The fantastic beasts (of Trotternish) and where to find them

Buffeting breezes and grey rains have returned yet the signs of spring are manifold. There are snowdrops gasping in wide open surprise at the lack of snow and ice, crocuses vibrating in purple and orange and daffodil spears bursting through turf and soil. Birdsong has changed. Only a few days ago it was bubbling but subdued and still filled with winter melodies. Now the first stirring strains of romance and joy and excitement are trilling from trees and hedges. Not long, they call out, not long, spring is coming.

But on the western horizon sits the dark blue-grey silhouette of a monster, stretched out, maw facing south, curling tail draped north; it is a shadow-creature from aeons past whose back bones undulate as if contorted in torment, unable to fully unravel itself.

As long as mists or low cloud do not wrap the world up in gauze, it is possible to pick out high points along the horizon and mark dipping weaknesses in the beast’s body.  I see it every day from the croft and coastal paths or down on the beach. It must be made of magic because its colour and transparency change; a shape-shifter then. This is the Trotternish, a long peninsula of northern Skye, created by magma and movement in the interplay between unimaginable crustal forces.

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Standing in our high field I see the soul-shape of Trotternish. I can watch its changing colours every day and marvel at sunsets as they travel back and forth along the undulating horizon across the year, solstice to solstice.  These skeletal forms have names: Old Man of Storr, Beinn Edra, Quiraing, Meall na Suiramach; they roll from my tongue as I trace them on a map and I feel like a student learning the names of vertebrae and other bones in a medical textbook. Beyond, other fantastic beasts emerge: the Uists, Harris, Lewis, the Shiants.

These island-beasts move. When the sun sets through a cloudless sky they seem almost close enough to touch: lavender and purple bruises against a sea of pink and gold. At other times they disappear, swallowed whole by skeins of cloud. And when showers race up through the Inner Sound to spill out across the Minch they pulse and flex as if alive and breathing.

I see them in some form or another every day. I look for their familiar shapes and shadows, highs and lows billowing from south to north, prickling with detail and sparkles of light or as faint, uncertain splodges of grey and silver. The silhouetted spinal column of Trotternish stretches out in front of me as I head across the fields and I have come to love its weather-dependent rolling gentleness as much as its Hadean cragginess. Occasionally I can see, following a spell of ice and snow, the harsh grey spikes of the Old Man of Storr below the basin of Coire Scamadal.

The last days of January were filled with sharp blue clarity and unusual, unseasonable warmth. We left the croft behind and crossed the Skye Bridge to stay in a small cottage tucked neatly below the monster and from here we set out to explore.

At each end of the Trotternish otherworldly, thrusting and convoluted forms are woven into the fabric of the rock. There are formations so outlandish they could have been moulded directly from fantasy or fairy tale; there are high hanging waterfalls, crenellated ridges and scooped out basins.

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And sitting beside them are mountains piled high in aiguilles and fissures, inaccessible, demanding, murderous and remote, hidden valleys concealing shining lochans, layered cliffs and white coral beaches.

Some can be seen from the roadside but others must be earned. Steep paths lead up to pinnacles and clefts created in great cataclysms of rock and magma, pushed and pulled and pressed in titanic crustal forces then scoured by ice and washed by rains. Turn this way or that and the formations reveal themselves: a wizard’s hat, a gnarled face, a line of soldiers, a dragon’s head, a dining table for giants. Turn again and light cascades across the landscape, painting slopes in turquoise and violet, splashing peach juice into lochs and dabbing clouds with crimson.

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Having stravaiged the magic of Trotternish, when I set out tomorrow morning to walk across our own croft fields I will cast my eyes to the beast’s contorted spine, drink in the colours and lights and smile, because I know the secrets that lie hidden there now, beyond the Inner Sound.

And they are fantastic.

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Posted in environment, experiencing nature, geology, landforms, landscape, legend, mountains, myth, nature, photography, sea, Skye, Trotternish, walking, wilderness, wildlife, winter | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gille Brìghde and a day of light

Yesterday, early, before the real time of rising, brightness crept in around my bedroom curtains. Not the silver-grey of moonlight or hints of auroral green but a sharper, clearer shaft of pearl and turquoise. This was the first time my retinas and brain had reacted and I came sharply awake. Sunrise, when the sun skims above the southern flanks of Torridon’s Tom na Gruigaich, was more than two hours away but I felt it, this returning light.

