sea breezes, snow-white by day, red-gold at sunset and sunrise, and ghost-silver in the short hours of night.
Bird’s-foot-trefoil is thriving too. In the dunes at Opinan it mixes with wild thyme, an enduring palette of Scottish colours, royal gold and purple. On the croft it blooms on old stone heaps and walls with stonecrop and thrift whose seeds must have been blown up from the rocky shore in the autumn gales. In the ditches and wet flushes, regiments of yellow flag-iris waltz with pink-skirted ragged robin, while on patches of peat, sitting atop the old river terraces, sundews stud the mounds of Sphagnum moss in socially distanced, small shielded groups.
This is the ‘simmer dim’, when our most flower-filled days lead up to and out of the summer solstice, when the nights are not dark but almost white and it is possible to walk about without a torch. Thick, sleep-inducing, heady scents of dog-rose and myrtle rise up through the sunshine but at the dimming of the day and in the short middle-night the land itself exudes such perfumes that the living earth is a presence in its own right. I feel more open than ever to the existence of a closely interconnected biosphere that operates in quite different time frames to our own and I am just one tiny fragment of this greater whole, one human, whose life is no more or no less important than the tiny blue blooms of milkwort and the glistening sundew.
The ‘Great Confinement’ has been accompanied by astonishingly fine weather. From the first weeks of lockdown until this week and our first tentative (Scottish) unlocking, apart from a brief return of winter to the mountains in May and a swift staccato run of Atlantic storms, the days have passed in a flurry of brightness and warmth. While the pandemic has subdued so many of us inside, outside the natural world has bloomed with colour, light, scent and sound. Everything has seemed larger, brighter, noisier and more perfumed.
This strangely prolonged lovely weather has been driven by continental weather systems whose mainly easterly flow of air has kept Atlantic lows far out to the west. Beyond the Outer Hebrides those rain-bearing distant clouds have helped create beautiful sunsets; the gentle breezes have calmed and smoothed the sea. Colours have been deeper and richer; some sunsets have fizzed like fireworks, others have slowly pulsed with red heat like the ‘a’a and pahoehoe lavas of Hawaii. We have walked out most evenings to watch the sun sink down over the Minches and islands and during the last week, from our South Erradale vantage point, it has been setting over the northern half of Lewis, almost at its solstitial position beyond the Point of Ness.
There is a cluster of rocks on a nearby hill that sit strangely in the wilder moorlands of heather, tussock grasses and boulders. They are not listed in any archaeological inventory but they are particularly intriguing especially when viewed in relation to the Cuillin on Skye and the sunsets in the west. At this time of year, I’m lured back again and again. I can’t help but link them to the solstices, both in winter and in summer. Just fancy, I know. I am sure an expert in megaliths would quickly denounce these notions as absurd but I enjoy the companionship of rock and deep time in this place anyway; the stones seem to be telling me stories as good as any in the books at home.
The benign conditions blowing in from the east and lack of human visitors due to lockdown have benefitted birdlife. Along the shore and on the beach at Opinan there are ringed plovers, pied wagtails, dunlin, sand pipers, rock pipits and oystercatchers in much greater numbers than in years past. They seem emboldened too. When I have gone down to the sea-log-seat I have been largely ignored; when I have waded into the sea, they have flown about my head uncaring. And once again I have felt a deep sense of companionship with the non-human world.
During the ‘Great Confinement’ there have been no human visitors to South Erradale either. Our valley has been quiet in terms of vehicular noise but loud and busy with exuberant and extravagant birdsong from our full-time residents and regular migrants. But two weeks ago, a small bird with a black head and a body as hotly yellow as gorse flowers landed in the garden. His back and shoulders shone with tints of our sunsets and his wing feathers were coloured and striped like the strange rocks on the hill. After consulting Twitter, birders confirmed his identity; he was a ‘Black-headed Bunting’ who should have been in Iran or Croatia, not in the fringes of north-west Europe.
This beautiful wee creature had come all the way from his winter feeding grounds in India to us, blown into our world with the warming winds in time for the summer solstice. We can add a new Highland ko to a new Highland sekki: “black-headed bunting flashes” in our “sunsets like fireworks”.