The Celtic festival known as Imbolc, February 1st, is the mid-point of winter, when light begins to grow perceptibly, or so we are told. And over the last few days there has been a sense of excitement emerging from the hedges and fields, as senses, far more attuned to nature’s signals than I, have begun to respond. There has been a greater variety of birdsong and increasing numbers of small birds scooting across the fields.

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So the day fell open like a heavy book whose pages part at a much loved chapter, a day of promise and yellow brightness, when eye-watering beams of cold clarity spread out from behind the mountains to scoop up any remaining iciness and purple shadows and prompt us into wakefulness. If this is what the ancients meant by Imbolc I could see it unfolding before me as mustard-yellow sunlight crept over the fields towards the house and then, sweeping over me and west to the sea, began to paint the sparse violet clouds with coral and cream.

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Later, down on the shore, a light wind blew. It takes another full hour after rising over the mountains for the sun to spread champagne light across the beach, but when it comes the sands sparkle, shell fragments flash and sea weeds glisten. Then the world appears to transform from a two dimensional pale-grey photograph into a 3-D pop up theatre of colour and texture.

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I was not alone. Clusters of birds stood still, unmoving as the sunlight spread out before them and they seemed to be enjoying the gentle touch of warmth. There were oystercatchers, ringed plovers, sandpipers, gulls of many kinds, turnstones, three herons and two curlews. They stood motionless for some time as the high waters sluiced back and forth and as I watched. Several birds then hopped up from the sand onto the machair and began to pick at the grasses, hunting for insects and worms.

Pagan Imbolc is also the festival of Brìghde, goddess of fire and fertility, who was transformed into St Brigid/Bride as the Celtic world was Christianised. In Gaelic the oystercatcher is called the Gille Brìghde or Guide of St Brigid. Legends tell us that she would send out the feisty birds to guide ships to safety and I can understand her choice. Any sailor would recognise their piercing and distinctive calls and know a safe shore was near.

On the beach, ruffled by a rising breeze and at last aware of dog and me, the oystercatchers called out, their voices echoing and strident. And as I moved closer they shouted to all and sundry, and, perhaps remembering their part in Brìghde’s story, began to separate and go about their business.

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The whole day was flushed with light. Across the Inner Sound much of Skye remained under deep blue cloud with the odd silvery shower seeping through the gaps in the spine of Trotternish.

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But here was dry and oddly calm. We are waiting for the winds to return and yet in the afternoon, as I walked out again with dog, the airs were still enough for tiny flies to emerge over myriad pools of water on the bog. I wondered if they were early non-biting midges, Chironomids. One of my colleagues used their remains, found in peat bog cores and lake sediments, as indicators of temperatures in the remote past and I watched, fascinated by their flickering, as they danced over the black waters among the mounds of Sphagnum moss.

Heading back to the house through the top field I noticed hundreds of worm casts across the grassy turf, more than I have ever seen there before. Low beams of sunlight picked out the tiny curls of soil. So worms, too, have felt the change through the earth and headed up to find the light. It is a good sign for the field; the ground is waking up.

When darkness finally came, there were other Imbolc lights in the sky: a new crescent moon flanked by Venus and Mars, both shining like newly polished gemstones and flashing with alien energy. I needed to bring in some wood for the fire but went to the gate to look out over the peatland. I stopped, leaning on the uppermost cold metal bar with folded arms, and gazed out in the darkness seeing only vague shadowy shapes, and I listened to the distant sound of waves breaking on the shore. Then, with an intake of breath, I realised the landscape was not dark at all, there were hundreds of miniscule glowing Venusian and Martian planet-lamps, all reflecting back from the mirrored surfaces of the bog pools, as if each small body of water had lit a candle.

And then I remembered. Of course, it was Candlemas Eve.

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Posted in coasts, environment, experiencing nature, landscape, legend, midwinter, mountains, myth, nature, peatbogs, photography, sea, wilderness, wildlife, winter, winter weather | Tagged , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Winter darkness is always threaded with light

Winter still stretches out ahead in a long slow arc. Occasionally it feels like travelling on a motorway through a wet, dark night, headlights on full. Beyond the limits of pale beams nothing can be seen even though we know the asphalt carries on and on. It is wearisome, that kind of travelling. And at times deep winter is tiring; the lack of brightness makes eyelids droop. But, creep by slow creep, days are lengthening.

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From an upstairs north-facing window, on one day of fierce winds, I paused. Aha! Light: swimming across Lonemore in a tiger-stripe band of yellow against the wind-burned brown moor. Clouds were rushing in, bumping into one another and piling up, skyscraper-high. Sunlight broke through and poured lemon juice over Meall Imireach’s last remaining icing-white snows. Flash by stepping flash brightness flickered here and simmered there, and in a few minutes of watching, was chased away, again and again, by peach and lavender bands of cloud. There seemed to be the promise of warmth in one, ice in the other. But light is returning.

In the low light of midwinter it can be hard to see colour in the landscape. Before the stormy days last week the sea surface rippled gently like a Victorian ball gown. Among my tubes of paint I found one called ‘Davy’s Gray’, a greenish-grey with a mysterious name, perfect for a bolt of satin. The internet told me it is made from powdered slate, created for an artist who lived three centuries ago. There were other greys: ‘Cadet grey’ for the uniforms of the Confederate Army; the ‘Cinereous Grey’ of rock ash; ‘Battleship Grey’ to rustproof ships of war. I found (and loved) ‘Marengo Grey’, named for Napoleon’s famous war horse and the colour of wet asphalt, and I thought again about the long road of deep winter still to come.

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But this morning there was light on the hills in little glisters so blinding they made me blink and squint, and more blue in the curls of grey. I baked a cake the colour of rich bitter chocolate like deep bog peat and I remembered how, hand in hand with my mother, I would go out in the dark to see the moon. Years later, I did the same with my first born, singing a nursery rhyme about a man named Aiken Drum who lived on it, and then again and again with all four little ones.

There is no orange murk from street lights here, only small lights twinkling now and again from scattered croft houses. Walk away from the yellow warmth at my open door and to the croft fields and I am confronted at first by a solid wall of blackness. But a midwinter night has light threaded through it; it is never wholly pitch-dark. Even when stars are invisible behind a blanket of cloud water glows in spectral green. The sea is smeared with gentle bioflourescence as if phytoplankton, angler fish with their strange lamps, eels and glowing jellyfish have swum up from the deeps not knowing where the ocean ended and the sky began. And the Abhain Dearg becomes a mother-of-pearl ribbon-river decorating the deep dark velvet of winter whose nap is lustrous and heavy.

Now light comes earlier each morning and is washed away a few minutes later at day’s end. I can walk about torch-less at 4.30pm. Even on dreich days filled with smudges of rain and banks of sea mist, when sunlight cannot penetrate the thick, dense rolling pillows of greyness there is an earthly glow around us. The gleam of light is most profound and intense at the coast and comes from every bit of sand, rock, sea-weed, lichen, tree bark, waving grass and water. This earth-based light is rich and eye-watering and more than makes up for lack of yellow sunlight.

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Animals and birds reflect it too. Rock pipits hopping on the rocky shore or ringed plovers paddling and running up and down the sands are brighter somehow with flickers and flashes of feathers that seem more like war-paint. The old Shetland ponies look bright-eyed, their shaggy manes and tails appear groomed even when they are snagged with gorse or grass; white sheep seem newly bathed and doused in talcum powder, black sheep are buffed and shining with boot polish. Even the hooded crows, swooping slowly as they hunt appear dressed in fine dun Harris tweed waistcoats and capes of black twill. And dog, roaming the sands, glows like polished jet.

In the high mountains snow has come and gone several times in recent weeks. The peaks are grim and grey for now; their lower slopes glower in burnt umber and pale ochre where wind-burned heather and stunted clumps of tough grass wait for spring. Mountain hares, brightly white, must be struggling to hide from raptors on the snowless slopes and deer roam down among the crofts foraging and stripping bark from trees wherever they can. The Red River has over-topped its banks three times in as many weeks in rushing, sediment-filled foaming outbursts but there are fish in there: every so often in the darkening at day’s end a flicker of silver in the cola-coloured water betrays them.

And then there are the fish bones left by otter at the gatepost. My new neighbour has no problems poaching river trout or with the dark.

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Posted in coasts, environment, experiencing nature, landscape, nature, otters, river, sea, snow, storm, wilderness, wildlife, winter, winter weather | Tagged , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Midwinter, Christmas and a new neighbour

I am restored. Normal winter weather has returned. From outside howlings and groanings interfere with any thoughts of planning for the day. The noise is relentless. I can’t see properly through any of my windows though I peer out of each one to check on things. (Check on what exactly? Why, things, of course.) Salt encrusts glass, and even views from upstairs windows are blurred and grey. Wait, I can see now; the last blast of hail has washed a small clear patch through which I can peek. Outside, visible gusts careen past carrying salt, grit, ice and full-throated roars. Even if I could stand up in the 70mph blasts, and I can’t, any bare skin would be flayed and my coat shredded. Such is the contrast to December weather that for a while this morning I forgot what it was like then, and I returned to my notebooks to help recall the unusual calmness and warmth that rolled up from southern seas. It was a strange time, this early winter, made more peculiar by the confused singing of birds and flowering of buttercups, and the temporary loss of internet connectivity.

As the midwinter solstice drew closer a large smiling face, booming with pale butter-yellow light, tipped first one way then the other, grinning to the left as it rose in late afternoon and to the right as it dipped into dawn. A December super-moon sailed through the night sky grinning from evening rise to morning set.  And for more than a week its light drenched everything in soundless silver, blanching the sky, hiding the Milky Way and outshining the Aurora Borealis. Nothing else could be seen in the night sky.

Amidst the raucous birdsong a few remaining crisp and crepitating brown leaves on trees and in hedges rustled and rasped. This was an unusual period of calm and relative warmth; daisies popped up with buttercups like brightly-coloured surprises from Christmas crackers and tiny flies emerged to flash and flicker over the ditches. Now and then hedgerow birdsong felt vernal and overly cheerful. Tides, bewitched by and slavishly following the moon, were remarkably high then extremely low, and swooshed lovingly back and forth in gentle waves of old lace across the beach. The shoreline path, stretching as it does alongside boulders and rocks, fizzed with small birds: rock pipits piping and mobs of tiny wrens pseeping.

Just a few days before Christmas these tempting and puzzling snippets of spring quickly vanished. Temperatures fell, wind speeds increased and showers, heavy and cumbersome in their bold greyness, rolled in from the sea. Storms, seeded by Atlantic Ocean warming and Jet Stream wavering, snarky and brim-full of violence, began to queue up, ready for Christmas landfall, and I worried for our youngsters on their long journeys home and whether there would be power for cooking a festive dinner.

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But the decorative lights went up; candles were lit and mid-day solstice sunlight poured across fields and hills in brief, fiery-golden and blinding fluorescences. Greenery was draped across the mantels and window sills, presents placed under the scented tree and Yule logs burned merrily in the fire. And we needed the bright comfort of baubles, twinkling fairy lights and swirling perfumes of cloves and cinnamon, for no matter how hard it tried the midwinter sun could only skim the hilltops south of the Red River and its bursts of brilliance were short-lived.

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Natural light is scant and fickle in winter, appearing in a field patch here or on a hillside there and disappearing as fast a surprising wink. Regardless of any official sunrise time, it takes another hour and twenty minutes for the sun to clear the broad dun hill that is the backbone of Meol Ruadh and sprinkle the river waters with gold-dust.  When it does emerge it is hard to look away; I like to stand still and enjoy being poached in a moment of warmth and gilded by a cupful of radiance. One morning, as I stood waiting for the sunburst I saw a cluster of deer across the river. They, too, were standing stock-still. Within two heartbeats we were all dazzled by warm light. There was a cacophony of noise in the hedges; birdsong, sudden and clamorous, woke us from our enchantment and the deer leapt away.

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The family tumbled in for Christmas battered by great columns of soot-black clouds, mud-grey showers, and deafened by stentorian gusts of wind that whipped and sliced up air and space around the croft house and sluiced, keening and wailing, through the telegraph wires.

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For most of their stay the smallest family members were confined to the croft gardens, protected by high hedges and serenaded by birdsong, as seemingly untroubled by the gales as the birds and just as boisterous. We managed our shore trail only once for it was not safe for small legs. We kicked at foam and froth, threw stones at the waves, examined rock pools and ran through sand dunes.

Of course, as soon as the youngsters departed a pale lavender and creamy calm replaced the wild, capricious winds. Shore birds returned in larger numbers and rushed to feed among the piles of seaweeds and shells or dash up and down following the waves to pick at worms and sand hoppers. There were oyster-catchers, gulls, ringed plovers and whimbrels. Hooded crows descended to forage among the rocks and just once I spotted a sea eagle swooping down over the waves. In the sands otter footprints betrayed their criss-cross routes from holt to sea, and across the machair hundreds of shells (mussel, whelk, limpet, cockle), dropped by birds, were spread out in a crunchy carpet.

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Our croft fields are sodden; the Red River has risen and fallen swiftly many times in the last few weeks. After one nasty night of squalls a large sheet of metal appeared in the river, too heavy and cumbersome for us to drag out. I was worried for the otters using the river banks and boulders to avoid the worst gusts but by the following morning it had gone, picked up again by more storminess and blown completely away.

Now the relatively warm squalls from the south and west have been replaced by cold storm winds streaking out of the north. They carry ice and frenzy; they bring maelstroms and cauldrons of fury; they call out in paroxysms of rage. The sky is iceberg-blue then ink black, while the sea booms out in variegated and iridescent waves of pitch and aquamarine. When sunlight bursts through cloud and tears at salt-encrusted mistiness, crests and spray of coruscating white are transformed into millions of individual rainbows for a few short seconds. Blinking my eyes in the stinging salt and cold I imagine the sea to have been decorated by trillions of Christmas fairy lights.

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And so I am restored. Clogged up by Christmas indulgence and too long indoors I have revelled in these northerly storm winds and I feel as though I have been scoured clean by the biting gales, ice and salted grit. I’m ready for anything. When I stand, if I can, at the top of the cliff, I feel as though the winds are passing right through me, cleansing every cell in my body as they go and ripping away any concerns or thoughts of a troubled world.

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Now our indoor decorations are taken down, my family have flown away though I’m not done with visitors it seems. As I walked across the lower croft fields with my dog an otter passed us by. He was large and running fast in the silky, sinuous flowing way that otters do. (I don’t know of any other animal that moves with such voluptuous sensuousness, save perhaps a horse on a joyous spring gallop.) I headed back upslope as quickly as I could; he disappeared into the gorse-covered high bank at the top of the field. From my vantage point I could see that he had not emerged from the other side. And then, walking back down towards the river we crossed his trail and there, in bright pink, toothpaste-white and tarry-black, was his spraint.

Several times now I’ve watched his run from river to gorse-bank. And now I’m certain; he has a holt in the spiny shrubs below the croft house so close to my writing shed that I can almost touch it. And I am thrilled.

A new neighbour for the New Year. I wonder… did he choose me?

 

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Frost, death and winter coats

November has slipped through my fingers somehow.

Snow arrived in the mountains early in the month but for some reason storms that usually track in from the Atlantic bringing severe gales and heavy rain have mostly been diverted north by a quivering jet stream, although one contrarian recently swept through southern England. It feels unusual. November normally brings gales that are relentless and clamorous. The lack of wind is welcome but there is a palpable absence. I am not complaining. The calmness of icy-bright, arctic-blue-sky days, filled with low yellow light and deep Prussian-blue shadows, is uplifting. I have been wearing sunglasses and squinting under the peak of my cap when I could be peering through permanent, horizontal battleship-grey rains.

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It has rained of course: showers have blown in from the south, dragged back and forth across the Hebrides in curtains of lavender and pewter and over-topped by clouds glowing in ivory and ochre. They have alternated with rainbow-edged downpours of diamond hail that have swept down the Minch and funnelled through the Inner Sound creating great towers and castles of luminous white, filled with thunder. This Arctic ice, on strong yet fleeting gusts, has bitten hard at exposed skin and made my eyes water.

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Under clear skies rime and verglas coated everything: delicate needles and darts along leaf edges and frosted-glass fleur-de-lis and feathers atop puddles and ditches. Even beside the sea high-tide kelp heaps were fringed with ice, beach sands twinkled like stars in the night sky as if each individual grain was coated in frost. Waves, usually brim-full of noisy warnings, frothed and spattered in low, pure-white coils. Because the air has been so still and the sea so calm the shore and croft fields have been filled with bird song, and amongst the singing and flittering of feathers, most curiously, dancing in the sunshine, clouds of tiny flies have braved the sharp, gelid air.

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Deer have been coming onto the croft. Their distinctive hoof prints have appeared by the byre door and I wonder what is enticing them to venture closer. In the riverbank flood sands deer tracks merge with otter prints and bird tracks. Clearly this stretch of river, with its low and gentle sloping sides, is as popular with wildlife as it is for crofters. On old ‘township’ maps this place is marked as a ford and was most likely the best crossing place in the long years before the bridge over the Red River was built. I like the idea that wildlife still favours this spot either for a quick dash across the river or to drink in peace.

There are many other points along the river and shore where wild animal trails cross mine. I am amazed at the number of otter spraint mounds and, at this time of the year, when grasses have faded to pale dun and sedges to russet, they stand out, brightly green. A combination of shells, bones and tarry mucus adds nutrients and alkalis to the growing heaps and when they are used so regularly different grass species grow on them.

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I found an academic paper recently that described otter movements here in Western Scotland. The authors concluded that otter activity was at its greatest in autumn and early winter and they provided a list of explanations about why this should be so. But I was concerned; they had based their conclusions on a bevy of field data about spraint mounds collected between late October and early December. Had they observed a real increase in activity or had they simply found the spraints so much easier to spot because of their bright ‘look-at-me’ greenness in a sea of titian, copper and ash-blonde?

It seems even quiet weather in winter can cause stress to wildlife. The body of a young porpoise was washed up on the beach recently. There were no signs of injury so its untimely death goes unexplained. On the same day, a small white corpse also appeared, tangled up in the seaweeds and assorted bits of rope: a baby seal with fur like velvet. Within a few days the waves had rubbed away the hairs revealing its alabaster skin and by the end of the week it had vanished, whipped away like a ghost whose misty incarnation was not strong enough to withstand the tugging and pulling of returning salt winds and growing waves.

Both bodies have gone completely now. There are no fragments, no bones. And yet again the weather has turned, flip-flopping unseasonably and unpredictably. Until a week ago snow lay in meringue spires and ridges across the Torridons. But then with an uncharacteristic flip of the jet stream, the ice world was shrugged off and almost all the snow has now vanished. Warm mists have replaced flecks of ice in the air and our Red River has filled up with melt-water. Strangely, its surface is black and glassy, slow moving and silent, rather like the eyes of a shark.

Yesterday morning was a fiercely cold Svalbard sort of day, when breath crystallises as soon as it leaves the body, when polar bears roam and sleigh bells jingle. Hoar frost coated bare branches in inch-long white needles so all the trees looked as though they belonged in a Christmas advert for a well-known store. The sea was milky turquoise with shining curves of chrome where currents churned below its sliding surface. At 9.30 am the temperature was -50C. Just six hours later all the light had been wrapped up in grey gauze and the thermometer read 150C, a twenty degree climb in half a day.

On the croft are two over-wintering guests wearing coats. Their great age demands some extra comforts in the cold. They are Shetland ponies: Cindy and Toby, aged 37, a human-equivalent age of about 180. Their lack of molar teeth that can grind tough moorland grasses effectively necessitates some gentler foodstuffs: a little bran-mash with sugar-beet now and then. We leave the byre doors open as shelter but these sensible creatures can read the weather far more readily than us, forecasts or no, and they find dry, frost-free places in the whin or calm spots out of the gusting winds along the deep ditch banks as they ramble slowly about picking at grass and heather. They can disappear from view but as soon as the gate creaks open they amble over in the hope of a sweet mushy treat, gently guided and corralled by our young dog Dram.

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I have just been out to check on Cindy and Toby. Dog galloped about in the pewter dusk as I walked along the river bank. Overhead an ash coloured moon, gibbous and pitted with craters of soot, peered out from the running clouds. I stopped by the sandy ford and watched dog scrabble about for stones. All around us were footprints: a cluster of small Shetland-ovals, dog paws, and tracks of otter and deer. I traced the deer trails into the patchy meadow grasses and looked up. I jumped, thinking of ghosts. But there, reflecting the pallid light of the moon, were five sets of eyes.

Aha, now I understood the prints by the byre; the deer had come to see if a bucket of sweet mash was on offer.

 

 

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Winter’s arrival and otters by the shore

I woke this morning after a dream about a Tru(i)mphant bloke with blond fly away hair. Actually there were hundreds of them, rather like the dream sequence in Disney’s Dumbo, where elephants dance and morph into strange shapes and then back to elephants. Only these trump-elephants were waving their trunks and yelling at everyone and everything, including a gaggle of judges and a raucous, baying cluster of people waving copies of the Daily Mail.

My answer, after a strong cup of tea and a comforting piece of toast, is to get outside as quickly as possible. Two of our current guests on the croft need a winter-warmer treat of dried grass and bran mash each day so their buckets and baskets need to be sorted. The early morning light cascades across the low hills surrounding the croft and for a while they seem to catch fire. Beyond, the mountains brood.

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But then dog and I head across the fields and down the shore path.

Winter is blowing in from the north. I fancy I can smell the Arctic on the air. Hard showers overnight have dusted the high tops with snow and prickled us with hail at sea level. Autumn has been chased away. Yesterday’s bright copper pennies that still covered the birch trees are now whirling about us in a frenzy and the last leaves of the mountain ash trees in our small patch of woodland have completely vanished. Some of the more sheltered oaks here by the sea are clasping very tightly to their last curling leaves while the Scots pines are darkly dancing against a white sky.

As I walk along the narrow path the ground either side of me glows in rusty red and ochre. The hills beyond the croft are stained with burnt umber and brown madder as the bracken, heather and myrtle curl and shrivel in the cold. All the greens of summer grasses have faded; our fields have been grazed to fine carpets of felt though here and there rushes stand tall and defiant. Clumps of Juncus, unloved by many crofters, symptomatic of waterlogged fields, will provide shelter for the little meadow birds who stay here throughout the winter months; when the worst gales blow in, the tough, thick bases of the rushes are firm and secure so, although it is tempting to cut them back, we will leave them alone.

Down by the sea, the grasses and herbs have died back in dense blonde and rust coloured mats. But in odd places there are small, bright green mounds. They stand out in the pale turf that surrounds them, as bright and well defined as any Bronze Age burial mound in a sea of maturing Wessex wheat. At first glance they might be a grass covered boulder but on close inspection the unmistakable gift of otter spraint is obvious. Now the reason for the spring-like greenery is clear. Otter spraint is filled with crab carapace, claws, shells and fish bones and the finely ground, non-acidic calcium feeds the grass like fertiliser, encouraging different species to cover the heaps.

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Some mounds are huge, the product of many generations of otter activity; they mark boundaries in the landscape made with as much skill and as well defined as any human-made fence, ditch or wall. I suspect some of the largest are older than most anthropogenic features here in the valley. For much of the year they are less visible but now as the living turf contracts under cold, ice showers sweeping in from the north, they stand out like emerald gemstones. Mostly they sit at junctions: where ditches or fences cross the trail, or where my path crosses their routes from the kelp covered rocks to the peat covered slopes. What is equally surprising is that there are so many of them; I count ten in less than half a mile.

I carry on and walk by the sea watching the waves unfurl and turning from aquamarine to pearl to steel-grey. Sea birds skim over their crests. Across the Minch showers are rushing by in great white and pearl-grey curtains.

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Then the sea begins to churn more vigorously, its surface smearing like oil paints across an artist’s palette: Davy’s-grey accidentally mixed with Bismuth-yellow. But closer to shore the waves have become more like ship’s hawsers, long, lean and viridian, rolling over and over then thumping down as if dropped from a great height. They break apart in a foaming flurry of brilliant white and sluice up the slope of the shore dragging kelp and stones and ruddy-red sands back and forth.

Then I notice that the Outer Hebrides are disappearing, swallowed whole one by one from north to south: Lewis, Harris, North Uist, South UIst… Overhead the clear sky is quickly being overwhelmed by very high, fuzzy clouds, rather like those created in the fierce updraughts that accompany a developing thunderstorm. We play, dog and me, for a while with bits of old rope. He likes to gather them up and if they seem in reasonable condition we will carry them home; they will come in handy for something or other. Shredded, useless bits we pile up until there is enough to warrant a trip to the recycling centre beyond Gairloch.

Then we turn for home. The wall which looked at first like distant smoke has now become a dense and swirling mass, more like towers and columns than curtains. Snow and hail! These are wintry showers and they will bite. We step quickly back past the otterine battlements by the shore path and head up the cliff towards the croft. At the top I turn to face the sea for one last look; the Hebrides have all gone and much of Skye has vanished too. Hail strikes my face; it is noisy and gritty and for a few moments the day darkens. In a strong wind such as this we don’t really get wet because the gusts carry the hail swiftly past. The visiting Shetland ponies have sensibly found a sheltered spot by my neighbour’s hedge; their heads are tucked in, their tummies and flanks are touching, their thick manes and tails keeping out the hail and biting winds. To the east the curtain-towers are sweeping inland across the mountains; more snow for the high peaks.

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As we make our way along the track dog gallops about with his rope haul, teasing me and wanting to play a game of tug. He ignores the hail. But, like the ponies, my head is down too. I am ready for a hot drink.

Then I think about our coastal otters tucked up in their holts, snoozing warmly, oblivious to the hail storm, dreaming of fish rather than dancing politicians. And with that thought my out-loud-laugh is carried off by a gust of wind.

Posted in coasts, environment, experiencing nature, landscape, mountains, nature, photography, sea, snow, storm, walking, wilderness, wildlife, winter, winter weather | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Ghost paths

Some of the fencing on our croft needs attention. It really ought to be replaced but for now a repair job will do. In autumn’s late afternoon sun the strands of wire are shining in silver and bright orange. There is a lot of post and wire fencing here because all crofts in the South Erradale ‘township’ have square fields, laid out in a grid pattern more than 150 years ago during the last phases of clearances. Rather like a map of Manhattan, the straight-line pattern of boundary fences overly much older and, in some cases, ancient route ways. Here and there it also cuts across natural features including small burns, and marches over the tumbled remnants of several buildings whose stories are lost in the mists of time.

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The field boundaries seem stark and harsh for they appear to have no relationship with the natural contours of the land, differential drainage, vegetation and soil types or the gently rounded shapes of this coastal moorland landscape. But they do serve a purpose. The consequences of their imposition is that many of the older routes taken by cattle and crofters fell into disuse a long time ago and only remain as references in the family stories of a few crofting dynasties.

Migrating geese pay no attention to the fences of course. Today they are flying in large, noisy chevrons of black, pink and grey, selecting the greenest, dampest squares of the Erradale valley chess board to settle, feed and squabble. Neither do the deer pay any heed. When hunger and exhaustion drive them from the rutting grounds on the hills above the fields they dash in groups of 40 or more diagonally across the squares, leaping fences as they go, in a wild thundering dash to the shore.

But underneath all the goosey-gaggling and antler-crashing, and unaffected by the mesh-wire barriers or wooden post sentries, are routeways and paths of an ‘underworld’. There are tiny trails made by voles and mice, passageways for otters, alleyways for pine martens, and byways for foxes. And smaller, almost microscopic lanes for beetles, spiders, frogs and toads, slugs, snails, slow worms and grass snakes. The whole landscape is criss-crossed by myriad trails and if I close my eyes I can imagine the whole place rippling and moving as if alive, filled almost to bursting with the motion of creatures, large and small, making their way back and forth from feeding ground to resting place, from to stem to leaf, spider’s web to mouse hole, or shore to hilltop.

In these lovely calm days of October transport and motion studies are easy. The lush, thick growth of summer meadowlands has been flattened and dampened down into a dull beige and dun matted carpet. And yet in early morning coolness dew coats everything with glistening sequins and flashing rhinestones. At times the dazzle is so fierce that cobwebs become diamond tiaras and necklaces of sapphires, while grasslands are drapes of silver filigreed lacework.

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Entrances to the under-vegetation by-ways appear as if by magic: tiny rounded holes in a swirl of grasses, black hollows in the accumulating leaves and wavy lines cutting through the dew. The most enchanting new trail, and one I had not seen before, was not in the machair or fields but in the beach sands at low tide: a narrow channel almost two metres long and thumb-width wide was being slowly but steadily moulded by a hard-working periwinkle who still had a small pile of sand on his shell. I had to laugh at such endeavour and determination in so small a creature. I could not figure out why he had started out his journey nor how far he intended to go.

And there are other tracks too. Ghost roads where once crofters lived and worked and walked, driving kine or bringing sheep up to and down from the common grazings of summer. Some of the trails now are little more than compressed peat-paths amongst the clumps of heather while others, broad and paved with cobbles, sail up to hillcrests only to vanish under peat-bog. These route-ways are very old and pre-date the modern single track roads here, and once they must have been important connections from crofting townships to the outside world beyond the mountains.

Across the valley are tumbled ruins of small cottages and byres, old walls, a raised walkway, springs and border stones. Walking along or through these jumbled lichen covered stones and moss covered wood is to travel in time. As early morning mist wafts between ruined doorways, over bleached woodwork and through the heaped stones, lintels and various ironmongery voices from the past whisper in my ears and caress my face. And it is not hard to imagine a shawled crofter’s wife standing with her children at an open door, smoke seeping through the turf or heather covered roof, or to see a dog and master gathering sheep ready to ford the river.

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The whole valley is filled with memory and song held in place by fallen stonework and by the names of surrounding hills: Creag Uamhach Chliabh, Creagan na Feannaig, Lon Odhar, Cnoc an Fhuarain, Cobhan Molach. And if, as some would have us believe, stones retain memories of past events and the essences of those long-gone, then this place is alive with ghosts.

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A stravaig along the river from Red River Croft then becomes a walk through lives lived over hundreds of years, and although the land itself seems to be dying down as we approach Samhain, the golden air is filled with their voices and faces. And mingling with ghosts are the otters, deer and other creatures, unmoved by stories of the past or peoples that once lived here. Or maybe they understand more than we do; perhaps they sing along to the tunes playing in the hills.

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Posted in #AutumnWatch, Autumn, environment, experiencing nature, landscape, myth, nature, peatbogs, walking, wilderness, wildlife | Tagged , , , , , , , | 3 Comments